Sunday, August 31, 2014

Managing Multiple Museum Audiences

More attuned than usual to my professional reading, one particular article in the July 2014 issue of Curator has prompted my thinking about museums managing multiple audiences. Museums by nature have multiple audiences designated in numerous ways: members and general visitors; locals and tourists; adults, young adults, families, and children; enthusiasts, culturals, learning families. 

In “A Place for Kids? The Public Image of Natural History Museums,” co-authors Hanne Strager and Jens Astrup report on a study to investigate the public image of natural history museums. Absent published quantitative surveys and studies, the study explores whether natural history museums are seen by the public as being primarily aimed at children and families with children. Given this question, it examines the implications for the role natural history museums might play in promoting science literacy. Conducted in Denmark, the study brings in relevant perspectives from natural history museums in the US and Europe.

While this study focuses on audience questions in natural history museums in particular, it exemplifies an important practice: investigating an unexamined audience assumption, in fact, one that operates across museum types. Based on my museum experience, perpetuating unexamined assumptions about audiences is not unusual. The authors, in fact, make such a point, “Most researchers simply observe the phenomena described above as a well known fact.” (p. 313). Often unwittingly, museums perpetuate unchecked assumptions about their audiences, sometimes embracing and acting on fuzzy or false beliefs about them. At some point, these assumptions collide: public perception of a museum shifts, audiences compete with each other, attendance drops, funding slips.   

The article surfaces some audience assumptions that can limit museums in advancing their missions and serving their audiences well. The following five axioms solidly ground museum thinking in their audiences. Some are more obvious than others, but all are interconnected and contribute to keeping a thoughtful eye on museum audiences.

-        Mission drives audience.

-        Audiences are plural.

-        Museums identify their audiences but their visitors choose them.

-        Different audience groups have different interests and expectations.

-        Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well.

Mission drives audience. The mission as the source of a museum’s audience may be neither obvious nor logical. That’s not surprising given many mission statements that refer to a large, undifferentiated public or group such as, “people of all ages.” On the other hand, a focus on a museum’s audience does emerge when it considers its mission elements: what a museum does, how, and why. A museum can bring additional clarity to understanding its audiences when it asks, who does the community need us to serve in order for us to advance our mission? Without an understanding of its audience grounded in its mission, a museum may unwittingly aspire to be for everyone and venture onto the slippery slope of chasing the audience.

Audiences are plural. Talking and thinking about “the” audience or “our” audience implies that a museum’s audience is a single, undifferentiated group. This is a problematic approach to serving 50, 100, or 400 thousand visitors a year when they come as families, school groups, seniors, or adult enthusiasts; come on busy holidays or slow weekday mornings; visit a dozen times a year or once in a lifetime. A museum must serve multiple audience groups to deliver on its mission as well as to establish a broad enough base of support to its collection, experiences, staff, and facility. Of course which audience groups are served, which are larger than others, and how a museum serves them varies according to the museum, its mission, size, and community.

Museums identify their audiences, but their visitors choose them. The mission broadly frames who the museum’s audiences are so it can identify and learn about the groups it needs to serve well to deliver on that mission. Converting an audience group into a visitor, however, is quite a different matter and not always an easy one. Visitors don’t simply show up at a museum because they fit a museum’s audience profile, although it’s tempting to operate as if that were true. Why a museum attracts whom it does is a function of multiple factors. Research helps sort out how location, experience, relevance to everyday life, educational content, amenities, and local competition play out. Sometimes, however, a group, like young adults that a museum wants to attract just isn’t inclined to be attracted. A museum must decide how much it should stretch to engage a particular audience group and at what cost to other valued audience groups.

Different audience groups have different interests and expectations. While obvious, the implications of this can be tricky to manage. In whatever way a museum identifies its audience groups (learning families, culturals, young adults, millenials, enthusiasts), it does so around within-group commonalities that are salient to its mission and offerings. Various groups may not only have different but sometimes, competing interests and expectations. Sometimes the differences between groups and the expectations begin to drive other decisions. Internal mindsets can reinforce competition for experience or space; sacrifice appealing to one group over another; or perpetuate the idea that one group ruins the experience for others. If, however, audiences are grounded in the mission, then all audience groups are valued. The museum employs its expertise, creativity, audience research, and prototyping to expand engagement strategies capable of serving multiple audience groups–building on shared interests, encouraging collaboration, optimizing spaces and time of day.               

Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well. A museum uses many measures to characterize its impact. Among audience-related measures, attendance is most common, characterizing a museum’s popularity and, to an extent, its access related to location and cost. Attendance is used so often we forget what it doesn’t convey. First, it doesn't reveal if these are the right people, the audience groups the museum must serve to advance its mission. Crowds of people coming through the doors is an accomplishment. When these crowds aren’t made up of priority groups or are served at at the expense of groups to whom the museum directs its mission, it is not a success. 

Finally, as important as reaching attendance goals for key audiences is, a museum must also serve its audience groups well. What this means is different for every museum, but it is necessarily a complex choreography across many time frames delivered by a many many people with great intentionality. It doesn't, and can't, happen without thoughtfully examining and updating assumptions and knowledge about the museum's multiple audience groups.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Perspective on Professional Reading

Several weeks ago on his ExhibitTricks blog, Paul Orselli sent us off with his reading recommendations for the beach or a long sit in an Adirondack chair.

Soon after, the August 2014 EdCom Newsletter arrived with a list of what several EdCom members are currently reading. Included on this list were: Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement (Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle); Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards (developed by EdCom); The Museum Experience Revisited (Falk and Dierking); and Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Eco-system (AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums)

Whether you work in a museum or with many museums, recommended reads for the beach each summer is part of keeping up and being inspired. It’s also a natural complement to reliable, go-too museum books within easy reach. I would add a third type of reading to summer reads and core museum references: reading a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs.

Keeping up with a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs is a high priority professional *best* practice for everyone in and involved with museums.

As a field, our purpose centers on learning and we are ever more engaged in understanding the museum experience through research. Equally important, museums are constantly challenged to navigate complex and dynamic external environments and characterizing their impact on their communities. Being well read is critical for museums’ growth, sustainability, and long-term public value. The selection of relevant books, journals, articles, and blogs on all aspects of museums has been increasing over the last few years. But we have to convert the potential value of that information into real value for our visitors, museums, and communities.

I often suggest a regular diet of professional reading to museum colleagues and clients. Typically, the response is, "there's no time". Time is absolutely a huge issue. Museums have multiple and competing priorities. Yet, museums are fully committed to other priorities such as assuring safety and security that also take time in training, preparation, and staffing. No one would ever suggest demoting safety and security as a priority because they place demands on the scarce resource of time.

Close behind protecting scarce time is demurring that keeping up with journals and studies is the domain of museum education. Few assumptions could more effectively limit a museum’s sharpening its understanding of its interests and marshaling its resources than declaring any single department as the sole domain of thinking and learning. What, then, guides other museum staff in contributing to its overall impact? How does this invite participation?

A third explanation for professional reading not being a higher priority is that the museum is small. If there’s a simpler or better way for a museum to expand its resources than for its staff (and board) members to learn about what museums in other cities are doing, learning, and researching, I have no idea what it might be…after 3 decades in this field.

Reading, talking, thinking, learning, and revising ideas and practices are critical to a museum building its capacity, fulfilling its enduring purpose, and inviting others to invest in it. Internal as well as external reasons demand that museums expose themselves to new, roomy, and challenging ideas. Museums can fortify themselves with regular and varied professional reading across (and a bit beyond) the boundaries of the field in four ways.  

Nourish Yourself: Read Regularly
I consider my professional reading to be a great benefit of my museum planning practice. It is a source of pleasure that keeps me going on the treadmill at the gym, makes hours of travel time fly by, and is a distraction and a balm during challenging times. While I am often behind in my reading and could be reading a Winter 2014 volume in the heat of July, I eventually get to it and am glad I did.

Even if your museum does not subscribe to many publications, it probably does receive one as part of its membership in a museum association. The three I receive, enjoy, and read regularly give me an overview of what’s going on in the field, resources (people, research, and funding), and a close-up on a topic like exhibits or accessibility and universal design.  

