Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Reflections on 2020

Learning from challenges is one of the hardest things for me. I can’t help but wallow in my mistakes and relive my frustrations. So, if you’re not quite ready to learn from 2020, that’s fine. Also, if you have quite got it into your mind to think about The After, that’s okay. But here are some of my reflections from this year in museum work:

Camp Life: I came to camping late and through my children. What I thought of as dirty and cold often turned out to be that way. But, also, it was fun to put whole potatoes in roaring fires and eat wild blackberries. Much of this year has been a bit like camping. We did many of the things we did before, but with many fewer resources. Some of those things were about as much fun as going to the bathroom in the woods, but others were as magical as sleeping on the beach under a forest of stars. We probably won’t entirely be able to assess the latter. It will only come to us later.

Grief: My most significant take away from this year is that grief in the professional sphere is real. I’ve had plenty of personal work problems, as anyone would. But those were localized. The widespread national loss we’ve felt as a field is enormous. The long-term ramifications of this year on museums will transform the field.  

When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them: When we experience fear and loss in our personal lives, we also got to experience people acting like themselves. This was not also welcome. Some people came through their worst work experience by making it worse for others. Others didn’t. I appreciate the latter.

We’ve been hurt: I asked people for their museum trigger words. Wow, did I get a response. Many of the words were ones that we’d used and overused. Community anyone? We’d denuded these words to fit our agendas. We’d transformed their meaning to fit our context. We’d said them and meant something else. But, mostly in that enormous, edifying thread, we’d not done right by ourselves. By not saying what we meant or using language to mask our intentions, we’d decreased our ability to do good.

We’re Careworn: In that thread, too, I noticed how part of the reason we felt triggered by language was that we cared. People took advantage of our desire to do the work we cared about. We got little out of our care; many were too low on the rung (or not in curatorial) to get credit, and most of us were underpaid.

Change is Possible: We were change and risk adverse, until we couldn’t be any more. For example, we like subtle signs until it was life or death. And it didn’t kill us to add more signs. That should be a sign that many of the things we were dragging our feet on, we’re worth it. 

The Future: I’ve not been so exhausted about thinking about the future since I was a senior in high school. It’s uncertain, and it feels out of my control. Like with college admissions, I did have some control over my grades and my essay, so I was partly in control. I just had to admit that to myself. Similarly, our future is somewhat in our control.  I’ve been thinking a lot about 2006, one-half decade after 9/11. If you asked me in 2001 where we’d be, I’d have no idea what exact changes would come out of that transformative moment in society.

Similarly, I don’t have the foresight for what 2025 will be like. I’d be careful not to say your guess is as good as mine. Once you feel ready, you should start making not only educated guesses but also educated actions.

In the dead of winter of this terrible year, this is the moment to start creating your hopes for the future. You can put into place small changes. You can combine forces with others to put in place larger ripples. You can improve yourself. You can start planning for the better. 

Said, differently, the future can be the one we collectively make. It won't get better anytime soon. But soon is when we need to act to make it better. 

One change, I’d love is more collaboration. For example, I have an idea that we have all this great content we produced this year. I bet together we could come up with something, like an online course, to meet the needs of people in what will be a long winter. Interested? Join me. (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd3V10RVkr_EbOL0mDh2WPFu1xUXzAlKDtgXlXblXBZiGEJTA/viewform)

What are your biggest takeaways from 2020? Also, would love to hear your favorite blog posts (from other blogs) about museums from 2020, so I can give them a shout out. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Games Games Games

 Museums have used games to engage visitors for decades. From full on role playing games to scavenger hunts, games can be digital or analog. Barry Joseph and I chatted games this week.

SR: I came to games before I came to museums. My grandmother cheated at Candyland and uno. :) Games, I think, have a nice Venn diagram of overlap between museum lovers. There are many game lovers who don’t know they could love museums, and so it’s a great way to encourage new visitors. We have scores of games at work and we were a big part of the hastag #museumgames. We also run an annual game program, called GameFest Akron. I love thinking we're getting new museum lovers through games. How did you get into museum games?

