Professional development in museums

Note: This is a revision of an earlier version of this post.

As an adjunct professor in John F. Kennedy University’s graduate program in museum studies, professional development is frequently at the front of my mind.

By “professional development,” I mean helping students and emerging museum professionals become more thoughtful museum thinkers and makers. I’m talking about learning to think more critically and creatively about both one’s niche within the museum world and the larger system of the museum (or museums). Much of the writing on museum theory and practice can contribute, of course, to professional development, but no number of how-to articles or books contextualizing contemporary museum exhibitions and programming is sufficient in itself.

The difference between learning how to do something in a museum context and developing oneself professionally within the museum field is frequently vast. It’s the difference between reading an article on how to grow tomatoes (and subsequently planting tomatoes) and reading a book like Food Not Lawns and planning a suburban or urban garden that recycles resources via a system of ponds, swales, compost heaps, and seed preservation.

The most effective professional development takes place within systems and networks.  In my experience, the best professional development frequently happens spontaneously, in the form of “a learning community assembling itself on the fly.” I borrow this phrase from Gardner Campbell’s talk for the University Continuing Education Association’s 2009 conference.  Campbell emphasized the importance of catching a thought and pushing it along via conversations and networks–in Gardner’s example, by tweeting  and retweeting on Twitter. “It’s a very playful way to interact,” Campbell said. “It’s purposeful, too. And you can’t control it. You shouldn’t try to shape it too narrowly. There are other things we can do for that. The term paper is not going away. The research project is not going away. . . Pushing the thought along actually lends a kind of vividness, a kind of energy, a sense of shared purpose to whatever you’re doing in a learning situation. It’s quite remarkable.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t directly addressed this topic in previously in a blog post. I spend 40+ hours a week in the University of California, Davis, teaching center, trying to get faculty to be, in my mentor Jon Wagner’s phrase, more thoughtful about teaching undergraduates. I also help graduate students be more effective instructors, and I’ve founded a professional development consultancy. In short: I “do” professional development. I also teach museum studies graduate students, inculcating them into the field via an introductory history and theory seminar and by overseeing their master’s theses. I have quite a bit of experience and expertise in what works and what doesn’t in professional development in academic and nonprofit contexts; I’ve just never synthesized those experiences in writing.

In this post, I’m going to look at some best practices in professional development as well as look at the learning communities that are sprouting organically or intentionally from various social media platforms.  By looking at these phenomena, I’m confident we can plot a more deliberate course–and yet one customized for each individual–for the professional development of our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.

Seven best practices in professional development

1. Professional development must be anchored to learning objectives.  Professional development is not about “training” or just being polished and well-informed.  A professional within the museum field is someone who can demonstrate knowledge of the field, yes, but also someone who is an experienced and open-minded learner, someone who

  • cultivates broad networks within and across institutions,
  • communicates well verbally or in writing,
  • is a savvy and generous collaborator,
  • exhibits an extraordinary degree of resourcefulness, and
  • balances critical and creative thinking.

The challenge comes when we try to specify the desired outcomes of these objectives, when we translate them into behavioral objectives on a professional development plan.  These behavioral objectives will vary depending on the individual’s interests, institutional needs, and the size, focus, and scope of the museum.

For example, specific and measurable learning objectives in a year-long professional development plan as stated by an emerging museum professional who is in education at a small textiles museum but who has an interest in moving into curation at some point in the future might include:

  • Determine which research emphases textiles are in demand (either at her museum or in the field more broadly), pick one, and read at least six books and exhibition catalogs, as well as multiple recent journal articles, on those textiles and the cultures producing them.
  • Contact relevant journal editors and volunteer to write reviews of recent books of interest.
  • Establish a collegial, and preferably a mentoring, relationship with an expert textile cleaner or restorer.
  • Start a blog that educates laypeople about specific textiles’ origins, significance, and/or conservation.  Curate a resource page of links to, and a bibliography of, materials on the subject.
  • Attend a museum conference that textiles specialists are likely to attend.
  • Join relevant associations or research groups in the museum field or textile industry.
  • Research undergraduate courses and/or graduate programs that offer hands-on experience with textiles.

2. Conversations are essential to professional development. If you’re working at a small museum, you may find yourself without many people to talk to about what you’re working on. So, for example, if you’re a museum educator who is looking to find more thoughtful methods to interpret a new exhibition, you should be talking to someone who has interpreted an exhibit in a way that intrigued or inspired you, and engaging with the teachers who will be bringing their students to the museum. These aren’t just sound practices in exhibition interpretation; they’re opportunities for you to learn more about what’s going on in other museums and what teachers feel their students aren’t able to get from a traditional classroom experience.

3. Effective professional development stimulates more creative and critical thinking
.  By critical thinking, I mean analytical thinking, the ability to break down a scenario or information into its constituent parts and immerse oneself in studying and critiquing the details. By creative thinking, I mean synthesizing information from diverse sources to create something new and interesting. That means, of course, that the best professional development opportunities offer specific case studies for participants to study and address as well as particular problems for them to solve.

4. Professional development allows individuals to create their own networks by introducing them to network nodes in their areas of interest.  A node is someone who is well-connected in their field or across disciplines or genres of museum participation. We all know people like this in our own workplaces, the people with 500 Facebook friends or 2,000 authentic followers on Twitter. These nodes draw on the expertise of their networks with a simple query via Twitter, blog, or e-mail, and connect individuals with one another.

