Friday, June 28, 2013

Over-Estimate? Under-Estimate? What do We Think of our Visitors?

A couple weeks ago I spent a Saturday armed with a clipboard and post-it notes at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT.  I'm working with them on interpretive planning and the interpretive team (Shannon Burke, Beth Burgess, and Brian Cofrancesco--that's Brian above at left and Shannon at the end of the post) wanted to know what visitors knew about Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin;  how they thought about some tough issues like faith and race relations;  and what they would want to ask Harriet herself.

We talked to more than 150 people that day and on Monday, when we did a debrief,  Shannon made an observation that I continue to think about, and will carry it forward into my work.

"I think we over and under estimate our visitors,"  she said.  I looked at her a bit curiously, and she continued,  "I think we overestimate the knowledge they come with and their interest in deep details and underestimate what they're up for."   And I think Shannon is absolutely right--and the real trick in compelling, effective, creative interpretation is to figure out the ever-changing balance between those two poles.   For me, the best way to find that balance at your own museum is to actually get out there and talk to people, as Stowe Center did.

Many of us overestimate:
  • The knowledge our audience arrives with.  For instance, few of us have actually read Uncle Tom's Cabin so knowledge of the plot is pretty hazy.
  • Their willingness to absorb large amounts of detail while standing up (this goes for labels and guided tours!)
  • Their interest in the distinguishing details of objects.
  • Their willingness to be "taught" to as opposed to free-choice learning.
  • In historic houses, their interest in one bedroom after another (unless of course, ghosts are involved!)
  • The need for technology in every situation.
Many of us underestimate:
  • What our audiences are up for in terms of innovative experiences.  They can probably cope--and more accurately might enjoy and learn from-- a historic house that includes a mix of period rooms and exhibit spaces.
  • Their willingness to consider big ideas as a frame for their museum experience.  When we asked visitors at Stowe House what one question they would like to ask Harriet Beecher Stowe, the vast majority of visitors we spoke to had a version of the same question:  "How did you find the courage to write this book?"   That's a big important question and well worth considering.
  • Their interest in details.  Yes, I know this seems contradictory to an overestimate above, but it's true, some of our visitors want to delve deep so we need to find ways to make that deep-diving accessible but not compulsory.
  • The willingness of audiences to engage with stories of lives very different than their own--and their abilities to, with skillful facilitation, make fascinating connections and parallels.
  • Interest in the real thing--the authentic object particularly when the object has a compelling story.
From your perspective, what do we over- or under-estimate?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Diversity and Reciprocity: Who Decides?

