Tag Archives: process

How To View Critics Telling You How to View Art in a Museum

The blind fingerless art critic by Flickr user Shareheads CC-BY 2.0

The blind fingerless art critic
by Flickr user Shareheads
CC-BY 2.0

I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a dive in and see if we can sift some jewels from the bile, shall we?

Kennicott’s piece benefits most from his long experience at looking at art in museums. When he talks about specific techniques and strategies he’s learned that work for him, he’s golden. All too often, though, he falls prey to the critic’s kryptonite; thinking that because he can come up with a plausible explanation based on purely on anecdotal experience and write it cleverly, it must be both true and universal. So, here are some reactions to his five tips on how to view art in a museum.

1. Take time

Untitled by Flickr user Byron Barrett CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Untitled
by Flickr user Byron Barrett
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves.”

Getting visitors to focus on the present is a goal I’m totally in support of, though I’d rephrase Kennicott’s phrasing. I’m prone to these kinds of negative formulations, and it’s been a lifetime’s work to embrace positive ones. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but I think it’s important. Rather than disengaging from a negative (busyness and distraction), I’d rather encourage engagement with the here and now as the goal. It’s a lot easier to be against something than to be for something, but being for something is in the end more worthwhile.

<snark>My inner cynic also thinks that being an art critic, Kennicott might be allergic to the word “engagement”, since it’s code for some for “everything I hate that our ‘stewards of culture’ do with audiences that doesn’t encourage silent, solitary, reverential contemplation.”</ snark>

“We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cellphones and watches among them, but cameras too, because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time.”

Here he’s conflating two very different problems; devices demanding attention, and cameras being crutches for remembering, and therefore bad. The device bit I agree with. By all means turn off your phone, or put it on vibrate. Unless you don’t want to. <snark>Or if you’re using it to look at Wikipedia to find information the museum doesn’t tell you, which Kennicott will encourage you to do in the next section. </snark> The camera/crutch formulation deserves a bit more examination. The “ technology is eroding our ability to use our minds” is an old trope. And I mean old, like 4th century BCE old. At least. According to Plato, Socrates warned against the written word as a shallow substitute for discourse:

“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato, Phaedrus 276a

Sound familiar? You can draw a line from Kennicott back to Socrates and find versions of this concern expressed for any number of technologies that were certain to ruin humanity’s ability to function.

Photographing the Rosetta Stone by Flickr user Snapshooter46 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photographing the Rosetta Stone
by Flickr user Snapshooter46
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

He goes on to say,

“The raging debate today about whether to allow the taking of pictures inside the museum usually hinges on whether the act of photographing is intrusive or disruptive to other visitors; more important, the act is fundamentally disruptive to the photographer’s experience of art, which is always fleeting.”

So, anything that isn’t looking at the art is “fundamentally disruptive”, according to Kennicott. Is it? Readers might recall an article published in Psychological Science earlier this year called “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” which was used by many to support the idea that photography was bad for the photographer’s recall. Linda Henkel’s experiment generated a lot of breathless press and finger wagging when it was announced that participants who were instructed to photograph an object and then asked to recall it the next day fared worse than visitors who were instructed to look at the object and recall it.

Buried in there were two important notes that went largely unreported. One was that visitors who photographed specific details of an object had better recall than visitors who just looked. The other was Henkel’s admission that the way the experiment was constructed had an important difference from the way people actually take photographs in museums. Henkel’s subjects were told which object to photograph, not to pick an object they liked. In other words, they were extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, which is a fundamental aspect of free choice learning. I’m pretty confident there aren’t many visitors running around taking pictures of things they don’t like in museums. This difference in motivation is fundamental.

Another, “your mileage may vary” sort of issue is that of mission. If a museum’s mission is exclusively to showcase the artistic production of others, then anything that gets in the way of that appreciation could legitimately be considered an impediment. But more and more museums have taken of the additional challenge of encouraging visitors to express (and hopefully increase) their own creativity. In this kind of museum, visitor photography can be an expression of that creative impulse to be encouraged and nurtured. There’s an interesting discussion for museum directors and boards to have. Are you trying to help your visitors become more informed connoisseurs, or give them more experience of the creative process? Is it one or the other? Are the two modalities in a dialectical relationship, or can you encourage both?

