It’s interesting how an idea can be lurking near the surface for ages – you’re sort of aware of it, but not consciously – and then a tipping point comes along and suddenly everything is thrown into sharp relief. I had one of these mini-epiphanies (a miniphany?) recently, when I was typing up interview transcripts and encountered this fairly innocent sentence: “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others…” I don’t know why it flicked a switch in my head – it’s not like I haven’t heard or thought similar sentiments many times before – but it did. I realised I had been overlooking our love of things. My thinking over the past year has been so focussed on the audience-centric nature of our work, that I had neglected the cause underpinning all of it – art.
Like most of us in this line of work, I love art; I always have and always will. I was forever inventing craft projects for myself as a kid – I have clear memories of trying to varnish a stool one morning before school, when I was about eight years old. I ended up with varnish everywhere, and my exasperated mother had to cut a bite out of my fringe because I had a blob of varnish stuck in my hair (and for ‘stool’, read ‘apple crate turned on its end’). Art was my favourite subject at school, and when I discovered art history in Sixth Form, I couldn’t believe my luck. To sit and look at pictures and listen to descriptions about the artists and their times was total bliss. It’s still one of my favourite things.
My route into gallery education was through art history, and I know plenty of others whose paths have been as makers and artists. What we all share is an enormous enthusiasm for the subject. And I think that’s why the above quote made such an impression on me. In my Churchill report, I had described museum educators as being empathetic and curious, and these traits were what made us so audience-centric, but what I had missed was our keen compulsion to share our love of art. It doesn’t matter what your passion is – it could be tennis or Scrabble or anime – there is nothing better than sharing with others what makes you happy, and getting them hooked too. We are audience-centric in our museum learning approach and expertise, but – vitally – our love of the arts lies beneath this and fuels our practice.
My miniphany also reminded me to keep challenging the perception that curators do the ‘art bit’ and learning do the ‘people bit’. That distinction is a blunt measure, and the line between the professions is definitely blurring, but I would also argue that when push comes to shove, we haven’t yet achieved the right balance in our collaborative work. In my experience, Learning is increasingly called on for our audience expertise; this is welcome recognition and reflects a general shift in museum practice, but sometimes that is the only thing we are asked to contribute. Of course we each have specialist knowledge that differs, but both parties have something useful to contribute to the art bit AND the people bit.
I think it’s still pretty common for curatorial projects to be well into development before Learning is invited to identify appropriate audiences. In my dream scenario, that process is inverted – museums take a strategic approach to audience development, set clear priorities for retention and growth, and then develop programmes and projects accordingly. But I would say that, I’m Team Learning. This tussle keeps rumbling on across the sector, and reflects very different solutions to the same problem – how to create high-quality, well-respected exhibitions and displays for a large and diverse audience. No-one wants to be in an organisation where ‘the tail is wagging the dog’, but in this scenario, everyone thinks they’re the dog. All of this brings me back to that quote – “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others”. It was a useful reminder that the ‘art bit’ and the ‘people bit’ are inextricably linked in museum practice, and it’s important not to lose sight of one over the other.
I’d love to find a way past the art/people impasse. What would it look like if we got smarter about how we balance those twin priorities, both in our practice and across our museums? Is the tension that exists between these two priorities a mechanism for creativity? Could we be using the tussle more constructively?
As hairline fractures across both society and the political spectrum have split into broad canyons, the need for empathy feels very pressing at this particular point in time. Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of some seriously deep-rooted divides, and a breakdown in trust, tolerance and communication. Is it any wonder that empathy is having a moment as we try to find a way forward? There are plenty of recent publications exploring empathy – ‘Fostering Empathy Through Museums’; ‘Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It’ (its author, Roman Krznaric, also established the Empathy Museum); and of course, ‘The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society’by the former chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette. More empathy sounds like a practical solution, but it gets sticky when scaled up to an institutional level. Some have also voiced doubts that empathy is even a thing – it’s impossible to prove that our understanding of another’s perspective is accurate, and is it arrogant and misguided to assume that we could even gain such insight?
The current emphasis on empathy seems to be as much about reducing our own self-interest as it is about taking an active interest in others. The further we disappear up our own fundaments, the less exposure we have to ideas, lives, and situations that differ from our direct experiences. Consequently, our ability to take that imaginative leap and put ourselves in another person’s position is diminished. Seung Chan (Slim) Lim’s fantastic TEDx talk, ‘How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process’, discusses empathy as a form of connectedness. Lim tells a very personal and honest story about his attempt to empathise with a friend with bipolar disorder. He admits to seeing himself as a problem-solver, and it was only when he owned up to his own prejudices and assumptions that a stronger connection was forged between them.
It is perhaps not surprising that socially-minded museum practitioners have been exploring the role of empathy in their practice. Mike Murawski’s blogpost, ‘The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums’ is filled with links to interesting related projects and is a great place to start for an overview of the topic. He makes the argument that we (museum practitioners) cannot separate ourselves from our institutions; “it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people… Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.” Along similar lines, the Empathetic Museum takes a human-centred approach, and promotes institutional empathy as a means of engaging more meaningfully with communities. They advocate for organisation-wide commitment: “…the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community. From this vision flow process and policy decisions about every aspect of the museum- audience, staffing, collections, exhibitions and programming, social media, emergency responses…” They have developed a practical and actionable ‘Maturity Model’ to help museums become more empathetic, measured against the following characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness and Sustainability; and Performance Measures.
Suse Cairns (aka Museum Geek) offers another perspective on institutional empathy and museums. In her post, ‘Can Institutions Be Empathetic?’, she raises the issue of “entrenched oppression” and observes that institutions perpetuate dominant cultures and power structures. Changes to these restrictive working practices are difficult and entangled with the other institutions with which they interact. I think mapping the traits of individuals to institutions is problematic. I agree that institutions won’t change themselves – it takes people within institutions to drive these changes – but I don’t think it follows that the institution is solely the sum of its staff. Additional components, such as formalised structures, incentivising strategies, leadership models, and institution-specific cultural norms all play a part too. One person can’t be an institution, in the same way that one person can’t riot – and the actions of the collective can’t always be atomised to the individual. To speak of an institution as being empathetic brings to mind the controversial decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 to “extend to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wished in candidate elections” (see NPR article, ‘When Did Companies Become People?’ for the full story). Obviously, encouraging institutional empathy is not the same as allowing multinationals to influence political campaigns, but in both cases the distinction between the individual and the institution has been blurred.
Paul Bloom’s book, ‘Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’, offers an interesting point of view – check out Salley Vickers’ review in the Guardian for a useful summary: “Bloom is especially vocal on the need for rational objectivity in political and social policy and the dangers attendant on decisions prompted by empathy because it is ‘innumerate and biased’”.
