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, and dialogue. At the same time, I cringe when I hear or read these same words and ideas used constantly whether appropriately or not. Too much use without rigorous and thoughtful consideration to probe a word for meaning flattens our language and our thinking.

But, 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 the 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 posts and of 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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What Does Your Museum Make Possible?

After the Mona Lisa 2.0 by Devorah Sperber. North Carolina Museum of Art
The question, what does your museum make possible?” arose as I read a tribute to David Carr, scholar, thinker, and friend of libraries and museums. In Think With Me: David Carr’s Enduring Invitation in Curator (Vol. 59, No. 2), three of Carr’s admirers and museum colleagues, Beverly Sheppard, Marsha Semmel, and Carol Bossert, remember and reflect on Carr’s graceful, insightful, and sometimes provocative ways of thinking, teaching, and mentoring.

When I think of David Carr, I think of his interest in pushing beyond what appear to be the limits of knowing and thinking. I remember the poetic provocations he made seemingly effortlessly in his writings and speaking. Working with him on the Reading the World issue of the Journal of Museum Education that I guest edited in 2004 generated an expanded view of literacy in museums. David explored how reading text, objects, and collections are starting points for taking the experience of the museum beyond its walls.

Libraries and museums, Carr thought, “must encourage us to explore the unfinished nature of our lives, and to generate more questions.” They “must become places that assist the mind’s unfolding–they must recognize knowledge as a process, not a thing.” Museums and libraries he described “as being about what they made possible, not what they contain, presenting their collection as springboards to deepen thought and courageous questions.” (Curator Vol. 59. No. 2. p. 115)

In the Context of the Possible
Thinking with David about what museums make possible is an open invitation to consider their value. How can museums matter to their visitors, partners, and communities? What are promising benefits of visiting a museum, exploring an exhibit, being part of a project or program, discussing ideas with friends or family, studying the catalogue, reflecting on a visit?

Exploring what museums can make possible helps us understand what these benefits might look like for children of different ages, youth from low-income homes, and seniors experiencing isolation; for first time visitors and long-time friends; for regular museum-goers and experience samplers. With images such as these in mind, we can start to envision, size up, and describe likely impacts. Only then can we begin to intentionally contribute to those changes by creating the conditions that increase the chances they will be called forth. Although we may not be able to measure the changes precisely or for several years, a frame around value helps us communicate how museums matter with greater clarity and confidence internally and to supporters and decision makers.  

Setting this thinking in the context of the possible provides a poetic starting point for exploring and capturing museums’ value. It keeps in mind the full measure of a museum’s aspirations even as it follows them to their impacts. A focus on the possible balances quantifying a museum’s value and condensing it to a number, or even a set of numbers.

What can–and do–art, science, history, natural history, cultural, and children’s museums, zoos, aquaria, and visitor and nature centers make possible? How do they inspire, motivate, transform, and challenge children, youth, and adults to think, question, learn, make different choices, act, and perhaps, occupy their lives differently? How do they contribute to individual and common good? 

Some of What Museums Make Possible
Below is a sampling of what museums make possible for individuals, family and community groups, and the larger community.

1.     Give insights into how parts of the world work. As places of things, museums are full of real objects, varied materials, tools, technology, and phenomena. With the freedom to explore, experiences of planned discovery allow children, youth, and adults to interact with natural phenomena and scientific ideas. In maker spaces, they experiment with raw materials and their properties; use shop tools; and engage with skilled facilitators. They find a framework of knowledge in a collection of objects or how parts of the world relate and are ordered.

2.     Offer moments of freedom and respite. The quiet of a gallery, view from a tower, expanse of a sculpture garden, and calm of a nature trail create a separation from the day’s routine and demands. Moments of escape and solitude can empty the mind, transport us to distant places and times, invite contemplation and reflection, make space for new thoughts, and restore us allowing us to inhale more.

3.     Help solve community problems. Museums work with community partners to manage, if not solve, community challenges like homelessness, inclusion, workforce development, health, or environmental problems. The B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center’s 7-week summer camp in Indianola, MS for children and youth 6 – 15 years has focused on childhood obesity making connections with local music and dance traditions. 

4.     Grow new knowledge across many fields. In the research they conduct and participate in, museums generate knowledge. They contribute to scholarship in carrying out and publishing research on their collections and sites. Some conduct research on learning, embodied cognition, play, or biodiversity. Many more are sites for college or university research. Development of research agendas by museum associations suggests more and more extensive research in museums and a greater role in growing valuable knowledge.

