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Increasingly, it feels like progressive museum practice is also political museum practice. So what does it mean for a museum to take a stand, and put social just at the heart of its work? In this episode, Suse talks with David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) and President of the UK Museums Association, about the social impact of museum work, advocacy as a strategic objective, and what it means for a museum service to be openly political.

Plus, news about some big changes to the podcast! And quiet snorts from a new baby softly echoing throughout the interview.

Suse Anderson:                    Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I’m going to be your host today as we dive into the subject of institutional bravery. We’re going to be focusing on the National Museums Liverpool whose mission is to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service. Lofty goals indeed, but before we go any further, I should say a couple of notes about some changes that the last several months have brought. Our last episode went online in the mid-September 2017, and focused on the gendered museum. That investigation was in part inspired by a big change that I was about to go through in becoming a mother. Something that happened less than a week after we posted the episode, but it’s not the only big change that’s happened to the Museopunks family in recent months.

Jeffrey Inscho, my dear friend and collaborator and co-host of this show, has taken a new job. It’s one outside of museums and away from the cultural technology space. In doing so, Jeffrey is moving onto the next chapter of his professional life, which includes stepping away from Museopunks. I’m sure that that doesn’t mean it’s the last we’re going to hear from Jeffrey. In fact, I already have plans to bring him on as a guest in a future episode, but it does mean that we will have few changes to the shape, feel, and format of the podcast moving forward.

In the next few months, I’m hoping to invite a few guest hosts to join me on the program, bringing their expertise and their questions along with them, to expand the ways that we dig into progressive museum practice in all its forms. Until then, you’re likely to be stuck with me running solo and figuring out how to do all of the editing, and technical sides of podcasting that Jeffrey always took care of. This will be a leaner operation for at least a little while, but we were founded on a DIY attitude that preferred scrappy passion over perfection.
So, I hope you will stick with me as we continue to develop along that path. For now, let’s dig into the topic of institutional bravery. A topic that Jeffrey was excited to investigate and who prompted us to look into this idea. What does it mean to be brave and to openly take a stance as a museum? What are the implications it has on funding and audience? I’m thrilled to talk to David Fleming, director, National Museums Liverpool, about this very topic.

David Fleming, OBE, MA, PhD, AMA, became director of National Museums Liverpool, NML, in 2001. Since then, NML audiences have risen from 700,000 to more than 3 million per year. And David has been responsible for the creation of two influential museums, the International Slavery Museum in 2007, and the Museum of Liverpool in 2011. He’s advised governments, national museums, and municipalities in countries such as Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway.
David is president of the UK Museums Association, a member of ICOM’s Ethics Committee, and founding president of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums. He’s written extensively, and lectured worldwide in more than forty countries on management and leadership, city history museums, social inclusion, human rights, politics, and museum ethics. David, welcome to Museopunks.

David Fleming:                    Hi. Well, I’m very glad to be here, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    It is so great to have you here. I met you some years ago at the ICOM conference that was held in Sydney. And your talk at that conference has absolutely stayed with me in the coming years, which was on the political museum. And so, when Jeffrey and I was thinking about this idea of institutional bravery, you were immediately the person who came to my mind as someone who I thought would be able to give us some good insight into that topic.

David Fleming:                    Okay. Well, I’ll do my best.

Suse Anderson:                    I have absolute faith in you. But I think before we dive into some of the really meaty questions, I’d love if you could tell a little bit more about the National Museums Liverpool, and what the organization is and its structure cause I know that you have a number of different institutions that fall under that purview.

David Fleming:                    Yes. We’re a national museum service and unusually not based in London, but in a regional English city.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

David Fleming:                    …that’s because historically, we were probably the biggest of all the English municipal museum services. Consequently have a universal role, if I can use that term …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … without bursting into laughter.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    …which means that we cover just about every subject and discipline anybody, any normal person can possibly imagine. We were nationalized for political reasons in the 1980s.

Suse Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    So in fact, have had the benefit of government funding ever since that time, which has probably meant that we have more money than we would have if we had stayed with Liverpool City Council. Of course, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. I’m not sure about that, but I would imagine that’s the case.

Suse Anderson:                     (laughs)

David Fleming:                     So we do run eight different museums here in Liverpool.

