5 Big Ideas from #GoogleIO For Museums to Note #IO17 #MuseTech

Google I/O, that glistening moment when developers galore descend up San Francisco to hear prognostications, occurred mid-May.  The keynote speech offered some insight into Google’s vision on the next decade. Admittedly, GoogleIO 2017 is an exercise in marketing synergy and willing suspension of disbelief. The keynote had the feel of equal parts TED-talk, Home Shopping Network, Dad Jokes, and Nickeleon’s “You Can’t Do that on Television”, with a soupcon of Svengali. If you look past the hokey jokes and the corporate name drops, there were some useful harbingers of our possible future.

And, why look to Google I/O for futurecasting? As Sundar Pichai said Google “Uses technical insights to solve problems at scale for deep engagement.” If you can’t image the scale of Google, think of it this way. 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day. With about 35,000 museums in the nation, all of the collections in the country could be uploaded in a week or so.

Google is masterful at understanding first world problems and addressing them.  Much of the undertone for Google I/O was that they were helping cure the stress of the era (despite the fact those stresses grew from tech like Google). With the power of scale, they are poised to continue to make civilization wide changes. (Think I am being hyperbolic? Reflect on the diffusion of the phrase “Google It”.)

Overall, Google I/O was all about artificial intelligence, where machines perform actions that had originally needed human thinking. If the mobile period was about touch, AI is about sight & voice/sound. AI is becoming more human in its meaning making, particularly in its seamless understanding of visual and textual data. The change to AI will have major social changes. Think about the changes that occurred with mobile. When a new platform is introduced, peoples’ modes of interacting change until those practices become naturalized.

So, what practices will become natural for our future visitors?

  1. Computers will be able to read images and text: Google Lens will make reading images increasingly sophisticated. For example, your phone will be able to “read” signs, turning the pictures into text. In other words, images, not just text, will be understood and acted on.  What does this mean for museums? The answer is two-fold. First, museums will have ever more robust tools to read images.  Second, it means visitors will expect handheld technology to make sense of the world seamlessly. They will not want keyboards, QR codes, or any barrier in the way of knowledge acquisition.
  2. You will talk to computers and they will talk back: Google Home now has 4.9% error rate for misunderstanding spoken words; this down from 8% two years ago. Soon, a variety of tools will respond to a voice command. What does this mean for museums? Again, bye bye keyboard commands. If you want to find the fiercest dino, you will expect to ask a technology tool and then expect that tool to respond in audio correctly. (Unless you are in an art museum. In that case, it will tell you that sadly, they got no dinos).
  3. Google Maps will go granular: Virtual Positioning Services (VPS) helps move AR forward. This tool was described in terms of shopping, where you will be able to know where anything is on a mapped shelf in a warehouse. What does this mean for museums? There are several possibilities here. First, virtual collection record-keeping might change collections management and collection access. Next, think about gallery wayfinding. VPS will be able to calculate people’s position to a few centimeters. Instead of using text to point people to a certain basket amongst 100 baskets, your tool will be able to point people to the exact basket that defines the genre.
  4. The artificial world will feel pretty real: Overall, experience computing more like the real world. Already, many students are enjoying AR. Google Expedition is a classroom app where students can experience coral reefs. What does this mean for museums? Firstly, our visitors of the future will be raised with AR as part of their regular experiences. This can mean that they will expect this of museums, though if we implement AR, they will have high expectation. Alternately, they might choose museums for their authenticity.  I suspect the future of AR in museums will be both really good AR and then AR-absent experiences.
  5. Promiscuous content will be the norm: Youtube is already a culture that fosters creative, iterative, and interrogative content. And other tools like Google Seurat are making it easier to render in 3D for VR. In other words, AR/ VR will become ever easier to implement even for citizen-technologists. Everyone will be doing it. What does this mean for museums? This to me is the most exciting point. The tools that were once in the hands of only a few are ever more quickly being available to many. Visitors of the future will not only be living in a milieu suffused with Artificial Intelligence but also be creators of such content. In other words, imagine your crowdsourced Instagram beta project crossed with robots, Pokemon, or Jurassic Park.  Alright, kidding. My point is that you won’t be able to imagine a specific outcome of these techs for our field. However, we should expect that technology will become ever more seamlessly human in its behavior; our visitors will expect our tools to follow suit.

