Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Do We Mean?




Every profession has its own language. With shared understanding of specialized terms, important words, and key phrases, that language connects people with common interests who hope to communicate effectively with one another and accomplish larger goals. That shared language offers confidence that we are understood as we wish to be. Yes, at times this language can be jargony and annoying. For communicating across the field and with stakeholders, however, a common language is essential. Terms that are shared and sharpened allow us to make distinctions that are meaningful and relevant to a broader purpose, to define strategies, and to gauge impact.

Across museums we use many common words: branding, learning, impact, strategic, equity, stakeholder, sustainable. We often use them in varying and inconsistent ways. This is not entirely surprising. We are dynamic institutions engaging with business, education, media and technology, design, pop culture, many cultures, and in local contexts. Why wouldn’t we borrow concepts from business, integrate architectural terms, absorb marketing language, or use words that resonate locally?  

Judging from terms I come across in museum articles, blogs, journals, grants, and conversations, the list of terms used inconsistently and interchangeably is long, and stretches across museums and geographies. Even within one type of museum and within a single museum. It is tempting to consider this jumble of words as a sign of richness. In reality, it seems to be an obstacle to understanding, sharing ideas, and increasing museum’s value. How do we talk, think, and work collectively if we don't know what we mean?

Fuzzy language slows our thinking, confuses others, and sometimes is downright exclusive. There are more than a few examples; so many, in fact, we overlook them. Recently I read an article that occasionally used “data” to refer to knowledge. At first I didn’t understand; I gradually realized “data” was facts as distinct from knowledge or understanding. Learning, the article reserved for making connections. One museum used scientific thinking; scientific literacy; science processes, science concepts and skills virtually interchangeably throughout its master plan. Not long ago, Suzy Letorneau and Robin Meisner at Providence Children’s Museum noted that some of the museums they talked with were looking at learning impacts but had no definition for learning. In Carol Bossert’s August 5, 2016 interview on The Museum Life, with John Jacobsen about his book, Measuring Museum Impact and Performance:Measuring Success, she notes that one of the biggest challenges the field faces is lack of definition of important terms.

I encounter confusion of terms everyday and imagine others do too. One cluster of casually switched words surrounds museums’ learning interests. These words include: educate, teach, learn, know, think, and understand. They are used both as verbs and nouns and are sometimes modified by equally fuzzy words, like experiential. There's also a second tier of terms that fall into the mix: explore, engage, interact, transactive, discover, experience, make meaning, creativity, and play. No doubt others would add more words.

When it comes to planning programs, developing exhibition goals, evaluating activities, identifying outcomes, measuring impacts, and describing the museum’s value to others, the words we use matters. How do we know what we each mean if I talk about learning, you talk about education, and our partner talks about understanding? We may want to assume that related terms are synonyms, but they aren't. Ideas  reflect a point of view and a set of assumptions they do not necessarily share with related words. We are unlikely to align ideas robustly if they aren’t clear and their meanings migrate.

Are we trying to educate visitors? Are we interested in their acquiring knowledge? Learning? Becoming thinkers? Have we thought about the difference? Philosophically we may consider ourselves constructivists, work in the education department, teach students in programs, and evaluate learning goals. What do these different words suggest, for instance, about how we view the visitor? Do we see the visitor as an active agent in constructing their own meaning or as a consumer of our knowledge and information? Imagine what a museum might accomplish if it used a shared definition focused on its visitors becoming thinkers rather than educating them.

How can we begin to remove roadblocks to shared understanding and increase alignment and impact that would accompany it? While I'm keen on shared understanding of terms within a museum and across the field, I am not enthusiastic about standardized terms being imposed. As a preferred alternative to an established museum field glossary, I’m inclined to follow a few basic practices.

