I’m not a Negative Nelly, honest! I just need some time to think.

I’ve had a couple of conversations over the past few weeks that haven’t gone so well. The common theme has been someone wanting to do something new, unplanned, or otherwise out of the ordinary, and I fear that they’ve taken my reaction as being lukewarm at best, road-blocking at worst. I really don’t mean to be!

At my previous workplace, I did a DiSC profile – for those that haven’t come across it before, DiSC characterises your preferences and behaviours across four dimensions:

  • Dominance: emphasis on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results
  • influence: emphasis on shaping the environment by influencing or persuading others
  • Steadiness: emphasis on co-operating with others within existing circumstances to carry out the task
  • Conscientiousness: emphasis on working conscientiously within existing circumstances to ensure quality and accuracy.

People who score strongly in Dominance and influence tend to like to act quickly, get things done and influencing others. They are comfortable with risk. In contrast, people who score highly in Steadiness and Conscientiousness like to take their time and consider all the options before acting. They don’t like risk so their thinking is framed by how to control it.

The ever-insightful Paul Bowers described high DI people as Diaz, and high C people as Cody. He wrote:

Diaz is biased to action, to get on with it, make radical change. Cody is motivated to keep everything steady. Diaz is starting fires; Cody is fireproofing everything.

So when I did my DiSC profile, I found that I was strongest in Conscientiousness and Steadiness (I’m a big old Cody!). On a good day this makes me calm, considerate, loyal, and systematic in my approach. However, I’m not comfortable with new variables entering the equation, particularly if I don’t have the time to think through all the possibilities and impacts. I hate making decisions on the spot. I’m not someone who trusts my gut. This nervousness can be interpreted as resistance, when what is really going through my head is:

  • what problems might we encounter doing [X], and how might we work around them? (This is “how” thinking, not “no” thinking)
  • who needs to be consulted, and will feel angry or upset if a decision is made without them?
  • how will [X] be interpreted by others, and will it seem rational and defensible? Will I inadvertently be setting a problematic precedent?
  • what if I say yes now and I find out something later that means it simply can’t happen? I’ll be going back on my word and I hate letting people down.

Notice in the definitions above, that both Steadiness and Conscientiousness refer to within existing circumstances. As much as I admire (and envy) the bold types who can say Yes to that crazy idea today and figure out how to do it later, I naturally tend towards colouring within the lines.

I wish I were more adventurious, and I like working with “Diaz” types (if I trust them). They give me the gentle push I need, and I help them by being the person who does all the systematic thinking and analysis needed to make the crazy idea actually work.

In the meantime, I’m working on how I can manage myself in the moment that a new idea comes up so I don’t come across as inadvertently negative.

Silence. . .

Wow – nearly three months have passed since I last wrote a post. I knew it had been a while, but not quite *that* long. The longest silence ever. And this in the same year when I pledged to write 50 posts before 2015 was out. Well, that worked out well then, didn’t it??

To be fair to myself, when I made that pledge back in January I had no idea I’d be returning to full-time employment. And I didn’t predict the impact that would have on my ability (or inclination) to blog.

When I started blogging back in mid 2010, I was freelancing part-time while I worked out what I wanted to do next. Those of you who have been paying attention knew what happened – I went on to do a PhD. Both as a freelancer and PhD student, my time was more flexible, and blogging didn’t necessarily feel like an extracurricular activity that I had to fit around a “day job”. Plus, not being tied to a particular institution made me feel freer to share publicly what I was doing and thinking. Although it’s totally a matter of self-censorship, rather than anything my employer has said to me on the matter, the fact remains that blogging about the day job feels a bit too personal. I can’t easily anonymise my experiences by saying “a client of mine” or using other distancing rhetorical devices.

Furthermore, I’ve found that entering a management role (and a newly created role at that), with all the meetings to attend, staff to manage, policies to develop and strategies to implement that such a role entails, has been very absorbing: temporally, cognitively, emotionally. Frankly, at the end of the week, Netflix has been a much more attractive prospect than spending the weekend reading the literature and blogging.

