Lateral Thinking: What Would Eno Do?

Making the familiar unfamiliar wakes us up. Our brains are great at creating taxonomies and categorising information as it comes in through our senses, and just as well. Imagine if every new chair we saw was processed by our brains as the first chair we’d ever seen – the world would be impossibly overwhelming and exhausting. But with a ‘chair’ category in our mental filing system, we’re freed up to think about other things, like what we want to have for lunch. This efficiency does come at a cost however – complacency. Our thinking can trundle along, assuming we’ve seen it all before. We develop routines and habits and we stop looking. But if we slant our perspectives, and approach something familiar as though it were new to us, we open up a whole world of possibilities.

Known as lateral thinking, it is often mentioned in relation to ideas generation and creativity. I like to think of it as comparable to peripheral vision or trying to remember a dream on waking up. In both cases, what I want to look at is just beyond my grasp; the more directly I try to look at it, the further it slips away. So it requires a different kind of looking and thinking – more sneaky and unexpected, as though the solution is an oblivious opaki and I’m a predator hunting it down. In fact, staying away from the solution for as long as possible, sometimes even heading off in what feels like the opposite direction, paradoxically, can end up being the best route to the most creative answer. There are many techniques for promoting lateral thinking – below are some of my favourites that I think are well-suited to generating new approaches to museum learning programmes…

Oblique strategies and constructive constraints

In 1975, musician, Brian Eno and artist, Peter Schmidt created a series of cards, titled Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, to help overcome creative block. Each of the 113 cards holds a question, a statement or a challenge – all prompts to encourage lateral thinking. For example: ‘what would your closest friend do?’; ‘honour thy error as a hidden intention’; or ‘use an old idea’. This approach now has cult status and has been reprinted, reformatted and repackaged many times. There are various websites (example here) that, at each click of a mouse, presents you with a new ‘card’.

The Wikipedia page on Eno includes a great anecdote from an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. It demonstrates how a very tight constraint, such as a narrow brief or quick deadline, can actually provide rich inspiration. In 1994, Eno was commissioned to create the brief start-up music for the Windows 95 operating system, known as ‘The Microsoft Sound’. He explains:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem – solve it”. The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 31/4 seconds long”. I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel. In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

Chance operations

Musician and artist, John Cage, a friend of Eno’s, is famous for his application of chance operations – an attempt to remove the self entirely from the creative process. Systematic and methodical in his approach, Cage used the I-Ching and relied on chance (for example, the toss of a coin) to compose music and images.

Divergent thinking

Psychologist, J P Guilford created the ‘Alternative Uses’ test in 1967 to measure creativity and, by extension, the application of divergent thinking. Participants were asked to come up with as many alternative uses for an everyday object as possible in two minutes. Those who demonstrated divergent thinking were coming up with wildly imaginative lists as they were able to split the object’s everyday use from its potential to be something else – or, in other words, they were able to disrupt the brain’s tidy mental filing system. As a warm-up exercise for a team planning meeting, a divergent thinking task can be useful preparation for finding new approaches to a problem.

Making associations

I’ve blogged about this already (see Ideas by Association) but it’s also a good fit for lateral thinking. It seems to be a technique that works well across all artforms; I’ve been to talks by author, A.S. Byatt and poet, Jackie Kay where they have both spoken about bringing together disparate ideas or images to create something new.

Object as metaphor

A museum’s collections and exhibitions are a fantastic resource to generate ideas and as a springboard for discussion. For example, as a team exercise select a gallery and ask everyone to choose one object that in some way symbolises what they think about their current programme. After going around the group and allowing everyone to share their thinking and rationale, then repeat the exercise, asking the team to select an object that represents what they want their programme to be in three years’ time. Then compare and contrast. The selected objects will have additional qualities that can offer alternative perspectives on the issue under discussion. There is something magical about this way of working – I love how unexpected and surprising the outcomes can be.

Ask good questions

Levi Brooks has written an interesting article for 99U, titled Brainstorm Questions, Not Solutions. He advocates for slowing down and understanding a problem fully before attempting to find solutions. He also offers useful advice on how to structure questions, such as ‘challenge the underlying assumptions of the problem (including your own)’ and ‘understand fully how different people around you perceive the problem’. Having only just read Brooks’ article, and primed to look for good questions, I then read Bridget McKenzie’s thought-provoking piece, Towards the Sociocratic Museum, which is full of them! Just one example – “I think the key is not in the familiar question ‘how can museums survive?’ but in ‘how can museums do work that matters?’ and ‘how can our governance reflect our mission?’” By shifting the emphasis and considering the issue laterally, McKenzie is opening up a whole new way of thinking about the problem at hand.