BJ: I love that you knew your grandmother was cheating at Candyland (and that she felt she had to!). Did you know at the time or was that something you realized later, and how did that affect how you thought about games and play?

In any case, when I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, the newly opened Hall of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was like a mysterious dark cave for my sister and I to explore, ever on a hunt for gems. As a teenager, asserting my independence, my friends and I would take in the train to catch late night showings of Laser Floyd in their Rose planetarium. In my twenties, the museum became quite literally a giant board game in scavenger hunts I designed for my friends (next time you go to their dinosaurs look down at your feet - the floor tiles turn the room into a perfect life-sized boardgame). And now, as a father, the museum has become a place where my children can now experience the same wonders, using our cellphones to take extreme close-ups of exhibits and challenge each other to find the original. 

Which is all just a long way of saying I have ALWAYS treated museums as a game, as a remarkable set of resources for engaging with the world in a playful way. As Bernie De Koven (of blessed memory) once said, “The Path that is best for you is the Path that keeps the best of you in play.” And I have always found museums to be one of those places that keeps the best of me in play. 

SR: What’s the hardest part of making a game for museums?

BJ: Let me flip that around, first. So: What’s the easiest part of making games for a museum? I was fortunate enough to spend a good portion of my six years at AMNH designing games. Games about gut microbiology. Games about pterosaurs. Games about killer snails. Games about the Sixth Extinction, the global food chain, lyme disease, and so much more. There was so much low hanging fruit, it was never hard to find the next scientific system that could be gamified through adapting it as the core mechanic within a digital or physical game. So players got to learn by doing in a social context. 

Okay, so the hardest part? The production system at the museum was not designed to make consumable games. Yes, the department responsible for the web site for kids, Ology, often included simple games, and the exhibitions department designed awesome digital interactives for our special exhibits (which often incorporated game mechanics), but by and large no one was tasked with thinking about the explosion of interest we have seen in the past decade in both tabletop and mobile gaming, and how we as an institution might address that need. So yes, I was able to finagle this, and chat up that person, and get someone to pay for a few thousand card decks, and get them into the store at the end of an exhibit. But there was just no pipeline in place to support each of these efforts and integrate them into the museum product and promotion system. So the hardest part is when it’s not seen as aligned with the strategic vision.  

SR: My favorite part of game design is playtesting. I love when people are enjoying my games. And it is truly edifying, and humbling, when you find your game is more complicated than it needs to be. What’s your favorite part? 

BJ: Most games I have designed through museums have been in partnership - with professional game designers, with high school students, with scientists (and other content experts), and with digital developers (that AR component of the pterosaurs card game was amazing). So for me, the best part is the collaboration - getting to put our minds together and see what incredible experiences we can create for others. That, and not knowing what the game will be like until it’s published. The iterative design process, especially with games, means you can hold on to a set of learning objectives over the course of a development process, but you have to be open to everything else changing along the way. Collaborating with others to look into the abyss of the unknown and have faith in each other, and the process, and to emerge on the other side with something wondrous - you can’t beat that. The game itself then becomes a document of that relationship (for those in the know). 

SR: My favorite games are board games, I think. I love all the collateral you create to make the experience. We have a free downloadable tile game of building your own museum that makes me pretty happy. But, I will say, I also love a game with a story. In an old job, with a colleague, we made a zombie game for museums. It’s hard to describe, but man it was fun to play. How about you?

BJ: What’s my favorite type of game? Forgive me, as I am going to tackle this sideways, as your answer brought up a different question for me: am I a ludologist or a narratologist? While for many the divide has now been bridged - turns out it’s not so binary - but for many years people argued that what made games special is their gamey-ness, the things it allows people to do; meanwhile, others focused on the unique ways games can be used to tell a story. I am big on the story - that’s why I love the new legacy games, like Pandemic Legacy, which uses an evolving board game to tell a rich and engaging story; but that story is mostly told through the ways our range of actions change over time (so back to ludology). In the end the best game to me is one which supports you and I to be the best we can be and together create a story together (the story of the game we just played). (So this is all just going back to Bernie again, and everything he and his colleagues taught me as a little kid in gym class playing New Games).

