This Week’s Museum Reads: Empathy & Engagement

Museum Reads header imageI spent all weekend marinating in poetry at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was incredible and thought-provoking as always. As an interdisciplinary enthusiast, I was enthralled with the ways I saw people talking about poetry and science, poetry and art, poetry and environmentalism, poetry and current events, poetry and civil activism.  Coming back to my museum-persona, I was glad to see some of those same kinds of discussions are happening in this field as well, at AAM last week and continuing online and abroad.

Here are a few good reads from the last few days:

NEMA Wrap up 3: Discussing Diversity

At the 2014 conference, NEMA launched a new set of sessions styled as “Think Tanks,” or opportunities to have thought leaders and conference attendees work together in structured brainstorming to consider issues in the field, and what museums’ assets, opportunities, barriers, and possible action items are to create change.  The Think Tank I attended was on improving and promoting diversity in the museum field, especially in museum employees.  Though this has been discussed before, in light of recent studies that show how quickly the traditional museum-going public is being eclipsed by the growth of other segments of the population, the question remains key in the quest to retain museums’ relevance in the 21st century.

PEM's "Museum Action Corps" intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester.  This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

PEM’s “Museum Action Corps” intern program was a paid internship that targeted students from underserved communities, and featured a collaborative project each semester. This one, from 2007, was an oral history video on the changing face of Salem.

Defining Diversity

The first task the Think Tank took on was trying to encapsulate what kinds of diversity we seek as a field.  Recognizing that ‘diversity of thought is even more important than diversity of look’ to promote change, while not underestimating the impact of the ‘this place is for people like me’ effect, meant that our definition in itself was diverse.  The questions raised included ‘how can we define/identify what diversity is – and should we?’ and ‘what kind of diversities are priorities for museums?’  These are both much bigger ideas than we had airspace for in an hour long session, but I would love to hear your thoughts!

According to our brainstorm, museums seek to promote diversity in their staff, board, volunteers, and (eventually, hopefully) audience in:

  • age / lifestage / generation
  • culture
  • race
  • economic background
  • language/bilingual
  • physical ability
  • learning styles
  • gender (& gender identity)
  • orientation
  • mobility
  • religious
  • neurological/non-neuro-typical

We then split into groups to discuss the following topics.

Assets and Opportunities

How are museums well positioned to diversify?  What do we have in our ‘toolbox’ that can help solve the problem, and what opportunities do we have or can we create to improve the state of diversity in our field?

This is a really positive place to start, and while it’s both true and unfortunate that the group who chose to work on ‘barriers’ was twice the size, there was still some really good discussion here.

Here are a few of the places where my discussion group felt like we had real advantages or options for taking a more diverse path:

  • volunteer opportunities for high schoolers or younger (including a discussion about why this is an important experience)
  • mentorship
  • a core mission of telling human stories
  • location (where museums are central to their communities)
  • collections (what strengths and diverse experiences do we already have represented in our beautiful, interesting, important stuff?  What about the stuff that gets overlooked?)
  • sense of place

Focusing on these strengths with an eye towards diversity can hopefully lead to:

  • increased strength, power, sustainability and credibility of museum individuals and the organization as a whole
  • increased attendance

The group that discussed barriers to diversity had what appeared to be a lively and honest conversation in the back of the room.  They were focused on identifying impediments to diversity, and potential ways to mitigate them.  Some of their discussion points included:

  • unpaid internships (in fact, compensation at most levels was mentioned as being a potential barrier, but internships got top spot as a matter of concern)
  • lip service to diversity without true institutional commitment of time, money, and other resources
  • facilities (one possibility is to try to provide accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms)
  • negative histories/dislike/distrust of institutions (lots of minority groups have justified issues with museums based on past interactions)
  • location (not all museums are easy to get to or located in an area that is prime for diversifying)
  • only telling a narrow storyline (need to make room for more voices!)

Some of these barriers are easier to knock down than others, but there was some good follow up discussion on how to get there, enumerated below.

