Updates from June, 2009 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Erin Milbeck Wilcox 7:55 pm on June 9, 2009 Permalink | Reply  

    A few posts about us 



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  • Alex Curio 9:11 am on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply  

    I’m feeling better. 

    While at the 2009 Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis this past week, I caught the tail-end of an “unconference” session on the topic of — you guessed it — stranger talk in museums (and prompted by our very own Jason –  props to him).  Four or five other people were participating, including Nina, and the discussion was really great and energetic, and going all over the place.  Lots of interesting questions were being asked: what kind of furniture arrangement is most conducive to talking?  Why isn’t there EVER adequate seating in galleries?  Did you know that a certain frequency of sound causes humans to automatically look at its source?

    So, you know, I decided to pipe up with my own question.  Piping up is what you do at a conference, right?  My question: does a profound need for strangers to talk to each other in museums truly exist? — And I blathered on, trying to seem less snarky & negative (I’m not!) — I mean, are there really legions of strangers out there, hapless, just begging for us to engineer museological ice-breakers?  Are people that desperate to talk to strangers, and do they need our help — in the form of kooky games, weird seating arrangements, stuffed gorillas, glowing touch screens, flashing projections, or blank sticky notes — to do so?

    Ugh.  Was I being lame?  I think I was being lame.

    The guy next to me, who was from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, blinked a few times and then responded.  He didn’t attempt to argue that, yes, people need help being people (which they might), or that museums have a responsibility to facilitate that humanity (which they might), or even that science shows people learn more when they talk it out (which it does).  He simply expressed that, in his opinion, it was a good thing for people to be having a good time – talking, laughing, mingling – in a museum.  It was good for the people, and it was good for the museum because the people, and ultimately (hopefully) their communities, would associate the museum with good times, and therefore, with value.   Those in the “unconference” nodded their heads affirmatively, and I found myself nodding, too.

    The discussion went other interesting places, but that exchange was what stuck with me.  I feel a lot better about the utility, if not the necessity, of facilitating stranger talk in museums.  I can get behind helping people have a good time in museums, and, as talk and being social are symptoms of good times and happiness, I can get behind the idea of strangers talking in museums, too.

    This is where I think I was getting hung up: I was primed to think of facilitating stranger talk in museums as a task that necessarily involves a gimmick, a contrivance, a rig of some sort.  We have this assignment: design an exhibit to get strangers to talk to each other.  I felt on some level, I think, that our charge was to trick unwilling people into doing something they didn’t want, or weren’t inclined, to do.  Ok, we have no content and no money, so how do we lure these people into conversing?  What can we do to dupe strangers into fulfilling this requirement?  Do we put out food, change their habitat, give them stuff to play with?  Faced with the challenge of our group creating something so brilliant, so seamless, so sneaky that it got complete strangers to have a conversation, I was having trouble seeing why the effort might be worth, well, the trouble.  Especially for your average museum, which has trouble enough already.

    The “unconference” session reminded me that, duh, people like to have a good time, whether or not they’re in a museum, and talking to new people about interesting things or ideas is one way to have a good time.  From now on, I hope to approach this project and this class without letting myself be paralyzed by the task of coming up with the most ingenious way to rope people into talking to each other, and more enthusiasm for making an exhibit that is conducive to the less-scary, but genuinely important, activities of having a good time and talking to new people.

    NOTE: I’m editing this entry rather than commenting because I wanted to include two links, and I can’t figure out how to accomplish that in comments. I hope that’s ok! – KF

    Alex, I love this post. You’ve put your finger on something that had been nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, too, and I very much like the redirected mindset of facilitating and encouraging a good time rather than coercing people. Although our experiments at the zoo were a wonderful way to begin the course and get us thinking about the intricacies of stranger interactions, I’m not convinced that we helped anyone have a good time by playing tic-tac-toe. So I’m all for embracing this way of framing the task, and kudos to you and your Imperial War Museum friend for speaking so eloquently on the matter. (By the by, I remember having a surprisingly good time at the Imperial War Museum with my parents — for a bunch of pacifists, we found it surprisingly non-jingoistic, and the exhibits inspired a great deal of conversation, both at the time and later.)

    BUT (oh yes, there’s a but), sorting through this level of my issues with the goal of “getting strangers to talk in museums” allowed me to focus more clearly on another level that bothers me perhaps even more. Sometimes I don’t want to talk in museums. And it goes deeper than that: I don’t want to listen to other people talk, either.  For people who want a deeply intimate, contemplative, or even spiritual experience in a museum, don’t-talk-if-you-don’t-like-it isn’t a solution.  You still have to hear other people talk, and that can be excruciating.  Nina hits on this theme in a post about being an elitist jerk: “For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now.”  In one of my favorite articles, Caring for Your Introvert, Jonathan Rauch says that introverts “tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking” and they are “driven to distraction by the semi-internal dialogue extroverts tend to conduct.” Introversion does not imply a lack of social or conversational skills, nor any disturbing antisocial behaviors.  What it does imply is the need for personal space, for mental breathing room.  Museums can be a wonderful place to seek and find that stillness and quiet.  For introverts, not-talking can be a symptom of having a good time.  I hope that we can find a way to respect that even as we facilitate the conversations that make extroverts happy.

    Alex and Kathryn, great blog posts and comments (I like this editing that allows for links in comments -JH). You guys have done a brilliant job of separating out the differences between coercing people to talk to each other and facilitating a good time. And further, exploring the difference between introverted and extroverted ideas of a good time. This reminded me of Judy Rand’s exhibition class last quarter and the different learning styles (4-Mat Learning, VTS) and thus approaches museums must take to in order to accommodate different kinds of learners.  Ultimately, I think exhibitions are about people learning something and we can facilitate learning by providing a good time.

