Museum Reads

Book Review: Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum

Asking the Folks Who Do the Work: Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum

When I first cracked open Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, I found myself staring at photos of the very halls through which I walk every day. I had flipped to a random page, and landed in Chapter 10: “Columbus Museum of Art: Museum as Community Living Room.” As a gallery associate, I see every day the changes the Columbus Museum of Art has made to make good on their mission of “Great experiences with great art for everyone.” In fact, I’m a part of that commitment to the visitor. We welcome every visitor as they explore the galleries, engaging them in questions about the collection and helping create memorable experiences. Reading Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, I hoped to see the perspectives of a variety of museum professionals working to create visitor-centered experiences and to learn about the approaches taken at museums other than my own. 

The authors of Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum approached the subject of visitor-centered museums from two different points of view—one a museum professional, the other a social science researcher. These perspectives lead to two primary questions inspiring the study. Question one: “What are museums doing for art museum visitors who do not choose to use portable technologies?” Question two: “How do museums see their social mission as their mission extends to meaningfully engage broader audiences?” To more closely study this ongoing debate, Samis and Michaelson solicited nominations for museums innovating in visitor-centered practice. From those nominations, twenty museums were chosen for study total, with ten of those to be studied more in depth. The in depth study included interviews with thirty-two professionals, including eleven interviews with directors, and seven each with curators, educator-interpretive specialists, and cross-departmental teams. The authors used these interviews as much as possible to tell the stories of the museums’ journeys towards visitor-centeredness.

In their explorations, Samis and Michaelson discovered two connected changes happening in the museums: “Adopting a visitor-centered approach to exhibition development often leads to structural changes in the museum itself, including new museum roles and forms of staff collaboration.” Each chapter focuses on a different museum, detailing each institution’s approach to visitor-centeredness, as well as the challenges faced by staff. Museums seeking to focus on visitors often are accused of “dumbing down content” or “sacrificing scholarship.” In her interview, Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California replied to those accusations, “It’s not a trade-off. It’s an and, not an or, to be visitor-centered and committed to scholarship, committed to collection care, committed to, you know, the primacy of the object, to the role of the artist. Yes, we still care about serious scholarship, we care about curatorial expertise. And in fact, visitors want that as well, you know?” However, it doesn’t often seem to be visitors accusing museums of dumbing content down, with the exception of visitors with exceptional knowledge of a museum’s content who may be categorized into John Falk’s Professional/Hobbyist role. No, it often is other museum professionals making the accusations.

Samis and Michaelson found that professionals trapped in departmental silos struggled to communicate and to work together in newly formed cross-departmental teams. One such team existed at the Columbus Museum of Art from 2008 to 2010. Merilee Mostov, at the time Chief Engagement Officer, led Connecting Art to People, its meetings “designed to foster provoking conversations about the visitor experience, including curatorial, development, administrative, marketing, visitor services, and education staff.” This team pushed themselves and their own boundaries to create the visitor-centered experiences seen at the Columbus Museum of Art today. Writing of the experience in an issue of the Journal of Museum Education, former curator Catherine Evans said, “Armed with statistics concerning “museum fatigue” and how little time visitors spend in intense looking, we aimed to deepen the visitor experience. We introduced comfortable seating throughout the installation. This seemingly common-sense idea came only after attending a CAP (Connecting Art and People) meeting during which Merilee [Mostov] refused to allow us to sit. We expect to be comfortable while thinking and learning—why would we not allow for our visitors to experience the same comfort if we expect the same from them?” While I was not on staff at the Columbus Museum of Art at the time of these meetings, I can see the results every day in the galleries. Documented well in Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, the CMA galleries are full of connectors, “any strategy that connects people to the art, besides the art itself. … They are the hooks that give velcro to a specific work and make it stick.” The authors even mention our team of gallery associates, speaking briefly in a note of “staff members trained to engage with visitors about the exhibitions.”

I love that our team gets this shoutout in Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, a book that does an excellent job exploring the possibilities for visitor-centeredness in museums. Using interviews and photos from their in-person explorations of museums, Samis and Michaelson have written a book that advocates strongly for visitor-centeredness in museums, while making it clear that there is no one right way to approach the challenge. Its format makes the book an easy read, with each chapter being concluded with a list of key takeaways, summing up the lessons of the chapter. Its strengths and merits aside, Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum has a main flaw from my perspective. In interviewing staff, the authors chose director, curators, and other influential staff. While I understand this decision, I feel the book is lacking the perspective of frontline staff, the professionals who spend every day directly engaging with visitors. As Columbus Museum of Art executive director Nannette Maciejunes wrote in her article for the Journal of Museum Education, “We quickly discovered that saying you are visitor-centered is far easier than actually doing it.” So why not ask the staff who spend every day actually doing it?

