Archive for February, 2011

Museum Life: Oh Behave!

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Day 3 of my adventure in getting to the core of museum work led me to two articles. The first, “How to Behave in an Art Museum” by Timothy Aubry, and a response,  “Let the Little Children: How to Behave in a Museum” by Bob Duggar. I was intrigued because they both cite museums as places of reverence, albeit reverence defined differently across generations and individuals.

Staff at the Museum of Science & Industry Chicago

Both discuss how visitors behave in museums, but as I find is usually the case, no mention is made of staff. Museums are portrayed as they often are- institutions that exist as concepts as much as physical spaces- designed and run by people not well-known by the public yet holding tremendous power in defining each experience. The institutions are presented without reference to the individuals that chose how to design the space, what words to put on the labels and what food to serve at the casual MoMA Friday night event.

Likewise, how many hours have I spent with colleagues discussing the democratization of museums, or the shift toward education that came with Excellence and Equity in the 90s, without a visitor in sight? Having been immersed in work as an administrator the last decade of my career, I yearn for more direct interaction with visitors and their analyses of experiences such as Aubry and Duggar present .

When I worked as a docent or in a museum store, I loved the immediate feedback I could get about visitors’ experience. Yet doing the “front line” work left little time to record reactions consistently or in a way that was used to analyze or make decisions moving forward. While the person at the ticket counter or in a gallery knows more about visitors than any other staff member,  in my experience ongoing documentation to share across departments is rare.

There is of course a large body of  literature and research regarding museum visitor behavior.  However, my non-scientific Google search tonight first revealed lists of rules for behavior at museums – mainly written in the negative- such as “don’t touch”, “don’t run” and my favorite “keep ample distance between yourself and artworks”.

Further down the search was an AAM published study by Edward Stevens Robinson in 1928 recommending museum directors become “experimental psychologists and undertake behavioral inventories”  and Kevin Coffee’s 2007 audience research paper that asserts “museum use is an inherently dialogic and social practice- sets of actions and cognitive processes that are enacted in response to, and within, specific socio-cultural contexts and within specific social relationships”.  In my experience the two-way social relationship between visitor and staff is less explored. Nonetheless, we as museum professionals often behave as if we know what is best for visitors or create statistics donors, funders, boards and we ourselves want to see.

While we have moved guest book comments to Facebook pages, and we can scan the Internet for articles such as these found today, I wonder if dialog between staff and visitors is recorded and used regularly across museums? Having just reviewed grant applications for IMLS funding, I found a few focus groups or taking surveys on site often presented as the full extent of a museum’s visitor research. Even at recent professional conferences, the sessions I attended presented communication as overwhelmingly one way from staff to visitor, and did not maximize existing social networks or technology as informative tools.

Hopefully this walkabout will reveal recent research and practical applications of innovative ways museum staff and visitors communicate with and influence one another’s behavior…  I plan to follow Duggar’s advice:

“Maybe we should look to the children for the right way to enter the paradise of museums. …..  with the same wide-eyed wonder as they do—a mix of curiosity and fearlessness with a healthy dose of admiration.



Museum Life: Day 2 Walkabout

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

So in a process like this one is supposed to take cues from dreams and signs. My dream last night took me back to a grad school classmate who had become a salesperson for a bar code company. She was working hard to convince me to purchase said system for the collection of books in the unidentified museum where I worked.

Enter a coworker from UC Berkeley who was responsible for analyzing bar code systems for possible use in managing our collection of 3.8 million artifacts and a newly organized library of hundreds of books. The two of them debated when I heard shouting outside only to find people arguing in a street next to a 1950s baby blue sedan. They suddenly flicked a cigarette into dry bushes and a wildfire spread immediately down the embankment and toward the building where we stood. We ran up a circular staircase to get out and all I could think about was “bar codes don’t matter if the building is gone”!

While waking up and analyzing that I decided to check Facebook for possible inspiration or signs and found these three posts at the top of my feed in this order:

1) From Disneyland: Walt Disney once said, “Disneyland is like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass; to step through the portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world.”

