Museum empowerment and stand-up comedy: connections from museum blogging

A few months ago, I read an innovative post by Dana Mitroff Silvers on her blog, Design Thinking for Museums. I was inspired by Dana’s creativity in connecting the seemingly dissimilar disciplines of museums and improv comedy.

The piece got me wondering about other museum-comedy parallels. I immediately thought of my college friend, Ryan Stanisz: hardworking writer; abrasively funny observer of human behavior; skilled stand-up, improv, and sketch comedian. I asked Ryan to reflect on the possible tenets of comedy; I would then consider their connections to what I have learned and explored while blogging and reading other blogs over the past couple of months.

Museums and comedy are surprisingly congruent. They share similar fundamental goals of engaging and connecting with people and ideas, empathizing with diverse and shared experiences, and reflecting on what is culturally meaningful. They both aim to provide enjoyment and happiness. Perhaps they also share a common experience of struggle.

Ryan chose to focus on stand-up comedy. And since his comments spoke to ideas of empowerment, adaptation, tenacity, and self-leadership, I decided they were relevant to the blog’s mission. Typically, I write about how museums might empower visitors, but in this post, I consider how they might inspire and uplift themselves as institutions…

Ryan’s tenets and related comments are italicized.

I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for five years. But the truth is, I’ve only really been DOING IT for two years. The other three years just involved me occasionally going to an open mic or a show, and the other half the time, just talking about it. I was in love with the idea of being a comedian before I was one – and while I’m not a star by any stretch of the imagination, I love it now, I do it often, and I’m passionate about the work. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m being dishonest when I tell someone I do stand-up. This is the first time I’ve been asked to lay out some general tenets I apply to stand-up comedy, but it’s by no means complete, and I’m sure it varies for everyone. Anyhow, this is the type of stuff that keeps me motivated and keeps me honest.  

1. Be realistic with one’s self. Along the way, there are some pretty simple questions you have to keep asking yourself.

Are you being funny? If the jokes aren’t hitting – maybe you need a new approach, maybe you need to abandon the joke all together. Some comics might give you advice, but hold off on adopting someone else’s notes. You need to develop your own internal locus of what is and isn’t funny. Just like my ideas presented in this blog, don’t necessarily take them as Bible truth, always be questioning.

Is there something getting in the way of you working on material, and getting out in front of people? Everyone’s got to work and everyone’s got to eat – but if you’re not getting up at shows, you’re not getting better – and you’re definitely not meeting other people in the comedy world …

Museum connections

Ask yourself the tough questions; reflect. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe the process of reflection. Stephanie Downey discussed ‘reflection’ in an Intentional Museum post, explaining that it can be easy to overlook this important process in the continual cycle of action. Museum professionals, however, must be willing to ask tough questions, examine the meaning of data, and provide a critical ‘insider perspective’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum). Your instincts matter—when it comes to making people laugh, or sharing our collective culture.

Reflect, but also act. Stand-up comedians learn by doing and don’t wait until they’re ‘perfect.’ How might this apply to museums? Paul Orselli’s post about museum responsiveness and recent #museumsrespondtoferguson conversations on Twitter have highlighted, for me, the importance of balancing fear with timely action (see my post, ‘On Fear, and Imperfection’).

2. Be your authentic self, and don’t be afraid to evolve.

Even if you’re awkward or depraved – be genuine and be yourself. This is such a stupidly simple concept, and it was the hardest thing for me to learn. Learn who you are and do just that, otherwise, you’ll be playing a character forever and you won’t be able to grow or discover with an audience. It’s fascinating to listen to Louis CK or Patton Oswalt over the years – because their careers and their families have changed so dramatically. They’re still themselves, but they don’t necessarily speak to things in the same way. Comics who play a shtick, a lot of times, lose out on that opportunity to develop a relationship with the crowd and they put themselves into a corner (their shows feel more muted, more choreographed, and less fun). There are a number of exceptions – Stephen Colbert for instance was aggressive in his attempt to stay current and relevant– Colbert commented on issues of the day, and as the Republican Party evolved over nine years, so did Colbert.

Museum connection

Understand what you have to offer and stand by it. Through my visit to Glenstone and my resulting post, I learned the value of a museum with a strong vision and a compellingly firm self-concept.

