MA 2010 Conference: Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1

Last week was the 2010 Museums Australia National Conference – “Interesting times for Collections” – hosted by Museums Australia (Victoria) at the University of Melbourne.

About 600 delegates from across Australia, along with a few international visitors, came to hear from an impressive list of speakers including a considerable number of international keynotes.

My first instalment of highlights, notes and observations (which will be in no particular order):

  • Museums shouldn’t be afraid to have an opinion: Professor Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester opened proceedings with a keynote on the social role of museums from a human rights perspective. He drew upon case studies from the UK and USA showing how museums can play an important role in raising community awareness of marginalised perspectives including sensitive topics surrounding religion, sexuality and disability.

    One case study clearly demonstrated that there was no such thing as a ‘neutral’ position – a single text panel in the Walt Whitman interpretive center in USA attracted simultanous protests from both gay rights groups and the Christian community, on the one hand for ‘erasing history’ and on the other for ‘implied sinfulness’. Prof. Sandell said that such controversy was not something that museums should shy away from. He went further, arguing that it was inappropriate for museums to duck controversial issues by ‘presenting all sides and letting visitors make up their minds’. In this there was an interesting parallel to Amanda Lohrey’s criticism of a lack of curatorial courage in exhibition authorship (as mentioned in a previous post).

  • Does Australia need a museum diet? At the other end of the conference, during the closing plenaries, museum consultant Kylie Winkworth presented a challenging paper about the ‘political and policy vacuum’ which she believes is creating a sustainability crisis for smaller and regional museums. She argued that large scale capital developments in big cities are starving smaller museums of much-needed funds for improving care of and access to collections. She also warned that collections were being amassed haphazardly and unsustainably, with no serious discussion in the sector of deacessioning as the obvious corollary to sustainable collections development.

    The audience gasped when Ms Winkworth presented figures showing that Australia has 1 museum per 7,500 people, whereas in the UK and US it is 24,000 and US 17,500 respectively. There was some debate on the #ma2010conf Twitter feed as to whether such a per capita comparison was helpful, but nonetheless it was a brave and provocative presentation. I thought there was also a lot of truth to her assertion that political leaders tend to prefer something shiny and new, with all the associated ribbon-cutting and prestige, rather than adequately fund that which already exists – but then is hardly an exclusively Australian problem.

  • Exhibition ‘hardware’ vs ‘software’: observing a similar phenomenon, Susanna Siu from the Leisure and Cultural Services in Hong Kong confirmed that there is roughly 1 museum opening every 3 days in China at the moment. She described the current focus of museum development to be more on ‘hardware’ (i.e. statement buildings by celebrity architects) more than ‘software’ (which I took to mean collections, exhibitions and programs). I was reminded of the UK’s Millennium building boom in the late ’90s / early ’00s. How the China experience will pan out in the long run will be one to watch.

Over the coming few days I’ll go through my notes and add further posts – some sessions warrant a post all of their own so much more to come!

A different kind of ‘park’ visit

Today was Adelaide PARK(ing) day, where groups take over a city centre parking space and turn it into something else for a few hours.

According to the website, it started in San Francisco in 2005 and has since gone global with around 100 cities participating.

It is based on the idea that a parking space is just rented space – so if it can be occupied by a car, then why not something else? So for a few hours either side of today’s lunch hour, around a dozen city centre parking spaces were turned into art installations, outdoor design studios and miniature market gardens (including live chickens in one instance!).

Hosking Design's 'Happy Days' cutout figures

I managed to see all but one of them, which either wasn’t there or I blinked and missed it among the usual hustle-bustle of Gouger St.

Quoting the website, PARK(ing) Day is all about:

* Calling attention to the importance of urban public spaces
* Rethinking the way we use our streets
* Creating diverse conversations about design and how we make sustainable cities

JPE Design's comment wall

So how well did the parks achieve these objectives? Well based on my experiences, the most successful ones had at least two of three following ingredients:

  • Good Location: some sites were just better positioned than others. I had a map and systematically looked out for all of the parks, but I would have been in the minority. Most people would have stumbled across them on their lunch break. So those which were on reasonably busy thoroughfares (but not so busy that they were lost in amongst all the other goings on) seem to have the best conversations and interactions with passers by.
  • Something to do: those who had a way for the public to get involved somehow, for instance Hosking Design’s large cut-out figures which doubled as comment walls for people’s ideas about sustainability. (Although I think this might have worked better if it the topics for comments were bit more specific and focused – I probably wasn’t the only one who was at a loss for words when a pen was shoved in my hand). JPE’s artwork where people could map the paths they’d taken that day in lengths of string was another creative idea and primed thinking about the journeys we make.
  • Passionate people: parks who were staffed by energetic teams who seemed to genuinely enjoy engaging with the public, explaining what it was about, and getting passersby involved.