2) From Gregory Crosby (poet/former Las Vegan now in NYC) : There’s the Statue of Liberty,/And there’s the United States of America,/And America’s holding the Statue of Liberty up in the air/Just exactly the way a grinning actor holds up his Oscar. –Frederick Seidel, “Istanbul”

3) From NPR: “Weird Al’s Advice: Follow Your Muse To Grow Up”

These posts actually work together for my mind as signposts for this quest of mine. First, Disneyland is part of the reason I believe in combining entertainment and education in museums. I lived near LA for part of my childhood and trips to Disneyland never disappointed. Even as a child I thought Walt Disney was genius in creating a place that brought people together from around the world and managed to teach some concepts and ideas while they rode rides and ate crazy foods. I have often joked that “It’s a Small World” was the root of my interest in comparative Anthropology. But if I’m getting back to basics perhaps it’s not such a joke.

As far as today’s quote I can’t tell you how many times I said I felt like Alice when immersed in aspects of museum work that to me felt removed from the mission and/or pure logic (such as worrying about bar codes when you don’t have a fire suppression system or Disaster Preparedness Plan?!)

The Statue of Liberty quote ties into my idealism about this country and my idea that museums can help keep the melting pot from boiling over. The story of my grandfather arriving at Ellis Island came alive to me as a kid during the Bicentennial hoopla in 1976. As our school choral reading group wore red white and blue (the girls had Holly Hobbie inspired dresses) and recited “The New Colossus” in its entirety, I was as proud as child could be to have that Statue mean something to my family and to embrace patriotism. Seeing the statue in person and being able to research the records and images from Ellis Island is still a gift to this country that I believe we should preserve.

 Finally, Weird Al. I happen to share a birthday with him and have always been a fan of his satire and thought he was another genius in being able to interpret someone else’s work in a funny way and get paid for it! His interview on NPR is about his new book for children that uses Seuss-like rhyming to inspire kids to follow their passions and to realize they have as many options as they can dream. He pays homage to his Dad who used the cliché but ever so  true line that true success comes from doing work that you love. My parents said those words as well, and my Dad always told me I should write a book for kids…..  I’m liking these signs so far and it’s only Day 2!

I’ll leave you with the words of Alice-

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

Check out the British Film Institute’s restored copy of the first Alice in Wonderland movie !

Museum Life: Mid Museum Life Crisis

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It was 1989 when I first entered  The Heard Museum as a museum professional in training, idealistic to the hilt and ready to save the world in the environment I believed combined all of my passions perfectly. Since then I have held positions from docent to director in institutions as varied as you can imagine in size, focus and degree of adherence to defined museum standards. It has been a hugely fulfilling albeit challenging career.

Now, in 2011, I am unsure. Unsure about the ideals that first pushed me to the work and how they fit into the realities of museums as the political and personal entities that they are. Unclear whether my efforts, often not measurable or quantifiable, have made a difference in the grand scheme of things. Unable to express my true opinions about many museum topics because I have spent decades being neutral for the sake of balanced presentation. And uncertain how or even if the second half of my life can be used for the good of the field.

So I’m designing my version of a Walkabout, or even a Vision Quest if you will, to look around and redefine my Museum Life. Since I’ve spent more time working than anything else, the museum world is the lens that’s most useful to peer into an overall midlife evaluation on all levels physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and financial. My hope is that the process will bring some clarity of opinion and goals and direct my passion for the next chapter.

For the next 365 days I will spend one hour a day exploring what museums do through memories, random or directed research, suggestions from others, references I pick up from any source, or as a visitor. I won’t structure or design the topics except to follow whatever lead I have that day. Each day will be documented here.

For today I just Googled “Walkabout” and was led to the 1971 movie and found this clip and a good theme song!

I then tried “museum” and “Vision Quest” and found this Lakota Museum which is part of a school in South Dakota.

These searches both bring me back to my Anthropology studies and  first assigned work at The Heard which was teaching kids about Native American culture in order to show how all human beings have families of some kind, use storytelling, music, dance and design to express ourselves. For me that meant we are more alike than different, and in my mind museums were meant to bring people together to discover new things about the world and themselves and to learn to live and work together with respect. It really was that simple to me then, and the core of my intention.

What are you exploring in your own life? Do museums provide any assistance for you as you wrestle with questions? I ask you to join me on this journey and give any feedback or suggestions you might have!