Be yourself. As a frequent museum visitor, I also learned, as Ryan suggests, that when the creator is genuine, the audience’s experience is enormously enhanced. My most powerful visitor experiences undoubtedly took place in institutions that were connected to their authentic selves, aware of their unique assets, and open to developing real relationships with their visitors (such as the Torpedo Factory Art Center, pictured below).

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3. Work hard, especially when no one’s watching.

No one cares that you do stand-up – your family might find it fun, but you have to want to do it. And when you decide you want it, you have to work on it constantly. Success is slow – people all around you will get on shows as your schedule starts to slow down, but keep working! Life is tiring, and it’s tempting to want to go home right after work, but your jokes have no way of developing otherwise. Also, don’t forget to record and listen to yourself. Sometimes the laugh you thought you got for your bit was more about the intonation than the wording, or a response to someone’s weird laugh – be mindful and honest about what was actually funny. And as you work, be mindful of the future. Are you building other skills to leverage the abilities you already have? You can write a good joke – but it’d be awesome if you also knew how to tell a story.

Museum connections

Keep moving forward; the future is already here. Ryan’s comments about consistent progress and mindfulness about the future reminded me of Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, ‘Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back.’ Colleen argued that museums who use ‘future’ language to describe present needs and trends are likely to get left behind or adopt the false belief that they are innovative. Remembering that the future is already here and striving to build new resources to leverage current ones seem relevant to both stand-up and museums.

Be intentional. Ryan’s comment about being honest about why something is successful struck me as deeply relevant to museums. I recalled a recent post by Randi Korn on Intentional Museum, which argued that intentionality is essential for museums hoping to ‘make a difference in the quality of people’s lives’ (Randi’s definition of ‘impact’). So knowing why you are doing something and why it works is not just good for you, but great for your audience.

4. Keep a positive sense of self.

This is probably one of the most over-looked tenets among a lot of comics in my opinion and it’s probably because keeping positive doesn’t necessarily translate into career success…. Take steps to improve your self-image – eat healthy, exercise, keep to a consistent sleep schedule, and when necessary, talk to someone. Working on your baggage isn’t going to make you any less compelling or funny.  

You need to believe that you’re funny in order to do this.

Museum connection

Believe that you can be essential to your community, and make it so. In my second post, I discussed an inspirational visit to the Art Museum of the America’s F Street Gallery where my guide’s warmth and enthusiasm and sincere passion for the museum’s work quickly convinced me of the museum’s value and importance. I suggest museums should not only maintain a positive sense of self, but also ensure that this positive image becomes a core institutional value that is consistently conveyed to visitors through all aspects of the museum operation.

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This sign in the National Building Museum denotes the adjacent classroom, but also reinforces and celebrates (at least, for me) the museum’s core business of education.

5. Appreciate the flops as much as the successes.

Learn from failures – if a bit doesn’t work after a month of workshopping it, abandon it. If a joke works great – hold on to it for dear life.

Museum connection

Be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Be willing to let go of something that isn’t working—even if you love it. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe Randi Korn’s concept of ‘alignment,’ which involves aligning actions with desired outcomes despite our sometimes emotional resistance to letting go of unsuccessful programs (Randi Korn, Intentional Museum).

6. Learn to accept feedback with grace.

Everyone’s a critic – don’t respond back to someone’s critique in a state of rage or panic. You might just burn a bridge or two (ruining future show or partnership opportunities) – and at the end of the day it comes down to your own locus of what’s funny or not. If you told a joke that you liked, and it was well received– you’re not obligated to defend yourself if someone was offended or didn’t laugh. It’s likely, someone will disagree – and that’s just part of life. In a similar vein, take compliments with stride – and don’t let an audience member decide for you when a bit is finished.

Museum connection

Don’t be defensive. My personal belief is that museums should welcome the opportunity to engage with criticism. And likewise, I believe that critiquing a museum’s programs or exhibitions is a valid way to engage. That said, you can’t please everyone; as a visitor, I like it when a museum is confident and unapologetic about their approach.

All connections are potential opportunities. The more I read and blog, the more I realize that a museum’s potential partners and collaborators are everywhere. They may be parents (see Jeanne Vergeront’s post about involving parents), or children (see my post about multi-age programs), or the museum’s most avid visitors (see my post about museum ‘fans’).

