Saturday, August 27, 2016

New Readings and Resources on Cultural Equity and Inclusion In Museums

How can we ensure that everyone in our communities has access to the opportunities and benefits provided by museums and other cultural organizations?

That's a question that the museum field continues to struggle with, but I just became aware of two sets of resources that might help foster new ways to provide opportunities for increased communication and creative partnerships.

The first resource comes via the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which has just released a new literature review on Public Engagement in the Arts

The review explores: 
  • different ways in which “public engagement” can be defined and practiced,
  • the purposes public engagement has been used for in the arts, and
  • how the terms “audience” and “participant” have evolved and blurred over time.
The review also places public engagement in the context of one of the most important conversations taking place in arts and culture today, that of cultural equity and inclusion. (If you'd like to dig a little deeper, the Commission also published a literature review on cultural equity and inclusion earlier this year.)

I learned of the next set of resources through Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog:

A few years ago, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation wanted to help museums and galleries across the UK make changes in the ways that cultural organizations engage community partners and visitors as participants in their work. The result, Our Museum, is an extraordinary program with a focus on community participation.

The Our Museum program also produced a suite of online resources and reports that are tremendous resources to anyone engaged with communities and cultural organizations.

As all of these resources emphasize, public engagement is a powerful tool available to museums to help them work toward the goal of greater cultural equity and inclusion. 

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who's Pitching Who?

A Cheetos Museum?  Yes, Cheetos, and a number of other popular products and companies, are creating elaborate "museums" to promote their brands.

But are these really museums, or just cleverly-packaged pitches? As this article in Adweek makes clear, marketers see the immersive appeal of museum exhibits as a way to get consumers to pay more attention to their marketing messages for sustained periods of time.

From the article:  "If you can make consumers walk through a museum, that's more time than these brands have ever been able to engage their customers over the course of time," said Nicole Ferry, partner and executive director of strategy at brand engagement firm Sullivan. "All of a sudden, they're able to tell their story in a way that isn't so transactional, and it builds a perception of that brand in a more specific way beyond product attributes."

Of course, before we, as museum professionals, say "how dare they?!?!" let's remember the many opportunities that a wide range of Art Museums haven taken to shill for fashion or automotive brands in exhibitions that many viewed as elaborate advertisements.  

Of course a number of Children's Museums have appropriated nearly every available PBS or Nickolodeon cartoon character for traveling exhibitions (isn't it funny how book characters like Curious George or Clifford the Big Red Dog have been around for decades, but didn't become valuable exhibit commodities until they had their own TV shows?)

And many Science Museums (as highlighted by the folks at The Natural History Museum project) have even bigger issues with crossing the advertising/scholarship line when creating exhibitions on topics like climate change that are sponsored by energy companies or influenced by board members with ties to energy industries.

I'd like to think that there are firewalls and clear boundaries between the marketing messages and content messages inside museum exhibitions and programs, but sometimes I really wonder:  Who's Pitching Who?

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Monday, August 8, 2016

What Do You Mean By "The World's Best Museum" ?

Dear ExhibiTricks readers, I SWEAR to you that I had three calls last week that reminded me so much of this blog post from several years ago, that I felt compelled to bring it out for an encore to remind us (or me, at least) of why museum projects should (and shouldn't!) get started.

"We want to build the world's best science museum."

That's what the leader of a group of board members from an emerging museum said to me several months ago during our first lunch meeting.

My immediate reaction was to start laughing. But because: a) I wasn't raised by wolves, and b) my consulting business supports my wife, and our four kids, I instead nodded, and asked, "Well, what do you mean by best?"


Silence and blank stares. It was like being in a meeting with an oil painting.

Finally, one of the board members cautiously said, "We'd like to have all the newest high-tech exhibits, but we want ours to be unique." Another said, "We think we should have an IMAX theater. But we'd like ours to be the biggest, so we could have a good PR angle to drum up more funding support."

I tried to redirect the conversation to get the board members to discuss WHY they wanted to start a science museum in the first place, to try to uncover and understand their passions about their soon-to-be (hopefully!) museum, but we just kept circling back to making the "world's best" museum --- and worse, the terms "best" and "biggest" now started getting used interchangeably.

