Do We Make “Content”?

Last month I went to Dallas (my first time in the Big D, at least out of the airport) for the annual MCN conference.

IMG_2666

It’s one of my favorite conferences, and is one that I always feel like I walk away with ideas and inspiration and thinking about lots of big questions– it’s the one where I spend the plane ride home thinking that I’m going to get home and Do All The Things! Make All The Things! Make Very Very Good Things! And then I get home and my inbox is full and there are voicemails and deadlines and maybe even a fire to put out, and I think, I will do All The Things a little later.*

This year I presented in the case study group, which was really enjoyable– there were some great conversations about what makes a trusted museum brand. I was also on a panel that was organized by Robert Weisberg from the Met (who compared his institution first to pre-revolutionary France, and then to a space ark) that was downright fun. (You can read his thoughts on this year’s MCN here). Corey Pressman gave an inspiring (and often hilarious) talk about orality’s shift into the authority of print, and the potential for opening authority as we move into a time of secondary orality. Kimon Keramidas talked about his (supercool) projects with students at the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center. (The audio from the panel is here).

The panel touched on a lot of things that I spend a lot (I mean a lot) of time thinking about. Much of what I do professionally is “content development.” If someone had said to me when I was tied to a carrel in the library in grad school that I would grow up to develop content I would have looked at you like you’d told me I was going to find myself living out my middle years on Mars. Content development? What does that even mean?

I don’t really recall hearing the word “content” (the way it is used now) in grad school. I might have, but if I did it didn’t make an impression. It’s a word I hear all the time now, both in my professional life and outside of it, but it is a term that I find hard to pin down. What does it even mean?

The seeming ubiquity of the word doesn’t, for me, negate it’s inherent slipperiness. What does it actually point to? First and foremost, it points to its holder (“content,” after all, says up front that it is contained, which means there must be a container) while not pointing at all to its own identity. It’s stuff that goes in the thing– it’s only identifying feature being that it is held in something else. It seems to function as a placeholder for whatever we happen to be talking about at that moment. Labels, videos, software, tours, public programs, whatever. We seem to have tacitly agreed to use this catch-all word to catch all we do– and it the process it’s lost whatever meaning it might have, at some point, had.

And then we use it with visitors.

Ug. The internal/external meanings of museums’ weird nomenclature are rarely aligned. In my experience museums have extensive taxonomies so esoteric that only a select few have been initiated into the highest levels of knowledge. For visitors, much of it is just wordswordswordsthatIdon’tknow.

And who actually wants to make “content”? Content sounds like vitamins: something you don’t enjoy ingesting but do it because you’re supposed to. Who wants to listen to, watch, see, read, or make that? Content is a word that sounds desiccated. And it’s so overused that at times I think it no longer has a referent.

When I think about what we are actually doing, when I think about what I actually love finding out about and listening to, and watching, and learning about when I go to a museum (and I go to a lot of them– and not just the one where I work), it’s stories. Because we’re humans, and humans are hardwired to hear, tell, and process narratives (literally). It is how we make sense of the world; but it is also a critical way in which we derive joy from it as well. We don’t want to hear “content”; we want to hear a good yarn.

This may seem like just semantics, and it is semantics, but it isn’t only semantics. Externally, is it realistic to expect our visitors to get excited about something we call “content”? Internally, does approaching the work through the framework of “content development” have an impact on what we produce? [I would say that it does, and not for the better].

That said, I don’t have a solution for a better word. Ideas, stories, narratives, something else…. I don’t know, but would love to hear suggestions.

***

Meanwhile, I heard some fantastic panels and discussions at MCN, including a super fun panel on games with Emily Lytle-Painter of LACMA and James Collins of the Smithsonian that really had me thinking (again) about games (again) and museums (again). Our little department has several people who are gamers themselves (analog and digital) and the idea of bringing games into what we do at the museum comes up somewhat regularly. The session had lots of great advice, but was done through actually trying different things out– which is a great way to make the message stick.

I also really enjoyed a panel on museums and social media, and have been thinking ever since I left Dallas about Alli Burness‘s question: What do selfies mean?

And of course I visited the Dallas Art Museum:

Went to a honky tonk:

And had epic karaoke:

IMG_2744

Before heading home:

IMG_2756

*And over the course of the next year I usually get to Some Of The Things, which probably isn’t half bad.

Whatcha Wanna Make?

Things are humming along at a quick clip in the department. The schedule of programs is weighty this fall, we’re still working on our audience research project, we’ve got some new multimedia projects on the docket, and an experiment in content development for an exhibition coming up next year. Exciting things! Busy things! We need help! And best of all, we’re going to get it! (We’re in the process of hiring a new team member).