7. Never let a heckler ruin your show.

Sometimes a drunk person is just going to ruin a show, and there’s nothing you can do about it – so just finish your set with some grace…

Museum connection

Fortunately, museums do not face hecklers in the traditional sense. However, as museums become increasingly involved in digital endeavors, I wonder whether they will need to develop strategies for dealing with people who engage in inappropriate or disparaging ways. Perhaps those that have experience working in museums and new media might like to weigh in here.


FullSizeRenderRyan is a comedian and writer living in New York City. As a stand up, Ryan has performed at various venues around town, from New York Comedy Club to The Creek and the Cave. He is also a longtime member of the indie improv troupe, Tickle Party. He writes and performs sketch comedy for ‘Latino Dance Troupe,’ and hosts a monthly sketch show called ‘Express Lane’ – a show written and produced in ten days.  Follow him on Twitter @RyeBreadHere


Blog posts quoted

Dilenschneider, C. (2014, August 13). Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back. [Blog post]. Know Your Own Bone.

Downey, S. (2014, November 24). Reflection 22: On Reflection. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2015, January 14). 2015 Intentional Practice Series. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2014, October 30). Reflection 20: Alignment and the Complexities of Intentional Practice. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

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Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

A few weeks ago, my father-in-law asked if I’d ever considered writing about museum shops. I was a bit startled because, honestly, the idea had never occurred to me (and probably never would have). Because my blog explores ways that museums can uplift visitors and communities, I was compelled to focus my father-in-law’s proposal into the following question: Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

So I began to reflect on my experiences in museum shops. And each time I visited a museum, I made time to visit the shop. I began to appreciate the way that effective museum shops extend and enrich the wellbeing-enhancing aspects of the museum experience. Here are some preliminary thoughts (which I hope to build on in future posts).

Museum shops can extend the museum experience of wonder, imagination, and intrigue. The perfect example here (from my experience) is the Spy Museum shop, which, in my opinion, actually comes quite close to rivaling the exhibits. When I visited the museum in 2012, I became completely absorbed by the shop’s extensive selection of books, appropriately curated to deepen and extend content from the exhibits.

Museum shops can contribute towards the museum’s social mission and commitment to community. The gift shop at Logan Art Gallery (a regional gallery in Australia where I used to volunteer) is completely integrated into the museum itself with most of the merchandise displayed in cabinets under and alongside the front desk. The store sells local creations (jewelry, scarves, cards, ceramics) thereby supporting local artists and raising their profile within the community.

Shop merchandise can inspire playfulness and imagination, and extend the experience to others outside the museum. The fun Wizard of Oz products at the National Museum of American History’s shop offer an opportunity for playfulness and sharing beyond the museum; during a recent visit, my mum purchased Wizard-of-Oz-themed socks (pictured below) as souvenirs for her sisters.

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Shops can celebrate museum collections and immerse visitors in beauty. The shop at the National Gallery of Art (entrance pictured below) is a good example of the way that a museum shop can help to celebrate the museum’s collection, and re-ignite visitors’ memories of favorite works or displays.

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Museum shops are valuable because they allow visitors to carry the unique qualities of the museum outside the museum walls—and into the wider world. They bring social continuity to the museum experience, allowing visitors to seek out new discoveries, claim tangible mementos, and share the experience with friends and family through playful gifts. They also offer respite from the formality and restrictiveness of the gallery space; visitors can touch, hold, try on, and share.

Do you believe that museum shops can advance a museum’s mission? Do they have a role in the social service museum? Finally, can a museum increase its impact through its shop?

Dropping in on museums

On the Monday before Christmas, I decided to combat pre-holiday restlessness with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see their (relatively new) exhibition, The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia.

I am starting to think of the Freer|Sackler as an old friend, someone I can drop in on casually when I’m bored, or unsettled, or somehow in need. Fittingly, my first visit (back in 2008) began when my mum and I stumbled through the Freer Gallery doors desperately seeking refuge from the scorching D.C. summer day outside.

I am truly fortunate to live in a city with so many free, conveniently-located cultural refuges. Providing a cultural space where visitors can enter easily, cheaply, and regularly is a powerful community service and one that I feel more museums might strive to facilitate and augment, if possible. This is one way that a museum could, if it made sense for the particular institution, become more like a park (see my past post on the subject).

Every museum is inevitably restricted by physical and geographical constraints and limited resources. However, I wonder how museums might augment what they already have to make themselves community spaces that support casual, drop-in visits. If a museum or exhibit can’t offer free admission, what are some other ways it can reduce barriers to entry and encourage regular, spontaneous visitation? I’ve noticed that many museums offer free admission days. Also, lunch-time museum programs seem like a great way to provide value and regularly varied content.

