Museums and the danger of the single story

RACEThe winter of 2016 was a busy time in central Iowa.  It was caucus season.  The presidential candidates and their campaign staffs and volunteers were busy getting messages out to voters and organizing events.

Museums were busy too.  Some were hosting events for those campaigns*.  Some museums were exhibiting about the caucus process and history.

The Science Center of Iowa was hosting a traveling exhibit that didn’t specifically address the caucus.  Instead, RACE:  Are We So Different? addresses what is perhaps the single most important issue in America’s political history.

I asked, and was glad to hear, that it was no coincidence that the Science Center decided to bring RACE to Des Moines during caucus season.  The museum was actively trying to encourage exploration and discussion about race while Iowans were expressing their first-in-the-nation privilege of presidential preference.

During the run of RACE, the Science Center offered diversity training.  In a good example of museums benefiting from the work of other museums, the staff of the botanical garden I was working for at the time participated in this training.  We viewed the exhibition and then participated in a presentation and guided discussion.

The presentation included viewing “The Danger of the Single Story,” a TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.  It’s worth 18 minutes of your time if you haven’t seen it.

Adiche defines how to create a single story:  “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”

She then goes on to mention that it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.  Adiche cites the Igbo word nkali, which means “to be greater than another.”

“Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.  Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” Adiche says.

Museums have the power to tell stories, and the power to tell definitive stories about people.  There are, sadly, many examples of museums not using this power in a positive manner.  There have been times where museums have omitted people from stories.  Sometimes museums have told stories about a community without involving that community in writing the story.

In our society, we find ourselves with leaders and a media that too often tell a single story.  As Adiche says, “The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity.”  She reminds us that single stories emphasize our differences rather than our similarities.

But Adiche is also quick to point out that stories can also be used for good.

In the 21st century, museums must use storytelling to create a more positive, just, and inclusive society.

I want to build, visit, and participate in museums that allow communities to tell their stories.  I dream of museums that tell the complex stories about humans because human beings are complex.  I want to see museums use objects to tell authentic stories about people.

Most of all, I want museums to build understanding and appreciation between people by telling full, complete, and inclusive stories about the American experience.  I want museums to help us realize the similarities we have between each other, but that celebrate our diversity as well.

Will you join me?

*Including an event that brought a black eye to the museum I was working for at the time, but examining the issues surrounding a museum hosting political candidates would be a separate blog post.


Simon’s Art of Relevance a critical and necessary book for building 21st Century Museums

Recently, during an interview for a job, I was asked what I thought was the most urgent issue facing museums.

My reply was the need for our work to matter to more people.

It’s an issue on the mind of many museum professionals these days.  For many of us this work seems urgent given the results of the last presidential election.  If only our museums were relevant to more people then museums could fulfill an important role of creating a more just society.

Nina Simon’s second book, The Art of Relevance, is a passionate exploration of relevance—what it is and how relevance will change museums to reach out to new communities and audiences.  It is part philosophy, fervent arguments, valuable counterarguments against the naysayers, and examples that will spur thinking about how you can create new relevance at your museum.

This book is destined to become one of the most important books in the museum canon and is a critical and necessary book for building museums to serve our 21st century, multicultural, globalized world.  Here’s what I carried away on my first read:

Defining relevance
One of the most important contributions of this book is its definition of relevance.

Simon begins by offering cognitive scientists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s two criteria for something to be relevant:

  • Positive cognitive effect, which allows the information to yield new conclusions that matter.
  • Effort, or the ease with which new information can be obtained and absorbed. The easier the better.

Relevance is about helping people make connections that unlock meaning.  Simon shares the beautiful thought that the greatest connections we can make are to those things that exist within ourselves and outside of us.  In other words, the things that unite us as part of the shared human condition.

Think of the great possibility that already exists in museums to do this!  Of course, our objects and collections have incredible potential to help people make connections and unlock meaning.  But to do so we must view our priority as using our collections in this way rather than for academic exercises.  Or, looking for how we can frame research in ways that connect to our humanity.

