This year has been pretty exciting for a whole host of reasons (new job! new city! new projects!), but one of the most exciting things this year has been working on #MCN2016– and now it’s just about here! The schedule is chock full of fantastic sessions, workshops, and tours, plus Ignite and a keynote address by Catherine Bracy. Plus, it’s all going down in New Orleans. Join us there!
We have a winner!!
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,
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
* 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.
We’ve been experimenting some new things this summer. New programs:
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:
(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.
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!
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).