Here’s another thought: Could museums offer month-long passes, or multi-visit passes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could return to something you enjoyed, or split a museum’s galleries into multiple short visits, or return to a favorite exhibit with a friend—without having to pay for admission a second time? Perhaps this option would increase visitation without reducing admissions revenue? Does a market (beyond me) exist for such options?

Museums that are set up to support short, casual visits seem particularly child and family-friendly. The pressure (on caregivers) to make the visit meaningful and successful is possibly alleviated by the knowledge that they can easily come back another day. And if things go really well, then the ability to return easily becomes an opportunity to re-visit favorite displays or show them to other family members!

Based on my experience leading outings (both as a nanny and a support worker), free or ‘no-fuss’ exhibits and programs definitely feel more accessible than paid ones, and can frequently be undertaken more spontaneously.

Which museums do you frequent, and what museum qualities make this possible? Do you see value in drop-in style or narrowly focused visits? What might be the role of design in supporting these visits? In my experience, the museums with which you develop these kinds of relationships are lifelong companions, fondly remembered and indelibly imprinted on your experience. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Johnson Museum of Art, the many times I used the art to help my language students practice their English, and the peaceful times I spent looking out over my college campus from the fifth floor gallery.

Museums, who are your fans? And how can you make them your partners?

Recently, I realized I have been guilty of museum favoritism.

Almost every day, I become more aware of the diverse and plentiful cultural offerings in the Washington, D.C. area. Frequently, people ask if I have heard of a particular museum or gallery and I happily say, ‘No, but it’s going on my list.’ This ever-expanding list reminds me that I have barely scratched the proverbial surface of local museum visiting possibility.

Why then—with so many unchecked boxes—do I repeatedly visit (and often write about) the same institutions? Firstly, time and energy are not unlimited (even for someone with my flexible schedule) so I am drawn to what intrigues me most. Ease of access is also a factor that nudges me towards the familiar, a constraint imposed by my poor map-reading and GPS-following skills. But another component is clearly the fact that certain museums’ exhibitions and public programs speak to my personal drives for growth and unique experience.

A few days ago, during a thought-provoking visit to the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas’ latest F Street Gallery exhibition, What We Have Within, I began to appreciate my value as an increasingly dedicated and regular visitor to this particular museum. Chatting with my inspiring guide, Exhibit Coordinator, Fabian Goncalves, I noticed (as I had during my first visit) the compelling interests and values that I share with this institution, namely the importance of telling real stories and giving voice to social concerns. I began to wonder, am I a resource to this and other museums whose mission and values I particularly embrace?

Strategically speaking, how should museums approach and respond to visitors who (for lack of a better word) love what the museum does? Do museums know what they’re ‘selling,’ or better yet, what visitors are ‘buying’? Obviously, the answer depends partly on the type of visitor; people visit museums for numerous reasons and with limitless possible outcomes or takeaways. Visitor differences aside, I want to propose the idea of museum ‘fans,’ and then ask the question, ‘Museums, do you know who your fans are—and why?’

A Google search of ‘museum visitors as fans’ turned up mostly articles relating to museums and sports/popular culture and a few intriguing results for ‘fan museums.’ However, I did find this evaluation case study of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by evaluation firm, Randi Korn & Associates. The case study identified ‘fans’ as one of the three visitor groups of the museum, using the term to describe the most passionate, enthusiastic group (Randi Korn & Associates, 2012).

Since moving to the US and spending time living with my in-laws, I have been exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of baseball fan culture. I think it’s a wonderful example of the kind of thriving community that can grow from a shared passion, and I now have a new appreciation for the value of professional sports in contributing to community wellbeing and vitality. Fans, it seems, are truly the life and soul of baseball culture, contributing energy and character, and distinctly shaping the experience. Fans often use the phrase ‘our team,’ a linguistic choice that clearly reflects a sense of belonging and stewardship towards the team. I’m not sure exactly how an ‘our museum’ analogy would translate, but it’s an interesting notion. Certainly, understanding and cultivating visitors’ emotional investment in a museum could be a mutually rewarding enterprise.

