Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What I Didn't Learn in School: Diane Ragsdale's Crash Course on Beauty and Aesthetic Values

I have an unusual education for the director of an art & history museum: a degree in electrical engineering. Engineering taught me to be a tinkerer, a builder, and a problem solver. It taught me that you can design a different future. That experiments are crucial. That you can make things instead of just talking about them.

I value my engineering education. But every once in a while, I look at my brilliant colleagues with liberal arts backgrounds and wonder what they know that I don't. A lot, I suspect.

I've been getting a taste of what I'm missing by devouring Diane Ragsdale's terrific series of blog posts about the course she is teaching on Approaching Beauty for business students at UW-Madison. Diane calls it "Beauty Class," but it really seems to be about aesthetic valuing: identifying beauty in its many forms, and developing a personal aesthetic sensibility.

The course is roughly split into two parts: defining beauty (both universally and relationally, through "big idea" texts, videos, museum visits, and artist lectures), and exploring beauty (through encounters in formal art contexts and the wider world). Start here, and get ready to spend a lot of time with each post. You'll burrow down rabbit holes of gorgeous videos, cerebral reading lists, and provocative artist talks.

I didn't know I was hungry for this until Diane shared it. I've filled some gaps in my cultural education through a career in museums: reading, looking, exploring, listening. But it's mostly just content. I can identify artworks by famous artists. I can tell a local story from 1849. I'm stacking up bricks of content knowledge. But that doesn't mean I know how to build a wall.

Diane's course is teaching me how to build a wall. How to identify beauty, how to disagree about it, how to be generous with it. 

It reminds me of higher-level math classes in college. The best courses were about manipulating numbers to generate meaning, not computation. We used the word "beautiful" to describe the best mathematical proofs. Diane is teaching me how, when, and why artists use the word.

While I'm grateful to Diane, I'm also surprised. Isn't it strange that I have spent years working with curators and artists, and I'm just encountering this now? Why don't we blog about it and talk about it and present conferences about it? I've experienced a smidge of it in dialogues about curatorial authority, cultural differences, and race. But there are less political conversations to have about it, too.

In week one, Diane shares a powerful video of choreographer Bill T. Jones "translating" a dance phrase to unlock its technical, narrative, and emotive power. Diane's course is for business majors. Perhaps we're most explicit about our values when forced to translate them for foreign ears. 

I fear we in museums are not translating and making our aesthetic values explicit enough, often enough. I know my education is sorely lacking, so maybe I'm just missing a body of shared knowledge that everyone else has. But I'm surprised how I'm amazed how often I've had conversations like this with museum colleagues:
Them: I love this piece.
Me: What do you love about it?
Them: [long pause followed by mumbling]
The same professionals who shy away from talking about aesthetic values are completely comfortable talking about aesthetics. We are constantly talking about aesthetics--commission this artist, change the lighting, move that painting, change this phrase--but rarely about the values that underlie them. 

Is it impolite or impolitic to share our aesthetic values? Too personal? Too subjective? Too elitist? Too hard?

What do you think?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Setting Your Mission Free in the Wild

Where are you most able to execute your mission: inside your facility, or outside of it?

There are a lot of reasons we focus on work inside our facilities. Our facilities are, ideally, spaces optimized for mission execution. Galleries purpose-made to show artwork. Performance halls perfectly tuned for the orchestra. Archives with climate control to protect artifacts.

But I'm increasingly seeing organizations (mine included) expand beyond our walls. In churches. On sidewalks. In health centers and hospitals and laundromats and housing developments. The Irvine Foundation recently published a great study on this phenomenon.

Why go out to these other spaces? We tend to focus on two reasons:
  1. It's where the people are. Or at least, it's where certain people are, people who you want to connect with but who choose not to walk through your doors. This seems to be the primary driver behind partnerships with organizations that serve specific target groups, whether those be homeless adults or preschoolers or ESL students. It's also the driver behind participation in events with huge visibility potential, such as farmer's markets or community festivals.
  2. As our missions shift, our buildings can't always keep up. The facility that was perfectly primed for the organization founded in 1920 may not fit the needs of 2015. Many organizations end up fighting their facilities--and pouring money into their operation--instead of using them as a springboard for amazing work.
I've been thinking recently more and more about a third reason for going outside: it's where the mission takes flight.

This reason is specific to taking programming outdoors, in the public sphere. Outdoor festivals, plays, and concerts have an energy that gets dampened and contained indoors. The outdoors absorbs difference comfortably; you can come or go, eat or talk, participate in different ways without alerting concern. And outdoor events proselytize themselves; anyone walking by can get a glimpse, a taste, a sensory solicitation to come take part. People share viral videos of flash mob orchestras in grocery stores and operas on the street because these events set isolated art forms free.

This isn't just true of the arts: think of an outdoor capoeria class, dog festival, or co-working meetup. When we take our interests and micro-communities into the public sphere, we bring them into the light. Yes, the space is more chaotic, less intentionally-designed--and that may mean that the experience is less intense than in purpose-built facility. The magic can be more diffuse, the audience less attentive. But the benefits of the open air, the open invitation to partake, often seem to outweigh these negatives.

Even someone walking by who doesn't participate can have his day altered by what he saw or heard. If we walk by many outdoor fitness classes, we may feel more motivated to exercise. If we walk by many public art installations, we may feel more inspired to create. If we walk by music and culture and conversations and kindness, we may feel better about ourselves and our community.

