Tag Archives: museumfromscratch

Natural’s Not In It

Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.

1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.

3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.

4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?

5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…

This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?

Exhibition/Inhibition

Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:

exhibition (n.) 
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

inhibition (n.) 
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.

Or as Gang of Four put it,

“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”

Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four

Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.

If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.

  • Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
  • Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
  • Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
  • Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
  • Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
  • Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition

So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?

Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?

The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.

The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..

This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.

A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.

A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.

Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.

There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.

 

For More:

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284

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/

Australia: Melbourne Museum talk

My lovely and talented wife and I just returned from two weeks vacation in Australia, hence the quiet around here. This was our first vacation without kids in a very long time, and I was determined to actually be there while I was there, so no laptop, no work corresponding, no blogging. And yet somehow, I managed to visit more museums and have more museum conservations than I would in three business trips! Partly, this is a result of meeting so many interesting Australian museum folks online and at U.S.-based conferences. As soon as I said we were coming to Australia, a number of them said, “Are you coming to Sydney? You should come over!” and “We’re having our first Drinking about Museums: Melbourne on the 30th. You should join us!” And after deciding to fly halfway around the world, it seemed silly not to try to see as many people as possible.

The next few posts will cover events in Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney, including three museums, two exhibition reviews, and two Drinking About Museums events!

Melbourne

Ely Wallis (@elyw) from Melbourne Museum had invited me to come over and talk about the Museum from Scratch series with staff from Museum Victoria, and about a dozen of us had a frank discussion about the issues around integrating digital technologies into current practice. The group was nicely diverse; educators, collections managers, social media managers, exhibitions types, content producers, and IT infrastructure folks; all with their own insights. For me, it was the first time I’d ever had this conversation in real time with a live audience, and it was a bit nerve-wracking.  I needn’t have worried, though. Everybody was gracious and good-humored (a theme of my stay in Australia) and the time flew by. I’m terrible at taking notes and talking at the same time, but here are some of the interesting bits I managed to capture.

A question of authority

One of best parts of getting out and talking to people is how quickly it reveals the blind spots in my thinking. Probably the best example of this happened right at the start of our talk when we got onto the subject of authority and strategies for dealing with institutional reluctance to loosen their grip on how content is created and shared. For me, working in a private non-profit science museum, “authority” has a range of connotations, most of which revolve around accuracy. In art museums, “authority” has a whole different set of connotations around connoisseurship. But I hadn’t really considered the particular difficulties of being an organ of the state, where “authority” has additional layers of meaning and the stakes of relinquishing some of that authority are correspondingly higher. The Museum Victoria folks are literally “the authorities”, and topics like biodiversity and immigration can quickly become enmeshed in national politics in a way they just wouldn’t if my museum tackled the same topics in the exact same way. This is a challenge that’s much more than a digital media issue, but it gets a lot of attention since these media are so disruptive to current practice, and particularly current control mechanisms.

One platform to rule them all?

Museum Victoria is an authority (ooh, that word again!) that manages several institutitons, including the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, and others. In addition to the particular concerns of each museum, Museum Victoria would like to standardize their back-end systems and try to bring all the disparate services they provide together onto a common platform that can then be exported in whatever format a given project requires. The benefits of having, say, one collection management system (CMS) instead of (at least) three are obvious from an IT perspective; lower operating costs, fewer resources needed, the possibility of tighter integration across the organization. On reflection though, I’m not sure that I feel that strongly in favor of standardization.

My reasons for supporting standardization usually had to do with the inability of systems to talk to each other and export data in formats usable to other systems. The work that people have been doing around Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums (LODLAM)  addresses a lot of those concerns, and in an interesting twist to the “authority is a problem” meme is led by a lots of state organizations. They operate under an imperative to make their information freely available, since it is in the public domain. Private sector institutions like mine tend to worry about their IP and its value and approach open data, and linked open data from that perspective. Of course there are exceptions, like IMA, which put their collection info on Github for anyone to mess about with. Eleanor Whitworth posted an interesting summary of some of the latest work going on in Melbourne that’s good reading if you’re a data geek.

Whose voice? 

Another perennial topic was institutional voice, particularly with social media. I am inherently skeptical of online personalities that purport to be the voice of an institution. Social media are meant to be personal. I know that Museum X isn’t posting, but rather some person at Museum X is posting. Even accounts that represent an institution can still indicate who’s doing the typing. And real engagement happens between people.  This is a central element of radical transparency and I think this kind of transparency is how museums will demonstrate their authority and relevance.

The expectation of interrelation

Jan Molloy (@Janpcim) touched on an important visitor expectation that we currently have a hard time with; addressing the expectation of interrelation. Visitors to museums can now reasonably expect to be accessing the Internet all the time they’re in the museum. They’re looking at Wikipedia in your museum whether or not you want them to. When they have a bad experience in the museum, it’s on your Facebook page and/or Twitter in no time. The content visitors seek in one realm, they expect to be able to find in others, or take with them.  So how to manage a seamless experience that encompasses pre and post visit online experiences with the onsite physical one?

If it’s important, advocate

It’s hard to advocate for something new when nobody understands the value of what you’re talking about. But how do you deal with people who don’t “get it”? I’m a big fan of taking some responsibility for providing professional development to your museum about digital media. It’s not an IT problem, it’s an institutional imperative. Find ways to explain what you know. Demonstrate how you use these media to connect with audience and peers. Organize an informal meeting to talk about these issues. Pick a topic of interest and invite colleagues to go out and discuss. The bar is pretty low. And the potential benefits are huge.

And lastly… Collection fishing

Kate Chmiel from Museum Victoria (@cakehelmit) turned me onto Collection Fishing on Twitter, which I can’t believe I’ve missed all this time. Scope out #collectionfishing. Nuff said.

Next up, a review of Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the Melbourne Museum.