Think About It
This may seem ridiculously obvious, but clarity, sound thinking, and effective communication all rely on the obvious. We might all start by asking ourselves, “what do I mean?” If we are interested in creating learning experiences, what do we mean by learning? Facts?  Personal insights? Learning about others? Do we want to encourage thinking or learning? How do thinking, learning, and educating relate to one another? Thinking about the context in which the word is being used, who the audience is, and other related ideas will sharpen our understanding of what we mean and why it’s important and convey it to others. It’s Not “Just Semantics.”

Look It Up
Finding the meaning of words on-line is just a click away; definitions by Merriam Webster, Lev Vygotsky, or museum thinkers are only a few clicks away. Checking out meanings of a word from various sources and in various contexts is helpful. We may not be able to find the precise definition we want, but we will be able to discover shades of meaning, find sources and resources, and strengthen our understanding of ideas, not just words. A helpful source is the Definitions Project of the National Association of Interpretation which defines terms from Accessibility to Wilderness Education

Borrow and Adapt
We can borrow terms and definitions. And why not? Making meanings explicit is challenging, so why not get a head start? When Julia Child was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she ruled that if a recipe for the book were taken from somewhere else, it had to be improved. Excellent advice, Julia. Someone else’s definition for their museum, library, zoo, nature center, or youth development program will not automatically work for ours. The solid definition we're hoping to develop can, however, take into account how others understand words like impact or indicator and how terms are used locally.

Define and Share Your Terms
In The Art of Relevance Nina Simon takes us through her understanding of relevance and its evolution. That step on page 22 grounds the book in solid thinking and makes her examples stronger.

The need to define our ideas and the words we use and share their meaning with others is not limited to writing a book. Confidence in the ideas we explore, the relationships among ideas, and the case for the museum’s value is seriously limited if underlying concepts are fuzzy and idiosyncratic. How can we inspire others with our vision if the ideas and purpose behind it are neither clear nor anchored in definitions that can be shared, explored together, tested, and strengthened?

It’s hard to believe, but people who work together and use the same words do not necessarily understand those words in the same way. Much depends on developing and using a shared language. For starters, it will help us know what we mean.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Habitot, So Long


Minnesota Children's Museum's HABITOT
Minnesota Children’s Museum recently announced it will replace 3 iconic galleries as part of its $30 million expansion and renovation. After 20 years, Earth World, World Works, and HABITOT will close and be replaced by new galleries.

Since 1989, HABITOT has been Minnesota Children’s Museum’s area for very young children, first at its Bandana Square location and then at its downtown St. Paul location. Designed as a learning landscape for infants and toddlers, 6 to 36 months and their caregivers, it followed Boston Children’s Museum’s PlaySpace as one of the early spaces designed specifically for the youngest museum visitors, their parents and caregivers.

When HABITOT was being planned I was head of exhibits and education at the Museum. My background in early childhood and children’s environments and the Toddler’s Nest I had created for Madison Children’s Museum were helpful in working with a team of Museum founders and board members. Karen Dummer, then Executive Director, had advocated for a dedicated early childhood space. Her question, “What does babies parked in strollers and perched on hips say about how a museum values children?” became the rationale for the project.

Doing is becoming 
At 900 square feet, HABITOT was not large. It was, however, a safe, engaging environment where infants, toddlers, and caregivers could feel comfortable actively exploring together. More like a landscape than a playpen, its research-based, developmental-design approach recognized that, especially for very young children, physical development is cognitive development and social-emotional development. A new walker careening down a ramp is walking, moving from here to there, dealing with gravity, and motivated by the sight of a parent nearby. What that toddler is doing is what that toddler is thinking is what the toddler is becoming. Even at this small size and squeezed into a narrow slice of space near the Museum’s entrance and the bathrooms, HABITOT was large enough to signal a firm intention to serve young visitors well, share information about children's developmental potential, and support a range of related activities.