The key is interpretation.  I was thinking about Freeman Tilden’s thoughts and principles of interpretation as I was reading Simon’s book.  Tilden said that interpretation is revelation of a larger truth.  Those truths often exist within and outside of us.

Tilden’s first principle of interpretation is that “any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”  One of the major points Simon makes in her books is that museums need to find out from communities what are their personal connection points to the museum’s collections and programs.

A question about building knowledge and relevance
Simon presents one bit of information that I’m still wondering about:  there are some relevance theorists who contend that relevance is not about connecting something new to info one already has.  It is connections to new information that creates relevance.

There’s a lot of information in our field about how people build knowledge on the knowledge they already possess.  Am I confusing relevance with knowledge building / learning?  It’s something I want to know more about.

Entertainment:  relevance or irrelevance?
There is a lot of discussion in our field about the need to make experiences entertaining.  The thinking is that people come to museums during their leisure time and will be more likely to learn and participate if they are entertained as well.

Simon warns that entertainment can be a distraction.  Museums should be in the business of helping people make meaning, not putting on a show.

I believe that making meaning is a universal human desire.  People want to do it and they seek out opportunities to do it in many places:  churches, theaters, and museums.  Simon encourages us to embrace and enhance our unique ability to help people make meaning without distracting them with a type of entertainment that may get in their way.  And she reminds us again that we must first find out what’s important to our audiences and communities if we are really going to help them make meaning.

Community engagement
In graduate school, I took a course about community engagement.  The central theme of that course was community engagement is about museums going out into the community, finding out what the community needs, and then working to serve those needs.

What makes this idea so radical to some in our field is that it is so different from the business model of many museums.  Most begin with collections or mission as a starting point to serve the community.  The starting point in community engagement is the community.

If I were taking that community engagement course today Simon’s book would be a required text.  In Simon’s book, as well as my community engagement course, the work of the museum is about the community getting just as much out of the experience as the museum.  Simon offers very helpful thoughts on wants and needs, two terms often thrown around when museum professionals consider how to fulfill their mission and serve their communities.  Who is determining these wants and needs, and how they are going about serving them, will determine if true relevance is created.

The power of community engagement is the relevance it creates for everyone in your community.  Simon uses the term “convener” for an institution that is considering what’s in it for everyone.  I love this idea and believe that all museums should aspire to be conveners in their communities.  Simon makes a compelling argument that relevance as she defines it is the only avenue toward becoming a convener.

I suspect all of us will be referencing this important book for many years to come!

Falk and Dierking’s The Museum Experience Continues to Inspire

John Falk and Lynn Dierking’s The Museum Experience is one of the most important books in the museum canon.

After reading part of the book in graduate school, I finally got around to reading all of it.  The authors published The Museum Experience Revisited in 2012 but the original remains valuable (and available, now through Routledge).

At the beginning of the book, Falk and Dierking note that most people spend their leisure time at home, an idea recently highlighted in a blog post by Colleen Dilenschneider.  The fact that someone as respected as Dilenschneider feels the need to address this idea 25 years after Falk and Dierking shows that museums are still struggling to understand that we exist in a larger leisure-time ecosystem.  We need to give people a compelling reason to come to our museums, but we also need to understand how our visitors operate so they will have a fulfilling visit when they show up.  That is the goal of The Museum Experience.

Below are what I thought were the book’s main insights into visitors and how we as museum professionals can use this information to create better visits for guests.

The Interactive Experience Model / Contextual Model of Learning
This book introduced the Interactive Experience Model, later renamed the Contextual Model of Learning.  This model states that a museum visit takes place within three contexts:  the personal, social, and physical.  Museums should be aware of these contexts because they can influence visitors through them.

Influencing visitors through personal agendas and advance organizers
The visitor’s personal context is made up of their preconceptions and expectations for the visit.  This context is often influenced by previous experiences and existing knowledge.  This personal context creates an agenda for the visit.

It is important for museum professionals to understand the expectations that create the agendas.  If expectations are understood then agendas can be influenced.

