Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Matter of Museums

This month we’ve been thinking about “What is a museum?” (I'm not alone there. Paul Bowers' post and Mike Jones' posts are worth reading.)
I’ve been visiting museums my whole life. I’ve worked in them my whole adult life. Does that make me the best judge of museums?
On one hand, I have the knowledge base to help me frame the issues. I know the subtle nuances and big issues all too well. But, I’m also very close to the issue. It’s my livelihood and my love, my avocation and my vocation. I suspect if you are reading this, you might be in a similar boat.
I’d posted on twitter a while ago about how one of my challenges with ICOM’s definition is that I wasn’t sure how visitor-centered it was. I might change that position slightly. I wonder how people-centered it was.
This a field about people.
People are the defining characteristics of museums. I get that they are places. But places are sites for people to congregate paid for by people and planned by people. I get they are collections. Collections are collected by people to be exhibited for people and saved for people of the future.
I’ve worked with and at plenty of museums that can sometimes feel empty. When the galleries are quiet, with my clipclop shoes the only sound, the museum feels dead. It is only enlivened by people, visitors and staff alike.
With that in mind, I turned the question of “who is a museum” to the people, here and on my social platforms, even my personal ones. I thank everyone for their awesome replies.
Many people, particularly family and friends from non-museum world, talked about museums at places to visit, like a cousin-in-law, Tina Cappel who said, “A museum is a place that captures existence for people to wander and wonder, to enjoy and to be educated.” Tina isn’t even a plant, despite being a local member. Her answer is what many a museum professional would want people to say. It’s a place for people to explore. I’d hope more people in the world, particularly potential museum visitors to North East Ohio ;>) go with this definition.
A place to go see stuff was a common thread in general, both in museum-workers and non-museum workers. I spoke a bit last week about the action of observation, and how our work turns the collection (nouns) into visitor actions (verbs). The collections are often authentic and singular, surprising and thought-provoking. They can also be confounding and banal. Our collections are often our greatest strength, though we also often choose to showcase them in ways that bore even the interested. But, when done right, our collections are there to awe. As one old colleague, Lex Lancaster, related, “When I worked at the NGA for a summer, a heard a little kid walking out say, ‘I've seen some things I can't unsee.’ That about sums it up.”
A college friend, Nora Rooney, added something important. Museums though can feel very museum like other educational spaces, despite the careful curation. She said, I think that Disney could be a museum to someone who goes there to learn, so what a museum is depends on the frame of reference I suppose.” Shaelyn Amaio, a museum worker, agreed, as do I.
To non-museum goers, the line between museum and not-museum is blurry. Museums are quality learning spaces, but so are libraries. Museums are experiences, but so is Disney. Museum house things, but so do libraries. Museums are adjacent and overlap so many other things. These adjacencies are essential in the ways we function and the ways our visitors understand us. But they also give us a bit of parallax as we try to create a discrete and singular definition. And, let me say, you all did a great job debating the definition. I could not possibly distill all the threads into a singular and discrete definition.
Many museum-workers talked about the community museums foster. Chris Totten summed up many of these threads well. He defined museums as “a lifeline between its community and the wider cultural landscape. It’s a place where people can go to see ideas from the wide world and where the wide world can bring itself to local communities.” Museums can be of the place and outside the place currently; this simultaneously sited in multiple emotional locations is often an important beacon to people seeking a community they can find no where else.  
The position of community to museum for many people hinged on the collections. For many people museums are purveyors of and intercessors with history. The museum is in all the times, past, present, and future, simultaneously.
The museum is therefore an intersection of space, thought, and action. Scott Stullen succinctly stated museums are “A place of community, conversation and connection.” But this effort to create community and connection between people and things doesn’t happen by accident. As Adrienne Lalli Hills points out, a museum is: “....A sustained and intentional effort to facilitate interactions between people and ideas (including objects)” Many people offered time-machine like definitions like Nicole Balsdon, who said museums are “Time machine to take things and ideas from the past and today to today tomorrow and beyond!” But J Collins was quick to point to the fact that objects without people are just things. They defined museums as “object-based, contextual stories. Without context and stories, you're just a warehouse.”
Some of the most interesting debates about the issue were about where we want to go in the field. Dr. Sushma Jansari pointed out it is also a where new thoughts and ideas grow, “they are places for experimentation & conversation. A place where knowledge grows in collaboration w/ a broad range of people both within & beyond the museum, from scientists to children & all in between.”
Aron Ambrosiani many people’s definition nicely, "I think the duality of museums is key to understanding/defining what they are. A museum is _both_ an experience venue _and_ a repository of knowledge. Stray too far away from either aspect and the special thing is lost." Museums aren’t one thing, but they are not all things. In defining too broadly we lose, and being two strict we lose.
Museum Transparency brought up the fact that museums are work places. They most certainly are. Many people shared how this act of defining seems silly given the real work places challenges. Others talked about how museums are often defined in one way for “the average” people and another for donors. Still more reminded us that definitions mean little if there isn’t any follow through on the mission to the people working in the organization.
Many important conversations also centered around what is the point in creating a definition. For some the definition is sort of navel gazing. Bob Beatty said, “I’ll be honest when I say I think we are the only people who *really* care what can appropriately dub itself as “museum.” It’s the most inside of inside baseball.” The challenge with these debates is that they take us away from big issues. Museums are colonial constructs, Wendy Ng points out, [and] debating the definition does not change this fact.” Luis Marcelo Mendes pointed to the socially constructed nature of museums, “A museum is a fiction we choose to believe.”
The flaws in museums came up a few times. Alli Burness mentioned how museums could be so much, can be, might even become that, if we allow ourselves: “I’ve always approached them as a creative medium to explore and reflect on our world and the human experience of it. And in so doing, build understanding, connection and belonging. Some hold and use a collection of objects to achieve that, others don’t. Museums dont see themselves that way tho.” Bronwyn Coulston also talked about the cracks and our ability to heal our field, “An imperfect idea, developed in inherently flawed times and cultures. Constantly evolving and occasionally managing to repair historic damage caused.”
In the end, all of this discussion is fruitful to the museum workers to keep us intellectually stimulated but mean nothing if we don’t put them into action for visitors. Many of us are making them central to life and communities. As Kajsa Hartig said, “Museums could be: A tool for humanity to (in participatory, educative + entertaining ways) make sense of life + society, to use for a better now and future, An experimental arena where public, private and civil society can meet in unique ways. A 24/7 resource always top of mind.”
Though museums cannot be the ideal for today and tomorrow if we don’t start and end with people. Our visitors, our staff, our posterity. Every single person who has or might be part of the collection and the organization. All these people are our raison d’etre. They use us how we imagine and in many ways we can’t. As Cynthia Heider said, “A museum is whatever the people who use it want it to be.”
Why does all this defining matter? Well, because our work matters. Museum matter. We aren’t just museum workers. We aren’t just buildings with collections. We are all the things listed above and more. We are the places people go to learn. We are the people who collect for the future. We are conveners of communities. We are the real in a world full of fake. We are the best of society and the worst—all there to remind people about both. We are humanity on display. We are nature in its most wonderous. We are what society needs today, tomorrow, and hopefully forever. As the Secretary of the Smithson Lonnie Bunch said, way better than me,