I'm very pleased to share this guest post by one of my mentees for 2013,  Alicia Akins.  Alicia is currently Programmes Director at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, Laos.   Alicia's emerging career provides great evidence that a wide range of experiences can enhance and expand your view as a museum professional.   She has an undergraduate degree in music education, a MA in international studies, and time spent in China and now Laos.  Our monthly Skype conversations have certainly taught me as much as I have shared,  and as you'll see below, our talks have been wide-ranging, from how to encourage staff to how cultural colleagues in the US are addressing issues of diversity.  We both look forward to your comments on this post.
As I’ve been following the discussion about diversity in the arts over the past several months, I have been struck by two assumptions: first, that lack of diversity is a problem exclusive to white institutions and second, that there is something particularly alienating about whiteness that keeps others from participating in the arts. While I don’t claim to have a solution for diversity, I hope only to add what others have brought to the discussion: another perspective—that of a female black millennial with a lifetime steeped in the arts and other cultures.
It's not an uncommon story, that of a black person being derided by other blacks as “acting white.”  I’ve heard it myself many times before. It’s a both problematic and damaging viewpoint. The implications of what this accusation means, both about the white majority and about my own group, have stuck with me since first hearing it over two decades ago.  Just how much does whiteness have to do with consumption of culture? What are the dangers of diversifying? Is diversity the most recent addition to the white man’s burden? Can arts institutions successfully operate under a separate but equal framework? Who really benefits from diversity?  Where does diversity come from/flourish?
An example from sports
It is not arts institutions alone that have tackled the issue of diversity.  Universities, the entertainment industry, government and other areas have raced to diversify as well.  But it’s the example of sports that I find most interesting.  No, sports don’t fall under the same category as arts, but they are legitimate leisure alternatives.  Different sports tend to attract different demographics.  Golf, hockey, tennis and skiing for example are all very white sports and their costs are the most obvious barrier to entry. Participation, however, is rarely ever influenced by a single barrier, and cost might not be the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Coaches and managers have tried to change these trends.  Initiatives within each of these sports have sought to attract wider participation.  But, the alternative is not nonparticipation in sports.  To the contrary, there are many sports that are dominated by minorities: track & field, basketball, boxing, American football to name a few.  So what benefit is there in having professional black hockey players, or Middle Eastern tennis players, or even recreational ones as long as people are active?  Is there an advantage to playing one sport over another?   What if, in addition to cost, underrepresented people are opting out due to the social reasons?  They want to play what their friends play? What if they prefer sports where they’ll get more respect and prestige for being good? Or what if they are choosing sports based on role models from their group? There would be a definite problem if they were being excluded but diversity is not just about access, it’s about interest as well.
Are you interested in Chinese opera?  If you heard enough of it would you be interested then?  And if you decided that you loved it and started practicing it, would droves of other white kids start doing it too because all they needed was one positive role model?  Does the world need more people practicing Chinese opera?  Would it be a step forward and a credit to racial progress if non-Chinese started to play Chinese musical instruments? Would that validate the practice?  Would it confirm the art form’s relevance? Are you hoping that your kids will grow up in a world where they can dream of achieving that kind of musical artistry one day, not to feel intimidated to try because of the color of their skin or other factors that make Chinese opera inaccessible?
What happens when we mistake a lack of interest for a lack of opportunity? I think everyone looses.  I believe most efforts to diversify are nonreciprocal. Many are aimed at breaking down financial, intellectual, and cultural barriers minorities and underrepresented groups might have to “Western” arts.  Are ethnically oriented institutions doing outreach to gain a larger white audience?  White privilege assumes white people don’t need to be reached out to because they lack the constraints—financial or cultural—that prohibit participation. Are different minority groups reaching out to each other in the ways they do participate in and consume culture to draw out the rich parallels of experience they might have? Without reciprocity, I fear that attempts to diversify will lead to more homogeneity with all interests coalescing around mainstream notions of creativity, culture and art. 
I am sure that organizations and individuals are busy putting their best creative energies into coming up with solutions.  I just don’t know if the time would be better spent asking better questions about what diversity means and should look like for our field.  One place to start might be in evaluating their own beliefs that their particular form of art is critical to a high quality of life.
Images from Flickr, top to bottom:
  • Fence by Spence Lawn
  • Track and Field by Phil Roeder
  • Chinese Opera by Ronald Targa

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Where's Your 21st Century Community?

If you're a local or regional history museum,  what are you documenting about your local community today?  You might be collecting flyers,  or hand-made quilts, or signs from downtown stores.  But this summer, my husband, Drew Harty, has embarked on a project that's made me both think deeply about our communities today and wonder about their future.  And what, we as museums, might be doing about this.

Drew's spending three months looking at and photographing those places that we see almost every day, but we really almost never look at--those retail landscapes at the edge of your town--at the edge of really almost every town and city, large and small.   He's undertaken this project because he wonders,
What have we lost as towns across the country look increasingly the same? Are Retail Landscapes changing our standards for what is unique and beautiful in our communities? Are these places that are so familiar to all of us changing our expectations of what a community should be?
What could a history museum do to further this conversation?  I think we need to go deeper than just exhibits highlighting once thriving Main Streets.   Perhaps we could engage in conversations about beauty,  or projects that encourage a thoughtful exploration of placemaking.   Could an exhibit highlight the places all of the goods in our community come from?  How can we encourage young people to think beyond the shiny newness of strip malls and big boxes?  How can we force ourselves to go beyond a simple, class-related dismissal of these places ("oh, I never shop at Wal-Mart") to creating our museums as an alternative, as a place where everyone in our community feels as welcome as they do at Wal-Mart?

Drew's speculated at what viewers one hundred years from now will think about these images.  Will they be as quaint and outdated as those horse and buggy main streets?  Or will they be so, so, so familiar that shots of fields, farm and neighborhoods are the true exotics?

