Tag Archives: process

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.

Look outside your field! What’s going on in the world around you?

One thing I’m always on the lookout for are people outside of the museum field who are doing what I think is interesting work, defined broadly. There are lots of people who think and study and write about how people learn in free choice environments – work that can be easily transferred to museum work if you squint a little.
Over the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of interest in learning in social networks, game design, user experience design. etc… Where do you find your inspirations outside of the field? Here’s a random sampling from my Google Reader and Twitter lists of non-museum types I find interesting.

  • Cory Doctorow @doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. If you want a reply, use email. Blog suggestions here: http://boingboing.net/submit/

  • Karl Long @karllong

Nokia games group, now working on social/mobile games.

  • Ken Eklund @writerguygames

Game designr, writr, evangelst, instigatr. World Without Oil, anyone? Yeah, him…

  • Shaun Usher @LettersOfNote

Shaun runs the Letters of Note website, which is my absolute favorite collection of primary source documents on the web.

  • Dirk vom Lehn @dirkvl

Sociologist, Lecturer in Marketing and dad. Tweets on technology, marketing, politics, the arts, museums and life.

  • danah boyd @zephoria

social media scholar, youth researcher & advocate | Microsoft Research, Harvard Berkman Center |

  • Jane McGonigal @avantgame

I make games, I play games. My book is Reality is Broken: Why Game Make Us Better and How They Change the World http://amzn.to/hjrYlA

Slover Linett is an audience research firm. Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which cultural and educational organizations meet their publics.

A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. Nuff said.

Who are your favorite outsiders and hat do they do for your thinking?

2011’s provocative questions

A new year seems to be an auspicious time for asking big questions and reflecting and recommitting to what we do as museum professionals. And judging from what’s coming in through my feeds, I’m not alone in that.

One of the last things I read in 2010 was a blog post by Jasper Visser, seductively titled, “What is a museum (as well)?” He provides a long list of things visitors use museums for that all fall completely outside our plans for what they should be doing.  Examples include

  • A place to go on a first date.
  • Cool inside when it’s hot outside.
  • Somewhere to dump your kids.
  • A place to challenge your opinions and ideas.
  • Somewhere to dump your husband/boyfriend when you go shopping.

And so on. A great list, all things I can immediately visualize either doing myself, or watching others do.  This question, “What do our visitors think a museum is for?” stuck with me over the holidays, and today, staring at a clean desk (for now at least) and a new year, it seemed fitting to be rolling a big existential question around.

Plowing through the accumulated posts and tweets I came across Nick Poole’s synopsis of a difficult conversation he had over the holidays with a group of well-educated adults from different walks of life who didn’t see much point to museums any more.  The part that made me feel a bit sick comes near the end,

And then one of our company turned to me, in all earnest, and said ‘your industry is like typesetters, or vinyl manufacturers. Its time has come and gone. The real question is how long it’s going to take you all to realise what has happened.’ But that wasn’t the killer blow. The killer blow was watching people around the room nodding in assent. Yes, they seemed to think, museums could have been great, but they just didn’t keep pace with the times.”

The whole post will probably give some of you a stomach ache, because it reads like a museum professional’s nightmare. You’re at a nice party, and suddenly the whole room turns on you and eviscerates your profession as pointless and irrelevant. That said, the larger question of “What good are museums in the modern world?” can be a challenge to lift our gaze from doing what we’ve always done and be more mindful of who we’re supposedly serving and how we do it.

Just to complete a trinity of calls to wake up and look around, my eyes bugged a little when I read Charlie Carlson’s question to the ASTC-ISEN-L listserv the other day about evaluation. As someone deep in the throes of a couple of U.S. government grant proposals, both of which require substantial evaluation components, it was startling to say the least. It read, in part;

“For some years I’ve wondered about the efficacy of exhibit evaluation, wondered whether or not it is useful, or more directly a bureaucratic hurdle that provides useless and specious validation that satisfies an inner need and social, political need to feel affective.  A CYA exercise by politicians, bureaucrats, and museum professionals.  To put it bluntly: Are museums and taxpayers spending a significant amount of money on something of questionable value?”

Wow! Now there’s a provocative question! If you don’t read this listserv, you owe it to yourself to check out the whole thread as it continues to unfold.

What questions are you wrestling with for the coming year?


UPDATE:  The original questions have generated some interesting commentary. I am particularly struck by Koven Smith’s response to Nick that behind the relevancy issues is,

…that, for the first time, museums have competitors. The choice is no longer between museums and nothing, but rather between museums and something similar that’s more convenient. And in a market with competitors (particularly competitors without the years of baggage that museums have), simply proving value alone isn’t enough. We have to also differentiate ourselves from the competition (even if that competition is mostly benign).

The idea of having to make the value proposition and the differentiation clear is, I think, crucial.  We have a unique set of experiences to offer that we could do a better job of making clear. Pretending that we don’t need to differentiate is basically akin to putting our heads in the sand, or covering our ears and going, “La, la, la!”

