Tag Archives: Museum 2.0

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

In Part One of this series, I tried to unpack my visceral reaction to people focusing on immersion as a good or bad thing. My reaction stems from immersion being used as a stalking horse for the real issue, which I think is that kind of optimal experience Csíkszentmihályi called “flow.” Getting hung up on the the delivery system rather than the actual meat of the matter made me think about August and all the steam vented by critics like Judith Dobrzynski about “participation” and “experience” and how they’re responsible for ruining everything.  I ranted about it at some length. I won’t get into how completely off-base she is when she blames museums for displaying the kinds of contemporary art she doesn’t like, and instead focus on trends in museum practice, like participatory design and an emphasis on “experience.” Like the talks I’ve had about immersion, this was clearly another case of people attacking manifestations of deeper issues that are harder to talk about. When Dobrzynski bemoans the plague of participatory design in museums, she gets at the heart of the matter – the place (or lack thereof) for authority to manifest itself.

When interpretation feels like interference

Nothing to see here! CC-BY NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

My understanding of this was greatly aided by Regan Forrest’s latest post called “Mediation or interference.” Read her whole post. It’s short and good. Read the comments, too. Regan and I both come from science backgrounds and have the inherent bias to be explicit which can be challenging in an art museum where interpretation and education tread very carefully around the galleries. We both have had experiences of interpretations we thought effective being deemed intrusive or pandering by others because they were perceived as interfering with their experience of the art. And there was that word interfering again, one of the factors Bitgood listed as inhibiting a sense of flow. Could it be that this emphasis on active participation was standing in the way of some visitors having their optimal experiences? I think Regan’s use of the word “mediation” was very apt. It literally means “to be in the middle of.” Successful mediations can be like having a trusted guide at your side whereas a less successful one can feel like someone’s literally getting in your way.

For those who prefer a passive approach to their museum-going, museums’ attempts to provide more mediation for the active learners will probably always come across as intrusive. So, it becomes a question of balance, how much of each kind of experience is the right amount for your content and your audiences? Dobrzynski herself is clear that it’s not an either/or situation, as much as a question of degrees. She and I doubtless draw the line in different places, but that’s life.

What does authority look like nowadays? 

Who gets to step up to the podium? CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user karindalziel

Upon reflection, the most intriguing part of her opinion piece was how much she dwelt on issues of authority. Part of the problem for art museums (and I think this is one way in which they diverge from other kinds of museums) is the way that they have had aspects of religious institutions placed on them by Western secularizing culture. Pulling out the descriptors used in Dobrzynski’s article associated with good old-fashioned art museums and you get “treasure houses, masterpieces, the universal, cultural treasuries , beauty, inspiration, uplift, spiritual, thrill, contemplation, solace,  inspiration.” This is the language of the art museum as secular temple to Culture as popularized by writers like Alain de Botton, who famously said in yet another opinion piece beating up art museums, “You often hear it said that ‘musems of art are our new churches’: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture…”

There is also a reverence for authority among the critics most aghast at anything experiential or participatory. After listing the usual punching bags of participatory or crowdsourced projects, Dobrzynski laments, “Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?” In a further foray into the participatory wars, she reprints verbatim a nasty accusation-laden opinion piece from a Santa Cruz website, beating up museum director Nina Simon for allegedly driving off professionals with art and history expertise. Another opinion piece by Stephen Kessler in the Santa Cruz Sentinel laments that

“Hands-on self-expression, the “interaction” of scribbling something on a piece of paper and sticking it on a wall in response to an exhibit do not really advance a creative agenda. They indulge a collective narcissism that might be better embodied in a bring-your-own-mirror show where everyone would be given a space on the wall to hang their looking glass for a long feel-good gaze at themselves. It could be called “Reflections in Interactivity,” and I’m sure it would be very successful.”