Three abstract landscapes–canyons for peepers, creepers and crawlers, islands for toddlers, and caves for increasingly independent preschoolers–were designed and built in the Museum’s fabrication shop. Ramps, steps, a wavy walk, crawl-in caves, changing surfaces, a birdcage-climber along with loose parts, sensory tubes, and busy boxes supported a range of experiences for moving in different ways, testing new motor skills, playing games, and mastering new feats.

Before opening, a group of toddler sons and daughters of staff and board, affectionately known as the HABITOT babies, explored and tested the spaces with their parents. Their activity and enthusiasm was a clear endorsement soon to be played out repeatedly by families with very young children and small groups from childcare programs.    

The year HABITOT opened, attendance increased 40% over the previous year. In 1988 attendance statistics were rudimentary, recorded by cashiers with paper and pencil. While the precise percentage increase might be off, the magnitude reflects the impact on the Museum in recognizing and serving this young age group.

Over the next few years, HABITOT was a site for staff observations, University of Minnesota student internships, and an academic research project by the Kinesiology Department. Also a hub for programming, weekly programs for parents were presented by Museum partners. Parents shared anecdotes about their child first rolling over on the Canyon cushions, taking their first steps, and overcoming hesitation to crawl into the texture caves. Caregivers reported they found the brochures useful and liked chatting with other parents and caregivers. Some families visited weekly, a pattern that has since become familiar in many museums among members with very young children.

HABITOT Grows
Evidence of the need for more museum space was reinforced by the attendance growth that followed HABITOT’s opening and plans for moving to downtown St Paul began taking shape in 1991. The 10 focus groups conducted confirmed a high interest for an updated HABITOT. Valuable lessons from HABITOT’s first 4 years guided us in many ways. A focus group with HABITOT parents allowed us to explore family experiences in greater depth. Input from these groups informed the 1992 Programmatic Master Plan and launched gallery planning.    

Jane goes ice fishing in the Forest 
Parents, caregivers, and educators were emphatic about a larger HABITOT with amenities. We were able to double the size of HABITOT to a still modest 1,800 sf. that also included a resource alcove, nursing room, bathroom, and stroller park. When parents talked about experiences they wanted for their very young children, they mentioned positive experiences in nature. This fit with the place-based context suggested by the name HABITOT, originally constructed by Director of Development Kristin Midelfort. It also fit with conceptualizing the 4 new galleries as Worlds. Landscapes became less abstract and more local. Each of the 4 areas, Pond, Prairie, Woods, Bluff Caves, were specific Minnesota locations in a different season. 

Both parent input and the availability of a resource space for books, articles, and information sheets allowed us to rethink caregiver messaging. In this version of HABITOT, adults’ supporting and extending infants’ and toddlers’ exploration was a high priority. Graphics used a playful, conversational-style with questions and prompts to invite exploration. Paired with bold, picture-book style images and sandwiched between clear Plexi panels, they were easily visible from two sides as adults kept up with toddlers. A short video starring a new group of HABITOT babies and their parents focused on how children at different ages explore each landscape and its features supported by parent engagement.     

HABITOT inspired more programs and events geared to this very young group of children. Weekly HABITOT Tuesdays designated for children 4 years and under offered story, movement, and sensory programs. HABITOT Halloween grew and eventually evolved into HABITOT Holidays throughout the year. 

In A HABITOT Generation
These days, when I work with a museum to develop a vision statement, I typically frame a question asking, “What changes does the museum believe are possible in the next generation for children and families in our community?”

The generation since HABITOT opened has been a good one for very young children and their caregivers in museums. Museums have broadened their view of their audience, now serving the full life span from the early years to the elder years. With a boost from research on early brain development and national conversations on the critical role of early experiences in the first 5 years of life, museums have stepped into larger supportive roles around early childhood. Publication of the 2013 policy report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners by the Institute for Museums and Library Services, both reflects and encourages this trend.

