Monday, October 30, 2017

Observation: Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing

These shifts of seeing again are precisely what the word ‘respect’ means. To look again is to ‘respect.’ Each time we look again at the same thing, we gain respect for it and add respect to it.
James Hillman, City and Soul

Over the past few months, I have been thinking about observation and its value as a tool for learning, stretching our thinking, seeing new possibilities, and being better museums.

Daily, we walk through our museums and what do we notice? We watch a family move through the lobby and pause before the door to a gallery. What is this moment about for them? We see someone step in front of a painting and lean in, peer closely at the lower right hand corner, and step back again. What new insight has that closer look added?  We watch someone slowly brush away gravel to reveal the form of an enormous bone. What happens next? What does it mean for them? What might we do differently knowing this?

These, among so many questions, reveal our on-going search for a deeper understanding of visitors and a greater familiarity with the conditions that encourage and support exploration and meaning making in museums. So much is going on in a single exhibit, program, gallery, or classroom in any one moment. Without thoughtful observation, what can we know and understand about what is happening around us in our museums, in the experiences we create, and the connections we hope to foster?

Yet, as powerful and valuable as observation is in advancing our understanding, thinking, and imaginations, we rarely engage in it extensively in museums–at least, from my experience and in my own work.

Of course, we do observe in museums. We engage in both formal and informal observation in research and evaluation, during prototyping, and sharing visitor comments. We follow visitors’ movements through an exhibit and sometimes sit in observation booths and videotape. This kind of observation, however, is typically short term and narrowly focused. It is intended to answer a single question, assess and fix a problem, or confirm what we already believe. Often it is to check whether exhibits are being used as intended.

Brief observation episodes that are ends in themselves or serve other agendas have a limited capacity to build new knowledge with long-term value that changes perspectives and reveals new possibilities about how people interact with objects and learn in museums.

With this view of observation, we are unlikely to take time to study how families explore together in our museums; how visitors negotiate turn-taking with one another; how children of different ages approach open-ended materials; what traces of use and engagement visitors leave to offer glimpses into their thinking; what having an idea looks like; and what building on someone’s idea looks like.

What We Don’t Already See
How do we go beyond the obvious behaviors we are able to identify and code and the minutes we can count to glimpse the extraordinary moments in museums and other settings?

There is no quick, easy, or particular way to engage in deeper observation. More and longer observation episodes are likely involved. Time to give our careful and steady attention to what is around us without deciding too soon what is before us is critical. In opening ourselves to being present to what is happening we can create room to notice what we don’t already see.

Observation is a process of attending, noticing, capturing, and revisiting. Keeping notes, taking photos and videos, and charting and mapping give value but not certainty to what we notice. What we have captured even temporarily allows us to return to the traces of those moments and ask, what am I noticing? How can I account for it? What does it mean to me? To others? What might others bring to the process to probe what matters here?

As good observers, we must also be observers of ourselves, studying our attention, checking our assumptions, and registering our focus. Questioning ourselves as we observe reminds us that we arrive at subjective interpretations, partial findings, and, hopefully, new questions.

Seeing Differently
As I was working through these thoughts, the subject of observation surfaced in my Thursday study group with Lani and Tom, two recently retired educators in the Twin Cities. As these weekly conversations so often do, this one pushed my imagination not just further, but into a different realm: from seeing more to seeing differently.

Lani had marked a passage to read from Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education by Reggio atelierista, Vea Vecchi. This brief, but extraordinary account of when Vea started in the Reggio schools in the 1960’s describes her year of observation.

At the direction of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, Vea was asked to observe children in the school. She invited 4 children at a time into a studio space to work with paints in a nonfigurative way. Her observations of 90 children of different ages in the school continued over the year with Vea taking notes on her observations of children and their paintings. She also referred to books by more knowledgeable guides like Jean Piaget, Herbert Read, and Viktor Lowenfeld that Malaguzzi had given her. Malaguzzi then poured over her notes and the children’s paintings. He commented on her observations and shared his interpretations with her. At the end of the year, using his notes and comments, Vea wrote a report for the school on the children’s work; it later became a book.

Vea has described Malaguzzi’s strategy that changed her mental framework and identity from a secondary art educator to a professional in a new role as an atelierista. Malaguzzi helped create the conditions for change with a process of observation, formative reading, notes, discussion and shared interpretation, and documentation through which Vea unlearned her certainties and opened her eyes to the potentials of the children.