This doesn’t mean I’m hanging up my blogging spurs just yet. Maybe once I get a bit more settled in the role, my mojo might come back. Maybe I’ll keep the blog posts for reporting on conferences or places I visit on my travels. Or when the inclination to return to the literature comes back. We’ll see. . . .

On the road again

It says something about how busy I’ve been over the past month that it takes the enforced downtime of a 7-hour layover in Singapore to get back to this blog.

When I accepted my new job back in late March, it was with the caveat that I’d already committed to a five-week trip to Europe: a combination of a holiday, returning to the UK for the first time in 4 years, and presenting at both the Interpret Europe and ECSITE conferences. While I’ve been looking forward to the trip, I’ve also been really frustrated by the timing. Six weeks in the job is just long enough to start to feel like you’re in the swing of things and finding some momentum, which is now being interrupted by an extended time away. It’s meant I haven’t really had the time (or head space) to think much about blogging. Maybe my travels will give me more inspiration.

And if you’ll be in either Krakow or Trento, I hope to see you there!

The 6Ds of Group Dynamics

What’s the right number of people to have working on a project? 

Based on my experience in exhibition development teams, planning groups and various committees, I’ve developed these rules of thumb for group dynamics:

  • To Do and Deliver: I believe small teams of 3-4 people are most suited for completing specific, focused tasks where the desired outcome is well-defined and understood. Groups of this size are large enough to have enough hands to bear the load, while being agile enough to make progress quickly. They make good working groups and subcommittees.
  • To Delegate and Decidethis is the main role of committees and boards, and 8-10 people is usually a good number to have around the table. There are enough people to ensure a variety of perspectives inform the overall strategic direction of a project or organisation, while still being small enough to make decisionmaking manageable. Such committees can include representatives of your “Do and Deliver” subgroups or working parties, who can report on progress and seek guidance on what to do next.
  • In my experience, things get a bit tricky once you try to get more than about 12 people around the table. Too often, the result is less action and more dalliance and deferralDiscussions tend to be unfocused and circular as the sense of “too many cooks” creeps in. It can be hard to reach a decision, meaning progress is slow if not completely sclerotic. Larger groups also quickly factionalise, leading to more conflict than consensus.

Do these tally with your teamwork experiences?

Festival Volunteering

Today the Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Fringe wrap up for another year, the city returns to normal, and our social calendars get a lot less frenetic.

Like many arts festivals around the world, both the Festival and Fringe depend heavily on volunteers to help things go smoothly. And volunteering is a great way to feel part of the festival vibe. This was my 4th year as a Festival volunteer, and this year I decided to be a volunteer for the Fringe as well.

My collection of volunteer passes


I’ve just added up the hours from the past few weeks and found that I have volunteered over 50 hours in total. Things I have done over this time include:

  • Live tweeting selected discussion sessions during Adelaide Writers’ Week
  • Operating and minding projectors as part of a multi-site outdoor video art installation
  • Keeping queues orderly and ensuring people were in the right queue for the show they wanted to see
  • Giving directions and handing out lots of maps, flyers and programmes

Festival volunteering is something I more or less fell into: back in 2012, the Festival decided to bring in a dedicated team of social media-savvy volunteers to live tweet selected sessions during Writers’ Week. I was one of the people who was tapped on the shoulder to help out in that first year, and I’ve been involved in every Writers’ Week since, adding additional volunteer duties as my other commitments allow.

I find volunteering in public-facing roles useful for reminding me some important lessons that I can apply to my own work, such as:

  • Signage and maps need to be carefully designed and worded to avoid ambiguity and confusion: what’s clear when you can take your time to find out what’s going on is much less so when you’re arriving at the last minute for a show that’s about to start.
  • People don’t tend to read instructions or the fine print when it comes to booking, purchasing and collecting tickets.
  • Planning can only take you so far: event staff need to be flexibile and ready to respond to unexpected scenarios. There are only so many things you can be specifically trained to handle, although the training you get as a volunteer for a large event gives some good pointers.
  • Being in customer-facing roles can be exhausting! Plus it can be easy to get jaded saying the same thing over and over again to a seemingly endless procession of patrons. Rotating staff across different duties over the course of a shift keeps everyone fresh and able to put their best foot forward.

