Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quick Hit: Five Great Links

This week, a kitchen sink of inspiring bits.

Museums, Politics, and Power is a new blog that lives up to its name. It presents global perspectives on these juicy, interrelated issues. It is the online counterpart to a conference of the same name that will be hosted this fall in St. Petersburg. Three intrepid blog managers are soliciting contributions from all over the world, and so far, there are posts from Belarus, Canada, Germany, Northern Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, and the US. The content is meaty, multi-lingual, and timely.

I'm one of the guests in the newest episode of Museopunks, a podcast series by Jeffrey Inscho and Suse Cairns. The topic is online professional identity. My career has been shaped significantly by blogging. It's something I think about often but rarely talk about. The podcast let us dive into the topic and discuss how online and offline worlds complement and complicate each other.

Elsewhere in podcast-land, Radiolab did a fascinating piece about cultural appropriation and gate-keeping in hip hop music. It asks basic questions about who can define authenticity and quality in an art practice that was historically based in a specific cultural identity but is now being assimilated/exploited/expanded. Sound familiar? Some serious parallels to curating exhibitions and performances, especially with living artists.

Speaking of contemporary artists, one of my favorite recent blog posts was this thoughtful essay by artist Brian Fernandes-Halloran about navigating the compromises between artistic ambition and the marketplace. As Brian puts it: "What happens when an artist’s inclinations towards her/his work conflict with her/his ability to sell and keep making it?"

Finally, if you need a hit of inspiration and historical museum-making, I strongly recommend checking out the Boston Stories project. Boston Stories chronicles the radical, human-centered work at the Boston Children's Museum in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This website is a little oddly organized, but it is a treasure trove of essays, videos, and downloads related to the amazing work of Michael Spock, Elaine Heumann Gurian, and many many honored museum rabble-rousers. For example, check out this research report [pdf] from 1969 on the use of visitor research in the development of exhibitions. This stuff is so early it's practically prenatal.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who is an Artist? On Naming and Expertise

Rebecca sat down next to me at breakfast and asked, "How was the hike yesterday?"  
I replied, "Good. It was more of a walk. But it was beautiful." 
Her: "You're a serious hiker, right?" 
Me: "I guess so."

This simple exchange--or one like it--happens every day. We question our abilities. We confirm our expertise.

I noticed this conversation because it happened during a break at a two-day meeting where people heatedly debated the question of who is an artist. In that context, this simple exchange about hiking got me thinking.

What does it mean when someone says she is a hiker, or a scientist, or an artist? It can mean:
  • I do this thing often.
  • I do this thing at a high level of ability.
  • I have expertise in doing this thing.
  • I make my living doing this thing.
  • I consider this thing to be a core part of my identity.
  • I affiliate with this thing.
  • I aspire to do this thing professionally, and I am affiliating to build that future for myself.
Some professionals believe strongly in the power of aspirational affiliation. Last week, I heard a curator advocate strongly for the "everyone is an artist" frame of thinking. When you tell a child or an outsider that he is an artist, you empower that person to join a community of art-making. At the same time, you expand the definition of art and make it more inclusive. 

Other professionals believe that expertise needs to be protected. Last week, I heard an immensely talented performer say he "dances but isn't a dancer" because he doesn't do it every day. A person who dedicates their life to making art has a different way of seeing and engaging with the world. It's valuable to honor and acknowledge that difference.

Each of us defines these lines differently, and I don't think there can be one answer. There are reasonable arguments for delineation based on credentials, experience, talent, intention, time on task, and personal connection. 

I know within myself, in the small example of hiking, I froze for a moment when I was asked if I was a serious hiker. I started thinking: well, yes, this is a big part of my identity, but I don't really do it that often anymore, but I like to do it at a high level of intensity, and compared to the general public I do it a lot, and I often plan vacations around it, and probably when I am in a less crazy time of life I'll do it more... 

I experienced a half-second of heart-racing existential self-questioning just to answer a very simple question. 

I also noticed a kind of social distinction shaping up around the exchange. When I said "it was more of a walk," I was also saying "this isn't up to my standards of hiking." When she asked, "You're a serious hiker, right?," she was also asking, "You distinguish yourself from others in this way, right?" The use of the word "serious," like the use of the word "professional," started to draw a clearer line between me and Rebecca--a line that made me uncomfortable. I didn't want to exclude her from past or potential shared hiking experiences. But subtly, I did.

All of this makes me think three basic things about how we name ourselves:
  1. It's personal. Even if you think you have the way to define who is an artist or a scientist or an expert, each individual may still choose to affiliate (or opt out) based on his/her own standards. 
  2. It's relational. The things we call ourselves and each other do impact the way we see and treat each other. 
  3. It could be much richer and more expansive. A word like "artist" is a heavy hammer to impose on every nail. If the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, can't we have fifty words for artist? If we can add more nuance to the ways we name ourselves, we can move from debate to dialogue about the opportunities inherent in a diverse and complex world.
How do you interpret the question of who is an artist/scientist/expert?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Hemingway: A Simple Online Tool for Better Short-Form Writing

Exhibit labels. Promotional text. Grant proposals. For many arts/museum professionals, writing text in 100-word chunks is a daily activity.