See, Un-see, Re-see
Tom called this process: see, un-see, and re-see. In observation, as in many activities we engage in, we think we are being neutral and seeing the truth. Actually we are often affirming what we already think, reinforcing beliefs we have arrived at by other means. This happens for a number of reasons. Learning, memory, expectation, and attention shape what we perceive, see, and believe. Pressures of accountability in schools and other institutions subtly insist we see what we are asked to see around standards and benchmarks. In museums we are susceptible to a dominant view of learning imported from schools that is content focused and teacher directed. We are also eager to demonstrate our value to supporters with evidence. These factors influence what we see when we observe in galleries, study exhibits, and describe museum visitors.     

Even when we do see something new, we are likely to name it something else, something we have seen before. Twentieth century philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, expressed this as, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Realistically, un-seeing is difficult, if not literally impossible. But we can work to undo old learning, find ways to displace certainty, and see fresh versions of what we are viewing. The conditions of Vea’s extraordinary journey are not easily replicated, but her effort and goal can encourage us to observe from a new stance. We can shift our observation from looking for what we expect, to looking for what we haven’t seen before. We can be open to what surprises us.

Tom, Lani, and I thought together about what might create movement from seeing to re-seeing to create a crack in our thinking through observation by:
• Being curious, open, and eager to be surprised
• Wholeheartedly pursuing the opportunity of the moment
• Revisiting the experience and its possible meanings  

When we are open, curious, and eager to be surprised, we are:
-        Awake to our surroundings and the people, spaces, and materials
-        Accepting uncertainty and the complexity of what we are noticing
-        Comfortable with not knowing what we are seeing
-        Exposing ourselves to other thinkers and knowledgeable guides

When we wholeheartedly pursue the opportunity of the moment, we:
-        Are prepared to capture traces of the experience in multiple ways: notes, video, photos, images
-        Are open to what we may be seeing that is contrary to the apparent direction and we follow it
-        Observe until we are surprised

When we revisit the experience and its possible meanings, we:
-        Return to all of the collected traces of observation: notes, photos, images, and videos
-        Pursue questions to reflect on what we have noticed: how do visitors influence each other in exploring an exhibit? How do ideas about how something works change over the course of an experience?
-        Attend to strategies, not outcomes: ways that individuals engage with the group; patterns of choices; leaps in thinking; the roles conversation plays
-        Share, and invite others to contribute what they see
-        Stretch to consider what something might mean that is beyond our imagination
-        Think together: what might we do to make this or that unusual gesture or activity more likely to happen again?

This is a bigger, more complex, process than can possibly be captured here. In fact, the above list, or any list, is fundamentally at odds with deep, open-ended observation. We must keep in mind that seeing what we already see is a poor strategy for the positive change and transformation we seek for our visitors, our communities, and ourselves. Fortunately, the benefits of what Lani calls a radical openness to what’s out there and what it means are ample and worthwhile: a livelier, richer experience of our work and its potential value. Are you ready to be surprised?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thank you, Lani and Tom

Stand aside awhile and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different.
­Loris Malaguzzi

Monday, October 16, 2017

Little Free Library Meets the Museum

A small wooden box full of books on a post in front of a house, in a field, or on a country road may not seem immediately inspirational. Yet, somehow these book exchange boxes popping up everywhere through the Little Free Library (LFL) have captured imaginations and inspired strangers to share books with others.
Little Free Library at Settergren's hardware store

Ever since I saw my first one outside of Settergren’s Hardware in Minneapolis about 7 years ago I’ve been following the growth of these book hutches with curiosity and interest. Not long after seeing one at Settergren’s, I saw one in Richland Center and another one in Mineral Point (WI) and made my then 90-year old parents stop so I could take pictures of them. Knowing of my delight in Little Free Library, my Dutch pen-pal sent me a photo of one in Leeuwarden where she lives.

Little Free Library was started by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks in 2010 in Hudson (WI), just across the river from the Twin Cities. As of fall 2016, there were over 50,000 LFL in all 50 U.S. states and in 70 countries. 

LFL’s 3 commitments–increasing book access, building community, and sparking creativity–reinforce one another with natural ease.
The on-line introduction to LFL and how to get started are both practical and inspirational. Five easy steps for setting up a library include a material list, plans for building, directions for installing one, and guidelines for finding funds. More tips for building support, filling shelves with books, and replacing them are easy to find. Registering a Library brings with it an official charter sign and charter number.

In sharing the plans, tips, and videos of designs and construction from others, LFL expands the range of solutions for making books accessible, highlights creativity, and supports a community joined by passion, whimsy, and a love of reading. Builders have improvised designs and customized decorations that reflect personal interests, local architectural styles, and regional pride. Libraries are fashioned as an Amish shed, a Vermont covered bridge, and a British phone booth. Some stewards add reading lights and benches; others create small gardens around the library’s post; and some even leave power bars and snacks for hungry readers.