In another Museum Geek post, ‘On the Paradox of Empathy’, Cairns makes the point that empathy is “highly selective”. Apparently we empathise with some things more than others – “the cute over the ugly, or the person more like us than the one who isn’t” (if you’ve read my post, Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions, this won’t come as a surprise). It seems that our capacity to empathise only goes so far; an article in MISC magazine (vol.24 2017), titled ‘In the Shadow of Excellence: Exploring the Dark Side of Progress’, raises some of the ethical issues linked to self-driving cars:
“Let’s say you are in a self-driving car and the brakes fail. The car can either slam into a wall, killing you and the other passengers in the car, or it can swerve and kill a group of nearby pedestrians. Which people should the car be programmed to harm, and which should it protect? Should the algorithm controlling the car always act in a way that minimizes the number of people killed?… researchers found that most people believed the cars should be programmed to behave in whatever way minimised the loss of life. Yet the study also found that most people would not want to purchase one of these cars themselves. Instead, they preferred to purchase a car with an algorithm that would protect them and their families as passengers at all costs.”
Charming – but can you blame them?
In my Churchill Report, I identify empathy and listening as key attributes of creative museum educators. The depth of interest taken in other people is striking, whether working with the public, or with artists, or with community partners, or with colleagues. So much museum education is built on collaboration, and that in turn requires finding common ground and negotiating compromises. I used the word empathy to summarise what I saw as reduced self-interest and the active effort to really understand someone else’s point of view or experiences. On reflection, perhaps rational compassion is a better phrase. I like how it retains what I consider to be the essential ingredients of empathy, but it removes the assumption that ‘I feel your pain’. Perhaps demonstrating rational compassion is more constructive.
PS – there’s an interesting conference coming up in Amsterdam (26-27 October), Through Different Eyes, that will be exploring empathy and design thinking.
I have a lot of time for awe. It’s one of those grand, old-fashioned emotions that seems to span millennia. Ennui and apathy strike me as far more contemporary emotions, but awe goes right back to the beginning. The ‘big three’ awe-inspirers are nature, religion and art. In their presence, we are humbled and the experience is overwhelming and uplifting. Over time, the power of awe has been devalued and an ‘awesome’ experience today could be just about anything. Comedian Eddie Izzard does a wonderful routine about the difference between the original use of the adjective and what it has become, when even hotdogs are described as awesome. So for the purposes of this post, let’s put the hotdogs to one side and focus on the fire-and-brimstone, breath-taking, transformative version of awe.
Like cathedrals before them, museums are designed to inspire awe. Traditionally, they’re big (which by comparison makes us small ), imposing and solid, built to last well beyond a human lifespan. The feeling of awe that I experience in large cathedrals and museums is more about the volume of space than the actual bricks and mortar. Liverpool Cathedral, for example, is quite plain compared with the standard gothic/baroque models, and yet it still inspires awe because it is just so unbelievably gigantic. I always marvel at how much space is contained within its walls. The Victorians were particularly good at awe-inspiring museum architecture – the Natural History Museum and the V&A, neighbours in South Kensington, are both immense structures that impress even before you’ve had the chance to discover all the treasures inside.
When I think about the sort of museum experiences that I want for audiences, I often talk or write about engagement, excitement, enjoyment, entitlement (so many e’s), curiosity, inspiration and – perhaps – wonder, but I can’t remember the last time I promoted awe. I don’t know why not, because I’ve seen countless people experience awe when confronted by an amazing painting, sculpture or gallery. The eyes widen, the jaw falls, and the whole face lights up. If they say anything, it’s usually a quiet ‘…woah…’ I love those moments, they are total catnip for museum educators. So why don’t we talk about awe more? Perhaps the religious connotations are too strong? Is it too worthy? Or does it feel presumptuous to proclaim ourselves awe-providers? (Although it doesn’t seem to stop us laying claim to being inspiration-providers.)
The University of California, Berkeley, has been conducting research into awe, looking at its evolutionary function and how it’s expressed in different cultures. Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor at Berkeley and has done extensive work in this field. His talk, ‘Why Awe is Such an Important Emotion’ and article, ‘Why Do We Feel Awe?’, are both fascinating. Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world”. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we experience awe, our creative thinking opens up too. Berkeley studies have shown that “simply watching short videos of expansive images of the Earth leads people to come up with more original examples when asked to name items from a certain category (e.g., ‘furniture’), to find greater interest in abstract paintings, and to persist longer on difficult puzzles when compared with appropriate control conditions”.
What I hadn’t previously appreciated about awe is that it is a socially bonding experience. When we are in a state of awe, our self-interest is superseded by an interest in others, we become more altruistic, and the division between ‘us and them’ is lessened. Surely we could be making more of this attribute in museums. I have experienced this effect at music festivals and performances, but I haven’t felt particularly part of a collective experience with everyone else in the same museum. Perhaps that is because standard museum engagement is either alone, in pairs, or small groups. I looked after a yoga session in the V&A’s Raphael Gallery a couple of weeks ago and that was a pretty special experience. Perhaps it is through large-scale events at museums, where many people are all engaged in the same experience, that the effect takes hold?
The other thing I took from Keltner’s introduction was that awe can be a regular part of life. It’s not just about sunsets on mountaintops, it can also be about noticing the fall of light while walking through a park, or admiring a friend who has just accomplished a major challenge. According to their studies, on average we experience awe 2.5 times a week. (I wonder what half an awe looks like – a highly-anticipated sandwich that turns out to be a little bit disappointing perhaps?) In Keltner’s presentation, he draws attention to the differences between US and Chinese awe-inspiring moments. Ten percent of the US subjects’ experiences of awe were ABOUT THEMSELVES! This rate is 20% higher than their Chinese equivalents. It turns out that many moments of awe come from our admiration of others – their courage, generosity, wisdom and strength. This makes sense when I think about the collective awe that had the UK in its grip during the 2012 Olympics.
To finish, I want to share this short TED talk by Rob Legato, titled, The Art of Creating Awe. Legato shares some of the behind-the-scenes stories of creating the special effects for Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo. He is also very funny.
The Familiar, the Usual, and the Expected are the three mundane horsemen of mediocrity. Dressed head-to-toe in beige and taupe, these horrifying spectres have sensible haircuts, early bedtimes, and identical opinions. If it was up to them, nothing new or interesting would ever happen – it just isn’t worth the risk. Their counterpoints, on the other hand, bring the fun. The Unfamiliar, the Unusual and the Unexpected can be chaotic and destabilising – never leave them in charge of your home, your pets, or your plants. They are also highly energising and inventive, smashing ideas together like atoms and sparking fantastic creativity. Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, it’s never boring in their company. They are the gate-keepers to every great idea you want to have.
