Sunday, 23 July 2017

TALKING TO ROBOTS ABOUT ART: A VISITOR RESEARCH ROUND-UP

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: JENNIFER LEE

As summer internships wrap up and August approaches, you may already be itching to get back to class. Fear not: it’s not too early to start hitting the academic journals again! My own summer internship has involved some visitor research projects, and it’s fascinating to see what kinds of information we can miss about our publics until we think to ask. In the spirit of inquiry, here are some recent developments in visitor-centred research to get us thinking about museum users in the wild.

"There's one! Crikey." Source. 

Our first stop is Pittsburgh, where staff at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh are currently developing a mobile experience (working title MUSE) which they describe as “a friendly, knowledgeable and charming chatbot extension”. MUSE would use native systems on users’ mobile phones, including cameras and SMS/messaging clients, as a platform to answer questions and make conversation about museum objects and facilities. The idea is reminiscent of Brooklyn Museum’s ASK system, but would use artificial intelligence rather than real-time human expertise.

This strategy removes a substantial obstacle to getting users to engage with museum apps, i.e. that very few living humans have ever intentionally downloaded a museum app. The Carnegie Museums found that 93% of the visitors they surveyed were carrying a mobile device, and virtually all of them had Facebook Messenger, iMessage, or both. If they can leverage those numbers to provide as frictionless an experience as possible, there’s reason to be optimistic about MUSE’s success. The recent popularity of SFMOMA’s ‘Send Me SFMOMA’ service, which texted artwork in response to user requests and emojis, proves that there’s quite a niche for whimsical digital experiences with museum collections.

Art on demand from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Send Me SFMOMA). The future has arrived, and it is *heart eyes emoji*. Source. 

After an intensive visitor study, CMP have kindly made their visitor research data, methodology, and infographics available on GitHub, where they might be useful for other museums looking to develop similar programs (and they’re an interesting read for the inquisitive – the incidence of selfies will surprise you).

Next we move to New York and this month’s issue of the Journal of Museum Education (vol. 42, July 2017), centred on the theme ‘Does Museum Education Have a Canon?’ In the article “Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners”, Carolyn Halpin Healey of Arts and Minds, a non-profit which works with people with dementia and their caregivers in New York museums, explains staff concerns in selecting artworks for these programs.

In keeping with the issue’s theme, much of the article’s focus is the tension between the canonical objects of a museum’s collection and the need for an accessible and enjoyable experience for participants, ultimately the more important factor. The most famous, visible, and ‘important’ objects in a museum are there for all visitors to enjoy; visitors with cognitive impairments are often unable to access them for physical reasons or because of fear and stigma associated with their impairments. While it’s important to push back against this stigma and increase access to the canon, there is also much to be gained from looking outside the canon and with specific groups’ histories and personalities in mind. 

An Arts and Minds program at the New York Historical Society. Successful programs for visitors with cognitive impairment have tangible benefits for all participants, including caregivers, but what makes a successful program, and how does the choice of art factor in? Source. 

My main takeaway came from the author’s testament to the importance of thoughtfulness: “While the “wrong” choice will certainly not cause harm, the “right” choice has the potential to catalyze self-exploration as well as provide the opportunity to reflect on the past, to empathically connect with others, and to imagine new ways of being as one ages, particularly in the face of life-altering cognitive impairment.” Even when the risks of curation are low, the payoffs may be substantial; all museum visitors deserve the best we can give them. The article draws usefully on existing education, visitor and neurological research, and is a neat example of how theory can be used to guide and bolster practice.

On our final stop, we move from understanding and shaping visitor experience to directly influencing visitor behaviour. In “Fostering customers’ pro-environmental behaviour at a museum” (Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25.9), Heesup Han and Sunghyup Sean Hyun explore the factors which predict pro-environmental decisions like recycling, water conservation, waste reduction and transport choice while visitors are in the museum.

