Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Value of Museums: New Research Findings from Susie Wilkening


Susie Wilkening is a super-smart museum researcher, so I asked her to share some of her recent findings with ExhibiTricks readers:

"Museums are the glue that holds together families, culture, and communities." – a respondent from 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers

What is the role of museums in American society?
For me, that is the ultimate question. Nine words that include what we, as museums (including science centers, zoos, etc.), do, and why what we do matters. Nine words that leave open the possibility that we are crucial to our society having a thriving future … but also the possibility that we don’t matter at all. Nine words that guide my thinking, questioning, and research.
To begin to tackle this big question, I’ve been busy fielding both broader population samples as well as my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers.   

And what did I find? Some tidbits:

Life stage matters. It isn’t everything, but it tells us a lot. For instance:
·      Young adults without children are rather omnivorous in their museum-going habits. They just are not that attached to any one museum. They are also struggling to connect with their communities.


·    Parents with young children are the most likely to be visiting museums (and to be members). But we lose 2/3 of them as regular museum-goers by the time middle school rolls around. That’s a problem.

·    And older adults are the least likely to visit museums … yet museums could play pivotal roles in their health and wellbeing as they age.

Museums matter … to some:   


Why that “to some” comment before? We fail when it comes to equal access. My data underscores the privilege that is inherent in proactively seeking out learning opportunities. The privilege of having time, energy, and money to visit a museum, visit a library, or take a hike in the woods. That doing those things is worth the investment of time, energy, and money … an assumption not all can afford to make. Until we truly live equal access, and benefits are spread more evenly across society, we are reinforcing a system of inequality. And that is an issue of social justice we must do something about. (I’ll be sharing more about this on The Data Museum later this fall.)
As I look to the research agenda for 2018, it is clear to me that there is a need to probe these issues more deeply. To assess how museums can help develop stronger communities. To staunch the losses we see among families. To contribute to the health and wellness of older adults. And to do much more to change the lives of more individuals for the better.
That means continuing to measure how and why we matter, but also changing our messaging to appeal to the extrinsic motivations most individuals have around learning. A pragmatic approach that celebrates our impact and increases our perceived value to more individuals … something I think we can all agree is necessary in these interesting times.
After all, my research tells me that we have already made a difference for millions of museum-goers. It’s time to do more.
If this work has whetted your appetite, visit  The Data Museum for weekly data releases, or Wilkening Consulting’s resources page for printable Research Releases and infographic Data Stories.  To learn about upcoming webinars (including one in October on the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers) and future research releases, sign up for Susie’s newsletter.
Finally, your museum can also participate in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, contributing to that necessary broader research in the field while benchmarking your audience’s engagement and demographics.

Susie Wilkening is the principal of Wilkening Consulting, a research and Knowledge Curation firm focusing on the role of museums in society.  Susie has nearly 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on behalf of the museum field.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

Why I Left The Museum Field: A Guest Post By Claire Milldrum


I've been noticing a growing number of young professionals choosing to leave the museum field, so I asked one of them, Claire Milldrum, to share her thoughts on the subject in this guest post:

Normally, I write over at the Female Gaze, but after writing a couple pieces there about museums, I was asked, basically, why I left the field. This is not an uncommon question, as I was once a diehard intern and researcher.

I left the Gallery, Library, Art, and Museum (GLAM) field because I decided I was very tired and deserved a lot more than was available to me. I also stand by a belief that it was a brave decision for me, as I left behind all that I had trained for
. It is also, in my opinion, difficult to stay when things get tough and to work against the odds to stake a claim that you may often want to abandon. To do something scary, anything scary, is to resist the human urge to do what is easiest.

I left the field in theory poised for success. I had been lucky enough to learn from many wildly intelligent, driven and passionate people who gave me excellent insider advice at how to game the system. I had been accepted to top grad schools in Library Science, and at one of them, a guaranteed student work job in my subfield.

So when I am asked why I left, I always will say I was priced out of competition. I had reached my (un)reasonably high tolerance for giving away my labor through volunteering and internships. I miss the field, and wish deeply I could be entering graduate school in a week or two. Yet, had I committed to either school, I would graduate over $120,000 in debt after considering the all-in cost and all scholarships available to me. I would also be facing a serious job gauntlet, maxing out at $40,000 in entry level pay available to me.

After two years of the grind of the service industry, coupled with great but massive underemployment in the field, and a history of overworking to survive undergrad, I was done. I was done groveling for the hope of some full-time job that I’d have to fight tooth and nail for to make sure it someday became permanent.

In leaving, I made the right decision. I am now about 8 weeks into a job that allows me to accomplish the following: paying off my undergrad loans, save for retirement, do work that helps people, and only work 40 hours. Also, this means I can finally see a dentist. These things should not seem exceptional to anyone, but in the museum world they have become some impossible thing.

To get here, to get to the point where I can buy a bottle of rose and velvet chokers for a Charmed viewing party without any financial shame, took me ditching what I love. It took raging, sobbing, holding back tears while working. It was as bad as my worst breakup and I wish it on no one. It is also why I refuse to listen to those who dare tell me that a prestigious degree (I went to Wellesley College), negotiating pay, more work experience, or that I need to stay because I am supposedly woke. I owe no one anything, but I was owed more respect and honesty through the entire 7 years I tried to make it work.