Suse Anderson:                     Uh-huh.

David Fleming:                     World Museum which contain natural sciences, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, ancient Egyptian, science and astronomy, and a mixture of collections. We have an aquarium. We have a planetarium here. So, it’s one of the classic, traditional, municipal type museums that we have here in the UK, but we also have several art galleries. We have a maritime museum. We have the slavery museum, the Museum of Liverpool, which looks at, the social history of the city. And so on, so we cover lots of different disciplines right across …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … the board.

Suse Anderson:                    One of the things that I think is really interesting about the National Museums Liverpool is your mission, which is to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service. Which I think is a rather stunning statement of purpose. Can you share with us a little bit more about how that mission came to be?

David Fleming:                    Yes. There’s a little bit of hubris in there, which is why we say we aim to be, you know. That we never consider that we’ve achieved everything that we want to achieve.

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    But we do think that we should set out an ambitious claim for what the museum is trying to do. And to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service, to me, means that we have a genuine understanding of different needs that museums can help fulfill. So we’re particularly strong, for example, on looking at issues of any kind of disadvantaged minority. We try to make sure that there’s proper representation right across the museum service. We want to achieve diverse audiences, and by that I mean we want to make sure that we avoid the mistakes museums in the past made of being elitist …

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    … and only appealing to a narrow section of society. So we’re very, very conscious of that’s what museums used to be like, and that makes us particularly determined not to be like that anymore. It’s not acceptable nowadays.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, I think they’re incredible ideals and incredible values. How does that inform then the internal practices of the museums? So, decision making or governance or even hiring practices? Is it only outward facing or does it also come back into how the museums are seeking to actually run themselves?

David Fleming:                    It’s a very interesting point. I’d like to think that we were both outward facing and inward facing too, but I am assured that while most of our team here regard us as, genuine and successful in trying to achieve diversity in terms of audiences, we’re less so internally.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … and this is clearly a source of worry to me that it’s all right being a diverse and inclusive museum service in the eyes of the rest of the world, but you know, we need our own people here to think that we achieve the same thing.
Now, I think that’s what we are. I think that’s what we’re trying to do, but obviously there’s many things that we need to do differently …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … in order to convince everybody else here that that’s the case.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think it’s coming to some of the problems and the challenges that the sector, as a whole is facing at the moment, is really trying to think about how we are inward looking as well as outward looking. That said, in terms of the outward looking aspects, I know your strategic plan for 2016 to 2019 lists advocacy as one of the institution’s core strategic objectives.
Has creating a social impact always been a concern at the National Museums Liverpool? Or did that evolve over time and if it did, what were the forces that were really prompting this kind of outward advocacy, sort of, face for the institution?

David Fleming:                    That’s a very tricky one to answer because I don’t want to sound as though, things changed when I came here, but the role of museum directors is quite key …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … and often understated. You know, they exert a great deal of influence over their institutions, good, bad and indifferent. I’m not suggesting (laughing) everything is wonderful.

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    And what … I came here absolutely fired up with a desire to make NML the world’s most inclusive museum service. And you need that kind of stubbornness and determination to have a hope in hell of bringing something like that about. I think NML when I came here, I mean, it did have audiences of about 3/4 of a million a year. I think it did lots of things very well. And I think it didn’t have big enough endeavors, enough audiences.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    That’s something that I made very clear, when I came, that it would be my responsibility to address that. So it was a matter of identifying, well, what you need to do. But definitely the commitment of whoever’s in charge is absolutely key in these circumstances. And it’s something that we very, very often overlook.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. It makes me wonder, then, with your own belief and your own emphasis on the importance of museums being political, being activist … When did you start to believe that museums should be openly political, and should be seeking or campaigning for social justice?

David Fleming:                    I suppose it came about gradually, although to be fair, I went into museums in the 1980s rather naively thinking that they were places that were full of diversity.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    Of course I discovered fairly quickly that they weren’t, but the whole point of my going into museums was that before then I had been an academic historian, you know, preaching to audiences of two or three about all the things I believed in.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) Yes.