This is what struck me about Google I/O.  What about you? What struck you? And, where  will that tech take our field in the future?




Creative Self-Actualization #selfcaresunday #selfcare

We are on a giant rock that whizzes through space without a pilot. How is that for a lack of control? Well, for most of us, the spinning of the globe doesn’t even factor in our control issues. The reason might be that we don’t even think about it. The other thing is that it isn’t really about you.  Sure, if you are reading this, you are most likely a denizen of Earth. But, it is hard to put yourself into the narrative of its orbit. It doesn’t orbit, because of you.  (Now if you do believe that, your challenges will be much more than I could improve in this blog post).

The lack of control in life is most uncomfortable when you are at the center. Let’s think about work. You feel out of control when you organization has layoffs, and you don’t have any say about your job. In this instance, your lack of control is also because you don’t have any voice. You are silent to your plight. So, what do you do in that instance? In some ways that is the moment to do anything but think about layoffs. You might even want to explore  the orbits of the planets as a way to get your mind off your work.  In other words, you want to try to focus on something else.

Let’s stay on the topic of your career. Layoffs are often symptomatic of other deeper problems. You can choose what your actions are in that situation.  You have the choice to spend your energy to find a new job.  Trust me. I know that jobs are scarce. And, its hard to get a good one. And, I mean you work in a MUSEUM. All true. But, you might take all of your bad feelings at work, and turn them into better feelings about you.

So, what does this have to do with self-care?  Well, sometimes you aren’t even sure that you are ready to take care of yourself.  But, you are in control of that. You get to decide how you react to things. You can choose some elements in your life. If you imagine your life as a pinball machine, then you are in control of the blocks and some of the levers, and your career is the ball going where it wants within the limits you set.

Let’s use exploration to create your career plan, like the easiest pinball machine to win. Grab a sheet of paper. Draw a picture of yourself now in one corner. Draw a picture of yourself in the future in the other corner. Start adding all the steps you need to get from one place to another.  Go slow. Savor all your imaginary moments. Annotate your personal map with feelings. Set this document aside.  Come back to it. What resonates? What reads false? What can you bring into action?  Make a list of plans.

While this exercise sounds hypothetical, by doing it, you are actually putting yourself in control. You might not be able to put all those things you drew into place.  But, your mind has now started to think differently. You are no longer voiceless or overly focused on your lack of control.  You have helped yourself move forward.

How to Visit A Museum? #InternationalMuseumDay #museums


















There are so many ways to visit a museum. On International Museum Day, I do hope people realize there are very few wrong ones.  As long as the collections remain unmarred, and you are unharmed, you are basically doing it okay. Museums are the original edutainment, in some ways. They are there for your meditation, education, rejuvenation, inspiration, or just for date night. There are so many possibilities ahead of any visitor walking into a museums; there is no reason to bound that.

Test Your Understanding of Bias in Decision-Making #implicitbias #confrontbias


Congratulations! You’re the new director of the art museum of New South Overthere. It’s a cash poor institution with a great collection of little known masters of underwater basket weaving, lantern slides, zeppelin models, and lamp glass.  Your first few months are exhilarating but also exhausting.  You make some missteps.  Its natural. But, the key is learning from your failings. Read these five scenarios and test your knowledge of bias in the museum setting.  For each, read the scenario and try to suss out where bias comes into play. 

Scenario 1

We all know visitors hate contemporary art. But, your curator has been agitating for a main gallery show. The New York Times might even finally give you a review; I mean that is just like minting gold in terms of donor dollars. You give the curator the go ahead. Opening day rolls around, and no one comes. You are not surprised. You had spent a year’s worth of meetings being told no one would come. Everyone told you and you should have listened. But, it’s really just because the audience doesn’t get it. Right?


Confirmation Bias is when you find that everything points to exactly what you thought. This is natural in the museum world; we are often surrounded by those trained in the same manner as ourselves. We are the people who visit museums for fun! Yet, what is happening here is a cognitive dissonance, or split between our thinking and the thinking of others.  Basically, you are surrounding yourself with people like yourself, while ignoring other responses.

In the case of that contemporary exhibition, you wonder what other mitigating factors played into this situation. With the foregone conclusion that this would be a light attendance exhibition, they might not  have produced a gangbusters marketing program. Also, did they frame the interpretation in an accessible manner? Or did they instead decide that this show would be for a specialist audience? In other words, did they propagate low attendance by starting with a certain assumption?


Scenario 2

Its already budget time and you have to make the tough call.  There is only $1000 in this year’s operating budget. So, every dollar counts. Frankly, every penny counts.  What choice are you going to make? It’s all about having the newest thing. I mean museums are basically academic institutions. While it isn’t publish or perish, it definitely is about innovate or perish. You just read an article about just this issue that one of your executive team members pass on. You know that you need to be on the cutting edge to be the best. Your executive team keeps telling you this in meeting after meeting. With budget time rolling around, you need to either allocate money to innovation or to maintenance of the classrooms. You vacillate, but it seems pretty obvious. I mean you are totally in agreement with the executive team–innovation all the way.


Now while this story shows a possible innovation bias, it also highlights the bias that can come from being too insular, the ingroup bias. In large institutions, this can occur particularly due to the hierarchy. But, even in small institutions, you might find yourself always turning to the same people. You are closing yourself off to other ideas; you naturally become biased to the things you have heard.

Before making this decision, you might speak to the people associated with both budget requests. You might also try to weigh the relative impact and need for both requests.  In other words, you might try to gain information not filtered by your own ingroup before making your decision.


Scenario 3

After the last exhibition flopped, oh Contemporary Art,  you want to be sure the next one will be both a popular and critical success. To this end, you direct your staff to do focus group after focus group to find out what the public is into. Your research team has suggested that you do fewer focus groups, but you are not going to be ill-prepared this time. You read the New York Times daily in hopes of finding out what is hot this year. You call around to other directors to see what is on their exhibition schedule. You are going to get it right this time.


There can be a point where you have too much information.  This bias, the information bias, is the belief that more information will result in a better decision. In this scenario, the director is compiling information without a concrete goal in mind.

Certainly, she wants more people at exhibitions. But, she isn’t actually acting in a truly goal-oriented way.  A better goal might be find an exhibition that resonates with our members or find an exhibition that brings in new members. These are concrete goals that can then be considered researched and articulated. Instead, scattershot, she was just compiling information; and more information does not always mean a better decision.


Scenario 4

You decide that the galleries are looking a bit shabby and could use a fresh coat of paint. While the baskets are removed and placed in storage, the signage is taken down so that the walls can be painted. Before the galleries are reinstalled, the museum’s chief technology officer asks if the objects can be displayed slightly differently. All gallery text should be removed, the CTO suggests, because there is this wonderful museum app. The curator on the other hand has just come into your office. She is irate. There just have to be labels, she says. The curator threatens to leave if this change goes into effect. The director can’t possibly do without a curator and so the decision is to use labels.  


The team decided instead to stay with the old tried and true. This is an example of the conservatism bias. This is when a person favors older information over the new. The curator  prefers labels stuck to the wall in front of the object than embrace new way of delivering the information.

The team could have decided to do a test comparison, using one section to test app only labels. After doing this test, the team would have more information at their disposal to help make their decision.


Scenario 5

This signage scuffle just will not go away. The curator is holding fast to the labels. The chief technology expert, emboldened by an article in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Labels”,  is looking to rid the building of all its signage. The CTO has also read an article in Fast Company about Microsoft’s newest product, the wearable MicrosoftDance (MD) that generates a hologram that dances textual information. He knows this new technology will be idea to get people to finally love the museum’s lantern slides. Additionally, the public can use the MD not just for what is in the galleries but also wayfinding and information on upcoming events. You are not exactly sold, but you decide to move forward on the DanceLabels.



The CTO’s belief that all the visitor-centered needs will be meet by this new digital tool is a clear example of Pro-Innovation Bias. This bias is the overvaluing of the usefulness of the latest technology while underestimating its limitations.  Sure, MD sounds great to the CTO, and the prospect of museum patrons engaging with the collection or finding their way through the museum sounds cutting-edge (if terrifying to conservators). But will it truly meet the needs of all the visitors? Will it work in every instance?

In this case, one should again weigh multiple voices.  A competitive analysis of other institutions might help, though if you want to be the first than you will not have the advantage of learning from other’s mistakes.  Again, testing works well in innovation bias. Try the new solution against other solutions. So for example, test the efficacy of MD against static signage pointing the way to the cafe. 

#SelfCare : What to do When Your Mind is Full?


There are times when you mind is super full.  I feel like this after I read a particularly heady book or when I am at a conference.  The book and the conference are similar in that you are immersed in a fairly cohesive set of ideas.  They are different in that a book is usually an individual experience where as a conference is a collective one.  However, in both instances, you need to make your own meaning. You might then need to incorporate the relevant meaning into your thinking.

I use a number of tools to try make sense of these ideas. Today I am sharing two tools that I use, on their own or together.


Mindmapping is a wonderful tool to create structure from protean intellectual ooze. You spill ideas, drawing linkages as you go. You can use a blank sheet of paper, put your big idea in the middle, and then let your ideas flow.  If you want a styled up sheet, you can download one from me.

I love mindmapping, because you can watch the linkages appear as you think.  However, there are drawback, as well.  With some ideas, you might need to really wait to develop the linkages.  Sometimes you will jump to conclusions in order to flesh out your map.  That might not always be ideal.

In those instances, I create a MindBrew.



This is when I want to percolate. I want to be a little uncomfortable with the load of ideas. We live in a society where we fashion our lives around comfort. Okay, I have definitely walked around with coffee, for fear I might have to live the discomfort of being without caffeine. So, I get it. But, there are also times when I know that I need to live with discomfort. Discomfort comes from being faced with anything that feels hard. But, if you don’t address hard feelings, you won’t be able to transform them into constructive ones. The only alternative would be for them to remain in your mind festering and fomenting unrest.

So, I try to allow my mind to brew constructive ideas. This takes longer than mindmapping. I start by writing out ever idea that was in mind with no structure. I usually do this right after I confront something mindboggling. Recently, for example, I was at a heady conference. On the flight home, I went all Faulkner on my ideas, steaming them out.

Then I set those ideas aside. I waited a couple days. Noting when one of those ideas popped up again. At which point, I know that my mind is telling me something. Finally, after I feel ready, I allot good ideas in the hot burner to work on, and then I put less interesting ideas on ice.

You can use my MindBrew tools (pg 1 and pg 2), or you can hand draw them yourself.



15 Takeaways from #AAM2017: #Inclusion #Politics #Action

“I’m calling for love and I’m standing against hate.” -Dr. Johnnetta Cole

The 2017 AAM Annual Conference in St. Louis was a busy one, both in the conversation presentations and outside the presentations.  I have already written a little bit about #AAMSlaveAuction. Here are my notes from the conference presentations.

Big Takeaways:

  • Inclusion is small actions, big infrastructure and everything, in between.
  • Museums are political; collecting, educating, exhibiting all have political ramifications.
  • Look to other fields to augment and retool your practical knowledge about how to do your work, from counting visitors to considering your interpretation.

Inclusion is top down and bottom up and everything in between.


Inclusion is a Choice: This issue came out most strongly in Haben Girma’s keynote for me. People choose whether they want to include everyone in every one of their actions. When you don’t include people, you lose an audience. In her case, she was citing the 57 million people who are disabled. You might not realize you are making a choice, for example, by not being accessible to blind people, but you are. In the same way, when you create something inclusion, like offering braille labels, you are making a small change to the positive.  Small changes to the positive include more people making your community bigger, like a grain of sand to a pearl. When you don’t make a change, you have no pearl.  In other words, you need to choose inclusion but that relatively small choice results in huge impact.

Inclusive Practice is Everyone’s Job but the Leader’s Fault: Museums are for better or for worse hierarchical. As such, organizations will not become truly inclusive if the bosses (both director and board) don’t buy into inclusion. But, even if they do, the whole organization needs to work on it, down to each person in the museum.

Inclusion Means Change: Meet people where they are. For museums, this means changing the status quo. Those of us on the education or IT tip have been preaching this for ages. After all, ¾ of Americans have a smart phone, and they are using those phones to consume stuff. You can make stuff for them, or they will go somewhere else.  Social media is one of these choice points. People are there creating content; museums should work in their vernacular. Twitter, for example, is this generation’s oral history. Don’t ignore it.

Inclusion Won’t Happen by Accident: You must work at inclusion. Hiring someone because they fill a box won’t change your organization; you must have a culture in which you foster that person. If an organization is truly working on inclusion, they need to consider all the inherent structures for their potential challenges to inclusion.

You have to build a culture that doesn’t isolate or diminish minority voices at the fringes of the organization structure.






Instead you want to create a culture that centers minorities within the power structure.







Politics in the Museum Sphere:

Collecting is Political: Creating museums were political acts from the start. Choosing items to add to the collection is fraught with politics such determining value. Some elements of collecting are intensely political, such as the choices made to collect and exhibit objects from other cultures. Visitors might not be inherently knowledgeable about the political nature of collecting; but museum staff should be.  Shying away from the politics of collecting doesn’t make it go away.

Relevance is Imperative: Museum collections are inert until activated. Museums understand this; they have multiple careers focused on doing just this (educators, interpreters, exhibition staff). Yet, if museums don’t connect these collections to our society, they are not fully activated.  Collections need to be connected to today to make them relevant to visitors.

Interpretation is Resistance: Every museum object has stories and choosing the stories to report is a political act. You choose who to include and exclude when you interpret a work.  You can choose to create inclusive interpretation as easily as making a different choice.

Critical Thinking Starts with You: Museum education is inherently a practice focused on communication. Our patrons come out of these programs better able to understand visual information, scientific processes, cultural norms…In other words, we are in the business of teaching people to learn and communicate. We are honing skills that help people become better citizens, and communicate what they really feel.  What could be more political?

Practical Tips

Fail Forward: Do more prototyping, learning, retooling, retesting, learning, retooling, retesting, learning…Basic try new things, and then systematically consider how it went. Pick something that really doesn’t work, say your entryway, and try until it works.





Make Accessible PPTs: Once you know how, it is just as easy to make a PPT accessible to all. No reason to do it any other way.

Communicate Like You Want to be Heard: Your visitors won’t know what you mean if you don’t tell them. Be clear with your signage, certainly. But, even more imperatively, make sure you offer your front line staff the tools and training to share your brand and message.

Thank People Who Like You: Museum visitors who are not official members could still be loyal to you or your brand. Find ways to thank them for going out of their way to visit you.

Committees Make People Feel Like They Want to Get Committed: Museum board committees are too often about reporting out or performative fundraising.  Consider moving to Task Forces to make these interactions more focused and productive.

Look for Lifelines Outside the Field: How are other people solving issues like counting people in the space?  Don’t just rely on hand counters.  Other fields are doing this better with digital tool

Don’t Collect Data if you Can’t Protect it. 

7 Action Steps Post- #AAM2017SlaveAuction #AAM2017

The Context:

The 2017 AAM conference was held in St. Louis, a city with racial challenges since long before Ferguson.  Five thousand or so delegates joined the AAM team for the conference, whose theme was Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums. AAM shared why St. Louis served as a useful place for its community to consider the heady issues of race; this city at the center of America is a place for all delegates to put equity and inclusion at the center of our work. The conference included numerous keynotes as an effort to diversify the voices being amplified by the AAM organization. In numerous sessions in the conference, professionals shared their work related to diversity and inclusion. Additionally, AAM commissioned social media journalists; another effort to diversify the voices shared by AAM (to find these, look up #AAMSMJ on Twitter).

Against this backdrop, in the expo hall, a firm called LifeFormations, who produces life-sized figures for exhibitions, brought a grouping depicting an enslaved African/ African-American positioned beside a white slaver/ owner. In many ways, AAM became a live case study of all the issues of diversity and inclusion being discussed in the conferences rooms above the exposition hall. While others will be better qualified to discuss the responses, both in person and by social media, I would summarize that there were strong negative reactions from AAM participants and conference center staff. AAM held impromptu sessions to discuss the issues. Laura Lott sent a letter to participants to discuss the issue.  Finally, the CEO of LifeFormations spoke to a group of AAM participants in a dialogue facilitated by Dina Bailey.  Again, I offer the briefest synopsis as I know that many other will offer more thorough information about this issue. You can start by looking to Twitter for #AAM2017SlaveAuction.

Instead I would like to offer some lessons we could learn from this situation. I write these lessons, because we all need to work on ourselves.  These are ways that you can improve yourself.

7 Lessons or Action Steps:

Honor People’s Emotions: We all react to things differently.  I, for one, was shocked. But, a colleague I know was heart-broken. Neither of us were wrong. You might want to talk people down from strong emotions, but that is not your job. I have never heard anyone use the expression “calm down” to positive effect. Allow people to have their emotions. You might feel discomfort, but you will also gain empathy.

Take Care in Your Words & Actions: You might want to what to highlight your empathy to someone who is Black/African-American by going out of your way to share something that you perceive relates to them.  This comes off like pandering or worse.  Think of yourself in their position.  Imagine someone saying you might like this because you are a woman/ white/ gay… In other words, if your actions would feel bad if you were in their place, then don’t do it.

Don’t Own Other People’s Struggles: I was at AAM. I saw much of the reaction to this scene.  I reacted privately.  Yet, as an Asian American, I am not positioned to fully discuss the issues. Trust me; there are struggles that I can discuss.  But, I also want to allow my colleagues who are better able to speak about these issues to do so. (Once they do, I will share them with my contacts. The issues will still get out there.)

Listen Rather than Hear: In a table discussion about this issue, we were talking about censorship. Coming from an arts background, I have the first amendment tattooed on my heart. I spoke honestly about my reticence about censoring anything, but then a colleague shared her feelings about the mitigating issues of capitalism and compounding issues of profiting from slavery AGAIN.  I could have volleyed another lob about free speech, but instead I listened to her.  And, I understood her.  She changed my mind. (I am terribly simplifying her argument, so I apologize).  People won’t always change your mind; but they will never change your mind if you don’t listen.

Well-Meaning is Not Enough: Many friends shared the microaggressions, or small, challenging acts, that soured their experience of the conference. I won’t share those, as they are not mine, but I had a small moment where someone asked where I was from. Proud Clevelander as I am, I responded quickly. What resulted was a tired conversation about my ethnicity.

Give Everyone Some Slack: To continue with the above story, I was tired of explaining that people of all colors can be conceived and birthed in the United States. I was tired of people looking past my nasal Great Lakes accent and hearing a foreigner. And, yet, I summoned the grace to respond kindly.  This is really hard. I will not lie. But, if you don’t, no one will change.

Don’t Flatten Things: When discussing the situation with someone who was white, she told me that all white people need things easy. In race, nothing is easy. And, this woman made several assumptions about me. She didn’t know if white parents adopted me; if I was married to a white person; or if I was a white supremacist. Now, I want to state categorically, and publicly, that the latter is false. I use this inflammatory comment to point out that you never know. Placing all white people in a box is not productive. And, it is not empathetic. Race is a complicated issue, and it doesn’t help anything to simplify any part of it.

Big Trouble in Little Data #musetech

Big data is , well, big thing these days.  Honestly, it has been for a while.  We make so much data by interacting with digital tools.  Daily 2.5 Exabytes are produced every day.  That is the equivalent to 5 million laptops filled to the brim with data. Imagine yourself right now attempting to find one thing in the middle of all of those computers. (You might envy the person seeking the needle in the haystack). So, even with all of these data points, I am making a radical suggestion.  We don’t have enough data.  Or rather, we need to diversify the types of data we collect.

Let’s take this scenario. A visitor decides to participate in a class at your organization.  They use your online ticketing system. Even the worst of online ticketing system gets their name, address with zip code, their preferred class, and their method of payment. (If you don’t at least get this, make a new choice of system). Right now, you have a great deal of data about that patron. And this data is basically quantitative; you can run the numbers on them. You calculate elements that help your audience.  For example, this person is 1 of X number of people from a zip code or one of X number of people who choose Mastercard.

So, let’s get back to our patron, shall we? Then this person arrives at your facility. They drive up to your institution in their shiny teal mini-cooper. They press the button for the ticket, and it doesn’t work.  They press it again.  Finally, a staff parking attendant comes out.  He apologizes and explains that the button they are pressing says “Staff”. They need to press the larger button which says, “Please Press, Dear Visitor”. Mr Parking R. Deck hands the patron the ticket with a smile. Mollified, the patron drives into the parking lot. In this second connection point, there were other data elements playing out. Many questions come to mind immediately. How many times does the visitor try the wrong button before calling the staff? How often do staff get called to explain the buttons?  Is there a correlation between age and misreading the button?  Is there a correlation between height of car and misreading the button?  I could go on…

Most institutions leave this type of data on the table.  It remains anecdotal; the stuff of staff meetings and lunchrooms.  There are several factors for this:

  1. The first might be the word data itself. Data has a mathematical aura that is often segregated to certain fields, like finance and technology. Going into roll call at security, you might seem incredibly radical to ask security to track their “data”. Solution: There needs to be wider understanding across the field of data and the possible sources.
  2. Data only exists if captured. Think about that for a minute. If you are not holding on to it & aggregated it,  there is no data.  Data collection takes time and resources. You need to have tools for collection. You need to train people. Solution: Institutions need to reallocate expectations to change the culture of data.
  3. Data use needs to start with a goal. Right now, many institutions are in the peer pressure phase of data collection; collecting because everyone is doing it. Rather than employing the scientific method that underlies so much of the work of our field, they don’t collect with a goal or thesis in mind. Without a goal, it sure is hard to make a roadmap to that endpoint. Basically, institutions are often wandering in the weed fields of data. Solution: Data literacy needs to include clear education on goal setting.

Making data a part of institutional culture might seem costly, and it would be, but think of this.  There are many members of the museums staff who spend the bulk of their time with visitors, including guards, teaching artists, and visitor experience professional.  Collectively, this is the sector of the museum who tracks the least amount of data.  If you asked any one of them, if they’ve noticed a challenge finding the restroom, they would be able to tell you immediately.  This is also one of the most transient members of our staffing.  They might move up in the field or move out of it.  Either way, their observations remain anecdotes—basically little data.  In order words, institutions throw away what could have been the most valuable data on their clients every day.

#MW17 Cleveland: Big Takeaways


Before #MW17 becomes a faraway memory, I am setting down my greatest takeaways.

  1. Data isn’t numbers; it’s code for ideas. Unlock those ideas thoughtfully.

Data is a perennial topic at MW. But, this year, it seemed to be even more popular with more questions and conversations that highlighted great knowledge about its use (and misuse) in the field.

