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.

 

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. 

 

Practice, Practice, Practice

We do lots of different things in our department (often all at the same time). While this sometimes can leave all of us feeling like we are professional plate spinners, there are also real benefits to having all of those plates spinning all the time– I can honestly say that I’m never bored.

It does sometimes make mastery a challenge, though. Mastery takes time and focus, and both can be in short supply. It can also be a bit daunting when you start doing new things, because the first few times you do something (or the first twenty times, or maybe the first fifty times, depending on how complicated the task is), the results can be sort of disappointing. The first time you do something isn’t actually all that hard. It’s usually frustrating. You read the instructions. You watch a couple of YouTube videos showing how to do it, you think, okay, I’ve got this. I can do this. And then you do it and it looks nothing like you thought it was going to. For me, I leave it alone for an hour or two, go back at it again, mess it up again, leave it alone, go back again… repeat seemingly ad infinitum.

The scary thing is making the second one of anything. Having made the first one, you now know that you only sort of know how to do the mechanics of it. Probably more importantly, you also know that, while you have figured out how to make that thing, you haven’t figured out how to make it as good as you want it to be.

Ira Glass has a great take on this:

A friend of mine and I have been talking about a project for the last year and a half. It’s a personal project. It’s an idea that I’m excited about and interested in. It’s also only one of a dozen projects, some personal, some professional, that we’ve talked about doing. I sent him the Ira Glass video right before one of our planning meetings for one of the more complicated projects we’re working on with a note that I thought we should take Glass’s advice.

Step One: we’re going to do a lot of work.

We started collecting pieces for the first project this weekend, including spending some time figuring out how to use the GoPro camera I just picked up. These things are supposed to be waterproof, right?

 

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).