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Museum Verbs and Defining Who are We.

After the International Committee on Museums spent some time debating the definition of museums, many folks took up the charge on social media to give their own definitions. I’m inviting people to share their definitions, here and on social (and tag me); I’ll summarize your thoughts next week.

But this week I want to focus on a tweet by Dan Hicks who suggested instead of a definition we need museum verbs. The invocation was an important one. We’re in a moment in our field where we’ve spent a few decades becoming interactive. The ice cream museums of the world couldn’t have existed if the Exploratorium, Boston Science, Imperial War Museum, Please Touch hadn’t innovated interaction very early. (I know I’m missing early innovators of interaction in museums; feel free to tell me who in the comments.) While a social media-focused museum can be a lightning rod for us in this field, their existence highlights the fact that a big sector of our visitors and potential visitors sees museums as a place where you “do something.”

One might argue “see something” is a verb. “Just looking at things” is a common complaint about museums, often being paired “it’s boring.” It’s interesting because watching sporting events is a common American pastime. Certainly, ball games are places where you sit, something that’s barely even odds in museum galleries, and you get to drink beer while watching the main event. But I think the big difference in sports is that people know what to look for. Very few Americans don’t know what a home run is. You might not be clear on the rules for penalties, but if you went to a game you be able to say the team got the point. For museums, we often want museum to use the verb “look”  but we don’t tell them what to look for. I also think about diving at the Olympics. I don’t enjoy swimming in pools or anything that seems like exercise; I have definitely never done a flip off the high dive. But one time I watched the Olympics with a family member who dove for his college team. After 15 minutes, I felt I had enough knowledge to enjoy watching. As sports shows, some of the onboarding might come from the culture overall, or might just need a 15-minute conversation, but with that knowledge you become an engaged viewer.

