Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

The Danish word hygge is hard to translate.  Books like the Little Book of Hygge, often translate the word as coziness.  These authors go on to share how that word is but a scarce approximation of its actual meaning.  This Danish cultural norm, a sort of way of being, is central to that nation’s high level of happiness.

Currently Pinterest is alight with hygge with pictures of arm knit blankets, roaring fires, and mugs of warm coffee.  Strictly speaking, hygge is about home life, but there are certain tenets that could help make art museum’s more appealing.

Create Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.  Art museums can feel like a sanctuary for those who already feel comfortable there.  But, there are unspoken codes of behavior.  Innocently point at artwork and you might catch the ire of a guard.  Bring a selfie stick, and you will meet another guard.  Should you wish to find a restroom, you will likely need to find another guard to help you find the way.  The signs are so subtle that they fade into the background.  In many ways, the challenge for museums is that they are only sanctuaries for those who are already initiated.  Yet, most museums profit, both fiscally and culturally, from attendance.  So, how can they help others see these spaces as a sanctuary?

Belonging is Key

Belonging is a central element in hygge. When you belong, you feel comfortable participating in the experience. Belonging is hard for museums, in certain ways.  Museums has many special interest groups, starting with the trustees, and moving down to the members. These groups often revel in their connection to the museum, and why shouldn’t they, as they paid for the privilege.

How can museums make all people feel like they belong in the museum community? This is the big question for museums.  There is no one golden bullet, oh if there was.  But, there are small steps.  Let’s go back to the guards.  They are basically the hosts to this party.  They spend more time with the visitors than any other department.  The Walker Art Museum has a wonderful staff, dressed in t-shirts and broad smiles, who makes sure to place welcoming visitors and safeguarding the art as equally important.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Human Scale

The human touch is essential in hygge.  Think about your most convivial moments in life.  There was the food, the décor, the music.  Or was it the people, their stories, their laughter.  People turn settings into stories.  In large spaces, the quality of human interaction is dissipated.  In intimate, human-sized spaces, you can engage with people in direct ways.  This is the same with art.  Small spaces encourage connectivity.  For better or for worse, I became an art historian because of the Cloisters.  In high school, I trekked to see the oil paintings in their glory.  I still remember stepping through a tiny door into an irregularly shaped room to gaze upon the Merode altarpiece.  This small work, resplendent in its workmanship, seemed to fill the space.

Human scale is not just about architecture.  Few museums have the architecture of the Cloisters.  Human scale is also about choosing to employ the space in ways that focus on people.  Seating groupings imply that one should linger.  Legible labels, rather than tiny print, implies that one should read.

In its essence, hygge is about setting the stay for most people to have an enjoyable experience.  In many ways, most art museums focus on installing art with an eye towards education and learning with little concern for the visitor’s pleasure. Yet, how can people learn if they don’t linger?


Art & #AlternativeFacts : Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion


Years ago, I was in a meeting with a favorite supervisor who bristled when I suggested that we have a “fun facts” section on the app we were developing. I assure you that she wasn’t against fun.  She felt that “fact” was a dicey issue.  I have been thinking about this conversation often in the last few weeks.


Facts VS Opinions

A fact is something that can be proven and verified by multiple people. Facts can be measured, tested, and observed.  One can research facts.


I was more in 19XX. My birth certificate says it. My mother assures me that she trudged to the hospital in a snowstorm weakened by contractions. (Yes, I suffer from a generational affliction of hyperbole). My age is not my opinion; it is a fact.

Opinion is in opposition to fact. Opinions rest on feeling.  They cannot be measured or verified.  They are often idiosyncratic and self-validating.  You might feel as if you are freezing cold, even as temperatures swell to 100 degrees. But, the fact is that it is hot as all get out.perception

Realistically, there are many elements that we take as fact that can be disputed.  Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and he is still hailed with a national holiday for finding America.  Yet, he, arguably, fell short. Scholarship is a sort of information calculus bringing civilization closer to the truth, generating new “facts” and amending old ones. In other words, facts can be disputable and transmutable.  Facts are generally accepted and provable ideas.  They can change, but most likely are true.  Yet, they differ wholly from opinion.  Opinions are not provable.

