Tag Archives: process

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

The other side of “the tech skills divide”

Making a museum from scratch: Part Eight

So my last post on digital skills struck a nerve with a few people. The biggest takeaway for me was one of Matt Popke’s insightful comments. He pointed out that there are in fact two simultaneous skills divides and that while we in the profession tend to talk a lot about getting the museum field in general more digitally literate, we never talk about how to let people in digital media postions (most of whom come into museums via their trade, be it software development, web design, hardware, project management, or what have you) get up to speed on museum skills.  It was one of the those moments when you suddenly see the elephant in the room and realize its been there awhile.

What makes the divide so much more unfortunate, as Matt points out, is that techies are, by and large, inclined to be self-starters and active learners. The Web is full of tutorials, podcasts, and courseware that they use to keep their skills up to date, and learn new ones. Why is it that there is so little out there about museum work that isn’t part of a Masters’ program course of study that people who are already working full-time just won’t be likely to do? (And, yes, I do know that there are certificate programs out there. I think my point still stands, though.)

Moving from closed to open practice

At least part of the reason is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning. We don’t know everything, and we should all be open to learning new skills and modes of doing our jobs. So adding digital skills to our existing museum work seems like an incremental improvement. However looking at it from the other direction is very different. “Museum work” is a disparate stew of professions and jobs. The list of things we do that someone coming in from the outside might want to know about – curation, education, conservation, exhibition, administration, marketing, development – is long indeed. Where would one even begin? Is it too much of a hydra to even try to tackle?

I don’t think so. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the importance of being open about one’s own practice. Being able to share not only what you do, but your process, is an invaluable tool for a reflective practitioner. For me, that’s one of the main personal benefits of blogging. The mere act of writing down what I do concretizes it in a way that no amount of thinking does. Documenting your work, sharing it and reflecting on it, are essential ingredients to improving. It is something we should all be doing more of, and the more we do it, the more we increase the resources available to the Matts of the museum world. And if it sounds like too much work, consider this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has run a program for many years called Making Learning Visible http://www.pz.harvard.edu/mlv/.html which seeks to understand how to create and sustain cultures of learning in public schools through documentation and group learning. And if you think you’re too busy, go shadow a classroom teacher around for a day. If they can do it, we certainly can.

So, here’s my question for you:
If you’re a digital media person, and you’ve been in museums awhile, what are the things you’ve learned the hard way that you wish somebody had told you?

If you’re a digital media person, and you’re new to museums, what are the things that you wish you had a better grip on? Imagine you’re looking at MCN’s shiny new professional development program, MCNPro, and you saw a webinar listed that covered _______. What is that blank that would make you say, “I want to take that!”?

And, last but not least, if you’re a non-digital media person, what are the things you wish the digital media folks at your museum “got” that they never seem to?

I look forward to your replies!

Additional Resources:

The chorus of voices suggesting museums think about education as something more than what the Education department does is growing daily.  Here’s just a few from the recent past:

Nina Simon has a great post on Khan Academy and free choice learning that has some really insightful commentary from Beth Harris and Steve Zucker of Khan Academy (and formerly of MoMA)
http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/10/khan-academy-and-online-free-choice.html 

Gretchen Jennings posted a wonderfully incendiary question on Museum Commons about whether museums identify too much with formal education at the expense of exploring other skills and disciplines to do their work. Though aimed directly at museum educators, I’d say it is food for thought for all of us. Check out the comments in particular.
http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

Erin Branham at Edgital, a new blog positioning itself “at the edge of museum education and digital media”, has some easy ways for educators to get into the action.
 http://www.edgital.org/2012/10/06/first-steps-to-embracing-digital-literacy-for-museum-educators/ 

Kajsa Hartig in Sweden is actually working with two universities to examine digital literacy in the heritage sector and what kinds of skills the rising generation of heritage professionals should have as they enter the workforce.
http://kajsahartig.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/digital-skills-in-the-heritage-sector/

In the same vein, there’s a wonderfully heartening post by on Art Museum Teaching about “Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice” It’s aimed at museum education managers, but I think anybody interested in reflective practice should give it a read.
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2012/10/06/challenging-ourselves-strategies-to-reflect-on-our-practice/

Last, but not least, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker posted “Museums and open education” at e-Literate, which is a nice blueprint for thinking about museum education in a different light, and  in general being a more open, experimental, and reflective practitioner.
http://mfeldstein.com/museums-and-open-education/

UPDATE: I forgot Oonagh Murphy’s PDF “Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective” which is a veritable Who’s Who of New Yorkers Doing Cool Things in Museums. Worth the download!
http://www.wcmt.org.uk/reports/1065_1.pdf

How leaders lead

I’m finally going to get off this current kick about leadership and vision… right after this post.  The past month has been so fruitful that I’ve generated piles of references that all bear on our work and I want to get some of the most germane out to you so I can move on.  Some of the most interesting reading I’ve done in the past couple weeks has all revolved around the qualities of good (and bad) leadership.

It’s not about you
Janet Carding from the ROM (@janetcarding) posted this tasty little tidbit from Scott Eblin (@Scotteblin) about one of my favorite attributes of a good leader; the ability to let go. Going from being the brutally competent doer of deeds to being the leader of a tribe of doers is a tricky adjustment that I’ve seen talented people mess up. Eblin, an executive coach, says,

 “To grow as a leader, you have to let go of being the go-to person and pick up the profile of being the person who builds a team of go-to people.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas.