SR: while I think games are great for museums, it can be incredibly helpful for museum pros to work with others to hone their skills. What are some of the skills that you think help folks design games? 

BJ: Being able to look at something in the world and translate it into a system - identifying its core components and tracing how they interact. And being able to reference games not just from our nostalgic memory (like your memory of your grandmother cheating at Candyland) but critically - as one might see a recent movie and recognize a particular shot is an homage to Citizen Kane - so one’s work can draw upon past precedent but then make it into something new. Also, familiarity with game design techniques, and tools, and exercises, and processes. Then there’s design thinking - lots of design thinking. And most importantly, not being afraid to have fun. 

SR: Over the years, I’ve made all sorts of games, but also taught others to make games. I hadn’t quite thought of it how you just said that, being able to translate something into a system. Often I notice people want to make a game but they don’t quite get that. Like puzzles, people often think of them as games. We make a lot of puzzles at work, and I enjoy making them, but they’re not games. Another Venn diagram here, games can use puzzles but not all puzzles are games. Being able to make an enjoyable game is a lot easier when you have help learning the rules, as it were. You’re working on something that feels like a gift to museum educators and their patrons. Tell us about it.

BJ: That is sweet of you to frame it like that. During this holiday season, I do feel a bit like it’s offering a gift to museum educators around the country. But all credit is due to Games for Change, as I’m just a hired hand to spread their ludological word. 

Games for Change is looking for innovative museum educators to sign up for their new initiative: Game Plan. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and General Motors, Game Plan is a new professional development program, designed for our current era of social distancing, to raise museum capacity for using games and game-like learning within youth programming. Along with a modest stipend, Game Plan will provide curriculum, online training, a supportive community, and the opportunity for museum youth to compete in a nation-wide game design challenge themed on the idea of resiliency. 

If someone wants to apply they can fill out this interest form:  https://lnkd.in/gT2itfd, read this FAQ, or contact Barry on LinkedIn (or on Twitter at @MMMooshme). 

Author Bio: Barry Joseph is founder of Barry Joseph Consulting, a driving force at both the strategic and the tactical level in digital engagement, youth development and digital learning. For a dozen years, at Global Kids (a NYC-based after school organization) then for six years at the American Museum of Natural History, Barry oversaw the strategy, design, and implementation of a slate of over 100 youth courses that applied the latest technology to engage youth to develop their skills and passions through youth media productions and design practices. He has also worked for over a decade with museums to innovate visitor-facing experiences through iterative design, with a particular focus on prototyping and evaluating cutting-edge visitor-facing experiences. Most recently, as VP of Digital Experience at the Girl Scouts of the USA, he used tools of user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) to make complexity accessible, supporting the development of a seamless digital customer experience that increased retention and drove new membership. Barry has taught thousands of NYC youth and facilitated over a thousand hours of youth programming, including as troop leader of his daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. His first book, Seltzertopia, came out in 2018, and he often writes about digital engagement on his blog Mooshme.org. @mmmooshme

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Looking Back at the Last 10 Years of Social

 In the last week of my senior year of high school, my homeroom teacher pulled out a box and set it on her desk. She looked at the class and said, “These are the letters you wrote yourself your first day of Freshman year.” She passed them out and the sound of shredding and crinkling paper filled the air. I hesitantly opened mine and began to read. It was clear that I grew, I matured, I metamorphosed into something very different in those four years, but more than anything I wanted to go back and tell that girl what to do differently. As I come upon my decade anniversary of managing social media I have a few things to tell the Kaytee from ten years ago. 

Speak up.

I recently saw a tweet from a social media manager that said, “So much of the work we do in social never gets seen (and that can be a good thing). Half of this job is talking people out of bad ideas.” [Tweet url: https://twitter.com/feliciapaigexo/status/1313538686433341444?s=20] 

I like to think social media managers have their hands on the pulse of society. We see and hear the conversations that play out across platforms and between audiences. Early in my career, I would hear bad ideas or be asked to share something I knew could potentially have backlash, and while I did make suggestions, I didn’t truly speak up and say, “Hey! This is a really bad thing and I don’t think we should promote it, or share it, or say it!” 

