Congratulations, Bethany!!

We have a winner!!

Bethany1

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,

yogainsession

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.

fashion show 1 fashion show 2

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

New year, new things

We’re all back in the saddle, post-holidays, and right back up to speed. We’re in the midst of a large-scale project connected to the upcoming Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa exhibition– since early this summer we have been working on a multimedia tour for the exhibition that will be available as an app for iPhone. It’s a project that is both similar to many of the things that we do (either continually or regularly) already, such as our work on ArtLens and audio tours for selected special exhibitions, while also adding new experiences for the team.

recording senufo

One major change is that we are working in video from the start (rather than working with audio files and visual components). We took a swipe at something similar in the spring when we developed videos for the Caravaggio in conservation exhibition, and the lessons we took from that have been really helpful to this project.

still from senufo

Video presents challenges similar to those found in audio, as well as ones that are unique to the medium. (Such as, oh yeah, every time you want to cut our some phrase or word or uhm or uh, you can see the cut. Ohhhhhh, right….) But it also presents distinct advantages and opportunities, as well, such as getting a real sense of the people speaking, whether it is the curator or a West African sculptor. (We were very lucky to have video collected this last summer in Cote d’Ivoire).

Abou interview

Working on audio tours, multimedia tours, and creating video and audio files over the last few years has given me a completely different perspective on audio tours and apps when I see them offered at other museums. When I see wands or iPods or any other device being handed out at the entrance to an exhibition I now think a lot about the almost endless series of steps behind the outcome. Forty-five minutes of finished segments likely has months of recording, transcribing, scripting, editing, securing rights, reviewing, revising, re-editing, laying out the stops, cataloging all the information, getting all the credit information together, selecting thumbnails…

working on senufo app

It’s an astonishing amount of work. (But it’s a lot of fun).

Our research and evaluation team is going to be talking with visitors about their experience using the app, and we are excited to hear what they think– and what lessons we can take away for the next project.

In the meantime, we’re getting ready for a year of storytelling– lots of projects in the hopper for 2015.

make a story

 

Happy Holidays!

interpretation xmas

The Interpretation department has been getting into the holiday spirit with a progressively more and more complicated display.

taem xmas lunch

The team went out for a celebratory lunch at the Happy Dog around the corner– because nothing says end of the year festivities like hot dogs and tater tots.

End of the year nataraja

Last picture from the museum for me for 2014– getting ready to dance into 2015.

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.

***

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.

Yoga and the Museum

Yoga: The Art of Transformation opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art last summer. From June to September, over 1400 visitors participated in:

  • Three lectures.
  • One four-week seminar.
  • Four gallery talks.
  • And FORTY-FOUR yoga classes.

Gallery talks and lectures? Easy. We do these all the time. Where we really had to stretch ourselves (pun absolutely intended) was the yoga classes. Sure, lots of museums offer yoga in the galleries, but for us, this was a new challenge.

Yoga on the Lawn

Yoga on the Lawn

It wasn’t difficult to find people to teach. As soon as the exhibition was announced, yoga teachers in the area were calling and emailing, wanting to know how they could get involved. Even before plans for a yoga studio were added to the exhibition’s design, I had a list of excited teachers and studios ready to offer classes. We started out by scheduling two classes each Sunday of the exhibition’s run (with the creative title “Sunday Yoga”). When Sunday Yoga sold out, in some cases months in advance, we first added more spots to those classes and then more classes during the week, evenings, and Saturdays. We also had a weekly drop-in yoga session out on the lawn.

Even though these programs were successful, there were still aspects of the summer that could have gone more smoothly. Here are some of the lessons learned.

Stretch Yourself…

Every time we do a new program at the museum, there’s an element of anxiety. Will people come? Is this actually worth it? Will the art be in danger? Will yoga enthusiasts be running around the galleries shoeless?* All valid questions, and sometimes, the answers make it seem like an idea is impossible. But often, these new programs are welcomed and enjoyed by our audiences. We learned that a new program can be successful, even if it requires implementing new ideas, and it’s worth trying.

Full classes!

Full classes!

…But Not Too Far

When the yoga classes filled up and more and more studios wanted to get involved, I got excited. I wanted to keep this momentum going and really celebrate how enthusiastic the community was, but I didn’t consider how much more work it would be. Yes, it was exciting, but by the end of the summer, I was completely exhausted and behind on a lot of my other responsibilities. It would have been better to look at what resources the museum could expend and consider more carefully how much we could take on.

Be Flexible

Working with nineteen different yoga studios and teachers also meant working with a lot of different personalities, ideas, and methods. While I tried to clearly lay out our expectations and resources, there were inevitably classes that required special arrangements, like bringing in musical instruments and props for yoga and harmony experiences or setting up chairs for meditation and therapeutic yoga. Some of these I knew about in advance, others were a surprise. Expect that no matter how many times you ask for details, you might not get them!

Deep Inhale

Sometimes your volunteers or your yoga teacher won’t show up. Sometimes people will get mad at you when they buy tickets for the exhibition and don’t realize the yoga class wasn’t included (or vice versa). Sometimes you schedule a kids’ yoga class for the first week of school and not realize it until you get to the empty studio. Sometimes your speaker will get laryngitis. Sometimes people will ask you if a black teacher is doing “African” yoga.** The potential for random, disruptive, or unfortunate happenings is there in any program, and even more so with forty! It’s easy to let it get to you. Take a minute to yourself when something like this happens. Don’t just run off to the next thing, no matter how busy you are; wait a second, breathe, and let it go.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

 

Be In the Moment

Because there is so much advance work that goes into making a program happen, I sometimes feel like the actual event is anticlimactic. Once all the paperwork is in and the arrangements are made, the actual day-of feels easy. But if you’re already thinking about the next thing you have to do, you miss what’s going on right in front of you. I was reminded of this in one particular class, when I overheard a very experienced yoga practitioner chatting with a complete beginner about how much they both enjoyed one of the works in the exhibition. That moment of connection, when someone can relate a centuries-old work of art to their own life and is so excited that he or she wants to share it with others – that’s what it’s all about.

Practice

Last summer’s experiences showed that there is a deep interest in yoga in the Cleveland community. With many of our programs, we try to meet people where they are by incorporating their favorite experiences into the museum. Thinking about the success of these programs, we’re looking at ways to make yoga a regular part of the museum. Like yoga, viewing art can be a relaxing and inspiring experience. What could be better than bringing them together? 

Even if they weren't taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

Even if they weren’t taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

* This was brought up in an early meeting. I thought, “No way. Who would forget their shoes?” That first weekend, I had to run after two people who got all the way out of the studio, into the lobby, and onto the escalator completely barefoot. Yeah. 

** And yet not one question about whether the white teachers were doing “European” yoga. 

 

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.