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ExhibiTricks blog

  • Can Museums REALLY Change?



    In the midst of an ongoing worldwide pandemic, many museum workers are wondering if cultural institutions can make the changes needed to move into the post-COVID era.

    I recently wrote an article entitled, "Can Museums Really Change?" published in the Informal Learning Review that seeks to tease out some of the issues at hand. 

    You can access the entire article for free here, but I'll touch on some of the key challenges (and possible solutions) in this excerpt.

    I'll pose the same question here that I used to start my article, 

    "If someone you knew and cared about (like a relative or mentee) asked whether they should pursue a career in museums right now, what would you say?"


    What are the things museums and other cultural institutions need to focus on to become stronger, more equitable, and more community-centered organizations?

    Here are five things that I've been thinking about:


    1) Staff > Stuff

    One of the first ways museums could begin to become more genuinely people-centered (instead of merely talking about it via their social media accounts) is to clearly prioritize staff over “stuff.” This requires museum management and boards and museum organizations to act as if they care more for the people working at a museum than museum collections or buildings. (Of course, you need trained staff to care for collections and facilities properly, but that’s an entirely different story).

    Pay continues to be the most significant ongoing issue in the museum world. It is wrong, if not downright immoral, to hire someone for full-time work at a museum and to knowingly pay them less than a living wage. And many museum workers are woefully and deliberately underpaid. Let’s pause here to acknowledge that many museum administrators are master rationalizers and can spin stories to justify some of their staff needing to work one (or more!) jobs in addition to their full-time museum employment to make ends meet. 

    So rather than relying on someone’s rosy notion of what a “living wage” means in different parts of the country, why not use a common yardstick? Fortunately, MIT has developed a free Web-based Living Wage Calculator (https://livingwage.mit.edu/) that anyone can use to determine what a living wage means in different parts of the U.S. All museums should commit to offering their employees a living wage. 



    2) Flatten the Org Chart!

    The traditional “top-down” hierarchical business structures of most museums contribute to the isolation of museum departments and functions. Instead of creating collaborators moving toward common goals, most museum org charts create multi-level “silos” that compete for limited resources – often pulling in different directions. Front-line and public-facing museum workers often feel that decisions handed down from the “higher-ups” are arbitrary or “out of touch” with the operational realities of running the museum.

    Worse yet, museum employees facing severe issues such as the reported instances of sexual harassment or even physical abuse(!) from managers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were routinely ignored or dismissed, (https://hyperallergic.com/579531/philadelphia-museum-of-art-concludes-workplace assessment-after-allegations-of-abuse/). The museum management hierarchy simply sought to protect itself. 

    Hierarchical structures in museums also contribute to pay inequities across departments. Shouldn’t the roles of Education, Exhibits, and Development departments be viewed as equally important to museums’ purpose and function, and therefore compensated equitably? Museums can systemically change staffing and management approaches by “flattening” their org charts and promoting workers’ and departments’ true interdependency.

    What would a museum system built on self-organization principles look like in practice? At its core, “self-management” means knowing what you are responsible for and having the freedom to meet those expectations however you think is best. “Self-organization” is being able to make changes to improve things - beyond what is required of you. Simple in theory, but everyone has to truly commit for it to work!

    Examples from the for-profit world include the company Zappos, which details the approach it took in successfully changing to a form of a self-organizing structure called a “Holacracy” in this Web article: https://www.zapposinsights.com/about/holacracy.



    3) Communities as True Creative Partners

    Whose stories are museums telling, and who is visiting museums to experience the exhibits, programs, and events related to those stories? As researchers like Susie Wilkening have shown (http://www.wilkeningconsulting.com/data-stories.html), museum visitors are concerned about a broad range of issues, but can museums provide what their communities want and need – and in a timely way?There are large groups of people that museums are simply not reaching. Visitors to cultural arts organizations, including museums, continue to trend older and whiter than the demographic directions the U.S. general population is heading.

    How can museums counteract the notion that “museums are not for me”? I would contend that rather than trying only to present stories, museums also need to engage with their communities as real creative partners. That way, museums no longer become the only authorities and sole judges of the value of certain stories over others. This systemic shift to co-creation with communities may well upset museums with a “Curators Uber Alles” approach, but the realities of demographics point in a different direction.

    An excellent example of a museum that sought to reinvent itself with a more community and visitor-centric approach is the Oakland Museum of California (https://museumca.org/). A free PDF of a book outlining their work, “How Visitors Changed Our Museum” is available through the OMCA website: https://museumca.org/files/HowVisitorsChangedOurMuseumBook.pdf.

    Another way museums could become more community-minded is to foster more cooperation and resource-sharing between museums in the same geographic area. A great example of exactly this kind of local cooperation is the Chattanooga Museums Collaborative: https://www.nten.org/article/sharing-back-offices-in-the-cloud-the-case-of-the-chattanooga-museums-collaborative/.