Many museum membership programs strive to engage their more avid visitors with special opportunities to be involved in the museum’s cultural life. Similarly, crowdfunding projects, visitor-curated or crowdsourced displays, and active social media platforms offer passionate museum visitors the chance to contribute and collaborate. Who are museums attracting with these endeavors? What are participants’ hopes and motivations for participating? And how do these projects fit within the institution’s larger strategy and mission?

Recently, a visitor to the blog from local advertising agency, Brightline Interactive, introduced me to the concept of experiential marketing, which, as I understand it, aims to immerse consumers in a brand through inviting active participation and involvement. Since then, I have been pondering the possible connections between this concept and museum learning and mission engagement. For example, what are the possibilities for active involvement and immersion of ‘fans’ in a museum’s mission and brand?

If we think of fans as institutional resources (much like the collections, staff, and museum building), then what might be their possible roles? Fans may be potentially valuable members of a museum’s social network because they are able to spread a museum or exhibit’s message, raise awareness for issues of concern to the museum, and generally generate attention, for example, on social media (see below).

Although museums may struggle with the practical obstacles of connecting directly with passionate individuals, making the effort to seize small opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate visitors’ exciting connections and shared understandings could be valuable. For example, during my most recent visit to the AMA, my guide, Fabian, expressed his enjoyment of my visit, explaining that these experiences are valuable to him, as he knows they are to me also. This comment made me feel valued and connected to the museum.

As is often the case for me (being an emerging museum professional), this post is largely comprised of questions rather than answers. I sincerely hope that those with greater expertise in marketing, social networks, and museum branding will weigh in with relevant resources, thoughts, and critiques. I am also interested in the question of terminology. Is ‘fan’ an appropriate word here, or does a better option exist? Is the concept valid to begin with?

I wish to propose the following final question as food for thought:

What is the particular value of fans to museums that seek to engage in social work?

A recent post by Zac Stocks on the incluseum really highlighted for me the value of building community networks and creating strong self-sustaining systems of stakeholders when pursuing museum social work. Museums might consider looking to those users and visitors who share their vision in an effort to create enduring foundations for social change. 

What are your favorite cultural institutions and why? What could you contribute to these institutions? … I look forward to continuing my own museum pilgrimage (a term borrowed from Alli Burness), finding many more favorites, and sharing my stories and experiences with you.

 

Reference

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (2012). An audience research study for a natural history museum: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://www.randikorn.com/resources/burke-visitor-experience.php

Be yourself … and visitors will like you*

Glenstone (located in Potomac, Maryland) is an unusual and extraordinary museum. Last Wednesday, a visit to this site opened my eyes to a new type of museum experience, and helped me appreciate the vast possibilities for a successful museum concept. I would love to share a few thoughts on my visitor experience and the ideas I will take away as an aspiring museum educator.

During my visit, I was struck by two main observations:

  1. Glenstone is a carefully constructed environment clearly built on passion and uncompromising ideals.
  2. Glenstone offers a particularly respectful educational experience, holding each visitor’s intellect in high regard.

Let me explain further …

Glenstone’s mission is to integrate art, architecture, and landscape, creating a seamless, contemplative environment and inspiring meaningful engagement for visitors. Glenstone derives its name from its location on Glen Road and from the locally indigenous carderock; it is deliberately named for its setting rather than its founders with the hope of evoking a sense of place for future generations (see ‘Message from the Founders’).

True to this mission, the visitor experience is rejuvenating and peacefully edifying. It is also a little whimsical; laughter is encouraged and not at all out of place. Meticulously designed to create a lush, expansive space of gorgeous landscapes and arresting outdoor sculptures, Glenstone is arguably more reminiscent of a resort or wilderness retreat than a traditional museum.

Glenstone is available to the public Wednesday through Saturday, and visitors must make an appointment to see the museum via guided tour. Visitors are not permitted to bring bags into the museum or take photographs once inside. Though these requirements may seem restrictive compared with other museums, I admit they made for a serene, distraction-free experience—something rare in today’s busy world and therefore valuable to me. I enjoy going off the grid once in a while and rarely have an acceptable reason to do so.

Like all people, I usually experience visitor fatigue at some point during a typical museum visit. Ordinarily, I can’t imagine trying to view every object or read every label in a museum during a single visit. At Glenstone, however, I experienced little fatigue of this kind. Buoyed by a peaceful energy, I felt a strange, excited compulsion to view everything. (And I really did view everything.) The quiet, distilled space at Glenstone offered a precious opportunity to hold my energy in reserve for the art.