Spaces planned for very young children have taken root and grown in museums. They have spread from children’s museums to science centers, art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. Less likely to be squeezed into a small, unused space, they are increasingly among the core experiences a museum offers. Often as designated totspots distributed throughout the museum, early childhood spaces make it easier for families to explore galleries together. In some museums, the early childhood space is one part of a comprehensive resource for serving young children, parents, educators, and the community along with supporting programs, professional development, a research agenda, or preschool.

Iterations and updates of design for these spaces have generated other changes. Increasingly the distinctive needs of this young audience are being recognized. HABITOT and PlaySpace environments are not just smaller versions of other exhibits in a museum. Experience rather than content-driven, sensory exploration and play are at the heart of these developmentally- calibrated and responsive environments. Playing a crucial role in their child’s everyday and museum experiences, parents, grandparents, and caregivers are a high priority audience in these spaces. Making it easy for them to get into the act requires considering their comfort, interests, and expectations. Multiple strategies for involving caregivers need to be incorporated into the complex choreography of the experience.

The “HABITOT babies” of 1989 and 1995 are now parents themselves. Soon they will be bringing their sons and daughters to Sprouts, a new and larger space for very young children opening in 2017 as part of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion. Designed by Gyroscope,Inc., Sprouts continues to explore the concept of young children’s physical development as social and cognitive development with a fresh, engaging design approach. At 3,000 s.f. and a wider range of experiences including water play and more amenities, the spirit of HABITOT continues to grow. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Worried About Reading


Photo: Luzinterruptus
We are worried about reading. Parents and grandparents, librarians, pediatricians, teachers, school boards, college administrators, employers, museum educators, and avid readers, are worried about children being ready to read at earlier and earlier ages. We worry about the word gap becoming a reading gap becoming a stubbornly persistent achievement gap. We worry about the presence of reading material in homes and about boys not connecting with books. Each summer we worry about summer reading loss. Around 3rd and 4th grade we worry about the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Every year there’s worry about reading test scores and grade-level reading at the end of 3rd grade and graduation rates. We worry about children, youth, and adults wanting to read. We worry about reading in short bursts on small devices. In museums we worry about visitors reading text panels and way-finding signs

Given what we know about the far-reaching impacts of reading on success in school and throughout life, this concern is not misdirected nor is it exaggerated. Every important social issue is affected by low literacy: poverty, education, employment, social justice. More than merely a single set of skills for sounding out letters and printed words, reading is intimately related to writing, listening, speaking, and thinking. It is through sounds, words, stories, books, and ideas that we explore, understand, and navigate the world starting in infancy. Limited early experiences with language, interactions with others, and access to books can change the life-long trajectory.

Moreover, reading is pleasurable and empowering–something everyone deserves to enjoy.

Our worry about reading is expressed in many and varied ways and at different scales and is clearly not only the domain of schools. Because early language development is early literacy development, campaigns like TalkingIsTeaching, Providence Talks, and the Thirty Million Words initiative are spreading through communities across the country as programs, billboards, and bus sides. Basic literacy is one of the 21stcentury skills highlighted by IMLS. Libraries, schools, community centers, and homeless shelters offer programs and camps to slow summer reading slide and build reading skills. Newspaper articles offer parent tips on encouraging teen reading year round. There are apps for reading, rhyming, and spelling.

How do museums fit into addressing this pervasive challenge? Museums don’t teach reading. It’s hard to find an interactive experience that attempts to explore punctuation, spelling, or transitive and intransitive verbs. Museums, however, do share information and tell stories. As places where people gather and connect and explore objects, artwork, ideas, and fascinating slices of the world, museums combine the conditions that encourage language and literacy development, build an interest in words, and inspire readers of all ages.

As they greet visitors, sell a membership, lead a tour, answer a question, write label copy, museums can, and do, deliberately and actively engage children and adults in speaking, listening, reading and writing; in thinking and making connections, and in deepening enjoyment with ideas and interests. In the exhibits they develop, text they compose, programs they offer, resource centers they house, partnerships they form, authors they present, and in the book clubs they host, museums have a vital role to play in our becoming a nation of readers. Some of the ways this is happening are highighted in the following posts.
  