The power of a little knowledge is one of the reasons interactives matter. I’m not well-versed in dinos. On a recentish trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I watched a group of unrelated people learn about the parts of a T Rex by putting together a puzzle. I’d guess the VR in the next room cost a whole lot more money (and it was fun), but even simple interactives empower people to know what to look for. Our visitors see and do in our galleries. Fostering these engagements with ideas and collections is key to our work.

What are the other verbs that highlight our raison d’etre? Teach is a big one. As a field, we have some mixed feelings on this, I think. We love when we teach with a capital T, like exhibitions and university classes. We also love the school tours, when we’re doing the annual reports and pitching program support to bankers. At the same time, we often pay educators less while expecting more. We often think of our teachers as being less than classroom teachers and our gallery staff as “just” teaching little kids. We even step away from the word education in general by changing departments to “interpretation,” as if using a fancier word will give the work more clout. As a field, we are proud of the verb teach when it is either prestigious or profitable, but otherwise we’re more ambivalent. Teaching is a core. It is extremely hard to teach humans, in general, and it is progressively harder to teach them the younger they go. If you don’t believe this, engage toddlers with Sol LeWitt, and tell me how you survived. Specialized teaching is an extremely important part of our sector, and something we should herald.

Seeing and teaching are verbs that connect to collections. But what verbs are bigger than the collection? In the states, the mall is in decline. Museums, many of whom are free at least once a week, are in possession, collectively, of huge areas of interior space. In the frozen winters of the north and the soul-sucking dry heat of the southwest, and every other climate in between, museums can come up with many verbs for our communities. We are spaces and places. These are nouns, sure. But we can use these nouns for people. After all, we’ve been using our collections, nouns all, to do good for people for a couple hundred years. They can convene, they can invite, they can ignite partnerships, they can allow, they can encourage, they can transform.

Museum verbs are only bound by us. Our traditions have given us a few verbs. Our innovators in the last couple decades have given us more. But what is the future of what we do as a field? We are the ones who decide. We are the ones who pick the verbs that ensure museums exist for posterity. So, what are your museum verbs?

Share your thoughts and your thoughts about the definitions of museums, either here or on social. Remember to tag me so I can reshare with our readers (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Also, I wanted to note a couple awesome posts to read: JasperVisser’s take and Linda Norris’ post.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Who are we, museums?

This month, I want to ask us this question. As a field, who are we?

I have been thinking about this question at work for the past few weeks. I had started a rapid research experiment recently. I invite the whole staff to my office anytime between 2-3 on Tuesdays to answer one question. They get a cookie, and leave their desks for 15 minutes, interact with colleagues from outside their silo, and I get a bit more insight as we build our audience engagement plan. Most weeks, people give me great surprises. But, recently, one of my colleagues, a man with an impressive assortment of checked shirts that I consistently envy, said, “I think we can’t do this until we decide who we are.” It was one of those record-scratches-to-a-stop moments. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Then, I get home, confined to the couch with a terrible sinus headache, to find ICOM was debating the definition of a museum. A different sort of ache began. ICOM matters because museums are a global phenomenon. Is there a country without at least one? Over the years, I’ve enjoyed interacting with all the international museum folks at conferences, particularly at AAM. From those scant moments, I’ve garnered that, like many things, the happenings in America are different than those in the world. ICOM might not seem to matter to our workdays in American museums, but it does matter global. Why? For me, it is a sign at a high-level of what bureaucracy of our field thinks.

I have many thoughts about the ICOM definitions. Procedurally, I worry that many of the people leading this debate are not well-verse in practice (thanks for that clarification Suse Anderson) or in what visitors think. Good leadership is informed by others and on behalf of others. It is not deciding what is in your own best interest. Sure, some of the people working on the definition have been informed. But I’d love transparency on the ways that the ICOM delegates prepared for their role defining museums. As as Katie Eagleton brought up, who is this definition for? 

I’m particularly interested in the ways that the possible definitions by ICOM relate to the ways the people of those nations define museums. Susan Spero brought up a good point. Our field is more than casual observers see us, and our future requires us to go beyond the assumptions people make of museums. Absolutely. Tony Butler offers a publication that also resonated with Susan’s point. Both of these issues are important. People can only define museums on what we have now. We as professionals get to define museums on the future we will make.

But the gaps between the ICOM definitions and their people’s/ visitor’s definitions would be telling. Do these gaps happen because we have forward-looking, visitor-centered leaders? Or do we have these gaps because our leaders are not grounded in visitors or practice? The former is my hope, and I’m sure some of the people at ICOM qualify in this group. My fear is the latter is all too common, and I know some of the ICOM definitions reeked of naval-gazing, esoteric stupidity, and backward thought.