The authors identified five cognitive dimensions (environmental value, concern, awareness, knowledge, and self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s own ability to act toward goals) and two affective dimensions (the expectation of positive versus negative feelings after completing actions) which impact eco-friendly intentions and behaviour, as well as two additional factors, willingness to sacrifice and interconnectedness to nature. Using survey results from several South Korean museums, they produced a model which showed the relationships between all these factors in visitor decision-making.

A young visitor acts on the expectation of positive affect at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, IL. Source. 

It turned out that the factor with the largest impact on pro-environmental behaviour was negative anticipated effects, or the expectation of feeling guilty, remorseful, and bad after they took action or failed to take action. The second most important factor was positive anticipated affect: visitors were motivated to recycle because they knew they would feel good afterward. The cognitive dimensions were also crucial. An effective strategy might be to let visitors know that recycling, creating less waste, and choosing friendly transport options is the decent and worthwhile thing to do, while making other choices has adverse consequences. As we have always secretly suspected, the best way to make sure visitors act ecologically in the museum might be with some gentle shaming. Perhaps someone could develop an ecologically-minded chatbot to remind them to recycle?


SUGGESTED READING 

Halpin-Healy, Carolyn. "Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners." Journal of Museum Education 42, no. 3 (July 14, 2017): 224-35. doi:10.1080/10598650.2017.1342189.

Han, Heesup, and Sunghyup Sean Hyun. "Fostering customers' pro-environmental behavior at a museum." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 25, no. 9 (November 25, 2016): 1240-256. doi:10.1080/09669582.2016.1259318.

Inscho, Jeffrey. "No App Required: Toward a Utilitarian Museum Mobile Experience." The Studio. May 18, 2017. Accessed July 23, 2017. https://studio.carnegiemuseums.org/introducing-muse-20a6f11c7c35.

Inscho, Jeffrey. "Field Study: Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum." The Studio. July 18, 2017. Accessed July 23, 2017. https://studio.carnegiemuseums.org/chatbot-field-study-91fcbb1d4875.

Friday, 21 July 2017

MMSt 2017 INTERNSHIPS: PART FIVE

INTERNSHIP CHECK-IN

BY: TABITHA CHAN

Hi everyone! This is the last internship check-in post. Can you believe it? I hope everyone has enjoyed learning about other students' internships. For those of you who are nearing the end of your experiences - make the most of the time you have left!

Today's post features:

Susan Jama: Toronto Ward Museum - Toronto, ON
Maeghan Jerry: Aurora Museum & Archives - Aurora, ON
Cassy Kist: Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History - Washington, DC
Tanya McCullough: Penn Museum - Philadelphia, PA
Emily Welsh: Ontario Science Centre - Toronto, ON

Describe what a typical day is like for you at your institution. What are some of your main duties and responsibilities?

Susan: 
Part of my daily routine, I begin my day with checking in my workback plan or Ganett chart to check the expected due dates of my assigned tasks. My primary responsibilities and duties include managing TWM’s social media, performing administrative tasks, curatorial research, providing public programming support, organizing the Block by Block Party and leading Programming Committee meeting.

Maeghan: Days at AM&A have been really varied. June was a really busy month for us, with the launch of our website, the opening of our summer exhibit, and the launch of an online exhibit with an associated community event hosted by us, on top of the usual responsibilities of the museum and archives. I am usually one of the first people into the office, so I try to do desk work for the first hour of my day (brainstorming and writing for our weekly column in the local paper, researching for reference requests, etc.). Then depending on what’s a priority that day or week I might be working anywhere: accessioning materials in the office, inventorying and reorganizing in the collections rooms, monitoring the environment in off-site storage locations, installing temporary or seasonal exhibits on and off-site, or working in the archives. I also sometimes attend meetings relating to projects I’m working on or record-keeping and records management at the Town of Aurora (a “bonus” to supplement my learning in the Masters of Information program).

