Words about words

Earlier this year my friend Robert Weisberg invited me to join him in an edition of the new CODE WORDS series of Epistolary Romances. We’ve been writing to each other about the words we use in museums (which is something I think about. A lot), and it has been so enjoyable and incredibly thought-provoking to enter into a written discussion about the topic with Rob, who is a serious word guy.

Our letters are part of this series of gathered letters between a pretty incredible group of museum professionals– check out letters between Jeffrey Inscho and Beck Tenchnikhil trivedi and Suse CairnsBruce Wyman and Daniel Meyers, Rachel Ropeik and John Gordy, and Lesley Kadish and Ed Rodley.

Our first and second pairs of letters can be read here. We have one more pair coming up soon.

Update: The complete set of letters is now up on Medium.

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Innovation and Inspiration: The Education Department Goes on a Field Trip

Field trip! The team hit the road at the very end of August for a trip to Pittsburgh. It was a jam-packed day, driving down and back with four museum visits in between, but so worth every minute.

The Frick Pittsburgh

First stop, the Frick Pittsburgh! (Yes, Virginia, there is a Frick in Pittsburgh) It was a quick visit so we weren’t able to see the historic mansion or the gardens, and only part of the art museum, but we did see the Killer Heels exhibition,

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along with the education center and the new welcome center (thanks to Robin Nicholson for the tour and quick visit!).

Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History are in connected and contiguous buildings, so we got a two for one visit here. We met up with folks from the Innovation Studio (thanks to Jeffrey Inscho!), from the education department, and from the Hillman Photography Initiative and had some amazing conversations that still have me thinking and thinking and thinking weeks later. In addition to getting to see some amazing art,

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Carl Andre + three educators

(we talked a lot about the Andre piece, as the A-K’s similar Andre work is also currently out as part of a sculpture exhibition)

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(okay, we talked about this one, too, but it was a different conversation)

we also got to see one of the projects that the Innovation Studio has been working on that, to me, is the epitome of an inspired museum project: The Section of Mystery.

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It’s so magical as an experience I’m not even going to describe it here. You need to experience it for yourself. Suffice to say that it is delightful, not in the anodyne way that things are sometimes described as delightful, but in the way that the experience filled me with delight.

We also got to see the LIGHTIME project right on the eve of it’s launch. There is so much in this project that highlights ways in which museums can be relevant, the ways in which they can do meaningful, outwardingly-facing work that is thoughtful, insightful, creative, inspiring, and innovative. I keep returning to it in my mind, again and again, and it is making me think about how much of the field is wide open for museums to step into if they are willing to step outside of their tightly bound perimeters. I can’t wait to see where this project goes, and can’t wait to get back to Pittsburgh to see it again.

Andy Warhol Museum

We took a jaunt across the river to the Andy Warhol Museum where we met up with Desi Gonzalez (thank you!) who very kindly gave us a tour of the museum and of their soon-to-launch app.

We also got a chance to check out the tactile reproductions that the museum has made of a couple of Warhol’s drawings, which, in conjunction with the accessibility aspects of the app, were really interesting examples of accessibility practice.

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Corner of the tactile reproduction with braille label beneath

We wrapped up with a quick visit to the studios downstairs.

Also, balloons.

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Teri and Lindsay and Silver Clouds with Twitter Birds

In short, an amazing visit.

Museum Reconnaissance, Continued (with special appearance by the Cheesebarn).

Last week the team headed south to the Columbus Museum of Art to check out their Center for Creativity and to chat with the awesome Merilee Mostov. Such a great trip! Such great discussions!

At the moment the museum only has a couple of galleries open as they are in the midst of an expansion and renovation project. It’s set to reopen later in the year, and they’ll have a snazzy new wing when they do. In the meantime, the Creativity Center continues to be open so we headed to Columbus to check it out.
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The main spaces are hubs of ideas jam-packed with opportunities for creating, thinking, solving, and playing.

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Each of these points was directly connected to works of art that were hung nearby, such as the station that is set up to allow visitors to create their own images using their phones along the lines of photographs by a Russian photographer from the collection displayed on the wall next to it.

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The center also includes a space called The Wonder Room that incorporates works created by local artists specifically for the space.

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There are opportunities for visitors’ imaginations to run wild.

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And the team jumped right in (we will always take an opportunity to play, apparently).

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The Imagine the Possibilities installation was really exciting– visitors had created so many different things, all using only one material in only one color. Some of the objects were just amazing, and it was fantastic to see they way that participants built off of one another’s creations.

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I was also really impressed with the inclusion of feedback stations throughout both the Center and the museum as a whole. They are taking the responses that they receive at the feedback stations and categorizing and analyzing what they hear from visitors. They get a lot of feedback, which means a lot of data– so much to work with!

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Denver Museum of Art, African Gallery

I think one of the themes in our museum reconnaissance missions this year has been creativity as a medium of engagement. It’s run, like a thread, throughout the conversations we’ve had with our colleagues and counterparts, and some of the installation at Columbus made me think a lot about what the Denver Museum of Art is doing, as well as some of the things happening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One important piece that both the Center for Creativity and DAM have in common is real estate (always a commodity in short supply). As we’ve been visiting museums that have incorporated this into their floorplans, we’ve been thinking a lot about what positive experiences we can take away from the installations that can be done without (permanent) space. Are there spaces available for shorter periods of time? What can we do that would last a week? A day? A couple of hours? As we’re winding up our (fiscal) year this month, these are all questions that we’re going to be focusing on in the year to come.

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Also, icing on the cake that was a great day out was that on the way back to Cleveland we stopped in at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn. We tasted cheese. We tried out jams. We met Grandpa. It was all the awesomeness you would imagine Grandpa’s Cheesebarn to be.

Grandpa's Cheesebarn!

Grandpa’s Cheesebarn!

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.

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.

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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.

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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:

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Before heading home:

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*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].

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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….

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This is [only] a test

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

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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:

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(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.

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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!