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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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.

 

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.