And unfortunately, a lot of that writing is lousy. There are great references for better art writing, but we don't always use them. We pack sentences with high-falutin vocabulary, pepper them with clauses, and wrap them up in insider language.

Recently, I discovered an online tool that can change that. It's called Hemingway. Its intent is "to make your writing bold and clear."

It does this by offering everything you wish Microsoft Word grammar check provided:

  • it keeps track of word count, sentence count, paragraph count, and character count.
  • it highlights sentences that are hard to read. 
  • it highlights phrases that are unnecessarily complicated.
  • it marks adverbs and uses of passive voice.
  • it judges "readability" by calculating grade level of the text (apparently using an average of several scoring rubrics).
  • it doesn't flag stylistic flourishes like intentional incomplete sentences. Like this.

I started using it for exhibit labels. When writing exhibit labels, I am constantly checking and rechecking the word count. I use online calculators to assess grade level. It's a pain and Hemingway takes that pain away.

Then I started using it for chunks of grant proposals. Word counts matter there too. In proposals, it can be easy to fall into jargon and long, convoluted sentences. Hemingway has helped me declare where I used to meander.

Hemingway has one big downside: right now, it's just an online app. You have to copy and paste text in (and out) to use it. I'm hopeful that they will release a desktop app soon.

And of course, it doesn't actually channel the voice of Ernest Hemingway. As many have observed, Ernest Hemingway scores low on Hemingway. The app encourages clear, declarative writing, which makes it a poor fit for many creative endeavors. But exhibit labels or marketing brochures? It's ideal for that.

Now I find Hemingway infiltrating my brain when writing almost anything--including this blog post. It is at an 8th grade level, with four adverbs and two hard-to-read sentences. I can live with that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

What I Learned from Beck (the rock star) about Participatory Arts

In December of 2012, the rock musician Beck released his latest album, Song Reader. Song Reader didn't come as a CD, or an LP, or a bunch of digital audio files. It is what it sounds like: a book of original sheet music, beautifully designed and complemented with artwork and text. There are twenty songs in Song Reader. But if you want to hear them, you have to play them yourself--or check out hundreds of interpretations shared by musicians on the Song Reader website.

There are many artistic projects that offer a template for participation, whether a printed play, an orchestral score, or a visual artwork that involves an instructional set (from community murals to Sol LeWitt). Beck's project is unusual because he deliberately resurrected a mostly-defunct participatory platform: sheet music for popular songs. In his thoughtful preface to this project, I reconnected with five lessons I've learned from participatory projects in museums and cultural sites.

1. Constrain the input, free the output.

In my experience, the best participatory experiences are as constrained and clear as possible in the invitation offered, and as open-ended as possible in the outcome generated. Sheet music is a beautiful analogy for this.

The fact that there is no original recording by Beck of the Song Reader songs, no model upon which "covers" would be based, frees the reader to imagine the songs in any number of ways. As Beck put it:
The opening up of the music, the possibility of letting people work with these songs in different ways, and of allowing them a different accessibility than what’s offered by all the many forms of music available today, is ultimately what this collection aims for. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance. 

2. Level the playing field for participants of diverse backgrounds.

One of the things I always focus on in participatory exhibit design is ensuring that everyone has the same tools to work with. When community contributions are presented as second-class content, that negatively affects both the quality of the contributions and the perception of the product. If there are museum objects and visitors' objects on display together, all should be afforded the same level of exhibit design, labels, etc. If there's a talkback area in an exhibition where people can make drawings, visitors should have access to the same kind of paper and colored pencils that was used to generate seed content.

These kinds of participatory projects can actually de-motivate because participants can't possibly measure up to the display model. If Beck is in a fancy studio and you're in your garage with your ukelele, why bother?

Beck talks about this in the context of learning to play music as a young artist. The music he listened to on the radio "got its power" from studio techniques. He described it this way:
When I started out on guitar, I gravitated toward folk and country blues; they seemed to work well with the limited means I had to make music of my own. The popular songs, by contrast, didn’t really translate to my Gibson flat-top acoustic. There was an unspoken division between the music you heard on the radio and the music you were able to play with your own hands. By then, recorded music was no longer just the document of a performance—it was a composite of style, hooks, and production techniques, an extension of a popular personality’s image within a current sound.
Of course, Beck notes the irony that sheet music is not exactly accessible to everyone, especially at a time when many people are making music digitally in all kinds of ways that don't start with standardized notation. But when it comes to building from a template, sheet music has simple power. As Beck puts it:
I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it—it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it.