I found the educational experience at Glenstone to be uniquely respectful of visitors. During my visit, the docents showed genuine excitement and delight as they shared the experience with our group. They didn’t lecture to us, but instead viewed the works with us, engaging our perspectives and seeking to extend our responses with relevant information. They were enthusiastic about visitors’ comments and even shared insights from previous visitors.

This casual yet sincere exchange of ideas created a multi-directional dialogue that I found very exciting—and very participatory. It also created a sense of equality between educator and visitor, something that helped give me the confidence to comment and engage more than I normally would.

Glenstone demonstrates the power of an imaginative institutional vision, implemented uncompromisingly and unapologetically, to provide an igniting and satisfying contemplative experience. It also shows how a museum might create a truly mindful relationship between its visitors and its collections, and how a rich educational experience can also be food for wellbeing.

Visiting Glenstone is, I believe, a therapeutic museum experience. Thinking back on my time there, I still remember the feeling of calm, the experience of being surrounded by beauty, and the delight and whimsy of briefly escaping to another world.

*Note: The title of this post was inspired by the blog, Slow Museums, by Kezia Simister, and David Whitemyer. Their blog slogan, ‘Just be your self, then people will like you’ encourages museums to consider the relevance of this popular parenting mantra. My experience at Glenstone suggests how institutional ‘self-esteem’ might work in practice, and how it might impact on quality and engagement. I don’t want to suggest that museums should ignore community needs and simply do whatever they like; however, I do think that institutional passion and vision are valuable. Being assured in one’s institutional identity seems like one way to achieve these qualities and create an exceptional visitor experience.

The museum stage: performance and pride

On Sunday, I enjoyed a profoundly lovely and uplifting performance by the Student Angklung Orchestra and the House of Angklung of Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries presented this concert in partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. as part of a weekend-long public program titled Performing Indonesia. The program featured performances, family workshops, and a symposium showcasing music, dance, and theater from West Java.

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The performance took place on the Freer Gallery steps, a visually impressive and openly accessible location. I arrived to a mass of beaming parents and a sea of smart phones stretched above heads—kind of a beautiful sight. I immediately noticed the atmosphere of pride and fun.

The Student Angklung Orchestra turned out to be a group of two hundred Washington-area elementary school students each playing angklung, a traditional West Javanese bamboo musical instrument. Performing alongside them was House of Angklung, a local cultural group that promotes peace and harmony through sharing culture (see website).

The museum stage

The museum seemed to make an important contribution to the educative, social, and personal value of the performance. Specifically, it provided a formal structure for the event and an interpretive context for visitors to pursue further learning through related resources. Moreover, the museum created a sharing context where knowledge and learning generated pride for both performers and audience members.

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The angklung was displayed for audience members to see up close.

Educating and collaborating through performance

Throughout the concert, the students shared their knowledge of Indonesian language and culture with the audience. The educative impact of the program (both for the performers and the audience) was apparent and impressive.

Collaboration between the student orchestra and the House of Angklung group was a great display of multi-age collaboration (which I discussed in a past post).

Important collaborations also took place between the students and their parents. Towards the end of the concert, volunteers handed out angklung and taught parents how to play them. For the final medley of songs, parents were invited to join the students on stage for a collaborative performance. An impressive number of individuals were willing to give this a shot—perhaps because the conductor and volunteers had worked hard to cultivate an attitude of fun and acceptance. The performance turned out to be a moving celebration of family and teamwork, which (based on what I learned about angklung and Indonesian culture) seemed fitting.

Performance and quality

In researching this post, I stumbled across a 2007 post by Nina Simon on her blog, Museum 2.0. She discussed the issue of visitor performance in the museum, wondering whether visitor input may be particularly useful and meaningful when visitors have an awareness that they are producing content for a particular audience.

Certainly, I think it is true that when we know that our efforts will be shared with others we generally seek to do our best and to offer something of quality. Nina suggests that museums help visitors make a genuine contribution to the museum experience when they encourage them to consider both the input and the output experiences generated by their participation (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

‘Pride’ as a visitor outcome

The Freer|Sackler states, ‘Our mission is to encourage enjoyment and understanding of the arts of Asia and the cultures that produced them. We use works of art to inspire study and provoke thought.’ (See Mission Statement)

This mission cites enjoyment of arts and culture as an important institutional goal. By creating opportunities for achievement and pride, the Performing Indonesia program clearly speaks to this mission.