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

One of the reasons  I started this blog was so I could use it as a way to synthesize and refine my thinking about my chosen profession. A lot of it has been metacognitive, thinking about how I think. Maybe it’s because the Museum of Science spent decades developing exhibitions on teaching thinking skills. Maybe it’s my natural inclination, I don’t know. What I do know is that thinking like an exhibit developer requires certain skills and habits of mind. Just in time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, here’s the first of several posts on thinking like an exhibit developer. What do you think are the most important habits of mind an exhibit developer needs?

NOTE: I will intentionally use the words “develop” and “design” throughout to refer to the same thing, not because I think my skills qualify me to apply for exhibit designer jobs, but because making exhibits is design. Small “d” design.

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

Thinking like an exhibit developer is all about being prepared for the unknown and being able to make good judgments.  Thinking like an exhibit developer requires not only the ability to live with uncertainty, but to befriend it.

An exhibit developer’s job is to create something complete and whole; an experience. A good exhibit developer needs to able to envision how to put the pieces together, to see the limited subset of pieces at hand as a complete and coherent whole.  Their initial vision is necessarily based on incomplete knowledge about smaller parts, but being able to use those to sketch in the missing bits is an essential part of exhibit development and design intelligence in general. Where someone else sees an empty gallery, a good developer sees a completed exhibition vaguely, and then more and more clearly until they have finished and made it.

Every design project is unique and requires the developers to be responsive to the work, attentive to the situation, and self-reflective as they figure out the process their particular project needs. Good exhibition design is not about finding the “right” way to do something, or coming up with the rules, or framework, or checklist that will apply to any situation and solve all potential problems. Being a good developer means being able to live with not knowing exactly what the final product is going to look like and being at peace with that truth.  Developers who make exactly what they set out to make aren’t paying attention.  They may still make something useful and beautiful, but I would argue they will never make something truly great, because that requires taking advantage of sudden opportunities, capitalizing on unexpected outcomes, and most importantly, being willing to fail quickly and fruitfully.

Making something new is hard work, and looking out into the void is often terrifying. It’s rarely dull. Making the same thing somebody else has made is easy, that’s why it happens so often. Especially in the science center field, “proven” ideas tend to proliferate like weeds. Making something new involves chance; it forces the developer to explore the unknown and create some new reality that even he or she can’t see clearly at first. Every time they begin a project, a developer will confront situations where they will have opportunities to see things they thought they knew in a new way, to learn new ways to do their work, and to resolve thorny dilemmas mindfully and straightforwardly. In other words, they will have opportunities to be creative while creating.

Exhibit development is neither a linear process nor strictly an iterative process. It is a dialectical process where the “big idea”, the current plan of work, and the specific tasks being done all influence each other continuously in a crazy feedback network.  Each new interesting fact requires the reflective developer to reassess the plan and the vision and decide whether to incorporate that fact and let it alter the vision, or keep the vision and lose the fact, or choose some other outcome. It’s a central tenet of prototyping at the Museum that, “Anything you fix usually breaks something else.” A good developer fixes and breaks and fixes and breaks. Working this way requires courage. It takes courage to avoid the simple solutions that others will take to save time or money or effort. It takes courage to challenge the prevailing understanding of the present situation and see it for oneself. It takes courage to oppose simplistic interpretations of how to solve that problem.


I mentioned dilemmas above, and they need a little definition. A good exhibit developer must remember that a dilemma is not a problem in the logical sense of the word. 2x + 4= y is a problem. There are solutions, values of x and y that will solve the problem and there are values that won’t. The former are “right” and the latter are “wrong.”  Dilemmas don’t have any answer that solves every single need or want. With dilemmas, every possible outcome leads to something getting sacrificed. The developer’s job is choosing what gets sacrificed. That is the dilemma. Dilemmas are a central aspect of any design process and the place where most personal conflicts arise, because resolving dilemmas requires giving something up, and that’s hard to do, particularly when what someone is giving up is their idea or their vision of a potential future. In my experience, the hardest part of exhibit development is not deciding what the exhibition is about. The hardest part is deciding what it’s not about.

Reading back over this, I’m aware that readers may be thinking I’m a masochist from my descriptors thus far; responsibility, uncertainty, dilemma, terrifying, conflict, courage, sacrifice. Designing something new is hard and it inevitably involves pain. There are things a good developer can do to lessen the overall amount, but nobody can eliminate it entirely. Nor should one try to. Avoiding conflict may be a useful coping skill in other aspects of life, but it is the death of creativity. Judy Rand once said to me at the outset of a major exhibition project, “You can have your pain now, or you can have it later. You can’t not have it, and the longer you avoid it, the more pain you’ll have in the end.” My experiences since then have confirmed that statement over and over again.

The premise that pain is bad is false when it comes to design. Creativity thrives on tension, conflict, and pain.  Pain is necessary and beneficial to the final product. When you can resolve it gracefully, you often get startling, beautiful results. You walk around the finished product, and all the pain and conflict seem to diminish. A completed exhibition that beautifully balances experiences, meets visitors’ needs, and contains surprises is worth all the hard conversations and arduous decision-making. In fact, there’s nothing like the feeling of walking through something you helped give birth to.