Museum Reconnaissance Missions

Our department went on a couple of really fantastic research trips last year, and I’ve had the folder with my notes in it in the to do pile for an embarrassingly long time with all sorts of plans for writing about what we saw.  No better time than the present, right? Each of these trips was so incredibly valuable for us as we think about projects that we have coming up and the direction we would like to head towards with interpretation in the future.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The team visited DIA to meet with the Interpretation team, as well as some members of Education, Exhibitions, and Curatorial. It was a fantastic visit–it is always such a boon to have the chance to talk with colleagues at other institutions, learn how they are organized, and to see the culmination of their work in the galleries. Interpretation departments and teams are all grappling with so many of the same issues, it gives tremendous food for thought to hear about what processes and solutions are being put into play at other institutions– particularly ones with long-established histories in interpretation. This is particularly true when it offers the opportunity to spend the day with awesome people– and the DIA has an army of awesome people.

Interpretation team field trip!

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There were quite a few takeaways from this trip, but I think the biggest one for me was hearing about how they were using visitor research, and how much it informs the work they do. We love having visitor research data, and do use it to inform our thinking about projects, but it was so great to hear about some of the ways in which the folks at DIA had used their data, how it had influenced decisions, and how it informed conversations around the work.

(I actually got to visit the DIA twice in the last year, most recently for a VTS practicum in March,  I visited the Diego Rivera & Frida Khalo in Detroit show while I was there, which is gorgeous and so worth the visit).

Portland Museum of Art

We were able to take a whirlwind trip out West to the Portland Museum of Art to meet up with their Education Department (as well as a number of folks from several other departments).

Interpretation museum adventure! #pma

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We have been working on a storybooth prototype, and the PMA’s Object Stories project offers a well known  museum storybooth example, and one that we’ve been very interested in learning about as we’ve been thinking about our own project.

Object Stories Booth at PMA

Object Stories Booth at PMA

We had such great discussions with everyone at Portland– from hearing about the fantastic programming that they are doing to what they learned from Object Stories and more.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

They are doing some amazing things at the PMA, and it was really inspiring to hear about the ways in which they are connecting to a variety of communities in Portland.

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Our discussions about Object Stories were incredibly helpful for thinking about our upcoming project, and that was just one of the great takeaways from the visit. It was great to hear about projects they are working on, and inspiring to hear about the ways that they have experimented with making connections with visitors. In particular, I really admired how much of their work was informed by the community at large, and the really important ways they are thinking about the many audiences and potential audiences there are in Portland. We were also excited to hear how the museum was tackling social media, in which many departments are directly involved.

Denver Art Museum

On the way back from Portland we stopped in Denver to visit the Denver Art Museum.

Interpretation team art adventure! @bethanyincle @phoebe_olivia_penelope

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We happened to get there not long after they released their report on creativity and community, so I had some really interesting reading material for the flight. For example:

But although irreverence is good, irrelevance is not. When polled, visitors consistently express a preference for rich, meaningful, object-based content.

DAM was full of surprises– at least for me. As a (probably over-) seasoned art museum visitor I walk into museums with a framework of expectations (as do many of us).

At the Denver art museum

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DAM had many of the things that one would expect in an art museum visit.

Excited for our day at the Denver Art Museum today

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But it also had some surprises tucked into spaces throughout the galleries– maker spaces that give visitors the opportunity to create themselves.

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We spent a lot of time in the maker spaces.

@bethanyincle with her creation from the African gallery maker space

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For me, having the opportunity to create something– even something simple (or perhaps especially something simple and low stress) was a great experience. I left thinking a lot about creativity and ways that supporting visitors’ creativity (even those who don’t think of themselves as creative) can expand and enhance visitors’ experience in the museum. We’ve been exploring ways that we can do even without having dedicated maker spaces, including programs like writing workshops and the storytelling workshop that Bethany wrote about recently).

We were also able to visit one of their special exhibitions, Matisse and Friends, which included unique interpretive elements, such as a single audio stop designed to facilitate contemplative looking, super comfy seating to encourage longer engagement with the paintings, and the opportunity to share a journal response to the works in the exhibition. We watched visitors interact with each of these elements, engaging with each one.

These visits and discussions were amazing and we will be thinking about what we’ve seen for a long time to come. I want to extend a huge thank you to all of our colleagues at the DIA, PMA, and DAM, who were all incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, their ideas, and their experiences. We came away inspired, impressed, full of ideas, and completely wowed by the amazing things happening in the field.

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Something on my mind

For the last week or so we’ve been working on scheduling our first data-gathering adventures in July and August, which are going to be jam-packed with observations and intercepts for the whole team. We’ve also been working on planning for a couple of new programs and projects and how to evaluate them.

We’re a creative bunch, so the ideas keep rolling in and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about grouping, staging, and prioritizing. Meanwhile, the seasonal shift in the sunrise and sunset has been wrecking a bit of havoc on the homefront recently–our cats are now quite convinced that 4:15 am is breakfast time. The [only] positive thing about being awake then is that it is does build a quiet moment into the day when I can focus on something that I might otherwise not have the time to do (or that I would probably put off to another time). My what-on-earth-am-I-doing-up-now project this weeks has been a little mindmapping.

mindmapping

I keep thinking about the question Why do we do it?, and the connected question What makes this fulfilling? For me, reaching goals is part of what makes the work fulfilling, so I thought I’d start with goals I’d like to work on this year. This isn’t meant to represent what I intend to achieve in the year, but is a way to start thinking about directions and planning paths. Although I started with the idea of goals for this year, built into the map are the places I’d like to reach next year, the year after, and in a few cases some year in the future.

mindmappingdet

I think there are more than a couple of 4:30am mindmapping exercises in my future, with more refining and a few more concrete descriptions. Many of the bubbles feel like they need to be unpacked a bit. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where things were connected because it felt like they were connected to everything. Which reminded me of a tweet from Bethany at AAM this year:

I think this ties into a theme that I think has been woven through many of the planning and projecting exercises of the last couple of months, whether it’s applying some of the design thinking strategies, mindmapping, or creating personas. A lot of the focus of our discussions has been on visitor-centered-ness. It was a phrase that I heard over and over again at AAM, and it sounds like what we are trying to do, but since coming back from Seattle I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean when we talk about visitor-centered practice or visitor-centered design. I heard a lot of examples of how that is conceptualized in panels (as well as informal discussions). How we define it in our team and in our work is going to be an important point to articulate in our planning.

For today, I included my own definition of visitor-centered-ness in my first meeting of the day, talking with the fabulous protection services staff about our collection app.

guardsand artlens

It was like giving a tour with the most engaged group ever, which was awesome. They are among the staff members who spend the most time with visitors (and the art), and they have a ton of experience and knowledge about how visitors experience the galleries, the app, the art, and the organization. I learned a lot from them this morning, and I’m excited to be talking to them again next week, when I plan to pluck their brains for even more information.

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:

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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.