Specific Suggestions for Progress

Aside from the suggestions specifically directed at NEMA above, the group came up with some other ideas about ways to bring a more diverse set of applicants and attendees to the museum world:

  • Sensible job descriptions – reducing the entry barrier by making job descriptions and requirements more feasible for a wider range of applicants.
  • Putting a commitment to diversity in the mission statement, inquiring at new jobs what their commitment to diversity is.
  • Consider: where are we posting jobs? where are we advertising? Do we only talk to ourselves?
  • Can’t only be externally motivated & funded (i.e. by grants, accreditation assessments, etc.)
  • Diverse staff should be in every section : curatorial, board, education, facilities, front line staff, everywhere.
  • Seek partnerships with the organizations that are working where we want to – we are each others’ assets.
  • Get to know your coworkers – they’re probably more diverse than you’re aware of, and have connections, skills, and ideas that aren’t being used.
  • Existing is not enough if people targeted are not aware/interested: make sure you have what people need/are looking for, spend the time and effort to get the word out once you do, and make it lasting, not a one-time thing.

And a few things to consider when we’re trying to figure out how well we’re doing:

  • Metrics : when have we reached the goal/balance?  How diverse is ‘enough?’ Maybe we’re never there, always need to be thinking, working, aware of changing contexts.
  • Being realistic about the effort, not just seeking to fill quotas: what does success look like? Results do matter, but numbers are not the only method of measuring institutional change.
  • Open dialogue is important, more important than comfort, even.  If we’re outside our comfort zone, that’s probably a good thing!
 And a final reminder that I think we all need, lest we get discouraged:

Next Steps

In the time it’s taken for me to assemble my thoughts, the conversation around museum diversity and responding to social justice issues has continued.  If you haven’t yet checked in with the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson discussions, here are a few good links:

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events
Responding to the Events in Ferguson and Beyond: The Northwest African American Museum’s Example
Twitter Chat: #museumsrespondtoferguson
#Museums respond to Ferguson – Things must change.

Now, as our session leaders urged us, it’s your turn to “go out and talk to one other person that wasn’t here!  Start the conversation somewhere else.”

Or, keep talking to me here! Do you know of any projects or initiatives that are working to make the museum world a more inclusive one?

NEMA wrap-up 2: Cultural Consumption and Gut Reactions

Time for NEMA Wrap Up 2: Numbers and emotions!  (Those do not usually go well together, but we’re going for it anyway.)

informal feedback board from NEMA 2014

Feedback, whether formal or informal, is the most constant thing on the menu for museums who want to figure out what’s actually happening in their spaces.

Culture Track: Understanding Boston Museum-Going Audiences

Have you noticed how data-hungry people are these days?  From fitbits to count your number of steps per day to ways to measure your driving habits, your energy consumption, and the efficiency of your home heating system, everyone seems to love a bunch of numbers to crunch.  The museum field is no different.

Fortunately, Boston’s MFA recently paired with the folks over at La Placa Cohen to create the first city-focused Culture Track study of museum audience behavior in the greater Boston area (these are usually done at the national level).  The announcement, with links to the entire report and the summary presentation, is here.

The study aimed to understand audiences, not just “What are they doing? How are they engaging in culture? Why do they decide to participate?” but also “What’s really driving or discouraging audiences?  How do local trends compare to national ones?”   The study was also planned as a test case as a way to establish “shared & actionable data” for museums in the area.

These were a few highlights I took away from the session (though I encourage you to check out the full report as well!):

  • Since 2011, the percent of respondents who attend at least one cultural activity per year has increased in almost all fields.
  • The youngest audiences drive the market in Boston: cultural attendance among the younger ages of respondents is much higher here than the national average.
  • People are looking for “entertainment and enlightment” but the social aspects are very important:  almost half of millenials won’t go if they are going alone.
  • Audiences in all age brackets are looking for convenience (low cost, easy parking and opening hours) in addition to there being interesting topics and activities available.
  • All  culture-consuming Greater Bostonians are info-hungry and seek out information about their proposed activities ahead of time: websites, news articles, brochures, youtube videos, etc.

There were also a number of good questions brought up about further possibilities for study, including tracking visitors who only attend free events, or thinking about ways to improve the perceived value of memberships as organizational support.  Lots of food for thought!

Objects and Emotion

Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris, authors of Creativity in Museum Practice, led a really interesting and highly entertaining session on provoking emotion through objects in museums.  In their typical style, this was a highly participatory session too, starting with a question like “Does incorporating strong emotion in the museum world make us nervous?” and then asking us to remember and consider objects in our own lives that provoke emotion.  (A lot of us chose gifts/remembrances of lost family members, which was interesting.)

The importance of emotion – especially strong emotion – is that it is closely tied to memory: both memories already held, and those created in that moment.

