Do We Make “Content”?

Last month I went to Dallas (my first time in the Big D, at least out of the airport) for the annual MCN conference.


It’s one of my favorite conferences, and is one that I always feel like I walk away with ideas and inspiration and thinking about lots of big questions– it’s the one where I spend the plane ride home thinking that I’m going to get home and Do All The Things! Make All The Things! Make Very Very Good Things! And then I get home and my inbox is full and there are voicemails and deadlines and maybe even a fire to put out, and I think, I will do All The Things a little later.*

This year I presented in the case study group, which was really enjoyable– there were some great conversations about what makes a trusted museum brand. I was also on a panel that was organized by Robert Weisberg from the Met (who compared his institution first to pre-revolutionary France, and then to a space ark) that was downright fun. (You can read his thoughts on this year’s MCN here). Corey Pressman gave an inspiring (and often hilarious) talk about orality’s shift into the authority of print, and the potential for opening authority as we move into a time of secondary orality. Kimon Keramidas talked about his (supercool) projects with students at the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center. (The audio from the panel is here).

The panel touched on a lot of things that I spend a lot (I mean a lot) of time thinking about. Much of what I do professionally is “content development.” If someone had said to me when I was tied to a carrel in the library in grad school that I would grow up to develop content I would have looked at you like you’d told me I was going to find myself living out my middle years on Mars. Content development? What does that even mean?

I don’t really recall hearing the word “content” (the way it is used now) in grad school. I might have, but if I did it didn’t make an impression. It’s a word I hear all the time now, both in my professional life and outside of it, but it is a term that I find hard to pin down. What does it even mean?

The seeming ubiquity of the word doesn’t, for me, negate it’s inherent slipperiness. What does it actually point to? First and foremost, it points to its holder (“content,” after all, says up front that it is contained, which means there must be a container) while not pointing at all to its own identity. It’s stuff that goes in the thing– it’s only identifying feature being that it is held in something else. It seems to function as a placeholder for whatever we happen to be talking about at that moment. Labels, videos, software, tours, public programs, whatever. We seem to have tacitly agreed to use this catch-all word to catch all we do– and it the process it’s lost whatever meaning it might have, at some point, had.

And then we use it with visitors.

Ug. The internal/external meanings of museums’ weird nomenclature are rarely aligned. In my experience museums have extensive taxonomies so esoteric that only a select few have been initiated into the highest levels of knowledge. For visitors, much of it is just wordswordswordsthatIdon’tknow.

And who actually wants to make “content”? Content sounds like vitamins: something you don’t enjoy ingesting but do it because you’re supposed to. Who wants to listen to, watch, see, read, or make that? Content is a word that sounds desiccated. And it’s so overused that at times I think it no longer has a referent.

When I think about what we are actually doing, when I think about what I actually love finding out about and listening to, and watching, and learning about when I go to a museum (and I go to a lot of them– and not just the one where I work), it’s stories. Because we’re humans, and humans are hardwired to hear, tell, and process narratives (literally). It is how we make sense of the world; but it is also a critical way in which we derive joy from it as well. We don’t want to hear “content”; we want to hear a good yarn.

This may seem like just semantics, and it is semantics, but it isn’t only semantics. Externally, is it realistic to expect our visitors to get excited about something we call “content”? Internally, does approaching the work through the framework of “content development” have an impact on what we produce? [I would say that it does, and not for the better].

That said, I don’t have a solution for a better word. Ideas, stories, narratives, something else…. I don’t know, but would love to hear suggestions.


Meanwhile, I heard some fantastic panels and discussions at MCN, including a super fun panel on games with Emily Lytle-Painter of LACMA and James Collins of the Smithsonian that really had me thinking (again) about games (again) and museums (again). Our little department has several people who are gamers themselves (analog and digital) and the idea of bringing games into what we do at the museum comes up somewhat regularly. The session had lots of great advice, but was done through actually trying different things out– which is a great way to make the message stick.

I also really enjoyed a panel on museums and social media, and have been thinking ever since I left Dallas about Alli Burness‘s question: What do selfies mean?

And of course I visited the Dallas Art Museum:

Went to a honky tonk:

And had epic karaoke:


Before heading home:


*And over the course of the next year I usually get to Some Of The Things, which probably isn’t half bad.

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.


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.