Saturday, November 6, 2010

What's Your Museum's Secret Code?

In a wide-ranging session moderated by Ken Yellis and I yesterday at the New England Museum Association conference,  one of the audience members touched on the idea of museum codes of behavior and it reinforced for me the importance of discussing those values--embedded in codes of behavior--that exist at almost every museum.

Sometimes the code is not-so-secret.  Consider  the museums, parks or historic sites you've been to that have a long sign listing all the things you can't do.  But consider the other coded messages museums convey:
  • This is a museum for you only if you already know the story--for experts only!
  • This is not a place for families
  • This is a place for families and not quiet contemplation
  • This museum tells a story about people who you'll never be like
  • This museum finds room for all kinds of people in its stories
  • We love technology
  • We hate technology
  • We think visitors are an inconvenience
  • We really hate change
  • We keep our good stuff hidden away
  • We think you'll learn best if you see all our stuff on display
  • We hope you'll ask questions
  • We're scared you'll ask a question we don't know the answer to
  • We're scared of our neighborhood (I think of big fences  here)
  • We value the past as distinct from the presence
  • We value the past as it connects to the present
  • We value your opinion
  • We welcome everyone

And how can you discover what messages are encoded at your museum?  Take a staff walk-though or use a version of a secret shopper.  Invite community members of all types to visit, on their own, unannounced and share their perspectives with you.


Nina Simon said...

Great post, Linda. I learned a lot about secret codes when I spent time with Diane Miller and her team at the St. Louis Science Center, where they are working to involve low-income African-American teens with the museum. The teens and staff constantly run up against their own secret codes as they negotiate their involvement.

I recommend trying this out by visiting a place where you feel uncomfortable--the codes will be more obvious to you--and then go back to your museum with someone who feels uncomfortable there. You'll be more receptive to seeing (and hopefully addressing) the nastier implications of the secrets.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Nina--and was great to go back to your post, which I must have missed--the comments were particularly interesting. Part of my thinking about this has been really shaped by my time in Ukrainian museums, where the code--and the language--are sometimes still very new, strange and confusing to me. Wonder if a museum could develop an exhibit about the secret codes it--and communities it works with--embed in places and objects?