5. The best professional development has both online and face-to-face components. Professional development is local and national and international. Museums should pool resources and collaborate with other institutions in their region for the mutual improvement of their staff members. We see this beginning to happen with the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership’s formation of the Balboa Park Learning Institute. Here’s a description of the project from the IMLS website:

The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a collaborative organization comprising 24 diverse museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, will establish the Balboa Park Learning Institute (BPLI).  Over the three year project period, BPLI will design a professional development program targeted to the 2,500 professional staff members, 500 trustees, and 7,000 volunteer staff members in the park’s museums.  As BPLI expands, the classes will be made available to museum colleagues and volunteers outside the park. BPLI will develop and present 66 workshops to build knowledge and skills in core museum competencies. Professional evaluation and assessment throughout the
project will prioritize learning needs and refine program delivery techniques. Three symposia will also be offered, bringing together
staff and volunteers from park institutions and beyond to learn about and discuss best practices in museum management and leadership.

Workshops and symposia should emphasize not just content coverage but conversations and connection. These connections and conversations can continue in an online forum, either one specifically set up to further the conversations started at the specific event or a more common tool like Twitter or Flickr.

The platform you choose is important. For example, in my experience, people aren’t going to contribute to a wiki set up for a one-time event, but they might visit a site that aggregates filtered content from their individual Twitter streams or blog feeds. (Select and promote a hashtag (e.g. #aam09) that people can use in their tweets or a tag to use in Flickr and on blogs.) If you have an ongoing project, a group blog or wiki (see, for example, the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy wiki) might be a better place for everyone to contribute. Or, you might partner with a forum like Museum Professionals to expand the learning that takes place at your professional development events beyond your institution(s) and encourage your participants to engage with professionals from outside your institution.

6. Professional development should be viral.
In addition to finding a space for conversations to take place via forums, photo streams, or microblogging, arange in advance with museum blogs to have your staff write about your professional development event in guest posts on others’ blogs. In this way diverse but informed voices can join the conversation.

Similarly, if you missed a conference–say, the American Association of Museums conference or Museums and the Web–be sure to search Twitter for the appropriate hashtag, for example the 2009 AAM hashtag, #aam09. In such conference microblogging streams, you’ll find a wealth of information about what’s going on at the conference, links to conference content, and discussions taking place among attendees–which you should feel free to join in, even if you aren’t at the conference. Many times I’ve been at conferences where the conversations were enriched by people “attending” remotely via Twitter.

7. The best professional development makes space for evaluation. Let’s look back at our hypothetical emerging museum textiles professional in #1.  How shall we go about evaluating the professional’s success in meeting her objectives?  Measuring collegiality, for example, is difficult.  This is a huge topic to address here, but you can expect to see it addressed in a future log post or in one of my museum professional development newsletters.

Ready for more professional development recommendations? Part II of this post, which will focus on social media, is coming soon.

What can museums learn from the decline of American newspapers?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Those of you who know me well know that my husband is an all-around, old-time, self-described “newspaperman.”  He’s done writing, editing, photography, graphic design, web design, telepimping (coordinating a newspaper’s classified-ad and voicemail-based dating service), and anything having to do with “putting the paper to bed”—that is, getting it to the printer.  And in fact, we met ten years ago when I was (briefly) a reporter and he was production manager of a thriving community newspaper.  So there’s a special place in my heart for the American newspaper, and especially the small, independent, scrappy community newspaper.

But there’s also a place in my heart for—and a good deal of my brain dedicated to—museums of all stripes.  And since both museums and newspapers are community institutions that aim to inform, advise, and entertain, there are some lessons—cautionary tales, really—museums can learn from the death spiral of newspapers.  Much of what I say here is basic business common sense, but the decline of the newspaper industry gives us an opportunity to check in with our institutions and brainstorm new opportunities.  Here, then, is my advice:

1. Even in a new media age, don’t water down your original product. For newspapers, the crumbling of their product began several years ago with newspapers trimming the width of their pages, and then the decline snowballed with fewer comic strips and stock listings, consolidation of sections (e.g. business with regional or metropolitan sections), then the removal of certain sections on some days of the week (e.g. no more features sections—bye-bye, Home & Garden—on Tuesdays).  It’s been a death spiral: advertising declined; printing and paper costs rose; newspapers decreased in breadth and depth (literally and metaphorically); people unsubscribed; advertisers saw smaller circulation numbers and pulled their ads; repeat cycle.  Now, whether this product needs to be delivered on paper is debatable, but newspapers needed to find a way to get their content—in whatever form—in front of people without decreasing its quantity or quality.  Don’t let the apparent value of your product decline, even if that product morphs into a new medium.  Remember, “rich media” doesn’t guarantee an enriching experience.

For museums, this means thinking not just about mission, but about what products exactly your primary audience enjoys.  Hands-on exhibits?  Outreach programs?  Tours of a garden or arboretum?  Classes?  Historical reenactment?  In an economic downturn, museum visitorship frequently increases.  Which of these programs will you expand, and how will you know which to increase?  What opportunities will people have to continue their experience and learning after their visit?  As you ask yourself what to build upon, consider this reflection on newspapers from the American Journalism Review:

One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance.” The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.

What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?

I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

Replace “newspapers” and “journalism” with “museums” and “exhibition development,” and you have some new food for thought.