Cassy: Every day can be a little different which keeps me on my toes! The Academic Resource Center Office (ARC), where I am based, handles all the museum’s academic appointments. My main responsibilities are to facilitate a smooth on-boarding and exiting experience for the museum’s interns and fellows, but also to serve as source of support throughout their placement. Specifically, I hold orientation sessions on a weekly basis for new appointees and assist in aspects of their security clearance. Near their appointment end date, I am responsible for holding exit meetings and doing informal program evaluations. As part of the ARC team, I also assist my team members to coordinate and conduct behind the scenes tours of collections and projects within the museum. As a team, through orientation sessions, tours and events, we help create a sense of community for interns and fellows in the museum.

Tanya: The Penn Museum is in the midst of renovating many of its permanent galleries. I am assisting the curatorial team that is redeveloping the museum’s Canaan and Israel Gallery. At this early stage in the project, the curators are interested in knowing what exactly the museum has in its collections and what stories they can tell based on those objects. On any given day, therefore, I am either rummaging through the shelves in storage for relevant artifacts, photographing those objects, updating the museum’s database (EMu), sitting in on curatorial meetings, or doing research about groups of artifacts in the museum’s library. Every summer, the Penn Museum hosts a summer internship program, and I’ve been able to tag along during gallery and storage tours with the Curators and Keepers as well as attend presentations by staff from each sectional department. This has given me a good overview of the workings of the museum.

Emily:  Please forgive the cliché but there is no typical day for me at the OSC, and I am beginning to believe this is true of all museums. The only constancy here seems to be the daily routine of checking your email account to accept meeting requests. My title at the OSC is “Artifacts Intern” and the majority of my responsibilities fall under Collections Management. Yes, you heard that right, the OSC does have a collection. Our main project has been an inventory and reorganization of the collection, increasing the care given to the objects as we go along. I have also been fortunate to participate in content research for the refresh of a permanent gallery. Although I have these main projects, challenges arise and new projects prop up, making no day quite like the others.

Susan at Toronto Ward Museum's "Not Just Numbers" event in Ottawa at the Global Centre for Pluralism.

What is something you have learned (this could be museums related or not) in your internship so far?

Susan: Co-developing public programs with migrant communities is often not discussed in class. So to be able to relate to what I’ve learned in class is difficult. In class, we learn about working with objects, not with people. This is usually with the assumption that we would work in a mid to large sized museum in the future. Although many museums focus on different aspects of human migration using objects as a medium to convey stories of human migration, very few museums focus on working with human storytellers. I enjoy working with the stories of the people because there is so much one can learn and benefit from.

Maeghan: Both my experience with the Zoo strike and my time at AM&A have really emphasized the importance of being flexible and open to changing your plans. With school I like to really immerse myself in one project and focus on finishing that before moving onto something else, but that isn’t possible in a small museum. There are so many things happening at once, and everyone is juggling their own schedules daily to make sure that we can finish what needs to get done. It also pays when we run into challenges, which were especially frequent during the installation of the current exhibit, Aurora Canada’s Birthday Town. Being able to let go of plans when they didn’t work out allowed us to move forward quickly and find solutions.

Cassy: In regards to the larger institutional picture, I have learned how vitally important museums can be in expanding fields of research and science by creating an academic ladder for blossoming scientists and museum professionals. I have also learned through coordinating intern tours and orientation sessions that cross-communication with individuals in different departments is necessary to create excellent academic programs.

Tanya:  This may seem self-evident, but what I have learned so far is how much work goes into creating a new permanent gallery! Developing a permanent gallery is, in some ways, a museum’s way of going back to the drawing board. It is a chance for the museum to revisit its collections, freshen up the gallery themes, incorporate new research, and make the museum relevant for a new generation. Since a gallery may remain the same for twenty years or more, there is a lot of pressure to get it right. This means that every effort is taken to create the right themes, chose the perfect artifacts, argue over the right word on a label, and present it all in a fun and informative way. Before this internship, I don’t think I fully understood the effort that went into re-designing a permanent gallery or the high stakes that were involved.