The issue of facts and opinions are at the crux of our national politics currently.  Many intellectual practices, like science and statistics, work in a rigorous way to understand the world.  They research various phenomena that be used to inform action. Certainly, something like climate change is a theory, but one that is held by most scientists.  If there was an equilibrium from an unassailable fact to an unfounded opinion, climate change ranks heavily on the fact side due to the volume of evidence.

Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion

I have been fooled, many times.  Having gone to University of Wisconsin, Madison, I have never once been fooled by the Onion.  But, Hard Times has gotten me more than once.  Admit it, you have too. We are all susceptible, particularly given the volume of information we are taking in every day.  We are making quick decisions to file ideas into one of three bins: fact, fiction, or opinion.

Here is where critical thinking skills and preexisting knowledge play in.  Armed with plenty of both, you should have a 95% chance of getting ideas into the right category. But, critical thinking is a not a born skill.  It must be honed, tested, and maintained. One needs to deal with complicated issues, regularly, and without shutting down.  One must be willing to be wrong and to be faced with ideas that contradict your beliefs.

Here is where art comes in. Understanding an artwork is about diving through layers of ideas and history.  Even something seemingly factual might be open to interpretation. Remember how my birthday is a fact? For most artworks, the date of creation, its birthday if you will, is interpretive.  It is hard to determine the exact day that a craftsman put a finishing touch on that 5000-year-old sarcophagus.  Scholars often use research to create an approximate date, which is basically an educated guess.  Dates, materials, artists…there are so many elements of art that art verifiable…as close to fact as we can get.

Nothing is more open to interpretation than the meaning of artwork.  Why did the ancient Indus Valley people create images of unicorns on their shipping seals? What does the artist hope for you to think when seeing his large metallic rocks out in the garden? What could a wall of faint pencil lines possibly mean? I can’t tell you.  This is not because I haven’t thought about it.  I have talked about the answer to each of those questions with groups of museum visitors of all ages.  I can’t answer these questions, because there is no one answer.  There are several opinions, and no single opinion is right.

Art allows thinker to experience the spectrum between fact and opinion.  Thinking about art is a chance, a low stacks chance, mind you, to face the complications of ideas. There is something powerful about realizing your idea is not universal and that your opinion differs from others.  It can help you see that what you thought was fact is opinion.  Also, it helps you see that you shouldn’t relegate the opinions of others to the fiction/ fake news bin.

Appreciating the nuances of ideas takes time.  One grows skills in deciding the relative merit of a fact or its position on the fact to opinion spectrum.  This takes me back to the “fast facts” section of the app.  There is nothing fast about becoming a critical thinker. Art is, however, an ideal chance to hone your skills at mastering the ability to understand the breadth and complications of information.

The Art of Facts: Four Ways that Art Protects You in the World of “Fake News”

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

  1. Observation: They say seeing is believing. Sure, there are plenty of invisible, real phenomenon, including the gravitational pull that prevent you from flying off the earth as you read this. But, so much of our understanding of the universe is based on observation.  Attempt to draw something you see.  For your drawing to have any verisimilitude at all, you will need to really look closely.  You will face surprising thoughts like, “Even though I know the top is round, it sure looks like an oval.” In other words, you will spend time understanding the object that you are drawing.

How it helps you with fake news? First, the better you understand something, the more likely you will be able to fish out falsity.  But, even more, observation is a skill. With honed skills, you can become astute at assessing any variety of information.

  1. Sources: Most information about artwork is interpreted by curators and educators, based on research. Museum visitors receive information from several sources (labels, educators, family guides). If it is on a label, you can assume it is verifiable or generally accepted. The informed museum visitor also knows to take the information overheard from another patron, about the aliens who made this sculpture, for example, as unlikely.

How it helps with fake news? It’s all in knowing the source. You learn to know where to find information that in generally acceptable and when to disregard information.

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum  1992.252.1

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum

  1. Uncertainty: When I used to work in museums, I often said, “the only thing we say categorically is that you can’t say anything categorically”. Museum labels are often filled with conditional phrasing. (Notice how I constructed this sentence conditionally). While the labels offer generally acceptable information, they also often highlight where there are debates.  There is so much about art that isn’t or can’t be known.  Take ancient Japanese pottery.  Made 4000 years ago, this civilization leaves no written records.  Art historians don’t know why they created these pots.  Were they functional? Ceremonial? We don’t know.

How it helps with fake news? One challenge is that as elements emerge, news stories change.  This can make some criticize traditional news sources as being incredible.  Instead, the nimble thinker, say one who has faced much less scary challenges thinking about art, can handle these complications with ease.

  1. Meaning-Making: Understanding art is about making sense of visual information, most often through reading textual information or hearing oral information. In other words, it is all about being good at making meaning from all sorts of sources.

How it helps with fake news? You can use your skills to decide if something is fake news or #alternative facts.  You can decide how likely something is to be real or factual where visual or textual. You will be able to sniff out fake news and appreciate real sources.

Signs of Our Peoples Voice

On January 21, 2017, more than 3.3 million people shared their feelings about American politics in the largest one-day global protest ever.  I might argue it was also the largest collective art assignment in history.  As of today, more than 7000 signs tagged #protestsigns and 2000 as #womensmarchsigns.  As with the best of education, this assignment was self-directed and self-motivated.  The posters were creative, catchy, poignant, and relevant.

In those posters, we saw people using imagery and text to make a point.  Sure, this was a moment that the art kids really shined.  The sea of signs included painfully comic renderings of political figures.  There was some impressive anatomical accuracy to the variety of human, and other animal, genitalia displayed.  Printmakers put the history of their craft into action producing signs in large-scale.  Cleveland printers at Zygote Press, like many others nationally, handed signs out to protesters in need of a visualization of their motivation.

But, the pro or semi-pro signs were the anomalies in terms of count.  Most the signs featured a direct, honest, unstudied hand. There were scores brown cardboard signs, creases belying their previous function, annotated with scrawling marker-made text.  Construction paper, sticker letters, pen—the whole arsenal of the children’s art classroom were in full force.

These signs were a way for people to signify their idea(s) to the world.  They used these tools as part of the one of the most powerful performative actions in modern democracy–protest.  The signs were also a way to gain validation. In marches, protestors remarked upon the creativity and truthfulness of their peer’s signs.  As with so much art-making, these signs were an exhibition of personal volition, a display of voice, for those who feel otherwise silenced.

The continued life of the protest sign is far augmented in the digital era than in previous moments of political action.  Instagram, as mentioned previously, allows the signs to become part of a global digital collection to be accessed and shared infinitely.  Multiple accounts, like @womensmarchsigns2017 that I moderate, aggregate and amplify the voice of the original creator.

But, to go back to the signs themselves, hundreds of thousands of people around the world had something they needed to share.  They committed to paper, or board of some sort, their truest feelings and deepest-held beliefs.  They went out into the world and hoisted their raw emotions made manifest above their heads.   They shared their visual ideas proudly.  We, as the world, got to see the largest collective exhibition of art ever.  No exhibition has more profound origins or more democratic curation.  This was the people’s exhibition—their chance to put their voice on display.


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Five Reasons that Museums are Radical Spaces

Museums often hold diverse collections.  Think of the Royal Ontario Museum whose holdings include dinosaurs, building columns, and moccasins in one collection.  Accusations of privilege and elitism are regular criticism of museums as making museum more old guard than future leaning.  Museums have acquisition policies and hierarchy, certainly, but even anarchists need to organize for a protest.

Museums have faith in their audience. Museums let people in.  They make precautions to secure their collections of the guards and buzzer persuasions.  But, even with these items in place, for the most part, museums are putting themselves out there with their ideas written on the wall.  They have the faith in their audience to come and go, over and over, and leave the collections unscathed.  What could be more democratic?  There is no entrance test. Many are as free as your local library.  A billionaire and a homeless person are equally welcome.