According to Google, ‘pride’ is ‘a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.’ (See definition)

Therefore, pride is a powerful force for wellbeing because it impacts not only the creator/performer, but touches anyone who cares about and associates themselves with that person, including family members, friends, and community members. Pride is something that we can share.

Other museum theaters

Museums offer many possible ‘theatres’ where visitors’ contributions can be performed and interpreted for other visitors:

  • exhibition spaces
  • permanent collections
  • public programs such as panel discussions, guided tours, and creative workshops
  • online museum spaces (See The Phillips Collection’s uCurate)

Museums can use objects and physical spaces as well as intangible heritage such as the practice of angklung, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Experiences from the field?

I’m curious to hear from museum professionals. Do you provide opportunities for visitors to perform in your museum? What are some of the management and design considerations that make it possible for visitors to create useful content/experiences for other visitors? Is visitor pride a relevant goal or outcome for your institution?

On a final, mostly-related note…

I find the Freer|Sackler to be a remarkably caring institution. (My personal impression is that they have the most warm and welcoming security guards of any museum I have been to.) Their Performing Indonesia program suggests there can be great harmony between an educational and scholarly mission, and programming that fosters visitor wellbeing. I am excited to continue exploring their programs.

When museums believe wholeheartedly in their contribution

A few days ago, I visited the final day of Investing in Women and Girls, an exhibition presented by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas (AMA).

The exhibition featured 30 finalist entries from the Colors of Life photo contest organized in collaboration with The World Bank Art Program. It was held in the F Street Gallery, an off-site exhibition space located in the OAS’s F street building. Actively advancing the museum’s overt social justice mission, the photographs celebrate and affirm the achievements of women and girls, and advocate for advancing women’s social and economic rights.

The exhibition was accessible only by appointment so at 2pm on Friday, I arrived at the OAS ready to see the exhibition. My failure to confirm the required meeting spot in advance caused some confusion at the front desk. Luckily, the friendly reception staff called ahead to the museum and confirmed that I should wait in the lobby for the museum staff person.

This awkward start to my visitor experience was quickly redeemed by the warmth and genuine enthusiasm of the museum staff member, Fabian, who arrived promptly and took me through security to the gallery. He apologized for the security screening causing a less-than-ideal prologue to my visit, which instantly put me more at ease.

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Fabian and I agreed that OAS staff are fortunate to have the gallery brightening their workspace.

As he showed me around, he spoke enthusiastically about the exhibition and pointed out his favorite artwork. He explained that the artists would ultimately sell their works and donate the proceeds to various charities, allowing the project to make a very real social impact. He also chatted with me about my background and museum career aspirations.

The ‘likeableness’ of this museum experience continues to resonate with me days later. What stays with me is the impression that the museum and its staff believe wholeheartedly in the museum’s social mission and are warmly and unassumingly proud of the museum’s work. (My visit later the same day to the main AMA building further confirmed my impression of the museum as a sincere, proud, and humble institution.)

In her recent post on Intentional Museum, museum blogger, Amanda Krantz, talks about the value of raising awareness through even small changes in visitor attitudes and knowledge.

I suggest museums may be in a unique position to raise awareness in subtle and visceral ways that contribute to the ‘baby steps’ of understanding that Krantz talks about (Amanda Krantz, Intentional Museum). The understanding need not always be intellectual, but can be emotional and intuitive—in this case, perhaps a greater appreciation for the abilities of women and girls, or (for female visitors), a sense of social empathy.

As we’re seeing from the Ice Bucket Challenge, part of raising awareness about a cause is getting people personally engaged in some way. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my guide, I came out of the AMA exhibition feeling a true sense of possibility—both for myself as a woman, and for the exhibition’s imagined future of a more just world.

So how might museums engender a sense of excitement about their social service work and a sincere belief in its value? Perhaps creating this kind of institutional culture is one thing while conveying it to the visiting public is another challenge. Or does one naturally lead to the other?

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I happily accepted Fabian’s invitation to write a message to Colors of Life founder, Amalia Pizzardi, in the guest book.

After my visit, I can’t help feeling that museum staff are a valuable resource for ‘selling’ the social work of the museum. I wonder how museum leaders can help staff feel invested in that work—so that visitors feel invested too.