The importance of venturing ‘outside my comfort zone’ is a cliched truth that I know, then forget about, then remember again, in a seemingly endless cycle. I get sucked into the habits of routine without even noticing, overpowered by the horsemen of mediocrity and their paint-dryingly dull tales of commuter timetables and putting the bins out. Just before slipping into a tedium-induced coma, I either deliberately or accidentally shake up my routine, shake off the horsemen, and welcome in the excitement of doing something differently. Travel is the best way to do this, ideally to a country where I don’t speak the language. Absolutely everything in that situation, from the belief systems to the bus tickets, is compelling. I also like the strangeness of getting back to the UK and seeing my home through changed eyes. What felt like a pokey ex-council flat on my departure can feel like a mansion on my return. And then everyday life re-establishes itself, and that exciting window into otherness closes again.
I wish that the solution to stultifying routine could always be ‘go to South America’, but this isn’t practical on an arts sector salary. There are countless smaller ways to embrace the unfamiliar, unusual and unexpected, and the easiest place to start is by breaking routine (the web can provide you with plenty of ‘brain-training’ and ‘neurobic’ suggestions). It was with this aim in mind that I attended Nesta’s free, one-day event, City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. On arrival, I scanned the room, recognised no-one, and was handed a small orange booklet titled, Using data in government and public services: a practical guide. ‘Perfect’, I thought to myself, ‘this is just the experience I’m looking for’. It was a fascinating day, and not least because so much of it was new to me. I left feeling really inspired – my head was buzzing with the potential of applying this ‘data analytics’ thinking to museums, galleries, and arts education.
So here are some of the things I learned…
Data is not just about numbers; it can be utilised as a means of problem-solving, making the case for change, working across services more efficiently and effectively, and preventing problems before they arise (especially around crime and healthcare). For Nesta, ‘information – based on data – can be applied towards two primary goals… making better decisions… [and] enabling better actions.’ The private sector is all over data and uses it to powerful effect, by instilling a need in the customer and then providing the solution, at a cost of course. The public sector is playing catch up, and is currently investing heavily in using data to improve services. However, there is still some way to go in building trust between services – some authorities feel self-conscious about the uneven and patchy quality of their existing data, and there are also sensitivities around consent and privacy when handling personal information. The point was also made that data doesn’t solve every problem – the first task is to establish whether it is the most appropriate tactic for addressing the issue at hand. It also isn’t necessary to centralise data when sharing across providers. Rather than merge everything into one lump, it seems to be more about making connections and layering different datasets to reveal hidden patterns. There are changes coming to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018, the full impact of which I didn’t grasp, but it involves consent and the right to be forgotten (ie. to have one’s digital history erased). The ‘privacy impact assessment’ is a useful tool for checking that data usage remains on the right side of the law.
A particularly memorable example was shared by Pye Nyunt, Corporate Insight Hub Manager, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. There are 47 betting shops in the borough, and Pye walks past several of them every day in his commute between the train station and the town hall. Nyunt undertook a mapping exercise, layering the location of the betting shops, secondary schools (as children are a potential future market), the homes of adults with mental health issues, and a range of other categories to get a better understanding of their impact on the area. The bit about ‘kernel density proximations’ went over my head, but I tuned back in when Nyunt was talking about being able to identify hot spots in the borough and the knock-on effect for the community. He concluded that the council had an annual rental income of £300,000 from these betting shops, but the annual cost of addressing the negative consequences of gambling was closer to £800,000. In the words of another speaker at the event, data analytics move the conversation on from ‘I think this is a problem’ to ‘I know this is a problem’.
Katherine Rooney, City Innovation Project Manager for Open Data, Bristol City Council, shared wonderful examples of projects that are directly meeting community needs. Through consultation, it became clear that damp was a big issue across the city’s rental accommodation. To capture and understand the extent of the problem, and then identify a solution, tenants were given devices to record damp levels, with all of the information going back to Open Data for analysis. In an interesting twist, the devices were shaped like small green frogs. Using a friendly frog, instead of a personality-free black box, was a great way to get community buy-in (and the frogs generated possibly most questions at the event). Because this initiative was bottom-up instead of top-down, the level of take-up and community commitment was high. Rooney also shared the great example of Playable Cities, a community-driven initiative that turns Bristol into an enormous playground. Following a suggestion by a member of the public, one of the city’s steepest streets was turned into a huge water slide for the day.
Local authority councils across the country are investing serious resources into utilising data better. They take different names in different places – Office of Data Analytics, Insight Hub, Intelligence Approach, Open Data, Smart Cities – but the aim is the same. I don’t know which rock I’ve been perched on while all this has been happening. Perhaps I’m the last one to the party, but I haven’t heard of this growing asset being used in museums and galleries. Just think how that wealth of data could shape opinions on the value of the arts in the National Curriculum, or how it could help us prioritise communities for arts engagement, or even – the holy grail – measure the impact of local arts initiatives. (Do please get in touch if you have any examples.) If you want to dip your toe into a big dataset, check out the RSA’s Heritage Index, mapping heritage sites across the UK. Their 2016 update includes shipwrecks (!), ancient trees and war memorials, so there’s something for everyone.
As you can tell, I took a lot away from City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. It has given me an appetite for attending more events that have an oblique, rather than direct, connection with my work in art museum learning. The creative challenge of making links from their sector to mine was possibly the most mentally stimulating part of the day, and a whole world of new collaborations and ways of working has opened up. It should keep the horsemen at bay for a while…
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing my experience of working with ImaginationLancaster to develop interview formats and associated tools, devised with the aim of better understanding the creative process of museum educators. The first interview focussed on the individual and their personal approach to creativity; the second interview, which I’ll explore in more detail here, was all about collaboration and group dynamics, and how we nurture ideas from that initial spark to a fully-fledged programme.
No museum educator is an island – not even the ones working as solo learning specialists in their organisations. All new ideas must get bounced around like pinballs, ricocheting off colleagues, funders, partners, artists, and stakeholders, before being launched into the world. This process can go two ways – for better or worse. Some ideas end up subject to ‘mission drift’ by trying to be too many things to too many people. The result? All a bit soggy and no real impact. However, when it goes well, the opposite occurs. Ideas can gain depth and richness through the input of other people’s perspectives. My best ideas have all started in pale sepia tones and only transitioned to full-blown technicolour after much discussion with many others.
In many ways, interview two was easier to conduct than interview one. In the first interview, museum educators were being asked to reflect on and articulate a process that is very personal and isn’t usually voiced. However, for the second interview, the same individuals were being asked to talk about their programmes and how they worked with others. These kind of questions are often asked of museum educators, whether for marketing, reporting or practice-sharing purposes, so the responses were, generally speaking, more readily available.