David Fleming:                    Which is the fate of many academic historians. And I actually wanted to go into a sector that had a big public and, you know, an audience that were on the end of what I wanted to say. And what I wanted to say was that normal people’s history was just as important as the extraordinary stuff that I’d been taught about at school. I thought I was going into a sector whereby, wherein people like my parents and my sister who left school very young …

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    And without being particularly, as we would say, educationally fulfilled, that they could go to museums as adults and still find fulfillment. And of course, as I realized I was being delusional because museums were not for people like them. They weren’t for people that had had a poor education. They were mostly created by people with a good education for people with a good education. So …

Suse Anderson:                    Yes

David Fleming:                    … my mission right from day one was always to try to do something about that. When I say day one, I suppose what I really mean is when as soon as I realized, when I started working in the local authority museums sector, that museums generally didn’t appeal to most people, most of the time. I thought that was a big problem for us.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. It’s funny you sort of speaking about that formative experience. I too went into museums thinking they were incredibly, progressive spaces and that this is where ideas really came into fruition, sort of, particularly from an artistic perspective. And it was very interesting for me to learn that wasn’t always the case, that institutions themselves are often much more conservative than, I think, sometimes you think about from the outside.

David Fleming:                    I think that’s the case. I mean, what I realized was that lot of people with marvelous, wonderful, brilliant, curatorial skills, and not necessarily brilliant communicators. And somehow or other, you have to bridge the gap between the, you know, the scholarship and people who are not scholars, people who are thirsty for knowledge, and thirsty for information, and entertainment and excitement. But you need a real range of communicative skills in order to be able to bridge that gap, and it was something that, people need to make happen in museums.

It just doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t happen by itself. You know, we have to work really hard – it’s really having proper respect for the different skillsets that we need in museums because we are great engines of communication. We’re not just engines of scholarship. So I don’t want to be overly critical of what NML was like. It was full of great things, but there was still things missing, I felt, when I came here. And the missing things were those things that would connect us as a great museum service with most people, most of the time, which is really what our mission is all about.

Suse Anderson:                    I really love that you mention not just entertainment, but excitement, the idea that a museum can be exciting because I think often working in the sector we’re quite excited by things that we see and do, but I’m not necessarily sure that a lot of my friends or family would think of a museums as an exciting place to be. They might enjoy it but not necessarily find it exciting.

David Fleming:                    What one of the key insights, which I kind of had was when I realized that museums actually need to be very emotional places if they are to connect with most people, most of the time.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    And the traditional museum was a very dispassionate place that didn’t really do emotional things. It did scholarly things, and it did scholarly things in a fairly dry way, which might appeal to some people but doesn’t appeal to most people, most of the time. So we have to unlock that emotion that is locked up in lots of the collections. And my particular route into all this kind of thing was through social histories, through literally – the history of ordinary people which is very easy to get excited about, but somebody has to actually, you know, put time and effort in to make it look that way. Otherwise, it’s just dry, boring history. The kind that many of us had to endure that when we were at school.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah. I can see that. I think this idea of different communication styles and, sort of, different ways of bringing audiences in is really important. One of the things I love, I remember hearing you talk or seeing a video about you talking about the design of the Museum of Liverpool, where the visitors land in the center of the museums rather than, sort of, being brought in on a linear journey. And it strikes me that those design choices and those ideas might be also important for this idea of how people aren’t themselves, but also how they place themselves in the space.

David Fleming:                    Yeah, it’s true that when we were conceiving the Museum of Liverpool, I remember speaking to some master planning people that were, you know trying to get us, to help sort out our ideas. And I drew a little stick person going into a box marked M for museum, and the stick person went in with one head and came out with two heads.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    And it was kind of a metaphor for the kind of impact that I felt a museum needed to have. And it’s certainly true that we wanted people to arrive in the center of the museum rather than have to go through the process of turning up at the front door, wandering around a prescriptive path, and then coming out again, you know, of the front door, via the shop and all that kind of thing, because that’s not necessarily the way people’s brains work. And in practical terms, a museum that has a story, that’s has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it doesn’t always work like that, you know … It is not an examination course. We’re not expecting people to emerge from the museums and be experts in what they’ve just seen and to take and examination and get a qualification …

We’re simply there to try and stimulate thought and get people, maybe, thinking about things that they hadn’t thought about before. And you don’t necessarily do that by having prescriptive linear routes. You do it by showing them, you know, just light and shade, and evoking emotions and giving impressions and symbols rather than necessarily answers and so called truths. And I think that’s the big difference between what a modern museums tries to do and what the old fashioned traditional 19th century museum used to try to do.