Kennicott buries one zinger I particularly resonated with at the very end of this section; the negative impact of admission fees. He calls them “pernicious” because “They make visitors mentally ‘meter’ the experience, straining to get the most out of it, and thus re-inscribe it in the workaday world where time is money, and money is everything.” At moments like this, I appreciate his command of the language. And I agree completely. I’m sure most of us have seen the hurrying tourists, desperately trying to see all the highlights listed in the guide, so that they can get their “money’s worth” out of their trip. Not something we as museum professionals want to encourage, is it?

So, by all means take time, and use that time to be present in the moment, in that space. This is actually good advice for life in general, not museum going, but that’s another subject altogether.

2. Seek silence

Contemporary viewer! by Flickr user Jrm Llvr CC-BY 2.0

Contemporary viewer!
by Flickr user Jrm Llvr
CC-BY 2.0

 

“Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people.”

One reason I have difficulty with a lot of criticism is that I wind up feeling like I know more about the critic than I ever wanted to, because so much criticism wraps personal quirks in the garb of universal truths. Noise can be annoying, sometimes. As a neuroscientist pointed out to me yesterday, the way we experience visual inputs and auditory inputs is very different. If you see something you don’t want to see, you can avert your gaze, or close your eyes. Humans have no similar way to filter out auditory inputs. Even blocking your ears is only minimally effective (and makes you look kinda silly), so a valid criticism of museums could be how poorly they design the experience for sound control. This is all, of course, assuming we’re talking only about visual arts.

Big, echoey spaces with hard walls and floors look sweet, but they make even small levels of noise problematic. We’re on the verge of opening a major video installation PEM commissioned. The amount of work we’ve done modifying acoustically “bright” galleries work for an installation that requires you to be able to hear spoken words is pretty major.

 “Too many museums have become exceptionally noisy, and in some cases that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience.”

Where to begin with this one? I’m pretty confident that there are very few museum architects and experience designers who intentionally create noisy spaces. I would not be surprised if the number were in fact zero. An outcome of their decisions might be noisy spaces, but that’s different than intentionally doing it. This is another favorite tactic of critics, inferring intent where none exists. <snark> Maybe that’s another one of the deceptions (see #3 below) practiced on the public by museums. </snark> It’s sloppy thinking and writing.

I’ll also hazard a guess that the number of museum professionals who go into a space and say “It’s noisy, people must be engaged” is also quite small. Kennicott, like most critics, avoids mention of the real problem Nina Simon mentioned in this post on crowding. He laments the “vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs” that go to big museums to see famous art, but leaves it there.

art critics by Flickr user mesh CC-BY 2.0

art critics
by Flickr user mesh
CC-BY 2.0

“But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.”

Umm… Yeah, OK. So art must be unpopular to some extent in order to retain its “aura”?

Nobody better tell the Louvre.

3. Study up

art critic by Flickr user NCinDC CC-BY-ND 2.0

art critic
by Flickr user NCinDC
CC-BY-ND 2.0

 

“One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy art.”

A theme throughout this piece, and a lot of criticism posits an alternate reality where museums willfully and systemically deceive and injure the visiting public by “pandering” “surrendering” and “succumbing” to malignant forces in the larger culture. The reasons vary, though incompetence, and venality often appear as root causes. In their unbridled lust to get bodies through the doors, museums say and do anything to be popular. Like awkward teenagers, desperate to fit in and be liked, despite their unfashionableness, they make deceptive promises that ultimately do a profound disservice to the visiting public and to the art that museums allegedly steward for future generations. Note the plural. What we’re discussing here is but one of many deceptive promises. I have to wonder if Kennicott has ever shared any of his theories with a real live museum staff person.

“Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.”