Right, now I think I’ve earned a few quiet nights in  . . . .

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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/clevercupcakes/2348005128/
Sourced via clevercupcakes on Flickr (creative commons) https://www.flickr.com/photos/clevercupcakes/2348005128/

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!

A reflection on blogging

A lot’s happened for me in 2014, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it looking at this blog. Things have been relatively quiet here of late!

Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)
Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)

This is reflected by site analytics for this blog, which among other things show that only two blog posts from this year were in the top 10 most-viewed pages. (FYI they were October’s piece on The Language of Objects and May’s piece on What do museum visitors think science is?). The most popular posts overall remain ones on visitor statistics and exhibition costs. Even though they are a few years old now, they are obviously topics of perennial interest.

Overall, I only posted 22 times this year compared to 33 posts in 2013. This didn’t have a dramatic effect on overall site traffic though, since most people seem to come to this blog via google searches rather than via links to new content or social media shares (Is this normal for a blog? I have no idea . . . )

Anyway, why so quiet this year?

One possible reason is content exhaustion: I started blogging in 2010, and while it took me a little while to find my voice, I probably felt like I had more to say in the early days – especially when I was first getting across the visitor studies literature in the early days of my PhD. Now, I find it harder and harder to find new things to write about (and am in awe of people like Nina Simon who has been able to punch out a post a week on Museum Two for years!). It makes me wonder whether there is a natural life cycle for most blogs, and this one may be coming to its end (I hope not, but I have to think about that possibility).

Another reason is that my writerly efforts have definitely been focused elsewhere this year: I wrote up my PhD thesis, submitted it for both internal and external examination, made changes as appropriate along the way and am now waiting for the final changes to be signed off by the Grad School, the last hurdle before they confer my degree. A lot of the time, if I wasn’t working on my thesis, I really wasn’t feeling much like doing any other writing!

Finally, just as there are only so many hours in the day, brain space is a finite quantity too. I’ve come to the (possibly late) realisation that “busyness” is not always best quantified in terms of hours worked, and might better be measured in terms of cognitive load. For instance, If I quantified my year purely in terms of hours spent at the desk, it wouldn’t seem all that bad. In fact I’ve been feeling quite guilty about how worn out I’ve been feeling given I hadn’t been working particularly long hours. But then again, other things have been going on – I’ve been making the transition from student to consultant, setting up the interactivate consultancy in June and rebuilding a client base. On the personal front, I got married in April, and even the simplest of weddings requires organisation, planning and thus brain space. We also had minor renovations happening for most of the year, and although we weren’t doing the actual work we still had to check on contractors, make design decisions, and lots of little things that also take up brain space.

I’m not 100% sure what 2015 will hold for me yet . . . but more on that in the New Year.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from fellow bloggers about how you manage the ebbs and flows of your ideas and creative capacity.

PhD – three years down . . .

Although this blog has only made passing reference to my PhD journey on a personal level, now that I’m three years in it’s interesting to look back at those yearly updates/reflections and see how my thinking and outlook have changed.

One year in and I was filled with optimism and a sense of achievement about my first milestone. Another year on and that milestone felt like a long way in the past. Self-doubt was creeping in and it felt like any tangible progress was painfully slow. I feared falling behind and not getting any worthwhile results. Fast forward another 12 months and I’ve passed the three year mark (in terms of calendar time at least – “officially” the three-year clock doesn’t run out until mid-May due to a couple of candidature breaks) – it’s the home stretch, the finish line is in sight!

Although there is still a lot of work to go, I’ve pulled together about 90% of a full first draft of the thesis. There’s a sense of accomplishment of seeing some 75,000 words* all together in one document. Moreover, they are words that I think tell a story and seem to reach some meaningful conclusions. Recently when one of my supervisors asked me what my research had found, I was able to give a (fairly) straight and succinct answer. I can look back at what I set out to do at the beginning of my PhD and see I’ve managed to find at least some answer to all the research questions I had at the outset.

