The Jar of Awesomeness, Amplified

Been a little slow on the blogging side lately. My excuse is pretty lame, too– museum life has been crazypants busy the last few months and blogging was backburnered. Writing more was one of my new year’s resolutions, but, well, it’s the end of the month, sooooo….

In addition to end of year/beginning of year usual madness, we have some big, busy projects in process, all of which I’m super excited about, but also wishing that perhaps they hadn’t all ended up scheduled at exactly the same time. (Says everyone, always)

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One new development that I am really excited about is that I am co-chairing the Program Committee for MCN2016. First of all, this co-chair gig means I get to work with two amazing women: Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford. Not only that, I get to give back to the MCN community, which has been my go-to museum world touchstone, support, and inspiration since the first time I attended in 2011. And, and, AND, because I’ve never been one for half measures, I’m also co-chairing the new MCN SIG on the block— the Educational and Interpretive Media SIG (Special Interest Group), with yet another amazing woman, Emily Fry. Stay tuned for more to come on that front, and get ready to get inspired in New Orleans in November!

After coming back from some holiday time away things got pretty hectic pretty quickly. But right in the midst of it I received a wonderful moment of inspiration that made me feel both proud and grateful. Early last year I posted about the Jar of Awesomeness. At the end of 2015 we did open the jar and read out the notes that were in there, and it was something I really enjoyed.

In August I got to go to Museum Camp, which was fantastic. The whole group worked on a large project together– the creation of a Space Deck, a deck of cards designed to help the user or player create space for themselves and others. A couple of weeks ago my very own deck arrived in the mail.

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Hooray! It’s kind of amazing how incredibly satisfying it is to have this tangible evidence of one’s efforts, and it has been acting as something of a talisman, standing on my desk and reminding me of the lessons from camp.

On an even more personal note, in opening the box I was honored to see a couple of the ideas that I’d contributed made it into the final deck. One of which was the Jar of Awesomeness.

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Even better, I saw a notification from the Museum Camp facebook group that one of my fellow campers posted a picture of the Space Deck in use. When I went to look at the picture I found a colorfully decorated jar marked with the title Jar of Awesomeness.

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Spotted in the wild! Kind of can’t beat that.

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MCN2015– Content and its discontents

#MCN2015 Part one

This year at #MCN2015 I was part of a session that looked at some of the words we use in the field—words that appear over and over, but that seem to have lost (or perhaps never really had) a clear meaning. It was such a pleasure, both because I got to do this session with fantastic people whose work I admire—Jeffrey Inscho and Ed Rodley—but also because it was a really lively, interactive session and I love nothing so much as a room full of excited museum folk having at something.

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People came!

There are always sticky words in any field, but the three that really stood out when we were first talking about proposing a session were content, digital, and engagement. We gave an introduction to the issues around the semantics and slippery usages of these words in particular (and buzzwords in general), and then split into breakout groups focusing on one of the three words.

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Jeff took on “content,” Ed took “digital” (a topic about which he had given a rousing Ignite talk the night before), and I took “engagement.” Each group switched through the three words so we could try to capture input from everyone who came to the session.

With each group I asked if people had either ideas for alternative words that could be used instead of engagement, and also asked if everyone had ideas of how to contribute to a common definition for engagement (particularly if we couldn’t find a better word to replace engagement). The convergences and divergences in the lists, rounding up three groups’ worth of contributions, are fascinating.

Alternative words seemed to be a bit more of a challenge, and for many participants they said they thought their word could be either an alternative or part of the definition of engagement—and there is a lot of overlap between the two categories. The full lists are at the bottom of the post. (For both lists I’ve kept in duplicates, indicating that more than one group came up with the same word. Words that appear on both lists are bolded).

There were some themes in the conversations that happened with each group. Connecting, immersion, action/interaction, and sharing were among the ideas that cropped up repeatedly. With one group there was an interesting point that was raised by someone whose work focuses on social media—that for her engagement was clicks, follows, views. For others in the groups, particularly those in education and interpretation, attendance was the a starting point—perhaps not really counted as engagement, which seemed to require a deeper connection than bodies in the door. Several people raised the connection between engagement and measurement or evaluation. For me, one of the most thought-provoking comments (which came up in two of the groups) was when one person said that engagement for us was seeing visitors doing what we want them to do. It was a great moment in my own processing of what the term means, how we use it, and why it is good practice to interrogate why we choose the words we choose and what we actually mean by them.