2. Keep your product in front of your customers. Make “getting together” with your customers at regular intervals a habit. (For newspapers, this meant daily subscribers and the occasional Sunday-only subscribers.)  Make your product or service a sensory experience, and join it with others.  Newspaper readers heard the shifting of pages, felt the flutter of air on their faces as they flung a section open at arm’s length, felt ink dry out the skin on their fingertips, smelled that distinctive “newsprint” scent.  Many people associated newspapers with the taste of coffee or orange juice, the comfort of toast, the rocking of the train or subway, the feel of cold bare feet on the driveway.

How is your museum providing a sensory experience?  How are you going beyond vision and hearing as sources of input?  And with what do your visitors associate your museum—by which I mean things they can’t get from your website?  Think about the smell of redwood trees at the trailhead near your museum, the rush of adrenaline at the moment they first step from the Metro escalator onto the Washington, D.C. Mall to find themselves surrounded by Smithsonian museums, the surprisingly pleasing smell of tar once it’s recontextualized via the La Brea Tar Pits, the occasional gross-out factor of scientists dissecting or prepping oozing specimens in a lab within view of the exhibit floor.

If you do want more visitors to your web site, don’t just tell them what goes on at the museum by offering a calendar of events or a summary of exhibits and experiences.  Instead, share your collections.  Give visitors a taste and encourage them to come see the real thing.

3. If you’re a small museum, don’t aim to be too big.  Instead, embrace the local and hyperlocal. The smaller a geographic area your museum serves, the broader the swath of the population it can serve.  Children’s museums and science centers may need to serve several cities, and their clientele usually age out of their offerings.  Remember: your niche need not be demographic; it can be geographic.  A much smaller museum can focus on one city and surrounding towns, yet provide experiences for a more diverse demographic, including, for example, seniors and new moms whose kids aren’t yet old enough to enjoy the museum. Newspapers that have remained competitive serve all readers.  They haven’t just chased the young in hopes of cultivating a new generation of subscribers to the print edition.  In addition, the most successful newspapers had more female readers than male, even though they didn’t see themselves as targeting women consumers.

Is what’s on your exhibition floor of interest to your visitors because it’s generally interesting, or because it’s locally interesting?  Consider opportunities for furthering civic discourse.  If your town has for years been up in arms over what to do with traffic on one of its main thoroughfares, then your institution should be, depending on its type of museum:

  • creating exhibitions with information about traffic engineering and giving visitors opportunities to practice individual and collaborative decision-making.
  • telling the history of the street and how the surrounding neighborhoods have evolved, including collecting stories from current and former residents.
  • hosting public forums or town hall meetings about the street in question.
  • having an arts competition (with (donated) prize breakdowns by age bracket and a special section for professional planners and landscape architects) to craft a new vision of the street in whatever media makes sense (paint, pencil, model, multimedia).

4a. Consider equity of pay and opportunity. At the big newspapers, the investigative reporters and top columnists make a good salary.  Not so much at the smaller papers.  At the (very profitable) community newspaper where I worked in 1999, my starting salary as a journalist was $22,000—and I had an M.A. in English/writing and plenty of clips already to my name—and I didn’t get a day of vacation until I had worked there for a year, and then I only received 5 days each year.  We worked holidays and didn’t have a sick day policy—basically, you went home if you were throwing up in the storage area, er, newsroom.  Our contracts (illegally, I suppose) forbade us from discussing salaries, but I suspect the features editor, who had been there many years, didn’t quite make $40,000.  Mr. MB, who had years of experience but only a high-school education, made upwards of $50,000, and as production manager he received a bonus every time the paper went over a set number of pages because it meant he had to do extra work.  The reporters, who had to write stories to fill the space around the extra ads sold that week, didn’t get any additional pay on the many weeks the newspaper grew.  But you know who was really making buck?  The salespeople.  Some of the display ad folks and at least one of the classified people were rumored to be making six figures.  These folks were investing in additional real estate in Southern California.  Me, I was living with my parents.

Yes, I was the new kid on the block, but I’ve seen this inequity in the ratio of labor to pay in many newspapers.  It’s why young people don’t stick with reporting for community newspapers; they can’t afford it.  Why write articles about parking enforcement for the local paper when I can get another 8-5 job that pays far better, and then blog in the evenings and weekends about stuff I really care about?  No, I’m not writing hard-hitting investigative pieces, but nor was I doing so for my community paper.  So:

4b. If your museum has a lot of turnover in educators and other front-line personnel, ask why. Those kinds of jobs (I’ve had ’em) are repetitive and tend not to pay very well, so there’s a high rate of burnout.  If you can’t afford to pay your educators and other customer-service employees more, find other perks to give them, such as more flexible schedules, a wider choice of health insurance plans, or the opportunity to work on projects that stretch their knowledge and challenge them, such as writing exhibition labels, brainstorming possibilities for grants, and developing new programs.  Even though I didn’t get much of a bump in pay or resources when I moved from education to exhibit development, the new challenges (e.g. producing a hands-on, inquiry-based, 1,200 square-foot exhibit with a materials budget of $100) and opportunities (getting to work with new tools and think in different ways about audiences) meant I was happy to stay on staff.

Today I work with graduate students who have committed themselves to museum careers.  They’re required to work in museums prior to being accepted to the program, they work for museums while they’re in the program, and they get pretty good placements when they graduate.  But they’re entry- to mid-level museum staff in their 20s and 30s (and, less frequently, 40s and 50s and 60s), and they’re tired all. the. time.  They love the missions of their institutions, but they crave challenges beyond their day-to-day duties.  Give them a chance to impress you by dropping an unexpected, interesting challenge in their laps.  You may be repaid handsomely.  One of my students recently wrote to me asking how much credit she should ask for—and how she should ask for it—as the very large museum for which she works plagiarizes from her thesis in the process of revising its business model.  These young folks (by which I mean people my age! 😉 have HUGE ideas to contribute.  I remember being among young museum staffers tossing out really great ideas (IMHO) at staff meetings, only to see the institution take an opposite tack and fail in some significant, programmatic way.  This was particularly true when development people pulled together grant and foundation proposals without consulting front-line educators or program evaluators.