Once books fill the shelves, a library takes on a life of its own, strengthening connections between people
Tudor style library matches its house
who know one another and creating connections between book friends who will probably never meet. Neighbors gather at a library and chat. When passersby stop, browse, take a book, and sometimes leave a book, there’s a sense that someone who cares about reading left this book for a reason. Fans and book friends leave notes of thanks. Reluctant readers leave messages about being inspired to read. At least one homeless reader left a note of thanks for access to books.
LFL also inspires significant community efforts. In 2013, the Minneapolis School District collaborated with LFL to establish a library on every block in north Minneapolis, one of the most impoverished districts in the city. A group in Lake Worth (FL) set a goal to place 100 libraries in the city, a project that involved school children, neighbors, and the Vice Mayor. An even bolder vision is being realized by a Sudanese woman who has set a goal to establish 1,000 libraries in her country.

Where are LFL at museums?
The Pink Palace Museum Little Free Library
Museums seem to be natural hosts for libraries with their interest in building community connections, being a good neighbor, activating community partnerships, and in nurturing reading. Several museums have installed libraries on their sites including the following.

• The Little Free Library at the Blairstown Museum in Blairstown (NJ) is “designed to inspire a love of reading, build community, and spark creativity by fostering a neighborhood book exchange.” 
• The Little Free Library in front of the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis (TN) is a replica of the museum’s façade including its distinctive pink Georgia marble and green tile roof. The museum hopes that by hosting a place for people who visit and those living next to exchange books it can be an active part of its community. 
• The Children’s Museum in Bloomsburg (PA) is a collaboration between the museum and the 4 county branch libraries.
• The Neville Public Museum in GreenBay (WI) installed a library on its grounds in spring 2017 built to look like its original home.

Almost any museum could install a library in front of its building inviting passersby to pause, browse, and take a book. Selected books could relate to museum exhibits and programs, feature local authors, or celebrate the region's history. Designed to be consistent with the museum’s brand and possibly offering seating, a museum can make its library into an inviting and distinctive place. Inside, libraries might be located in exhibits as book nooks offering visitors opportunities to dig into a topic or pursue a question or read for the joy of it. Designated spots for collecting books can help support the exchange.

For some museums, LFL could be more than a rotating collection of free books. Rather it might be an opportunity to advance a museum’s broader interests and goals and create greater impact for children, families, neighbors, or residents. (Check out LFL’s Impact Library Program.) Just as the LFL organization’s 3 commitments (increasing book access, building community, and sparking creativity) readily reinforce one another, a museum’s LFL initiative could be a strategy aligned with broader goals, linked with other museum initiatives, and at the heart of an established partnership. Goals might include increasing access to books for community members and encouraging a love of reading; building awareness of local resources; strengthening a sense of community; introducing the museum to new audiences; sharing resources; or extending learning beyond the museum’s wall. Partners and collaborators might be a neighborhood group, community clinic, libraries, the parks department, the school district, or a local clinic.  

Community-based projects in North Minneapolis, Lake Worth, and Sudan are evidence that these libraries are scalable. They can be laid out across a neighborhood, city, county, or country. The possibilities of a geographic focus are open-ended as an example from Visit Seattle that has 9 LFL library book exchanges shows. A strategy to promote Seattle and invite visits, these libraries are in Austin (TX), Boston (MA), and Chicago (IL). Each library is stocked with books that relate to Seattle (by author, subject, or setting). While a museum might not be marketing to tourists across the country, it may be trying to reach and serve audience in rural areas, connect with a nearby tourist area, or have a sister city relationship in another country. Just as the Visit Seattle libraries are thoroughly Seattle (one is made to look like a Seattle ferry), a museum’s libraries could be made to look like the building, an exhibit, local icon, or a popular landmark. 

Book exchange boxes can offer information and activities as well as books. Depending on the focus of the library or selected themes, there could be bookmarks or booklists to pick up; question of the week to investigate; program or event flyers for the museum; simple directions for how to make a book or a cardboard gizmo; or maps of where other libraries are located. Possible extensions are likely to emerge from topics, collaboration, location, and frequenters of the library.   

Mineral Point, (WI)
In taking a LFL project out into the neighborhood, community, or countryside, a museum starts a journey that could go almost anywhere. It might be possible for…

• Libraries to be a project in a museum’s maker space
• Neighbors to paint the boxes to celebrate their neighborhood
• Community members to study the area proposed for the libraries and decide their locations
• Museum partners to collect books to keep the supply going
• Libraries to be located along a bike trail
• Library users to send photos of themselves and their books

What other ideas do you have about how museums could use the Little Free Library?