What about starting a small demonstration site to get things started? No, not "sexy" enough. They "needed" to start BIG.

What about learning to build up internal capacity, so that staff and resources could be allocated to be able to create things locally, both internally, and collaboratively, with folks from local communities?

A new round of blank stares.

I could see this was going to end in tears, so I gently suggested that their project might not yet be at the stage where I could help them. This group seemed destined to be spinning this project around for years without it going anywhere.

I thanked them for the (soggy) sandwich, and drove off into the sunset.

Even though as a consultant, my brain is usually for rent, here are a few lessons I took away from this experience that I'm happy to share:

• You can't claim the title of "world's best" for yourself before you even start something (or even after you start something, for that matter.) It makes you seem arrogant and/or clueless.

When your visitors start telling all their friends to go to your museum, and better yet, start referring to the place as "their" museum, you will have started down the road to success.

• Start small, and build thoughtfully from there. It's o.k. to stay small in order to maintain quality.

• Focus on building internal capacity by investing in staff, training, and tools appropriate for your situation. Paradoxically, I like to teach museums and their staff how to "fish" (metaphorically speaking) rather than having them always feeling like they need to buy "fish" from folks outside of their organization.

Starting a museum is tough, but making sure your museum continues to improve and evolve after it opens, is even tougher. Good Luck! (and if you need help with a museum project that you would like to grow into being one of the "best" let me know.)

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Design Inspiration: Monstrum

Why play in a playhouse, if you can play in moon rockets, submarines, giant snail shells, clown heads or Trojan horses?

That's the question that motivates Monstrum, a group of designers and craftspeople creating unique playgrounds from their workshop in Copenhagen.  

It is clear that Monstrum's focus on artistic and architectural quality is a key reason that their playgrounds inspire both adults and children.

I've featured some images here to show just a bit of Monstrum's range, but you really should click on over to the Monstrum website to see even more images of their playful and beautiful work.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Humor Me A Moment: The Power Of Humor In Museums

Cara Dodge recently completed her master's work at John F. Kennedy University on humor and museums, and was kind enough to share some thoughts on the subject here on the ExhibiTricks blog. (Cara's entry is also cross-posted  at the JFKU Museum Studies blog site.)

Most museums understand the importance of engaging with visitors, and we are constantly challenged to improve our relations with them. But, why does this have to be such a serious business? Why can’t we joke with our visitors the way that we do with our friends?

Humor in museums is not a new concept. You can find discussions about its presence in, and value to, museums on a variety of platforms (as shown in the three articles herehere, and here). Yet, when someone asks the question, “why did the chicken cross the road?” We don’t all jump up and shout, “to go to the museum!” How unfortunate!

I recently completed a master’s project titled “Humor me a moment: The power of humor in science museums” where I explored some of the current humor applications today, and some potential humor applications for science museums. In my research, I explored academic works from physiology, psychology, sociology, marketing, workplace relationships and education. I conducted a survey on the ASTC General Forum (maybe you saw it?) as well as 21 interviews with museum professionals mainly from science institution backgrounds. I also explored three examples of humor in science museums: the traveling exhibition Grossology, Science World’s ad campaigns, and at the Museum of Science in Boston, The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show.

Humor is one tactic to emotionally engage visitors, and it can be a powerful one, but it shouldn't be approached light-heartedly (pun intended). Science museums understand the importance of engaging with their visitors. Humor can offer visitors a unique entry point into science museum content that otherwise may feel out of reach.

Humor is ambiguous, but can help us learn about visitors

Humor is not consistently defined across disciplines, but everyone seems to have a definition. When I asked interviewees and survey respondents how they defined humor, every one of them gave an answer. However, those answers produced a wide variety of definitions, from the utilitarian, “humor is something that makes you laugh,” to deeper notions on humor’s purpose in our lives. At the outset, this may seem like a challenge to the museum field, but in fact this slight variation and ambiguity can help science museum professionals decipher visitor humor personality.