3. Everything old is new again.

Sheet music is not a new technology. Beck was inspired to launch this project by the popularity of sheet music and songbooks in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, a popular hit could sell tens of millions of copies of the sheet music, which translated to tens of millions of people playing and singing the songs in their own homes.

Thinking about this, I was struck by the resonance with conversations swirling in the arts field about "little a" art: art that happens in the home, in churches, in parks. There seems to be a hunger these days to document, research, and celebrate the diverse places and ways that people make and share art outside of formal, recognized institutions.

While any family theoretically can start a home singalong or a neighborhood play-reading group, it often takes a tradition, a formal structure, or a template to prompt this kind of activity. Song Reader looks back and encourages reengaging in a tradition that fosters participation. Similarly, when a theater adopts a talking circle practice, or a museum starts a knitting group, the institution is reconnecting with traditional templates for participatory engagement.

4. Participatory processes often (and sometimes unintentionally) restructure the product.

When you are developing a participatory project with non-professionals, it usually involves changing the process from the norm. That's expected. What's less expected is that the product itself is often restructured to meet the particular needs and assets of the participants involved. For example, a history museum might traditionally develop exhibitions internally, with one curator writing the labels in third person (even if drawing from primary sources). That same curator, when developing an exhibition in partnership with community members, may take the opportunity to produce labels in multiple first-person voices of the participants. Their involvement creates an opportunity to create a slightly different product.

Similarly, Beck found himself writing songs differently when writing for the songbook instead of the studio. He noted:
I started to think about what kind of songs have a quality that allows others to inhabit them and to make them their own. What is it about a song that lets you sing it around a campfire, or play it at a wedding? Is it the simplicity of the sentiment? A memorable melody? What makes certain songs able to persist through any era, and adapt themselves? ... 
The songs I would write for one of my own records began to seem less appropriate than songs written in a broader style. At times, I struggled against my own writing instincts—where was the line between the simplistic and the universal, the cliché and the enduring? Classic songs can transcend and transform a cliché, magnifying a well-trodden phrase or sentiment and making it into something elemental. But often that approach descends into banality and platitudes. My appreciation for the ability of songwriters to avoid those pitfalls drove a lot of the writing here; still, I have little idea whether any of these songs managed to find that line. In the right hands, maybe they’ll be able to come a little closer to it.
This gets a bit at the confounding question of how to measure "quality" in a participatory project. Is quality sheet music the same as a quality pop song? No. They are designed to do different things.

5. It's complicated.

Song Reader brings up several familiar questions about participatory arts:
  • What happens when an artist creates a participatory process instead of a traditional art product?
  • Who owns the products created by that process? Who owns them in a legal sense, but also who is perceived as the owner/originator/creator of the products?
  • Are the products created via such a process of worse, better, or equivalent quality as traditional art products?
These questions were particularly present as I scanned the Song Reader website, which feels partly commercial, partly community-based. The content and quality of the songs shared varies widely. But that's part of the point - that the same song can be played reggae or country, by a string quartet or a girl in her bedroom. It can be the basis for a contest, a giant concert, or an evening at home. It can be the spark a personal art practice or a community gathering. It can be a big mess, or a quiet surprise.

As Beck puts it: "That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Next Generation of Major Donors to Museums: Interview with David Gelles

Last week's New York Times special section on museums featured a lead article by David Gelles on Wooing a New Generation of Museum Patrons. In the article, David discussed ways that several large art museums are working to attract major donors and board members in their 30s and 40s.

The article both energized and frustrated me. I was excited to see coverage of an important issue of generational shift, but I was frustrated that it appeared to perpetuate traditional, clubbish standards of donor cultivation. I was curious to learn more about what was behind the article.

Fortunately, I had an outlet for my curiosity. David and I have known each other for a decade. We first met in Washington DC through a mix of social and professional circles. David describes himself as a "museum brat." He is the son of Bonnie Pitman, an extraordinary museum leader and educator who has served as director of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and as a board member for AAM. David introduced me to one of my museum heroes (and his godmother), Elaine Heumann Gurian. He grew up with a special love for and perspective on museums that makes his commentary particularly well-informed.

We've kept in touch over the years as our careers evolved--mine in museums, his in journalism--and I called David to learn more about the story behind the article.

NS: Why did you want to write this story?

DG: The initial idea really came from me trying to bridge my current beat – finance, Wall Street, mergers and acquisitions -- and thinking about how that can apply to the museum world. It struck me quite obviously that the people I cover on a day-to-day basis, especially the younger bankers, are some of the future major donors for museums. I cover all these guys who make 7, 8 figures a year. Inevitably, these are the people museums are going to want to attract to join the board and make major gifts.

At the same time, from my background in the museum world, I’ve gotten to know some of these boards and board members and see how they operate. By the time my mom was at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, I was in my late teens/twenties, and I started to know the board socially, including Bob Fisher, who is now very involved with SFMOMA. I’ve known Bob for 15 years now. We have some mutual understanding and trust. I knew something about this world.