One way to do this is through advance organizers, which provide visitors with conceptual information to help structure their learning or their visit.

The authors share an amazing example of how understanding the expectations of school visitors, and their desires to see and do certain things during a zoo visit, enhanced their learning.  By addressing the students’ desires before and during the visit the students were able to retain more information.

I don’t think this applies only to school groups.  We can create advance organizers for many types of visitors.

An example is the “social story” created for people on the autism spectrum.  People on the autism spectrum are often more comfortable in social settings when they know in advance what they will encounter.  A social story is a document that shows where the person will go and what they will do.  These social stories are not just beneficial to people on the autism spectrum.  They can be helpful to young children nervous about entering new environments or outsiders who don’t want to appear as outsiders during an unfamiliar experience.

Behavior settings and modeling
Falk and Dierking share the idea that physical and social settings are not just backdrops for an experience.  These settings influence the behavior people exhibit—they are behavior settings.  Certain behavior is acceptable in a library.  Different behavior is acceptable in a movie theaters, churches, or shopping malls.

Visitors model the behavior of others within their own social groups and visitors outside their group during museum visits (especially if the experience is new or unfamiliar).

Modeling can be used to help visitors understand what type of behavior is accepted within the museum.  The authors use the example of a solitary hands-on exhibit in a museum where touching was not permitted at almost all the other exhibits.  Because of the predominance of the no-touch exhibits in the physical context, visitors did not realize that touching the hands-on exhibit was acceptable.  They assumed what they had encountered was just another hands-off exhibit.  When visitors observed others touching this exhibit they realized that it was acceptable for them to touch it as well.

I think it would be preferable if we designed experiences that visitors could naturally understand, without having to observe others in order to know how to behave or what to do.  When we design experiences we should observe visitors to see if they are struggling so we know what we need to fix.  If we can’t design an experience a certain way or need to fix it cheaply modeling is an important tool we can use.

What kind of behavior is acceptable in your museum?  Is this the type of behavior you want?  Understanding that the setting and environment determines people’s behavior within your museum is an important piece of knowledge if you want to change the behavior of visitors.

Helping visitors organize information
Objects are more successful than words in transmitting ideas in museums.  I would never say the fewer words the better, but certainly there are exhibitions which rely on text too heavily.  We need to find the right balance of text in our museums.  That balance should be weighted toward objects but the objects need to be supported by concise and effective interpretive text.

Falk and Dierking note that one of the reasons experienced visitors are more successful than inexperienced visitors in museums is that those with experience know how to “chunk” the information they encounter.  Inexperienced visitors are overwhelmed because they see all the objects as separate pieces while experienced visitors are able to group the objects into “chunks.”  We can help move novices to experts by organizing our displays to help them chunk the information we’re sharing.

Visitor goals
If we understand the visitor experience in the three contexts of the Contextual Model of Learning, shouldn’t we create goals for visitors based on what we know about how visitors operate in these contexts?  Falk and Dierking encourage us to do just that.  They encourage us to acknowledge the goals visitors have when they visit so that the goals we create for visitors can be more closely aligned with the goals visitors bring with them.  We will be better able to connect with visitors if our goals are aligned with their goals.

Bridging the gap
As museums, we create our exhibitions and experiences with ideas about what we want visitors to know—our big idea and messages.  But what do visitors already know about these subjects before they come to the program or enter the exhibition?  We should understand what visitors know and help them to bridge the gap of what we want them to know.

Museum learning
Finally, I believe that everyone who works in museums should read the chapter titled Museum Learning Defined.  It continues to serve as a good overview to understand the definition of learning, how people learn differently, and how the museum environment can help visitors learn.  Museum educators are the expert in understanding these issues but all museum professionals, from curators to visitor services staff, should have an understanding of these concepts.  This chapter is a good place to start.

Meryl Streep and Empathy in Museums


I often think about museums when encountering popular culture or thinking about current events.  I couldn’t help but think about museums while watching this year’s Golden Globes award ceremony.

This year the Hollywood Foreign Press Association presented Meryl Streep with the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement.