Coded interview responses to, “How would you define humor?”

In the literature, humor seems to be described most often by three theories: superiority theory, incongruity theory, and relief theory. Superiority theory suggests that humor is a technique that proffers the joke teller (or the wit) to be superior over the joke subject (or the butt). Incongruity theory describes that a deviation from our basic fundamental expectations results in a humorous situation (here is a great study that supports incongruity theory through studying nonsense words). Relief theory focuses more on our physical reaction to humor—namely the laugh itself—and supposes that humor is really an expression of our internal relief that something isn’t want it seems to be.

Any humorous situation could be adequately described by all three theories, and by extension these theories can help museums scaffold their thinking about who visitors through how they are using humor. Superiority theory suggests that when visitors joke, they’re pointing out an imbalance, either emotionally or socially. Therefore, science museum professionals might take note and look into what that imbalance might be. Incongruity theory suggests that, if a visitor finds something humorous, it is because there has been a deviation from what they expect—a useful piece of information for those who want to know what visitors expect coming through the doors. Finally, relief theory suggests a bodily experience, which could be harnessed as another tool in the experience curation we all strive to achieve.

Humor captures attention and helps people feel more comfortable, but it’s unclear if it helps people learn

One of the most interesting results from my research was the clear contrast whether or not humor is helpful in a learning environment. On the one hand, advocates for humor in learning note that humor can ease tension and create environments where people want to learn. On the other hand, critics of humor suggest that it can be distracting from content and in fact hinders learning, and so caution museum educators against its use.

What is undeniably interesting is humor’s uncanny ability to capture attention, and that may be where science museums can benefit from its use, despite whether or not it has the ability to teach. In advertising (an industry that spends laughable amounts of money trying to get our attention), humor has become more and more prevalent as a tool for engaging with customers. Super Bowl ads, some of the most expensive ads produced, are often funny. In fact, according to USA Today, 95% of those who watch the ads prefer ads with humor.

Humor can build relationships through increased trust

Humor allows us to bare our vulnerability, whether it is an opinion or fear, which can be accepted or rejected by our listener. If our humor is accepted, we have increased a level of trust between the listener and ourselves—they agree with us! Trust is something science museums should want to build with their visitors. Visitors should want to trust that what they see and experience in a science museum is as close to the truth as conceivably possible. Humor can add a lot of value to this equation by simply breaking down what can be an intimidating and authoritative museum voice. If we take ourselves less seriously, our visitors may find us more approachable and trustworthy.

In addition to creating great relationships with visitors, humor can also create valuable relationships between staff members. Again, being able to share vulnerabilities with one another can form strong bonds and build a more copacetic working environment.

Humor can offend, but why?

Humor doesn’t always have a positive outcome, and in some situations it can cause serious damage. I would venture a guess that we all have heard (or even made) a joke that not only did not land well; one that caused your listener to sit straight up with offense. As I mentioned above, one can either accept or reject your humor, and it can be pretty terrible when it’s the latter.

Part of a Science World ad campaign

However, what really intrigued me was the fact that there seemed to be two situations where humor was offensive. Either the topic was already provocative, or humor was used almost as a defense mechanism. In the former, was the offense totally because of the humor? Did the humor make it worse? In the latter, what does that mean about the role of humor in difficult situations? These questions beg deeper understanding through further research.

In the end, humor needs buy-in

Humor is not something that can be stapled to the wall, propped up against the membership desk, or sent via mass email to the entire staff. Humor, in its most successful form, is part of institutional personality. Restated, humor needs buy-in from all levels of an organization.

Many of the museum professionals I consulted for this project often mentioned that their attempts were first met with institutional criticism, and I’m not surprised. Humor takes on the aura of undermining authority or contrasting the seriousness of an issue, but I believe that these are the places where we have some of the biggest potential to engage with our visitors. As Paul himself noted in an interview with me, “no one wants to come to the museum and feel stupid when they leave!”

Whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot deny that humor is part of our human nature. Our visitors come to our museums with the intention of learning something, visiting with their friends and family, and generally enjoying a visit to the science museum. Humor has the ability to engage with visitors in all three of these areas. The communication gap does not have to be so large between our visitors and ourselves, as science museum professionals, and frankly, that gap can close with the power of humor.

Cara Dodge is currently the Program Coordinator for the Computer History Museum’s new Exponential Center in Mountain View, CA.  Previously, she built her passion for museums over the past 9 years at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. She honed her museum craft more recently at John F. Kennedy University, where she earned dual masters degrees in Museum Studies and Business Administration in 2016. 

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Art of Relevance: An Interview with Nina Simon

I recently read Nina Simon's new book, The Art of Relevance.  I found it an enjoyable (and actionable!) set of ideas on the intersection of museums, relevance, and communities.  So I was delighted that Nina was kind enough to answer a few questions for ExhibiTricks readers about The Art of Relevance, and the experiences that brought it to fruition:

How did you originally get interested in writing your book about relevance?
In the summer of 2015, we hosted two exhibitions at the MAH (my museum) at the same time: one about the birth of surfing, one about the Grateful Dead. On the surface, both projects were highly relevant to our local community in Santa Cruz, but the surf exhibition blew the Grateful Dead exhibition away. They both had high attendance, but the emotional resonance and community impact was very different. I could see the difference in locals’ response, but I didn’t have a way to clearly measure, explain, or diagnose what was happening. I wanted to learn more about what was going on from experts and other practitioners around the world.

And while these exhibitions were catalytic in getting the project started, in truth, I’ve been on a quest relevance for years. Five years ago, I started working at the MAH at a time of radical transformation. We turned around the institution, greatly expanded and diversified our audience, increased community connections… and disappointed some longtime participants along the way. Five years into this work, I wanted to dive in and really understand why we did this, why it matters, and why it frustrates some people.

What’s one of your favorite examples of relevance from the book?
I was genuinely surprised and provoked by Odyssey Works, a theater company that creates immersive experiences for an audience of one. It sounds so impractical and ridiculous. But fundamentally, making work relevant is about really understanding the people you seek to engage—what they are open to, where they want to go—and then unlocking doors to deeper meaning and new surprises on that path. It’s easy to get hung up thinking about the complexities of being relevant to multi-faceted communities of hundreds or thousands of people. By focusing on an audience of one, Odyssey Works provides an extreme example of what it means to focus on the humans in communities rather than groups as abstractions.

How has being the Director of MAH changed your views of relevance?
One of the big things I learned from this book project is compassion for insiders. I’ve led the MAH as a champion for inclusion of people who have historically been outsiders to museum experiences—people who don’t know that a museum might be relevant to their lives. I always thought, naively, that inclusion is for everyone. I thought that people who were against inclusive practices were elitist, classist, or ungenerous.

But that’s not the full story. If you are an insider to a place or an experience, and then someone comes in and changes that experience to let in a whole bunch of new people with different expectations, that is threatening. It’s dislocating. The change can be a real loss for insiders. It doesn’t mean insiders are elitist if they don’t like the changes.

I spent my first few years as the director of MAH trying to win over insiders and writing off the ones who rejected our new ways of engaging new people with art and history. I didn’t spend enough time being compassionate to insiders’ feelings of disruption and loss. I still stand by the work we did and continue to do to make the MAH a place that matters more to diverse people in our community. But I now better understand the tradeoffs and tensions involved when navigating relevance to insiders and outsiders.

Similar question --- how has becoming a parent changed your views of relevance?
Becoming a parent made me freshly aware of how situational relevance is. The activities that are relevant to me now are different than those that were relevant three years ago. I don’t think I’ve fundamentally changed, but my priorities, needs, and constraints have changed. And that changes the choices—especially recreational choices—I make.

Sometimes, nonprofit workers get so organizationally focused that we forget that people decide what’s relevant to them in their context, not ours. Becoming a parent reminded me of the extent to which externalities (like kids) dictate what we deem relevant to us.