To start, I asked interviewees to bring to mind four examples of programming that they had a key role in shaping. I requested two examples of programmes that they felt to be ‘tried and tested’ (well established, popular and work well) and two examples that they considered ‘innovative’ (reflecting new approaches). One of the aims of my Churchill Fellowship was to identify innovations in learning programming, and I was curious to know how practitioners recognised this in their own work. In order to identify what made their innovative programmes distinctive or special, it was very useful to have the counterpoint of the ‘tried and tested’. Interestingly, some of the ‘tried and tested’ examples had started life as innovative programmes and, over time, had become a reliable staple as the museum educators gained confidence in, and familiarity with, how to deliver the programmes successfully. At this stage in the interview, I just wanted a nuts-and-bolts summary of each example, and asked interviewees not to offer any analysis of the creative aspects, because that bit was going to come later.
Next, I introduced the Project Mapping tool. This tool was a modified version of something that came from a previous piece of work with ImaginationLancaster. In 2015, I commissioned them to run a half-day workshop with my then team, Schools, Families and Young People (SFYP) in the Learning Department at the V&A. During our discussions around working practices and how we developed new ideas and programmes, one of the workshop facilitators observed two recurring dynamics – high vs. low risk, and reactive vs. proactive. Inspired by this, we marked out a matrix on a large sheet of paper, using these dynamics as X and Y axes, and then positioned our programmes in the relevant quadrants. It turns out that we perceive our work as being higher risk and more proactive than I realised, which was a reassuring discovery.
When I was working with ImaginationLancaster the following year, we felt there was potential to use the matrix format again. I was very keen to keep risk on one of the axes, because it comes up so often when talking about innovation, creativity and change. I also wanted to have one consistent measure so that I could collect several different responses to risk in relation to programming. The X axis we kept blank to see what other dynamics would come up. We also wanted the matrix to have a degree of personalisation, so that the mapping would better reflect the circumstances of that particular organisation.
When the Project Mapping Tool was introduced, the first task was to define what high and low risk meant to the interviewee, to make sure we were both talking about the same thing, and then to label the second axis. Once that was done, we numbered their four examples (1 & 2 = tried and tested, 3 & 4 = innovative) and then each one was positioned on the matrix. It was at this point that we reflected on the creative process and how it related to the chosen coordinates of each example. To read more about my findings from this part of the interview, please refer to my earlier post, Risky Business (12 Dec 2016).
For the final part of the interview, I asked interviewees to select one each of their ‘tried and tested’ and ‘innovative’ examples, and then talk me through how they were developed: What was the original idea? What steps did they go through? Who did they work with? How did they work together? What was the result? For this, we used an existing ImaginationLancaster tool, hexagons, that had been developed as part of a previous project. As the name suggests, hexagons are hexagonal (natch) discs that have a simple linking mechanism around the edges so you can build up a interconnecting map of thoughts and ideas. They were created as an alternative to the ubiquitous post-it notes, and are useful when exploring topics that have an element of progression or development over time. We used colour to differentiate each example – blue hexagons for the ‘tried and tested’; and red for the ‘innovative’.
This task generated an interesting range of responses. For two of the seven interviewees, after mapping their ‘innovative’ example, they declined the request to map their ‘tried and tested’, because they felt there wouldn’t be much difference between the two. For others, the process for each was very different. When this was the case, I asked interviewees to arrange their hexagons in a way that would reflect this (ie – not just a long snake of one hexagon after the other, but a more complex, interlocking arrangement). A particular characteristic of the ‘innovative’ examples was the necessity to keep looping back to earlier stages in the process. As the new programme was finding its form: some components were presumed resolved, went pear-shaped, and then had to be returned to and reconsidered; some components were extended and further fleshed out, whereas others were dropped; and some components were revisited as the result of input from others or externally-imposed considerations. It seemed to be a process that required closer attention, and more frequent, complex decision-making than when interviewees were working on ‘tried and tested’ programmes. I should note that not all examples were originated by the interviewee; some had inherited programmes and couldn’t talk about the genesis of the idea. I was also warned – and rightly so – that memory is highly unreliable. Was I getting an accurate record of how these programmes were created, or a tidied up, selective, oft-repeated narrative version of events? Ideally, I would have preferred it to be the former, but I think it’s more realistic to assume I collected a fair bit of the latter too.
With the example(s) mapped out in front of us, I then asked the interviewee to annotate, using green hexagons to show moments of surprise or insights, and ‘node’ hexagons (with a white dot in the middle) to show trigger moments where something shifted – ie. innovation. The answers this task generated could be loosely categorised as individual or interpersonal. For example, an individual surprise/insight was when the interviewee noticed a greater self-awareness around sensing boundaries and then pushing against them. In comparison, interpersonal surprises/insights came about through working with audience focus groups, brainstorming with the project team, and – shock horror – having a huge amount of fun and laughing like drains when testing beta versions of new programming with colleagues.
When conducting the interviews, I was always trying to delve deeper into the interviewees’ responses. Like that irritating child who keeps asking ‘why?’, I didn’t want to accept face-value answers and I would have missed a lot of great material if I hadn’t pushed for more. This rather dogged approach came from a place of genuine interest and curiosity. Having said that, I was also very aware that the interviewees were demonstrating an enormous amount of trust and generosity by allowing me to poke around in their heads and careers. It was important to me to be respectful of their answers, both in the moment, and how I later shared my findings through reports and blogposts.
I had always assumed that the sort of people who are drawn to museum and gallery education are also inherently interested in other people – a Venn diagram to illustrate this would be like an eclipse, with one sphere perfectly overlapping the one behind it. So much of what I learned over the course of my Churchill Fellowship confirms this assumption. It may seem self-indulgent, but I strongly believe that there is a huge amount to be gained from turning that interest in others back onto ourselves. These interview formats are one way of exploring our own creative processes, but I’m sure there are also plenty of others that we could be putting to good use.
I am fascinated by the creative process and what creative people think about their own approach to ideas generation and development. In last week’s post, I gave an overview of my work with ImaginationLancaster, and how we devised interview formats to explore this topic. This week and next, I’d like to go through each interview in some detail, explaining how I used it and sharing some of my findings from my trip to the US. Both interviews and related tools are appendices in my report, The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning, available on the WCMT website.
The first interview focused on the individual rather than the group. Everyone has their own way of coming up with new ideas – consciously or otherwise – and I wanted to get a better understanding of how people think about their own creativity and how it shapes their work in art museums. So the emphasis of this interview was on self-awareness and personal definitions of creativity and the creative process. Because I was meeting people for the first time, I wanted to start by giving them space to talk generally about their roles. The actual question is: ‘In what ways do you bring value to your organisation – what qualities, skills, experience, and abilities do you have/use?’ This was daunting for some, so I often expanded on it and asked interviewees to speak about the many facets of their work and what they bring to it. We would spend about 20-30 minutes talking about their role, and then I would whip out my first interview tool.