Suffice it to say that this view of the equation is,

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

In another manifestation of this phenomenon, Suse Cairns provides a thoughtful recap of a recent Twitter dustup about 3D mashups of art objects that wound up involving art blogger and critic Lee Rosenbaum, Don Undeen from the Met, and Koven Smith from Denver Art Museum. In the midst of badmouthing Undeen’s work at the Met as “hokey” and “counterproductive” to deeper understanding of the art, she says “I’m fine with bringing digital experts into the museum, but close oversight must come from the knowledgeable art experts.” She assumes, and perhaps correctly, that there was no curatorial involvement in the Met project’s Undeen is working on. The apparent absence of authoritative voices is a constant refrain, and I think the important issue underneath all the handwringing about “participation”.

This notion that these kinds of participatory projects are the equivalent of letting the inmates run the asylum echoes a concern widely held in the art historical community, not just by critics and curmudgeons.  Dallas Museum of Art’s director Max Anderson’s “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” goes so far as to list crowdsourcing’s threat to authority as Problem #6.

“Museum curators, once guardians of the unassailable fortress of institutional authority, were never infallible, but they are now, often as not, simply one voice of many. Their saturation in the physical properties of an object may not entitle them to insulation from criticism or rejoinders, but they are being increasingly sidelined as debates of an interpretive sort enjoy as much currency as the lifetime study of objects in close proximity. One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.”

Unlike some of the other writers I’ve mentioned, Anderson actually is interested in solutions that are more nuanced than just “Get rid of all this newfangled crap and put things back the way they were.” Anderson, in one sentence, provides a way forward. More engagement, less patronization of the people upon whom we depend for our livelihood and institutional raisons d’etre. Among his ten solutions, Anderson lists “Curators should be less fearful of academic reprisal if they talk to visitors like human beings rather than writing labels for their peers.” Too often, I’ve been in museums and had that feeling the audience for a particular label or exhibition wasn’t the public, but rather the peers of the creators. The result of that kind willful neglect of the audience is manifested in things that childish CNN “Why I Hate Museums” piece by James Durston. The tone of the piece really grates on me, but under the bile the author makes some valid points. Visitors, like everybody else, don’t like being ignored and/or patronized.

Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Lulu Vision

In many ways, this conversation has tremendous parallels to one from my grad school days in historical archaeology. I still recall having a heated debate with an emeritus history professor about the seeming disparity in how much archaeologists cite historians versus how much historians cite archaeologists when they’re writing about the same subject. Without batting an eyelash, he said “The day an archaeologist writes something that’s readable by anybody other than archaeologists, I’ll read it.” Well, that certainly shut me up, because it was (and remains) a valid criticism of that field, and, to a lesser degree, of museums.

The way forward is not to cede the field to the crowd, but rather to meet them, bringing along all the authority and expertise that draws visitors to museums in the first place. It is starting to happen. A prime example is Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. I have some issues with it, but one place it succeeds beautifully is that uses the whole museum’s expertise to make a new kind of visitor experience. Not just educational, or technological, but those plus substantial curatorial support.

There are other examples out there. Who else is doing great work marrying authority and participation to make memorable museum experiences?

In the third and final installation of this series, I’d like to look at the “issue” of visitors taking photographs in museums.

[UPDATE 11/4/13: I replaced one quote in the MAH paragraph after finding a more grown-up example of the dissenting view on participatory design.] 

Further Reading:

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
New York: Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-092820-4

Judith Dobrzynski
“High Culture Goes Hands-On”
The Sunday New York Times, August 10, 2013
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html

Regan Forrest
“Mediation or interference.”
Interactivate
http://reganforrest.com/2013/10/mediation-or-interference/

Alain de Botton
“Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions”
The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alain-de-botton/why-our-museums-of-art-ha_b_1327694.html

Suse Cairns
“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence”
museum geek
http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/i-like-your-old-stuff-better-than-your-new-stuff-on-3d-mashups-appropriation-and-irreverence/

Max Anderson,
“The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions”
Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 16 Dec 2011
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01973762.2011.622238

Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?

 

Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/making-a-museum-from-scratch-part-six/

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

http://www.nmc.org/

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

The Museum of Old & New Art

http://www.mona.net.au/

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
http://www.santacruzmah.org/

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach
http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/04/09/engagement-and-outreach/

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/dealing-with-your-cognitive-load/

Medical Museion

http://www.museion.ku.dk/