Thursday, October 29, 2009

What I Learned about Museums from my Seat in the Jury Box

I spent this past week performing a duty I'd never done before--I served on a jury. I did pay attention, I promise, but in some of those long pauses for one thing or another, I realized that the court had some lessons for me about how visitors might think about our museums.

What did I learn?
  • It's a hard thing to be a first-timer. You're not quite sure where to go, what to do, and who all the other people are. And of course, there are guards--a little intimidating to be sure. First-time museum visitors must feel the same. But it's awfully nice to have to perform my civic duty in a beautiful, historic space--the Delaware County courthouse (above), where the courtroom feels not very different than its original 19th century self.
  • Facts do not a compelling story make. It's pretty challenging, particularly when you aren't allowed to take notes, to make sense of a sea of small details. Every detail seems the same size. Ever visit an exhibit like that?
  • It's hard not to have choices. In the courtroom, you're at the mercy of the judge. He or she decides when you come, when you leave, what you can hear. Think about the last guided tour you took.
  • But it helps to have a thoughtful guide. Our judge was pretty good about explaining things (although we all still want to know how court stenography automatically turns into plain text on the computer). Not too much talking, but enough that we understood our purpose and responsibilities--the big idea as it were.
  • It really is a place that brings different people together for a common purpose--perhaps the original crowd-sourcing. There we were, a museum person, a stay-at-home mom back in school, a magazine editor, a hairdresser, a contractor, a salesman, a retired dispatcher and others. In the in-between times, we talked about our jobs, whether mountain lions really exist here in the Catskills, why our villages are dying and how that might be reversed, the growth of the Slow Food movement, and everything in between. It made me realize how rarely we really spend time just talking with people different than ourselves--and how museums could work to encourage that in so many different ways. Many museum interactions are designed to be among people who already know each other and one hesitation about audio tours of any type is that it diminishes conversation. How can we design interactions that encourage real conversation (see the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Conversations for one example)?

Nina Simon just wrote a great post about facilitating brainstorming sessions. That, combined with my courtroom stint, made me wonder what we would get if we tried problem-solving or brainstorming the same way juries do--putting people into situations where they listened, without notes, and were asked not to discuss the problem or idea with their colleagues until the end of the process. And in fact, we were repeatedly asked not to form an opinion, even in the privacy of our own mind--until the entire information-gathering process was completed. What would the result be? In this case, I can't tell you the results of this particular deliberation--the defendants accepted a plea bargain after four days of court. But I'd love to try this in a different situation.

And one final thing--from the selection of the jury to the end of the trial, the judge made it very clear that, although we didn't have much control, we were the most important part of the process. So much so, that as he dismissed us, he offered to meet us back in the jury room to answer any questions and hear any feedback from us about the process. We took him up on the offer and learned a bit more about the system and felt free to share our opinions. When was the last time you saw a busy director do that with visitors?

Although this was a busy week for me, juggling grant applications, reports and a pile of other work, thanks to my fellow jurors and Judge Becker, I learned to think in new ways, in the most unexpected place. Thanks!


Werekat said...

Hi, Linda!

I thought this might be worth your attention. A virtual kommunalka museum:

Kateryna Zorya

P.S. And. yes, we're still reading your blog - at least some of us are, anyway. ;-)

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Katya--I had come across that site a while ago--and so funny that it's done by faculty at a university very near to me here at home. Thanks for still reading the blog!--I see that no classes are going on because of the flu, but otherwise how are you--what are you doing this year?
It now seems very soon that I'll be back in Ukraine--just four months away.

Werekat said...

Yeah, they even managed to get the Academy to close. There have been a few worrying administrative tendencies, but other than that, it's all good.

I've entered a Candidate of Science program - I'm an etnographer now. Am going to catch up on local culture - with my international background, it's something I'm sorely lacking in.

Yeah, four months feels like no time at all. I hope that I can maybe meet with you for a cup of coffee when you come back?

Linda Norris said...

Hi Katya--

Absolutely a cup of coffee when I return--it does seem like it will be soon--and I look forward to catching up on what you're up to--how do you like being an ethnographer?

Werekat said...

Great! I'm looking forward to seeing you back here!

As for being an ethnographer - at the moment I feel annoyed at the political frenzy around the swine flu - the expedition that would have been my first has been postponed/possibly canceled, because you can't gather information during a panic and through governmental decrees to close scientific institutions. I'm hoping this will quiet down while it's still not too cold to go out into the field, but it seems unlikely it'll calm before the elections.