You know it’s much more didactic and searching for eternal truths. And I have to say that those eternal truths, if they are there, it’s not … I’m necessarily the person to be (laughs) you know, trying to find them on people’s behalf, but I would like to think that if I’m good at my job, I do end up with audiences that are able to think a little bit more broadly about how they fit into the world.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s fantastic. When you talk to other directors or senior staff around the sector, do you find that they have similar perspectives, similar thoughts around these ideas, what I’m calling institutional bravery, but these notions of activist museums and the emotive power of the museum … And in fact even just that notion of telling everyone’s stories as opposed to just capital sort of important stories.

David Fleming:                    I think that’s a lot more likely nowadays than it used to be.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    I think the museum sector is stuffed full of people who really want museums to be impactful on as many people as possible. One of the problems that we’ve got nowadays is that everybody is becoming so obsessed with the resources that we’ve got, or the shrinking resources, that they end up sounding like a gang of accountants rather than a gang of people that are there to help make the world a different, you know, more imaginative place. And, that is a bit of a constraint on everybody, but I think – it would be fair to say I do discover many more instances nowadays of people that are desperate to make the museum work, rather than conforming to some strange 19th century model of what a museum used to be like.
There are still people like that around. Though, having said that, let’s not get too carried away …

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    … with thinking about that. You know, museums are now in a better place than they used to be. Many, many, many of them are, not all of them.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, you just mentioned funding. How do you make, then, the political argument and the economic argument for inclusive museum work? I know that politicians, funders would often be concerned with the economic arguments rather than, say the value-driven arguments. So how do you really get that point of inclusivity and access across in a political or economic sense?

David Fleming:                    It’s a tricky one, but I’ve never yet met a politician that didn’t want to be able to demonstrate that good value is being achieved from the monies that they were responsible for.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    And it’s just the same in museums, if they’re for better by that token, to be perceived to be impactful with big, diverse audiences than it is to be not impactful with small, elitist audiences. And it doesn’t matter what your politics are – to think that it’s good to be able to demonstrate that money is being well spent. So the key to gaining that kind of respect and support, and hopefully, protecting the funding as best you can in today’s difficult climate, is to be as good as you can be, is to make people appreciate that museums are important. They are impactful. They are popular and they are diverse, and they understand how the modern world works. It, therefore, needs us all to be a little bit more involved than perhaps we used to be. And coming out of that scullery box that museums used to place themselves in.

I mean, I think being scholarly, is very important. Don’t misunderstand me, but there’s got to be more than that if we’re looking for public support and public funding. It’s just got to be more than that nowadays.

Suse Anderson:                    What do you think, then, that the socio-economic circumstances in Liverpool have made more space for the kinds of work that you’re trying to do and the stories that you’re trying to tell in the National Museums Liverpool? Do you think that you’d be able to make the same argument for the need for inclusivity in, a bigger city such as London? Or do you think it … How much of that is local circumstances as well that allows for you to make those sorts of changes and tell those stories?