The tool is in two parts – the first step is for the interviewee to select six key values that they bring to their organisation, and the second step is for them to place each value on a scale, from less to more creative, and then explain their rationale. I didn’t want people getting ahead of themselves and preempting step two, so I folded the page back so only step one was visible. The preceding conversation was a necessary warm-up to enable interviewees to list their top six values, and it was also useful for me to have a more rounded and in-depth understanding of their work before we arrived at these brief headlines. The six values were originally listed in no particular order by the interviewee.
I enjoyed that everyone interpreted this task in a different way and there was an interesting range of identified values. Some of the responses were task-oriented, such as ‘grant-writing’, ‘evaluation’, and ‘management’, and other responses reflected personal attributes, such as ‘process-oriented’, ‘vulnerability and willingness to admit failure’, and ‘pushing boundaries’. A sensitivity to others came up several times (‘listening’, ‘connector’, ‘collaboration’, ‘working with others’). Two of the seven people interviewed expressly stated ‘creativity’ as one of their six key values to the organisation, and a further two made reference to highly creative processes (‘rapid ideas generation’ and ‘vision’).
The next step was to then place each value on a scale. When I was testing the interview format on colleagues in the UK, I asked interviewees to rank each value from 1-10, with 1 = not creative and 10 = highly creative. However, when working on the final template with the ImaginationLancaster team, we wanted to give a bit more flexibility so we created a small grid, with ‘less’ at one end and ‘more’ at the other. As hoped, this resulted in many different responses, such as: a vertical line at the appropriate point on the grid; shaded bar graphs; little pictograms to illustrate each point; and even an arc, using the grid as a measure of time passing and mapping how the creative aspects peak and dip depending on where they were in the cycle of programming.
While the grid didn’t have an explicit scale of 1-10, there were 10 columns so, where possible, I could turn each response into a number and then see how they compared with each other. Two interviewees went full Spinal Tap and ranked their top value 11 out of 10 (for ‘persistent questioning’ and ‘storytelling’). Only one value was ranked 1/10 – ‘high expectations of myself and others’, everything else was 3/10 and above. ‘Listening’ was an interesting value, as it was ranked by different interviewees across the scale (9, 4, and 3). For the interviewee who ranked it highest, listening was felt to be a fundamental and generative part of the creative process, whereas those who ranked it lower felt listening to be more of a character trait, something they did instinctively, and while creative work was linked to listening, it wasn’t creative in and of itself. I found the conversations around their rationales were some of the richest parts of the interview. Having to think about and articulate what makes key aspects of one’s role creative (or not) really puts the squeeze on personal definitions of creativity and gave us plenty of food for thought.
The next part of the interview asks, ‘Describe a way of finding out about the creative process of a museum educator, from before the idea is created and up to the point where the programme is confirmed and advertised’. In my best-laid plans, the interviewee would dream up an approach – and I was open to a broad interpretation of the question. We would then carry out their idea, whether it was a tool or a question or a process, and reflect on what it told us about their creativity. This question would allow me to see their own creativity in action, and it would also give me another perspective on their understanding of the creative process. All fine and good, I thought… However, some of the interviews had to be cut short to fit the available time slots, and this question often faced the chop. When it was included, some interesting solutions came up; some interviewees suggested a combination of observing programmes in action, and then conducting interviews/discussions to unpack how they had been created, which was a good idea but not something we could try out immediately. Over a longer period of time, I would have liked to follow this question through and play out their ideas.
I was able to explore this question more thoroughly during the testing phase in the UK. I had more time with interviewees and their solutions were things we could try out quite easily. One interviewee came up with a lovely structure, summarised as ‘What, How Why’:
Step 1: Ask the interviewee to list their target audiences and five things that they consider USPs (unique selling points) for meeting those audience needs. Further unpack each USP to identify underpinning principles. So, for example, a USP might be that audiences ‘feel heard’ and the associated principle is ‘dialogical enquiry; everyone brings their own knowledge and experience’
Step 2: With these USPs and principles in mind, ask the interviewee to map the process of delivering a project. Create a diagram or journey of this process, and think closely about how the starting and ending points are defined. Notate with small icons or keywords, for example, a little twisted knot for those difficult or anxious moments
Step 3: Using the diagram/map, continue the discussion to generate clear statements around why the process is carried out in that way. This is the trickiest bit to drill down to, but when we tried it a lot of rich ideas surfaced, such as ‘constant questioning: keep re-visiting and challenging ideas during the project, and always know why a decision has been taken’.
I also really liked the approach of another UK interviewee, who, as a dancer, brought a different perspective to the task. Her solution was to take a sheet of paper and ask, ‘if this was your creative process, how would you play with it?’ When I pulled the ol’ switcheroo and asked her to do her own task, she immediately started tearing the page, working carefully and allowing different shapes to emerge. She then twisted and curved each piece, and fairly rapidly created a small sculpture. It was important to the interviewee that we then didn’t try to explain it and add words to the word-free experience of making, but – and this was my favourite bit – she observed ‘I could dance that’, referring to her paper sculpture, and then demonstrated how the form could be translated into movement. It was so spontaneous and immediate and true to her practice.
I think the best way to conduct this Leapfrog interview is to use the format and questions as a loose framework and allow the interviewee plenty of space to roam with their thinking and responses. The more informal and casual the setting, the more comfortable the interviewee. I wanted the process to feel like a really stimulating chat, but with one person (ie. not me, for a change) doing most of the talking.
Now that my Churchill Fellowship report is completed, I’d like to revisit some aspects of the process that I only touched on lightly when writing up my findings. The interview format, developed with the help of ImaginationLancaster, had a huge influence on how I conducted my research. As an appendix to my report, I included the interview questions and the three interview tools I used to better understand the creative process of museum educators. I would love these questions and tools to be of use to others, and in order to make that happen, I think a bit more context is required. So this week I’d like to tell the story of how the ImaginationLancaster team turned my initial podgy thinking into a lean, mean researching machine (the classic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo scenario), and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at the interview format and tools in more detail, discussing how I used them and sharing some key findings. If this sort of thing is up your street, you’re in for a treat; if not, please come back in a month’s time when it’s all over.
I met staff from ImaginationLancaster at a co-design conference a few years ago and really liked their approach to working with communities; they have such a genuine interest in the audience ‘voice’ and ensuring that the end-user has a hand in shaping whatever service or facilities are being designed for them. In 2015, I invited ImaginationLancaster to devise and deliver a workshop for my then team, Schools, Families and Young People, at the V&A. We used tools to explore: how to generate new ideas for programmes; how to think about our own creative process; and what steps we could take to make our office environment and team-working more conducive to ideas development and programme planning. These themes and concerns – the creative process, ideas generation and development – continued to knock around my head and became the focus of my Churchill Fellowship the following year.