In her acceptance speech, Streep made some points that museums should take note of.  If you haven’t seen the speech in its entirety, please take the time to watch it.


So how does this speech connect to museums?

There’s been some good discussion in our field about making museums empathetic and places where visitors can become more empathetic.  If you haven’t seen it already, check out The Empathetic Museum and Mike Murawski’s thoughts about the need and urgency of empathy in museums.

Streep used her speech to teach everyone that an actor’s profession is one of empathy.

“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different than us and let you (the audience) feel what that feels like,” she said.  That’s empathy.

I like the concise definition of empathy on Google:  “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

An actor, according to Streep, uses empathy in order to play the role of another human being—to understand.  Then, the actor shares those feelings with the audience, allowing the audience to understand the other.

At museums, like the movies, we encounter the lives of others, whether they are people who lived in the past or those who created or are the subject of artwork.  Museums help us be empathetic with the natural world.  Museums help us understand our relationship to others and our place within the universe.  Those of us who work in museums have an opportunity to help our visitors and guests understand the other.

Streep went on to say to her peers:  “We have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”

Let us in museums not take the privilege of act of empathy for granted.  Let’s use empathy within our staffs, which is a prerequisite for sharing it with our visitors.

Let’s use empathy to understand our content and collections so that we can help our visitors be empathetic as well.

Let us not forget for a second the responsibility of the act of empathy in museums.  It is our responsibility to practice and share empathy to fulfill our role of creating a more empathetic society in our communities.

What can museums learn from theater, film, and actors about creating empathy in others?  How can the practices within these fields to create empathy be adopted in museums?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

The role of demographics in visitor surveys

In my last post, I shared information about how to create a survey based on Dr. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Such a survey can help your museum better understand what is motivating your users to visit your museum.

The identity/motivation of visitors was not the only information I gathered.  I also collected demographic information and information about other important aspects of visitors and their experience, such as length of stay and group size.

Collecting demographic information
In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience Dr. Falk strongly discourages museums to market and serve visitors based on demographics.  Falk writes:

“Knowing a museum-goer’s age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, and occupation does not now, nor will it ever tell anyone why someone does or does not visit a specific museum…museum-going is far too complex to be understood only on the basis of easily measured variables such as demographics.”

I agree that demographics are the not primary type of information to gather and use when understanding and serving visitors.  However, there are still some benefits to collecting demographics.

Age is important to know because if too many visitors are in a certain age bracket the museum has some work to do to attract visitors of other ages.

There should be some balance in the gender of visitors.  If there is too much imbalance the museum may want to explore ways of correcting that.

The same idea applies to ethnic / racial heritage.  Museums have an obligation to serve everyone in the community.  If visitors of certain ethnic / racial heritages are not coming to the museum then there is a problem.

Image result for census

Arnold Lehman, the now retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, has said “the most important book any museum director should read is the U.S. Census.”

The Census is only one of many governmental resources for demographic information.  Many local governments collect and sort Census data in a way that is beneficial to museums.  In a study I compared the results of the participating visitors with demographic information from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.  The Partnership gathered demographic information for eight central Iowa counties, including the county where the study museum was located.  Thankfully, the study sample closely mirrored the racial and ethnic heritage makeup of central Iowa.  Keeping tabs on the demographics is an important measurement of the museum’s mission to serve the public.

Here are a couple of important tips to keep in mind when collecting demographic information:

First, make sure visitors participating in the survey understand that providing this information is voluntary.  Some people may be wary of providing strangers with their racial /ethnic heritage, age, gender identification, or other demographic information.  You can make study participants more comfortable in providing this information by asking for it at the end of the survey and by allowing visitors to provide the information privately.

Second, descriptions of racial / ethnic heritage and gender identity are constantly changing.  Do a little research to see the classifications that others are using.  Facebook now allows users to choose from one of 71 different gender options.  You’ll have to decide what types of classifications you’ll want to use.  If you plan on comparing study participants with another set of data, such as the U.S. Census, you may have to use the same classifications as the other data set.  The good news is that agencies collecting demographic information are now constantly revising their classifications in response to the public.