Over the years I have developed the ability to communicate those “gut checks” and voice it in a way that can sometimes lead to change. Secondly, I’ve learned to speak up for those that aren’t in the room. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have asked myself, are the people who should be part of this conversation here? Are their voices being heard? I’ve learned to do that and not only has it made the content we create better, but it’s also led to policy and structural change within our organization.

Find your community. 

Early on in my career, I was barely treading above water in a sea of social media. I spent years thinking I was the only one who felt the way I did. It wasn’t until I started to attend conferences, follow other people in my field on Twitter, and join online groups that I realized I wasn’t alone. It was like one day I looked up and here came a life raft filled with some of the brightest, funniest, and most helpful people I have met in my life and they pulled me from the water. 

It can be hard to ask for help, especially when you aren’t sure what you’re asking. Don’t be afraid to ask even the simplest of questions, because chances are someone else has experienced it and wants to help. 

You never stop learning. 

You blink and there is a new social media platform. You take a breath and there is a new tool. You take one step forward and you’re somehow five steps behind. Digital communications and social media are constantly changing environments, and at times you will feel like you’re running through an obstacle course. You may get knocked down a couple of times, but you will get right back up. For many, like myself, you will learn graphic design, copywriting, video editing, branding, digital advertising, video production, and so much more. You will be a one-person band that will lead to an outstanding and memorable portfolio filled with some of your best work. 

Give yourself grace. 

You will see the best of people and you will see the worst of people. You will be yelled at and then get a direct message from someone saying the photo you shared is one they had never seen of their great grandfather. In the moments when you feel you’ve fallen overboard remember it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to turn off notifications, it’s okay to only work 40 hours or less a week, and it’s okay to talk about burnout. It’s okay to change career paths and sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. 

The truth is I am not sure if I can do this for another ten years, but I know that I am proud of what I’ve accomplished and grateful for the relationships I’ve made along the way. I’ve grown, I’ve made mistakes, but more importantly, I’ve learned from them. 

Take a deep breath... it’s going to be okay. 

Author: Kaytee Smith brings more than 10 years of digital communications and museum outreach experience to her role as Chief Content Officer at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, where she helps tell North Carolina's story and oversees the department's editorial and content production team. 

Monday, December 07, 2020

Living through the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Year Okay

I took months off writing. I wished I could say it was purposeful. Instead, it was like a stumble that turned into a topple. It started when I took a single morning off my long time practice of writing for ½ hour when I first woke up. I didn’t even mean to. I just didn’t do it. Like when you step on the back of your shoe, rather than untie and retie the shoe, the back of the shoe is never quite the same. Practices only need to be broken once to be compromised. 

Stopping blogging was also the beginning of my slow decline into burnout. I knew the signs, and yet, the uncompromising culture of 2020 meant there was nothing I could do, but watch it overcome me like a wave. The tsunami of burnout was taking down many people in this field. Every tweet I was reading, every meeting I was attending, everyone I knew--we were all drowning in work and worry. 

My smoldering lack of creativity and productivity went into full flame of emotional trash fire when I let some criticism get to me. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t been criticized. (And, I’d assert criticism and critique are wholly different.) In the year since I took on the awesome task of writing this blog, I’ve often been told I’m not measuring up to Nina. And, hey, she is taller. Mostly, I took that as it was--the truth. We’re different. And, that’s okay. But this year, criticism hurt in ways I hadn’t imagined. 

It’s not surprising. Everything felt amplified, personalized. You might also feel that way. It’s because in the world before the epidemic, you had work and your personal life. You might have been the person who said yes to hobbies and a social life also. Your full life was a combination of personal conditions and personal choices. This year, that fairly full life got a surprise addition--doom. I’m going to mix metaphors, as I so often do. We were like servers, balancing a tray of expensive champagne. We were doing well enough. Then the owner, a person we rarely thought of, decided to add a dozen glass Christmas ornaments, unwieldy and unpredictable, on our tray. Hard, eh? That’s a bit like the way we’ve had to take on the extra mental load of the pandemic. But, then this owner decided, it really is better for everyone if you did this serving thing on skates. (I mean, IG is full of hot chicks on skates.) That is the level up we’ve all had to do with the cultural and economic changes that resulted from the pandemic. Basically, we’re loaded up, then the load gets harder to keep in the air, and then the method of keeping it up hits a snag. We’re doing more, with less, and under harder circumstances. 