In developing my approach to the Fellowship, I was very aware that the creative process is a tricky thing to pin down. It lives in the shadows and doesn’t ever really let you look it in the eye. I wanted to find a way to sneak up on it, and I knew I’d need help to devise the necessary interview tactics. So I sidled up to Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange at ImaginationLancaster, with this challenge. As luck would have, his team had recently embarked on a new cluster of AHRC-funded co-design projects called Leapfrog, and Leon thought my query would be a good fit for one of the smaller strands. Happy days! So I ended up visiting Lancaster for three full-day workshops in total; once in May 2016 to clarify my research questions and brainstorm interview tools; again in July to refine and confirm the final interview format; and then finally in November, after my month in the US, to go through the information I had gathered, reflect on how the tools had been used, and come up with some data-crunching strategies.
I gained so much more from this process than just the interview format and tools. I was particularly fascinated by how Leon and his colleagues improve ideas and clarify thinking. It brought into sharp relief the difference between the ‘show and tell’ approach that dominates discussions of museum education practice and the analytical poking and prodding of academia. I arrived for my first workshop, with Leon and researchers Laura Wareing and Hayley Alter, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. However, at that point none of my ideas had been tested or critiqued. To prepare for the first workshop, Leon asked me to bring my research questions – what exactly did I want to find out? Even this seemingly basic task took quite a bit of thought, not least because I knew these questions would be my touchstone for the whole process, and an important outcome of the Fellowship would be my ability to provide some answers. I ended up with the following: how can museum educators better understand their creative process, and how can that greater understanding inform and improve programming?
Taking my questions as the starting point, we then discussed each one in some detail and ended up with eight further questions, teasing out various lines of inquiry. These questions became design challenges, and we did a series of ‘sprints’, coming up with possible ways of answering each one. This was followed by further reflection, questioning and refining. By the end of the day I was buzzing, knackered, and happily heading home with a much better understanding of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it (for more detail on this workshop, please see my post on the Leapfrog blog). What I enjoyed most about the workshop was being challenged. Leon, Laura and Hayley asked lots of great questions, the sorts of questions that you can’t wriggle out of or sidestep. They offered different perspectives and would also challenge each other to further explain or clarify their own thinking. Their workshop spaces have wonderful large whiteboards and pinboards that can be wheeled around, and we covered about half a dozen of them with our thoughts – it was very useful to see everything mapped out.
Leon also did a fantastic job of keeping us on track. My brain likes wandering down the side-streets and back-alleys of related anecdotes and amusing asides, as well as indulging in ‘but what does it all mean?’ navel-gazing. Leon was having none of this. Several times, he kindly but firmly steered us back by asking, ‘is this addressing the research questions?’ The invariable reply of ‘no’ brought us back into the fold and refocused attention. Consequently, we achieved a lot over a relatively short period of time. Again, I couldn’t help but compare the loose and freewheeling approach of so many museum education meetings/discussions I’d attended with the focus and discipline that ImaginationLancaster employs to get things done. Both approaches are creative and inspiring, but I particularly enjoyed the additional sleek efficiency of a design-minded way of working.
Between the first and second workshops, I tested out the draft interview format on a few colleagues and friends who work in the sector. The benefits of this were twofold: it enabled me to pinpoint which parts of the interview were working well and which parts needed further work; and it also gave me and the interviewees a genuine insight into their creative processes. The interview is in two parts – the first focuses on the individual (solitary, internal) and the second focuses on the group (social, collaborative). In total, it took 2-3 hours to complete both parts with one interviewee. That’s a long time to spend talking about yourself, what you do and how you do it.
More than one interviewee made the observation that they’d never previously had the chance to talk in-depth about their creative process, and they were surprised by what the interview revealed about themselves. I don’t think I would have achieved the same results with a self-assessment form; a lot of the value of the interview format comes from having someone listen, and listen closely. Just as Leon, Laura and Hayley listened to me to understand my ideas, I tried to do the same with the interviewees, giving them my full attention and asking for more details or elaboration if I felt something significant needed further fleshing out. I was given the good advice to always keep the focus on the interviewee – an interview isn’t a conversation, and the more talking I do, the less I learn about the other person.
The second workshop in July was a chance to reflect on how the interview format was working. I felt that some of the questions needed refining as they weren’t quite hitting the mark, and the draft, hand-sketched tools I was using needed to be turned into the final templates. Again, it was incredibly useful to think about what I wanted to achieve and then make sure that any improvements moved us closer to that goal. Laura and Hayley are InDesign wizards and created the lovely templates that I took with me to the US. As a group, we also devised an additional tool to be sent to interviewees in advance of my visit – the tool asked interviewees to select or create a postcard-sized image that serves as ‘a metaphor for my creative process’ and then explain why. Rather than arrive cold, I wanted to give them a quick activity that would encourage some reflection on the creative process before the actual interview. I sent the tool to everyone I was going to meet; the take-up was fairly low, but I didn’t insist it was used and was happy to give interviewees the choice to opt in or out of completing it.
And then September happened, and I had the time of my life travelling across the US, meeting so many inspiring practitioners and learning about their work. I interviewed a total of 23 museum and gallery professionals, of which seven were in-depth Leapfrog interviews; the others were briefer and more general interviews about innovations in programming, the role of museum educators, and organisational context. I was acutely aware that I would soon be leaving my contented Fellowship bubble and I wanted to capture as much of my learning as possible before being spat back out into real life. Before leaving the US, I started a list of the similarities and recurring themes that I had noticed come up in interviews, for example: get inspiration from outside the sector; make connections across disparate subject matter; create a culture of experimentation; don’t shy away from disputes and differences of opinion, etc. On my return to the UK, I transferred my findings from the Leapfrog tools into a series of Excel spreadsheets so that I could compare and contrast the range of answers to each question. I took all of the completed tools and my spreadsheets back up to Lancaster for our third workshop.
After so much preparation and planning, it was very satisfying to be able to share the data I had collected with the team. Even though we all knew the templates well, I hadn’t anticipated that the completed tools would be pretty impenetrable for the others to ‘read’. I had the memory and experience of the interviews to decode the tools, but it turned out that it wasn’t material you could browse without those memories and experiences. However, for the purposes of the workshop we were evaluating the interview process rather than the content, so this wasn’t a hindrance.