And in other news…

With the exception of bank holidays, I’ve enjoyed getting into the habit of posting an article on my blog every Monday. I’ve been surprised by how much it’s helped my thinking by having to write down the stuff floating around in my head. Most of what I’ve written recently has been based on my reading. Over the next month, I will be in the US doing my Churchill Fellowship research and I’m planning for the focus of my blog posts to shift too. I want to use the blog as a notebook to capture my first impressions and initial reactions. This might fall into a weekly pattern, or it might be something else – I will just have to get there and find out.

I would love to hear your views or top tips for while I’m there, so do please get in touch.

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The Subtleties of Innovation

I’ve been obsessed with the future of museum learning programming for quite a while now, and I’m always drawn to examples of practice that are actively breaking away from what has been done before. I’ve understood ‘innovation’ to mean a substantial change; a leap forward without precedent, creating a clear demarcation between ‘how it was then’ and ‘how it is now’. However, as with just about everything else in life, it turns out that ‘innovation’ is much more subtle and complex than I realised.

During a recent meeting with the ImaginationLancaster team (who I’m working with to design interview tools – see previous post) Dr Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange, introduced me to a range of terms describing different types of innovation. For example: radical innovation describes the type of progress I usually imagine – the big leap forward; disruptive innovation occurs when a small company spots a gap in the established market and creates a new, cheaper version, meeting the needs of those priced out or ignored by the existing offer – in time, the scrappy start-up can steal the market from established top dogs; and incremental innovation is the softly, softly approach, making small and frequent adjustments to an existing offer (be it a product, service or programme) which all adds up to a substantial shift over time. I have a lot to learn about this field – Leon’s article The Innovation Dimension: Designing in a Broader Context (Design Issues, Vol. 26, No,2, pp17-26, Spring 2010) gives a useful introduction to innovation studies and how they relate to design – less straight-forward and chummy than you’d think.

Leon’s article also introduced me to the great phrase ‘path dependency’ which ‘occurs when circumstances preclude the adoption of innovations because the necessary physical, logistical or conceptual changes present too great a barrier. This path dependency becomes an issue particularly when systems of innovation become interrelated or heavily specialised, when infrastructure costs are very high, or even when working practices are long established and when people are resistant to change… Reliance on routine and on established patterns of working forms an important component of path dependency’ (p24). I can relate to this; when I think about the ongoing cycle of regular programmes such as after-school art clubs, adult weekend drawing workshops, talks and tours at the same time each day – all of them can take on a life of their own, making it very difficult to change course. What was once a newly-laid path of interesting programme, over a few years can wear down into a rut and, worse, over many years can deepen into a trench of staid repetition; it’s a struggle to clamber out, particularly when you can’t see over the top and imagine anything else. To want change but not know where to start because everything feels so fixed can be paralysing.

In hindsight, it now seems obvious that innovation has many shades and I should have figured this out sooner. The good news is that these new (to me) terms are very helpful when thinking about how we might apply innovation to different strands of museum learning programming.

Over the past couple of months, I have been talking to my peers a lot about their practice and programmes and it’s a recurring theme that the core, ongoing programme is a very different beast to short-term, often externally-funded project working. The core programme tends to tick over and gets less attention because it is a known quantity, and museum educators are working well within their comfort zones because they are familiar and confident with the format, audience and outcomes. Project-working encourages more experimental approaches and more thorough evaluation, partly to satisfy funder requirements and partly to reach new audiences. Museum educators are challenged to think in different ways about their practice, which can be both daunting and energising. It’s tempting to put one’s creative energies into projects and consider this strand to be the most innovative aspect of the learning offer, but I think core programming and project-working would be better served by considering how different kinds of innovation can enhance both.

I’m generalising, but I can see how incremental approaches to innovation would work well to refresh the core programme, and more radical/disruptive innovations are well suited to the format of project working. I would like to think that what we learn in one could inform the other (and vice versa), but this doesn’t seem to happen as often as it could, perhaps because the nature of these programming types is so different? Would our energy be better spent developing each separately and in parallel rather than trying to makes links between them?

