Choices, choices

Three books on my bookshelf (actually, audiobook library) are about the psychology of choice – how do people make decisions and what helps people feel more satisifed about their choices?

As decribed by Sheena Iyengar in the introduction to Art of Choosing, how much emphasis is placed on individual choice depends on the culture you come from. In the English-speaking world, and the US in particular, a high value is placed on individuals being able to make their own choices. Choice pervades the culture so fully that it is considered to be part of the natural order of things: having choice is seen as axiomatically logical, right and good. But other cultures may put more value on social harmony or professional expertise than individual choice, and may decide that individual choice is not always worth the cost. Indeed, when viewed through a different cultural lens, individualistic cultures look like people value the right to choose over their own self interest at times.

This suggests there is such thing as too much choice, and research bears that out. Iyengar’s most famous study was conducted at a jam display at an upmarket grocery store in California. Customers could come up and try the jams on display, and could then get a discount voucher for purchasing one of the jams on offer. The main thing that they changed over the course of the study was how many jams were on display at any given time: 6 or 24. Although a greater percentage of customers were attracted to the larger display, customers were much more likely to actually buy jam if they only had 6 to choose from at the outset.

This idea is explored further in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz describes research that shows that not only does too much choice befuddle us and cause us to procrastinate in our quest to make the “right” choice, we’re often less happy with the choices we *do* eventually make. It seems that having a never-ending array of choices increases the fear we have of making the “wrong” choice, as well as the perpetual possibility that a better option is just around the next corner. It’s a recipe for inertia and dissatisfaction. Schwartz suggests we’d be better off making “good enough” choices that allow us to move on with our lives.

But what if we’re looking to guide the choices of others? This is an idea described in Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. They describe the concept of “choice architecture”, that is, the way you present options to influence the choices people make. Many choices we have to make, like pension plans or energy supplier, tend to be confusing (and let’s face it: not particularly interesting). Rather than read up on all the options, most of us take whatever the default option is, irrespective of whether it’s the one that suits us best or not. In a philosophy they call “libertarian paternalism”, they argue that these default options should be ones that suit most people most of the time. That way, people are still free to make another choice if they wish, but for those who take the default path of least resistance (i.e. most of us, most of the time), we’d end up with a better option overall. We can also use choice architecture to make choices less confusing, for instance by sequentially narrowing down options rather than showing all of them up front.

Now all of this may seem a bit tangential to museum visitor experiences at first glance (although one of the goals of Project 50 is to broaden the scope of this blog a bit). But it shouldn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see that consumer psychology and visitor experiences are linked: the people who are putting off choosing their pension plans on a Wednesday are the same people who are trying to decide what to do to keep the family entertained on a wet Saturday afternoon, or where would be the best place to go on holiday next.

A museum visit is full of choices – from the first decision to visit a museum rather than do something else, then which museum to go to, what exhibitions to visit, what displays to look at, whether to stop at the cafe or buy a gift at the shop, and so on. Consumer psychology and visitor research both show that people like choice, but also they like a manageable number of choices, and they like to know what the consequences of their choices will be. And through understanding people, we can both guide those decisions and help people be happier about the choices they make.

Transmission metaphors in museums

Embodied in the language we use are all sorts of ideas and assumptions: some of which we are aware, others we are not. A paper in the latest Curator journal (Ntzani, 2015) explores how the “transmission” metaphors that are frequently applied to communications influences the way we conceptualise museums:

“[T]ransmission metaphors make communication seem like an easy or automatic process between active speakers and passive listeners. This presupposition has long haunted museum communication practices” (Ntzani, 2015, p. 63).

Drawing upon the work of Michael Reddy, Ntzani describes two main transmission metaphors: that of the conduit; and that of the container.

Some literal museum conduit - a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)
Some literal museum conduit – a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

The two metaphors are distinct and often incompatible. Conduits are invisible and passive transmitters of information, whereas containers call attention to themselves in the way they hold information and impose a shape onto it.