One of my biggest concerns in November was next steps – how on earth was I going to turn all of this raw information into an organised and coherent report? My answers were buried in there somewhere – how could I find them? Leon, Laura and Hayley helped me with this problem too. As well as keeping a list of similarities across the interviews, I also wanted to distinguish between the mindset or character traits of the museum educators, and their behaviour and actions. I felt the former was difficult to replicate – is empathy something you can learn? – whereas the latter could be fostered. With these factors in mind, the team suggested I create a table, with my list of observations down one side and then three columns across the top, divided into mindset, behaviours, and impact (ie. how the mindsets and behaviours were manifest in the programme/activity). This framework set me up nicely for the following couple of months – I transcribed the interviews and then copied relevant comments into the table, adding more rows as needed. In this way, I was able to follow what the data was telling me – some observations needed to be subdivided to capture further details, other observations fell by the wayside or were collapsed into larger categories. Slowly, natural groupings began to appear and a structure emerged. Populating the table was time-consuming and laborious, but it was also thrilling to discover not only what I was hoping to find, but all sorts of other stuff that I hadn’t anticipated. I had never used Excel to write an essay before, and found it an incredibly helpful tool for ordering my thinking and pushing ideas around. It also felt reassuring to know that my conclusions were reached through a systematic approach; I could write with confidence because I felt the foundations were secure.
So, as you can see, ImaginationLancaster played a substantial role in my Churchill Fellowship, and I can’t imagine how I would have done it without them. As well as being guided through a specific design process, I also benefited hugely from their critique and creative input. And the best bit? It was good fun. Working with people who are really good at what they do always makes me raise my game.
Other people eh? What are they like! Everything would be so much easier if everybody else shared my worldview – aka ‘common sense’ – and just stopped being daft. I’m afraid I’m guilty of having this thought, usually when watching the evening news, and it’s pretty typical human behaviour. We surround ourselves with people who think the same way and share similar attitudes and values. Rather than ‘live and let live’, the further someone’s worldview is from our own, the harder we find it to bridge the distance. The gulf of understanding that can exist between people is probably most keenly felt on the subjects of politics and religion, which explains why it’s considered good manners to avoid both in polite conversation. Unfortunately, such a rift can turn into a ‘who can shout the loudest?’ competition, and you don’t have to look far at the moment to see a global epidemic of divisive ‘with us or against us’ thinking. It’s all a bit bloody annoying really.
a) read statements that supported their position on same-sex marriage and then answer simple questions to confirm an understanding of the arguments. On completion, participants would then enter a draw to win $7.00, or;
b) read statements that opposed their position on same sex marriage, and then answer simple questions to confirm their understanding and be entered into a draw to win $10.00.
The result? 64% of same-sex marriage supporters went for option a), and 61% of those who oppose it also went for a) – both would rather miss out on cold hard cash than read opposing viewpoints. It’s not just the big issues either; research has also demonstrated the same effect when discussing beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), airplane seats (aisle or window), and even seasons (spring vs. autumn). Personally, I’ve never had much time for pepsi-drinking, window-sitting, autumn-loving weirdos, and now I know why. It shocks me that we are so petty as a species, and that the need to have our opinions validated is so deeply rooted.
The motivations behind this behaviour are twofold: participants who chose option a) wanted to maintain ‘a shared reality with the speaker’; and avoid cognitive dissonance, ‘the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs’. I have written previously about comfort being the enemy of innovative thinking (Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?) and how group dynamics, including the pressure to conform, can shut down creativity (Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration). When I think about the homogenity of museum professionals, and museum educators as a subset within that group, we have a particularly high mountain to climb if we are to genuinely meet audience needs and interests.
If I imagine a quasi ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario, where all thirty-something brunette women with MAs in art history/museum studies just disappeared off the face of the Earth, our museum learning departments would be decimated. But as a small sample of the museum-going public, audience demographics wouldn’t be much changed. In other words, it’s very easy for us to avoid conflicting worldviews because we are surrounded by people who are very similar, and yet we are not a representative sample of the public we serve. It is exactly this reassuring familiarity that needs to be disrupted if we want to be innovative in our programming and engage a broad and diverse audience.
The good news is that although the majority chose to stick with their fellow same-thinkers, a healthy 36% and 39% of participants chose option b). These individuals were more receptive to alternative worldviews (or maybe they just wanted that extra $3.00). I will always prefer The Guardian to The Telegraphor The Sun – not much of a surprise there – but this does nothing to challenge or extend my understanding of other people and their motivations. It doesn’t take much to step off the beaten path and increase one’s exposure to different worldviews, it’s just a case of doing it.
PS – The Pacific Standard Magazine article that I have drawn on for my post includes a link to a 2009 article by the same author, Tom Jacobs, titled Morals Authority. It is an absolutely fascinating summary of research into why liberals and conservatives have seemingly insurmountable differences, originating from very different moral and ethical starting points. Well worth a look. IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.mustardweb.org/michaelpalin/
I have been looking forward to this moment for months and I can’t believe it’s arrived – I’m finally able to share my Churchill Fellowship Report with the world! On my return from the US last October, I started the lengthy process of transcribing interviews, wading through data, and creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet to organise my experiences into some sort of structure. I have crunched what I’ve learnt down into a report format that I hope is both interesting and entertaining to read. It was a labour of love, and I’m really happy with the results.
The two key aims of my research were to better understand the creative process of museum educators and share examples of innovative practice; my findings form the bulk of the report. I focussed on five cultural organisations: Dallas Museum of Art, MCA Denver, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Museum Hack. I made use of verbatim quotes as much as possible, because I believe that the stories of Learning’s successes are best told by those who made it happen. The report concludes with recommendations for putting some of the ideas discussed into practice. I also shared the interview tools I used, developed in collaboration with ImaginationLancaster. The full report is available to download from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website. To give you a wee taster, I’ve included the executive summary below – I hope you like it.
The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning
It’s one thing to sit down and to make something and be creative, but it’s another thing to reflect on your experience, because it’s through that self-reflection that you really grow and come to new understandings.
Through my Churchill Fellowship, I aimed to better understand the creative process of museum educators and highlight examples of innovative programming. By its nature, museum education is collaborative, collective and collegiate. Audiences are central to the work, and extensive research is conducted to better understand and meet their needs, and ideally exceed their expectations. Ironically, museum educators are so adept at supporting the creativity of others that their own creative contribution often goes overlooked.
The majority of programming formats – talks, tours, workshops, projects and courses – are well-established and used by museum educators all over the world. Over time, however, programmes can harden into fixed orthodoxy, and path dependency can blinker museum educators to alternatives. This risk is particularly pertinent to the UK cultural sector, which is currently being buffeted by economic austerity, restricted arts provision in formal education, and shifting audience demands. In amongst this flux, museum educators need to be flexible in their thinking and experimental in their programming to keep pace with the rate of change.
To address my aims, I visited five US cultural institutions to interview staff and observe programmes. At each, I focussed on three priorities: the programmes (what makes them innovative); the Learning staff (how they generate and develop ideas); and the organisational context (the conditions that enable museum educators to do their best work). My findings are presented in two sections: the first deconstructs the creative process and identifies key characteristics of the individual, the organisation, ideas generation, and ideas development; the second presents examples of innovative practice and illustrates what is possible when the creative components converge.