Read Across Your Area
Museum journals and articles discuss ideas, share models, present studies, and share insights on visitor satisfaction, exhibits, learning, community engagement, looking across types of museums and countries. Look for articles on topics related to your museum’s priorities: Creativity? Science learning? Play? Families? Engaging diverse cultural communities?

I like an eclectic mix of topics and views: research, theory, and practice; strategic planning and organizational culture; where different types of museums are headed; what’s working, what’s not. All of these (and more) are critical aspects of museums’ work. Daily they interact with one another and bring an essential perspective to each museum's mix. Stepping away from what is most familiar, finding distance from the usual assumptions and rhetoric, and exploring a co-worker’s area is invigorating, if not downright informative. Six journals I subscribe to, along with the Interesting Blogs and Websites listed on this page, provide a great mix for me. I would be missing something without each one of the following.

Venture Outside Your Area
I like to make connections between ideas, to import something from another context that promises to address a persistent problem. Subscribing to several journals “outside” my area has supported this. 
I came to appreciate this practice almost 20 years ago when the strategy team at Minnesota Children’s Museum decided to expand into areas a bit afield from museums. Each of us subscribed to a different journal from: business, technology, education, children’s literature. Doing so exposed us to new ideas and more rigorous approaches; we saw concepts and practices like the Triple Bottom Line and scenario planning migrate from business to museums. These days, I am more likely to find the work of institutes and foundations like the Harwood Institute, Strive for Change, and the Skoll Foundation that focus on community learning and large-scale social change to help catalyze my thinking.

    Spread the Word
    Talking with others about what you are reading deepens and extends engagement with a report, a case study, the authors, a project, or an approach. Ask colleagues what they are reading, what they think about it, and what ideas are most helpful to what they are doing. Every article is not a direct hit for your museum. For those that seem promising, however, talking (and writing) are helpful in examining the conceptual framework, making connections with your museum’s strategic plan, looking up cited studies, reframing your thinking, or adapting practices to current museum projects. This serves to make more people in the museum carriers of ideas and possibilities for change.

    Writing my blog posts is frequently the process that helps me understand what I have read or why it is relevant. This is also one way I share professional reading that has made a big impression on me and that relates to work and challenges I see being tackled at multiple museums. Recommending articles and studies to current and former colleagues and clients is an extension of my professional reading. I share copies and send links. It becomes a valuable opportunity for me to listen to others and hear their ideas. I am delighted when the article has already been read; pleased when it is welcomed; and disappointed when the publication, let alone the article, is unknown to the museum. 

    Onward with reading, sharing, and spreading the word on professional reading. What are regular and important parts of your professional reading?

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    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    Playing With … Words

    It is the self becoming the word, the word becoming world.”

    Six-year-old Victor points to himself and says, “Victor is mine.” and grins with satisfaction. A girl runs up to her grandfather, saying, “Papa, do you know that sock, clock, and tock rhyme?” A boy carefully steps and pauses on each of the large brass letters that spell Center for the Performing Arts. Three sisters repeat, “Sudikudivita,” laughing at the word they have invented together for their made-up language.

    No one who has been around children would wonder at children’s delight in discovering the joy of playing with words; many could easily add to the list. Sometimes adults find themselves gleefully reciting catchy words and phrases from their childhood–Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or a question in pig Latin–with little or no prompting. Here’s ample evidence of the persistence as well as the power of childhood wordplay. The repeated sounds of a baby’s babbling and glee at the silliness of Seuss are both expressions of the joy of wordplay that captivates children (and adults) and instills a love a language.

    Children’s acquisition of their primary language is a remarkable achievement in its universality and the speed at which it occurs. The complexity of language and anxieties about test scores, graduation rates, and future careers unfortunately lure us into thinking we must sit children down, teach them words, drill vocabulary, and review punctuation. In fact, playing with the sound, shape and meaning of words is an important part of how children learn language. They encounter the world not only through their eyes, but also through sounds and words. Playing with language is a joy, a way to strengthen what children know about language, and a portal to the world.

    Playing With Language
    Play and language are natural partners for children. Children both play with language itself and use language as a tool in play.