Everyone’s PhD journey is different, but for me it felt like I turned a corner once I’d finished my data collection in about June last year. My worries about not asking the right questions was replaced by pragmatism: my data set was what it was, and I had to make the best of it come what may. I increased my confidence and competence in data analysis as interesting results started emerging. Diving into the numbers of my quantitative data set satisfied my inner nerd.

Looking back, I think I underestimated what an emotionally draining process data collection can be. All in all I approached some 1200 visitors – roughly half of whom agreed to participate in my research – and discreetly tracked over 200 more. It takes a lot of concentration, upbeat manner and acceptance of rejection! In my own case, data collection coincided with a time I’d spread myself a little thinly due to volunteering, as well as a difficult period in my private life, both of which probably magnified the sense of being emotionally spent. But I’d wager it’s a draining process at the best of times.

Now that I’ve conducted a piece of my own research, I feel more able to critically evaluate the research of others. It’s made me a better reader of the literature.  I found it useful going through the peer review process for my first academic publication – the reviewer comments helped sharpen my arguments. And although it’s hard to measure this about yourself, I think the overall quality of my thinking has improved.

Where from here?

Although the finish line is in sight, it’s fair way off in the horizon. Once I have pulled together a first full draft, it will be a chance for me (and my supervisors) to see how everything hangs together, identify the weaknesses, plug any holes. I don’t want to underestimate the size of that task, but at the moment it feels achievable. There are probably another 2-3 publications that can come out of my research, although for the time being I’m concentrating on the thesis. Some of the results I’ll be presenting at the Visitor Studies Association conference in Albuquerque this July, which is an extension of what I presented at the Visitor Research Forum at UQ last month. So gradually I’m putting the results “out there”; I just don’t want to pre-empt too much of that on this blog.

But stay tuned . . .

*That count includes absolutely *everything* – figures, tables, captions, footnotes, references, appendices. The word limit for PhD theses at UQ is 80,000 words including everything except references.

From ‘starstuff’ to ‘dark matter’

Close followers of this blog may have noticed a slight philosophical turn in recent weeks. There is a reason for that. Recent events have given me pause to think of the bigger picture – beyond the world of museums, visitors and my PhD.

On 30th March a friend of mine died, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in mid January. Things progressed a lot quicker than we expected at the start. But he faced his inevitable demise with both courage and a lack of euphemism – no talk of cancer “battles” here. Rather, he spent the time he had left embracing the passions and the people he cared most about.

One of these passions was photography. In late January he took some photographs of the night sky, and he emailed one around to some friends along with a message pondering on our place in the universe. He included this quote from Carl Sagan, which was repeated at his funeral:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

As my friend no longer exists in physical form, he is no longer ‘starstuff’. However, through shared experiences and memories, both happy and sad, he will continue to exert an influence on me and everyone else he knew. It binds us together, and there are many friendships he helped forge and relationships he helped strengthen by his example. So too, his professional legacy will go on as someone who cared about his work, sought to make a difference and devoted much time to the training and development of others. Extending Sagan’s cosmic analogy, I like to think he has gone from being ‘starstuff’ to ‘dark matter’ – an unseen source of gravitational forces that will continue to affect the shape and structure of the world he left behind. It’s a better world for him having been in it.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr Conrad Williams (1970-2013)


PhD – Two Years In

It is now a little over two years since I started my PhD, and quite a while since I blogged about it specifically. So it seems like a good juncture at which to reflect on how I’m progressing, and answer the burning questions you may have but are too polite to ask . . .

Two years is a long time. You must really have this PhD thing down by now.

You’d think so, huh? To be honest it really doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for two years! A lot of the time I still feel like I’m finding my feet. But I’m starting to think that that is just the nature of a PhD – nearly everything you do, you are doing it for the first time. And each new task has a niggling uncertainty about it – am I doing my data collection the *right* way? Am I asking the *right* questions? Will I recognise the answers to these questions in the mass of data I’m only just learning to analyse? What have I *not* thought of? These niggles have become part of the background hum of my mind, a bit like constantly wondering whether you left the gas on at home or not.