I conclude that the creative process is intrinsic and vital to museum education; it underpins the practice and fuels innovation in programming. A heightened awareness of one’s own creative process, developed through self-reflection and peer-led critique, equips practitioners to further improve and develop their work. As museums become more deliberately social and audience-centric in their approach, the expertise and creativity of Learning staff increases in value. If museum educators broaden their horizons from the departmental to the institutional, and step up to the challenge of leading organisational change, they are well-placed to define the future of museum practice.
I have always been interested in the difference between the veneer of the conscious self – the things we think we know and can articulate – and then all the other stuff that lurks beneath that – the memories, biases, aptitudes, drives and desires that exert an enormous influence over our thoughts and actions. What fascinates me most about the latter is that you can never fully look it in the eye, by its very nature it lies beyond conscious engagement. A whole family of trolls lives under the bridge you’re standing on – you can’t see them, but you can sense them. And when you visit a museum, your troll family comes along too (hiding behind pillars, under ticket desks and inside vases). You leave the museum having had two experiences – the one you’re aware of and the one you’re not aware of, but it’s there nonetheless. How can we engage more deliberately with both? How can we encourage your troll family to want to come back too?
A useful way of thinking about non-declarative knowledge is Michael Polanyi’s concept of tacit awareness or tacit knowledge. I once had it described to me as ‘everything you know minus everything you can say about what you know’. Classic examples of tacit knowledge are riding a bike or playing a piano – the more attention you pay to what you’re actually doing, the more likely you are to stuff it up. Polanyi presents knowledge as a construction that is social (for example, both language and tradition come from a shared, collective understanding) and deeply personal (we can only understand the world through our individual experiences). Without ever being able to touch an entirely objective reality – because we assimilate everything through our subjective experiences – Polanyi argues that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.
An important dimension of tacit knowledge is the difference between focal and subsidiary awareness. Polanyi describes hitting a nail with a hammer as an example. The nail has our focal awareness (or it should have, to avoid an injury) and the hammer has our subsidiary awareness:
“When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way… The difference may be stated by saying that the latter (hammer) are not, like the nail, objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are not watched in themselves; we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in my palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving the nail.”
Polanyi also uses the example of reading a letter as another way of illustrating the difference; our focal awareness is on deciphering the meaning of the letter, our subsidiary awareness is on the words, grammar and syntax, enabling us to decode the content. In both instances, if you move your focal awareness to that of the subsidiary, it all goes a bit awry: attending to the hammer rather than the nail is asking for trouble; and attending to the shape and length of every word in a sentence loses the meaning. We can flip our focal attention between the two states but we can’t focus on both simultaneously.
Now consider the focal and subsidiary awareness required to engage with an artwork. Like reading a letter, our attention can move between the content and the ‘grammar’ of the object – the ideas themselves or how those ideas have been manifest. When I look at art, I’m aware of a rolodex whirring around at the back of my brain, making connections with other artworks, styles and movements that I’ve seen over the years. I like it when I get the little art historical in-jokes and references. This subsidiary awareness provides me with a set of rules to understand and decode artworks and it’s not something I do consciously. I think we are, as museum professionals, sometimes guilty of assuming everyone has a similar rolodex to frame their understanding. I’ve always been suspicious of the anti-interpretation argument that ‘the artwork should speak for itself’. This is fine for an art-savvy audience with a whopping image bank to draw on – in which case, the artwork isn’t speaking for itself, but lounging around on a pile of the audience’s previous gallery experiences. Without a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian language is just a beautiful collection of curves and corners; without a knowledge of Minimalism, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is just a tidy arrangement of bricks.
Everyone brings their prior knowledge, be it art-based or otherwise, to the experience of visiting a museum. Not all of this knowledge is declarative or conscious, but it does all have an impact on the quality of the visit. As an habitual museum-goer, I don’t think about how I orientate myself on arrival or plan a visit, it just happens. In comparison, if I was doing something brand new, like go to a monster truck rally, I would be attending closely to every step of the process required to get in and seated, and I’d feel like I was on the back foot most of the way. Our museums send out a lot of subtle signals to first-time visitors and their accompanying troll families: some of these indirect messages are welcoming, such as clear signage and relaxed staff; and some of them are off-putting, like hiding the front door and offering scant interpretation. Whether we are aware of these signals or not, our troll families are taking detailed notes. We will leave either feeling good about the place and keen to return, or wanting to never darken its door again, and it won’t always be possible to explain why.
The concept of implicit learning is closely linked to tacit knowledge. As the name suggests, learning is implicit when we are not aware that it is happening (check out Michael Eraut’s work on non-formal learning in the workplace for more information on implicit learning). Alex Elwick’s interesting article, ‘Understanding implicit learning in museums and galleries’ (Museum & Society, Nov 2015) highlights some of the challenges inherent to researching tacit knowledge. Elwick interviewed ‘Friends’ of two galleries and looked for contradictions in their observations of their own gallery-going experiences, arguing that their implicit learning is revealed through these conflicting views. I don’t know if these findings were fruitful, but I did find the introduction fascinating and the references offer plenty of material for further reading.
Tacit knowledge is also frequently discussed in relation to the act of making in art, craft and design, as the skills are often developed over years and can’t easily be described. British writer, Peter Dormer took inspiration from Polanyi’s theories for his book, ‘The Art of the Maker’ (1994). Dormer wrote about ‘craft knowledge’ and its practical/tacit qualities. Through his own attempts to learn figurative clay modelling and calligraphy, he tried to better understand the implicit learning that was taking place.
For another angle on tacit knowledge that considers the workplace, I’d recommend the article, ‘Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge’ (Journal of Knowledge Management, 5 (2), 2001). Its author, Charlotte Linde, researched an insurance company, looking at how social tacit knowledge was demonstrated and learned through narrative. Her observations are not particular to insurance companies and speak more generally to the experience of working in a team and how one becomes familiar with, and adapts to, the culture of an organisation: “…part of becoming a member of an institution involves learning the stories about that institution which everyone must know, the appropriate times and reasons to tell them, and the ways in which one’s own stories are shaped to fit a new institutional context.” So it looks like we bring our troll families along to the office as well. They hide in filing cabinets, behind doors and under conference room tables, quietly learning the particularities of working for that specific place.
I love the way tacit knowledge makes itself known; it’s infuriatingly present and absent at the same time and it defies any direct engagement. You can sense it and know it ‘in your bones’ but still struggle to pin down exactly what it is or where it’s located. Declarative knowledge is just one small aspect of museum-going; visitors are picking up so many more micro-messages about our organisations, both good and bad, that contribute to the overall experience – an influence we shouldn’t underestimate.