The worst thing is that our society sets us up for challenges. Before this pandemic, the world was more productivity, more success, more everything and right now. We weren’t mentally prepared for this crash, skates, glasses, and all into the wall. So we all feel bad for not doing what we did before or think we should do. 

In the weeks that I didn’t blog, I thought of the hundreds of followers of the blog and of Nina. I felt incredibly guilty. I felt like a fraud. I also went into my coping skills. I forgot about you. I ignored museum twitter. And, then the guilt came back. I wondered how I could possibly start again. I feared starting. Then I felt guilty. 

I’m telling you this because I think sharing my struggle might remind everyone their personal struggles are okay. We’re humans in a pretty inhumane society with a human rights problem.

One of my steps back was a comment from someone. They asked me why someone’s negative comment would make me question myself. I really wished I’d written down the person's name who said that. They really jogged me out of my deep hole. I realized for me critique is essential. Plenty of people tell me I’m wrong, incorrect, or plain off the mark. Those people are talking about my work. And, my work isn’t me. The people instead who use their meanness and pettiness, well, those folks shouldn’t matter to me. I mean, we’re dealing with the worst health crisis in a century. We’re looking out for a future where things could be better. I have too much to think of. And I needed to decide those haters just aren’t my priority; they can keep their negativity at their house.  

How did I get to this point where I started feeling a bit more like myself? First, I noticed I was losing it. That comment I mentioned helped. I also had to spend a bit of time thinking about my feelings. I realized that I was a sponge so sopping wet no more liquid to be absorbed. I had to wait until some of the liquid evaporated. I needed time. Then I chipped away at things. I played with ideas. I read and thought. In other words, I filled my personal reserves. Then I reached out. For me, that means, my Museum Computer Network friends. But, we all have the people it feels good to interact with. (If you need those folks, you might consider MCN.)

Then I looked ahead for the next few months. I made a goal that I would take some time away in December. Since much of my time, as a manager, is related to the time of my colleagues, I also tried to set up work to wane in December. After all, I can’t enjoy my relaxation while my colleagues are overwhelmed. My premise was that we were taxed by the constant decision-making since the rate of change was constant. So we tried to get many of our decisions made early or set up systems where we had A or B plans ready. We also canceled many meetings for this month. Another stress was a lack of time for our own labors as well as an inability to get into a personal flow.  For managers particularly, WFH has meant more meetings probably, since you can’t just run into folks. Finally, we also gave us less work. We chose to take a week off social. We decided to pick the easiest way to solve certain problems. 

Now, the choice to do less was hard for me. I like to do more. And, I’m not sure for me, I’d stick to do less year-round. Some people, like me, have a motor in their minds. Doing less feels stressful. So, I’d caution anyone from feeling bad if you read the do less/ productivity is death literature. If it isn’t you, that’s okay. But, even those who feel they need to do a lot at work, need time off. 

This weekend, I asked people how they were feeling:

The overwhelming response was negative.

We’re in a terrible moment as a society. But many museums aren't meeting the needs of their teams:

If you have the chance as a manager or leader to advocate for decreases, I’d suggest it. For the number crunchers, I’d suggest a slow down across the board would lead to more work long-term. Work slowdowns can’t happen by accident though. You have to plan for them. You have to do the work ahead, sometimes, or decrease the work that needs to happen. Then you all need to commit to this. You need to discuss it. I have been talking about our “No decisions December” for months. I’ve had to keep myself from suggesting things that might be “cool” which is also management speak for time-consuming. I had to remind myself that my staff might all feel like oversoaked sponges. I've had to remind myself long-term success is better served by sanity in the short term.

2020 is the terrible, horrible, no good year for everyone. If your organization does a bit less in December and early January, I bet your patrons won’t notice. I also bet your staff will not only notice but thrive after some time away.