For me this was something of a continuation of some of the ideas that bubbled up in a panel I was part of at #MCN2014 in Dallas. The idea behind both discussions is really one of mindfulness. (Including reminding myself to be mindful in using slippery terms). There is no perfect word. One of the participants noted that “learning” was the word that was used all over in the place of engagement in the past, but that learning fell out of fashion and engagement fell into fashion. For me, rather than finding a perfect word, I’m trying to focus on being mindful about the words I use, and to define what I mean when I say engagement, or content, or digital. I’d love to hear what you think.

Alternative words

Attendance

Attention

Care

Changed

Collaboration

Connection with People

Conversation!

Discovery

Digital

Education

Emotional Connection

Empathize

Entertain

Exploration

Financial Support

Immersed/Immersion

Impact

Inspire

Interface

Interactivity

Investment

Involvement

Involvement

Marketing

Measurable

Membership

Participation

Participation

Participation

Reflection

Sharing

Totally Absorbing

 

Definition of Engagement

Absorbing

Action

Action

Activating the Mind

Amplified

Attendance

Attracting attention

Being Present

Being (Present)

Care

Choice

Clicks

Collaborative

Committed

Connected

Connection

Connection with people

Connecting to prior knowledge

Contributing to

Conversation

Creation

Crying

Deeper Understanding

Degree of the depth of content

Democratization

Did they do what we want?

Doing

Duration

Education

Engrossing

Feel

Financial Support

Financial Support

Flow

Focus

Follows

Fun

Guessing

Holding attention

Imaginative

Immersed

Immersive

Interacting With

Interaction

Interactivity

Interest inspiring

Interface

Interior engagement vs. exterior

Interpretation

Laughing

Learning

Listening

Making

Measurement

Nounification

Part of how we define success

Participate

Participation

Personal

Perspective shift

Relevance

Remembering

Responding to

Results

Reward

Safety

Saying

Sharing

Sharing

Sharing

Semantics matter

Signs of engagement

Social practice

Thinking

Time investment

To be absorbed in

Use

Views

Visitor vs. museum perspective

What we want the visitor to do

If you aren’t already following Ed Rodley’s blog, Thinking About Museums, you should go check out his recap of how we talk about “digital” here.

 

Ever wondered what would happen if you locked 100 museum nerds in a museum for three days?

At the start of August I got to go to camp. I do a lot of camping, but this was the first time I’d been to camp since 1984.There were fewer lanyards, friendship bracelets, and god’s eyes crafted than the last time I went to camp, but it was still chock full of fun stuff. Listen, y’all– I got to go to Museum Camp

While there were most definitely fun and games (literally and figuratively),

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there was also a lot of thinking about serious topics (sometimes in ways that were a lot more fun than thinking about serious topics usually turns out).

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The theme for camp was spacemaking:

“You can make space by empowering others. You can make space by inviting non-traditional partners into your work. You can make space by giving yourself permission or time or a paintbrush. Making space gives us a safe place to feel the fear and courage necessary for us to grow as individuals and organizations.”

For three days about 100 people- museum professionals, community members, activists, students, staff, and interns all but took over the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (Elise Granata has a great post about the the process of co-creating the museum as a safe space for the camp here).

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Each day was broken into a wide variety of tasks, discussions, and experiences. We spent much of the three days working in teams,

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Team Ritual #7– Simon, me, and Vania

with work sessions interspersed between pecha kucha style spark talks and launchpad workshops.

I *loved* the workshops, particularly the first one I got to take part in: “An Introduction to Science Fiction Prototyping” led by Gregory Stock. It was a great way to put into action the idea of making space– for creativity, for learning, for fun, for yourself. Actively thinking about ways to create that space for ourselves in the work we do was a built into many of the sessions and team tasks throughout the weekend, and was a good, steady reminder to think about the thing we often put on the backburner: ourselves.

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For many of us, this eventually manifests itself in the form of burnout, and thinking about ways to unplug the burnout cycle was a truly fruitful process. If burnout is something you or someone in your life is grappling with, camper (and all around awesome person) Sara Devine talks about her working-through-burnout lessons from the weekend here. (You should go watch it).

