Friday, August 6, 2010

Avoiding contractions: a don't

Survey Monkey is fun. I put together a quick questionnaire using our draft introduction text for Peace. My main goal was to check if people noticed the contractions - all three of them - and ask for their opinions about contractions in exhibition text. I took the opportunity to throw in some questions about the overall tone and readability of the text. It took about five minutes.

A few days and thirty responses later, I feel like I have some pretty good material for making the case that we should feel perfectly comfortable including contractions where it feels natural and appropriate to do so. Most people - 67%- didn't notice the contractions. When I asked for thoughts about contractions in exhibition text, the whopping majority -87% - were generally positive, or neutral. I had been instructed to test contractions specifically with military veterans over the age of 55. Of that group, only two expressed displeasure with the contractions - though one hadn't noticed them in the test text.

 I'm also carrying out a quick poll in the Peace Sandbox near my office about contractions. Considering how long it took folks to participate in the draft text exercise, it may not be so quick after all, but the idea is to keep the participation going. We also took down the draft text and all the comments. For each comment, we posted a response, along with the redraft. The idea is to validate the great playing we saw with this first exercise.

The next step is to test the redrafted version, as well as an alternative, more conventional version with Museum visitors. I won't use Survey Monkey this time mostly because I would like to simulate exhibition conditions. We'll also test two versions of content text. I hope that the tests show that our preferred conversational version(contractions and all!) is better received. No matter what they show, I know we'll have some meaningful feedback!

I will be referencing this excellent discussion about contractions in my report:

Contractions and How Not to Abuse ‘Em, posted on January 4, 2006 by Roy Jacobsen, on Writing, Clear and Simple

and, Jennifer Blunden's article about conversational tone in museum texts:

Dumbing down for museum audiences — necessity or myth?, in The Fine Print, an ezine by emend editing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tall, extra-hot, non-fat decaf latte

It took me a while, but I managed to find out how to order exactly what I want. I now get the Kathryn latte - the latte that is perfectly customized to suit me. Naturally, I identified immediately when I read  Envisioning the Customized Museum by Mary Ellen Munley et al. It's true, as they argue, that we have come to expect customization in our products and services, and perhaps increasingly, in our experiences.

A lot of the characteristics of meaningful custom museum experience seem similar to those of museum participation. In both, the museum is a partner or a platform, facilitating the visitor's engagement with the content. I can imagine the tension that working towards this sort of experience would cause in some circles: it might sound too much like relinquishing control or authority. What about trust and legitimacy?

As I care a lot about engaging visitors with content, facilitating the connections they make between their own lives and the stories we hold, I see immense possibility for customization and participation. It hit me again, as I bopped along to the latest tune in my CBC Radio 3 playlist. This Web site has changed the way I experience music - it is amazing.

Let me explain. I am definitely not cool. I am not in a band, nor am I friends with the band. I don't go out. But, here is this site that has about 100,000 songs by independent Canadian artists. It is a vast library of new and emerging talent, that anyone can access, organize into playlists and enjoy. At first, a little daunting - because as I said, I am not really into new music. But once I had an entry point - a band I had heard of and liked - I was able to engage with the content and explore new songs. In a few days, I discovered reams of music by artists I had never heard of - and I feel a little bit connected to Canadian new music. Way cool. And there's more! There are other people out there - artists uploading new music everyday, and other listeners with their own playlists and comments and sharing and there's a blog and all sorts of other neat things.

So why is this such a fantastic example of the power of participation and customization? I think it because the content is good, there is a structure to experience it, the platform is easy to understand and once the door is open a crack, its very easy to waltz (bop?) all the way inside.

Thank you, CBC Radio 3.

Envisioning the Customized Museum: An Agenda to Guide Reflective Practice and Research, by Mary Ellen Munley, Randy C. Roberts, Barbara Soren, and Jeff Hayward pg 77-90 in Practice, In Principle: Museums as Learning Institutions, John H. Falk, Lynn D. Dierking, Susan Foutz, eds. (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2007)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Peace Sandbox

In an effort to be playful and inclusive in the way we work on this Peace project, I cleared off some space on an adjacent cubicle wall. (yup, it's all cubes over here) I've labelled the space the "Peace Sandbox" and have been posting ideas and images up there. Recently, we posted a big copy of our first draft intro text, and invited folks to mark it up, ask questions, or leave suggestions.

At first, there was nothing. We stood back, and made a few edits ourselves, but it was hardly shaping up to be participatory space I had imagined. And then, it happened. The post-it notes came out and started multiplying. I realized of course that I should be adhering to the same principles of meaningful visitor interaction and participation - thanks, Nina Simon - and went back to the wall and started responding to the comments and questions. I've added a re-draft of part of the text, and that has attracted its own comments.

The next step, I think, is going to be summarize this intro text "game", push it to the corner for now, and introduce a new game. I am considering a quick voting system for some very focused questions we have about our voice. The first one to tackle is the use of contractions. We want them, the director is yet to be convinced. I am toying with presenting short sample texts and asking for a like/don't like vote on them - maybe only revealing what was different between the two version afterwards? Still needs work.

Hardly ground-breaking - it's no wiki, after all, but this is the first time here that we've opened up the development process even a little bit.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All play!