At some point though, you have to take a leap of faith in yourself – or else be paralysed by fear of failure – and have faith in your supervisors that they won’t let you stray *too* far off track (even if a bit of meandering might be a necessary part of the learning process).

And I don’t want to come across as overly pessimistic – I have learned a lot. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise this because no sooner have you passed one learning curve you’re on to the next. If you keep looking forward, all you can see are more mountains to climb. But every so often you get a chance to look back (e.g. offering advice to a PhD student just starting out, or being able to relate what you read in the literature to what you’ve observed in your own research) and you get to see how far you’ve come.

So what have you been doing since your last PhD blog post?

Since last May I have been:

  • Conducting 12 accompanied visits around the SA Museum (and transcribing the 14 hours of interview tapes they produced)
  • Performing an initial analysis of these transcripts to inform the development of a survey instrument, which was piloted with 170 visitors across three exhibitions (in SA and Melbourne) as proof-of-principle
  • Tracking and timing approx. 175 museum visitors in different exhibitions at SA Museum and performing initial analysis of movement and stopping patterns
  • Refining the survey instrument from above for incorporation into a larger questionnaire. Piloting said questionnaire and starting to collect the main survey sample (80 down, about 400 to go over the next few weeks)
  • Presenting a poster on my (as then, planned) research at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) conference in Raleigh, NC, USA
  • *Finally* submitting my first scholarly article for publication (this is now undergoing peer review)

That doesn’t sound like much for nearly a year’s work. . . .

Yep. I agree with you. All these things have taken far longer to do in practice than I thought they would. I don’t know if that means my expectations were unrealistic, or whether I have been a little slow in getting things done. The logistics of data collection can be time consuming – more so than I anticipated. There are also the other things I did that were not (directly) related to my PhD:

  • Convening the Museums Australia conference in Adelaide last year (for which I took two months off from being officially a full-time PhD candidate)
  • Adding a two week study tour of Eastern USA museums to my trip for the VSA conference
  • Attending the Interpretation Australia conference and presenting a paper (unrelated to my research)
  • Attending the Australasian Evaluation Society conference in Adelaide
  • A few freelance interpretation projects
  • Planning for a trip to China next month (as part of a PhD student delegation being organised by the Group of Eight universities)
  • Various voluntary roles with Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia (and most recently at the Adelaide Festival)
  • Blogging (of course!) and other writing projects, including co-authoring an article for the Exhibitionist.
  • Probably some other things I can’t bring to mind right now

I write this list mostly to justify to myself that I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs, even if I do feel a bit behind on my research. On reflection I don’t think I’ve had the balance between “PhD study” and “other interesting things” quite right. With the long time frame associated with a PhD, it’s easy to think you can find the time for extra opportunities as they come along (particularly when they are all so tempting and rewarding). But each little thing adds up. Conferences are stimulating but they also take momentum away from what you were doing back in the office. I don’t want to be a PhD hermit, losing touch with what is happening in the “real” museums and interpretation world, but at the same time I think I need to be a bit more careful about what I say yes to in the future.

However, despite taking a slightly more scenic route towards a PhD, I’m still on track for my (self-imposed) deadline of completion before I turn 40 (just under two years away).

What’s next?

Over the next few weeks I’m hoping to get the lion’s share of my survey collection done, before heading off to China in the second half of April. May-July will be a chance to really get my teeth into the statistical techniques I need to be able to properly analyse and interpret these data (and also a chance to tidy up any loose ends on the data collection front). August is my last hurrah (a trip to the US with my partner who is attending some training courses there), before heading back to Adelaide, holing myself up and properly getting into writing my thesis.

Before that I intend to go to Hobart at some point (to see MONA and the newly refurbished TMAG) and will post some reviews here in due course. But it also might get a bit quiet on this blog from time to time as I take the time I need to focus on my research and writing up. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know what I’m doing . . .