We’ve also started scheduling some team field trips, which we’re very excited about. The list of places range from in town to the other side of the country. We took our first one on Friday– the closest one on the list (we walked)– to think[box].

thinkboxshoes

What (you may ask) is think[box]? An excellent question! It’s a maker space connected with the Case School of Engineering. Right now it’s in the basement of a building on the Case campus, but they have expansion in their future with plans to move to a much larger, multi-floor facility. I’m sure that is going to be a fantastic space, because the basement space was already impressive. They have some seriously cool equipment. Industrial 3D printers! Laser cutters! A CNC router! Looking at all the possibilities just made you want to make stuff. Which is, of course, the point.

And you can go in and make stuff. My favorite part of our tour through the facility was the access discussion. Who has access? Everyone. Not just students and faculty, everyone. And the cost of access? Free. It’s a community maker space. You need to go through training to be able to use some of the equipment, and there are some costs for the use of materials, but if you just thought up a super awesome project idea and you need a you need a 3D microscope to do it, you can get hooked up.

We (not surprisingly) came back excited about some possibilities, and I hope that we might figure out a way to partner with them. But I’m also hoping to be able to talk with them about their experience with making, and what we might be able to to take back across the street to our end of the ‘hood. Making is definitely part of our museum culture, but it isn’t part of all parts of the museum.

More to come….

thinkboxclox

 

Lectures. Sigh.

Thoughtful (and witty) post from Bethany on the lecture rut that we sometimes fall into. Meanwhile, she’s doing card sorts with visitors today to find out what kinds of programming formats they would be interested in attending.

This is [only] a test

We’ve been experimenting some new things this summer. New programs:

yogainsession

Including yoga classes to go with our big summer exhibition. (Very, very popular)  I’m working on an interpretation project for an exhibition next year that will be quite different (in terms of both content and delivery) from our usual mode. (Very exciting!) The museum has a conservation on view exhibition happening throughout the summer, and we have a wall up inviting visitors to ask questions:

askanexpert

(Also quite popular with visitors).

We’ve also been doing some audience testing. It’s something that the department has been involved with in the past, but this summer the team is taking a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of research and data gathering. One thing we’re looking at is interest levels for new content that we’re planning to develop.

content testing

It’s been fascinating to listen to visitors give their responses to some of the ideas. And (as always) there are surprises that pop up along the way. Some of my favorites have been:

One visitor said they would be interested in a tour of Medieval art because they enjoyed painting from that period. Soon afterwards another visitor said that everything was always about Medieval art, which they found boring.

One response to the tour topic “Surprise!” one visitor said they wouldn’t know what it was about, but they would be curious to find out. Another also said they wouldn’t know what it was about– but that they weren’t good with surprises, and rated it at the bottom.

In response to a tour on the theme of the Monuments Men one visitor expressed that they weren’t familiar with the theme, asking if that was pictures of Abraham Lincoln on his throne. (I think they were talking about the monument in DC).

It was interesting to see how differently different people responded to the same topic. We’re going to be doing content testing for at least another couple of months, and we’re starting to see some patterns emerging. I think a big part of what we do as we move forward is to think not only about which topics rise to the top in overall popularity, but also about niches. For example, some topics did not get a  lot of votes overall, but those who liked them really liked them. We also need to think about polarizing topics. “Surprise!” is a good example– people seemed to rate it either at the top or the bottom, with few in between. For those who were interested, having it in the mix was a real positive. The negative responses were very solid in their reaction– would the presence of something they were turned off by turn them off from other options?

We’ve also started testing program formats for adult audiences. We have some new types of programs that we’re going to be trying out this year, so we’re testing both how well visitors will understand the planned descriptions (this will be iterative over the next couple months), and how interested they would be to attend a program using the new formats. Can’t wait to see what we find out!

Practice, Practice, Practice

We do lots of different things in our department (often all at the same time). While this sometimes can leave all of us feeling like we are professional plate spinners, there are also real benefits to having all of those plates spinning all the time– I can honestly say that I’m never bored.

It does sometimes make mastery a challenge, though. Mastery takes time and focus, and both can be in short supply. It can also be a bit daunting when you start doing new things, because the first few times you do something (or the first twenty times, or maybe the first fifty times, depending on how complicated the task is), the results can be sort of disappointing. The first time you do something isn’t actually all that hard. It’s usually frustrating. You read the instructions. You watch a couple of YouTube videos showing how to do it, you think, okay, I’ve got this. I can do this. And then you do it and it looks nothing like you thought it was going to. For me, I leave it alone for an hour or two, go back at it again, mess it up again, leave it alone, go back again… repeat seemingly ad infinitum.

The scary thing is making the second one of anything. Having made the first one, you now know that you only sort of know how to do the mechanics of it. Probably more importantly, you also know that, while you have figured out how to make that thing, you haven’t figured out how to make it as good as you want it to be.

Ira Glass has a great take on this:

A friend of mine and I have been talking about a project for the last year and a half. It’s a personal project. It’s an idea that I’m excited about and interested in. It’s also only one of a dozen projects, some personal, some professional, that we’ve talked about doing. I sent him the Ira Glass video right before one of our planning meetings for one of the more complicated projects we’re working on with a note that I thought we should take Glass’s advice.

