Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 23)

Building belonging at the MFA with free memberships

When I went to the MFA Boston Hanukkah party this past Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a free membership.

I have an MFA membership now. Go figure.

I didn’t complete a scavenger hunt for the privilege or win any sort of raffle. As it turns out, the MFA is launching a free first-year membership program in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding. The only way to enroll is onsite at 14 cultural and Late Nite events held throughout 2020, so it looks like I got lucky with an early opportunity.

Just by the numbers, giving out free memberships is a huge move – even for only one year. An entry-level Supporter membership can cost $75-$114 for one person. Multiply that by one or two hundred visitors (conservatively) signing up at each of the 14 events and you have a six-figure sum that the MFA could theoretically make otherwise. Why is the MFA undertaking such a colossal initiative when even the The Met’s 150-year celebration will comprise mostly a few events and exhibitions?

I wonder if the free first-year memberships were thought of before or after the school group incident in May. In short, a class of seventh graders reported being targeted by racist speech from MFA staff and visitors and racial profiling by security. The MFA was criticized for its handling of the report and communication in the days afterwards; even Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey opened an investigation into the event. In (ongoing) response, the MFA began a “Toward a More Inclusive MFA” initiative involving staff and volunteer trainings, community roundtables, new executive positions dedicated to inclusion and working with the community, and other endeavors.

Reading over the 150th anniversary press release again, it looks like the bulk of the related celebrations will champion diversity and inclusion. The release mentions “community” 16 times, “diversity” 4 times, and “inclusion” 3 times. The focus on community does relate to the strategic plan released in 2017, but I suspect the MFA is also still trying to make up for the events in May and move forward.

The MFA has been working hard to position itself as a place of belonging for the community – something many museums grapple with. We know free admission doesn’t bring in new or more diverse members on its own; however, the slate of cultural events with free admission planned for 2020, including celebrations for Nowruz, Juneteenth, and an ASL night, may attract such a crowd. By providing free first-year memberships at these events, the MFA incentivizes return visits by audience segments it desperately seeks to connect with. In theory, this will give the Museum more opportunities to build and rebuild relationships with the community.

I haven’t heard of other museums offering free memberships like this, so I’m curious to see how the next year unfolds for the MFA. What do you think of the plan – will you be going to get your free membership?

Phones in Museums

Oh, Bette Midler, I know your heart was in a good place with that tweet. For those who have other things to do besides read through hundreds of internet comments, then the scoop is this: Actress and singer Bette Midler, our beloved Hocus Pocus star, tweeted a picture of three tweens on their phones at an art museum. The caption read, “What’s wrong with this picture?” 

The point she is trying to make is many-fold, and there’s no denying that it is a generational judgement call. Younger generations are widely considered obsessive when it comes to technology, particularly when it comes to being on our phones. Honestly, for a lot of us Millennials and Gen Z’s, this tweet is reminiscent of a high school teacher yelling at the class to put their phones away. I think that trauma is why so many people got up in arms about it last week.

Several comments noted that museums have interactive apps that educate visitors about art pieces. Or those young people could be googling their own searches about the artists. Or, like we all do, they are just simply taking a mental break and checking their messages. Nothing is inherently wrong with the picture. People learn in a myriad of ways, and phones are engaging tools that everyone has, so it comes at no extra cost to the museum. Phones should be out to enjoy as we please—though keep the flash off when taking a picture (which I still forget to check, and sometimes accidently do, and it’s far more embarrassing than it needs to be). 

The Louvre has an app that gives close up looks details and information about some of their art. The British Museum has a similar app that also provides audio commentary and tours. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has an app with virtual tours. The MoMA’s app provides visual descriptions for visitors with sight impairments. The Smithsonian has a myriad of apps to engage with in museums and in the natural world to learn more about our surroundings.

Please leave a comment about what your opinion is about phones in museums. Also, if you know of an app that I did not mention, please note it.

Thinking about design thinking

I’ve had some exposure to design thinking both professionally and as a student but it has always involved developing a usable product, either physical or digital. It wasn’t until I attended a session at the 2019 NEMA Annual Conference that I realized its potential for programming purposes. In hindsight, that’s an absolute “duh!”

In a session titled Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems Throughout the Museum, Sherlock Terry, Trish Palao, and Jennifer Rickards of the Montshire Museum of Science shared examples of using design thinking for a range of projects including exhibit design, operational challenges, and event planning. They introduced the room to the basics of design thinking, walked attendees through the steps in three Montshire use cases, and then we had the chance to practice it ourselves. (Hands-on learning – my favorite!)

The idea behind design thinking is that it is a human-centered approach. It’s flexible, iterative, and, as most design thinking proponents will tell you, usable by most anyone. It’s not exclusive to people who identify as designers professionally or as a hobby. I’d wager many professionals follow the process intuitively, but may not hit each stage.

The typical order for the five stages is as follows:

The stages can happen in order, out of order, and repeat as many times as the project requires. Understand your users from their perspective, clearly define what it is they need, brainstorm ways to help, and do a practice run (or three) to see if the project achieves what you hope it will.

This graphic from the Interaction Design Foundation illustrates the cyclical nature of the process:

Copyright holder: Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Design thinking’s focus on user needs and flexibility makes it the perfect multipurpose tool for just about any challenge we might encounter in museum work. As our work is entirely for the sake of our visitors, if our project doesn’t work for the people we serve, it doesn’t work at all – no matter how cool or innovative we think it might be.

If you’re new to design thinking, here are a few helpful tips I’ve learned courtesy of both Montshire staff and the Tufts digital media course:

  1. Enter the process with a well-defined goal to guide you. Our broad goal for the practice scenario in the NEMA2019 session was “How can our museum better engage teens?”
  2. There are multiple ways to think of the problem you are defining – without thinking of it as a problem. Consider it a “job to be done” or build a challenge statement. Montshire staff gave us this template for a challenge statement:
    • How might we [theme goal] in order to [broad goal] considering that [key consideration #1] and [key consideration #2].
    • Example: “How might we train staff in order to better engage teens considering that staff may have little knowledge and/or negative impressions of that age group?”
  3. When brainstorming, go big and broad. Montshire staff came up with 40 ideas during their ideate stages! The idea isn’t to have 40 winners, but to spit out anything that comes to mind. Ideas which might seem totally bizarre or unattainable may have just the right kernel of inspiration.
    • Post-its are your friends here: use one post-it per idea and then group them into themes.
  4. Prototypes don’t have to be physical. Develop the prototype that fits your goal – if you’re designing a program, this might be a lesson plan, a discussion prompt, a question on a sign, a game, a worksheet, whatever. Whatever format lets you test if users are getting what they need is the right format.

Here are some additional resources on design thinking and design thinking in museums:

What uses have you gotten out of design thinking? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments!

Three more years until a new definition

A man wearing glasses leans over a look, looking closely at something he is pointing at

We return to the question, “What is a museum?” this week but, instead of doodles by summer campers, we have the perspectives of the International Council of Museums community. A new museum definition was up for a vote at ICOM’s 25th General Conference in Kyoto, Japan this past weekend. The museum community polarized into two strongly for- and anti-new definition camps and, without a consensus, the Extraordinary General Assembly voted to… vote later.

The current ICOM museum definition, which has not changed much in decades and is likely familiar to most museum professionals, is as follows:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Current definition from ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly on 24 August, 2007

The new definition, which split opinions worldwide, focuses less on the “what” and more on the “how” and “why” of museums. It references hot topics such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and pushes the idea of a museum ever closer to forum than temple:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

new alternative museum definition selected by the Executive Board of ICOM on July 2019

I find my own opinions on this definition are split; I am drawn to the prioritizing of working with and for all people, but the ideas in it are disorganized. The editor in me wants something more concise! François Mairesse, a French professor and museum professional who resigned from the ICOM committee in charge of developing the new definition, shared a similar sentiment with The Art Newspaper, saying, “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.” He went on to say that the new definition was exclusionary to existing museums who do not match or would have difficulty adapting to it, adding, “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

For me, this second part of Mairesse’s argument has no legs. The practical difference between the current and new definitions is the exclusion of the word education and the inclusion of voices outside of museum staff and leadership. Words and phrases such as democratising [sic], polyphonic, participatory, and critical dialogue mark the strongest change in how a museum who adheres to the new definition might operate. The rest – basic ideas on collecting, conserving, researching, interpreting (and can’t interpretation include education, anyways?), and exhibiting objects and ideas that tell the story of humanity for humanity – remains the same, albeit with loftier goals of benefiting “planetary wellbeing.”

Is that not what we, the museum community, should be striving for? To continue our work with care and further engage the communities we serve – to share the responsibilities of authority, expertise, and meaning-making? Just because the undertaking may prove challenging for “traditional” museums (Mairesse cited the Louvre, for example), doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

I am curious to see where the definition goes from here, as the vote postponement passed by the Extraordinary General Assembly means that ICOM will have another three years to refine a new definition before it comes up for a vote at the next General Conference. My hope is for something more succinct that keeps the participatory spirit. I expect the topic will be up for fresh debate in many Tufts Museum Studies courses (as well as in programs and institutions globally). What do you think, Tufts Museum Studies Blog readers, how should the definition change between now and 2022?

If you’d like some inspiration, or just a look at the ideas of others, ICOM collected 269 submissions for the Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP, 2017-2019) to reference as they were coming up with the new definition. Are there any that strike closest to what you think should guide the museums of today? We welcome your thoughts in the comments!

Welcome First-Years of 2019-2020

I want to give a hearty welcome to the incoming Tufts’ students joining the museum studies program. This is a prestigious school with a well-connected group of lecturers, and just as Jennifer and Darcy recently reflected on what museums are and what they should do to be better, so will you in your new course of study. Please feel free to send in an article about what you’ve learned, and don’t hesitate to ask the 2nd-years all the questions you may have. 

I am going to weigh in briefly with what I’ve learned this summer after my internship collecting women’s oral histories and how that affects museums.

Oral histories are vital components of modern historical research and museum education. They create a link to the past about any conceivable subject, and all museums should utilize this tool to engage a more diverse audience. The stories told can capture a whole group of peoples’ attentions because they are hearing “their” story through another person— “their” story in the sense that they can relate the most to a story from someone of a similar background and life pathway. Though oral histories are important pieces to include in museum collections, they are not enough when it comes to including more diverse voices in museum exhibits. Museums need to be willing and able to work at every level of their community, and the staff, and sift through all layers of history to achieve a historical narrative that can bring the most diverse audience together in a common goal of attaining knowledge about the many layers of history. 

Museums are reinventing themselves now because they recognize that older institutions were built on the perspective of the white, middle to upper class point of view, and that is not representative of America today. It is a museum’s social responsibility to create equal cultural opportunities in their space.

This is something you’ll be learning in the Museum’s Today class, First-Years. In September, ICOM is voting on a new definition of a museum, that emphasizes inclusivity and dialogue that encourages “human dignity, … social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Be thinking about what the editors at this blog and the Tufts’ Museum Studies Community have been reflecting on when it comes to what a museum is and where it is going, and where it should go. I’d love to discuss it with you in the lounge!

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