IMG_4537


Sources

Evans, Catherine. “The Impact of the Participatory, Visitor-Centered Model on Curatorial Practice.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 152-161.

Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. London: Routledge, 2016.

Maciejunes, Nannette V. “The Director’s Perspective: A Changing Paradigm.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 132-138.

Mostov, Merilee. “Making Space for Experimentation, Collaboration, and Play: Re-imagining the Drop-in Visitor Experience.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 162-174.

Samis, Peter, and Mimi Michaelson. Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Conferences, Social Media Adventures

You Look Digitally Familiar! VSA2017 Volunteer Adventures

When I found out that VSA would be bringing their 2017 conference to Columbus, I knew I had to find a way to get involved. Because I can’t afford to pay for my own fees and I already live in Columbus, volunteering was a no-brainer. Plus volunteers get to go to sessions when they aren’t volunteering!

If you don’t know the Visitor Studies Association, you can check out their website here. VSA is a membership organization dedicated to understanding and enhancing informal learning experiences through research, evaluation, and dialogue. My people!

This year’s conference theme: New Pathways in Visitor Studies! In the field of visitor studies, we must always be on our toes to keep a current understanding of visitors and their needs.

Attendees could expect to explore questions such as:

  • In what new ways can and should the field of visitor studies act as an advocate for those audiences who have traditionally been excluded from informal learning spaces?
  • How are changes in society, culture, and human interaction impacting the field of informal learning – and how can the field of visitor studies creatively adapt to these changes?
  • How can we think big and pivot our attention to use research and evaluation methodologies to address issues in our communities, nations, and world?

Big, juicy questions like this make for great conversation.

So what sessions did I get to go to? Read on for a recap!

Thursday

Beyond Excellent: The Overall Experience Rating

Presenters Nick Visscher, Andrew Pekarik, Kerry DiGiacomo, and Hannah Ridenour spent the session sharing their experiences with the Overall Experience Rating & thoroughly convincing me of its benefits as a rating scale. From art museums to zoos, the OER gives institutions the opportunity to identify the most enthusiastic visitors with “superior,” to compare expectations with experience, and to track areas that need improvement.

Session Bonus: listening to Andrew Pekarik rage about Net Promoter Score.

 

Later that afternoon, I volunteered at the registration table, giving me the chance to say hi to lots of other participants and watch as staff attempted to free a poor hotel employee from a stuck elevator. Yikes. Working with the VSA leadership was a great experience. Expectations for volunteers were very clear, and I had a great time!

Examining Cultural Assumptions: Implications for Equity in Museums

Oh boy, this session is what I’m here for. Shedd Aquarium’s Lindsay Maldonado and North Central College’s Nicole Rivera, Ed.D. led a roundtable discussion on cultural assumptions inherent to museums. To be honest, I didn’t even take any notes in this session because we were having such good conversation. Discussion centered around the three questions in the image below.

Session bonus: Anna Lopez deciding that culturally responsive evaluation is like baklava, a little sticky and a little crunchy, but oh so worth it.

IMG_2478

Thursday evening’s festivities included an “Evening of Creativity and Conversation at the Columbus Museum of Art,” which I sort of got to attend – I ended up in the same galleries as conference attendees while I was at work in as a gallery associate!

Saturday

When I got to the hotel on Saturday morning, I connected with three of my colleagues from the Columbus Museum of Art. It ended up that they didn’t need us as volunteers for the sessions, so we got to attend them!

Investigating Pathways to STEM Identity in Free-Choice Learning Environments

Having just finished John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, I knew I couldn’t miss this session. He, Smirla Ramos-Montañez, and Lynn Dierking shared their research on STEM identity in traditionally underserved communities. Absolutely fascinating to listen to these three talk about their varied techniques for doing this research and the implications of that research for future free-choice learning.

Session Bonus: Smirla’s transcripts of interactions the 9-14 year old girls in her studies.

Making Connections: Facilitating Learning Through Making

Lisa Brahms from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh brought a hands-on session to VSA. Coming from a summer camp background, I love anything and everything hands-on. And even better, we got to bring home the activity! Making Connections is an Apples to Apples-style game, giving facilitators a chance to practice matching facilitation strategies with learning objectives and learner styles. I had a blast playing, and I’m really glad I got to bring the game home!

IMG_2498.JPG

Overall?

I had a wonderful time at VSA2017. I’d encourage anyone interested in Visitor Studies to get involved with the organization, to take advantage of the many opportunities available as a volunteer, and to continue to connect with everyone on Twitter!

Special shout out to Elizabeth Bolander of the Cleveland Museum of Art for telling me that I looked “digitally familiar,” when we finally connected in person! A great phrase that made a perfect title for this blog post.