    Babies enjoy moving their tongues and lips to play with sounds and create various vibrations. Toddlers repeat intriguing words and syllables, even creating a chant such as fun-un-un-un. Preschool and kindergarten are the most fertile years for playing with words when children insert catchy rhyming phrases such as easy peasy lemon squeezy at every opportunity. Wordplay extends through the elementary school years when children adapt rhymes, tell jokes, and narrate stories. Typically children play with aspects of language they have recently mastered so the nature of wordplay changes across childhood. For instance, it shifts from delight with words that make no sense–or nonsense because the child can’t understand the double meaning–to the pleasure of making double or unexpected meanings.

    As a tool to further play, wordplay is used in various ways. The words what if…let’s pretend…let’s say… allow children to plan, imagine, and pretend. Children stretch their language skills when they make up and act out stories. They draw on words needed in a particular context and talk as a character would. A child might use words associated with the role of a mother, a robber, or a queen. They might adopt storybook language or use words to talk about language, You said you love raspberry tea. Language enhances children’s games as well being part of the play of games like I spy with my little eye. As children become older, pretend play becomes more verbal. Language rather than action defines the play of older children, perhaps one reason we think they have stopped playing.

    Playing with words, symbols, sounds, letters, structure, and meaning­ does contribute to children’s acquiring and consolidating reading and writing skills. But is recognizing, selecting, and manipulating sounds, shapes, words, and structure actually play? The self-motivated, satisfying, and innovative activity of children playing with and changing words and language to amuse themselves precisely fits accepted definitions of play.

    Wordplay takes place everywhere, in backyards and the backseats of cars; on the way to school and on the playground; in the dress-up corner and in the bathtub; on bicycles and in the grocery cart. And, at museums which are word and language rich settings. With high sensory contexts, immersive settings, and intriguing phenomena; varied activities, props, tools, and objects; and the dynamic social interactions among family members, other visitors and with staff, museums are amazing places of wordplay everyday.

    Often opportunities for wordplay for children in museums involve story time with favorite Seussian rhymes or the repetition of Ruth Brown's A Dark, Dark Tale. In going beyond stories and a round of ABCD, museums might incorporate Burma-Shave signs, codes, jingles, knock-knock jokes, limericks, pig Latin, rebuses, riddles, rhymes, and tongue twisters. Occasionally a language-based exhibit like Storyland: A Trip through Childhood Favorites ignites rampant wordplay.

    This is where museums typically go when they start with their ideas of language and wordplay.  Children are, however, lexical vacuum cleaners, pattern analyzers, and joyful experimenters and extraordinarily competent and original at discovering found opportunities for wordplay in museums.

    Lexical Vacuum Cleaners
    Children are ‘lexical vacuum cleaners,’ according to linguist Steven Pinker. They inhale new words at a remarkable rate. For toddlers, this rate is a word about every two waking hours­… everyday. Where do these new words come from? Not from vocabulary lists. Children learn words by mimicry. A 3-year old using an unlikely word like actually or usually has picked it up from an adult or older child. Once tested, probably may be used frequently for the pleasure of its sound and the reaction it elicits. Children also guess a word’s meaning from context; they get the overall gist of what they are hearing (reading, or seeing) from a nearby object, an adult’s gesture, or other references.

    Just as children inhale and exhale dinosaur names with great ease and pleasure, they pick up names and terms for what fascinates them. The parts of a suit of armor, a coalmine, or a Madagascar hissing cockroach capture their attention offering new words to play with. And while a child will not understand each term in a volcano demonstration, a rainforest exhibit tour, or maker activity, a program presenter or docent can deliberately intersperse rich, interesting language. Wordplay-worthy vocabulary is animated, uses precise terms for tools and materials rather than these, stuff, things; sprinkles synonyms for materials (like glittery, glinty, glitzy, sparkle, shiny); pairs familiar and less unfamiliar words; and draws on context for cues to the meaning of new words. When staff invites children to describe the motion and sounds of a kinetic sculpture, children will mimic, invent, mix, and repeat alliterative, rhyming and onomatopoetic words that capture the rolling, clicking, popping and dropping sounds of balls.