5a. Have multiple revenue streams. Craiglist and decimated classified advertising in most categories that had previously been published in newspapers: items for sale, job postings, people-seeking-people ads, etc.  Although admissions may rise slightly during a recession, economic depressions do make museums think hard about revenue beyond the gala fundraiser, the grant, and children’s birthday parties.  Look at your mission and see what products and services you can provide to your community—and beyond—that meet an unfulfilled need.

Find new streams of revenue instead.  I’ll elaborate on some of these in the next section.

5b. Beg, borrow, and steal alternative business models. Changing your business model doesn’t have to mean compromising your mission; it does mean being more flexible and creative in the ways you finance it.  And it doesn’t mean doing the obvious thing.  For example, many paid-subscription papers are considering moving to an online-only subscription- or advertising-based model, or to online articles supported by micropayments. Yet many of the newspapers that are best weathering the economic storm are actually free weekly, hyperlocal papers.  For example, the newspaper company where my husband and I met had two papers: one was delivered to doorsteps in a high-income zip code within a large city, and the other, offered on newsstands, provided news of interest to downtown politicos and businesspeople.  Advertisers in these publications have a very good idea of who’s reading these papers.

Building on these ideas of niche audiences:

  • Offer free admission to specific target audiences, sponsored (via ads in e-mails, flyers, and on site) by advertisers relevant to the specific audience. (Caution: I’ve seen display ads in senior newspapers.  They can be very depressing and prone to stereotyping.  Select your advertising partners carefully.)
  • If some of your staff have expertise they might offer others in your community, rent them out for a few hours at a time or by the small project at a higher-than-their-usual rate  to businesses, universities, and other nonprofits.  Chances are there’s someone on your staff who knows quite a bit about database management, grant writing, cultivating the lucrative family market, new media, or partnering with other organizations to increase revenue—all high-value skills that are in demand.
  • Organize niche conferences in a field related to your museum’s content or location. Bring in sponsors and charge admission. A hands-on children’s museum might host a conference—complete with keynote speakers and submitted panels—on any number of topics, including engaging gifted children in an era of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind or making learning accessible, inside the museum and out, to children (or anyone else) with disabilities.  A community-facing art museum might put together a conference on art therapy, and a history museum with a newly discovered artifact related to Abraham Lincoln might host a symposium on Lincoln combined with a conference for Lincoln enthusiasts.  Thanks in part to web platforms that handle registration and billing, conferences don’t have to be a nightmare to organize, especially if everyone in your organization pitches in.  (Check out this testimonial about conferences from NewWest:  “Everything on the Website is free, but we have about 1,000 people who pay $150 or $300 or $500 a year for their NewWest experience. This experience comes through conferences and events, which have been a major revenue source and an excellent promotional vehicle for our site. The conferences are content-driven – programming a conference is in many ways very similar to editing a magazine – and thus we see it as part-and-parcel of the journalistic mission, not a distracting commercial add-on. If anything, people like conferences even more when they spend so much time interacting via a computer screen. Conference attendees are our loyal subscribers, and they pay a lot for our content.”)
  • Create children’s workbooks to accompany your exhibition, but make sure they’re stand-alone, too.  Offer them as paid downloads or in print versions in your museum store.  Many museums already create pre- and post-visit activities for teachers, so why not expand on these and offer them to visitors (and non-visitors!) instead?
  • Make your content available at services like CafePress and Zazzle.  I’ve seen a lot of cool material culture and ephemera I’d love to have printed onto a poster on high-quality paper like the premium posters created with UV-resistant archival inks printed on heavy paper.  Offer links directly from key artifacts to these services, and set up a storefront at each of these services as well.

6. Don’t ignore or dismiss the blogosphere. Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 is packed with fabulous ideas that I’m confident will drive museums over the next decade. Museum Audience Insight offers just what it promises–thoughtful insights on museum visitors. The informatics folks blogging at also point to new developments that can serve as inspiration or case studies for your own museum’s evolution.  PreservationNation keeps museum folks up to date with the latest developments in historic preservation. Signtific is another new source of inspiration on engagement and participation.

What are your thoughts?  What else can museums learn from the decline (or relative success) of newspapers?

Dangerous travelogues

I’ve become quite enchanted lately with the tweets of many of the museums and related institutions I follow on Twitter. I’m a sucker for a link to a picture or video of a baby animal, even if it is an amorphous little shark pup. That said, I’ve noted some carelessness lately in the way institutions tell stories about their animals. Check out this video, for example, from the Georgia Aquarium:

Issues of animal transportation, care, and trauma aside–and I do believe aquaria on par with the Georgia Aquarium adhere to best practices in this regard–moving this one animal has expended a tremendous amount of energy. The manta ray’s carbon footprint went from zero to who knows how large.