5.     Support life-long learners. Many of the tour guides adding depth to our exploring exhibitions in museums, parks, and zoos are docents. Trained volunteers, they undergo extensive and intensive training in interpretation and communication, the museum’s collections, access and interactive learning. Docent training at the Minneapolis Institute of Art lasts 6 months and involves reading and shadowing experienced docents. Life-long learners, docents facilitate others’ learning.

6.     Develop social capital. Youth development programs that use a positive youth development framework contribute to the development of healthy, contributing youth from all economic, ethnic, and family backgrounds. Such programs in zoos, science museums and centers, art and children’s museums can be year-round and multi-year. Some, like the New York Hall of Science, feed a Science Career ladder at the museum.

7.     Take on big ideas that can make big changes. Along with its community partners, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma has been working to make valuing childhood a community value, co-sponsoring an annual symposium and opening a preschool. Since 2009 The Wild Center in the Adirondack Mountains has been hosting summits on climate change. Museums working with multiple partners using the Collective Impact model to close the achievement gap among children are setting example for other cities.

8.     Increase a sense of agency and competence. Museums provide a chance to learn what others can’t teach us. Changing the outcome of an experiment, assessing physical risk on a climbing structure, balancing across a fallen tree, shaping a pot from clay, building a circuit, or participating in a community project with the museum can be challenging. Attempting something new, sticking with it, feeling successful help boost a sense of agency and confidence.

9.     Change the direction of a life. In sharing their collections, presenting exhibitions, telling stories, giving tours, and presenting speakers, museums inspire interests, ideas, and questions pursued by children, youth, and adults throughout life. Touched emotionally by stories, inspired by a painting or print, developing a hobby, starting a personal collection, connecting with nature, or even becoming a TV anchor after sitting in front of an exhibit camera as a child, museums affect the direction of a life in small and large ways.

10.  Expand the local learning landscape. Museums occupy several noteworthy places on their local learning landscapes. They are sites for field trips that connect with the classroom curriculum and offer professional development for teachers in STEM, early literacy, local history and art. Centers for professional development like the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute play an on-going role in supporting teachers and transforming classroom teaching. Across the country children attend museum schools and preschools at dozens of museums.

11.  Spark extraordinary insights. Museums create larger-than-life experiences where we encounter what is unfamiliar, different, sometimes seismic in connecting with nature, cultures, space, history, or global events. The traveling Bodyworld exhibition revealed extraordinary and sometimes disturbing views of inside the human body. The Wild Center’s Wild Walk takes us among the treetops for an expansive view of the Adirondack Forest. There is a moment of shock and horror coming upon 4,000 victim’s shoes confiscated by the Nazis at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

12.  Invite joy. Everyday in museums, children, youth, and adults find and express delight and joy. They smile and laugh; children skip across the lobby. In the moment, in the presence of beauty, something unexpected or awesome, they feel pleasure, appreciation, and delight. Often visitors leave with great reluctance. Some express their happiness simply like the 4-year old boy at Minnesota Children’s Museum telling his mother, “My heart is happy here.”

13.  Enlarge the imagination. Moments of wonder, amazement, and awe occur in museums. Our sense of creativity and imagination expands as we look at paintings, explore innovative technologies, watch animals, see a dinosaur skeleton, and grasp the range of human accomplishments. We discover that Samuel B.F. Morse, developer of the Morse Code, was also a portrait painter; that Omar Khayyam, Persian poet and author of the Rubaiyat, was a world class mathematician. We return to a sublime moment in childhood standing at Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk and feel her presence. We view Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, a 72-page scientific treatise written backwards in brown ink more than 500 years ago.

14.  Strengthen families. For museums, families are a core constituency. Museums understand the importance of serving them well and in many and meaningful ways. They offer amenities and choices that make a visit easier, more convenient, and enjoyable for families. They are intentional in developing experiences that engage adults and children together, research family learning, and host family events and celebrations. Museums also provide specific experiences to support families. Some serve as off-site locations for supervised visitation and supervised parenting time. Many offer parenting programs, train staff to facilitate parent-child interactions, and offer parent resources and activities to do at home.

15.  Call us to act.  Time spent in the museum is just the beginning of a succession of possible responses. Museums spark wanting to know, thinking, trying and testing, framing questions, and acting. Visitors may follow up with conversations with others at home, work, or school; visit another museum, a library, or historic site; make different choices; and get involved with an interest group. Although we don’t know how it happens, visitors don’t necessarily leave the museum behind.

With gracious persistence, David Carr promoted the value and necessity of going beyond, exploring the unfinished nature of our lives, and generating more questions. He encouraged us to find ways to start thinking of something we do not yet understand. Along with pushing beyond what we do and know, he asked that of museums and libraries, setting them in the context of the possible. Thinking about what museums make possible is a promising start, but only a start. Thinking with David will help museums make more possible.