“Every memory comes with an emotional ‘stamp’ attached to it.  The stronger the emotional value the more likely sensory information is to pass this inital inspection and be admitted into memory.” – John Falk

In fact, according to Norris and Tisdale, in a study soon to be published by Reach Advisors, Susie Wilkening will report that ‘transformative’ or ‘aha’ moments need these elements: immersive environments, real objects, narrative/story, emotion.  (This is not surprising, perhaps, but as in the post section above, everyone loves the data that will prove it!)

In the exercises that followed, we were asked to pick a favorite object from our own museums, and to then call out a number of emotions.  Then we all sorted our objects into one of those emotions, ranging from ‘wonder’ to ‘anxiety’ to ‘confusion’ to ‘skepticism’ and beyond.  And we were asked to consider these points when going back to our own institutions to design a new visitor experience:

  • Some emotions are easier for museums than others (abundance, nostalgia, pride, tragedy).
  • Emotions are complicated – how do we get to the less explored territory beyond the emotions mentioned above?
  • An object can prompt the same emotion in multiple people and/or different emotions in different people. (All equally valid!)
  • Providing opportunities for emotion is more important than dictating what they should feel –  let people find their own resonance.

Some suggestions for ways to get to those emotional resonances included:

  •  cataloging by emotion (adding tags to your catalog based off staff assessments of a work’s emotional weight)
  • collecting by emotion (asking your community to donate objects with emotional resonance, complete with the stories about why)
  • tagging by emotion (getting visitors to use post-its or other ways to tag objects on view with the emotions they feel when looking at them)
  • designing to provoke emotion (lighting, stories in labels/media accompaniment, juxtapositions with other objects, visitor feedback areas)

If you’re looking for more information or a good emotion-bank starting place, here’s the handout from the session: ObjectsandEmotionHandout

Do you have a particularly emotion-laden object in your museum or personal collection?  What makes it resonate?  Share it in the comments!

NEMA Wrap-up 1: Pop-Up Museums and Peer Learning

The week before Thanksgiving was a big, busy, thought-provoking whirlwind of interesting issues in the field of museums.  I had a great time at the New England Museum Association (NEMA) annual conference, and as you may know if you follow me on Twitter, I had plenty to say!  For the next few posts I will be pulling together some of the highlights from the sessions I attended, and I’ll wrap it up with a summary of the session that I actually presented.

Highlight 1: “Pop-Up Museum” pre-conference event

IMG_20141118_200409106_HDRFor those of you who haven’t run across the Pop Up Museum concept before, the brief explanation is that it is a short term event, in which participants (usually from a particular community based on location, profession, interest, etc) create the ‘museum’ by bringing objects to share related to a theme, writing a label, and then talking to other participants and interested viewers.  There’s great in-depth information on the concept available from Michelle DelCarlo’s Pop Up Museum blog and Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0. (and a toolkit at the first link in this section)

This event’s theme was ‘things you do and create outside of work,’ and featured painters, photographers, sculptors, collectors and enthusiasts, voiceover artists, gardeners and more.  I brought poetry (see my ‘author’s point of view’ post here), but in the middle of being a poet, I was still being a museum educator, and here are some of my museum-centric takeaways:

  • Theme matters.  The theme was one people were passionate about and they were eager to tell their stories.
  • The label writing session was fun and needed about 3 more minutes than it got.  Brevity on labels is hard, we all know this.  A little more time for editing would have helped!
  • The “Ask me about…” prompt for the labels was the best part, as it promoted conversation and allowed an icebreaker for starting conversation with strangers.  We can and should do more of this kind of thing when we have artist demos, residencies, and facilitators on the exhibit floor, because it empowers our audience to be the ones to start a conversation.  Signage, buttons, nametags, whatever works.
  • A little more time for the participants to circulate to interact with each other before letting in other guests would help–we all wanted to see each others’ works but felt the pull to be near our own as well.

If you’d like to find out more about the objects people brought, a number of us posted 45 second clips up on Brad Larson’s Story Kiosk, and he’s got a great wrap up of the event, with playlist.