Oh happy day! What I learned from Fish! and Fish Tales! about being playful and lighthearted is dovetailing nicely with some of the (fun!) reading I've been doing about voice, text and learning. It would seem that having fun has a couple of benefits. We learn more! We remember more! We want to repeat fun experiences! A story about this:

I recently visited another museum with my family. Having just read about characteristics of family museum learning, I gave myself permission to let go of the museum professional role (in other words, I opted NOT to constantly critique my experience), and just enjoy. I was there, after all, to spend time with my family, have a positive experience with my family, and possibly learn something. In that order of importance. I laughed my whole way through our couple of hours there. I laughed because we were so absolutely like the family groups I had been reading about, and I laughed because we were playing and being silly together. A couple of lessons:

1. Visiting an exhibition with a 7 year old is like being in a closed room with a super bouncy super ball. Or in a garden with a bumble-bee. "Mommy, what's that?" "Well, dear, that's a..." "OH LOOK AT THAT!!!" And off she runs...
2. Scanning is the only way to read text. Scanning is hard when the text is dense and complicated.
3. Having a good time, and retaining positive feelings about the experience is more important than retaining the exhibition's content. Because now, we want to go back, and I will tell other people we had a good time.

What I think this means for Peace is that I now have some literature and personal experience to back up that point in our work manifesto about wanting to create a positive - and dare I say - even fun experience for our visitors. And that is no laughing matter!

My fun reading list:
Playing with the Past, by Jon-Paul C. Dyson, in Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick, Eds, (Left Coast Press, 2010)

A Lighter Approach to Warning Labels: Creating Cooperation through Humor, by Florence Bramley, (1994) originally in Visitor Studies, 6(1), 60-6, available:

Laugh a Little, Learn a Lot: Making Your Message Stick, by Florence Bramley (1993) Visitor_Studies, 5(1), 99-104, available:

Hilke, D. D. (1989). Strategies For Family Learning In Museums. Visitor_Studies, 1(1), 120-134

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Not so Radical Voice

I'm progessing on my look at the voice and tone we would like for the exhibition. We want to have a friendly, open conversation with our visitors. We would like for them to understand that we're a bunch of Museum folks who have worked very hard to present an interesting experience, but that we've made choices, and we have our own perspectives, too.
So far, we've defined some objectives for our voice and tone:

  • Be respectful of choices, opinions and perspectives. To do so, we must be open about our own choices and use language that shows this.
  • To show that outcomes -history as it is traditionally presented and understood - are not inevitable. Dialogue and debate are central to the stories and processes covered in the exhibition. Our text must reflect and continue this dialogue.
  • Peel away the history. Encourage visitors to consider their own choices and reactions if they were confronted with the events we present.
We think we know what the characteristics are, too. Active, concise, open, inclusive and conversational. We even want to have peaceful language, that is we want to avoid using violent metaphors. This last bit has been interesting for me, as I've become aware of how prevalent they are in what I usually write or say. ("We need a bullet-proof defence!" "I've been fighting my way through all this reading!")
Now for the challenge. This is a complex exhibition, with some sticky issues and events. The pressure to be absolutely accurate and in line with the museum's mandate is quite strong. You could say some have put their guards up, but that would be a violent metaphor, and I am trying to avoid those! We presented some samples and they were met with cautious, conditional support. The conditions are that we have to prove that people will read and enjoy this text, and that we will not alienate anyone. So I've got a reading list as long as my arm, some ideas for readability tests and a timeline of September. I've found good resources for using questions, good current discussions about multiple voices, but not too much about conversational tones. I will keep looking!
Today, I read:

Write and Design with the Family in Mind, by Judy Rand in Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick, Eds., Left Coast Press, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Way We Work

With all credit going to Chart House Learning's Fish! and Fish Tales! I've worked up a set of values for the Peace project team. Week by week, I am working through ways to make it true to how we actually get our work done and work together. Here it is:

WE PLAY: Work made fun gets done. We choose to approach serious topics and tasks in a lighthearted, spontaneous way. It’s not an activity; it’s a way of working that brings energy to the project and sparks creative solutions.

When we enjoy our visits and feel positive emotions, we are more likely to remember our experience positively.
We want our visitors to enjoy Peace.

WE MAKE THEIR DAY: We choose to treat everyone we collaborate with as special members of this project, with something unique and valuable to contribute. We respect the beliefs, actions and opinions of our collaborators and subjects. We will help each other to success.

When someone goes the extra mile for us, it makes us feel valued and respected.
We want our visitors to feel special and respected.

WE ARE THERE: We commit wholeheartedly to this project. The exhibition and the people who work on it deserve nothing less than our total engagement.

When we truly listen and are listened to, we form connections.
We want our visitors to feel connected to Peace.

WE CHOOSE OUR ATTITUDE: When we look for barriers, obstacles and problems, that is all we see. We choose to look for the best and find opportunities. We choose the sunny side of life.

When we choose to look for the good, we can make good things happen.
We want our visitors to have the best possible experience.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Voice on labels

My big question to resolve now is about the voice or tone we use in our Peace exhibition. We want the text to be accessible, friendly, inclusive, and respectful. We've used words like conversational, open, and up-front to describe what we want. Basically, we'd like to step away from the authoritative, single-voice MUSEUM voice. We'd like to acknowledge that we've made choices in what we present and don't present. That we don't have all the answers - or necessarily even all the questions. And most of all, we want to avoid making judgements.

This is new for my museum. We use a generic detached museum voice and first person quotes, and we have adapted other institution's "voices", but we've never been this bold. We will have to make a really strong case for changing. To prepare, I've been reading around, and playing with draft text.

It's not that easy! A lot has been written about how to write proper labels (Serrell, of course), but not much touches on the advantages or disadvantages of different voices or tones in labels. And writing a label that is all those things we want AND within a reasonable word count is tricky! I think the next step is to draft some guidelines or qualities of the voice we want so we can at least define it. Then we will defend it. Then we write!

I've read:

Dumbing down for museum audiences —
necessity or myth?
Writing for a Family Audience by USS Constitution Museum Team
The Evolution of Exhibit Labels

Using Questions as Titles on Museum Exhibit Labels to Direct Visitor Attention and Increase Learning
The Everday Activist

Waiting to get my grubby hands on : Connecting kids to history with museum exhibitions