On Museum Accessibility and Relevance

This week’s reading focus on museum accessibility and its connections with community/people. Simon argues that the key to connecting the needs, assets and interests of the community with the collections in museum is to unlock deep meaning and value for a diverse audience in a community. Vagnone takes HHMs as an example to show the importance and ways of finding common ground to serve the needs of individuals and expand community engagement. Falk examines how to enrich visit experiences and build connection between visitors and museums by targeting different types and needs of visitors.

My own experience visiting museums in D.C. during the Spring Break resonate with this week’s reading. Regarding museum accessibility, of all the museums I visited in D.C. last week, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the most difficult and frustrating to get in: getting up early three times at 6:30am to register a same-day timed entry pass for individual visitors but found all the tickets sold out within 5 minutes. Fortunately enough I was able to visit the museum with a walk-up pass after a long waiting time. This experience of frustration (more than once) was shared by fellow visitors waiting with me that day, including local people, out of state visitors and international ones. Of course there are strong reasons for the museum’s popularity, and I interpret this difficulty in accessibility from two aspects: on the one hand, it might frustrate certain types of visitors as what Falk categorized as experience seekers, facilitators and rechargers, especially when these people are temporary visitors/tourists to D.C. On the other hand, it might create a scenario of high demand and short supply which helps promote the museum’s popularity and visitors’ desire to experience its exhibitions and programs.

That being said, I have to admit that NMAAHC is the most impressive museum in my trip. Echoing what Falk said about the most satisfying experience, my visit at this museum resonates with my fragmented existing knowledge of African Americans, providing me an overview of African American history, culture, community and activism. My over 30-minute wait to visit Emmett Till Memorial room and see his original casket connected me to our classroom discussion on this issue and greatly enriched my understanding of the impact of his tragic death on the course of civil rights movements and the nation, and its ongoing legacy to our current every-day resistance to racial injustice. I want to add that interactions among visitors can help build one’s connection or relevance to the exhibitions as well. My conversations with a few visitors at the museum, and my observation of fellow visitors, most of whom are African Americans, in the long waiting line to visit the Emmett Till Memorial room, and their expressions after the visit, greatly helps me understand the impact of Till’s case and resonate with the feelings and situation of African Americans.

This week’s reading and my visiting experience make me ponder over conflicts between the tradition of museum and its present day marketing: Shall we treat visitors as consumers and the marketing strategy is to motivate people to attend? Shall we adopt new technology like 3D films in the Museum of National History and 4D films in Newseum to attract visitors and enrich their experiences? If so, what is the difference between a museum program like this and the similar practice in Disneyland? I wonder how museums and cultural institutions maintain their own agency while adopting a market strategy to promote visitation, funding and community involvement.

So You Wanna Run a HHM…

As Rica and Emily both rightfully point out, there’s nothing truly revolutionary about Vagnone and Simon’s “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums.” It seems overly simple to chalk up this opinion to a generational divide but, engaging with the community, talking with visitors (not just at them), and changing interpretation and exhibits with the times, are not acts of anarchy. However, they are desperately needed.

I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours in historic house museums (HHMs). I know them from both the employee and visitor side, and I’ll tell ya, sometimes historic house museums are truly awful. Reading Vagnone and Simon I was struck by how many of the “rant” sections resonated with me. “A little history is fine”, “We need to make room for today in our historic houses”, and “I worry that we think we’re already providing these great participatory experiences for our guests simply because our tour guides ask questions every now and then” all highlight my frustration with guided tours of historic house museums. All these statements get to the fundamental question HHMs need to ask: “who cares?”

It’s easy to walk around a historic house and show off your knowledge of 18th-century china, a complicated family lineage, and complicated political and philosophical ideas. I know, because I did it. But that doesn’t make for a good tour. Instead, HHMs should, as Vagnone and Simon advocate, train guides to connect personally to visitors to engage with the story of the house. But beyond simply a guided tour, “who cares?” connects to a bigger point: relevance.

I bet when the average person hears “historic house museum” they don’t think about the word “relevance” which shows the untapped potential for the future of HHMs. Many sites worry about being too political or controversial, however, history is inherently disruptive and uncomfortable. President Lincoln’s Cottage’s tagline is “a home for brave ideas”. This DC HHM uses the story of Lincoln and the Civil War to connect to modern fights in exhibits like, “American By Belief” which explores Lincoln’s immigration policies and brings in Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration act to further the dialogue. They also support a program called “Students Opposing Slavery” which furthers Lincoln’s legacy by encouraging modern day abolitionists to work to end human trafficking. While not “anarchists” by political standards, Lincoln’s Cottage is paving the way for a new model of the HHM that Vagnone and Simon advocate and more sites should follow the lead, ASAP.

Where is the Line Between Relevance and Pandering?

After preciously reading many little bits of Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, it was nice to finally sink my teeth into the whole book. One question that stayed with me as I encountered Simon’s work in the past is the title of this post: where is the line between relevance and pandering?

Upon reading the whole book, I was eager to see if/how she addressed it. In short: she doesn’t, at least not directly. I was frustrated because she briefly mentions the issue in her introduction, but then dances around it from that point forward.

I would certainly buy the argument that “community-first program design,” if executed properly, can help prevent (or entirely prevent) pandering being the MO of a cultural nonprofit, but I would like to see that argument made explicitly.