Zoos and aquaria have two primary narratives: “We bring the world’s animals to you” and “We bring the animals here to study and save them.” Yet as visitors to these institutions finally begin to catch on to the whole giant carbon footprint = climate change = harm to animals and their environments equation, zoos and aquaria are going to have to learn to either counter narratives of wasteful transportation (a dangerous travelogue) or limit their acquisitions to local and regional species. Although the Georgia Aquarium is a spectacular institution that features local species as well as animals from around the world, I must admit I’m more sympathetic to aquaria, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, that focus on the bodies of water on which they sit, even if they be (as in the case of Long Beach) especially large ones.

“But Leslie,” you say, “the Georgia Aquarium is being transparent in celebrating its ingenuity in bringing this ray to the public. Can’t you let them tell this one story?”

Sure, one story. But then there’s this:

Same kind of story, only with a less charismatic animal and not quite such spectacular technology. I’m sure if I searched I’d find plenty of other dangerous travelogues from zoos and aquaria.

For decades zoos have been tweaking the enclosures of the animals they have on display in the hopes, among other goals, of reducing stereotypies and other unhealthy behaviors. As zoos increasingly move elephants off display because zoo environments are antithetical to elephants’ good health, thoughtful people are going to wonder if whale sharks and beluga whales really do belong in relatively small tanks (as they already wonder about displaying dolphins), what kinds of energy go into supporting them, and in what ways we’re damaging not only the animals but the environment. (Kudos, by the way, to the Cal Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium for eschewing the “crystal clear” industry standard of aquarium water in favor of a more energy efficient system that uses less electricity and water because it requires less filtering.)

These dangerous travelogues remind me of a Sea World phenomenon Susan Davis highlights in her book Spectacular Nature:

[W]ith few exceptions complexity, local connections, and controversy are missing. Sea World’s environmental messages are little different from the flat morality play of the rest of corporate environmentalism in their emphasis on individual responsibility for cleaning up litter. (150)

I don’t mean to equate our nation’s best aquaria with Sea World, but there are parallels in that the aquaria are sending mixed messages when they roll out these dangerous travelogues–by which I mean narratives and actions that are dangerous for the environment and dangerous for public relations. And it’s not just travelogues about animals coming to the aquaria that are problematic–it’s also the stories these institutions (don’t) tell about the impact of human travel (daily or otherwise) on the earth.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium and, I’m sure, at other aquaria, visitors can pick up wallet-sized cards that help them decide whether to buy, for example, wild or farm-raised salmon. I’ve seen elsewhere cautions that people need to cut up the plastic loops that hold together six packs of soda or beer. While these certainly are steps individuals can take, they do not challenge the complicity of larger entities–nations or corporations–in the threats human activities pose to ocean life.

This brings us, of course, to corporate sponsors. When the New England Aquarium receives donations from energy companies or the World Aquarium in St. Louis accepts donations from automobile, beverage, and pharmaceutical corporations whose industries may be polluting the earth and its waters, those relationships should be made transparent. What are aquarium visitors not hearing about pharmaceuticals in our waters and the ways they threaten freshwater and marine species?

Photo of Georgia Aquarium’s manta ray by Tim Lindenbaum, and used under a Creative Commons license.

It’s nice to provide visitors with cards about which fish to eat or not eat, or postcards they can mail directly from an institution asking their local representatives to vote for a bill to form, say, a marine preserve or to fund more marine research. But at the same time, aquaria need to be telling visitors that they can do more–much more–but that doing so requires collective rather than merely individual action. Aquaria and zoos and natural history museums must learn to better harness the thoughtfulness and excitement of the one percent of visitors about which Nina Simon wrote yesterday.

And putting videos on YouTube of manta rays being flown across the country? That’s not the way to engage that one percent; it raises their hackles rather than their enthusiasm.

Millennials in the museum: an educational dilemma

Although I teach in a museum studies graduate program (and wish I could do it full-time), my primary job is to help faculty become more thoughtful about teaching undergraduates at the University of California, Davis. Since I began working in the university’s Teaching Resources Center, faculty have come to me for assistance with myriad issues, but there are three that arise more frequently than others:

  • They are teaching very large (200-900 student) classes.
  • They feel compelled to cover large amounts of material.
  • Their students can’t think analytically–or write.

The first and third of these quandaries are generational ones in that in the U.S. we are educating students in an era of reduced resources, higher enrollments, and high-stakes testing in K-12. The second quandary relates intimately to the first and third.

The problem of coverage, what I have heard termed “the tyranny of content,” has of course long plagued curators and exhibition developers as well as professors. In museums it takes many forms: a desire to exhibit all the varieties of one object (e.g. butter churns, to borrow an example from Dan Spock) or to cover an immense amount of material and history in too small a hall (e.g. the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s African Voices exhibition), for example.

Museums have also long had to deal with large numbers–sometimes crushing numbers–of visitors to new, blockbuster, or otherwise favored exhibitions. How to serve so many people while still giving each visitor a sense that she has had a personalized interaction with the museum content is one of the great quandaries of museum education, and we’re barely scratching the surface of this problem with some tentative experimentation with digital and/or mobile devices.

The new generation of young adults, however, presents a particular challenge to museum educators, exhibition developers, and docents. If they attended a public university in the U.S., and especially in California, these “Gen Y” “Millennials” are likely to have been a victim of what I call the factory farming of students: large lecture halls crammed with students, multiple-choice tests, and a long series of general education courses that represent to them not opportunities to explore new disciplines, but rather a series of boxes to be checked off: the writing requirement, the diversity requirement, the quantitative thinking requirement, etc. In addition, these college students and graduates came of age under No Child Left Behind, a regime of high-stakes testing that led school districts to “teach to the test” rather than engage in the student-centered learning that imbues young people with curiosity, gives them the intellectual tools and cultural literacy they need for interpreting and analyzing the world, and ensures a desire for lifelong learning. Many of these young people are thus victims of large-scale, depersonalized educational systems. Trained to memorize and regurgitate instead of interpret and create, they are not equipped to engage with museum content–and worse, they may not even be aware of their predicament.

Clearly, this generation provides an opportunity for–or, rather, is in desperate need of–visitor studies that examine how trends in our K-12 and university systems affect museumgoers’ understanding of material culture, art, hands-on science exhibits, and natural history objects. What new kinds of interpretation will we need to develop? How can we teach interpretive skills to those in galleries as well as convey content?

Based on my own experiences in the Gen Y classroom, my observation of others’ classes, and my consultations with faculty, I offer here some tentative suggestions for meeting the needs of Gen Y learners in the museum.

Provide strong orientation. By this I mean museums need to strike a balance between free-choice learning and making learning objectives painfully explicit. How this might look will vary by institution, but one place to start is with a strong framing device.  One exhibition that accomplishes this well is the new mammal hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  There is no clear pathway through the exhibit hall, and it’s easy for the dramatically lit trophy-quality mounts and evocative soundtrack to overwhelm the visitor with their pure spectacle.  However, the museum has framed the exhibition in an orientation gallery, using this conceit:

photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Visitors are welcomed to the Mammal Family Reunion and learn that mammals can be identified because they all share three basic traits: they have hair or fur, they possess specialized middle ear bones, and they produce milk for their young.  Elsewhere in the exhibition, visitors learn more about mammals’ diverse environmental niches and adaptations, but the framing device is that all of these animals, despite their tremendous diversity, are from the same “family” (more precisely, the same class within the phylum chordata).  Certainly there are some of you saying, “Really?  That’s all people are going to take away from this exhibit?  That mammals are hairy, produce milk, and have something in their ears?”  To which I say:

  • Millennials have learned to memorize and retain, at least temporarily, facts about a subject. Learning (or, in the case of college-educated millennials, re-learning) three things about mammals is an excellent starting point for them.
  • Millennials’ science education has suffered in K-12 as a result of NCLB’s emphasis on math and reading comprehension.  Drop them in a place as large as the NMNH and they’re going to feel overwhelmed.  Give them a flash card’s worth of information to begin with, and they’ll feel comfortable.
  • This is only orientation information, a short list of objectives they can carry with them as they wander around the exhibition and apply these facts or principles to what they’re seeing.

Ideally, as the visitor walks through the mammal hall, she would be learning concepts that build upon these basics.  For example, mammals all have fur or hair, but they have differing amounts of it.  A jackrabbit and a sea otter have dramatically different densities of fur because they have adapted to living in very different environments.  Although they descend from a common ancestor, these animals evolved in ways that allowed them to occupy, and even thrive in, a niche.

Help visitors develop analytical frameworks and interpretive skills. We see a bit of this in the example above.  Visitors learn three basic facts, and then begin to make observations on their own about each fact–e.g. that mammals’ fur density differs by species.  Next the visitor should be prompted to puzzle through why the fur differs.  And then comes the big lesson: What are humans doing to change the environments in which these animals live?  What happens when an animal evolves over tens or hundreds of thousands of years to occupy a niche that is decimated by humans in a matter of years?  What are humans’ responsibilities to endangered mammals?  Why might humans be more amenable to protecting mammals (AKA “charismatic megafauna”) than they are other species, and what are the advantages and liabilities of this approach to conservation?  Labels, podcasts, hands-on activities, docents/explainers, and visual organizers all can contribute to this learning.

Customize streams of content. Provide interpretive tours organized around visitor interests instead of gallery space. Offer audio tours created by a variety of experts or amateur enthusiasts, including “guerrilla” audio tours.  Examples from our mammal hall might be an evolution-focused podcast, a conservation-focused activity book or handout for children, or ways for visitors to send themselves the URLs of content related to the exhibition areas in which they’re most interested–e.g. polar mammals or desert creatures.

Provide content in multiple formats. The streams of content you provide must be accessible in several formats.  This might mean visitors can generate e-mail messages to themselves–perhaps a series of autoresponders–to learn more post-visit, send to their mobile phone or PDA the snippets of code they need to embed customized media in their blogs or Facebook news streams, or pick up topic-specific paper handouts upon exiting the exhibition.

Offer opportunities for collaboration. Hands-on exhibitions sometimes call for cooperation among visitors, but opportunities for collaboration are rare–and it is a skill that Millennials may not have had the occasion to practice in high school or college.  They do, however, excel at text-messaging and similar brief format activities.  How might you use cell phones’ texting capacities, for example, in your exhibition space?  Once you have Millennials contributing as individuals, you can adapt your content to move them up Nina Simon’s hierarchy of social participation.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, NPR has posted another segment in their Museums in the 21st Century series–and this one addresses how the culture of testing has impacted field trips for school kids.

10 tips for visiting museums with girls

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

I know this content of this post isn’t news for the museum professionals who read this blog, but I get some search traffic from people looking for more general information about museum-going. This post is meant for them. :)

Did you know that during conversations they have about science museum exhibits, parents are three times more likely to explain scientific concepts to boys than they are to girls?* Here are some tips on helping your daughters and other girls get the most out of museum visits. (Note: All of these tips apply to boys as well!)