I agree with this statement, but in a way that I think undermines Kennicott’s central assertion. I have previously written at length about a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Read them here, here, and here, if you want more information. It’s a great place to visit if you’re at the bottom of the world. One of the conceit’s of the museum is that there are no printed labels. None. Zero. All the interpretation is carried in an iPod you are given when you enter. In the midst of a profoundly transformative visit where I was forced to look at the art, not the interpretation, I came across a smallish painting that looked like a poorly copied Picasso. I registered my dislike of the object and, on a whim, looked up it’s information only to find that it was in fact a Picasso. I had the realization that had there been a tiny tombstone label identifying the work as such, I would have unable to dislike that object as much because of the associations I already carry around about the canon of Western art. Just seeing

Picasso, Pablo
Spanish
1881-1973

would’ve colored my emotional response to the work in front of me, and Picasso’s stature in the canon would’ve influenced my feelings about that painting.

There is a place for showing, and a place for telling, and there can be an order in which they happen that allows visitors to have both the direct experience and the received wisdom, without either oppressing the other.

The pendulum, for decades lodged at one extreme, has swung towards the opposite pole, and I can understand Kennicott’s displeasure, but it’s the displeasure of the entitled, seeing others’ needs and comfort placed ahead of his own for a change.

“art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity.”

<snark> My sons will doubtless agree with this. Their appreciation of Pokemon never waned. No matter how many times they saw Jessie and James get flung into the sky, it was magic each time. Ditto for Thomas the Tank Engine. </snark>

“Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience.”

Sounds reasonable to me. I think Wikipedia offers a great challenge to museums. A visitor can access content about just about anything on a mobile device these days. The fact that so many do access content like Wikipedia in museums should tell experience designers something. Their content is either lacking, or not the information visitors are looking for. So, what to do? I can think of a number of strategies for addressing the problem, all of which would result in experiences that do not feature objects with tiny tombstone labels near (but not too near) them.

“If the guide spends all his or her time asking questions rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time. These faux-Socratic dialogues are premised on the fallacy that all opinions about art are equally valid and that learning from authority is somehow oppressive.”

I get the feeling Kennicott’s not a fan of Visual Thinking Strategies, and that’s OK. Declaring them “faux-Socratic” and fallacies, is not. Unless he has evidence and research to back up the claim, it’s just another example of the “I came. I saw. I invented a narrative that suits my worldview.”

4. Engage memory

Art Strikes Back by Flickr user Sam Burns CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Art Strikes Back
by Flickr user Sam Burns
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe.”

Part of me would love to know what those easy to summarize and describe topics are. Most of my experience with experts in any field is that the more they know, the harder it is for them to summarize and describe what they do.

 

“Some museum educators, who know these things, will tell you this kind of detail doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the name of and at least one work by an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum.”

Back to the conspiracy theory and the museums actively disseminating falsehoods. Sigh… Actually, if the educators believe what they’re saying, they’re not lying. They’re expressing an opinion that conflicts with Kennicott’s. But in his mind, that is obviously the same thing.

5. Accept contradiction

We are all "YES/NO" (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK) by Flickr user Tjook CC-BY-ND 2.0

We are all “YES/NO” (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK)
by Flickr user Tjook
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“Art must have some utopian ambition, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery; art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct. “Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art; but others argue, just as validly, that art is part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.”

Except he’s already made clear that agreeing with Sontag is both wrong and bad. Kennicott’s willing to give lip service to accepting the kind of contradiction, but nothing substantive.

And to tie it all in a nice neat bow, he ends with:

“Some practical advice: If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”

All those years of museum going on my part were wasted, apparently. Oh well…

Next up: A look at some of the responses to the Kennicott piece.

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/]

Digital interactivity, new media literacy, and museum staff

The Future is coming, photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney

I’ve been thinking about digital interactives lately.  The Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition is full of technologies poised to alter our practice. The New Media Consortium Future of Education retreat is coming up in a week or so. At our next Boston Museum Tech meetup we’re going to drink and talk about the point of digital experiences.  The Program Committee for the Museum Computer Network 2012 conference is beginning its work. And Suse Cairns has been writing some thought-provoking posts over at her blog about the physical and virtual.  All good fodder for thinking ways of interacting with visitors using digital technologies.