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Where Business Meets Museums – Programme Development

Last week, I looked at the parallels between business management and museum practices, and how museums can learn from business in relation to audiences and visitor experience. Following the same train of thought, I’d like to look at what business management can teach us about product development, which for me serves as a useful metaphor for the development of learning programmes. I know this sounds as appetising as the world’s driest cream crackers, but hang in there, I think the potential is incredibly rich – more like a huge Black Forest cherry torte.

Product research and development is fundamental for businesses to keep ahead of the competition, to anticipate future markets, and to give us things we didn’t even know we needed. I experience this first-hand every time I leave IKEA, having spent far more than I intended to. Can we do the same with our learning programmes? Do audiences come into our museums assuming they only want to pop into the cafe, and then come out two hours later, their heads buzzing with ideas and inspiration after participating in amazing workshops, discussions and activities? I want museum education to be just as systematic and disciplined in its investment in programme development as businesses are in product development. I also want to find the museum learning equivalent of the Dyson hand-dryer, or the Apple iPhone, or the IKEA 365+ breadknife (which changed my life!) What does a radical new approach to museum learning look like? And how does this new approach better serve audience needs?

Kaywin Feldman, Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gave an inspiring talk in London last October which included many examples of business management practice being applied to museums. She spoke about silo mentality, referencing Gillian Tett’s book, The Silo Effect: The Perils of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. She challenged us to ‘question our dominant logic’, and quoted Peter Drucker, who was a highly influential and well-respected business thinker from the 1940s until his death in 2005. (My favourite Drucker quote is, “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic”.) Feldman’s lecture was packed with ideas for tackling change management and preparing an organisation for its future challenges. The idea that had the biggest impact on me was ‘Transformation A & B’ – a way of thinking about promoting innovation within the core offer (A) while separately developing smaller and more experimental approaches (B), with the aim that one day (B) could become (A).

The ‘Transformation A & B’ model was outlined in a Harvard Business Review article (Dec 2012), titled Two Routes to Resilience. Its authors, Clark Gilbert, Matthew Eyring and Richard N Foster, wrote about companies that need to transform themselves “in response to market shifts, ground-breaking technologies, or disruptive start-ups”, but I don’t consider this to be very different from museums having to transform themselves in response to fluctuating funding streams, rising audience expectations, and the impact of new technologies (such as smartphones, with their digital cameras and Pokemon Go apps).

The A/B strategy is particularly exciting in relation to learning programme planning and development. We have our ‘tried and tested’ offers for our core audiences – they like the programme, we like the programme, but is it enough to keep cranking out the same thing until the audience numbers start shrinking? We also have the equivalent of a research lab in our on-going project working, which is often short-term, targeted, experimental and with fewer, if any, known outcomes. The externally-funded projects often give us space to try out new ideas and work with different audiences. This is a bit oversimplified, but what if we mapped Transformation A to the core programme and Transformation B to the targeted projects? If we recognise that each have their own rhythms and both require innovation to stay relevant, we can work in parallel to ensure the whole learning offer is serving its purpose.

Alternatively, we could think of Transformation A as everything we do now with our learning programmes, and Transformation B as radically new – perhaps working across different teams? Deliberately ‘questioning our dominant logic’ and going against our assumptions? Testing prototypes and failing often? Side-stepping KPIs and other established measures of success? We could create a truly open-ended, process-driven, creative and playful approach to programme development that flies beneath the radar, breaks the rules, and cracks open a whole new way of working with audiences. If you know of any museums working in this way, please get in touch.

LACMALab is a great example of a ‘Transition B’ project. LACMA is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it has an ‘Art + Technology Lab’, now in its third year, which is itself a reboot of a similar project that LACMA ran from 1967-71. LACMALab, however, was “the museum’s research and development unit, instituted to test experimental approaches for presenting art and engaging audiences of all ages”. I’ve struggled to find information about it on the current LACMA website, but it must have run from at least 1999-2006. I was made aware of the programme when LACMALab’s then Director, Robert L Sain, spoke at an engage conference in 2004. I remember being very inspired by his session. To read his presentation summary now (still on the engage website), it’s interesting to see how Transformation B experiments can move towards core practice:

LACMALab is a new animal in the museum world. As an experimental programme in the context of a large encyclopedic museum, LACMALab is in the business of investigating new models for presenting art and engaging audience through artists’ commissions. Over the past 5 years, over 30 artists and designers, from the internationally noted to art students, have created participatory installations for audiences of all ages, serving over 300,000 visitors. Perhaps the most challenging and seductive aspect of the ‘charge to the artist’ is to create new work that equally engages both a child and an adult. This ‘age-free’ approach is not chronological, not linear, and not about imparting information ‘at’ the visitor. The goal is to provide a new kind of social intersection space where visitors determine their own meanings, and hopefully, have transformative experiences that may apply to other areas of life. LACMALab is about ‘lighting the fire’ and about motivation, which is the foundation for life-long learning. This presentation showed examples of the artists’ projects and examine seven different strategies for engagement in the gallery.