The connections between literacy and learning are strong and striking. These interconnections underscore the impact of literacy on learning throughout life, not just in the early years. When museums shape experiences for learning, they also have opportunities to shape experiences that engage and enhance language skills.

Museums are settings rich with fascinating objects, tools, processes, and materials to explore, describe, point to, and play with. They are also social settings explored with family and school groups, people to talk with and listen to. This combination of talk and play is the foundation for literacy. 

Playing with the sound, shape and meaning of words is an important part of how children learn language and learn to read and play. From knock-knock jokes, to Pig Latin and riddles, playing with words and language, sounds and meaning stretch their language skills. Joyful experimentation doesn’t stop with childhood; adults are often eager punsters, rhymers, and neologists.

Imaginatively decorated, Little Free Libraries dot lawns, parks, and stores responsive to a passerby’s sudden urge to read or find a bedtime book. In museums, book nooks and reading areas in galleries and exhibitions make it easy for visitors to relax and dig deeper into a topic. Even branch libraries serve visitors in museums.

Books children and adults love and remember, whether childhood favorites or world classics, carry information about the world, stimulate conversation, and offer wide access to literacy tools. Whether walking into a book’s illustrations or acting out a story, children and adults immerse themselves in books through active exploration, sharing favorite parts, engaging in pretend play, and inventing stories.

Reading may not be strictly required in book arts, but the expressive possibilities of the book form inspire and empower both new and accomplished readers. Book arts integrate aspects of literacy–letter shapes, words, images, and layout. Experimenting with these elements involves direct experience with the book and its parts and invites constructing new meaning from them.  

Words and language help illuminate ideas, deepen a visitor’s understanding, and broaden a view of the world. This is precisely what museums do, do well, and can do more of.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Can Museums Become Places Alive With Questions?


Photo credit: Robert Stadler
Years ago at a small conference for teacher resource centers, I sat down with my co-worker Cathy at breakfast across from Bena and Heidi. Conversation during the course of our breakfast covered a lot of territory. It seemed like we were talking a lot about our work at The Teacher’s Workshop in Madison. When breakfast was over and it was time to move to the first session there was an awkward moment. Bena and Heidi then shared that they were doing a small experiment. They decided to ask us questions and see how long it would take for us to ask them questions. I am chagrined to admit that we hadn’t asked them a single question.

There are countless reasons why asking questions is important. Valued as tools for thinking and engaging socially, questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness. We ask questions to help resolve uncertainty; to fill the gaps between what we know and don’t know; to direct our attention; to explore alternative points of view; to find relationships among ideas, objects, and situations; to open up to possibilities we can’t yet fully imagine; and to probe discrepancies.  

There are abundant resources and ideas about questions and inquiry. Models for the inquiry process surface on education, business, and arts websites. One model says, “The first step in the inquiry process is the art of asking Good Questions.” Another lists what makes good questions: avoid questions with a yes/no answer; don’t ask a question you know the answer to; ask one question at a time; don’t fish for the answer you want. Along with lists of ways to ask better questions, there are lists of questions to develop skills at different levels of thinking. Author Daniel H. Pink talks about the “art of asking questions” and extending the power of questions beyond science.

The reality is, questions are ubiquitous. Tests are full of them as are applications for passports, on-line security (what is your mother’s maiden name?), and tax forms. We are asked at the grocery check-out line if we found everything we were looking for. Parents quiz their children about what they did at school and teachers ask questions in the classroom.

Nevertheless, questions are often not very productive, not asked of the right person, courageous enough, or well timed. I know. While I deeply believe in the power of questions, I often frame a question only when I get stuck and have nothing else to try. I have written blog posts about questions, imagining that by doing so readers might ask more and better questions. It’s as if knowing how to ask good questions means we will do so; as if having an exercise routine means we will work out; or knowing arugula is healthy means we will eat lots.