    4) Money Changes Everything

    Given the continuing mismatch between cultural institutions’ operational needs and the available funding sources; the COVID-19 crisis has made even more evident the weak financial positions of so many museums.

    This raises a sort of “museum lifeboat” question – should unsustainable museums be allowed (or even encouraged) to go out of business so they don’t take away limited resources from more vital institutions?

    This is a tricky proposition since many museums really can’t survive without constant (if erratic) infusions of cash from both private and governmental sources. The long-term systemic solution here is to create reliable public funding streams for all museums through political pressure, both at the local and national levels. We should support and vote for politicians that view museums as necessary to civic life as libraries, police stations, or garbage trucks. A politician that continually tries to eliminate organizations like IMLS, NEH, and NEA is no friend to museums.

    More systemic public funding of cultural organizations would also reduce the dependence of museums on wealthy donors and reduce the systemic and ethical dilemmas caused by balancing selling objects from the collections versus preventing the firing of staff -- which brings us back to “staff versus stuff” again. Although in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “stuff” seems to be winning the battle -- if you consider examples such as the Museum of Modern Art (with an endowment of over one billion dollars) terminating every single contract of all 85 of its freelance educators in April 2020 or the Royal Academy in the U.K. that is refusing to sell one Michelangelo statue to save the jobs of nearly 150 museum workers in September 2020.



    5) Leaving the "Numbers Game" Behind

    Ultimately, to change the current museum “system,” we need to leave the “numbers game” behind. The notion that admissions numbers are an accurate measure of a museum’s worth or a way to measure the value of a museum visit to a visitor may be a more severe sickness impacting the museum world than even COVID-19.

    Randi Korn’s book, Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact, offers meaningful alternatives to the museum admissions figures “numbers game.” Many museum leaders and boards continue to be deluded by an “edifice complex.” The reckless rush to build larger and grander new museums without considering whether we can sustain those new buildings has to stop. If we cannot sustain (parse that word in as many ways as you like) existing museums worldwide, should we really be adding to the number of new museums?



    Final Thoughts

    All of the challenges and possible systemic solutions highlighted above bring us back to the original question: Can Museums Really Change?

    Can we bring the required sense of urgency and the necessary hard decisions to the tasks ahead? Museums have talked a great game for years (even decades!) about systemic inequities and failings in the museum field – often with little, if any, real change. The current moment requires not just talk but timely, and creative, actions.

    Are we prepared to leave people behind (whether directors, board members, or staff) who cannot evolve and adapt to the changes needed in the museum field? No matter how much you like an individual personally, or how well they may have fit their role in the past, sometimes folks just don’t grow along with your organization. And then it only deepens the pain to delay conversations about moving on.

    Perhaps everyone in the museum field should take a lesson from the dinosaur skeletons on display in so many of our institutions – if you don’t adapt, you will surely become extinct!



    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Rewind: Are Exhibit Timelines So Boring Because of the Lines?





    I've been thinking about time a lot these days -- how to display it, how to put events in perspective, and in context, with each other.  So I thought I would share an "encore" version of this post about exhibit timelines, one of the ExhibiTricks blog's most popular posts from 2019. Enjoy!


    A while back I wrote a post asking for examples of interesting timelines in museum exhibitions.  Since then I've been wondering if the negative impressions so many visitors (and exhibit designers!) seem to have about timelines are actually a function of the flat, straight lines themselves.

    Think about how daunting a seemingly endless line of jam-packed text and images seems when you are standing at the beginning point.  And now with the use of ever-cheaper screens and digital storage devices, there is a proliferation of what one designer called "the promise of the infinite label" (as if that was a GOOD thing!)

    So here are four different ways (with images) of rethinking, or replacing, the standard linear "encyclopedia pages on the wall" approach to exhibit timelines.



    SPREAD OUT!

    Instead of marching tons of text and images in a line across the wall, why not break the information into manageable chunks and spread it out around the space?

    A hub-and-spoke approach to spreading out information.



    Movable "thought bubble" units.
    Provocation on one side visitor response on the other?

    Spreading out information with a map motif.



    LISTEN UP!

    Could we engage other senses (like hearing) in information-dense exhibits?


    Historic figures speak.


    Listen Up! Text and sound.




    LOOK UP!

    How can we use all the space to have visitors look for information in unexpected ways and places?


    Cubes -- look up and all around to approach text/images in non-linear ways.


    Changing the space to change visitor expectations.


    Look up -- and around!



    EXCHANGE

    Are there ways to exchange information by encouraging communication between visitors and the museum or interchange between visitors?  How can visitors change the information or the physical exhibit elements?


    Exchanging information through flash drives.



    Color-coded talk tubes to discuss different subjects?

    Visitor-changeable low-tech data display


    Hopefully, this ExhibiTricks post has given you some inspiration to scribble outside the (time)lines a bit.

    Do you have some other ideas or images/links to share that don't follow the typical timeline?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!




    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • The Power of Memories -- A Guest Post about the "our nyc journeys" Project




    Hi there!