To get a flavour of the different parks, there is a Flickr stream on the PARKing day homepage.

(PS. I give the “sense of humour” prize to design company Enoki. Their park, entitled ‘All my friends are dead’, comprised a sole dinosaur skeleton made from large orange profile-cut pieces. There may have been a more profound story behind this installation, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to look too closely as there was a huge crowd of school kids lining up to get into the cinema right next to them. Wonder what they made of it?)

None of the above

Do you fail to fit into neat little boxes?

You know it’s never going to be good when the tax man rings.

By the time I’d fished my phone out of the bottom of my handbag (d’oh!), the call had gone to voicemail. So at 9am this morning I had an ominous message to the effect of “Could the authorised contact for the ABN xxx call the Tax Office within seven days.” Gulp.

So I dutifully called the number given and patiently waited on hold for several minutes, all the while wondering what it could be – did I win the lucky draw for an audit? Did they find out about that Grade 5 assignment that I didn’t hand in? Exactly what was I in for and how deep was I in it?

So it was a bit of a relief when they said that the reason for their call was to confirm what business category I was in. On my business registration form I’d written what I thought was a reasonable description of what I do: consultancy to museums and cultural sector; interpretive writing; so on. Problem is, that doesn’t mean nada in tax land. The subsequent discussion went something like this:

What do you do most of the time?

Well, at the moment, it’s writing.

So are you an author?

Er, no. Not in any way you’d be thinking anyway. (I was pretty careful about saying I was a creative in any way, as being in an ‘artistic’ category apparently puts you into a scary tax-related No Man’s Land which I didn’t want to get into.)

What else do you do?

Well, I’ve just been trawling through historical archives getting images and footage for a client.

So what would you call that then?

I don’t know, you tell me!

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Because what I do is such a mixed bag of things, I don’t fit neatly into pre-defined categories which are worked out by – let’s face it – Bean Counters. “Specialist Generalist” is not something they can wrap their heads around.

We ended up settling on some anodyne-sounding ‘professional services’ category. Whatever. I asked what they needed a category for, and it seemed to be mostly for statistical purposes. Fine, but if I don’t fit properly into any of the categories, I’m hardly going to help any statistical analysis am I?

So what, you ask? It’s not going to make any difference in the general scheme of things. If I keep my receipts and pay my taxes on time, no men-in-white-pinstripes are going to come and get me.

But it does get me thinking – how many of us don’t neatly fit into these boxes? My experience says – LOTS. So how useful are they? Are all these neat little categories making some people’s life a lot harder, just so it can make some other people’s lives a little easier?

And what about if those boxes were on a grant application, for something really innovative and new? Would it never get past the first round-file-filter, just because no-one could find a neat ‘box’ to put it in?

Now that would be a real shame.

Top 5 barriers to visitor engagement

Everything you do is saying something to a visitor

But do you like what it says?

Sometimes, it is the NON-interpretive elements of a visitor experience that leave the most lasting impression – and not necessarily a good one.

In a few weeks’ time I’ll be presenting a workshop – Interpreter as Advocate – at the Interpretation Australia National Symposium in Launceston.

As part of the workshop, interpretive principles will be turned ‘inside out’ – rather than using interpretation just to engage our visitors, how can we use the same principles within our organisations to help build a better overall experience?

In advance of this, here are five top challenges to creating a coherent and compelling visitor experience.

    1. Barriers: these can be either physical or virtual. Being able to provide universal physical access is the most obvious point here, but there are other aspects: clear directional signage (both to and around your site); intuitive layout of visitor services and facilities; websites which are organised according to the way your audience is likely to look for information (which is not necessarily a mirror of your management structure!)