Collecting other types of visitor information
While you’re collecting data about visitor motivations, why not collect some other data about them?  It will only give you more insight into your visitors.

For a study I conducted, I asked visitors to tell me how many people were in their group.  I did this because museum-going is a social experience.  If we consider the visitor alone we miss out on understanding the visitor’s social context of the visit.

In my study, I wanted to know how many people over and under the age of 18 were in each visitor’s group.  Knowing the average group size can help you design exhibits and other services that can accommodate visitor groups.

I also tracked the time visitors spent at the museum.  When people find that the expectations associated with their motivation for visiting are fulfilled they will be more likely to stay longer at the museum.  If expectations are not met, they will cut the visit short.

There are other types of visit information you can collect that will add insight into visitors, such as if it is their first visit, if they are a member, etc.

Concluding thought
I believe it is important for all museums to periodically measure and understand the motivations and demographics of their visitors.  Museums are not able to properly serve visitors unless they know what motivates guests to visit and if the expectations associated with visits have been met.

As institutions that serve the public, museums have an obligation to know if their visitors reflect the community.

Collecting other information about the visit can give you greater insight to how your visitors are using your museum, which can help you make the adjustments needed to provide more fulfilling visits for your users.

I’m passionate about surveying and understanding visitors because it makes for a stronger museum.

Creating a survey based on Falk’s visitor identities

Understanding visitors or users is paramount in today’s museum work.  Understanding our visitors helps museum professionals be more effective.  The educating, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting we do is enhanced by deeper understanding of the people who come to visit us.

One of the most exciting pieces of research I came across in graduate school was Dr. John H. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Dr. Falk outlined the five common visitor motivations he discovered in his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, published in 2009.  This is an essential book for any museum professional working in the 21st century to read.

According to Falk, most visitors have one of five motivations for visiting a museum:

  • Experience Seekers are similar to tourists. This type of visitor wants to see the building and grounds and the most important parts of the collection or experience.
  • Explorers describe themselves as curious and enjoy learning. They have a general interest in the subject matter of the museum and come to learn more.
  • Facilitators come in two subgroups. Facilitating Parents come to have a shared experience with a child.  I advocate for this group to be called Facilitating Caregivers since this type of visitor could be a grandparent, aunt/uncle, older sibling, mentor, etc.  Facilitating Socializers come with another adult – a spouse or friend – because they think their companion will enjoy the museum’s experience.
  • Professionals / Hobbyists have a specific goal in mind for their visit. An example would be a visitor who has photography as a hobby and wants to come to take photos of plants, gardens, or sculpture.  Another example would be a visitor who has a deep interest in impressionism and comes to see your museum’s collection of impressionist paintings.
  • Rechargers seek what Falk calls a “restorative experience.” They use the museum as a setting for a mental and physical break that they use to recharge their batteries.

Visitor identities have important implications for museums.  Understanding visitors in this way means that museums will need to create experiences and services that cater to the needs, expectations, and preferences of each visitor type in order to successfully serve visitors.

In my first position out of graduate school I was responsible for creating the organization’s “guest experience.”  One of the first things that I wanted to do was conduct a study to help the staff better understand visitors, including their identity.

I knew that Dr. Falk’s research had been funded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and that the tool he used in his study was available on the organization’s website.  I figured I could use this tool myself.

Dr. Falk’s original tool was 20 statements that the visitor had to read through.  Each statement was a possible reason the visitor had decided to visit the museum that day.  The visitor was asked to choose five statements that most closely matched the reason for their visit.  Next, the visitor was asked to select on a scale of 1 to 7 how important each of the five statements was to that day’s visit.

The person administering the survey would then take the information the visitor had provided and input it into a spreadsheet, also available on the AZA website.  The spreadsheet would then indicate the visitor’s identity.

I was no more than 10 surveys in when I realized I had a problem.  Each time I would enter the information in the spreadsheet it would tell me the visitor had a non-dominant identity.  In other words, the visitor did not seem to fit into one of Falk’s visitor types.

The problem was with how the data was collected.  When doing any type of visitor survey it should not be too difficult for the visitor to provide you with information.  In these initial surveys, visitors seemed to be struggling with the three tasks of reading through all the statements, selecting five that applied to them, and then ranking those five statements on a 1 to 7 Likert scale.  I knew I needed to simplify the survey.

The tool I created also had a list of statements about why the visitor had decided to come to the museum that day.  There were two statements for each type of visitor identity.  For example, two of these simple statements were “I’m here because this is a good place for a child to learn about plants / nature / gardening” (Facilitating Caregiver, this survey was done at a botanical garden) and “I was looking for something to do and someone recommended I come here” (Experience Seeker).  The visitor was asked to select one of the statements that applied to their visit.

I was pleasantly surprised that the new tool worked effectively!  Suddenly, it was easier for visitors to fill out the survey tool and for me to gather the information I was looking to capture.

Visitors were asked to complete this part of the survey when they entered the museum.  Before they left I conducted a short interview with them to ask about their experience.  The first question I asked was why they had decided to visit that day.  I asked this question because I wanted to ensure that the statement they had checked on the survey tool was accurate.  I found that the answers to my verbal question supported the information visitors gave me in the survey tool.  This validation supports what Falk has said about museum visitor identity—that the identity of the visitor will influence their motivation for visiting, what they will see and do during the visit, and what they will remember about the visit after they leave.

I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Gardens Association’s Education Symposium earlier this year.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Falk.  I asked him about what tool he uses to gather visitor identity from visitors.  He said that he has five cards with pictures of visitors.  There is a word bubble, kind of like what you would see in comics.  In each bubble is a simple statement that reflects one of the five visitor identities.  He asks the visitor to hand him the card that represents why he or she is visiting the museum that day.  I felt a bit of pride as I heard him say this.  I had simplified Falk’s tool in the same way he had!

In my next post, I’ll share more information about designing this visitor study, including the other types of information I gathered.

Highlights of the APGA Education Symposium

Mount Rainier, seen from the plane on my way into Seattle.

Conferences provide many opportunities for professional development, from the chance to meet and network with others in the field to seeing how other museums are operating.  The greatest opportunity is to learn and take that new knowledge home and put it to use.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Garden Association’s Education Symposium.  This conference was extremely well organized and I brought home much that I want to share and implement at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Symposium Organization
The organization of the Symposium was excellent and provided a framework that other conferences should follow.

The Symposium was held in the Seattle, Washington area over three days.  Each day was at a different public garden.  Visiting other gardens and museums is a great way to see what colleagues are actively doing to serve and engage their public.  It was great that the Symposium provided the opportunity for us to visit three separate gardens during our visit.

Organizers also took advantage of the proximity of the University of Washington.  Universities, of course, have researchers working in a variety of fields that can enhance museums.  The Symposium featured U of W professors from museum studies, neuroscience and environmental psychology backgrounds.

Evaluation / Washington Park Arboretum
Day one was held at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.  Dr. Jessica Luke, chair of the university’s museum studies department, gave a talk about the importance of doing evaluation.  Luke made three important points:

  1. Evaluation starts with strategic thinking: She encouraged us to think about outcomes in our evaluation.  What is the change that comes about as a result of our guests participating in the activities we’re evaluating?
  2. Evaluation doesn’t have to be big or expensive: Luke asked the audience what the major barriers are to doing evaluation.  Of course, the top two answers were time and money.  I appreciated her bluntness in asking us to get past these barriers and make evaluation part of our jobs.  Evaluation is something you can do yourself and with your team and something you can keep simple.  Just do it!
  3. Evaluation requires you to translate your results into practice: As Luke said, “Evaluation is about use. If you don’t have a use for your data, don’t collect it.”  Another way to put it is be prepared to act on what your data tells you.

Following this presentation we had a tour of the Washington Park Arboretum, including the park’s Fiddleheads Nature School, a nature preschool.  I encourage you to check out the school’s website to learn more about this program, which will hopefully not be so unique in the future.

Me with Dr. John Falk

Meeting Dr. Falk
For the second day, we were at the beautiful Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Dr. John H. Falk is a name that many of you are probably familiar with.  His research has had a profound influence on my museum practice and our field as a whole.  One of the first things I wanted to do when I began my career at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was conduct a study based on John’s Visitor Motivation Theory.  I did and I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.  The opportunity to meet John, pick his brain, and gather ideas from him was one of the highlights of this trip.

Every once in a while, someone says something that you know is going to stick with you forever.  There was one of those moments during John’s presentation:  “Many people are coming for people things,” he said.  I’ll be repeating that quote to my colleagues for a long time as a reminder that we need to keep people things top of mind in our work.

So often we think about our content first.  But our guests are thinking about people things first:  spending time with family or friends, looking to get away from life for a little bit and relax, making memories, etc.  We need to consider these people things first and our content and collections second.  When we do that, we’ll create better experiences for our guests.

Dr. Falk giving his keynote address and talking about visitor motivations.

Next, Susanna Cunningham and Jenny Williamson, two University of Washington faculty members, taught us how our brains work and what happens when this plastic organ learns.  Here were the points I found most valuable:

  • The regular attention span of the brain is 20 minutes, and may be getting shorter in our digital world. We need to provide varied experiences for our guests so we can continue to hold their attention.
  • People learn more when they believe they have a “growth mindset.” There’s an increasing amount of literature about this, which I encourage you to explore.  At our gardens and museums we can play a role in helping people believe they have a growth mindset.  Failure—and learning from it—is an important part of the process.  So is mindfulness.  There are things we can do to help our guests be more aware of their mindfulness, such as providing space in serenity gardens.
  • Cunningham and Williamson shared the Pyramid of Learning and encouraged us to think about how it applies to the programs and experiences we create for guests. Google the Pyramid if you’re not familiar with it.  Most learning takes place on the bottom of the Pyramid, which is active learning—discussion (50%), practice doing (75%), and teaching others (90%).

Lynn Manzo and Kathleen Wolf, environmental psychologists, presented next.  Manzo talked about placemaking and place attachment, two related ideas extremely important for museums and gardens.  (She’s co-edited a book about this, which went on my reading list.)  Our environments are special places and through place attachment we can help people create emotional bonds.  Manzo said that we need to love what we save.  This reminded me of Freeman Tilden’s principles of interpretation and his idea that through understanding comes conservation.  Love is a very deep type of understanding.  Place attachment was new to me, but an area that I am going to become more familiar with, since it has important implications for how people interact with the physical space of gardens and museums.

Interest-based Marketing
Gabe Kosowitz, the acting head of brand marketing with the Smithsonian, presented on this topic.

The goal of interest-based marketing is to reach new audiences by meeting them where their interests are.  Falk has encouraged museums to pay more attention to the interests of visitors, including in marketing.

Kosowitz encouraged us not to only market to what he called our “gold viewers” (he comes from the world of television).  He says that gold viewers are super fans—they are already engaged.  Instead, focus on new audiences through three steps:

  1. Identify what those motivations might be for people to interact with you. Kosowitz called some of these motivations “sideway entrances.”  I’ll give an example in a second.
  2. Create contact groups.
  3. Find places to reach the audience with the motivation.

Kosowitz provided an example using the dating website Hinge.  Hinge needs places where people who have met online can meet in person.  The motivation in this case is people looking to fall in love, the contact group and the place to reach the audience is the Hinge platform.  If a museum holds a Hinge meet-up event it can become a platform where new audiences and brought into the museum.

Evaluation, Visitor Motivation Theory, the importance of understanding how the brain works in learning, place attachment, interest-based marketing and the incredible Seattle scenery—these were the highlights of my Symposium.  These highlights were inspirational thanks to a well-designed conference that was well worth the trip.  I’ll be putting these ideas into practice over the next few years at the Botanical Garden!