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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