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.

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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.