But what I’ve most been struck by is a comment Seb Chan made in response to Suse’s question about whether museums should treat the physical space as the most important one. It’s buried down in the replies, so read the whole thing. He writes,

“The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to”

This rang in my head like a gong. These technologies are nothing without people able to create and deploy them, and institutions organized in ways that allow them to be utilized effectively. These issues aren’t technology issues per se, they’re institutional culture issues, and require a different kind of solution than the kinds I’d been thinking of. My default thinking usually runs something along the lines of, “What do I need so I can do the kind of work I want to do?” A bit selfish, and short-sighted, but I’m working on it. ;-)

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

So how can we hope to incorporate these tools in meaningful ways in our work? I think this might be one of the pillars that 2012 rests on for me. Coming up with a response to this will require real change of the painful, exhilarating sort. What do you do to bring in new ideas and workflows?

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part three of four

Separating inspiration from information

from Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This is the third of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. This post will cover separating inspiration from information, and final one will discuss the importance of making time to learn. My apologies for taking awhile to get through this. It’s been a pretty fascinating trip, though.

When I posted about cognitive load and asked for your processes and practices, I was pretty vague in how I framed my question. “Information” is a pretty opaque term. And sure enough, the responses all went over slightly different territory.  Kate Haley Goldman applied her analytical eye to my question, and replied, “If I understand you correctly Ed, you’re interested in the processes and tools that we use to manage information.  I see that as different than the tools and processes for managing research, connections, inspiration, or products of creation.  Or workflow.”  Though I was tickled at how thoroughly she’d unpacked the question, the “managing inspiration” part made me sit up and read faster.

 “Over the last few months I’ve been thinking quite a bit about separating managing information and managing inspiration.  I find Twitter to be useful in all sorts of ways, but I’ve noticed that only occasionally do I find something that makes me think for more than 5 minutes.  Or something that truly inspires me there.  The content ebbs and flows like a YouTube video of the week, and I find that the buzz of the Twittersphere fascinating and distracting, but rarely provides concepts or insights that stick with me.  So I’ve returned to reviewing a much smaller set of sites regularly with my morning coffee (and the Firefox plug-in).”

There is some big truth in what Kate says. I find Twitter to be a great sort of links to useful information, news about what’s going on, and other things. But the information is usually something of short-term importance and relevance. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever gotten a tweet that has lead to me to something truly inspirational. (I’ll have to go back through my Favorites list and double check!) One of my motivations for this whole series was to heed Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify.” and be more directed and less distracted. My answer to this has been to go back and gather loads of resources into an RSS reader and try to be brutal about not even clicking links unless they seem pertinent. My less-directed web surfing has decreased and so far, it feels like a good thing.  I’m working on being more like Jasper Visser, and replacing the nagging sensation that I’m missing something with the certainty that I am missing something, and it probably doesn’t matter that much.

The part of Kate’s response that really spoke to me, though, was this,

“The inspiration pieces I manage differently, and it changes depending on the type of inspiration.  Truly inspirational researchy things I sometimes try and re-sketch in notebooks, sometimes whiteboarding, generally after talking to someone about it. … For other pieces of inspiration, primarily visual, I’ve been doing some pin boards, which seems more effective for me than bookmarks.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with photo and audio more, but nothing very advanced.”

There’s a whole new post here, and I may have to dragoon Kate into having a long conversation about her experiments. One reason this resonates with me is that all of her methods for managing inspiration are kinds of sketching, which I wrote about awhile ago.  Taking some idea, internalizing it, and re-expressing it in your own way is crucial to the creative process.   So the obvious question this raises for me, members of the great hive mind, is, “What tools do you find most useful for mentally wrestling with content?”

This idea of managing inspiration is intricately engaged with the fourth and final post, which is about taking time to learn.  None of the strategies discussed in any of these last three posts have any value if you never have time to use them.  In this current austere climate, time spent on professional development, or on anything not directly serving a current funded project, is hard to come by.  I’ll wrap up with a post on making and taking time to learn on the job, and recap what I’ve learned and some of the changes I’ve made to my routine based on your wisdom.