1. Before going to the museum, check out the museum’s web site. Many museums offer tips to teachers (and, by extension, parents) on how best to prepare children for a visit to that specific museum. Some museums even have materials designed for teachers, including background materials as well as worksheets for kids or (better yet) pre- and post-visit activities. (See, for example, these resources from the National Museum of American History.) If you can’t find any such materials on the web site, try calling the museum’s education department to see if they have any age-appropriate materials available related to the current or permanent exhibitions. Let these materials inform your visit to the museum.

2. Familiarize yourself with the subject of the exhibitions before you go to the museum–but don’t overdo it. This might be as simple as reading a few pages on Wikipedia. If you can find children’s books or newspaper or magazine articles on the topic, share these with your children. But don’t pressure your kids to absorb too much before the visit–you don’t want to burn them out. Just pique their curiosity–and give yourself some background knowledge so that you can help your kids understand the context of the objects and activities at the museum.

3. If you’re going to a very large museum, make a preliminary visit without your kids. Large museums can be tiring, so it’s a good idea to get an idea of what’s in the exhibition halls before you show up with your daughter. Bonus: If you’re at an art museum that has an audio tour, take it! That way you can gain a better context for the art and you can use this knowledge when you visit the museum with your children.

4. Call ahead to find out when the museum is most crowded–and then avoid those hours. For many museums, the best time to visit is early or late in the day on a weekend, or after 3 p.m. on school days.

5. Talk to your kids while you’re in the exhibition. Ask them questions about the art, science phenomena, or objects on display. Ask open-ended questions that require an answer of more than a word or two. Connect what you’re seeing with your daughter’s interests or other experiences in her life. And remember: don’t shy away from scientific topics, especially if you’re a woman yourself. You want to model for your daughter the satisfaction we get from asking intelligent, interesting questions and seeking answers.

6. Talk to museum staff and volunteers on the exhibit floor. In science centers, aquaria, and zoos, there will often be education staff available to engage with your family and to answer your questions. These people–many of them volunteer docents or “explainers”–tend not only to be trained to work with children, but also have a passion for the subject.

My experience in art museums, unfortunately, is that there are fewer people available to answer questions, unless you tag along on a docent- or curator-led tour. In this case, don’t be afraid to approach the security guards and ask them questions. Chances are they’ve overheard information from the tours and can share something about the art with you. Despite their sometimes stern demeanor, many of these guards enjoy being asked about their expertise or opinions. If they can’t answer your questions, they might be able to point you to someone who can.

7. Don’t be afraid to interact with other families. Too often, museum visitors wander around in their own little family silos. Most kids like to interact with other children, so if you see an opportunity–for example, at a hands-on science center or children’s museum–to let your daughter try an activity with another child, encourage her to play.

8. Even if you’re especially well-prepared for your visit, don’t be didactic–that is, overly instructive. Pay attention to cues from your daughter to see what interests her, and follow her lead.

9. If appropriate, purchase souvenirs at the museum store–and I’m not talking about the cheap little plastic crap near the register. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but if there’s something relevant to the exhibitions that is affordable, interesting, and age appropriate, then purchase it for follow-up activities (see #10). I especially like The Savvy Source’s tip to purchase postcards of the art you have seen in a museum, and even to start a collection of such postcards for your children.

10. Plan some follow-up activities. If you’ve been to an art museum, make plenty of art materials available to your children for the days following your exhibit. We have a table set up in a corner of our kitchen where our almost three-year-old sits down a couple times a day to draw, paint, glue, cut, and hole punch his way to happiness. It’s a mess, but he gets a lot of joy from it, and learns a lot, too. (His preschool teacher is amazed at his attention span for arts and crafts. Little does she know we’ve inculcated him at home. Heh heh.) You could even place the postcards from tip #9 on the wall for inspiration.

If you’ve been to a science exhibition, go to your local library and find books of related science experiments. I recommend just about anything by Janice VanCleave–her experiments are simple to do and make concepts clear.

Parenting and education bloggers have been very generous with tips on museum-going. Here are a few:

What are your thoughts? Share your tips for (and frustrations about) visiting museums with children in the comments.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

*Kevin Crowley, Maureen A. Callanan, Harriet R. Tenenbaum, Elizabeth Allen (2001). Parents Explain More Often to Boys than to Girls During Shared Scientific Thinking. Psychological Science 12 (3), 258–261. (Abstract)

Just-in-time learning

In my former job as an educational technologist, we talked quite a bit about how best to reach faculty who were too busy (or reluctant) to use technologies that might genuinely prove useful to them or their students. Eventually, we figured out that faculty don’t want to hear about technology until they need it–and then they want to learn about it immediately. It’s what I’ve seen described elsewhere as the “What I Want, When I Want It” (WIWWIWI) syndrome.

I definitely have WIWWIWI-itis when it comes to information and knowledge. On the one hand, I inherited my father’s incredible patience for the bricks-and-mortar world. I can wait in line without complaining, as long as no one cuts in front of me. I can wait for packages, and I don’t tend to complain when they’re a few days late. But all that patience goes out the window when it comes to learning. I’ve been spoiled by the Internet and by my university’s extensive online databases. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan is agonizing to me. If I want to know something, or learn something, my first stop is Google. Even though (and maybe because!) I earned a Ph.D., I have little tolerance for the tortuous prose of scholarly articles in the humanities. Give me an abstract, stat!

I suspect I’m not alone. (No, really!)

