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:


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:


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.

Thinking about (Design) Thinking, Part 1

For the last year or so design thinking has been stalking me. (There are lots of images showing the design thinking process. I found this one here).


I keep ending up in meetings and discussions where someone says we should try using it for a project. I hear it talked about at conferences, and recently saw a presentation in which graduate students showed proposed museum projects devised through a design thinking process. In the last few months I’ve been involved in two attempts to actually use design thinking. In the first case it seemed like a process with quite a bit of potential, but because of the circumstances it ended up being rather truncated. It was an all day workshop and we got to the Ideate stage and then the day ended. Taking it beyond that stage wasn’t part of the plan for the day, but there also wasn’t a plan for taking the imagined projects back into our regular work. Talking through the process was exciting in the day, but as weeks and then months passed and the ideas stayed in the corner, rolled up on giant post it notes, the process began to feel a lot less magical than it did when we were idea-ating months earlier.

The second experience was more recent and was disappointing, even frustrating. Like the first experience, we didn’t get past the ideate stage. Unlike the first time around, those of us who participated had the distinct impression that the organizers had scheduled the day with the ideas that would be going to the prototype stage already identified before the rest of us had begun. We split into groups, and each group came up with a slate of ideas, which were presented to the somewhat glazed over expressions of the organizers. They complimented everyone on how fantastic and creative the day had been, but when the project moved to the prototype stage it incorporated none of the ideas any of the groups had come up with.*

Although one of these encounters with design thinking felt exciting and full of potential, while the other one felt disingenuous, the two experiences were, ultimately, surprisingly similar. In neither case did we get past coming up with ideas. In neither case was there a plan for bringing ideas to the prototyping or testing stages. In neither case was the problem design thinking as a process itself, but instead perhaps an incomplete commitment to the process. And so in both cases a lot of energy was spent on coming up with ideas that never had a chance at being more than ideas. Ideas will only get you so far.


Ideas that aren’t taken out for a test drive are pretty easy to come by (at least I find them to be thick on the ground in my work), and some of them you realize (perhaps even as you’re coming up with them) don’t really deserve a second look in the cold light of day. But some (or many) of them just might work. There’s only a couple of ways to find out if they do: 1) try them out and see if it works; 2) wait for someone else to come up with the idea and try it out to see if it works for them.

I’m pretty sure one of these is more satisfying than the other.

*Since then the idea one group had come up with appeared as a major component of another organization’s project. It’s been very popular (for them).