    2. Inconsistencies: does your interpretation sell a message of environmental sustainability, but your café sells drinks in polystyrene cups and your shop sells myriad plastic trinkets that are likely to be landfill before the year is out? Are your front-of-housers friendly but security staff surly? All these inconsistencies can detract from your interpretive message.

    3. Blind spots & Assumptions: Your institution, and those like it, is very familiar to you. You have probably visiting such places for a lot of your life. There are certain norms and expectations which may be so obvious to you that you don’t even see them. Imagine if you’d never been to a National Park or a Museum before (and didn’t know anyone who had) – would you know what was expected of you? Would you feel comfortable or would you feel concerned that as soon as you crossed the threshold you’d break some unwritten code that would immediately flag you as an ‘outsider’? If this seems a bit weird at first, consider how you would feel going to a place where you would be a complete outsider – for instance a place of worship for an unfamiliar religion, or a social activity that is vastly outside your cultural experience– daunting, isn’t it? And that may be how some potential visitors feel about you!

    4. Misalignment: this includes efforts which are not necessarily wrong, but are aimed at the wrong kind of audience. For an example from another field, consider a friend of mine who recently ordered fluorescent light bulbs from a supposedly ‘environmentally-friendly’ company. Along with her order came: “an unasked-for green bag, two shower timers and a fridge magnet.” Her verdict? Landfill! The company was undoubtedly trying to be mission-consistent, but in the case of my already-converted friend, the preaching was a waste of time and resources. In fact, it ultimately sent her a message which was the exact opposite of that intended.

    5. Superfluous services: related to misalignment, this is offering benefits or services that your audience neither notices nor particularly values. It’s not a barrier to visitor engagement per se; but it can be to the extent that it diverts valuable time and resources which could be better spent elsewhere.

Have you ever encountered these examples, either in your own institution or as a visitor elsewhere? Are there others that I’ve missed out from this list?

Give me your thoughts, or better yet – come to the workshop!

Experts telling stories, or expert storytellers?

Every so often, a debate goes around Science Communication circles which goes along the lines of “should we train scientists to be better communicators, or should we first find people who are natural communicators and then get them sufficiently across the science so that they can engage others?”

There are pros and cons on both sides, of course. Someone who is only a step ahead of their audience in terms of scientific knowledge can easily be caught out by a tricky audience question. They may be less comfortable deviating off a defined ‘script’ in which they know they’re on safe ground regarding the accuracy of the science.

On the other hand an expert, knowing the content inside out, will be far more confident in ad-libbing and tailoring their presentation to the audience and context.

But at the same time, an expert can be so immersed in their field that they don’t have a good idea of what sort of knowledge they can assume in a lay audience. Also, they might well be far more interested in doing the research than talking about it.

My first major exhibition project was at the National Space Centre, developing the Planets exhibition. I had a science qualification, in Biochemistry. But the exhibition included a lot of geology and physics – subjects I’d only had a passing acquaintance with in my student days.

On balance I think this was a good thing – I had enough distance from the subject that my previous knowledge wasn’t a million miles away from the target audience’s. But I had enough understanding of science in general that I was fairly confident about where I could safely generalise without oversimplifying

So what about historical subjects? Should interpreting historical sites be the sole preserve of the historically qualified?

Quite obviously, I’d contend not. My interpretation work has called for me to acquire a passing knowledge of, among other things, Medieval England, the American Revolution, World War I in the Middle East and colonial South Australia. In so doing I am coming to the subject as a curious non-expert, which is the same starting point as the average visitor. This perspective can give clarity.

But having said that, I confess that I do sometimes find myself self-censoring – asking myself if I really can make that generalisation about a certain historic period, or speculate about a historical figure’s motivations and state of mind.

My solution? Besides gaining confidence through experience, I find I can be more adventurous when I know there is an expert I can call upon to check ideas with and to ensure that a good story is not coming at the expense of the facts.

Therefore I’d say that experts vs. storytellers is not an either/or argument. The best outcomes are when they can work together creatively and collaboratively.