I really appreciated the back and forth between the working sessions and the spark talks, which felt like touchstones, reminding me of the big picture reasons that had brought me to Museum Camp to begin with. There were some amazing, inspiring stories in these talks, and some incredible bravery from the speakers, from the courage to tell a secret to the courage to see an opportunity in a vacant lot and act on it. There were two that really struck a chord that resonated with me all through the weekend, and have been continuing to ring ever since. One was Beck Tench‘s talk about swimming with sharks, and how we often find that the shark we are swimming with is ourselves.

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Slide from Beck Tench’s spark talk

The other was Porchia Moore‘s talk about making space for everyone. She cited the recently released Mellon Foundation report on diversity in American art museums. Or rather, on the lack of diversity in many departments in American museums.

PieChart Mellon report

It is space that must be made– in our programming, in our interactions, in our partnering, in our hiring, in our recruiting– and it is on all of us in the field to make that space happen. I saw her give a great Ignite talk at MCN last year that will be the most thought-provoking six minutes of your day:

From these two talks I felt like I walked away with as many questions as I did answers. (And perhaps that’s as it should be. I mean, who has all the answers?) Here are some of the ones that I wrote down at some point over the course of camp:

  • For whom are we, as museums, as institutions, making space? For whom, as staff members, colleagues, coworkers, and managers, are we making space?
  • How can we help and support visitors to make space for themselves in our institutions?
  • How can we create situations or spaces in which visitors can empower themselves?
  • How can we support each other (colleagues, coworkers, supervisors, reports, volunteers, visitors) in their space making?

Big questions. Important questions. I’ve got a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.

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The setting for this adventure was okay….

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if you’re into that natural beauty stuff….

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TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin'.

TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin’.

Also: tacos. And ice cream. And the very best bus station noodles ever consumed. And lots and lots of laughing with awesome people.

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A huge thank you to all of the amazing people who made this such a thought provoking, affecting experience. Nina Simon and Beck Tench for creating the space for this experience; all of the staff, interns, and volunteers at the MAH for being super awesome and welcoming; the fantastic co-creators of Team Ritual; and all of my fellow campers for being such a great group of people to spend three intense days with.

Art as Play

Yesterday the interpretation team took a field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art to check out Play Time. Associate Curator of contemporary art Halona Norton-Westbrook, who co-curated the exhibition along with Associate Director Amy Gilman, spoke with us about the origins of this experimental exhibition as we visited the included works installed throughout the museum.

Harmonic Motion by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Charles Richard MacAdam

We had visited Harmonic Motion first thing upon entering the museum and it was interesting to hear how the museum’s original vision, and interactive space for all ages, tended to be more attractive to, or at least more actively engaged with, by children than adult visitors.

Anything Can Break by Pinaree Sanpitak

Anything Can Break was another work in the exhibition some of us had encountered before meeting up with Norton-Westbrook. This was one of my favorites because I had been lucky enough to spend some time in the room with it completely alone. The work contains small cameras that are installed in hanging boxes, which capture visitor movements that then trigger musical sounds to play through speakers. When multiple people interacted with it simultaneously, sounds played in combination with one another creating a completely spontaneous and dynamic experience. My solitary interaction with Anything Can Break was both an unexpected and satisfying experience as I felt I had conversed with the artwork itself.

Animation by Stina Köhnke

Another one of my favorites was Animation – a work by American artist Stina Köhnke that seemed to be a wall of stuffed toys that grew out of a chair. Actually, I had discovered this work on the TMA’s website the day before so I was looking forward to seeing it in the galleries and it did not disappoint. Mountains of plush toys and furry animals brought back memories of arranging my own substantial collection of stuffed animals in my childhood bedroom after hours of play. While standing in front of the work, we witnessed a little girl sprint toward it to touch the animals only to be pulled away by an embarrassed mother. Norton-Westbrook explained this was a common occurrence with this particular work and it was something that had come to be expected and staff in the galleries were continually refining the best ways to balance the need to protect artworks with some of the visceral responses. What other response could one expect from child when they encountered such a magical sight!

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space was a group favorite as the act of swinging elicits the same feeling of joy from adults as it does from children. Four swings installed in an unfinished gallery space was paired with projected patches of blue sky for anyone who wanted to recreate the experience of an endless summer day spent on the playground. The swings were full up when we entered but once the children gave up their seats, the adults milling around in the background (us) quickly took their place. As one of our team said later, what could be better than swinging in a museum?!