We all deserve more, and we need to demand it. Until the MFA, DIA, Met, MoMA, and Smithsonian institutions pay their interns a living wage, do not effectively demand graduate degrees for entry work and focus on true diversity in hiring, nothing will change. Until those places that can afford to buy masterworks actually start managing their expectations of what an underpaid and overworked staff can do, I am not here for them or their apologists. If those large institutions adjusted their behaviors and took the high ground, the entire industry would change. If they want to lead the field through new educational programming and innovation in curatorial work, they better do it also for all the people that make it happen.

In summary, I left because I picked my humanity over the objects.


POST AUTHOR BIO: Claire Milldrum is that person in your class that is always amazed by something. She is enthralled by the positive social outcomes of arts and is trying to learn how best to encourage those kinds of changes. Once in the museum field, she now works in non-profit finance and community development. Photography is her main focus for its capacity to capture the world we know while leaving a record for people who will not know our faces and names. She also loves a good cookie and biking.



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Monday, August 28, 2017

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Physics Footnotes


The fine folks at the Physics Footnotes website have assembled a growing gallery of short videos (GIFs) and links to all sorts of amazing phenomena with a physics bent.

If you click over to the Physics Footnotes Gallery you discover how to make an Invisibility Cloak:


or see a whale make a rainbow with its blowhole:


Many of the videos present ideas that could easily be adapted to demonstrations or interactive exhibits and are often linked to longer YouTube videos or related websites.

Since each GIF is short, it is easy to quickly dip in and out of the Physics Footnotes Gallery offerings.

Definitely worth a quick click to check out!


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Thursday, August 17, 2017

What can museums do to resist?


The recent events in Charlottesville and the responses of President Trump afterward should concern every American.


What can museums do to resist bigotry, racism, and hatred?


Here are some resources to help coalesce thoughts and actions:

Seema Rao has written an excellent post for Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog.


Nina has also started an open Google Doc to assemble ideas for specific things museums and museum professionals can do to resist oppression.


Two groups on Facebook that I learn a lot from:

Museum Hue

Visitors of Color



The "Museums for All" initiative



Now is not the time for museums to be "neutral" or to sit on the sidelines to see how things turn out.

RESIST!


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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Follow the money . . . to museum diversity?


Officials in New York City recently announced a plan that ties funding of cultural institutions to demographic information about staff and board membership in an effort to address ongoing issues of “equity and inclusion.” 

I really hope this plan moves the needle on systemic problems in the museum industry like inadequate salaries and the woeful lack of diversity in staffing and audiences. There has been lots of sincere and well-meaning talk about improvements to museums for over 30 years, but little lasting action.

Because the NYC plan ties improvements to funding, I really believe it has a chance to succeed, since nothing gets the attention of administrators and boards like MONEY!

What do you think?  Have you seen similar plans in action?  Let us know in the "Comments" section at the end of this post.


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Monday, July 31, 2017

What Interesting Museum/Exhibit/Design Things Did You See This Summer?


I'm on the road in Michigan (seeing interesting things, of course) with my family this week, so I thought I'd share an encore version of the post below about museums being more interesting. What interesting museum/exhibit/design things did you see on your summer trips? Let us know in the "Comments" section after this post!

The title of this post is inspired by some ideas from Austin Kleon (his newsletter is really worth subscribing to, and Kleon's book "Steal Like An Artist" is a great read ...) where he relates several (possibly apocryphal) tales of writing teachers giving similar tough, but straightforward, advice to their students who want to become more interesting writers.


"Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?" 


The upshot of Kleon's musings boil down to the idea that if you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

I started triangulating this notion of becoming a more interesting person with possible ways of creating more interesting museums, based on my love (and previous blog posts: herehere, and here) of "Museums Worth A Special Trip."

How can museums not currently worth a special trip become more interesting?  Let me immediately suggest two overused approaches that many museum folks try that quite often lead to less interesting museums:

1) Equating bigger with better   Of all the blunt force approaches to becoming a more interesting museum, nothing beats a large building (or building expansion) project.  Here's a news flash --- most museums should be improving their existing programs, exhibits, and facilities, not becoming bigger.

2) Adopting "best practices"  Best practices for who?  Best practices for where?  I'd argue that every museum should develop practices that are unique to their location and the communities they serve.  Why try to apply a "one size fits all" approach?


When I think about museums that I (and many other people!) find truly interesting, places like The City Museum in St. LouisThe Discovery Museums in Acton, MA, or the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh  the staff in these places seem to share a resistance to growth for growth's sake, or merely adopting someone else's notion of "best" practice, and instead have an insatiable desire to try new stuff, to experiment, and, most importantly, to quickly iterate through the physical manifestations of their ideas and to trust that their visitors will respond to their efforts --- even their failures.

Maybe another way to develop more interesting museums is to get things WRONG the first time!  To really push for ideas and interests that aren't completely tested and "safe" in every instance.


My wish is that you can discover something(s) in your own institution to become really interested in, so you can create an even more interesting museum for yourself and your visitors.

Onward!


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