What’s in a Name?

The day before the AAM conference in Seattle started I had the fantastic experience of taking part in a meeting of people involved with interpretation at art museums. (You can read a bit about the group on the Future of Museums blog here). The conversation was inspiring, at times surprising, and always thought-provoking, and certainly where I heard some of the best discussions, stories, and ideas of my time in Seattle.

The group covered a lot of topics– both on and off the planned agenda– but one of the most interesting turns in the discussion came from a brief comment. I have been thinking about it ever since, and suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a while to come. Someone asked whether what we do should be called “interpretation.” It’s a great question.  It’s also one that is tied closely to questions that we’ve been talking about in our team planning, one of the most important of which is how do we talk about the work that we do in a way that will help people understand it?

Interpretation seems like a word that is both loaded and opaque. For a field whose mission is to support visitor engagement it seems ironic that the word used to “describe” our work seems to be all but incomprehensible. The most common response (and by common I mean basically everyone’s response) to hearing my job title is: “Interpretation. Hunh. (Pause) So, what does that mean?” Or, so what, exactly do you do? Or, does that mean you [fill in activity here]?

These are questions that I’m asked by visitors, by friends, by family members, and by colleagues in the museum field. I think that last one is particularly important. Museums are full of their own internal nomenclature, and we often struggle with inside/outside usage (for example,  internally there may be a programs vs. events distinction– we may think of these as very different because different parts of the institution are in charge of them, but to visitors they are all just things that happen at the museum). But in talking with people in the field the word interpretation doesn’t even seem to work clearly internally.

For people working in interpretation in art museums the scope of the work could cover a lot of different areas, and not every interpretation position or department is the same. It might include digital media, audio tours, labels and other text-based didactic materials, programming, visitor research, evaluation, docents and volunteers, and other duties, in a variety of configurations. So across museums interpretation means, in a practical sense, a lot of different things, even if the underlying purpose is similar.

So, how should we talk about the work that we do? Is interpretation the right word? Is there a better one?


Sampling and Museums

Our team discussion this week was focused on targeted programs for particular audiences, but we also talked a lot about art, theft, and appropriation (and 80s hair bands). The discussion was part of our ongoing planning work for the year and beyond, and we started by asking what we were doing already and how other museums were responding to specific audiences and then added in that in our year of experimentation we should start by stealing from ourselves– figuring out what is the core components of successful things we’ve tried and reapplying them to other projects.

The conversation seemed particularly appropriate at the moment since 2/3 of the interpretation team is getting ready to head for the annual AAM conference. One of the things that I find the most inspiring about conferences is having the opportunity to talk with peers and colleagues about what they are doing. Every conference I attend I walk away with my head and my notebook full of amazing projects that I’ve heard about– and new ones that I’m thinking about doing.

Often, those new projects that I’m dreaming of on the way home have their origins in a project someone has told me about. I had a conversation recently with a colleague about taking inspiration from projects that we encounter–at another institution, described in a conversation, written up in a blog–and she repeated the oft-quoted Picasso quip about theft: Good artists copy, great artists steal. (Rather appropriately, he perhaps stole it from Oscar Wilde–Talent Borrows, Genius Steals— who likely stole it from someone else). Whenever someone brings this quote up in conversations about museum work I cringe a little.  Steal doesn’t seem like the correct descriptor– particularly when we’re talking about the kind of inspiration that comes from hearing from colleagues or talking with peers.

I know someone who works on race cars. At the company where he does this there are a number of builders working on vehicles. One builder has complained bitterly about the newest builder’s work, including saying that his work isn’t up to snuff. And yet, whenever one of New Builder’s vehicles is about to go for testing (in a wind tunnel to check the aerodynamics), Grumpy Builder will stop doing major work on his project and will start stalling. After NB’s vehicle returns with positive test results in hand, GB will suddenly spring into action on their project. One day soon after testing NB came in at an off hour to find GB inside NB’s test vehicle with a tape measure. Turns out that when a vehicle came back with positive test results GB checked all the specs, applied them to his own project, and then claimed the results as his own innovation.

Now, that’s stealing.

I was thinking about this in our team meeting. We look at what other people do all the time, and bits and pieces of those things end up in our own projects, mashed together with other ideas taken from all kinds of experiences— from watching a band play or going to the grocery store or listening to a show on the radio. When I think about the creative process– whether it’s the process of drawing, or making a video, writing a story, or creating a new program at the museum– I think a lot about sampling.

On this (old skool) track by De La Soul not only do you have the foundation of Schoolhouse Rock, there’s James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Syl Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and the 99th mayor of New York (and airport namesake) reading the comics. There are a lot of reasons why this album is so influential, but I think an important one is that it is a masterful mixing of seemingly disparate, unrelated bits and pieces that belie both an encyclopedic knowledge and a deep love of music and sound.

Behind the song you can imagine crates and crates of LPs. Most museum people I know have metaphorical crates of LPs, too– idea files with articles or pictures or random thoughts, some of which will get pulled out and mixed with something else and something else and a dash of something else to make something new. We sample from people, experiences, articles, conversations, movies, music, things overheard on the bus– from all kinds of places. Bring on the samples.

Calm Before the Storm

This week has felt like the dip between waves. After a series of clustered deadlines there are a few moments to think before the next cluster of deadlines arrives. Often the troughs are great moments to start stirring up new notions, and it has been a week of exciting ideas and a great team meeting. Each time we meet we refine and clarify a bit more, and every day we get closer to filling this up with our plan for the year:


There is little as exciting as a blank slate.

Planning and Projects

We’ve had an incredibly busy couple of years in our department (and in the institution), and it is just recently that the manic pace has started to slow a bit. There are still a lot of balls in the air, but we seem to be past the point where we regularly forget what day of the week it is (or on at least a handful of occasions, what month it is). So we’re taking the moment to, in the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and listen.

We thought about making a music video, but opted for planning with post-it notes instead.

BC and the planning board

We had an incredibly productive discussion, and I’m really excited to see what directions the process takes us. I work with amazingly creative, perceptive, empathetic people, and I see fantastic things on the horizon. Including a panoply of new and interesting projects (more on that soon).