NS: I struggled with your article because you note that these younger people are looking for something different from their donor experience, but many of the examples--the wining and dining--seems like same old, same old in terms of approach to engagement.

DG: Let me first note that this was very deliberately a piece about recruiting young donors who could give substantial gifts and join at the board level. Programmatic engagement is a very different story.

Wining and dining is always going to be a part of this donor cultivation. Let’s face it – people like to be social and have a drink. But I do think some of these examples are really something very different. For example, in the article I talk about SFMOMA and how they dealt with the museum being closed for renovation. They brought in Yves Behar onto their board, a designer in his 30s. He and some of the other younger board members were absolutely the key to get the museum out of the building and into the city. And it was through the younger patrons that they were able to spread SFMOMA all over the Bay Area.

NS: The article mentions that as part of that project, SFMOMA has an outpost in Los Altos. I have a kind of cynical perspective on that--that Los Altos is an extremely wealthy area and a place for donor cultivation, not for engaging people who might not otherwise experience art and art museums. I worry that some of these examples perpetuate income inequity and the perception of museums as  being for the 1%.

DG: I wrote this article coming to museums on their terms. I’m not trying to make value judgments about whether or not it’s a good thing that museums are cultivating wealthy patrons. The fact is that large institutions are heavily reliant on big donations. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is really not the story I wrote.

I do think it’s fair to ask whether museums have become too complex, too expensive – incredibly complex, incredibly expensive to run and maintain -- and that necessitates an incredible high level of giving. In an age of high income inequity, that means you have to focus on major gifts from major donors. And rising income inequality means fewer individuals have the capacity to make major gifts – not less money to go around, but fewer pocketbooks.

NS: It seems like some of the giant institutions in the article--the MoMAs of the world--will probably be just fine with their Young Collectors groups and so on. But the generational shift seems much more threatening to the vast majority of museums that are smaller, not in huge cities, not big names.

DG: Absolutely. Smaller, less marquee institutions may face problems going forward. I included the Delaware Art Museum as an example of this. 

There are a couple of key demographic trends that impact this. There is wealthy flight back into the cities – that’s left a lot of regional and more rural institutions exposed. There's also the transience issue. It's just not the case anymore that professionals are likely to stay in one place for their entire career, especially with our generation. There's an example from Minneapolis in the article about this--a donor that the Walker Art Center was cultivating who moved to New York. This isn't just happening at the highest income levels: it's generational. In the last five years, I’ve moved from Berkeley to Miami to SF to NY... and I wouldn't be surprised if I move again.

NS: Transience seems like a really interesting issue here. What are some of the ways that you saw organizations addressing this mobility of donors and prospects?

DG: When new money comes to town, institutions need to be pretty quick on their feet. The ICA in Boston probably did a pretty good job of that. They saw a confluence of an emerging biotech community with the fact that the institution was going to expand rapidly and they were able to tap into and engage those academic/biotech leaders as donors.

NS: I'm curious to hear more about your experience working with these young bankers on Wall Street. One of the things you covered a bit in the article is some of the reports out there about how younger donors want to be engaged differently--seeking more accountability, wanting their money to go to active projects as opposed to endowments or long-term operating. Is that something you see when you look at the young bankers you cover on a daily basis?

DG:I didn't do exhaustive reporting on this directly, but yes, I think so. I think of one friend of mine who is involved in several museums in New York City, a very successful young banker who very deliberately chooses smaller museums where he can see his money at work. He funds smaller exhibitions, maybe is able to build a relationship with a curator, feel like his voice is heard. He very intentionally choses that versus being one of 600 in the Met’s Young Patrons group. He likes that intimacy. That’s a kind of accountability in itself.

NS: I guess a bigger question about these bankers is the extent to which they are involved philanthropically, irrespective of focus. It's one of the big questions where I am, near Silicon Valley. There's a lot of stress about whether a culture of philanthropy exists with young wealth, or whether people would rather be spending the money on themselves or deploying it differently, like through impact investing.

DG: There is a culture of young philanthropy in NYC, perhaps in contrast with Silicon Valley. In New York, it’s deeply woven into the fabric of the social scene. The social calendar is dictated by galas. There is party season at the end of the year. And then there’s spring party season. That’s a real part of the social currency of the town – and to attend, you have to buy tickets, buy a table, get invited.

When it comes to the donor experience, other communities could probably learn a thing or two from New York. Take San Francisco: there actually is a stable population of people who built their careers in Silicon Valley. A lot of institutions could find whatever that community is and find ways to create those long-term ties. New York is not the only city with a social calendar.

NS: Sure. But another way to look at it is that these galas and this social calendar perpetuate a kind of cultural elitism that exacerbates class disparity. I think what I struggle with most is the sense I get, throughout the article, that this kind of old-guard cultural elitism is being perpetuated for younger generations.

DG: I don’t think museum parties are perpetuating class disparity.