My museum-going hangups

This combination of real-world patience and my insistence on WIWWIWI when it comes to learning makes museum-going a wee bit dangerous. I’m an unpredictable visitor. I can stand in front of an African-American quilt for 20 minutes, lost in the pattern, hearing jazz in the improvised shape of each piece. In such situations, I feel additional information would be intrusive. I know something about quilts, enough to satisfy my visual consumption of such a piece. But place me in front of a contemporary painting, and I’m flustered. Regardless of whether I think I “get” the piece or not, I want some quick information. How have other people–amateurs and experts–interpreted this work? I want to absorb multiple interpretations, and I want them immediately.

When I walk into a science center, I want to try the manipulables. And I’m happy to read the labels’ explanations of the phenomena on exhibit. But often I also want to find out more about a phenomenon while I still have the manipulable in front of me. The best way for me to do this would be an Internet search or a chat with a very knowledgeable explainer. But docents and explainers tend to have a superficial knowledge of the phenomena on exhibit–because that’s all many visitors need–or they have a scripted explanation that I find tiresome. (This is true of history museums as well as science museums.)

WIWWIWI on the exhibit floor

How do we deal with people like me? I suspect all visitors experience this frustration from time to time.

The answer is not, I suspect, simple or singular. But I’ve heard of some innovations and I’ve brainstormed a few (though I suspect they aren’t truly new). So here’s my list of just-in-time learning aids that might be tested in your institution. I’ve tried to include tactics that benefit your institution through increased goodwill and greater contact hours with patrons (and potential donors).

Give me WIWWIWI materials.

  • Provide docents or explainers that not only know the exhibit script, but who are truly passionate about the pieces on which they’re elaborating. Assess your front-line staff’s and volunteers’ interests to be sure they’re in the best place for them. Use “mystery shoppers” to help you determine where individual staff and volunteers perform best.
  • Similarly, provide docents with notepads so they can take notes about visitor interests and jot down visitor contact info to marketing or education so they can follow up with specific visitors. If I can’t learn something right now, at least reassure me that you can–and will–point me to further resources. I’ll be grateful, you’re getting my e-mail address or phone number, and you’ll have an opportunity–and permission–to make further contact with a patron.
  • Docents might use these same notepads to write down titles of books, URLs, names and contact info or sister institutions, or other resources for visitors. Tear off the sheet of paper and hand it to me, the happy visitor.
  • Alternately, place little pieces of paper and golf pencils throughout the exhibit. Let me take notes and take the paper with me or leave comments for you in a dedicated box.
  • Give me access to a kiosk where I can learn more about a specific work. These kiosks should allow touch-screen browsing, as well as provide me with a place to enter my e-mail address so that your institution can send me more information on subjects of interest to me–but only subjects I indicate are of interest.
  • If your visitors are the kind who carry PDAs, then be sure they can access the Internet (or at least a museum intranet) so they can enrich their own learning.
  • Provide mobile-phone-friendly web sites for your visitors so they can learn more by browsing on their phones. Give them numbers to call to learn more about specific artifacts or works of art.

Combine WIWWIWI materials with resources for further learning.

  • Give me a way to get additional information on specific pieces or activities in your exhibit–whether that be a series of web pages, a resource list I can pick up in the exhibit, an audio tour, or via a series of follow-up e-mails.
  • Host an adults-only discussion café once a month where visitors can meet and greet and discuss the exhibits. Let your marketing and development people circulate among the groups to hear what people are saying and to encourage further involvement with the institution.
  • Set up a account for your museum so that visitors can browse–and even subscribe to–the tagged pages your exhibit team might have used while researching the exhibit. Encourage visitors to return the favor by using the “for:” tag to send interesting web-based resources your way.
  • Give me a list of terms I can use to search the Internet. Sure, it’s nice when you provide me with a list of specific resources on residential restoration in my region. (Enough r’s for you there?) I’m happy to explore carefully selected websites on the particular challenges of restoring a Craftsman or Victorian home. But I may also want to know how to incorporate some of those Craftsman- or Victorian-era pieces into my 1970s ranch house. Tell me to search for “architectural salvage.” Give me a few fish, but also teach me how catch them myself.

Let me contribute.

  • Next to a particularly interesting or popular exhibit or artifact, place a keyboard and screen where visitors can type their comments. Once the comments are screened by staff, the comments can rotate on the same screen between visitor entries or you can have select, particularly moving phrases projected onto the wall. If I’m in an exhibit about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, for example, I’m probably itching to tell you that my disabled great-grandmother, then a very young girl, had to be carried from the rubble as my great-great-grandparents fled the ensuing fire. It’s a small anecdote, but I’d feel better having shared it, knowing that I’ve contributed some knowledge to the larger institutional project.
  • Solicit (multimedia) reactions from me. Let me draw, ask me for family photos or artifacts for an upcoming exhibition, let me record audio. Provide me with a venue to share my insights or expertise with other visitors. If they want to listen, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. But there should be unobtrusive ways to hear other visitors’ thoughts. It’s the same phenomenon I’ve observed in my university classrooms: I’m more likely to share my own thoughts if I already know what someone else thinks. That’s why I have my students blog–and comment on one another’s posts–before class discussion. Students already know what others think, and they come prepared to engage with them–they’re a couple steps beyond where they would be if we went into the class “cold.” The same might apply to your visitors. Let them download particularly interesting audio from other visitors both before and after their visit to your site, or incorporate such visitor reactions into your audio tour.
  • Let me have a vote on future exhibits. I’m more likely to come back for another visit if I get a sense of what might be on your docket for the coming year(s).

What are your thoughts, both as a museum-goer and as someone who works within an institution, on just-in-time learning (and its follow-up)?