David Fleming:                    Well, yes … Good point because museums are very (laughs) easily, get themselves involved in worrying about visitors, tourist, and so on and so forth. And in fact, we see our core work here in Liverpool as being directed towards the needs of local people first and foremost. If you get that right and you produce great inventive, imaginative, and emotional museums, of course, visitors to the city want to come and see you.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    You become part of the tourist economy, but setting out to do that seems to me to be a rather bizarre way. It certainly wouldn’t appeal to me. It wouldn’t stimulate me. It wouldn’t be the kind of thing that I would be aiming to do, given a clean sheet, you know, to run a tourist attraction. That doesn’t have any appeal to me – at all. What does appeal to me is making museums work for local people, and Liverpool has been badly affected by economics over the years. So we have high unemployment, we have low education attainment.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    It’s a tough old part of the world. And I’ve often said if we can make museums work in Liverpool, you can make museums work anywhere. You know? It’s a bit of a glib thing to say because the UK is by comparison with many nations in the world, phenomenally wealthy.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    Nonetheless, there are people here, you know, living in grinding poverty, and – the day we forget that- that those are the kind of people that help make up part of our audience, is the day that we all pack it in and well, I don’t know. (laughs) Go work. Go work somewhere else really.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    But that’s what makes successful museums. It’s having a really good sense of who your public can be, and respecting them and not thinking that you have to, for example, dumb down in order to make the connections. You don’t have to. I can’t think of a single example, anywhere in the world, where dumbing down has led to an increased diversity of audience. I can point to a number of instances where having not much of an intelligent message, stimulates lots of tourism. And I can think of a number of family based attractions that do that. You know, where there’s no particular message going on there.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    It’s just entertainment and it just attracts high spending tourists. That’s not the business I think I’m in. I think I’m in a different business from that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that’s really interesting that- that concentrating on your local audience, and how you make sure that you’re telling stories they can relate to can actually speak much more broadly than that as well. That you then are speaking stories that become interesting and relevant to tourists because they’re seeking to find out about that area as well.

David Fleming:                    Of course they are. I mean, I remember when we were talking about setting up the International Slavery Museum, there were people in the tourist industry thinking, “Well, that’s not going to make Liverpool look very good. Who’s going to want to come and see something like that?” Well, the answer is loads of people.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    Tourists are just as likely to want to go and see something challenging, and dangerous as it were, as subject matter, as they are to have to find out about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Rumpelstiltskin, and so on and so forth. Absolutely just as likely, but we have to do more than simply do things in a scholarly way. We have to do them in a way that does help us compete with the world. The slightly less intelligent world of tourist attractions.

Suse Anderson:                    So being brave … I mean, you’re just sort of talking about things that are dangerous, dangerous ideas, dangerous content. Being brave often requires a person or an institution to choose a side with respect to an issue. It requires an opinion and, oftentimes, we find that museums seem to be hesitant or afraid to outwardly have an opinion for fear of alienating some of their constituency whether that’s visitors, whether that’s their funders, or their board, those who might disagree with such an opinion. How does NML approach this aspect of institutional bravery? Obviously, we know that museums are not neutral spaces, but how do you address the outward opinion or that way forward?

David Fleming:                    Yeah you have used the term “brave” and “bravery” a few times. I don’t use those terms.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    I can see where you getting at, and I’m flattered that that’s what you think, but it’s not something that- that we set out … We don’t set out to be brave. We don’t set out to, you know, oppose orthodox ideas. But what we’re stubborn and very determined in trying to achieve impact and diversity. And if that makes us look brave, well, I suppose all well and good. But really, you know… How can I put this? The bravery, I suppose, if that’s the right word for it, is-tied up in tackling years and years and years of orthodox thinking.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

David Fleming:                    So I don’t necessarily consider it, you know … it’s a certain kind of emotional reaction and rejection of the way that many museums have set out to be over the years. And I think some people, you see, might say it’s foolhardy rather than brave to take on what you might call the establishment and to start saying things like, “Museums are not neutral, never have been neutral. They pretended to be neutral.”Maybe that’s brave? Maybe it’s a bit stupid? Maybe it’s a bit realistic? I’m not quite sure what it is. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that museums have dressed themselves up as neutral over the years, and it’s absolutely what they haven’t been.

That in no way can any museum justifiably describe itself as neutral, and you know, having a straight down the middle story about anything … We’re all full of biases, and opinions, and prejudices. And we apply those to our work in museums for good, bad, or indifferent, again. But if we could drop this fiction that somehow or other there’s … You can avoid controversy and still be a museum that’s worth its salt. Then we would be a lot more impactful as an entire sector.

And I think it comes because the worst part of a scholastic approach to life is to imagine that there are ultimate truths that avoid politics, and avoid opinion, and avoid danger, and darkness, and so on. And the real world’s not like that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    So, the challenge for me is for museums to be scholastic at the same time as making contact and making connections with people that are not scholastic. And that means not being, not pretending to be neutral about everything. But first time I ever encountered this neutrality was when I was working in the City of Hull in England in the 1980s. And my desire was to create an exhibition about the miner’s strike that was running at the time in that part of the world, Yorkshire. And I have to say that my own approach to it would have been pro-miner and a little bit more skeptical about what the police were doing at the time.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm.