NS: Really? The other lead article in the Museums section was about protests at the Guggenheim, branding that museum as the "1% museum." What do you think the Guggenheim 1% thing is about?

DG: I could see how some people would view events like those at the Guggenheim and other big institutions as a manifestation of class disparity. And of course it is a reflection of certain haves and have nots in society. But I don’t think the museums and the museums' social programs are what are perpetuating class disparity. It might be a reflection of that disparity, but I don’t think they are responsible. 

NS: I guess as someone who runs a small museum that isn't in New York, I struggle with this kind of coverage that seems to perpetuate the dominance of a story about what museums are that is not reflective of the broader population--of people or museums. I worry that this kind of article problematizes our conversations in smaller communities by focusing attention on examples that aren't really relevant to our experience. 

DG: I'm sorry you feel that way. That's not representative of most of the feedback I've been getting. 

I don’t think the lesson is that you have to have a huge fancy party in the atrium to cultivate new donors. That’s not the point. The point of the article is that there’s a generational shift happening here, the next generation has different philanthropic priorities, and museums are finding a variety of ways to try to build bridges.

NS: That makes sense. I appreciate what you are trying to do. And so let's end on a positive note: in the best case, what do you hope the article will do?

DG: I hope it will serve as a prompt for institutions of all sizes across the country take seriously the need to engage with a new generation of donors and visitors. Though that wasn’t the thrust of the article, it’s really part and parcel of the same thing.

But Bob Fisher alluded to it in the article with his quote about a sleepy museum of antiquities. If you are a sleepy institution, it’s going to be hard to get this generation, our generation, involved at a programmatic and a philanthropic level. I have a hard time saying that, because I love little antiquities in vitrines. But I would have a hard time making that a philanthropic priority.

That’s the tension: how can museums, which are still temples of culture, do a bunch of things at once? They need to do what they have evolved to do—maintain an ever-expanding collection, much of which isn’t on display and needs to be storied, insured, conserved, plus doing their own curating to be programmatically relevant, displaying outside exhibits, and then of course trying to do public programming that gets through the door people who might not want to stare at beautiful little objects like I do. Add to that engaging this new generation – both through programming and as donors. Museums have a lot of work to do.

My hope is that this article demonstrates some of the ways that some big institutions have done it somewhat successfully and also serve as a clarion call to the rest to take it seriously.

How do you grapple with engaging the next generation of major donors at your institution? Are you finding ways to do so that are changing as your museum and your community changes?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tagging in Museums #blowinguppersonal #notwhatweplanned

Here are a few of the hashtags I've seen applied to photographs of museum objects on Instagram lately:

These tags all do a great job capturing the magic of exploring a museum. They do a great job sharing the humor and surprise of collections objects. They position museums as social starting points, experiences worth sharing, braggable moments.

They do something entirely different than what museums professionals thought tags might do for our institutions.

Almost ten years ago, museum techies started to get excited about tagging. In 2005, a group of art museums launched, a project to explore ways that visitors and non-professionals could help assign descriptive tags to online collections. The point was to "bridge the semantic gap [between experts and visitors in describing objects] by engaging users in the time-consuming and expensive task of describing our collections; add a multi-cultural, perhaps multi-lingual perspective to our documentation; and possibly even develop strategies for engaging new types of users in looking at and thinking about art." received significant funding from IMLS, and several museums started experimenting with tagging projects, both within and beyond the Steve universe. This included a bevy of research papers and workshops, as well as innovative tagging projects intended to do everything from provide contextual information about artwork to identifying actions taken by families of birds.

The best projects incorporated heavy game mechanics to turn a chore--describing objects--into a fun plaything. While these projects had some success, tagging museum collections objects never really took off as a visitor-contributed slam dunk. And it declined over time. As Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum told me this week: "We've seen far less tagging on our site in recent years and most of the tagging is being contributed via our tag game, Tag You're It, with far less direct activity on object pages within the collection online."

Meanwhile, social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and eventually Facebook started to incorporate tagging and hashtags into their interfaces. Tags have morphed from a way to assign a useful, searchable label to an idea (the kind of tagging museums were interested in) to a way to add commentary in an oddly authoritative, winking third-person voice. Tags like #booyah or #cute or #bestdayever allow people to electively apply an external label to a personal moment. On Instagram in particular, tagging has become the way to get noticed and get connected. In the early days of blogging, people would say "links = love." Now, it's more like "tags = love."

Where does this leave museums and dreams of visitor-driven tagging of collections? The good news is that people are finally psyched about tagging stuff. On their own. Without institutional prompting. The complicating news is that the way people want to tag is to document their personal/social experience with objects, not just the object on its own.

I think this means huge potential for museums to better understand visitors' emotional and affective relationship with specific objects and experiences--what surprises, delights, confounds, and connects. In this way, I see the shift in the use of tagging as opening up new opportunities in visitor research. For example, check out this site, where you can see instances of two hashtags applied to the same photo - try entering "museum" and "love" to get a feel for it.

