Needfinding in the galleries: overcoming blind spots with direct observation

Ed Rodley:

Another great post from Design Thinking for Museums! Short and sweet…

Originally posted on Design Thinking for Museums:

Museum professionals are faced with design decisions on an almost daily basis, from developing tour guidelines to building digital resources. In the routine of everyday work and with a lack of in-house visitor research staff, it is too easy to base design decisions solely on experience and precedent, and make choices based on assumptions and habit. But by conducting simple needfinding activities, such as direct visitor observations in the galleries, we can override our blind spots and arrive at new insights.

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Oops, I blogged again…

If you haven’t been following the unfolding of CODE | WORDS, now’s a good time to dive in. I just published my contribution to this fascinating collection on Medium. It’s called “The Virtues of Promiscuity, or, Why giving it away is the future.” Comments, feedback, reasoned argument, are all welcome. Go to it! And tell your friends!


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What Might Museums Look Like in the Future? NMC Virtual Symposium

Ed Rodley:

I’ll be there! Will you?

Originally posted on Art Museum Teaching:

Submitted by Alex Freeman, Director of Special Projects, New Media Consortium

The New Media Consortium’s upcoming Future of Museums Symposium will bring together a collaborative global conversation around issues of technology, museums, and the future. This free, online Virtual Symposium will be held on Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014, and will feature keynote speakers and crowdsourced presentations by your peers.

unnamedAs its name suggests, the Symposium looks toward the future: what might the museum world look like in five years? Ten? Further out? Technologies and practices that are just beginning to show promise in an educational or social context may well be commonplace in that time frame. In this day-long event, we are bringing the research and work behind the NMC Horizon Report 2013 Museum Edition to the greater museum community. The Horizon Report’s advisory board participates in thoughtful discussions about an array of museum technology topics, trends, and challenges in the museum wiki that…

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A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

Ed Rodley:

A fantastic apology from David Walsh for a controversial installation in his museum. It shines a light on the delicate process of negotiating with artists, the museum’s accountability to its audience, and how you can stumble when they conflict. It’s refreshingly direct. Museum executives, go read this!

Originally posted on Mona Blog:

Last week Mona opened Southdale/C’Mona, an exhibition that explores, among other things, the unintended consequences of created utopias. The colonisation/invasion of Tasmania by Europeans, and the debilities that resulted for its inhabitants, are among the areas explored. Another was the potential establishment of a Jewish nation in southwest Tasmania. That project, however, didn’t come to such a fraught conclusion, since it disappeared, as did its major proponent.

The artist who devised the exhibition is Christoph Buchel. Because the project was presented as an intervention he wasn’t named at its inception. He, and we, thought that the impact would be enhanced if the project was taken at face value. Since his identity was exposed by the Australian newspaper at the weekend (and they obtained their information from his dealer’s website, and not from us), I don’t feel that, at this point, we are breaking any confidences by revealing the artist’s identity. However…

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It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

Already a dork at age 13. But, a dork in spacesuit FTW!

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

I kinda fell into museum work, which is odd, since I’d worked in museums since I was 11. I’d had a bunch of front of house positions; guard, guide, gift shop, garage; all the entry level jobs.  But despite that, I never really thought of museum work as something I’d pursue as a career. No, thanks. I was gonna go to college to be an astronaut. Instead, I dropped out my senior year, and after a brief, disastrous stint in retail, and needing to pay the rent, wound up back at the Museum, working the Information Desk. Until one day, I had the lunch that changed everything.

It was a busy day, the cafeteria was packed and there was no place to sit. I was an hourly grunt, on a timed 30 minute break, and my clock was running. I saw a coworker of mine eating with another woman I recognized as an employee, but didn’t know. She was one of the fancy office people we didn’t mingle with. They were sitting at a table with three seats, so I invited myself to their lunch and listened to the woman complain about how overworked and understaffed her department was. She worked in the Exhibits department, where they apparently made exhibits. Now I had known this intellectually, I’m sure, but it had never really sunk in til then. People got paid to make the exhibits people came to museums to look at.  Huh! So, I spent the next several months being aggressively friendly, until she hired me as her assistant. Thus began what I’d consider my Museum career.

When I started working in the Exhibits department, I was the youngest person there out of about 30 people, and I was the least educated. I was intimidated. They were smart. They had decades of experience. They were well-educated. The office people had Masters and Doctorates. The shop staff were cabinet makers, not carpenters, a distinction you would fail to make only once. And then there was me. I was very lucky, luckier than most. I had a boss who was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, though I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what all bosses did, right? Train you up, sharpen your skills and point you at opportunities to gain new ones. I worked on big shows, based almost entirely on my bosses faith that I could do it. So I did it. But throughout it all, I had this persistent dread that I’d be found out one day. Somebody would say, “Rodley! What are *you* doing here!? You don’t belong here!” I did great stuff, worked on amazing projects, travelled the world, and still never felt worthy, because I didn’t think I knew what I was supposed to know, what everybody else already knew (I thought).

And what changed was when we started getting heavily into evaluation. Sitting in the galleries, actually watching visitors using stuff was a revelation! I didn’t know what would happen, but neither did the old timers, though some of them were sure that it was all a huge waste of time, and an affront to their expertise, cuz they knew. But we made better exhibits because of that. And the experience of being cool with not knowing was liberating. I didn’t know, but I was gonna find out. And I was learning things that my elders didn’t know for a change. I could go toe to toe with them on decisions about projects in a way I couldn’t before. Our dynamic changed. And my story of myself started to change.

The thing I wish they’d told me when I started in museums was that it’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn that will make or break you as a professional. I thought that the old model of learning still applied, you know? You went to school, you learned stuff, and that carried you through your career until you retired. Only I watched some of the most senior people in my department, people with long, deep resumes of accomplishments, transform themselves from legends into pariahs, the folks you tried hard to work around to get something done, precisely because they weren’t willing to learn, or they thought that the pile of knowledge they’d accumulated should be sufficient. And by the time they retired, most people didn’t even know that they’d once been heroes. They’d become the people everybody hoped would retire soon. And I didn’t want to become that guy.

Being ok with not knowing, but being willing to learn is kinda scary, like those anxiety dreams where you’re at work and you’ve forgotten to wear pants, or like standing up in front of several hundred of your peers and sharing your deeply held feelings of unworthiness. But scary shouldn’t hold you back. I’ve gotten very good at telling myself “Not knowing *is* scary, always. Now get over it and do it anyway.” And I really believe that mindset is like a mental muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it gets, and the more you can do with it. That realization has become the cornerstone of my professional practice, and is largely responsible for me being where I am now, which is a place where I often don’t know what is the right thing to do and have to figure it out as I go along. And that’s OK.

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn.

Some thoughts on storytelling

I also wrote a recap of the AAM 2014 storytelling session at the PEM blog, with some more of the thinking behind storytelling in museums. Check it out!

Museums are like crack

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, and Judy Rand’s “Waiting for Eileen”, here’s the second of the stories that were told.

Museums are like crack
by Catherine Hughes

Hello my name is Catherine and I’m a museum addict. No one told me that working in museums is like smoking crack. No one wants to admit it because what does that say about them. No one wants to tell you that you’ll want to do it so bad, you might end up broke, because you’ll practically work for free. You’ll be willing to forgo great benefits, work nights, weekends and holidays. Like meth addiction, you may even lose your teeth, because you can’t afford to go to the dentist.

I came into museum work not by design or desire really. Like many others, I came in through the back door, which is fitting as back alleys are where all good drug deals are made. I was not driven by a childhood epiphany in front of a diorama or a dinosaur. I had no particular affinity for history or science. In fact, by young adulthood I had developed a fairly serious science/math phobia and had convinced myself that I was incapable of comprehending either. I was a theatre person. That was my identity. I was not a museum person. At least not yet.

My road to addiction began with an audition for a series of theatrical happenings that I’d heard about at the Museum of Science in Boston. I knew the theatre director and wanted to work with him, and it paid, basically a dream job for an actor. I think in fact that I only made the second cut of actors. He was hiring a group of four, and I was hired to replace one of the original four. It was an innocuous beginning, but that first 2 month contract began my inevitable slide into museum junkie.