Ntzani argues that the container metaphor is often implicit in the way we discuss museum objects, exhibits and indeed museum buildings.

 . . . transmission metaphors make us think of museum objects either as containers of intrinsic cultural information, or as conduits of information that are transmitted from museum curators to museum visitors. The first proposition sees museum objects as sealed containers of cultural values that speak for themselveswhile the second proposition sees museum objects as conduits of messages, the signs of a language museums employ to build their narratives.” (Ntzani, 2015, p.65, my emphasis)

That section in particular made me think about the language of objects issue I was grappling with last year. Could the container and conduit metaphors help explain differences in the way different curators conceptualise the object and its communicative role? The former positions the object as being imbued with inherent meaning. The latter renders the object as a mere tool for an interpretive storyline: it says nothing in particular until it’s placed into a wider narrative.

“When museums are discussed as educational institutions, attention falls on the transmission of messages; in this case conduit metaphors take the lead. When discussed as architectural spaces . . . container metaphors are more frequently used.” (Ntzani, 2015, pp.67-68)

The museum itself can be conceptualised as a series of nested containers, analogous to Russian dolls: an exhibit is nested inside an exhibition, which is nested inside a museum that itself is nested within a particular social or geographical context.

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers - like Russian Dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)
Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers – like Russian nesting dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Extending the concept further, Ntzani points out that it is only the outside of each doll that is adorned – the interior is a plain, neutral container for the doll within. In museum buildings, there can be a tension between those who wish to have statement architecture that draws attention to iself, versus those wanting a discreet container that will fade into the background. The conflict between conduit and container may be a new way of conceptualising some of these debates about the role of museums.

Ntzani, D. (2015). Under the Spell of Metaphors: Investigating the Effects of Conduit and Container Metaphors on Museum Experience. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(1), 59–76. doi:10.1111/cura.12098

Routes around the paywall

One of the huge benefits of being a graduate student (or otherwise in possession of a university library log-in) is access to published research that otherwise is locked behind paywalls. Paywalls for academic journals are EXPENSIVE – per-article costs around the US$30 mark are not uncommon. Given that even a relatively narrow search of the academic literature can yield dozens of articles, the cost soon gets prohibitive and many museum professionals are effectively locked out from accessing these papers.

Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research
Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research (Image source: sharynmorrow on Flickr – Creative Commons)

There is a lot of discussion about open access in academic circles, which I won’t repeat here besides to say I’ve made the decision to make my PhD thesis open-access once my degree is conferred (weeks, if not days away – I promise!). Once it’s available, I’ll post a link.

But this post is not about the open access debate per se. Rather, I wanted to share ways that you *can* get access to original research, or at least decent summaries that extend beyond what the abstract tells you, without having to fork out the big bucks: essentially “Facebook for academics”, this site allows researchers to upload versions of their papers (often pre-prints that are not subject to publisher copyright) as well as conference papers that may not be easy to get hold of elsewhere. You can follow subjects, groups and researchers of interest, and while you need to set up a profile first, I don’t think you need a current link to an academic institution – putting down your alma mater would probably suffice.

Relating research to practice: unlike, which covers all disciplines, this site is specific to museums and informal learning. It doesn’t reproduce original papers in its entirety, rather it includes useful summaries of key research articles that are searchable by topic. Another subject-specific portal and a great way of accessing evaluation reports and other “grey literature” that wouldn’t get published in academic journals anyway. If you’re doing an exhibition on a particular topic, it’s worth having a browse to see if there are any front end, formative or summative evaluation reports from another museum that has previously tackled the same topic. Also, don’t let the name put you off if you’re not in a science-based informal learning institution: there are also reports from art and history museums as well (albeit fewer in number).

In addition, every so often, on this blog I produce my own summaries of key research papers and books. I do this for two reasons: firstly, it gives me the impetus to properly read and get across what it says; and secondly it’s a way of giving research I find interesting/useful/important a wider audience past the paywall.