As for the use of tags to document objects in a common vernacular, it's possible... but only if museums can find ways to help people connect those kinds of tags to their own motivations for tagging.

What do you see as the future of tagging and museum collections?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Truth about Bilingual Interpretation: Guest Post by Steve Yalowitz

You know those research studies that make you want to immediately change your practice in some way? I recently read The BERI report on bilingual labels in museums and was blown away by its findings. BERI was an NSF-funded three-year collaborative project co-led by Cecilia Garibay (Garibay Group), Steve Yalowitz (Audience Viewpoints Consulting), Nan Renner (Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, Art of Science Learning) and Carlos Plaza (Babel No More). This guest post was written by Steve Yalowitz, a Principal at Audience Viewpoints Consulting, who has a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology and has evaluated and researched informal learning experiences in museums and other visitor institutions for over 20 years.

Bilingualism in the U.S. is a controversial topic, and the same is true in museums. If someone asked you whether museums should or need to have text in more than one language, what would you say? You probably have an opinion, or you could probably come up with an opinion without too much effort. Maybe you are in a country that mandates multiple languages, or at an institution already committed to bi- or multi-lingual interpretation. However, based on my conversations and experiences with many museum professionals, my guess is that many of you are aware of the issue, may think it’s worth discussing, but have limited knowledge about the core issues surrounding bilingual interpretation.

I was co-author of a recently completed research study [PDF] funded by the National Science Foundation, the Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI), which strove to better understand bilingual labels from the visitor perspective. This qualitative, exploratory study involved tracking and interviewing 32 Spanish-speaking intergenerational groups in fully bilingual exhibits at four different science centers/museums. We observed and audio recorded the groups, and conducted in-depth interviews in Spanish after they went through the exhibit, with a focus on what the bilingual experience was like for the group.

The BERI study really expanded our thinking about bilingual interpretation, even though we’d been studying the topic for years. One of the main affordances of bilingual interpretation, of course, is that it provides access to content. The BERI study shows that access to content—the most obvious benefit of bilingual labels—is just the tip of the iceberg. Bilingual interpretation expands the way visitors experience and perceive museums, shifting their emotional connection to the institutions.

Here are three affordances that may not be as top-of-mind when we think about bilingual interpretation:
  1. Code-switching – We found lots of evidence of effortless switching back-and-forth between English and Spanish. We saw kids and adults switch from English to Spanish not only mid-conversation but mid-sentence, both in the exhibition and in the interviews afterwards. Museum professionals often incorrectly assume that if we provide Spanish text for Spanish speakers, they stay in “Spanish mode.” The power of bilingual text is that it’s bilingual – it provides access in two languages, and code switching lets you understand and express yourself from two different perspectives, with two sets of vocabulary. It was a huge affordance for bilingual groups, especially when some members were not able to understand English, or even if they were Spanish dominant or fully bilingual. 
  2. Facilitation – We researched intergenerational groups, so it’s not surprising that many of the adults saw their role as facilitator as essential to their own and the group’s success in the exhibition. We confirmed what other label studies have previously found: that adults were more likely to read labels than kids. However, this study found that in bilingual groups adults were more likely to read in Spanish, while the kids were more likely to read in English. With Spanish labels available, adults were able to facilitate, guiding the conversations and interactions, showing their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews where to focus and how to interact. Adults who were previously dependent on their children could now take the lead as confident facilitators. An added benefit of bilingual labels, even for those who could read in English, was that they didn’t feel slower or that they were holding up the group.
  3. Emotional reaction – This study found that the presence of bilingual interpretation had a profound emotional effect on the groups. Groups said they enjoyed the visit more, felt more valued by the institution, and many said having bilingual interpretation changed how they felt about the institution. In our field, if we focus on the emotional aspect of the experience, it’s typically around the content and what we’re hoping people feel when engaging with our exhibits. While some of the reactions were around engagement with content (as would be expected), many of them were really about feeling confident and comfortable–key factors for a satisfying and worthwhile visit. 
When asking whether bilingual interpretation is worth it, we’re often looking at it through the wrong lens. It shouldn’t be about whether it’s worth it for us as an institutional investment, but whether it’s worth it from the visitor perspective. Does it improve the visitor experience in a way that adds value to the visit, providing affordances that don’t exist in monolingual experiences? The answer, from the BERI study findings, is a resounding yes.

BERI was a three-year collaborative effort I worked on with Cecilia Garibay, Nan Renner and Carlos Plaza. When we received the award, we felt a great sense of opportunity and responsibility, since this was the first NSF-funded research study about bilingual families and their experiences in fully bilingual exhibitions. You can download the research report and find out about the research model, methods, analysis and implications for the field.