A letter from Gibraltar

a selection of curiosities from "Museum of Science: Then and Now"

We’ll be releasing a mobile app in the Fall to accompany a new permanent exhibition on the history of the Museum. As part of the research for that, I spent a day in the Boston Athenaeum looking through their manuscripts collections for information on the Linnaean Society of New England, a predecessor of the Museum of Science that operated from 1814-1823.  One of my favorite parts of research is when you find an object or document that so neatly encompasses an era or an idea that it practically sings.  I found two at the Athenaeum, and I wanted to share one. It starts thus,

U.S.S Washington, Gibraltar Bay, Feb 18, 1817.
Mr. Shaw,
Dear Sir,
I beg leave to recommend to your care the enclosed letter & accompanying box. The box is principally filled with specimens in nat. hist. For the Linn. Soc. but as it contains some private packages, I wish it to be opened by one of the persons to whom it is directed.

This is the third time I have troubled you in this way; but I have done so, presuming on your well-known disposition to aid all endeavors, however small, to advance the cause of science in our country.  What I am able to contribute to this end is certainly very inconsiderable, but “Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus Constare magna non possunt.” ["Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which great things cannot come into being." - St. Jerome]

I am, Sir, respectfully, yr. obedt. servt.
Ch: Folsom.

Folsom sent a series of letters to William Shaw, the vice-president of the Linnaean Society.  The letter accompanied a large box of specimens that included Roman coins, volcanic rock from Vesuvius, marine creatures, an ostrich skeleton, a chameleon he hatched from an egg, and several pages. His explanation of his collecting is classic,

“In the large box you will find a farrago of specimens in natural history, which I have collected as I could, not without expence of patience, & occasionally of money. I fear some of them may seem hardly worth notice; but they interested me at the time of collecting them, & are connected in my mind with interesting places & circumstances.”

His letters are marvelous, written in a large bold hand, and full of the kind of details about his objects that so often get lost by the time they get into collections databases.  You can almost see him in the wardroom of the Washington, looking at his instructions on how to preserve birds, trying to eviscerate an adult ostrich in his spare time.  His crew mates must have loved him!

The objects themselves are long-gone, along with the rest of the Society’s collections, so his descriptions are all that is left. Folsom goes to great pains to explain his lack of skill. Specimens are poorly preserved, or all that was left after he tried to preserve them. But his snake wasn’t just a snake. It was one he caught climbing up the rudder in Chesapeake Bay. The ostrich was a gift to the Commodore from the Bey of Tunis, which lived aboard ship til it sickened and died, apparently from eating too much rope, “which it consumed avidly.” When he autopsied it, Folsom found its stomach completely full of scraps of rope and other tidbits. Every object possesses some personal meaning for Folsom as well as value to a new museum as specimens. At an old institution, where so many of the object have outlived all the people who were associated with their collection, it’s easy to forget that they all once possessed these narratives.

I was looking for an example of the collecting strategies employed by my distant predecessors, and came up with Lieut. Folsom, much to my delight.  But who was this intrepid benefactor, and aspiring naturalist? Some sleuthing was required.

USS Washington, from an old book

In early 1817, the USS Washington, a 74 gun ship of the line built in Portsmouth, NH, was cruising the Mediterranean as the flagship of Commodore Chauncey’s squadron. Information on Folsom was hard to come by, but luckily he had a crew mate who made quite a name for himself later. The most famous member of the Washington’s crew was a teenager from Tennessee named David Farragut, who was already a seasoned veteran at age 16, and would become Admiral of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War, where he uttered his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Midshipman Farragut’s  instructor (who would become his lifelong friend) was the ship’s Unitarian chaplain, Lieut. Charles Folsom.  Folsom served briefly aboard Washington before being named U.S. Consul at Tunis.  Upon leaving the ship, he secured an extended leave for his young friend to stay with him in Tunis and continue his study of mathematics, as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Turkish.

It’s tempting to imagine the chaplain and his midshipman collecting rocks on the beaches of the Bay of Naples, or catching lizards in the ruins of Carthage, but that’s a bit of a leap to make. More of Folsom’s papers are at the Mass. Historical Society, so someday I might have to dig a little more and see what other gems I might uncover. For now, I’ll hope the we can afford the license and duplication fees, so Lieut. Folsom’s letter can enjoyed by more people.

I do love this work.