Friday, August 21, 2015

Not "Just Semantics"

Photo credit: FStoppers

All I know is what I have words for.

Have you ever been in a conversation with a colleague or in a workshop grappling with a word or an idea when, with a flit of the hand, someone says, “It’s just semantics.” There’s a pause, the conversation stumbles and tentatively recovers or perhaps ends.

Labeling something, “just semantics” is sometimes a way of agreeing to disagree. It can also be an expression of frustration, not wanting to commit to one word or idea over another, or not thinking that clarifying meaning matters.

Recently I worked with museum educators and artists on their learning framework including what learning means at their museum. I was following their lively discussion about whether learning was a “learner-driven process” or a “learner-centered process.” One person illustrated her point with an example; another compared the two phrases in relation to the mission; and a third referenced a recent book on learning in museums. Then someone interjected, “Well, it’s just all semantics.”  Silence
In fact, semantics is just that: the meaning of words and language in a particular context.

I’m still trying to fathom how saying, in essence, “we just differ in what we mean” can be tossed out casually with the expectation of moving on when a museum’s community impact, educational value, or commitment to sustainability is being explored. I’m perplexed that taking time to make meaning is considered quibbling. If something is important, if it describes why museums matter, it should be understood, by a group–a team, an organization, or a field.

Without some discussion, it’s as though everyone in a museum (or across the field) defines assets, authenticity, connectivity, community engagement, design, empathy, equity, experience, learning, inclusion, interactive, immersive, interpretation, personalization, quality, relevance, sustainability, value the same way.

How else do we make sure we are talking about the same thing if we don’t talk about that very thing? How can we explore the relationship between important concepts if they are not first well understood? How do we arrive at a common vision that energizes our work? How do we even know we disagree if we haven’t taken the time to understand what each of us means?  

Words and their meanings do matter. Mark Twain notably remarked, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word…is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Small differences in words have big implications.

The difference between considering visitors as participants, or customers, or learners plays out in how we plan, greet, engage, and support them on-line, at the front desk, in programs, and throughout exhibitions. How can we learn about how family groups explore and talk together in an exhibition if we don’t have a shared understanding of, for instance, conversation? Is conversation an exchange? Spoken? How many words? What about gestures? How many people need to be involved? 

Recently Nina Simon invited her readers to think about what it means for a cultural institution to be relevant. The wide range of meanings became apparent in responses that considered relevance as framing, timing, connecting with the audience; utility/usefulness; positioning and presenting the collection; making and feeling connections. Elsewhere I read that relevance is connectivity, not content.

When the Kellogg Foundation published its program logic model about 10 years ago, it provided nonprofits with an excellent thinking and planning tool. It also helped distinguish an outcome from an output. Its attention to clear terms and a common language has assisted museums in moving from good intentions to greater impact.

Clarity does not necessarily make one idea more important than another, but it can avoid confusion in working across departments, with people in another organization, or engaging the community. Saying to partners, “In our organization, inclusion (or program or co-creation, etc.) means…” can help smooth communication, reduce confusion, and save time. Sharing the definition of an important concept can welcome someone new to the conversation and create a sense of belonging, whether it’s a new staff person, volunteer, trustee, or consultant.

Meanings don’t have to be perfect, precise, standardized or fixed to be well understood and useful. In fact, words and ideas are naturally understood differently at different museums, at different stages of development, and in different communities. A concept like resilience has local relevance in Miami and New Orleans museums it doesn’t have in most other cities. Each museum has its own constellation of concepts, words, and meanings, supporting them with anecdotes of what something looks like at that museum, supported by references to specific spaces and community connections. Shared understandings bridge and connect colleagues and departments. Across the field, at conference sessions rich discussions exploring distinctions among related ideas like learning, interpretation, and education are possible and invigorating.

When we don’t explore the meaning of key constructs and ideas for a working group or setting, we misuse words and create confusion. We string words together like artful thinking without digging into what the words mean separately and together. We fuse new words like edutainment and interchange related words like creativity and creative thinking in a single paragraph. Ubiquitous words like fun apply to everything until nothing’s fun. Buzzwords like trending, viral, and unique become limp, flat, and deserve a rest

Allowing conversations to be curtailed with a dismissive, “that's just semantics” short circuits our thinking and limits our discovering the power of words, language, and their meaning. It encourages personal lexicons that constrain understanding and disconnect us. On the other hand, with words that are alive and rich with shared meaning, we are able to express who we are as a museum, what’s important, and how we believe we matter. Lately I’ve been reading some books about words and language–some are listed below. If I didn’t already think words and language matter, I have no doubt about it now. Yes, it is semantics and it does matter.

Related Readings and Resources 
• Bill Bryson. (1990). The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Harper Collins: New York.
• James Pennebacker. (2011) The Secret Lives of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Bloomsbury Press: New York.
• Steven Pinker. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature. Penguin Books: London.
• Fritsch, Juliette. (2006) Museum Gallery Interpretation and Material Culture. “Education is a department, isn’t it? Perceptions of Education, Learning and Interpretation in Exhibition Development.” Routledge. 
How Nonprofits Use Language As a Barrier to Progress. Know Your Own Bones. Colleen Dilenschneider.

Creativity and Museums

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