Why do you think it is so difficult for many museums and cultural institutions to be relevant in their communities?
I think many people who work in cultural organizations are focused internally. We spend our days working with our colleagues, in our offices, in our walls. We spend our nights out in the community—and we consider that time to be off the clock. We need to flip this mentality to be more relevant. Not necessarily spending all our work time out of the office (though it helps), but spending as much work time as possible talking to and collaborating with and learning about the interests and values of our diverse communities.

You bring up the idea of “insiders” and “outsiders” in your book.  How do you think about finding balance between those (often) competing constituencies?
I think it depends on the institution. A young institution needs to cultivate insiders. You need to build a cohort of supporters and participants to whom you are relevant.

An institution that is thriving with insiders can do so for as long as they like—maybe forever. But if the institution is not thriving—if insiders are opting out or moving away or are not the desired insiders—you need to cultivate outsiders. You need to invite them in.

These constituencies are fluid. Every insider was once an outsider. There are insiders of every age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, and religion. The primary difference is that insiders are in the know and outsiders are not. Sometimes, ignoring outsiders is a good thing. It encourages focus. It helps create a unique institutional personality. It can be ok.

The thing that is not ok in my book is pretending to invite in outsiders while reassuring insiders that nothing will change. Maybe nothing will change—to the frustration of outsiders and their allies. Or maybe things are changing—to the confusion of insiders. I think we have to be honest and courageous when we make decisions about who to cultivate and why.

What are some additional books or online resources about relevance that influenced your thinking while writing your book?
So many.

Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s paper Relevance Theory was essential as a research grounding for the book.

Michelle Hensley wrote a beautiful book about Ten Thousand Things theater, All the Lights On, which is a fabulous resource about their innovative process for making theater for nontraditional audiences.

Relatedly, Cornerstone Theater has an excellent guide to their process of co-creating theater with nontraditional audiences. These two theaters are both amazing for very different reasons.

The story of the Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot people came to me from Bob Janes, who shared Gerry Conaty’s wonderful book on the topic, We are Coming Home. The book is available for free online. It is a riveting story of repatriation and intercultural dialogue.

Lynn Pasquarella’s essay “The Ketchup’s in the Bag and the Check is in the Mail: The Humanities and Social Justice” awakened me to the specific challenges that academics in the humanities are grappling with in the age of STEM and STEAM. I ultimately decided not to include academic examples in the book because the relevance of the education system is a book in itself, but I found it very interesting.

Online, the Visitors of Color blog, Betty Reid Soskind’s blog, and several religious blogs were helpful to me. I became completely fascinated with the intersection between religious institutions and cultural organizations when writing this book, and I treasured every blog post I read about pastors and rabbis working to establish relevance in their communities.

Also, I’ll note that I did more extensive fact-checking on this book than I did on The Participatory Museum. I had incredible, intense conversations with almost everyone in the book about their experiences and how they interpret the meaning of their work.

What do you hope people get from reading (and acting on!) the ideas in your book?
Most of all, I hope people enjoy reading the book. I freely admit that this book is less of a “mission” book for me than The Participatory Museum. It felt more like an exploration than a thesis, and that allowed me to focus on making the writing as clear and appealing as possible. People often say The Participatory Museum is “readable.” I hope and think that The Art of Relevance is a lot more so.

For that reason, I hope people share the book with friends and family beyond their professional worlds. I believe that the quest for relevance is as useful personally as it is professionally. I would love to have conversations with readers about how you see these ideas applying to your community beyond your institution.

Finally, I hope that readers will use this book as an opportunity for dialogue and action on how and why our work can be meaningful, delightful, and powerful for our diverse communities. I believe there are a million ways to make our work more relevant to more people. It is our challenge—and our glorious opportunity—to do so.

Thanks again to Nina for sharing her thoughts here on the ExhibiTricks blog.  To find out more about The Art of Relevance, or to purchase a copy, click on over to The Art of Relevance website.

AND if you'd like a chance to win a FREE copy of Nina's new book, The Art of Relevance, all you have to do is post a comment about how you are working at your institution or organization to be relevant. Post your thoughts in the Comments Section at the ExhibiTricks blog site.  We will randomly choose one of the commenters on July 30th and mail them their book. Good luck!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)