None of this contact happens if these activities are trapped inside buildings. The magic stays locked inside. Sometimes, that works--and you feel the special hum of "just us" sharing the experience. But often, the magic could go further.

How many of the best things you're doing are locked behind doors? How might things change if you could do them out on the street?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Love…and a Desire for Things to Stay the Same: Guest Post by Karen Wise

Visitors in front of the African Elephant Diorama at the Natural
History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC photo)
This guest post was written by Karen Wise, Vice President, Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

 “I love it! You’ve made it better without changing it.”

Those words haunt me. The person who said them is a member of our Board of Trustees. He’s one of our biggest supporters. He is committed to our aspiration of creating a new model of what museums can be in the 21st Century. Yet he was thrilled that we had not changed what he loved – any of it – when we installed our new signage system.

This isn’t an isolated issue. Loyal museum visitors – members, patrons, volunteer docents, people who grew up coming to the museum -- love the old exhibits they are used to. Familiarity may breed contempt in some contexts, but apparently not in museums. Familiarity with our museum seems to breed loyalty, love and a desire to have things preserved rather than changed. Dioramas. History exhibits with hundreds of objects and no coherent story. Schizophrenic bird halls with 5 different design and content presentation styles. How do we grapple with this difficult fact - that what staff may see as old-fashioned exhibits, those with no stories, just lots of coded content – can be visitor favorites???

The specifics of what visitors love is often hard to tease out. A couple of months ago, my middle school age daughter and her friends were in the back seat of the car talking about the museum where I work. One of them broke the unwritten rule against talking to the parent driver and asked me what was coming next. They got excited when I told them we were bringing in an exhibit on mummies. Then one of them asked me where we were going to put it. When I told him - into a hall that held what remains of our old California History Hall - the kids protested loudly that the old Hall is one of their favorites. When I asked them what they love about it, they named a few objects, but then one said “the whole thing” and my daughter said “the smell.”

Their loyalty, that fondness for the familiar, the smell--these precious memories do not drive attendance or keep us relevant. Even at a museum like ours, where more than 70% of our visitors are bringing others to facilitate a social (often family) experience, only new things can reliably motivate a visit.

In museum circles, there is also a widely recognized need for us to be relevant, to tell big stories that matter, to create experiences for the widest possible range of audiences, and - in the case of science museums - to help solve the STEM crisis by making science fun, accessible and interesting. As museums work to fulfill visitor-focused missions – in our case to inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds - we face some ironic paradoxes.

Each month, during our visitor intercept surveys, we ask a sample of 200 visitors whether they came to see anything in particular, and if so what. The most popular answer among those that say yes is Dinosaurs. When asked what they want more of they say Dinosaurs - and more hands on experiences for kids.

No visitor has ever told us that s/he came to the museum to learn a big story or to see science in action. And yet, as museum professionals, we are constantly talking about our responsibilities to tell those big stories, to display a wider range of our spectacular stuff, to help visitors make sense of change through time, put current anthropogenic climate change by putting into the context of climate change throughout the history of the earth, and to display our collections as evidence for the history and evolution of the earth and life on it.

So how do we balance that perceived obligation to tell big stories – of the history of our planet and life on it, of evolution, extinction and survival, of how science works, visitor motivations for social experiences -- with great objects and specimens and memorable stories?

Most museums, including us, might answer this question by changing our approach as we create new experiences. But as we look at creating new layers for iconic, historic exhibits this can get dicey. In our case in LA, we’re addressing this now as we consider our diorama halls. We have some of the best diorama halls in the world. They are incredibly detailed depictions of scientifically and visually accurate moments in time and place with backdrop murals made accomplished artists – including some famous Plein Air artists who created them as part of W.P.A. projects during the Great Depression. How do we make them relevant, engaging, must-see experiences without changing them? Can we? There are plenty of models out there – and the range of options keeps increasing with technological innovations. We will learn from them all, but none that we have seen yet quite fit the full range of inarticulate needs of our visitors.

No matter what we do, I know this: we will test and test and test before we install anything in the diorama halls, lest anyone complain that we changed them.

Thanks to Karen Wise for this thoughtful post. Please share your perspective below--Karen and I both look forward to the conversation. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Museum 2.0 Flashback: Threshold Fear

This week, I was on the radio talking museum inclusion (with Michelle Obama!) and committed the cardinal sin: defining a term using the term itself. The term was "threshold fear"--the sense of discomfort upon walking into an unfamiliar and potentially threatening space.

Threshold fear has interested me for a long time. It deserves better than my quote. The radio segment, and the fact that I broke my arm over the weekend and can't really type, encouraged me to dig up these old posts on threshold fear. I hope you enjoy them.

  1. Getting People in the Door (2007). A review of Elaine Heumann Gurian's essay on threshold fear and architecture program and planning from her book, Civilizing the Museum. The post was part of a series I did on this incredible book--which I highly recommend.
  2. Come on in and Make Yourself Uncomfortable (2012). A simple exercise for those who want to experience threshold fear firsthand.  Hard to imagine that some people don't find museums welcoming spaces? Find a space to feels uncomfortable for you and see what it's like to walk in the door.
Have a great week--and don't fall off your bike.