Header image: By William J. Morton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Where Business Meets Museums – Visitor Experience

A number of business management phrases – silo mentality, change management, resilience – have found their way into the common parlance of art museums, and not without concern. As people who choose to work for charities and non-profit organisations, I think museum workers have a complicated relationship with money; we like to distance ourselves from those who focus on the bottom line and profit margins (culture is a higher calling, darling), but we literally can’t afford to ignore rigorous financial accountability. On the one hand, I loathe the commodification of my every waking experience and love that museums are civic, communal spaces that anyone can access without charge; on the other hand, I’m really quite fond of being able to pay my mortgage and museums don’t fund themselves. Some might turn their noses up at ubiquitous ‘exit through the gift shop’ kettling, but what’s the alternative? Planting money trees?

I think business practices can teach us a lot about understanding audiences and how to meet their needs through innovative programme development. They may use different words, but the principle is the same. A successful business must have a clear understanding of its customer-base and potential for growth markets; it must invest in product research and development to stay ahead of the competition; respond quickly to external factors that could have an impact on its work, both positive opportunities and negative threats; and ensure high quality and efficient service. If the customer feels good about interactions with the business’s representatives, this will lead to repeat business, customer loyalty, and ongoing revenue streams. Our motives in museums are different, as we don’t measure success in financial profit and shareholder returns, but I see so many operational parallels – for customer, read audience; for product, read programme.

There is a famous case study of SAS Airlines being turned around by visionary leadership. In 1981, SAS was losing $17 million per annum and had a reputation for appalling punctuality; one year later, with its customer service revolutionised and decision-making decentralised, the airline was ranked the most punctual in Europe and turned an annual profit of $54 million. This extraordinary change of fortune came down to the new CEO, Jan Carlzon, who instigated a training programme called ‘Putting People First’ and empowered customer-facing staff to “[solve problems] on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission”. Carlzon’s book, Moments of Truth (1987), is considered a classic.

This all sounds very familiar – aren’t we aiming to ‘put people first’ too? I can already see how the influence of retail is feeding into museum practice. Visitor Services is increasingly being retitled Visitor Experience or Visitor Engagement, and museums are coming around to the realisation that informed, welcoming front-of-house staff have a huge impact on how audiences feel about the place. Bellowing ‘DON’T TOUCH’ and lunging across a gallery towards an unsuspecting member of the public is unlikely to encourage repeat visits. Carlzon compared the changes at SAS to inverting a triangle. Instead of forming a power hierarchy with CEO at the pointy end, management in the middle, and the lowest paid, usually customer-facing staff along the broad base, he flipped it. When customer is king, those who have most to do with the customer (and the company’s reputation) are at the top, and everyone else needs to be working upwards, supporting those above them to, in turn, support the customer’s needs. The CEO is at the bottom, serving everyone. If you know of any museums working in this ‘inverted triangle’ way, I’d love to hear from you.

Header image: By SAS Scandinavian Airlines ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boundary-fluid Museums & the Future

I think it’s fairly safe to say that 2016 is going to give historians plenty to talk about, for decades and possibly centuries to come. That is, of course, as long as we manage not to annihilate ourselves in the meantime. There is no reason to believe that this instability (to put it mildly) will stop as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I will breathe a grateful sigh of relief when 2017 arrives. Predicting the future has always been a high stakes gamble, raised even higher when the world is in such a state of upheaval, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to know or trying to find out. And while global politics seems to spin further out of control, there is still the business of daily life to be getting on with, including planning for the future of museums and how we get there.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) established the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) in 2008 to ‘help museums shape a better tomorrow by exploring cultural, political and economic challenges’. The CFM annual publication, TrendsWatch, is available free to download from their website. It offers an inspiring and thought-provoking analysis of contemporary issues and innovations, reflecting on social context as well as how these trends could apply to museum programming and practice. TrendsWatch 2016 is the fifth edition and includes chapters on: Labor 3.0; the Spectrum of Ability; Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality; The Struggle over Representation & Identity; and Happiness. These themes are also relevant to the European context, although may manifest themselves in different ways. Unfortunately, we also have the impact of Brexit to consider, and the accompanying socio-political climate that enabled it.

