It’s about people, not technology.

Last week I attended the MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference in Minneapolis.  It was an awesome experience—one that on the whole didn’t feel nearly as focused on technology as you might expect for a conference hosted by an organization with the word “computer” in its name.  Rather, the complexities of our relationships—with objects, spaces, and other people—seemed to be on everyone’s mind.  My head is still swimming with post-conference ideas along these lines, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been mulling over since returning to DC.

In her riveting keynote speech, Liz Ogbu, founder and principal of Studio O (a multidisciplinary design and innovation firm), challenged us to remember our own humanity when working to create change in our communities.  One thing she said particularly struck me in thinking about my work as an evaluator.  Liz spent three weeks living with and talking to women in Tanzania for a project intended to encourage more people to use cookstoves.  In describing this work she talked about rethinking the data collection process so it is less of a “transaction” and more of a relationship-building process with evaluator and participants on equal ground.  We must not simply come in and “extract” data from participants, Liz argued.  Rather, we need to make them feel like we are “in it” with them.  That difference, she argued, helps builds trust and makes people more willing to share the deep, detailed information she needs to be able to build the best solution.  For Liz, that meant conducting multiple in-depth interviews with women about how they use (or don’t use) cookstoves.  But it also meant getting down on her hands and knees and cooking with Tanzanian women to discover things they may not have thought to tell her but that are nonetheless important for understanding how they decide to feed their families.  In my work in museums, I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to immerse myself so fully in visitors’ “home” environments.  But Liz’s speech did make me wonder how I might work to incorporate more of my own humanity into data collection and establish a deeper sense of trust with visitors that I observe or interview.  Of course, there are still many advantages to taking a more hands-off approach—“staying neutral,” if you will.  But I want to challenge myself in the future to reconsider this as a default.   I think there might be times where it would do me and our museum clients good to approach the data collection process in a way that focuses first and foremost on developing a sense of trust and understanding between evaluator and visitor, so we can ultimately better understand the complexities of the issues at hand.

I wondered too about the implications of collecting data in museum spaces—namely, whether our own comfort in these spaces means we sometimes forget that these are not necessarily places where visitors feel equally comfortable, and how this might affect data collection.  Lack of time and resources certainly makes it difficult to do interviews with and observations of visitors/users in their “home” environments, but I can imagine times when it might be really advantageous to do so.  Take, for example, a museum that wants to learn how teachers use their online resources/collections.  I’m willing to bet the data would be a million times richer if we could go out and conduct interviews with teachers in the their own classrooms and see first-hand how they use those resources, rather than if we tried to learn about their experiences by conducting a phone interview (where we can’t see how what they describe aligns with their practice, and we have to rely entirely on what they tell us when there may also be important factors they don’t think to share).  Sometime we are lucky enough to be able to do this, like in our ongoing evaluation of citizen science programs for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.  Unfortunately, a lack of resources or a desire for large sample sizes often make this approach challenging.

As I chatted about these ideas with others throughout the conference, I became even more convinced of the immense value of doing rigorous, thorough qualitative research.  In my conference presentation on this topic, I shared a few “key competencies” for doing good qualitative research that I hope anyone seeking to understand visitors’ experiences will keep in mind:

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Overall, my biggest takeaway this year is that designing and understanding experiences is never about the technology—it’s about the people.  Having a “digital” mindset towards museum work really just means embracing the many ways that technology allows us to find and tell stories, build and enhance relationships, and discover connections we never knew existed.  Human problems and relationships are at the heart of the “digital transformation” that MCN hopes to advance in the cultural sector.

I look forward to exploring this line of thinking more next year at MCN2016 in New Orleans!

Art Museum Educators and Intentionality

For many years now, I have attended the National Art Education Association annual conference, and for the same many years, I have attended the Museum Division pre-conference—a day-long event for art educators who teach from original works of art.  These days, I am usually one of the more senior people attending—but not only because I am getting older.  The conference is often about teaching in the galleries, where many art museum educators begin their career, and as they advance to department leaders and even museum directors, they attend other conferences that help them manage their new challenges.  This year’s focus was on leadership, so a good number of other seasoned folks were in attendance.  While still outnumbered, there was a decent mix of people spanning as many as 50 years, providing a rich exchange of conversation, and for me, reflection.

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attending such a focused conference provides a great opportunity to reflect on past years and changes that I have witnessed in the niche field of art museum education.  I have always felt a kinship with art museum educators; they are so passionate about their work (I am, too), they truly love what original works of art can do for people (the Cycladic sculpture at right is responsible for my very first deeply significant experience with a work of art when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 16), their stamina for intensely exploring ideas is commendable (and I am sometimes responsible for forcing the issue), and they seem to value intentionality (and I do, too).  In fact, during the pre-conference I heard the word “intentional” a lot—it seemed like everyone was talking about being intentional, which of course, delighted me.

In the preconference alone, I feel like I heard “intentional” or “intentionality” at least twice an hour—a whopping 16 times on that day alone, and because I attended museum division sessions, I heard it many times more throughout the larger conference.  So why were so many people talking about intentionality?   I’d like to think that my conference presentations over the last decade are starting to sink in (I have been discussing intentionality in every which way I can), but I suspect the somewhat recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education is mostly responsible—as it was titled, “Intentionality and the Twenty-First-Century Museum.”  I absolutely sense a shift taking place.  I think educators are starting to realize that often they try to do too much.  I realize sometime they are required to do too much—by their supervisors—but at least now, they are replying with a voice of reason as to why they may need to stop and take stock of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  They want their work to be purposeful and they want each and every action to support that purpose.

Simultaneously, they are also realizing that they just can’t continue doing more and more.  In order to manage their workloads (and we all know so many educators’ workloads are over the top), they are rethinking what they do and why they are doing it and this is where intentionality gains respect and momentum.  As with so many endeavors, the first step is recognizing that something needs to change.  I am so grateful to have experienced so many consecutive museum division pre-conferences; otherwise, I might not have witnessed this sea change.  Intentionality is hard, as our last post so noted.  I take a little bit of comfort in thinking that maybe RK&A can help by continuing to work with museums that want to become more intentional in their practice.  Maybe our blogging will help, or this article that I wrote in 2007.  I hope so—the future is looking brighter, thanks to art museum educators’ passion for wanting their work to make a difference!