    My name is Chang Lee and just like Paul, I have the same passion for the world of museums and specifically exhibition and experience design. Today, I would like to talk about the power of memories to connect a very diverse audience.

    To do so, I will share the most recent project of 'by xx collective', the team which I have the luck to lead. Our NYC-based, experimental design collective combines experimental language and strategic tools to create collective experiences for the audience.

    "Our nyc journeys"(www.ournycjourneys.com), is an online platform where New Yorkers from all walks of life connect by documenting their location-specific memories. It is dedicated to the people who were once new to the City and moved in from another place, either within or outside of the US.



    It all started in the pro-COVID days when we joined the competition of LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council). Last March, it was announced that we had won the grant in Creative Engagement to build what was, in the beginning, a physical installation designed to spark social interaction. As COVID cases were rising, we worked strategically to accelerate our design and create something that was appropriate for the times. The project moved to the virtual world but the goal remains. 

    Our mission is to provide a chance for New Yorkers to reflect upon the adventurous journey that the city gave them and to connect with each other. Our vision is to create an inclusive community that bonds over the emotions that the city has evoked in them. In such an overwhelming environment, it is as crucial, as it is necessary, for one to recognize that they’re not alone. 

    A collection of memories can perfectly showcase how the diverse NYC population shares similar experiences. By turning the city map into a collage of interwoven individual journeys, our participants see beyond the elements that set them apart. This subjective map creates an alternative urban geography, revealing the emotional dimension of a human city. Our nyc journeys highlights New York City as a unifier that brings together a disconnected audience.


    The concept is based on the theory of culture shock; a series of emotions that newcomers often experience. Culture shock defines the 4 stages that a person goes through when adjusting to a new environment. We turned the culture shock stages into NYC-themed chapters. Our 4+ chapters compose a person’s NYC journey and our participants are invited to match their memories to a chapter and a NYC location.

    As social distancing is required, if not imposed, people are trying to find new ways to stay connected with each other. "By xx" has been working on creating an antidote to the social isolation that many may have experienced. Our nyc journeys has the power to connect New Yorkers who walk the same streets and share similar day-to-day adventures. Our future members stand next to each other at traffic lights, in the same Uber, or in the same Trader Joe's checkout line without realizing how much they have in common. Through our website, we want to turn NYC into a place where they feel like they belong.

    I am very excited for the opportunity to share this project on ExhibiTricks! I encourage you to check out the our nyc journeys website, share your memories, and connect with other New Yorkers - just like you! 



    Chang Lee is an architect and an experience designer. He studied in the Exhibition and Experience Design Master’s Degree program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Currently, Chang works for Gallagher & Associates, an interdisciplinary design studio. 

    Chang has a Bachelor's Degree in Architecture from Yonsei University in Seoul. He worked in the Japanese architectural studios of Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito, contributing to various projects with commitment and creativity. Chang also worked as a space designer in the Branding Department of Hyundai Card Company, where he discovered the power of spatial storytelling, something that led him to New York to enrich his knowledge of experience design.



    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Pandemic Pause: Mondo Mascots




    It's nice to take a "pandemic pause" now and then.

    One way I take a break from thinking about COVID-19 (and everything associated with it)  is to check out the wacky and wonderful world of Japanese mascots via the "Mondo Mascots" sites. (There is a Mondo Mascots website, but I really think the Twitter and Instagram accounts give you more distilled mascot-y goodness.)

    Ecogaru the shopping bag kangaroo encourages
    citizens of Miyazaki, Japan, to reuse their bags.


    So, through the Mondo Mascot sites, I've come to find out that there are mascots wearing amazingly intricate (and sometimes surrealistic) costumes in cities and neighborhoods all over Japan.

    The official (and unofficial!) mascots represent such things as sports teams, regional vegetables and foods, trains, utility companies, and even archaeological sites.  

    Hanna the green elephant mascot
    of Hanasaku Life Insurance


    Somehow these disparate ideas move from concept sketches to full-blown three-dimensional costumes worn by non-claustrophobic (and I imagine, somewhat sweaty) individuals dancing around fairs, train stations, and supermarkets.


    Yahata Inu, the mascot of Kai City, Japan, looks
    like a cat but is actually a mix of a potato and a dog



    Honestly, every time I visit a Mondo Mascots site, I want to visit Japan even more!

    Check out Mondo Mascots via their website, Twitter, or Instagram.


    Kan-chan the curious and playful liver is a
    mascot who fights liver disease in Saga, Japan.



    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Creative Resource: Reading Design



    Looking for creative writing about design? 

    Reading Design (R/D) is an online collection of critical writing about design. The website contains interesting entries dating from the first century BC right up to current times.

    R/D gathers papers, articles, lecture transcripts, essays, photo essays, and blog posts all in one place to build an outstanding resource for anyone engaged in, or interested in, design.  I especially enjoyed some offbeat writings gathered from lectures by Oscar Wilde.  

    Whatever your interest in design, Reading Design is a website well worth exploring.



    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"