Photo: Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, Toledo by SANAA, 2006

Our experience with Play Time next took us over to the magnificent Glass Pavilion where Norton-Westbrook introduced us to Glass Mountain and Masking Tape Installation, works that resulted from two artists’ onsite creations. She noted it was key that Play Time continued to evolve over the course of the exhibition so that it was, like many of the works themselves, constantly in motion.

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

As an interpretation team working in an art museum, we often find ourselves grappling with how to facilitate opportunities for visitors to meaningfully engage with art. I’d say with Play Time Toledo got it perfect with an innovative idea—unlock the child-like wonder that lies dormant in most adults by offering up opportunities to connect with art through the activity of play.

Museum Reconnaissance Missions

Our department went on a couple of really fantastic research trips last year, and I’ve had the folder with my notes in it in the to do pile for an embarrassingly long time with all sorts of plans for writing about what we saw.  No better time than the present, right? Each of these trips was so incredibly valuable for us as we think about projects that we have coming up and the direction we would like to head towards with interpretation in the future.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The team visited DIA to meet with the Interpretation team, as well as some members of Education, Exhibitions, and Curatorial. It was a fantastic visit–it is always such a boon to have the chance to talk with colleagues at other institutions, learn how they are organized, and to see the culmination of their work in the galleries. Interpretation departments and teams are all grappling with so many of the same issues, it gives tremendous food for thought to hear about what processes and solutions are being put into play at other institutions– particularly ones with long-established histories in interpretation. This is particularly true when it offers the opportunity to spend the day with awesome people– and the DIA has an army of awesome people.

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Interpretation team field trip!

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There were quite a few takeaways from this trip, but I think the biggest one for me was hearing about how they were using visitor research, and how much it informs the work they do. We love having visitor research data, and do use it to inform our thinking about projects, but it was so great to hear about some of the ways in which the folks at DIA had used their data, how it had influenced decisions, and how it informed conversations around the work.

(I actually got to visit the DIA twice in the last year, most recently for a VTS practicum in March,  I visited the Diego Rivera & Frida Khalo in Detroit show while I was there, which is gorgeous and so worth the visit).

Portland Museum of Art

We were able to take a whirlwind trip out West to the Portland Museum of Art to meet up with their Education Department (as well as a number of folks from several other departments).

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Interpretation museum adventure! #pma

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We have been working on a storybooth prototype, and the PMA’s Object Stories project offers a well known  museum storybooth example, and one that we’ve been very interested in learning about as we’ve been thinking about our own project.

Object Stories Booth at PMA

Object Stories Booth at PMA

We had such great discussions with everyone at Portland– from hearing about the fantastic programming that they are doing to what they learned from Object Stories and more.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

They are doing some amazing things at the PMA, and it was really inspiring to hear about the ways in which they are connecting to a variety of communities in Portland.

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Our discussions about Object Stories were incredibly helpful for thinking about our upcoming project, and that was just one of the great takeaways from the visit. It was great to hear about projects they are working on, and inspiring to hear about the ways that they have experimented with making connections with visitors. In particular, I really admired how much of their work was informed by the community at large, and the really important ways they are thinking about the many audiences and potential audiences there are in Portland. We were also excited to hear how the museum was tackling social media, in which many departments are directly involved.

Denver Art Museum

On the way back from Portland we stopped in Denver to visit the Denver Art Museum.

We happened to get there not long after they released their report on creativity and community, so I had some really interesting reading material for the flight. For example:

But although irreverence is good, irrelevance is not. When polled, visitors consistently express a preference for rich, meaningful, object-based content.

DAM was full of surprises– at least for me. As a (probably over-) seasoned art museum visitor I walk into museums with a framework of expectations (as do many of us).

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At the Denver art museum

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DAM had many of the things that one would expect in an art museum visit.

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Excited for our day at the Denver Art Museum today

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But it also had some surprises tucked into spaces throughout the galleries– maker spaces that give visitors the opportunity to create themselves.

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We spent a lot of time in the maker spaces.

For me, having the opportunity to create something– even something simple (or perhaps especially something simple and low stress) was a great experience. I left thinking a lot about creativity and ways that supporting visitors’ creativity (even those who don’t think of themselves as creative) can expand and enhance visitors’ experience in the museum. We’ve been exploring ways that we can do even without having dedicated maker spaces, including programs like writing workshops and the storytelling workshop that Bethany wrote about recently).