We performed a short vaudevillian piece in pairs inside the huge brand new Omnimax projection booth for people standing in long lines waiting to see the movie. We also entertained crowds and got them engaged with an enormous polarized-light collage on one wall. We were well received. The manager extended our contracts, and we began a sort of open ended run. That’s really how it starts. It starts small. It feels good, it’s fun, there’s no stress. Museum internships are like this, a gateway drug into museum addiction. Each intern thinks they’ll only be there for an 8-week semester, but then they can’t stop. Before they realize it, they’ve agreed to collect data for a new NSF funded project at wages below the poverty line. It’s only for a year, they tell themselves.

Before I knew what was happening, I was visiting other museums and checking out what they did. If I went to a new city, I scoped out the museums. I began meeting with other museum junkies in meetings, Museum Education Roundtables. I began reading about museums. I started writing about the work I was doing. I couldn’t get enough, which led me deeper into my addiction, so much so that I eventually had to get a master’s in museum studies.

Soon I was performing in various shows within the Museum of Science. A key moment for me was playing Ada Byron King, countess of Lovelace, for a Women-in-Science exhibition. I think I can probably blame Ada for getting me truly hooked. Playing her solidified my transformation, shifting my identity, from a theatre person to a museum theatre person, a hybrid.

Ada was a 19th century mathematician that many attribute with writing the first computer program in 1843. She was also the daughter of Lord Byron, and inherited parts of his colorful personality. Playing her before crowds of visitors who had never heard of her and knew little of women’s place in 19 century science was intoxicating. I couldn’t get enough of visitors’ surprise at learning her story.

Each new show we developed held similar kernels of unknown information, surprises and satisfyingly complex dilemmas to share. I did a play about the social and ethical implications of fetal-tissue research. I danced and sang in a play about the Brazilian Rainforest. It may not have been Hamlet, but each performance we did still grabbed an audience. And each time an audience responded, I felt that dopamine rush.

I got a huge high from visitors who wanted to talk after a show, even if what they wanted to do was argue. It was the emotional buzz I sought. The fact that visitors could respond emotionally to a 20 minute play about science – that they could laugh, or cry, get angry or feel moved, truly amazed me. My favorite story about a visitor interaction after a play is this. I’ve recounted it numerous times, like any good addict relating and reliving a fantastic high. I was performing a play about the sinking of the Titanic. It was a crazy comedic one-person piece in which I played a host of different characters, including an albino crab who lives on the wreck and knows everything about it, but which also contained a sharp indictment of humans’ ability to harness technology. After one show, an older Italian gentleman visitor came up to talk to me. He began wagging his finger at me and accusing me, You, you are working magic. You are asking questions you should not ask! And then he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the theatre and into the exhibition hall, and said Look, look what we have done. We must celebrate it. And I agreed, I said, yes, out here we celebrate those accomplishments, but in there, in the theatre, we question them. We can do both in the museum. This exchange caused all my neurotransmitters to fire simultaneously. My brain exploded. It felt amazing.

By this time, obviously I was drinking the koolaide along with smoking crack.

Soon I was leading others into addiction by forming a non-profit called the International Museum Theatre Alliance. I became a dealer. I enabled newbies by writing a book about the work. I traveled to conferences spreading the word. I was almost missionary in my zeal to attract others to the fold. I did not tell people what would happen if they started. That they wouldn’t be able to stop their museum addiction any time they wanted. I’m only now coming clean.

I finally hit rock bottom. I decided I had to get a PhD.

When I was done with my dissertation, I thought maybe I’d had enough of museums and I could put that pipe down and teach. I thought academia offered new hope for me. But after teaching college for a year, I relapsed, and went back to museum work. Now, like many functioning addicts, I take my daily dose just to be normal, so I’m able to work. You’ll have to excuse me though. I’m starting to get a bit jittery, I need another hit.


Catherine Hughes