Increasingly, I wonder more about why we don’t ask more–and better–questions in museums and less about what a good question is and how questions can be useful in our work.

How Can Museums Become Places Rich With Questions?
If questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness, then shouldn’t museums be full of questions? 

How, though, does a museum cultivate an inquisitive spirit collectively, purposefully, and over time? Models and lists may be useful tools for framing questions. Good intentions may be essential for advancing questions. Even together, however, they are limited in how they can infuse a museum’s life with questions. It’s not enough for a few enthusiasts in a museum to advocate for questions and inquiry, to have a single inquiry-based program, or to bring questions to a major decision occasionally. As places where people engage in daily practices to develop engaging experiences around a larger purpose to generate greater public value, museums must encourage and advance questions wholeheartedly, actively, in each of those ways: through people, practices, purpose and culture.

A Disposition to Ask Questions. Do you know someone who readily asks good questions? Someone who is curious? Likes the challenge of a chewy question?

Hire that person; cultivate that trustee; recruit that volunteer. Those people have a disposition to ask questions. A disposition is a habit or behavior displayed frequently and in the appropriate context. An inclination or a tendency to act in particular way, dispositions are voluntary. They are also environmentally sensitive; they are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the surrounding environment, by the interactive experiences in settings and engagement with significant adults and peers.

People inclined to ask questions raise them at staff or board meetings, in an interview, on a project team. They test assumptions, share a question they have been mulling over, structure a wandering discussion with questions, and search for answers. When a strategic plan is being framed, a capital project is discussed, or the budget is reviewed, they introduce questions to dig deeper, engage other perspectives, and explore misconceptions. What are we not thinking about? Do we have the necessary capacity to do this? Are these projections too rosy? What’s our plan B? They ask whether the museum is comfortable with the input on content funders expect to make.

Leaders ask questions whether they are board or staff leaders, thought leaders, or leaders advocating for inclusion, quality, or change.

Because dispositions are affected by the surrounding social and intellectual environment, the presence of colleagues, trustees, and volunteers who ask questions makes a difference in a work environment. I imagine others have noticed that each post on Rebecca Herz’s blog, Museum Questions, is a question such as, “What is the role of museums in educational change?” Colleagues asking questions seek others to share questions with; they engage others in inquiry. In doing so they help grow the disposition and skills in others to ask and pursue questions. These may be questions that engage various perspectives and bring in fresh ideas; express an interest in other people, what they think, say and who they are. Questions set a tone that people matter, that new ideas and all kinds of learning matters.

Daily Practice with Questions.Museums do use questions as part of daily practice across many areas. Questions are fundamental to the inquiry process, an approach to learning familiar in science centers and museums and across various settings. Q?rious is a science education program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that, along with question-driven inquiries, invites students to ask questions of scientists.

Some museums use practices, like Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), as a programmatic approach for tours. VTS is a question-based methodology used in art and other museums and nature centers to explore selected works of art or the natural world. An educator, docent, curator, or naturalist facilitates discussion of 3 open-ended questions with a group: What's going on (in this picture)? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

“Questioning and posing problems” is one of a set of 16 Habits of Mind (HoM), also considered dispositions. Some museums’ learning frameworks are built around HoM and some around inquiry. The framework’s key ideas inform program and exhibit planning and evaluation. (Interestingly, Bena mentioned in the opening story happens to be the co-author with Art Costa of the 16 Habits of Mind.) In fact, what is evaluation but a response to a question, how well and in what ways did we accomplish what we hoped we would? Prototyping asks questions iteratively about whether the visitor gets the idea or understands what’s happening in an exhibit.

Presumably, the more questioning strategies a museum integrates into its daily practices, the greater the benefit from the power of questions it is likely to enjoy. It’s not, however, simply that a museum uses VTS, prototypes, has an inquiry model, or uses all three. A commitment to asking questions is often confined to the education department. Questions may be geared towards getting others to think about our interests. Even chewy, engaging, and open-ended questions tend to be limited episodes when they are not intentionally related to larger intentions.

For impact, these practices and approaches must be played out in the context of strategic, pedagogical, experiential, audience, and financial goals that serve the museum’s enduring interests.

An Internal Culture that Values Questions.In a speech to graduates at The California Institute of Technology, surgeon, researcher, and author Atul Gawande distinguished truth seeking and truth: pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline as part of a larger group. Gawande’s distinction is also useful in characterizing a museum that, collectively and explicitly, places a value on asking questions, searching for answers, having impact, and learning together.

Does your museum have an expressed commitment to constructing knowledge, growing, and taking action through questions, dialogue, listening, observation, disagreement, and challenge? In what ways is this reflected in its vision, mission, and values? How does your museum live this value or set of values daily? How does it infuse its internal culture with an organizational disposition to question? How does it integrate and make room for supportive practices across the museum? Committing to an institutional value around questioning inevitably creates multiple shifts from individual advocates and isolated practices to teams of people engaged in cross-functional mission and question driven practices.   

A museum’s questions reveal much about what it holds in high regard. Do you explore such questions: What do we care most about being really good at? What do access and inclusion look like in our museum and for our community? Do we push on being more relevant for more people and for more people who are different from us? How much risk are we willing to take? How might we mitigate this risk? Are we asking questions about the source of funding and the strings attached to a particular gift from a funder?

A museum that is awake to its own curiosity asks tough questions and pays attention to the responses. Is your museum’s strategic planning process question driven or framed by assertions about quality, being a premier regional resource? When you ask questions do you pay attention to the answers or are they ignored when inconvenient? Has your museum been in a situation when someone raised the question that no one has been willing to ask? For instance, “Do we really need a building this big? Will we be able to sustain operations? Be a thriving museum with this big of a building?” Do you question the easy answers? “Yes, we have an emergency plan, but have we tested it?”

Questions make us all learners.  If your museum considers itself a learning organization, how does it learn?

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Art of Relevance – and More


I am admittedly drawn to many of the big roomy ideas that float through museums: public value, curiosity, engagement, interactive, relevance, play, creativity, participation, dialogue. At the same time, I cringe when I hear or read these same words and ideas used constantly whether appropriate or not. Too much use without rigorous and thoughtful consideration to probe a word for meaning flattens our language and our thinking.

Actually, I very much like big roomy ideas that are probed, pummeled, unpacked, and played out to deepen and internalize understanding and transform a casual word into a powerful tool for thinking, working, and creating change. Nina Simon has done this and more in her most recent book, The Art of Relevance. As CEO at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), at science centers and children’s museums she has worked, as a consultant with museums, and as author of Museum 2.0 and The Participatory Museum, Nina has honed her sensibilities about and a belief in the potential of relevance to transform lives and institutions.

What Is Relevance?
Before delving into her extensive pursuit of relevance, Nina takes time to explore it from various perspectives. She begins by grounding this construct in the work of two cognitive scientists, Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Two criteria make information relevant to someone: new conclusions that matter to that person (positive cognitive effect) and the effort required to absorb it–lower effort, higher relevance. Thinking about eating bacon, choosing a movie, and commemorating the origin of surfing in the Americas, Nina uses the criteria to explore the construct and its capacity across a range of situations: a painting, a museum tour, cemetery caretaking, soup, or a Laundromat. 

She also takes a few passes at what relevance is and isn’t. Relevance, for instance, is not about familiarity, but familiarity does reduce effort, encourages trying, and assists in making meaning. She challenges easy assumptions: what we do is relevant to everyone and relevance is universal.