 We saw this study not as the answer to the field’s questions about bilingual interpretation, but as the start of a conversation around better understanding how it works. In doing so, we found out that it is a much more complicated and rich experience than even we thought. After a recent presentation about the findings, a museum professional told us that the study’s findings helped change how they think about bilingual interpretation. My hope is that some of you out there will continue this important work, and help change how I think about bilingual interpretation.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Simple A/B Test for Visitor Talkback Stations

Let's say you create a station where visitors contribute content. You want their stories, their feedback, their colorful drawings of the future.

How do you measure success?

We've started using a very simple measure: the number of people who actually respond to the prompt. We look at the visitor contributions, and we code them either as responding to the prompt or doing something unrelated. Answer the question, and you're in. Make a scribble, and you're not. That's it.

Obviously, this does not give us the holy grail of success for a visitor talkback station. Each talkback is different. Sometimes success means deep, personal stories; other times, we value speculative argumentation or creative expression. Sometimes it means a large volume of responses; other times, we are looking for people with specific expertise to respond.

But in all cases, we want people to respond "appropriately"--whatever appropriate might mean for a given talkback.

The measure of whether people respond to the prompt appropriately is really a measure of us, not them. It measures whether the design of the talkback is sufficiently clear and compelling. This is especially useful in exhibitions or areas with multiple different talkbacks; it allows us to do A/B comparisons across talkbacks and learn which of our designs worked best (presumably, for the same group of visitors).

Consider three very different talkbacks in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History's fall exhibition, Santa Cruz is in the Heart: cocktail napkins, rear view mirrors, and refrigerator certificates.

Each of these talkbacks was very different.
  • The cocktail napkins were in an area about the demise of a beloved dive bar in Santa Cruz. We invited people to slide up to a bar and use a napkin to scrawl an answer to the question "How do you deal with loss?" This was the most popular talkback, with 541 responses in the three months of the exhibition.
  • The fridge was in an area about unsung heros in our community. We invited people to sit down at a modified kitchen table and make a certificate of accomplishment for someone they felt deserved to be honored. These certificates were less than half as popular as the napkins, with 221 completed. They took awhile to make, though--this was definitely the longest talkback activity. 
  • The rear view mirrors were mounted on the wall next to a story in a simulated car about looking back and seeing the past differently from an adult perspective. We offered people markers and invited them to write directly on the mirrors to complete the sentence "I look back and remember..." This was the least used talkback, with 120 responses. It wasn't easy to write much with a marker on the mirrors, and you had to be creative to come up with a response in just a couple words.
Here's the data on how people responded to the prompts (with thanks to Brandt Courtway, intern extraordinaire):
  • Cocktail napkins: 541 responses, 51% appropriate
  • Rear view mirrors: 120 responses, 52% appropriate
  • Fridge certificates: 221 responses, 72% appropriate
Clearly, the fridge was the big winner. While it was not the most-used talkback, it was the one where people were most likely to actually do what we asked of them.

This information surprised us. We used the data to interrogate what was unique about the design of the fridge talkback: the fact that it required a longer time commitment, that it had more involved setup and design, that the prompt was in the form of a "fill in the blank" instead of a question, and that the content was positive/uplifting (as opposed to the others, which focused more on nostalgia and sadness).

We consider this a good measurement because it is easy to collect the data, the result is non-obvious, and the result is useful in helping us improve our design techniques. A good measurement doesn't need to exhaustively answer every single question about a project. It just needs to provide information you can actually use to do better.

I'm curious what "single measure" tests you are using to compare projects and improve your practice. What simple number has changed your work?

Also, a sidenote. We asked Brandt to also count any responses that were "aggressive"--swear words, violent language, etc. Total number across all three talkbacks: 0.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Quick Hit: Last Week to Apply for MuseumCamp... and Summer Internships at MAH

Dreaming of a summer filled with learning, community engagement, and sea lions? Time to stop dreaming and start doing.

This is the last week to apply for MuseumCamp 2014, a professional development experience in which diverse people from the arts, community activism, and social services will measure the immeasurable together. Our focus is on assessing social impact in communities, and we will encourage teams to look at complex outcomes--like safety, cohesion, compassion, and identity--that are not commonly covered in standard evaluative practices. We will do this by defining impacts of interest, identifying indicators of those impacts, developing creative ways to measure the indicators, actually doing the measurements, and reporting on the results. And we'll do this all in three days on July 30-August 2, 2014 in Santa Cruz, CA. The application period closes Friday, February 28... so get on it.

And, if you want to join us in Santa Cruz for more professional hijinks, consider an internship at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. These internships all run from June 25 - Aug 26. There are seven different types available, and you are welcome to apply for more than one. Special additions this year include:
  • MuseumCamp internship. Bring out your closet camp director and help coordinate this killer professional development event.
  • Community Engagement internship. We're expanding our engagement with Latino families in our community, and we want your help with our first partnership in a multi-year effort.
  • Guerrilla Marketing internship. Want to cover the town in paper flowers with our street team? Yes you can.