Museums as "Unstable Organisations"

This is how Glenn Lowry, Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), described his institution at a recent talk at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Titled Museums in the 21st Century, Lowry presents some interesting ideas about what it means to be a modern art museum. That’s where the ‘unstable bit’ comes in. MoMA considers itself as an organisation under perpetual change: every 10-12 years or so, the building undergoes some major reconstruction, frequently in parallel with a total reconception of how the museum should operate.

To cease doing this, Lowry contends, would mean to cease being a Modern Art museum and begin being something else. They have to continually change and adapt in response to changes in the art that they collect, display and interpret.

One example: at some point in the past, the MoMA building was laid out as a linear sequence of joining galleries, like beads on a string. This works great for nice neat linear stories showing chronological developments in art history. But modern art often doesn’t fall very neatly into chronological or stylistic boxes, so the string of linear galleries was an uncomfortable fit. The current layout is more open, apparently allowing more organic juxtaposition of ideas and narratives.

There are also practical reasons to make radical changes to the building – some of the art that MoMA is procuring simply can’t fit in the current building, either due to scale or gallery configurations. But this doesn’t stop MoMA collecting what it thinks is important – it changes its building to accommodate (I marvel at an organisation that has the resources to do this!).

Lowry also made some interesting observations about how they have been changing the way that audiences interact with the art and each other in their spaces. He mentioned the MoMA’s PS1 site, an exhibitions and events space which attracts a far more youthful and diverse audience than the average MoMA audience. In fact, in recent years the overall audience demographic has changed from being 55+ and predominantly female, to around 40 with a nearly even gender split.

Yet another reason why I have to try and get to New York!

A "restless and disgruntled visitor" writes in The Monthly

What’s the point of museum objects?

It’s not all that often that an article on museum practice shares column inches and prominence with articles on Barack Obama and female infanticide. But that’s what’s happened in the latest edition of The Monthly. In an essay entitled “The Absent Heart”, novelist Amanda Lohrey laments that “so much exhibition design is pedestrian, or worse, confused and at some times chaotic”.

The core of her criticism is the “fetishising” of the object ahead of a wider story or narrative: “I come away with the impression that our curators are more conserned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it. Where is the passion for meaning, for making sense of the world? Where is the desire to create an experience for the visitor?

As someone from an interpretation background, I can find much to agree with in this quest for wider meaning. Interpretation is all about answering the question “So What?” – and for this author at least, that question has not been adequately answered.

The essay challenges a lot of shared assumptions in the museums sector, and raises some intriguing questions:

  1. Have we reached the limits of letting people ‘make their own meanings’ in exhibition spaces? How much evidence do we have that this is a successful strategy? (And in some cases is ‘let visitors decide’ being used as a convenient fig leaf for avoiding controversy and not venturing an opinion?)
  2. From the point of view of storytelling, how important is the ‘real’ object? Lohrey makes the point in relation to showing the size of Phar Lap’s heart: “if you are concerned with meaning then a model will do, but if you are in the market for fetishising objects as magical tokens – “the real thing” – then it seems that only the pallid tissue of the original will suffice.” Here I could easily present a counter example: the Apollo capsule in the Smithsonian would be nowhere near as compelling if it were just a model, and not the scarred and burned vehicle that safely brought three men back to Earth after an incredible journey. But all this proves is that the value of the object is completely dependent on the point you’re trying to make.
  3. There seems to be an implicit assumption in the essay that an exhibition should follow a single specific narrative (at one point Lohrey observes that “the visitor is wandering along no clear path at all . . . “ Is this the prejudice of a novelist, whose chosen medium is by definition very linear, or is it of wider concern to visitors in general? Is it unrealistic to expect that a three-dimensional environment will easily lend itself to a single linear narrative?

In reading this article, it reminded me of a passage that really leapt out at me from the book “Thriving in the Knowledge Age” by John Falk and Beverly Sheppard (p127): ” . . .our collections bring value to the museum in direct proportion to the “knowledge” they provide. The objects do not “speak for themselves”. The intellectual value of a museum’s collections is directly tied to the use of these objects to provide answers to questions society finds valuable.”

This seems to reflect well the overall point of the article – what socially relevant questions is the display of these objects addressing?

Bottom line is that this article raises several legitimate questions, and I’m not sure how much evidence we have as a sector to properly address these questions. More research into how different audience groups relate to the exhibition environment is definitely needed.