    Pattern Analyzer and Predictor
    Chicka Chicka Boom Boom in Storyland
    The same pattern finding and predicting that assists children in acquiring a primary language in a relatively short time period is also a source of pleasurable verbal play with noises, sounds, and structure. From Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss, from counting chants to rolling refrains, rhythm and rhyme are pleasurable and powerful assists in children developing a feel for language. Catchy rhythms, rhymes, and repetition help children detect sound units, anticipate what comes next, build vocabulary, and tune into regularities in grammatical structure. Wordplay is physical, social, cognitive, and emotional. Children find tangly talk, ridiculous rhymes, and unending repetitions to be irresistible invitations to move, bounce, dance, skip, and hop, alone or with a group. The Hokey Pokey for 1 is, well, kind of “hokey” but for 100 it is hilarious.

    Rhyming time at the museum takes many forms. Port Discovery’s Tot Trails uses exhibit labels in rhyme. Some familiar rhythms and rhymes are so compelling they become the soundtrack during play in and out of exhibits. In Storyland both children and adults moved to the strong, familiar rhythm of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, chanting it under their breaths with great expression; some families kept up a chicka chicka boom boom call-and-response as they cranked letters up the tree.

    Pattern finding is not just for young children and children's museums. The Getty invited visitors to write a Haiku poem about a selected drawing that used negative space.With multiple examples from the curator who had used Haiku, an unrhymed three-line poem, for label copy, visitors composed Haiku of 17 syllables in lines of 5, 7, and 5  syllables each. 

    Writing Haiku at The Getty
    Roaming museum staff can captivate new riddlers by carrying a poem in their pocket, a riddle up their sleeve, or tongue twister on the tip of their tongue. They can recite a well-known rhyming couplet and ask a child–or a group–to complete it. 

    Joyful Experimentation
    From babyhood through the elementary school years, children’s fearless experimentation with sounds and meaning generates invention, delight, and information about language. Sometimes happy accidents and sometimes intentional, playful experiments with noises and sounds spawn new words like splutter or lasterday. In my childhood brune and breen were used for brown-blue and blue-green, respectively. Children combine words to make a new one like eleventeen. They use old, familiar words in new ways to describe something new. A choice word here and there is also helpful in making incredible things happen in play. Just declaring that the sand in the bucket is poison has a powerful effect on the course of play.

    Inspiration for children’s playing with words is everywhere, even a new word picked up from others. Teacher and storyteller Vivian Paley, captures a lively play sequence among 3- and 4-year olds as they make sense of a new word one of them had brought to school. A single word, waterbed, elicited questions, puns and rhymes in a dramatic play sequence that showed up over several days. Invention and possibility are not bound by what exists, but by what is real, imagined, or even contrary. Children love to name and make up names for objects, people, quantity, places, and colors. Mislabeling or intentionally assigning a wrong name to a person or object is a game of humorous incongruities.

    Walk through an exhibit and sound effects are coming from children using their mouths, lips, tongues, and cheeks to create a helicopter’s whir and whap-whap-whap, a dinosaur’s roar, or the loud sounds of feigned injuries acquired during a knight’s fierce battle. Museum staff, parents, grandparents, and caregivers can amp up the playful tone with words and phrases remembered from childhood from jum-jills to Heffalump to slithy toves and listen in for the birth of new words.

    Group wordplay multiplies the joy. At Minnesota Children’s Museum, a voice over the sound system announces a group’s departure and ends with “…and come again s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-n!” In seconds, children of all ages, throughout the galleries and in the atrium leap and croon letting out sounds of, s-o-o-o-o-o-o-n!

    An "M" for Mulan written in blocks
    The “lexical vacuum cleaners, pattern analyzers, and joyful experimenters that enter our museums everyday are extremely capable of directing their own wordplay. They don’t need an ABC rug or written labels for door or chair. Their natural fascination with language and the world, along with their imaginations and ingenuity, ensure they will make meaning out of (and with) everything. Children will count, chant, and dance as they step on a tree cookie, a spiral maze, or brass letter shapes. They will form letters and words with sticks, stones, clay, mud and sand; write their names with chalk, blocks, and light writers; and recall the names of shells in a discovery drawer and tools on a makers bench. 

    Museums can and should play along.

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