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:

DTpremeeting

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?

 

Sampling and Museums

Our team discussion this week was focused on targeted programs for particular audiences, but we also talked a lot about art, theft, and appropriation (and 80s hair bands). The discussion was part of our ongoing planning work for the year and beyond, and we started by asking what we were doing already and how other museums were responding to specific audiences and then added in that in our year of experimentation we should start by stealing from ourselves– figuring out what is the core components of successful things we’ve tried and reapplying them to other projects.

The conversation seemed particularly appropriate at the moment since 2/3 of the interpretation team is getting ready to head for the annual AAM conference. One of the things that I find the most inspiring about conferences is having the opportunity to talk with peers and colleagues about what they are doing. Every conference I attend I walk away with my head and my notebook full of amazing projects that I’ve heard about– and new ones that I’m thinking about doing.

Often, those new projects that I’m dreaming of on the way home have their origins in a project someone has told me about. I had a conversation recently with a colleague about taking inspiration from projects that we encounter–at another institution, described in a conversation, written up in a blog–and she repeated the oft-quoted Picasso quip about theft: Good artists copy, great artists steal. (Rather appropriately, he perhaps stole it from Oscar Wilde–Talent Borrows, Genius Steals— who likely stole it from someone else). Whenever someone brings this quote up in conversations about museum work I cringe a little.  Steal doesn’t seem like the correct descriptor– particularly when we’re talking about the kind of inspiration that comes from hearing from colleagues or talking with peers.

I know someone who works on race cars. At the company where he does this there are a number of builders working on vehicles. One builder has complained bitterly about the newest builder’s work, including saying that his work isn’t up to snuff. And yet, whenever one of New Builder’s vehicles is about to go for testing (in a wind tunnel to check the aerodynamics), Grumpy Builder will stop doing major work on his project and will start stalling. After NB’s vehicle returns with positive test results in hand, GB will suddenly spring into action on their project. One day soon after testing NB came in at an off hour to find GB inside NB’s test vehicle with a tape measure. Turns out that when a vehicle came back with positive test results GB checked all the specs, applied them to his own project, and then claimed the results as his own innovation.

Now, that’s stealing.

I was thinking about this in our team meeting. We look at what other people do all the time, and bits and pieces of those things end up in our own projects, mashed together with other ideas taken from all kinds of experiences— from watching a band play or going to the grocery store or listening to a show on the radio. When I think about the creative process– whether it’s the process of drawing, or making a video, writing a story, or creating a new program at the museum– I think a lot about sampling.

On this (old skool) track by De La Soul not only do you have the foundation of Schoolhouse Rock, there’s James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Syl Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and the 99th mayor of New York (and airport namesake) reading the comics. There are a lot of reasons why this album is so influential, but I think an important one is that it is a masterful mixing of seemingly disparate, unrelated bits and pieces that belie both an encyclopedic knowledge and a deep love of music and sound.

Behind the song you can imagine crates and crates of LPs. Most museum people I know have metaphorical crates of LPs, too– idea files with articles or pictures or random thoughts, some of which will get pulled out and mixed with something else and something else and a dash of something else to make something new. We sample from people, experiences, articles, conversations, movies, music, things overheard on the bus– from all kinds of places. Bring on the samples.

Calm Before the Storm

This week has felt like the dip between waves. After a series of clustered deadlines there are a few moments to think before the next cluster of deadlines arrives. Often the troughs are great moments to start stirring up new notions, and it has been a week of exciting ideas and a great team meeting. Each time we meet we refine and clarify a bit more, and every day we get closer to filling this up with our plan for the year:

calendar

There is little as exciting as a blank slate.

Planning and Projects

We’ve had an incredibly busy couple of years in our department (and in the institution), and it is just recently that the manic pace has started to slow a bit. There are still a lot of balls in the air, but we seem to be past the point where we regularly forget what day of the week it is (or on at least a handful of occasions, what month it is). So we’re taking the moment to, in the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and listen.

We thought about making a music video, but opted for planning with post-it notes instead.

BC and the planning board

We had an incredibly productive discussion, and I’m really excited to see what directions the process takes us. I work with amazingly creative, perceptive, empathetic people, and I see fantastic things on the horizon. Including a panoply of new and interesting projects (more on that soon).

Plan A and The Year of Living Experimentally

After a very long winter (we just had a snow storm that was almost six months to the day after the first snow of the season), there are birds chirping, daffodils blooming,  and it’s finally starting to seem like spring might actually come. Which can only mean one thing.

Budgets.

Actually, it means two things, because with budgets comes planning, and planning is the exciting part of budgeting, even if you have to make two plans for everything (the with and without funding plans). This year I wanted to try making a small change to the process: flip Plan A and Plan B.

Often, Plan A is With This Many Dollars We’re Going To Do This Awesome Program/Project, and Plan B is With Fewer Dollars We’re Going To Do What Could Have Been An Awesome Program/Project, But Is Now Going To Be Less Awesome By The Power Of X, In Which X Is Correlated To The Size Of The Cut In The Budget. (Or sometimes Plan B is With No Dollars We’re Going To Weep Mightily At The Funeral Of The Awesome Program/Project That Never Had A Chance To Live). So this year we’re going to try starting with what we can do without funding. Here’s what I’m hoping will happen:

We’ll devise Plan As that are Awesome Programs and Projects, and Plan Bs that will expand the awesomeness of the Plan As through the wonders of funding for things like printing and supplies and outside services. And when our final budget is in place we’ll have funding for some (dare I even hope for many?) of the programs/projects, but because we started from unfunded awesomeness, all will be awesome.

Okay, that maybe isn’t exactly what will happen, but having experienced budgeting at a variety of institutions (the thrill of victory! the agony of defeat!), I wondered if a turn of mind would have an impact both on the experience and on the plans that come out of it. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

Interestingly, something has come out of it. We’ve started thinking about what to do in the next fiscal year and the big things that have bubbled up have been experimenting and evaluating. Which is not to say that neither of these were part of what we were doing before– they definitely were– but rather that one of the big themes for the year will be iterative experimentation– including documenting what we tried, how it worked (or didn’t), and what we learned.

photo 2

Welcome to The Year of Living Experimentally.

 

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.

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).

hex_design-1

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.

0aec8b6b0559cbf5789957eaf67fa79a

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).