All of these internships are unpaid. I know that is controversial, and believe me--we are well aware of the complexity of the issue. We offer unpaid internships for three reasons:
  1. We prefer to focus on developing paid opportunities for people who are in our community and can be a part of the museum for a long time. We have been slowly expanding paid entry-level positions here with a focus on local people from diverse backgrounds. We are also expanding paid opportunities for local artists. When we really thought about the options when it came to incremental dollars, we chose to spend them locally in this way.
  2. The demand is very high. We get many, many solicitations from people who would like to come intern, shadow, volunteer, etc. 
  3. We provide interns with opportunities to do real projects that (we think) they can't do anywhere else. We support our interns and their future careers both with the experiences they have here and relationships that stretch on after they leave. We feel strongly that we are following the requirement that unpaid interns get more than they give... though we prefer to think about it as a situation with shared benefits and sacrifices.
If you want to know more about what the intern experience is like at the MAH, check out their blog on Tumblr.

And finally, if you'll be at the California Association of Museums conference next week and you want to get together, please let me know.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is it OK to Smash That? The Complications of Living Art Museums

Every day for the past two months, a man has entered the largest gallery in my museum. He takes a crowbar out of a Swiss Army backpack. He smashes a sculpture of an animal.

This is not a crime.

The man is artist Rocky Lewycky, whose work is part of a group show of visual artists who have won a prestigious regional fellowship. His project, Is It Necessary?, blends sculpture, repetition, and ritual performance in a political statement about the genocide of animals in factory farms.

Sometimes, Rocky lets visitors join in on the smashing. It's a powerful experience for those who participate. It also complicates the question of what is acceptable in a museum. If an artist can come into a museum and smash stuff, what does that tell visitors? If visitors can smash stuff when anointed to do so by an artist, but not otherwise, how do they understand that action?

I thought about all of this when reading about the recent incident at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where artist Maximo Carminero smashed a vase by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in an unauthorized act of visitor participation. The vase was itself an appropriated/ritually-vandalized object: a centuries-old vase that Wei Wei had dipped in commercial paint. One of Ai Wei Wei's most well-known pieces was a performance in which he dropped a Han Dynasty urn, smashing it to pieces.

While some in the art world are heralding Carminero's act as expanding the role of art to disrupt and make political statements, I feel that this is a pretty straightforward issue of a criminal act. It is not acceptable to walk into a museum and destroy another artist's work of art. Period.

But does the fact that Ai Wei Wei smashes work himself complicate the issue? Definitely. Do I worry that a visitor might see what's happening in Rocky Lewycky's project at my museum and be confused about our museum's approach to protecting artwork? Absolutely. Is all of this confusion worth it? Yes.

These performances and incidents are artifacts of a shift in art museums towards being "living" institutions. Art museums have often been criticized by some for being mausoleums for art, with conservators serving as unctuous morticians. A practice-based artist once colorfully described art museums to me as "places where art goes to die."

But art museums are coming back from the dead. They are hosting performances, exhibitions that morph over time, artists who work in practice-based media, who break the fourth wall with the audience, who invite participation, and who deliberately disrupt museum conventions.

All of these developments are exciting to me. But these shifts come with necessary questions about how to scaffold the visitor experience in a "living" space so people understand what the heck is happening, how they can participate, and what is out-of-bounds. Whether it's a "please touch" label or a gallery host who invites you in and sets the ground rules, the scaffolding is essential. I've seen participatory artworks that lay untouched by visitors because the invitation to participate is not explicit enough. I've seen other projects that are so hemmed in by fear of "what visitors will do" that they can't bloom.

Unfortunately, instead of clear scaffolding, what I often see are institutions shirking their responsibility, closing their eyes and letting visitors figure it out. It's unreasonable to imagine that visitors will intuitively understand which rules apply to which areas and artworks. The rules of museum-going are already opaque. Throw in a few participatory elements, and suddenly you have visitors trying to arbitrate amongst themselves. I've seen visitors yell at each other for participating in exhibitions in ways that the institution was actually trying to encourage. I've seen visitors watch each other participate with confusion, wondering if that other person was "getting away" with something they too would like to try.

All of this confusion is harmful and unnecessary. Scaffolding can both clarify new opportunities for engagement AND define the limits of that engagement. It doesn't have to be complicated or involve release forms. It just needs to be clear. I know I could do a better job of making sure we scaffold the more unorthodox projects at our museum. Some of my biggest mistakes have come when we didn't scaffold and contextualize enough. We keep thinking about what we can do to help people understand what is happening and what is possible with clarity and confidence.

In the best cases, art museums are able to "live" in ways that honor the diversity of creative expression and ways that artists engage with their artwork and their audiences. This requires acknowledging and engaging with the messiness of the work, anticipating the challenges, and communicating new opportunities. This kind of scaffolding won't eradicate destructive criminal acts. But it will open up the possibility for participation and experimental work with less fear.