So, museum folks, what say you?  And, by the way, you have until midnight, this Wednesday, June 19,  to help Drew's project along the way by supporting him at the crowd funding site USA Projects and you can see regular updates on his Tumblr feed.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Guerrilla Interpretation, Mall Edition

Over a long, lively dinner of crabs and beer at AAM, Andrea Childress of the Atlanta History Center surprised us when she mentioned she'd been thinking about interpretation and those hurricane simulators you see at malls.  I was fascinated, encouraged her to consider a blog post about her thoughts, and she went even further, conducting a little fieldwork, as you'll see below.  If you're in the DC area and looking for a creative, fearless museum educator, Andrea's relocating there this summer, so she might be just the person for you!  
The Right Tool in the Wrong Hands

On a recent shopping trip to a suburban mega-mall, I discovered a peculiar machine sandwiched between the Food Court and the H&M store. Not a coin-operated hobbyhorse or a photo booth, but a contraption called a  “Hurricane Simulator.” People are paying $2 to experience 78 mph winds in a mall, only a year after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the eastern seaboard. Hurricane Simulator claims to have 1000 + of these machines in malls and other “fun” locations around the country.

The first time I realized the true power of experiential education was in grad school. Dr. Causey had ten of us, all teachers-to-be, lay down on the ground- shoulder to shoulder. We had never been this uncomfortably close to each other. We each read one line from the diary of a slave who survived the Middle Passage.
"When they put us in irons to be sent to our place of confinement in the ship, the men who fastened the irons on these mothers took children out of their hands and threw them over the side of the ship into the water."
As each line was uttered, one after the other, I heard someone crying softly. It was one of my African American classmates. There we were, in a university classroom, lying on cheap Berber carpet. But we were transported back to the 1700s and to a place of empathy I didn’t know was possible, as a result of an educational experience. Designing simulations to strike an emotional chord has been my passion ever since. I have been fortunate to have a museum job that has allowed me to keep experimenting with the power of this tool.

So when I saw the Hurricane Simulator I couldn’t help but wonder about what people were thinking as they got their hair whipped around and gasped for breath. What was the aim of the company that produces the machine? My frustration had to do with the problem of context. Situating the simulator in the mall trivialized the topic of hurricanes and neutered its ability to provoke thought. What power this machine could have if set within an interpretive space! I imagined an exhibit about Katrina. The space leading to the simulator would set the scene:

“You’ve heard the warnings to evacuate on the news. Many of your friends have left town to stay with relatives. But your mother is in the hospital with a serious condition. She cannot be moved. Do you stay with her or leave your house and belongings for safety?”

The visitor could then make a decision by going into one of two rooms. The “Staying” room would contain a Hurricane simulator, but bigger and with a few more effects: sounds like sirens, shouting, and explosions. And the lights would flicker and go dim to mimic loss of electricity. In the dark, the visitor has to find the pet cat. Then the wind would start getting stronger.
Shortly, a recorded rescue voice would beckon them to the next interpretive space. This space would tell the story of the aftermath. Perhaps the visitor could listen to oral accounts from eyewitnesses or learn about the scientific causes of hurricanes. Are they likely to occur more frequently with increased global warming? It has always been my experience that simulations not only aid in triggering empathy, but also leave people craving more knowledge.

I wanted to try an informal experiment with the Hurricane Simulator at the mall. Could some very simple interpretation affect people’s ability to empathize? I lurked nearby the simulator for about an hour interviewing people about their thoughts after their 30-second bout with the fake hurricane. I asked a 12 year-old kid if he thought about the effects of a real hurricane while in the simulator. He said, “What is a hurricane, again?” It was obvious that people were aiming for a fun experience – an adrenalin rush. I decided to add a couple of very crude text panels with photos of destruction to the transparent door of the machine. Guerrilla labeling, let’s call it.

I noticed that after the text panels were added, people always looked at them before entering the machine -- sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a few minutes. Sometimes they read the panels and then left without going on a ride. When asked what they remembered from the panels, they often could cite very little. But they seemed more likely to mention a thought connection to real hurricanes. “I was thinking this must be only half of what people really must have felt,” said a 15 year-old girl.

They were still in it for the fun. It’s a mall, for crying out loud. But the experiment scratches the surface of the importance of interpretation to shape, strengthen, and guide a hands-on experience. Many museums are now incorporating interactive elements into their exhibits. And as they continue to experiment, I would like to submit a few questions for consideration:
  • How is this experience framed by the interpretation to encourage the kind of powerful moment we want visitors to have?
  • Are we harnessing the power of the tool of experiential learning or are we just capturing people’s attention?

Examples as food for thought:
-       “Ghosts of a Chance” at the Smithsonian AmericanArt Museum (2010)

As I read Andrea's post, I was reminded that I had actually seen an exhibit a bit like this--Weather Permitting at the Minnesota Historical Society has lots of fun elements, but also includes a multimedia experience in re-created basement as tornadoes rage overhead.  Simulated, scary and thoughtful. LN