Why does it matter to get a definition? Or does it? I don’t know. I do think a good definition is a good way to show funders and foundations our collective vision of the field. I also think when museums are taxed, and in countries with different norms for museums, the definition can be a positive way to shine a light on the best path. But with all unfunded mandates, people are not being compensated to change. Should they? The status quo is the path already cleared. Many people on Twitter talked about how our actions as a field are a better definition of the future than any word salad a committee can produce.

But I’m curious: Who are we, museums? (As Sarah May said, we might ask, who is a museum? Who is it for?) 

I’d love every answer and all answers. In many ways, our discussions are the most essential way to move forward. ICOM would be well-served by invited huge digital debate by museums folks and the folks who go to museums, by then inviting thinkers to synthesize these thoughts, and then use that to make something worth voting yes for.

I’ll summarize your answers at the end of the month.

Please share, talk, and tell me. Tag me when you share (@artlust, @seemarao, @_art_lust_)

For your enjoyment, the ICOM definitionish:
Also, I'll put in a plug for my Medium post this week. I don't write there often, just when something feels important. It's an ode to my colleagues.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

We are the Solutions to Access Barriers

This month, we’ve been thinking about access barriers. I took us way off the beaten path on this subject. While I do admit to loving a tangent, these last few weeks have been purposeful detours. In our field, everything is tight. Money, time, energy, goodwill…we have only enough if we are lucky. We try to solve problems and often look for the most parsimonious solution.

We’ve all been there. A grant comes in. We whip out our logic model. We figure out the program that gets us the solution the grant wants. This way of solving has been occurring for years in our field. But we also know that it hasn’t made an appreciable impact on the people coming to museums.

People see impact and changes when they don’t solve for “x” using the same old formula. This month I talked about two variables that are often ignored when we talk about access and equity: the way we do our work and the frames we use to judge our work. I chose these because often when we talk about access, we think about ways to get people to come. We forget it is a lot harder to change other people. It’s a lot easier to change ourselves. Of course, changing yourself requires a certain level of self-reflection. Being honest with yourself, as an organization, is hard. But when you can really look at yourself, your workflow, and the flaws in your assumptions, you are also in control of the changes you can make.

Now, I’m not an expert in throwing open the doors, but just one voice, trying to make this happen. I put it out to everyone. I cheered every time people tagged me in their shares. And, I liked every comment. There was one particular thread that came in through Twitter from Rebecca of Melbourne, Australia. I loved how she brought up so many issues, often combining structural issues with the related effects. I’ve been thinking about her comments all month. From the very start, we are often setting ourselves up for challenges. We beg people to come in but we have formidable ticket booths. We are basically setting up a contradiction. To add insult to injury our visitors’ desks are often a barrier (both physical and perceived to entrance), Rebecca notes.

At my organization, we’ve just started to talk out the ways our space might be accidentally signaling inaccessibility to staff. These conversations are hard. They take time. But we believe the outcome will be worth it. How many organizations are doing this?

The relationship between perceived barriers and physical ones are incredibly important. If someone is already uncomfortable with the notion of coming, what does a physical block do? Prove their point? Now, I understand the economics of tickets, trust me. No one in leadership in a museum can be immune to the financial responsibilities of keeping collections available. Rebecca’s point gets to such an important point. We do these things one way, say putting a ticket desk up in the middle of the lobby, but we don’t always interrogate what the perception of our conventional wisdom is, and as such, we ignore contradictions therein. Our ticket desks are often more like draw bridges, gatekeeping, rather than inviting people in. Then we wring our hands when people don’t show up.

Rebecca also mentioned another issue about our museums and how we entice people. I’m a big e-reader. I never check out a book before reading the preview. I love shoes. I generally try them on before I buy. I even taste ice cream before selecting my flavor. Our whole society has moved to a transactional model where previews are the expectation. That is, except museums. We expect people to pay upfront on spec. We are giving people no tools to assess interest or value, and then we can’t understand why people aren’t snapping up the tickets. (Rebecca’s full thread is, hopefully, listed below for you to read.)

Overall, my point from this month, and I think Rebecca’s, is that much of our accessibility problem lies in us, not our visitors. We need to be self-reflexive and honest. We need to add new voices, from within our organizations, to help ourselves see the ways that we aren’t actually opening doors for visitors. And, then we have to make the necessary adjustments if we are truly hoping to open doors.

For more, read this thread, starting here: