Category Archives: education

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.


Where did the Museum Visitors Go?

Where did the visitors go-

Museum visitorship is down.  You don’t have to believe me.  The NEA, the Art Newspaper, and the Guardian are reputable sources who say just this. Colleen Dillenschneider, wunderkind audience lady, last year wrote extensively about audience declines.  The number of people is tied to the amount of money going into museum operating accounts, both through direct means, like ticket sales, and indirect ones, like grant funds earned based on annual attendance.  Without money, museums can’t operate.  Nonprofit still need some profit to run, of course.

On a bigger level, the decrease in visitorship might be a signal of the declining importance of museums in the public consciousness. This was something Holland Cotter alluded to in his article “How to Fix the Met: Connect Art to Life” for the New York Times. Cotter bemoans the declines in attendance in the Renaissance galleries, once a veritable melee of art-lovers.  In short, Cotter’s feeling is that, despite the best efforts of the education department and the cosmetic improvements to the gallery, the museum is no longer relevant to patrons.  To state it more plainly, since there are no visitors, it means people don’t care anymore.

Now, let’s step away from the Met’s and the attendance problems of the sector.  Think about your recent week.  Did you at any point look your social media feed to find that you were meant to go to an event this evening?  Did you go?  Or did you feign illness only to return home to stream a full season of Midsommer Murders?  I don’t say this to out you as a social misanthrope (not that there is anything wrong with that).  I point out that our society has changed.

Shared experiences are not always sited in communal space. Instead, we are often sharing experiences from the comfort of our homes. Instagram, snapchat, blogging…you can find shared spaces and communities in many non-physical spaces.

So, back to those museum visitors, they might not be hanging out in the Renaissance galleries of the Met.  But, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t engaging.  The MetMuseum’s twitter has 2.6 million followers, as of today.  I love the Met’s Renaissance collection (the Merode altarpiece is why I am in this career), but I would be amazed if there were 2.6 million folks milling in those spaces on any given day back in the good days of museums.

People are staying home.  They are not necessarily leaving the institutions they used to visit; they are visiting them in other ways.  They are watching ballgames at home. As my mother says, ballgames at home can replay all the good angles of the strike (it was a ball), and you don’t have to deal with drunk people.  They are playing movies on their tablets.  And, they are accessing museum collections on Instagram.

So, in many ways, if the museums want to connect to people, first they need to realize it might not totally matter where all the visitors went. They, like you, museum professional, are at home with a computer, tablet, and phone all accessing information and ideas from sources they trust and enjoy.

Second, museums might reach across the leisure sector to see what sorts of things draw people to other things.  As a Clevelander, I can tell you that being part of it still brings people out.  The Cavs playoffs filled downtown and the parade was a juggernaut worthy of that word.  But,  those same people spent weeks being Cavs fan from the comfort of their home (tickets aren’t easy to get, man).  In other words, people will come but only sometimes.  How are other kinds of leisure institutions are doing it? What are their measures of success? When are they okay with people accessing them from home? Let’s look around and benchmark folks.

The visitors might not come back to the physical galleries every time.  They might come for a blockbuster.  But, that doesn’t mean that they have a more shallow connection to the institution.  It might mean they are connecting differently.




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?


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.

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



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.

How do you actually make a game?

MakingAGameDesigning a game? Well, there are many ways to start, but, in essence, you want to think about some big issues:

1. What is your goal? What do you want your players to get out of it? What is your project goal? How does it relate to your game goal?

2. Where are you going to play this? In the galleries, or out? Both? Why did you choose that space? What does the game play have to do with that space? 

3. How much can you spend? Think money and time. Do you have the staff to make the game? Play the game? Maintain the same?

4. Who is playing this game? Who is your audience? What do they like to do? How do you know? What are their limitations? What are their strengths? 

Also, each answer effects the answers to each of the other questions.  In other words, think wholistically. As you answer each question, reflect on your ideas.  

After thinking about those big issues, you then need to expect to take lots of time developing, testing, and iterating.  A seamless game often has hours and hours of prep time to get to that perfect game play.


For my other posts on games:

Why play games?

Guide to Museum Games

Game Development Tutorial 

Social Media Tips for Interns


We were talking in the office about interns and social media.  Here are some of the thoughts I brought to that conversation.  Social media can be a powerful tool for connecting, potentially scaffolding for future job acquisition and fulfillment.  It can also be a means for future challenges with job acquisition.  So, a little guidance from mentors might be helpful.

Given how few jobs are available in the field, with the competition as it is, and the fact that most managers are tech savvy enough to give a little Google search of applicants a try, it would be bad management not to mentor your students.  You should offer mentorship for students in the best ways to comport themselves in the virtual environment.  If you don’t, it’s a little like knowing teens are having sex but not telling them how to put on a condom.

As managers, it is useful to start this conversation in a positive proactive way.  Share what has worked for you.  For me:

  • As a museum professional, I love the chance that social media gives to interact with the global environment.  I like when people tweet me back.  I love when institutions communicate back.  I love a repin.  I love a comment/ like on an Instagram account.  And, well, don’t let me start about Vine. I would encourage interns to be interactive, and tweet people back.  Favorite items that you have read/ seen.
  • Being in social media is a way to indicate to the museum world that you are an active participant.
  • Twitter is a real-time conversation.  So, you do need to tend it.  Check in periodically.  This makes the tool feel immediate.
  • Hash tags are a great way to connect to surprising people.  For Vine, I find that my hashtags bring me to surprising people.
  • In Twitter, include questions, when you have them.  People will answer them.  It is a tool to do real work, and people can help point you to new research.
  • I use Twitter and Pinterest as ways to track ideas that I want to keep track of.  (though hashtags help in both tools.)


As a manager, tell people when you might have screwed up.  And, share challenges that might come up.

  • There are real challenges about having a “work” account.  You will need to decide how much personal info is appropriate.  And, different social media services can brook different amount of personal sharing.  On Pinterest, you can have work and personal boards.  Your work colleagues can choose not to participate in your obsessions with Japanese furnishings; crafty banners; or juice cleanses. (I only have two of those by the way.) But, on Twitter, you might choose to have separate accounts for really personal stuff, or do that on Facebook.
  • Some museums are really serious about confidentiality.  Often all meetings notes, checklists, packing crates, etc. are confidential.  Photography rules are often very strict in galleries.  You need to conform to that.
  • Pictures are often the thing that can get you in trouble.  You might be shooting a selfie, thinking about your image instead of the background.  But, in the background, you might have a work that has yet to be released to the public.  So, if in doubt, ask.
  • Finally, remember social media is at its essence social.  It is a two way street.  When you say something, people can hear it.  This is not unlike being in a museum and saying something personal in the galleries.  The public can hear you.


Your social media presence should be an extension of yourself and the personal brand that you hope to project.  If you are a little irreverent, you account can show that.  If you are very studious, that too is fine.  If you are like many of us, and you are both studious and irreverent, well, then we should connect.