  • Even clean data is only good data if used appropriately.
  • Data is just clutter if you don’t use it. Museums collected a great deal of data.  But we often don’t set clear goals and then make a clear plan of how to assess that goal.
  • Qualitative issues, like joy, might be tackled through quantitative questions. But, be careful to think through this, as you don’t want to step into the quagmires of false causality.
  • There are sectors of our field that don’t track information, and so this information is unusable. Data isn’t useful if it isn’t collected.
  • Other fields have tackled understanding data, say conversation rates, so their models can be helpful for us.


  1. Trust is returned with commitment

Trust came up throughout many different types of sessions.

  • In a crowdsourcing session, numerous organizations shared the value of trusting patrons to share creative products.
  • Trusting colleagues with data allows you to come up with a better understanding of insights.
  • Trusting visitors with impacting exhibitions creates better exhibitions and greater buy-in in the institution.
  • Trusting the world with open access to collections gives unimaginable results to institutions. Even if statistically few access this data, the investment was low compared to return.


  1. Inclusion hurts no one and so is good everyone.

Inclusion, as the theme of the conversation, did underlie many conversations. While inclusion was discussed in terms of disabilities, in many ways, it was a term about making sure everyone could partake.  In other word, planning for those who might be left out, only adds people to the party—it doesn’t uninvite the average visitors.

In many ways, these three ideas are interconnected. Inclusion is about trust; if you plan for everyone, more people will trust you.  And, allowing others to be included in data planning and research is an act of trust.

Are we doing enough to #SaveTheNEA ?

I have been ruminating on this post for a couple days.  I started thinking about this issue when I saw a number of images showing coal workers and their plight. At the same time, I was seeing a number of tweets about #SavetheNEA.

I assumed that the importance of arts is a result of my own sample of twitter, rather than a random subset of Americans. I am always weary of sampling error, when your subset unduly influences the research.  Sampling is like when you ask your husband how dinner was rather than your picky child.  If you really wanted to understand the effectiveness of dinner, you would need to average both stakeholder’s responses.

In looking at the numbers, arts are a real force in the American economy. They constitute 4.23% of the GDP adding more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy. They employ almost 4 times the fuel industry. (Source, Source, Source. Source, Source)

So, why are politicians not standing beside artist and museum professionals at podiums talking about keeping American jobs?  The arts have an associated elitism where coal miners scream American populism.  There are historical factors that made coal miners “real” Americans.  But, I want to focus on the factors that makes arts and culture not “real” Americans.

We often place ourselves as elitists.  Sure, we speak the language of inclusion, including people of color in marketing or funding small outreach departments. But in terms of our actual institutional norms, we don’t change the way we do things. We maintain opaque norms that are impenetrable to many Americans; and we don’t entice. We continue to do lip service to inclusion but choose not to change the way we do things. We want people to come to our facilities, but we don’t want to change the way we do things. We want our potential new audiences to change for us.

With the real possibility of NEA funding cuts, the national impact to the arts could be seismic. In larger markets, private funding could buoy organizations, but in rural markets there will be major gaps. So, what are doing to change this? We are saying that what we do is important by sending out press releases about the learning that happening in our galleries, festooned with photographs of young children of color.

Really fighting for our sector requires much more.  When the car industry was “saved”, congress required major changes.  They expected the way of life to change so that they could continue to live.  While I haven’t work in the car sector, I can say in museums real change would require changing the nature and payment of work.

  • Museums are woefully underfunded in just the places that they taut as signfiers of their importance: education and engagement.
  • Senior staff often make choices based on research that confirms their existing beliefs, rather than unbiased research.
  • Museum balance the books on the backs of the least paid and closest to visitors: front of house staff.
  • Museums need to actually put visitors first. That means listening when visitors speak. For example, if the labels are too hard to read, they need to make them bigger.

The museum sector is larger than coal mining, by far. Museums cut across every part of this nation, being accessible to those in red and blue states, both physically and digitally.  If coal can reinvent itself as clean coal, can’t museums find a way to be the people’s museums?