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.