We were also able to visit one of their special exhibitions, Matisse and Friends, which included unique interpretive elements, such as a single audio stop designed to facilitate contemplative looking, super comfy seating to encourage longer engagement with the paintings, and the opportunity to share a journal response to the works in the exhibition. We watched visitors interact with each of these elements, engaging with each one.

These visits and discussions were amazing and we will be thinking about what we’ve seen for a long time to come. I want to extend a huge thank you to all of our colleagues at the DIA, PMA, and DAM, who were all incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, their ideas, and their experiences. We came away inspired, impressed, full of ideas, and completely wowed by the amazing things happening in the field.

Senufo, Shiva, and the Jar of Awesomeness

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Shiva probably never had to dance in the snow in India. (This particular bronze has been in Cleveland since the 1930s, so perhaps he has acclimated?) Dancing, driving, walking, and sliding through the snow is a pretty standard part of how things roll in wintertime Cleveland. Usually. (It’s been a light winter for snow this year, but we’ve been making up for lost time in the last couple of weeks.)

We’ve put the finishing touches on the Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa multimedia tour, which has been exciting. The app is now in the iTunes store (which is even more exciting– did I mention that it’s free? It’s free!), and there’s lots of work is going on in the exhibition space this week.

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Today I had the rare moment of having lots of things that need doing, but none that are due in the next 24 hours. Huzzah! It also gave me the opportunity to open up a folder of raw pieces for some ArtLens segments that I’ve been hoping to get to for a Very. Very. Long. Time. Double Huzzah! (Also? some of these raw bits are reeeeally interesting, and I think will lead to some great final outputs). *And* one of those bits-of-flarn projects that has been hanging out for months and refusing to get done basically got done this morning. Triple Huzzah!

We cover a lot of ground in our department. (I mean a *lot* of ground).

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We do heaps of programs and videos and lots and lots and lots of app content and gallery interpretation and interactives and things with docents and many, many things. It is exciting to have such  varied work, and I feel really fortunate to be able to do interesting, meaningful work, and to be a part of a team of talented, fantastic people. Toward the end of 2014 I was talking with someone that I don’t get a chance to talk with all that often and they asked how my year had been. And I said, “oh it was great, we did great things, and worked on great stuff, and had great projects.” To which he said, “Oh, yeah? Like what?”  And I said, “………..”

Because in that moment I couldn’t really think of an example of the great things we’d been doing throughout a great year. Of course there were challenges along the way (definition of every year), but there were also great things that we accomplished in 2014 and I didn’t have any of them on the tip of my tongue.

I think a big part of it is that it is sometimes hard to find a moment to step back, even briefly, at the end of a project and to really think about what worked, what didn’t, what you’d do differently, what you would like to do again. In some ways the nature of how the work our department works: we are always working on multiple projects simultaneously. And many of our projects are ongoing (we’re always creating something for ArtLens, so it’s never really done). The end of one project doesn’t necessarily lead to a natural moment of reflection.* More often, it leads to freeing up the time you were putting into project A to let you put it toward project B. In the end it sometimes makes it difficult to delineate what was accomplished in a given period of time (like, you know, last year). Which is ridiculous and needs fixing. If not for 2014, then for 2015.

To wit, The Jar of Awesomeness:

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The plan? To fill the jar with all things awesome, large and small as a reminder to ourselves (and me in particular!) of all of the great things that happen, the moments of good fortune, and the hard-earned achievements that come from the dedication of the team. The bottom of the jar is already covered with more to come.

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* Which is why we schedule post project discussions after big projects.

Congratulations, Bethany!!

We have a winner!!

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Bethany, who is  the Audience Engagement Specialist member of the Interpretation team, has been named the winner of 2015’s Cleveland Emerging Museum Professional of the Year Award. GO, BETHANY!! Bethany first came to the CMA as the Nord Fellow in 2010, later joining Interpretation in 2012 as Audience Engagement Specialist, where she focuses on public programming for adult audiences. And program she does! Lectures, gallery talks, plus a whole heap of new programs from Art Bites tours to mediation in the galleries, art making activities at MIX events,

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dozens of (very popular) yoga classes for last summer’s Yoga exhibition (she wrote about her experience back in December), and the large scale fashion shows for the Wari and Forbidden Games exhibitions.

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This award also signals her nomination for the Ohio Museum Association’s Emerging Professional of the Year, which will be announced at the OMA Conference in March. Congratulations, Bethany, much deserved!

Bethany