Are there any other similar resources that you have found useful?

Fear of criticism

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a discussion about when and how to criticise another museum’s curatorial practice, and the impacts of doing so on one’s career. Although I’ve previously had discussions about how museums have a somewhat criticism-averse culture (more on that in a bit), I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of damaging career prospects before. I found this idea alarming, so I weighed in:

An excerpt from this morning's Twitter discussion
An excerpt from this morning’s Twitter discussion

Could being (constructively) critical really be damaging to the careers of emerging museum professionals? And if so, what does that say about how well the museum sector handles criticism?

Unlike other areas of creative endeavour such as literature or theatre, museum exhibitions are not routinely reviewed in the mainstream media (with the possible exception being art exhibitions). Even within the realm of industry publications, relatively few regularly publish exhibition reviews (the main exceptions I can think of are Museums Journal in the UK and AAM’s Exhibitionist magazine in the US). It means there is not a reviewing culture around exhibitions. Critique happens more informally, perhaps behind closed doors. I’ve found many museum professionals (myself included) have been reluctant to openly criticise another museum’s work. Likely reasons include:

  • We’re “too nice”: we appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting together an exhibition, and the compromises that get made along the way. We know all too well what it’s like to be on the other side, and how hard it is to get everything right. Consequently, when we see an exhibition that misses the mark, our instinct is to cut the developers some slack as we’re sure there’s a back story as to why things are the way they are.
  • It’s a tight-knit community: chances are, we know (or know of) someone who worked on that exhibition. It’s one thing to be critical about an exhibition in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to feel like you’re criticising the work of a respected colleague.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a culture of giving criticism might make us even more fearful of receiving it. Rather than being philosophical, dusting ourselves off after a dud review, learning from it and moving on, criticism becomes something to dread. What if we get negative PR? A backlash from funders? Fear of criticism might be enough to stop ambitious projects from even getting off the drawing board.

In such a culture, people will make conservative choices because they fear being criticised, and existing practices will never be challenged or fully held up to the light.

As well as entrenching a sense of “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done”, it creates a perfect storm for emerging museum professionals – we want (need) to make our mark but also worry about the consequences. Unless you live in a large city, you can’t afford to burn any bridges: there will be few other employment options unless you’re in a position to move. It means we could end up silencing ourselves just when we’re starting to find our voice.





Launching “Project 50”

Happy New Year!

As 2014 drew to a close, I wrote a reflective piece about blogging practice, the ebbs and flows of creative energy, and what things might keep a blog sustainable in the long run. There must be something in the air as one of my blogging heroes, Nina Simon, has just put out a similarly reflective post about the changing culture of her blog over time.

Based on the experience of people I know who have undertaken blog-a-day projects, it seems that imposing a schedule on blogging, rather than leaving it to whenever the muse takes you, is a good way to give your blogging practice a shot in the arm. Thus, I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year of “Project 50” on this blog – a goal of writing 50 posts before the year is out.

Sourced via creativecupcakes on Flickr
Sourced via clevercupcakes on Flickr (creative commons)

I’ve chosen 50 as it’s a nice round number that is roughly equal to one post a week. I think this is achievable (I’m not ready to take on the daily blogging mantle just yet!), while still a significant step up from the output of previous years.

I see it as a chance for me to experiment with the blog, what I write about and how I write it (e.g. some posts might be quick hits, like the Center for the Future of Museum’s “Wordless Wednesday” posts, others will be more considered. I’m hoping it will motivate me to produce more summaries of key papers from the academic literature, as well as invite some guest bloggers to contribute as well. I’ll continue to keep the focus on museums and visitor experiences, but might take a broader definition of this from time to time.

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to subscribe to this blog (enter your email address in the subscribe box to the right of the home page of this blog, and make sure to check your junk mail folder if you don’t receive a confirmation email – otherwise you won’t be added to the list).

Let’s see what 2015 holds!