Museums of today have come a long way from their origins in 17th century cabinets of curiosities. These private collections reflected the tastes and interests of wealthy individuals and were accessible only to friends and acquaintances. Things took an interesting turn when the masses were allowed to see these objects too. The British Museum, founded in 1753, was the first national public museum in the world, created from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who stated in his will that it was to be a gift for the nation. The Louvre Museum was formed when the royal collection and palace were transferred to the French State in 1793 as a result of the Revolution. The story of museums from here seems to be one of an ever-increasing emphasis on people.

Nineteenth century museums had an overtly educational and improving purpose. The National Gallery (London) was founded in 1824 with the House of Common’s acquisition of John Julius Angerstein’s painting collection, intended to be the core of a new national collection, “for the enjoyment and education of all”. British scientist, James Smithson, left his estate to the US to found “an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”; the Smithsonian Institute (Washington DC) was formed in 1846, and is now the world’s largest museum and research complex. Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the V&A), wanted his museum to be “a schoolroom for everyone”. It was the first museum to use gas lighting, allowing for evening opening hours so that working people could visit, and admission was free to the public three days a week.

Skipping ahead to the 21st century, the contemporary emphasis on audience-centric museums feels like the latest step along this path. The public today expect a cafe, a shop, family-friendly activities and events, plenty of seating, a warm welcome and high-quality visitor experience. The nature of museum collections has also shifted dramatically, especially over the past century. Once home to private bequests made public, they now explore an enormous range of subject matter. A few examples:

Museums that are personal passion projectsMuseum of Broken Relationships (Zagreb); House on the Rock (Wisconsin) which is startling even in photographs; and the Museum of Innocence (Istanbul) which is both a novel by Orhan Pamuk and a museum he’s set up.

Museums that celebrate/explore hidden historiesFoundling Museum (London); Bunjilaka Aboriginal Heritage Centre (Melbourne); Museum of disABILITY History (New York); and the National Women’s History Museum (Washington DC) which doesn’t have a building and is currently raising funds.

Museums that address traumatic historical eventsWar Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh City); Museum of Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin); and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Santiago de Chile).

Museums of social history and daily lifeSt Fagan’s National History Museum (Cardiff); Tenement Museum (New York); and the celebrated Museu da Maré (Rio) which was one of the first community museums in Rio and is currently under threat of eviction.

Museums of sportNational Football Museum (Manchester); the Olympic Museum (Lausanne); and the National Horseracing Museum (Newmarket).

Art Museums in private ownership with audience engagement programmes Saatchi Gallery (London); Jupiter Artland (near Edinburgh); and Compton Verney (near Stratford-upon-Avon)

There are also examples of ‘museums without walls’, to borrow Andre Malraux’s phrase (which sounds far more poetic in the original French – musée imaginaire). There has recently been a spate of itinerant museums: the Museum of Water, by artist Amy Sharrocks, is “a collection of publicly donated water and accompanying stories”; the Empathy Museum was founded by writer Roman Krznaric and led by artist and curator Clare Patey. Its first exhibit in 2015 was a shoe shop, where visitors were invited to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

What if museums in the 21st century continue to shape-shift and undergo a revolution equivalent to that of art in the 20th century? Imagine your bog-standard, turn-of-the-century gallery-goer, who has a clear understanding that art is ‘oil on canvas in a gilt frame’. Now drop that same person into Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 227: the lights going on and off’ (2000). Without any of the cultural frames of reference needed to engage with Creed’s artwork, it would be totally baffling. Drop him home again in 1900, and none of his mates would believe him. What if we picked up a contemporary museum-goer and dropped her into the museum of 2116 – what would her experience be? And would we laugh in her face when she was dropped back and told us about it? To continue the analogy, we haven’t replaced the ‘oil on canvas’ variety with the conceptual variety – both kinds of art co-exist. Perhaps museum formats will do the same; the traditional ‘buildings filled with stuff’ will continue, and a plethora of alternatives will also be available, making the word ‘museum’ almost impossible to define.

So can we get down to the basic building blocks of what is essential to a museum experience? British director Peter Brook transformed theatre with his 1968 book, The Empty Space. He argued that all theatre needs is two people, one to carry out an action and the other to watch. What could the museum equivalent be: one person to curate an object and the other to look at it? Two people discussing an idea? Two people having a conversation on the street? Only time will tell.

Header Image: Emil Mayer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons