Thursday, February 24, 2022

Knowledge is Power

 Knowledge is power, they say. This is certainly true in many workplaces. Think of the three types of people you find in many office settings: the gossip, the hoarder, and the source. 

The source is the go-to person, who knows the locations of things and the ways to do things. People who are the source can be in any tier, but usually got a start in an administrative role. In other words, they got all those deets through hard work. These people are often happy to share their info. 

The gossip, again, can come from any tier, but the difference is that their knowledge doesn’t need to be gained or even true. Gossips revel in sharing, or even better, barely sharing. In many organizations, these are people near the highest in the hierarchy.

Finally, the hoarders…this is where I really want to focus. In many organizations, many people in power choose to horde knowledge as a means to exacting power. This behavior can be people at middle and upper tiers of management. Often knowledge does have to be held. Think about restructuring. There is a moment where some people in the organization know before others. The hoarders however parse out knowledge about everything. 

What does all this have to do with museums? Museums are knowledge organizations and these behaviors are rampant. Hoarding of knowledge is one of the biggest complaints I hear of museum leaders. In organizations without profit and loss margins and stock growth, there isn’t so much concrete proof of success. Even visitor numbers and donations are done as group activities. So, individuals horde information to maintain power. In this way, the gossips are the same. They don’t have ultimate power in the organization, so they find another means to gain it. 

But, this type of behavior is ultimately ephemeral. Once the knowledge is out, it has no power. And if hoarding that knowledge made accomplishing the goal harder, you paid for your intellectual greediness. 

Good leaders learn how and when to share. They also learn to lean on the people who are the source and avoid the gossips. Knowledge is useful and powerful when shared. It proliferates and propagates. Sharing knowledge will ultimately make the leaders work easier and better. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Do we really want people to visit?

These days, like many extroverts, I feel the ache of loneliness. I’ve been thinking about planning to connect with people again. Imagine if despite my great need to see people, I set up the hours when they’re usually at work and also made them feel like they needed to study up before meeting me. How likely are my friends to show up? And is it my friends’ fault? Or mine? In many ways, we’re setting up the same problem. 

A couple weeks ago, I asked people on Twitter what is one thing they’d like to change to make museums better. Many people focused on improving amenities. One person, however,  suggested that we should educate people about the norms of museums. The funny thing is that many people full well understand. After getting yelled at by guards on a field trip as a kid, they get that museums aren’t for them. Or even worse, they live in a place where only a small, privileged group go to museums. 

The thing is people don’t need museums. We don’t need to exist. Society would continue without us. And we’re not age-old. Theater has millennia of history. Music probably existed in the caves of prehistory. Literature is also old. So, as a new phenomena, and also one that isn’t a necessary amenity, I find it surprising that we’re not more focused as a field on survival. 

Someone recently said to me, “wow, if museums were corporations they’d deserve to fail.” We project exclusion through our hours and our structures. We’re open bank hours. But people will make concessions in their life to get to the bank, because they need them. Now, yes, I think museums offer incredible social good, but many people don’t know this. How much good can we do when people don’t use us? In other words, we must help people see us as valuable. Rather than asking people to bend for us, we must work to meet them. 

Art museums are particularly good at this type of “toxic friendship”. For example, museum benches show people what we really think of them. First, we usually don’t have too many. Stand, damn it! We need more space for collections. Second, we pick uncomfortable ones. If you must be weak enough to sit, we won’t make it enjoyable. If you look at old museum installations, you often see soft seating. So the clean benches of today are an improvement. But for whom? The visitors or the designers? In truth, I suspect what happens is that galleries get designed with the goal of getting a certain intellectual point across. The teams forget that humans will need to enjoy the space to even notice there is a point.

Now, you might want to scream, how dare you suggest we pander? Why focus on snacks when we’re doing the real work of scholarship and curation? Well, my question is for whom do you do this work? If you are deeply committed to scholarship for its sake alone, then why spend the time on galleries. A book is easier to share and it’s timeless. Instead, if your goal is to educate or share, then what’s wrong with investing in amenities? Do you force your friends to stand when you invite them for a four course meal? 

As a field, when we decide that our concerns and our structures supersede the comfort and interests of our audiences, then we’re in trouble. We will eventually find that other types of experiences will be more popular. And is it better to hold fast to old rules or instead to adapt to new audience needs?  

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Are We at an Inflection Point as a Field?

There’s been a great deal of sports fanfare in Ohio lately. Bengals went to the Super Bowl and then Cleveland hosted the basketball all-star game. I don’t often think about sports, truthfully. But all the sports made me reflect on our own field, oddly. 

AAM has often noted more people go to museums than sporting events. It’s a good stat, and one I like to trot out when speaking to politicians. But I suspect it’s a false number in a way. Museums are open more often than not. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of professional sports, I know that most pro sports teams have shorter seasons. So, numbers-wise, given there are more museums than sports arenas, as there are more museums than Starbucks, there is an easier chance for museums to beat sport. But there is a bigger issue underlying that stat. I’d wonder how that number would look if you omitted field trips. Many museum-goers are there bc someone else has decided it’s educational or important. Student groups are important, and education underlies the raisin d’etre of the field. But as a child who spent a childhood going to pro-sporting events under duress, I can assure you it doesn’t make for a lifelong habit. 

The recent Culture Track study brought up another important statistic. Many Americans look to arts and culture as a source of fun. Now, I’d love to see that same sample rate the types of arts and culture from fun to not fun. I fear museums would not be near the top. Museums often miss fun altogether, because we fear being seen as dumbing down our educational mission. An interesting finding in the same Culture Track study is that respondents believe meeting the needs of new visitors is important even if it means losing old visitors. In order words, change even if people don’t like it. 

This brings me to the Super Bowl. The halftime show was incredibly enjoyable for some. It’s not surprising. Many people watching are the age of the performers. Gen X and Millenials are now 40 percent of the population. But, there was some backlash, as expected. Boomers, particularly, were not thrilled to have this type of music on the Super Bowl. Boomers are about 20 percent of the population. But they remain in the workforce and they hold an outsized amount of power and wealth. For museums, as they look to change, to meet new needs, they will see some of the same criticism from some of the same forces. Change often shows changes in power and that can make people upset. 

In the next few years, the voice and power of the older museum-goers will continue to decrease. Have we made enough impact on the younger generations? Do they see us as the once a year, "good for you" requirement? Or do they see us as an enjoyable place to visit on their own? 

As people have found plenty to keep them busy at home, we need to really step it up to meet the needs of these audiences. We showed we could be fun on digital in these last few years. Will we revert to our old ways, where we expect people to accept our status quo? Or we will meet this moment with change?