Highlight 2: Peer Learning

I went to three sessions that focused on different aspects of adult learning: professional publishing, new research in adult learning in informal spaces, and reflective practice.  It is important to remember, of course, that no matter how long one has been working in museums or in education or in whatever one’s chosen field, there is always something new to learn.  That’s what makes life fun.  And it is equally important to support one’s staff as learners as well as teachers, so here are the highlights from the peer learning sessions:

  •  Involving people from all levels in the process of setting goals and developing evaluation methods increases buy-in and aids in the development of a shared language.
  • Variety is key: evaluation methods stagnate as easily as anything else, and you can’t learn more if you’re only ever measuring one or two points of ‘success’
  • Feedback and reflection and observation are tools not to prove that people are doing things wrong but to highlight ways to improve.
  • Keeping up your reading in the field is important not only for providing shortcuts to finding the methods and language that works for you, but to help you figure out what you want to be doing next.

How will you experience 2015?

It’s January, and though my internal clock is still very wired to the scholastic calendar (September will always and forever be the start of a new year to me), budget and program cycles are telling me it’s a fresh start and a chance to do something new and cool for 2015.

What will your guiding words for this year be?  Photo of sculpture from outside the Fuller Craft Museum, photograph by Meg Winikates.

What will your guiding words for this year be? Photo of sculpture from outside the Fuller Craft Museum, photograph by Meg Winikates.

For me, that includes things like planning new exhibits, getting a new set of museum guides up to speed with drop-in programming in the galleries, and coming up with ways to evaluate last year’s changes and figure out where we can be even more responsive to our visitors in both exhibition and program design.  (I’m currently working on ways to get visitors to inspire each other to greater heights of creative play in our Investigate Zone designed for visitors under 5 and their accompanying adults.)

Here are a few cool reads to help you get inspired (personally and professionally) for the new year:

  • Nina Simon over on Museum 2.0 has a neat interview with a member of Museum Hack, thinking about how to reinvigorate the tour experience.
  • Seeking inspiration and a way to keep on track for the new year?  The Artful Parent has suggestions for making a vision board to hang in your home or office.  (This is much prettier than the strings of to-do lists I tape to my apartment door!)  She’s also doing a daily sketchbook project.
  • The Jealous Curator is doing a monthly “Creative Un-Block” challenge: January’s features altering copies of the same image in as many ways and with as many materials/media as one can imagine.

What are you planning for next year?  What grand experiments and adventures are getting your grin a little wider than usual?

Branching Out Opens Tomorrow

Salem Willows at Sunset, September 2014.  Photo by Meg Winikates

Salem Willows at Sunset, September 2014. Photo by Meg Winikates

The Art & Nature Center’s new show, Branching Out: Trees as Art opens tomorrow, and it’s going to be a fun day of tagua nut scrimshaw, bonsai demonstration, maple syrup and chocolate tasting, storytelling and musical performances, and more.  Learn how to engage in active meditation with a tree, hear participating artists discuss their work, or create your own visual art with data taken from the bioelectric energy of a potted plant in the Maker Lounge!  Programs run 10:30-4.  If you’re in the eastern MA/near NH area tomorrow, come say hi!

#ArtsMatter at the Create the Vote Gubernatorial Forum

On Tuesday, the non-partisan advocacy group, MassCreative hosted a forum in Worcester where all the gubernatorial candidates were invited to attend and talk to arts leaders and advocates about their platforms for supporting the arts in Massachusetts.  Most attended, though Republican Charlie Baker neither bothered to show up in person nor send a representative.  About 600 arts leaders, participants, and activists were in the audience, and they were both enthusiastic and determined to get some nitty-gritty answers to their questions about arts funding and state support.

MassCreative put together a summary of much of the tweeting that went on at the event here, and I also tweeted a number of the moments that caught my ear (find the whole set @mwinikates).  You can also find much of the same material from the evening covered in the candidates’ position surveys here.

Overall, I thought Don Berwick and Martha Coakley both had good and interesting points that got cheers and applause, and Steve Grossman clearly had support in the hall.  Falchuk was very focused on affordable housing and cost of living issues, and McCormick had a very business-minded approach to dealing with the arts, while Fisher seemed underprepared and tone-deaf to the concerns and realities of his audience.  Here are a few of the evening’s highlights:

(And here I am, catching up with Neil Gordon of the Discovery Museums, my old stomping ground,  and Dan Yaeger of NEMA.)

Plugging back in to the theme of the evening, in response to an audience question about how to get the legislature to get behind a gubernatorial arts initiative:

I agree, and I hope that MassCreative keeps up the good work in the time between now and the election (and after!).

Looking for more?  There’s another great round-up of the evening’s event over at Dig Boston.