The last time we met as a class, we talked about the ongoing controversy at the Whitney over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till. In that case, as far as I can tell, the Whitney tried to be relevant and wound up being called out on insensitive pandering. I would have been pleased if the Art of Relevance had some other examples of institutions aiming for relevance and landing on pandering, as well as analysis of those situations and their pitfalls.

Continuity, Change, and Museum Research

“What makes a museum visitor experience high-quality and personally engaging is that it fully satisfies the visitor’s entering identity-related museum motivations. As museum researcher Zahava Doering wrote: ‘Rather than communicating new information, the primary impact of visiting a museum exhibition is to confirm, reinforce, and extend the visitor’s existing beliefs.” (Falk 153)

“When I looked into the research on relevance, I discovered that experts define relevance as more than a link. In the words of cognitive scientists Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber, relevance ‘yields positive cognitive effect.’ Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. It’s not enough for something to be familiar or connected to something you already know. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table.” (Simon 29)

In reading Falk and Simon, I was struck by these two quotes and what they imply about visitor experience as well as the role of research experts in understanding these experiences. Falk and Doering seem to be suggesting the relative stability of visitors’ relationships to exhibits (confirm, reinforce), although the idea of “extend[ing]” existing beliefs implies some change. Simon, on the other hand, is more explicit about the idea of newness—relevance means adding something, making a difference.

I’m interested in museum research’s relationship to stability and change—how we can study the effect of a museum visit without implying that it needs to alter a visitor’s self-perception? Research is often thought of as a time consuming process and one that needs to hold certain variables constant, but if relevance implies newness and difference, then what might relevant research look like?

What about the Insiders?

While Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presented compelling and important arguments, I was left thinking that the solutions she advanced did not address the complexity and nuance of different types of museum visitors.  In her dichotomy between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Simon differentiates between museum visitors who are regulars– the ‘insiders’–and those who need to be given the ‘key of relevance’ before even thinking of visiting the museum–the ‘outsiders’.  In addressing the issue of relevance, Simon offers suggestions for motivating ‘outsiders’ to visit and become invested in what the museum has to offer. She writes, “to be relevant you need to cultivate open-hearted insiders, who are pleased to let new people in even if it requires a little change” on the terms of the ‘outsiders’ (65). While this sounds nice in an ideal world, practically the museum needs to make sure it is relevant to all its patrons: ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ are probably not going to have the open-hearts that Simon suggests cultivating, as they too see themselves as customers who expect to receive the services they seek. Furthermore, while Simon focuses on ways to expand the museum-visitor population beyond the small and homogenous ‘insiders’ group, she does not recognize the dependency that museums may have on their ‘insiders’.  Those ‘insiders’ may be donors, key supporters and/or steady, regular visitors of the museum, whom the institution cannot afford to alienate. In this sense the museum must remain relevant to its ‘insiders’, while expanding its relevance to ‘outsiders’.

The non-profit I worked for last year made this very mistake. Although not a museum, the organization–unintentionally–followed Simon’s advice and attempted to make its mission more relevant to the younger generation, so to expand its membership. However, in employing this very tactic the non-profit alienated its older and committed population who felt they were being neglected. As most donations came from this older, more established membership, the organization suffered financial losses and had to reconsider its future activities. While I completely agree with Simon’s emphasis on the need for museums to reach out to their local communities and become relevant to a more diverse population, I feel that her quick and overly optimistic assumption that ‘insiders’ would adapt and be on-board does not reflect the complexity and difficulties involved.

tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?

Like Rica, I am both excited and skeptical of Vangone’s approach to the historic house museum. Vagnone, like Simon, shows investment in community, creativity and culture for the field. But, as Rica discusses, none of this seems particularly anarchist/revolutionary? Sure, Vagnone may be the first to compile it into a text, but much of this language has been part of what I consider public humanities literature and discussion of at least the last 5-10 years. I feel bombarded with “museum visionaries” like Simon and Vagnone to the point that this is my norm and my expectation for museums. The person that needs to be convinced is no longer me – in fact, it probably never was me, because this is the standard for thought leadership in the field at the moment.  I’m interacting with the “right” people – the people interested in change and ~revitalization~ – and so I’d be more curious to hear from classmates who’ve been on the inside about just how difficult these kind of changes are once inside the museum. Is Vagnone directing his work at the wrong person? Or am I just too optimistic about how change works?

I’d also like to point out that Vagnone takes a page from Mark Schlemmer’s playbook with #ITweetMuseums. But one should note that #ITweetMuseums started as a way for cultural workers to tweet about museums – an independent initiative, separate from the organizations themselves, and also not directly for these new audiences that Vagnone talks about for HHMs. Why is that? Well, these suggestions requires a lot of investment on the part of the community to be interested in your museum! Citizen Advisory Groups, young volunteers, N.U.D.E. tour guides, new paradigms of thinking – these are great partnerships for the museums, but I’m not sure if visitors/communities understand the benefits they would be getting from this conversation. And they’re the ones who, at the end of the day, need to be convinced as well!

I’m also interested in how Falk can play into conversations with Vagnone and Simon. Both seem more focused on getting people in the door with dynamic presentation, but not necessarily getting into the intricacies of those visitors’ needs and desires once inside. Which shifts into my next point…

Continue reading tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?