  •  Allow and encourage your team to become an expert in the things in which you’ve been an expert.
  •  Raise your comfort level for letting go of what you’ve been doing and your team’s for picking up responsibilities by establishing regular check points.
  •  Coach your team to come up with its own way of doing things rather than giving your team the answers.”

This relates back to my earlier posts on leadership, because this ability to let go I think has everything to do with having a vision that’s bigger than yourself. When a leader has vision, it’s too big for any one person to implement, so letting go becomes a necessity if the vision is to be advanced.  This is how vision propagates. It’s big enough that there is room for lots of people to explore it’s corners, find out new things about it, and feed those findings back into the work of the whole tribe. And when I think about the people I consider to be exemplary leaders, one trait they all share is their pride in discussing what their staff are up to, rather than what they’re up to.

All three of these tips apply to pretty much anyone doing experience development work, regardless of your position in the organizational chart. “Relax, let go, and be a fluid communicator.” Is pretty sound advice for anyone doing exhibition development, as I wrote about before. As someone responsible for content development, I am acutely aware of the delicate balance necessary to encourage other team members to explore the content themselves, rather than having me be the only conduit. It’s easy to fall into being too controlling or too lax, but the results are so much better when you can bring the rest of the team along with you.

Talk, talk, talk
The Guardian recently ran a profile of Performances Birmingham, the charity that runs Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, and some of their practices that they’ve developed to keep a large staff feeling informed and empowered to do the work of the institution. They are:

  • Tell everybody the same thing
  • Give your team a voice
  • Never say nothing
  • Encourage creativity
  • Have fun on the job

The whole article is worth a read, so look at the specific examples they cite.  How well does your organization do in these five areas? Aside from “Have fun on the job” , all of these qualities would organically arise in a setting where a leader with vision, like the one described above, is working.  One can only let go by being an efficient and frequent communicator and a responsive listener. A shared vision encourages everybody in the room to be creative.  And the result of that, I’d argue, is workplace that is fun, without the need for mandated, official fun.

Managing well, rather than just managing
Eric Jackson had a very popular post on Fortbes recently that looked why people leave big companies. As an employee of a large institution (and someone who’s watched “Office Space”) I can resonate with most of these.

  1. Big Company Bureaucracy.
  2. Failing to Find a Project for the Talent that Ignites Their Passion.
  3. Poor Annual Performance Reviews.
  4. No Discussion around Career Development. (I’ve written about this before… 
  5. Shifting Whims/Strategic Priorities.
  6. Lack of Accountability and/or telling them how to do their Jobs.
  7. Top Talent likes other Top Talent.
  8. The Missing Vision Thing.
  9. Lack of Open-Mindedness.
  10. Who’s the Boss?

 The explanations of the reasons are well worth looking at, though they might be somewhat dispiriting if you’re working somewhere where these things are happening. You’ve been warned. The reason I include them in an otherwise upbeat post is because Erika Anderson followed up on this list with a further summation that boils that list down to one reason; “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”  Her recipe for how to address these failings is interesting. Her two ways to keep talent are;

 “1) Create an organization where those who manage others are hired for their ability to manage well, supported to get even better at managing, and held accountable and rewarded for doing so.

2) Then be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization – not only in terms of financial goals, but in a more three-dimensional way. What’s your purpose; what do you aspire to bring to the world? What kind of a culture do you want to create in order to do that?  What will the organization look, feel and sound like if you’re embodying that mission and culture?  How will you measure success?  And then, once you’ve clarified your hoped-for future, consistently focus on keeping that vision top of mind and working together to achieve it.”

It’s really that simple. Not easy, but simple. Managing well takes work on the part of the institution, and it takes someone to articulate a vision.

The bigger picture
So how does this tie back into all the fascinating discussions taking place around digital technologies, technologists, and new media literacy and professional development? I think Rob Stein’s presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar and his follow up, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?” are good refreshers on the bigger issues that these current debates reside within.

What is the value proposition of your institution? Can you answer why your community/ies are better off because of you? There are many ways new media and new technologies can help deliver value, but they all require you to A) have a clear idea of that value, and B) be structured in such a way that you can deliver.

Related Links:

Scott Eblin, “Want to grow as a leader? Let go of being the ‘go-to person”
http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2012/01/27/want-to-grow-as-a-leader-let-go-of-being-the-go-to-person/

Nick Loveland, The Guardian, “Arts organisations need to engage their own staff as well as their audiences”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/mar/20/arts-staff-engagement-internal-comms?CMP=twt_gu

Eric Jackson, Forbes, “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2011/12/14/top-ten-reasons-why-large-companies-fail-to-keep-their-best-talent/

Erika Anderson, Forbes, “Why Top Talent Leaves: Top 10 Reasons Boiled Down to 1”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/01/18/why-top-talent-leaves-top-10-reasons-boiled-down-to-1/

Rob Stein, “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries” parts I and II,
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/11/please-chime-in-the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture/
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/21/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture-for-museums-and-libraries-part-ii/

Rob Stein, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?”
[http://rjstein.com/is-your-community-better-off-because-it-has-a-museum-final-thoughts-about-participatory-culture-part-iii/]