Step One: we’re going to do a lot of work.

We started collecting pieces for the first project this weekend, including spending some time figuring out how to use the GoPro camera I just picked up. These things are supposed to be waterproof, right?

 

Something on my mind

For the last week or so we’ve been working on scheduling our first data-gathering adventures in July and August, which are going to be jam-packed with observations and intercepts for the whole team. We’ve also been working on planning for a couple of new programs and projects and how to evaluate them.

We’re a creative bunch, so the ideas keep rolling in and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about grouping, staging, and prioritizing. Meanwhile, the seasonal shift in the sunrise and sunset has been wrecking a bit of havoc on the homefront recently–our cats are now quite convinced that 4:15 am is breakfast time. The [only] positive thing about being awake then is that it is does build a quiet moment into the day when I can focus on something that I might otherwise not have the time to do (or that I would probably put off to another time). My what-on-earth-am-I-doing-up-now project this weeks has been a little mindmapping.

mindmapping

I keep thinking about the question Why do we do it?, and the connected question What makes this fulfilling? For me, reaching goals is part of what makes the work fulfilling, so I thought I’d start with goals I’d like to work on this year. This isn’t meant to represent what I intend to achieve in the year, but is a way to start thinking about directions and planning paths. Although I started with the idea of goals for this year, built into the map are the places I’d like to reach next year, the year after, and in a few cases some year in the future.

mindmappingdet

I think there are more than a couple of 4:30am mindmapping exercises in my future, with more refining and a few more concrete descriptions. Many of the bubbles feel like they need to be unpacked a bit. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where things were connected because it felt like they were connected to everything. Which reminded me of a tweet from Bethany at AAM this year:

I think this ties into a theme that I think has been woven through many of the planning and projecting exercises of the last couple of months, whether it’s applying some of the design thinking strategies, mindmapping, or creating personas. A lot of the focus of our discussions has been on visitor-centered-ness. It was a phrase that I heard over and over again at AAM, and it sounds like what we are trying to do, but since coming back from Seattle I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean when we talk about visitor-centered practice or visitor-centered design. I heard a lot of examples of how that is conceptualized in panels (as well as informal discussions). How we define it in our team and in our work is going to be an important point to articulate in our planning.

For today, I included my own definition of visitor-centered-ness in my first meeting of the day, talking with the fabulous protection services staff about our collection app.

guardsand artlens

It was like giving a tour with the most engaged group ever, which was awesome. They are among the staff members who spend the most time with visitors (and the art), and they have a ton of experience and knowledge about how visitors experience the galleries, the app, the art, and the organization. I learned a lot from them this morning, and I’m excited to be talking to them again next week, when I plan to pluck their brains for even more information.

Why Do We Do It?

During the last hour of the art museum Interpretation pre-meeting we talked about near horizon future trends for the field. The wall was full of ideas, everything from taking a page from hospitals in thinking about wayfinding to the internet of things. Of the long list of ideas generated by the group, two have stuck with me. The first is one that we’ve been thinking about a lot in recent months:

DTpremeeting

Design thinking, prototyping, experimentation, and user experience. The team is currently working on developing personas for the first set of projects and experiments. Prototyping to come!

The second note that showed up on the wall that really stuck with me was this:

purposepremeeting

Why do we do it? It’s a great question. I love what I do and I believe that what museums do is important, and those two things are the foundation of why I do it. At AAM there were thousands of people engaged in the work of museums, who love what they do and believe it’s important, and I’m sure that those two things are at the heart of why they do what they do.

I believe that what I do is important, but can I prove it?

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time– to the point where in 2010 I went back to graduate school to get some evaluation and stats skills to support searching for the answer. In our department we’re at a moment where we are starting to think about how to implement some strategies for investigating how effective some of the things we’re doing really are, so it was at the front of my mind when this post it went up on the wall at the pre-meeting. It also happens that today Rob Stein posted an essay on Code Words that keys right into this issue (particularly for art museums). It’s a must read.

There are lots of things in his essay that really, really hit the mark. The economics-as-justification-for-arts-funding model has long been of deep concern, for all of the reasons he cites and more. Not least of the issues here is the inherent problem with trying to win someone else’s game. (For the same reason I am also cautious about academic transfer and museums). Yes, the culture sector can have a tremendous, positive economic impact. But that isn’t why we exist.

One of the reasons we exist is because we make life beautiful. We make human hearts sing. We can prompt people to think, deeply, creatively, and complexly, and that kind of thinking is exciting work. Art and culture are the color and texture of life.

This has value. But it is also hard to articulate the impact. The origins of museums lie in the wunderkammer, a Chamber of Wonders. How do you measure wonder? It does not easily translate into quantitative measures. But this doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to trying to figure out how to do it, quantitatively, qualitatively, creatively, however we can get there.

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:

calendar

There is little as exciting as a blank slate.