Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Novice Interpreter and the Art of Conversation

This week, I listened to the new podcast episode of Radiolab, my favorite NPR show. The podcast featured the two hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, speaking to a crowd about their unique partnership. For those who haven't listened, Radiolab is an hour-long popular science show that looks in-depth at topics like "emergence," "time," and "mortality" from a range of scientific perspectives. Radiolab does what I hope all great museum exhibitions can do--take a deep topic and make it compelling on many levels. Near the end of the talk, an audience member asked,
How do you choose which level to approach a topic when your listeners range from people who know nothing to people who know all too much?
and at minute 15:30, partway through the answer, Robert said something extraordinary:
I think we both start also as virgins. We don't know really what we're talking about at the beginning--we find out along the way. And we make that very clear. So we never pretend to anybody that we're scholars cause we're not. And we do represent ourselves as novices, which is a good thing. It is a good thing in a couple of ways. First, it means we can say, "what?!" honestly. And the second thing: "can you explain that again?" honestly. And then the third thing is, it allows us to challenge these people as though we were ordinary, curious folks.

We have a show coming up right now about synthetic biology, where engineers are building life forms that are new to existence, new to the history of life. And they're doing it quite... aggressively. And we, we yell at them and we fight with them and we argue with them, and they give right back. But we're trying to model a kind of conversation with important people, powerful people, but particularly knowledgeable people, where we say--YOU can go up to a person with a lot of knowledge and ask him "why?," ask him "how does he know that?" Tell him, stop! Ask him why he keeps going. And get away with it. And that's important.
Effectively, Robert is saying that Radiolab isn't just a show where the hosts have conversations with scientists. It's a show where the hosts model a way for YOU to have conversations with scientists, a way for regular people to engage with experts rather than deferring to or ignoring them.

To do this kind of modeling, Robert and Jad actively portray themselves as novices. They make themselves look stupid so we don't have to feel that way. They articulate the basic questions and knee-jerk reactions in our own minds, carrying us deep into the content from a common starting place. By humbling themselves in this way, they create a powerful learning experience. Robert and Jad aren't content experts, but they are interpretative experts, skilled interviewers and producers. And those skills drove the cultivation of personae that are wonderfully accessible.

Which brings me to museums and how we present content. Reread the question and substitute the word "visitors" for "listeners." Reread Robert's response. Could you imagine a curator, designer, or museum educator speaking this way about an exhibition? Ever?

After listening to this clip a few times, I wondered: what if museums dropped the authoritative voice, the cultural voice, the friendly teacher voice, and adopted a novice voice? What would it feel like to read labels that challenge the information provided or acknowledge the questions in everyone's head: How did they get this giant sculpture in here? Why does anyone care about this dead stuff? Why is there lots of snow if global warming is happening?

My feeling on this is mixed. I love the Radiolab experience, but I wonder how much the success of the "novice voice" is contingent on the context of conversation. A novice challenging and discussing with an expert is interesting. A novice alone on an exhibit panel could be as isolating as any other single exhibit voice, and potentially more annoying.

So maybe it isn't just about novice voice. Maybe it's about interplay among many voices and levels of expertise. Should museum content and exhibit labels use dialog more heavily? One of the most popular interactives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Real Cost Cafe, in which visitors select fish from a menu and hear their choices dissected in terms of environmental impact on video by a waitress, a cook, and a dishwasher in a restaurant. It's not the most fun game ever. It's engaging because the content is presented as a dialog among characters. The characters aren't expert scientists or fish researchers. They are knowledgeable, normal, relatable folks.

Like Radiolab, the Real Cost Cafe models a conversation on a contentious topic. Perhaps its greatest strength is this modeling, this suggestion that environmental food choices are worth discussing at the dinner table. That it's ok to have strong opinions, ok not to provide a balanced take on everything. This is what Radiolab does so well--acknowledges that science is not an objective abstraction. It's something worth getting worked up about, confused about, passionate about.

Isn't that what we want to model for museum visitors about our own content? What's the difference between a label that models a kind of content engagement and one that purports to provide that engagement?

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Yes, exactly. Rather than the museum lecturing the audience, let the museum be on the audience's side, asking the questions they themselves are asking ("How much did _that_ cost to make? Is that really true? Did they have to kill that stuffed dog on display, and was it someone's pet?"). Wouldn't that be fantastic? (I'm also a huge fan of Radiolab, though they do go a bit overboard with the sound gimmickry sometimes).

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Actually, one of my favorite parts of developing new programs or exhibits is discovering exciting new (to me, at least!) bits of information.

A recent project example: did you know that the scent molecules for spearmint and caraway are "mirror images" of each other? Exact same atoms and everything, just that there arrangement is "flipped." Those types of molecules are called stereoisomers, and it's amazing to me that a simple reflected arrangement of atoms could cause such a big change.

The trick is how to find those exciting bits and figure out ways to transmit that excitement to visitors.

The other trick is how to let visitors hone in on the "bits" that are/will be particularly interesting to them.

Most of the physical (flip labels) and digital (hyperlinked computer screens) I've seen to do this are horribly clumsy. Can anyone cite GOOD examples?

Unknown said...

At SFMOMA we've tried to honor visitor questions, including the befuddlement quite educated people sometimes feel when confronted by contemporary art. As an example--particularly appropriate this week--Robert Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing" is one of the iconic works in our collection, and one of its biggest head-scratchers as well. (It's an almost completely blank page, surrounded by a mat with precisely hand-lettered title and a gold frame.)

We were lucky enough to interview the artist back in 1999, and he told the story on video of how he came to make it. When you go to the "Erased de Kooning" screen in our program "Making Sense of Modern Art," there's a single link, reading "What's the big idea?" You can see it here:

Throughout the program, we like to lead into our explorations with questions. Sometimes we're more successful than others in capturing a naïve-eye viewer's response; other times they're admittedly too sophisticated, or leading to art history content we're dying to get across. But at best, we'd like to use visitor questions 50% of the time.