After framing relevance, Nina looks at efforts to build relevance in a wide range of situations and settings. She has selected stories of individuals and groups at museums, libraries, visitor centers, zoos, theaters, and parks. Sketch-by-sketch, she makes relevance less abstract, exposing its inherent complexity, and recognizing the hard work involved in someone’s unlocking meaning.

• The Monterey Bay Aquarium shifts their research work to advocacy by responding to their visitors’ interest in positive action.
• The New World Symphony in Miami does the work to reduce the effort for young urban adults to find relevance in classical music.
• The Foster Youth Museum In Oakland evolves forms of displays to empower foster youth to share their stories.
• The Cleveland Public Library makes room for outsiders by serving lunch to low-income kids during the summer.    

These stories, fascinating, poignant and heartening, help clarify how connections are being made and being made to matter to a person or community. Embedded in the stories are innovative and alternative methods and techniques for relationship and community building useful in other institutions. Periodically, Nina returns to the two criteria for making information relevant and sharpening our own sense of relevance.

The mini-case studies of people, places, partners, and projects become even more valuable with Nina’s reflective analysis woven into each. Here is where she makes fine distinctions. Here is where she highlights the importance of place, choices that made a difference, the limitations of painfully broad descriptions of communities, and the value of personal stories. Here is practical advice for getting started, moving ahead, or working around obstacles: get outside, listen, meet people, identify leaders. Just as Nina wholeheartedly describes a project, idea, or change, she wholeheartedly tugs at its parts to expose obstacles, highlight what works, and make connections.

In a sense, the book is personal and that matters in bringing depth, honesty, and complexity to an idea that could remain in pop culture land. Nina refers to this book as “field notes” from her journey in pursuit of relevance. Her experiences as an insider and an outsider, the twists and turns of projects, and her evolving working definition of relevance personalize the work and make it accessible. She breaks down MAH’s Community First process, questions, uncertainty, admiration, and insights. A champion of relevance, she also acknowledges its limitations.

A clear intention to apply her insights on relevance appears to be built into the book’s structure, approach, and language. On the front page of each chapter, 2-3 succinct ideas summarize the chapter, previewing for us what’s ahead. Rigorous thinking, abundant examples, and engaging stories help illustrate complex ideas.

Throughout, she finds ways to involve us in ways that matter, placing us in the shoes of a zoo director or reminding us that, “We are all grumbly insiders about something.” She has a fluency with images weaving an image of relevance as a key throughout the book. Skillfully and creatively she extends it to a door that opens to a room full of experience, welcoming, wonderful, valuable. The room, she notes, can be made bigger–together.

The book is compact. You could breeze through it, but­ you wouldn't ’want to. You’d miss what Nina has carefully tucked into her stories, drawn from her experiences, and her encouragement to create relevant work.

… And More
In The Art of Relevance Nina unpacks, explores, and reflects on relevance in ways that can bring a museum’s core ideas to life, beyond what is often imagined. She not only does this well, but she does more.

She shows what skills and strategies like empathy, perspective taking, commitment, and collaboration look like and they work they do to make a difference. In relating relevance to mission, core values, defining communities, programming, and measuring success Nina is creating a constellation of ideas that guide organizations in planning, navigating dynamic environments, and making a difference. Sharp observations, like the urge to entertain as a serious distraction from relevance, are critical considerations for marshaling focus and building momentum to transform lives and institutions. 

The Art of Relevance has made me reflect on past efforts to forge meaningful connections with partners, draw outsiders in, bring community voices into the planning process, and sustain relationships. It has made me think of revisiting past Museum Notes blog posts and about new perspectives for future ones.

When you begin a quest for greater relevance, you don’t just answer one question. You answer more, learn more, think more about change. In the book’s Preface, Jon Moscone, director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco notes that, “The challenge of relevance is complex and deep.” I would add, “and forever.” Relevance takes hard work, time, and dedicated friends and partners. It will be easier with The Art of Relevance.