Emily: How to fold a box! Increasing the care for objects in the collection has required the folding of many boxes. Sometimes they come with instructions, often times they do not. It has taken practice to be able to look at a flat box, figure out how it goes together and do it quickly. We joke this would be one of the tasks we would have if we ever created our own Museum/Art Handling Olympics.

Maeghan installing vinyl wall panels for a summer exhibit at Aurora Museum & Archives.
What is something that has surprised you about museums that you did not know before working in a real one?

Susan: What surprised me is TWM’s earnest willingness to work with migration stories, since not many museums work with migration stories and actively collaborate with the storytellers. At TWM, the ideas presented by the communities are prioritized during the developmental process of public programs. As a community-engaged and migration museum, the exhibitions and programs are developed around migration stories and storytelling. As a result, the Ward Museum provides a public platform to the voices of Canadian newcomers. All of the Ward’s public programs are developed around migration as a premise. The public programs are not just developed by the museum staff but also are co-developed by the communities the Ward serves and works with. I feel that this is something museums do not often do. They create the public programs first and then involve the people, whereas this is a reserve process for TWM. The core principle the Ward Museum emphasizes is inclusion.

Maeghan: I am endlessly impressed by the amount that can be accomplished by a small team. Up until April, my supervisor was the only employee of the museum. Since then, the team has grown to include a second permanent employee, a full-time summer student, a part-time summer student, and me. Even with this growth, we have work coming out of our ears! I have no idea how the curator got so much done on her own.

Cassy:  It has been a pleasant surprise to witness the passion that the Natural History Museum staff and researchers come to work with seemingly everyday. Their dedication and willingness to share is truly inspiring.

Tanya: Although not a surprise, the biggest adjustment for me when dealing with archaeological collections in museums is to remember that these pieces will be put on display. This means that only the “best examples” of any group of objects, such as, for instance, whole ceramic vessels or metal objects with little corrosion, will do for display purposes. What will be put on display and, consequently, what stories will be told, will depend on the vagaries of the state of preservation of any given archaeological context! Rather than thinking about the objects as a collective whole, I need to remind myself to treat the artifacts like individual pieces of art with their own unique histories.

Emily: I feel like I must have known this was true, but I never genuinely realized the extent to which building an exhibition or permanent gallery is a team effort until being part of a project at the OSC. There are so many details and considerations that go into building an exhibition that I had never realized before from my perspective as a visitor or a Museum Studies student. Building a team that has a diverse set of skills to complete all of the tasks required is essential, as well as having a project manager adept at keeping the project on track and ensuring the outputs of the group form a coherent end-product.

Cassy in the rotunda of the Museum of Natural History with Henry the elephant!
What is an obstacle you have faced during your internship and how did you overcome it?

Susan: Emails! Emails! Emails! Putting a professional email draft together was difficult at first. When I put an email together, I always ask myself, does the email contain all of the necessary information? Is it polite? Is it professional? So…..at what point in my email relationships can I use my signature smiley face emoji? The few times I’ve drafted an email, I’ve asked my supervisor to check before I send the email to project partners and team members. But now, I’m pro in emails!

Maeghan: Seeing my internship with the Toronto Zoo fall apart when CUPE Local 1600 went on strike was easily the hardest thing that I have dealt with this summer. I was really excited to spend my summer surrounded by animals. I had also built my summer plans around the timeline and work schedule I had negotiated with the Zoo. Finding a new internship halfway through May was a daunting task, and has created a lot of annoying repercussions in my academic and personal life, but I am ultimately satisfied with the way things worked out. I am learning so much from AM&A, and have had the opportunity to engage with a really broad range of functions in the museum and the archives. If I could go back and make a different decision, I would apply to AM&A from the very beginning!

Cassy: I found it difficult to be away from loved ones during my internship.

Tanya: I was once a student at the University of Pennsylvania and spent many, many days in the Penn Museum library. Some of the Museum staff and curators have only known me as a student. So, one of the things I’ve had to overcome is the perception of me as a student (to myself and others) and to think of myself as a museum professional in training. Some simple ways I overcame this perception was to dress up every day, approach people as equals, ask to participate in meetings, reach out to staff I did not know previously, and to treat my internship as a 9 to 5 job.