    So perhaps we want to come up with a learning objective. What do we want people to learn from our exhibit? OK, we would like people to learn that they have valuable advice to share with their fellow students who are graduating (I’m just throwing this out as an example). Now, how do facilitate this learning objective though conversations or a good time? And, what experiences can we create that accommodate different kinds of learners within this conversation?

    • Jason 4:04 pm on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for posting about that unconference session, Alex. I tried to take some note via twitter and the #strangemuse tag. I think Steve, the guy from IWM, made a great case for why we should want strangers to talk to each other, but I think it goes a bit further than “value.” Positive chatter in a museum is a great way to demonstrate value to museum directors, to visiting senators and representatives, and to foundations. It is a visceral demonstration that the museum is impacting people enough that they want to talk about it; and that is really where we should be going.

      I wrote out an equation to summarize all of our points, and I think it is useful:

      Focus object + Emotional experience + Comfortable space + Strangers + Permission = Conversation

    • Kelly C. Porter 4:43 am on April 21, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      All good points. I would add that the act of conversing with strangers in particular as opposed to people who we already know has a variety of values that could be added to the balance of Jason’s equation. In this sense the output is not just conversation but exploration of new perspectives and lives, questioning of values, the humanization of people that may otherwise seem very different, the exploration of the nature of difference, collaboration . . . and so on. Conversation is the first sign that something is happening– what that something is can be much richer than just talk, or the mere public ratification of our institutions.

    • Egg Donor 9:10 am on December 3, 2010 Permalink | Reply

      stuffed animals are very cute and lovely, i bet that most kids and even women loves them :’:

  • Erin Milbeck Wilcox 5:28 am on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply  

    It’s the end of the world… 

    This week, New Curator made a troubling post about the future of the curator, and made a comparison between it and the fate of many journalists.  To summarize, he (Pete) believes that social technology and the use of polls/ratings will make the curator obsolete, much like youtube and online news sources have wounded the role of the journalist.  Pete writes, “Crowdsourcing the curatorial decisions of an exhibition. The process of museums has been brought to the lowest common denominator, pitched somewhere between reality TV and youtube’s most-viewed list. My point is about individualism in museums is entirely proved.”

    Groundswell deals a lot with crowdsourcing, especially in chapter 9, “embracing the groundswell.”  Li and Bernoff explain that crowdsourcing can be useful for marketing, but cannot replace the professional; the marketing team takes suggestions from the customer to make the product better in a fraction of the time it took before, if the marketers listened to the customer at all before the rise of the groundswell.  This makes the company more responsive to the needs of the customer, and therefore more competative and probably more successful.

    I think what might bother people like curators, and maybe journalists, is the idea of being humble enough to allow others a stake or a decision in their job.  Curators study like mad to become incredibly knowledgeable about their field and often become very territorial, so it’s no wonder they might feel threatened by the uprising of the common blogger/viewer.  Li and Bernoff write “muster up the humility to listen and tap into the skill to take what you’ve heard and make improvements.”

    No one wants the death of the curator; we need their expertise to understand works of art and objects, and to present them to viewers.  No one is trying to replace a curator with, I’ll say it, Joe-six-pack.  In class we discussed the clear labeling of news reports verse public opinion on the NYTimes website which aides readers in their search for “objective” reporting; readers want to know when they’re reading an article written by a reporter because they can trust it more than a blog post from a critic.  Museum-goers can trust an interpretive panel because they know that a lot of thought and studying has gone into that content.

    I find it surprising that someone who writes a blog, twitters, etc, would feel so negatively about the groundswell and basic web 2.0.  I would hope that Pete understands the opportunity curators have today; so many more artists to meet and things to learn. And I don’t think it’s wrong to ask curators to step into a new world that includes blogs, tweets, and tags.  Everyone else has to change something in their profession, too.  What’s the big deal?  The groundswell is really not the apocalypse. It can make us more successful at our job, sharing and preserving history and culture, if we choose to use it wisely.

    Maybe this all just relates back to museums being a place of informal learning that doesn’t have to come from a teacher or a book; learning in a museum can come from a curator, an educator, a friend, or a stranger.  Now that we have such a huge wealth of knowledge why not take advantage of it and appreciate it?

    • museologiste 9:21 am on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I sure hope curators stick around. I really do think its important to have people who have a great depth of disciplinary knowledge working for museums. And, not only are curators content experts, they steward collections and are equipped to cultivate them in ways that a Top 10 list could never even come close to doing.

    • Jais 2:19 pm on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Humility seems to be the key here. It’s really difficult to give up even a small amount of control and authority.

      I think crowdsourcing can be a definite blessing, especially as we’re trying to get visitors to become more actively engaged into museums. Even if it becomes an essential and viable curatorial technique, the authority of the curator remains not only in deciding what gets originally put into the poll in the first place, but also what specific information and messages will be conveyed by the chosen paintings. The crowds won’t replace the overall job of the curator.

    • Lace 3:14 pm on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Great post, Erin! I like how you capture the tension on this issue, but take a clear stand.

      I wonder if part of people’s fear about “crowdsourcing” is what they’ve seen in the past as a result of “groupthink” or “design by committee” in which a singular artistic vision can be sacrificed to consensus.

      I am curious about the specifics of how crowdsourcing brings about better/different results than groupthink.

    • Nicole 4:17 pm on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I agree with Lace. I think people feel like we cave in to the lowest common denominator when we hand control to a group. Management by consensus is a challenging process! What we discussed in our last class–the importance of design and the kinds of control that museums keep over the platform– are critical elements in making this work. I actually think museums are gaining some control by setting up guidelines in how visitors engage or respond to their exhibits; looking at it that way this is real opportunity!

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