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.


  1. Ah, my daily life. Thanks, Jeanne.

  2. Mary, my great thanks to you and others who work at restoring meaning to words that matter everyday.

  3. It seems like our use of language is one of the last things on museum professionals' minds, but it can so hugely impact our everyday work processes. Thanks for bringing this issue to light to get us all thinking - and talking! - about what we mean.

  4. Madeline, what a great point you make. There are perfectly good reasons that museum professionals don't think about using language; there's so much else to be thinking about. Yet, there are huge consequences when we don't think about them early on. It really comes down to deciding whether we want to think about what we mean now or later when being vague hasn't worked.Thank you!

  5. This is very helpful and thanks for links into the definitions project. Long ago I wanted to write something about the measurement tools we used being entirely wrong. Many people are now working on that for which I am grateful but in your definition work you might look at where we borrow the tools for measurement because while defined they do not come from our profession. For example, "spend per head" for ancillary income like shops, "cost per square foot" for exhibitions, admissions, etc. (and there are more) are defined but generally from a field not our own. e--

  6. Thank you, Elaine, for this observation and encouragement to go further with definitions work. Our field freely borrows ideas, constructs, and tools (for measurement and various purposes)–from many other fields. Along with benefiting from them, we also have a responsibility to understand what we are importing–where they have come from, how they have been intended and used in their original context, and how they might need to be adapted for our field. I know John Jacobsen is doing some definitions work as part of his book, Measuring Museum Impact and Performance. More than a specific project, I think this work is actually a kind of vigilance or alertness that we all need to bring to our work.