Global, local, and the visitor we can’t see.

This weekend, the Tufts Museum Studies blog will be joining the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders in a global discussion. This 5-day conference brings together 50 young leaders from across the arts (dance, theater, and museum) to meet with experts. Three of the questions on the table have been sent out for bloggers in the field to tackle in advance. Phillippa Pitts, an MA in Art History and Museum Studies and this blog’s editor, tackles their second question: “Glocal” – What is Global and Local in Today’s World?


Museums today are visitor-oriented. We study our visitors, survey them, collect zipcodes, IP addresses, research demographics, tailor tours to state curriculum standards… We create interpretive experiences in multiple languages, for any number of age groups or visitor-types. We are desperate to discover and identify our visitor and their needs. Yet, somehow, we are still failing. Why?


Part of it is the growing diversity of our audience. Whether the visitor comes to us as a tourist, or the exhibition travels to them (in physical or virtual form), we are now in the business of translation. And translation requires more than simply offering the display in several languages. Content must be rethought with an eye for what we take as given, but is completely opaque to someone with a different set of experiences.


Take, for example, a photograph of a family preparing breakfast with fresh fruits, maple syrup, a stack of waffles and a waffle iron. To the average American, this requires little explanation, and one can run right into interpretation. Imagine though, if you were a visitor who had never had a waffle before. You would miss so many cues: that this is likely breakfast, that the mechanical gadget makes the odd lattice-patterned food, that the bowl of tan liquid is not soup but batter, and so on. Google Norman Rockwell and just browse through with an eye to how much they rely on these cultural cues: a police officer’s uniform, iconic diner stools, and more.


Museums have recognized and taken strides to address this. Exhibition text is altered before it travels or the Chinese language track on the audio tour includes a one-sentence history of the waffle. We know that we’re not quite hitting the mark, though, because visitors have multiple identities. Best example? In a museum which offers tours in five languages, for families, or for seniors… which tour should a German family take? The family tour or the German one? When museums then mourn the lack of resources to create an extra five or ten tours, for senior Spaniards and Italian children, they are reinforcing this visitor demographic obsessed mindset, and locking themselves into inevitable failure.


Why? Because the new global/local proximity is not only changing which visitors we encounter, it is exercising change on the visitors themselves. The answer we are searching for in our visitor research no longer exists: Take Rachel, a visitor to a small college art museum in Vermont where she was accepted for graduate school. Rachel currently teaches abroad in France, but is originally from Alaska. However, her most recent US address was in California, where she completed undergrad. Where is she from? What can we assume about her base knowledge, context, or needs?


As the general population becomes more migratory, the problem only magnifies. How many of us attend college outside of our own state? Study abroad? Visit friends who live in another country? Are first generation citizens raised between two cultures? Teach abroad after college? Our addresses, names, races, even ages no longer signify what we have learned or who we have learned it from. For myself, I outwardly look and sound American, having lived in this country on and off since the age of four. My formal education is largely American, down to the state history of Michigan, yet until I became a citizen at age 17, I declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance and my sister refused to check boxes that identified her race as “Caucasian American.” When I return to England, where I am a citizen, it is even more muddled: I know that Shrove Tuesday is pancake day but couldn’t find Leeds on a map to save my life. I could continue with scores of language barriers within a single language, but the point comes across. As visitors become increasingly global, our old concepts of demographics will become ever more obsolete. We are researching a problem without an answer.


So what is the solution? How can we be visitor-oriented when we cannot know our visitor?


Fortunately there are good models out there. We can learn from Wikipedia. Their page on Paul Klee is no different for an art historian than it is for a child. Visitors scaffold their experience as they need or wish to by browsing between articles. All links are equal: there is no path which is fifth-grade or American, remedial or advanced. We can learn from why StumbleUpon was so successful by asking visitors to choose subjects of interest. How do the levels and demonstrated mastery mechanisms of a game play into this equation? The how is as of yet very much unknown. But it is clear that it must begin by reframing the question, understanding that the local/global shift has thrown our demographic categories out the window. After that, my money is on universal design.

American & New England Studies Material Culture Series at Boston University

A terrific-sounding series, relayed to us by Museum Studies certificate alum Gretchen Pineo, who’s doing an MA in Historic Preservation at BU right now.

The American and New England Studies Program Announce Their 2012 Conversation Series:


Please Join Us For the First Meeting

Dale Broholm, Senior Critic of Furniture Design & Daniel Cavicchi, Associate Professor of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, Rhode Island School of Design will present:

“Witness Tree Project: Teaching History and Material Culture Through Object Creation”

When: October 22, 2012

Time: 6:00 PM

Where: CAS 200 / 725 Commonwealth Avenue

The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site is currently exhibiting artwork from the Rhode Island School of Design’s Witness Tree Project through September 30th. The exhibit, entitled “Echoes of the Olmsted Elm,” presents student works created from the wood of the Olmsted Elm, a tree that for nearly 200 years graced the landscape of Fairsted, Olmstead’s home and office. Please visit for more information.

Learn more about future events in the series at their website.

“Critical Conversations: The State of History in the National Park Service”

Great event, free to the public. Check it out, and if you go, write us a recap for the blog! The report they’re talking about can be found here.

“Critical Conversations: The State of History in the National Park Service”

In 2012, the Organization of American Historians released a report
critically examining the state of history in the National Parks.  Imperiled
Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service reveals the
findings of four historians who embarked on the study in 2008.  The report
identifies and addresses thirteen areas of concern.  Our discussions will
focus on the History/Interpretation Divide; Partnerships for History; Fixed
and Fearful Interpretation; and Civic Engagement.

At “Critical Conversations,” NPS staff tasked with the myriad
responsibilities of engaging the public with the past at the nation’s
parks– interpreters, historians, curators, and their colleagues-will
reflect on the report and its implications, and brainstorm ways to meet
identified challenges.  What will it take for the NPS to “recommit to
history,” and where we might go from here?

Join NPS staff and the UMass Boston History Department for an afternoon of
two consecutive roundtable discussions where participants will reflect on
the major findings of the OAH report; discussion with the audience will

The roundtable discussions will be followed by a reception.

Where: Massachusetts Archives
220 Morrissey Blvd., Columbia Point, Boston
3rd floor, Room 315

When: Friday, November 2, 2012

Time: 1:00-6:00 pm

Free and open to the public.  Parking available.

Co-sponsored by University of Massachusetts Boston History Department, and
Boston National Historical Park

Questions:  contact Jane Becker, History Department, UMass Boston

Food for Thought: Should Museums Accession lolcats?

Go and read Suse Cairns‘s fascinating exploration of native digital objects and art, and how museums can think about them and deal with them. Bonus interview with Tom Woolley, New Media Curator at the UK National Media Museum. (He’s responsible for a Life Online gallery that has a constant video of memes on it. If that’s not a cool job, I don’t know what is.)