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,

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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.

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

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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. 

 

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.

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!

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:

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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?

 

Stories was everything

“Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was lettin’ themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the way that was not so right.”*

I come from a family of storytellers. Most people do– we all have those family legends that are brought out at the holidays, when all the cousins get together, and someone retells the time when Uncle Bob was a boy and his father convinced him that he could read Bob’s mind, or when Cousin Gina found the pies that were going to the bake sale and stuck her fingers in all of them. My family has stories, too (ghosts in the pipes, death narrowly averted at the circus, motorcycle accidents, angry nuns), but the craft of storytelling in our house is as valued as the content.

My grandfather was a champion storyteller. He could turn the most quotidian trip to the grocery store into an epic comedy of errors. His descriptions of the characters in his stories had the sharp efficiency of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, capturing the essence of the person in a few quick but amazingly precise strokes.

toulouse-lautrec-divan-japonais

I didn’t quite realize how extraordinary his talent was for a long time– not until I’d heard a whole lot of stories told by a whole lot of people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. I think a lot of what we do at museums is tell stories. It seems pretty obvious–isn’t it also how humans make sense of the world, taking the information we have and figuring out what part is the beginning, what part the middle, and what part the end? But it isn’t always called storytelling in museums. “Stories” and “storytelling” (if used) often seem connected with programming for children, or for programming that is thought of as lighter fare. Instead, I often hear “content,” “narratives,” and “didactics,” but less often the word story.

There are lots of ways to connect with art. Sometimes I look at a work of art in a museum and am focused on wanting to know who made it, when, where, for whom (just the facts, ma’am). But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hear the story of the piece– its provenance, the people being depicted, the biography of the person who made it– if my grandfather had gotten a hold of it. Certainly, he would have told a story. It isn’t the only way to connect to a work of art, but in talking with friends, family, visitors, kids, adults, volunteers, something that I often hear is “what’s the story?” So I’m curious to know why it is a word that (in my experience) isn’t used as often. I wonder if it is the connection to childhood (bedtime stories), or that the word story might imply a fictive element, or something else entirely. But I also wonder if the aversion to using the word story also sometimes has an effect on the ways in which we engage with art, with visitors, with our work at the place where the joyful experience of hearing a good story, told well, lives.

 

 

*The clip is from the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, from the section of the film featuring novelist Harry Crews.