Museums encourage difficult conversations.  Walk into most science center in the country and you will explore climate change, as scientists present it, not as we wish it to be. Explore many contemporary art museum exhibitions and you will be faced with inequality issues.  Museum don’t shirk reality—they embrace it.

Museums are into education. While politicians debate the best way to do education writ large, museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have been encouraging learning for more than a century.  Certainly, museums have struggled with the bad press the word education gets, changing their departments to learning or interpretation.  But at their essence, most museums are into education.  And, given there are more museums than Starbucks, that museums that there is a whole lot of informal education going down in this country.

Millions of dollars are required to acquire and maintain collections.  However, once art becomes part of a museum collection, it rarely returns to the open market. The collection object no longer can be priced, valued in dollars, as that object will not be for sale. Its monetary value becomes academic, an issue for insurance men and registrars. In a world where stock prices, IPO, and quarterly gains, museums are in the business of priceless.   1

The Near-Future of Museum Education for K-12 Audiences


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This afternoon I had the privilege of participating in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s project, #NCMAAsk (search twitter for more), which is focused on museums, technology, and the future.  There were a number of issues that came up, but, many of them centered around hearing, listening, and flexibility.

Museums in their partnership with schools have can serve as advocates for students and teachers, but only if they are creating programming, experiences, resources, and spaces that respond to their needs.  In terms of advocating for teachers, it includes helping them out, it includes offering teachers the language that they can use to communicate the importance of the arts to their higher ups. It terms of advocating for students, it is about creating and implementing curriculum that is student centered.

Museums have the lucky position of being outside of the school’s systems.  They don’t have the same rules and museum experiences don’t end in grades.  We don’t know who is the smart student, the weird kid, or the screw up.  A good museum educator takes all of the kids where they come, and brings them all into the experience.  On an even footing, but in a totally different learning experience, a totally different kid might find themselves as the smart kid.  In museums, K-12 classrooms get the chance to visit an alternate learning universe, if it is even for one hour.

I was asked to me an oracle of the future of education.  I think there are some big issues, such as competency-based education and the complete restructuring of the grade-level system.  I think museums, with their high-quality digital tools, apps, and powerful search engines, will be poised to be right there at the horizon of education.  But, I am more focused on the closer targets.  In the short term, I am focused on how to deepen engagement through multi-visit experiences, as well as the ways that after school education can be impacted by museums. Also, I am interested to think about the ways that museums can use technology to augment K-12, such as through distance learning, online learning, and simulations.

Finally, individualized learning is already happening every where.  Phones are tools for learning and creativity.  Museums can employ them in gallery spaces with students. But, this requires the staff being comfortable with these tools and finding authentic ways to use them.  Taking the students lead, so allowing them to search on their phones when they are researching something in the galleries, is a great way to use mobile as a tool.

Donald Draper on the Way of Museums

“You are the product. You feel something.” Mad Men

The television show Mad Men celebrates the way that advertising men transformed brands like Hershey and Jaguar from things you buy into personas with which you identify.  In the show, Don Draper, a complicated anti-hero, was shown developing poetic narratives that made people connect with products.  With the power of words and images, Draper transformed things into experiences.

Draper’s powers in transfiguration seemed rooted in his innate understanding of culture and human nature.  While womanizing and hard-drinking, at his core, Draper seemed intensely empathic, employing this power for commercial ends.  In actor Jon Hamm’s read of the finale, Draper understands his core self in a moment of meditation.  Hamm’s reading is based on a sequence where Draper is seen smiling amid a cliff full of hippies before a cut to an iconic Coke ad about love and peace.  Rather than seeing Don as an opportunist, Hamm suggests that Draper realizes what he is—someone good at connecting people to ideas.

Museums might take a few notes from these admen.  Art museums do not make art; they make art available. Natural history museums might engage in excavations, but they didn’t fossilize the dinosaurs. Instead, museums are trying to get people to choose to buy what they are selling—cultural heritage.

But, people are buying our product less regularly. Museum attendance continues to drop. It might be because museums are selling the wrong thing.  Many museums are housed in buildings that were new and flashy. Building projects allowed many institutions to announce record attendance.  Now, these buildings are last season’s product.  Museum buildings are structures, elaborate housing for a collection.  Few buildings in our nation go beyond brick and mortar in the public consciousness. Even spaces that do, say the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are often imbued with meaning outside of the work of the museum itself.

The analogy of a movie theater might be helpful.  Movie theaters are places to go for entertainment.  Like museums, movie theaters are seeing numbers go down.  Like many museums, movie theaters house a watched form of entertainment. But, few, if any, movie theaters operate as 501-C3s.  They need to turn a profit to keep the doors open, and they have little hope of garnering donations to buoy their bottom line.  With such stakes, there is little time for academic concerns about whether they should sell the idea of movie theaters or the actual movie in the theaters.  They sell the movie, or they will have no theater to show the movie in.  Movies are the thing that make people go to movie theaters.

So, what should museums sell to get people go to museums?  If you follow my analogy to its conclusion, the answer would be collections.  Is that what the adman would say?  I think Don Draper would say that museums need to package themselves in ways that resonate.  In the Mad Men universe, Draper took the zeitgeist of his time, and with a Californian clarity, thought about what would make people feel a connection to the brand.  In that famous feel good ad, the Coca Cola brand positioned itself as a convener of people.

What will make people connect to museums?  What is that pitch that will help people feel that museums are as essential to their lives as a cold coke? After all, if anyone can teach a thing or two about homes,  honey bees, and turtle doves, certainly museums are well placed to educate the future in perfect harmony.

Usability for Users; Consumerability for Consumers?

Usability is one of those words that has a faint jargon-style feeling to it. In pitching the power of eyetracking, card sorts, and participant design, you are wisest to avoid all those terms.  These are terms that alienate your clients.  As John Rhodes discusses in Selling Usability, focusing on the customers, rather than the testing, will help people understand the end goal of testing.

To get to that goal, you will need to design a test, perform the test, get results, analyze the rests.  After all of that, you will then need to make sense of the data.  With eye tracking, for example, you will need to help make sense of heat maps.

Visualizations, when interpreted well and correlated with think aloud information, can translate data into meaning. A final report puts everything together creating meaning out of data.  In the end, usability could be said to be the study of users and interfaces. But, you could think of it as understanding customers or consumers, and then finding a way to help your clients see what you have come to understand.


Why play games in museums?


One of my clearest memories of childhood is being beaten soundly at Uno by my uncles and aunts. Strangely, I felt belonging and comraderie. It made me begin to think strategically. It made me want to play more.  In the end, it was the doing that I liked.  We were actively engaging in a shared experience.  We were having fun. (Maybe my aunts and uncles more than me.)
It a time when museum attendance has decreased, the idea of having fun experiences for visitors is appealing.  Games can build good will in audiences and encourage visitation. 

But, games also offer other benefits. Museums often seek to impart information, so games are useful. In games, people learn to learn, acquiring skills, making sense of the game system, and garnering new information. 


For my other posts on games:

Why play games?

Guide to Museum Games

Game Development Tutorial


What kind of games can you play in museums?

Guide to Museum Games

There is no one game solution for museums. In fact, as a game developer it is often fun to try to continue to break boundaries with your museum game.

Some of the things to consider:

The game structure and mechanics are related to the level of social engagement. In some instances, more individual games allow for people to develop individual connections to collections. But, social games can enrich understands of collections in a collective way. 

Galleries can be a great place to play a game, but make sure to maintain your core mission. If your mission is to give people access to real objects, don’t create a game that doesn’t engage with the collection.

There are also rewards earned with games that are played outside of gallery spaces.  Games played in lobbies and family spaces offer opportunities for reflection about and reconnection to collections.

Your game type will be chosen based on a number of factors, like budget and project goals. But, be flexible. Experiment. Start with what you know, but then try new games.  

Games may overlap. A live-action game may have mobile components. A board game may include a live-action component.  This listing above is a way to help you begin to make sense of games.


For my other posts on games:

Why play games?

Guide to Museum Games

Game Development Tutorial