Emily: My Microsoft Excel skills were definitely a little rusty at the beginning and still today there are many functions I don’t know about the program! Building spreadsheets is an important part of Collections Management in my opinion, as Excel easily allows you to organize data. Understanding where to turn for help, whether that be Google or your most proficient desk mate in the case of Excel woes, is key to overcoming any obstacle.

Tanya in action at Penn Museum.
What are some suggestions/advice you would give to a future intern who is hypothetically starting their internship in the same role as you?

Susan: Don’t be shy to ask questions! Be assertive! Know your limits before saying yes to everything! And most of all, enjoy the learning process.

Maeghan: Be open to trying anything that’s offered to you! I started my internship hoping to build my experience in collections management, and that has certainly happened. But I’ve taken an “I’ll give it a shot!” attitude to everything AM&A has offered to me, and I’ve learned so much, both in terms of how to do things, but also in terms of what I do and don’t like. Communication in my institution is really open, so it’s not hard for me to try something and then at the end of the task say, “I don’t think this is for me,” and ask to do something else. And of course, along with the “something I learned,” stay flexible!

Cassy: For future interns whose placement is out of the country, I recommend keeping busy, remember why you're doing your internship and understand that now is the best time and place to make friends and connections. Go out for drinks with your co-workers and if there are socials at your museum or institution be sure to attend!

Tanya: Take advantage of every opportunity offered to meet new people, go on behind-the-scenes tours of different parts of the museum, and attend presentations on various topics. You’ll learn so much about the culture and history of the museum. Also, don’t be afraid to ask to participate in meetings or to take on a new task. People are generally happy to teach you – and remember, you’re helping them too!

Emily: Buff up on your artifact handling skills and packaging skills. A large part of my internship has been moving artifacts and packaging them to increase their care. Knowing how best to pick up and move an object is key as well as learning how to give the best care you can to the object with the archival materials at hand or within your means. Additionally, something I hope to do more of and would suggest to anyone else entering this collections management internship, is reading as much of the CCI’s Agents of Deterioration and preservation notes as you can. Knowing how a variety of material types will age & deteriorate and the preventive measures we can take is key to any collections management role.

Emily taking a desk selfie!
What’s your passion?

Susan: My passion is to give a voice to the people who were systemically excluded from museum settings. To work with migration stories and empower the storytellers, by telling them your migration story matters!

Maeghan: So vague! In relation to my program at the iSchool, I’m really interested in convergence of libraries, archives, and museums as information institutions. I also love organizing things, researching, and baking. This summer has also highlighted my tendency to wear black, which shows all the dirt and dust I inevitably come across in the basement corners of the historic building the museum is housed in.

Cassy: I am passionate about the potential museums hold for benefiting the public and academia. I love sharing the knowledge that a collection can hold and the stories they can tell, whether that is with academic appointees or with the public.  

Tanya: My passion is archaeology, history, and working with material culture. Sometimes, in storage, I just touch interesting artifacts, just because I can! I guess it’s a bit cliché, but the reason I love handling artifacts is because, when you do, you are “touching history.” My job as a museum professional, as I see it, is to transmit the awe and excitement I feel about an artifact to the museum-going public so that people can feel the same emotions too.

Emily: Science! I feel like anyone in the program who knows me would hear me saying this exclamation way too often. Although my background is in life and medical sciences, I am especially interested in how objects from all disciplines can be used to communicate scientific concepts to audiences and to build a variety of skills in visitors. Through this internship I have reinforced a belief that I can best aid this mission by providing collections management care to scientific collections and balancing the need for preservation and use of these objects.

Thank you Susan, Maeghan, Cassy, Tanya and Emily for participating in these interviews for our last internship check-in. I've really enjoyed getting to compile these chats and to see how unique each internship experience has been. See everyone in a few weeks when classes begin!