David Fleming:                    But I was under real pressure to take a neutral line, and not take sides. And I felt, “Well, this isn’t real life, you know? What person out there, in their right mind, thinks that? That a museum is not entitled to have any kind of opinion about anything.” And I think it’s trying to tackle that head on that makes the modern museum work. That instead of seeking safety, in not expressing an opinion about anything. On the contrary, I think museums are bursting with opinions. It’s just that they’ve never really faced up to that in the past.

Suse Anderson:                    Does that mean, and I’m possibly being a little facetious here, but not entirely, does that mean museums should be seeking to have a little bit of controversy with their exhibitions? Should they actually be seeking out to rile someone up and to know that they’re actually making an impact and getting an emotional response?

David Fleming:                    I don’t think you need to seek out riling people up. I think if you try to analyze, some of the factors in society, you will cause controversy.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm.

David Fleming:                    If you’re dealing in human rights, it’s a very controversial area. You will be involved in arguments. There’ll be lots of people that don’t like anything to do with addressing issues of human rights. Whatever you say, there’ll be somebody out there that doesn’t like it. And I’ve often said to people that are working in the human rights field, “Listen, if you’re not up for the fight and the arguing, go work somewhere else. I’m not quite sure where it is that you’re suppose to go. But if you’re going to be in museums and you’re going to be working in areas like human rights, you will be involve in controversy. And you will be involved in politics. Get over yourself, and if you’re working here, that’s what’s going to happen.”

And I think that museums realizing that they are places of controversy rather than neutral safe places – that realization is becoming more and more widespread. And it has a very important impact on the kind of skills that we need in museums, you know, to be able to cope with that kind of thing. So there’s no point in just being an introverted scholastic type, and working in a museum and expecting the public to have a big response to you. They won’t. You’ve got to have better communication skills or have access to communication skills to make sure that those connections are being made. And facing up to the fact that we’re political, we’re not neutral. We are places of discourse, and debate, and dialogue, and controversy. Then that’s where we need to be.

Suse Anderson:                    David, that is fantastic. I think we will wrap it up just there, but thank you so much for coming on Museopunks. It has been enlightening to talk to you and I would recommend to anyone who is interested in your work that they go and find some of the recordings and speeches that you’ve done because there are many of them online and they are always inspirational.

David Fleming:                    That’s very kind of you to say but thank you. It’s been lovely to talk to you.

Suse Anderson:                    Thank you to David for joining me on Museopunks and sharing your insight into progressive museum practice. Since we recorded this interview, it’s actually been announced that David will be stepping down as director or NML in March taking up a new professorial role with the Liverpool Hope University. So this singular episode in Museopunks history has been a marker of change for everyone associated with it. And of course, I can’t sign off without saying a massive thank you to Jeffrey Inscho, my friend, my collaborator, my co-conspirator, making this podcast with you has been one of the highlights of my professional life.

When you first approached me back in 2013, to see whether I wanted to make a podcast with you, we barely knew each other beyond twitter chats, but I’m so glad you decided to reach out. I have gained so much from working with you from your thoughtful, creative ways of looking at museums and the world at large. I can’t wait to catch up with you the next time I’m in Pittsburgh. For anyone who wants to reach out to Jeffrey, you can do so on Twitter @jinscho. You can also connect with David Fleming on Twitter @doctordavidfleming. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. Drop me a line on twitter @Museopunks or check out the extended show notes at I’d love to hear your thoughts about all things progressive practice. And of course, you can subscribe to Museopunks at iTunes or SoundCloud.

Until next time…


 David FlemingHeadshot of a man wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera slight smile with short dark brown hair.
David Fleming OBE, MA, PhD, AMA, became Director of National Museums Liverpool in 2001. Since becoming Director, audiences have quadrupled, rising from around 700,000 per year to more than 3.2 million. Before arriving in Liverpool, David was Director of the multi-award-winning Tyne and Wear Museums for 11 years, where he led teams delivering major capital developments (including Newcastle Discovery Museum, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens and Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum) and massive audience growth. Prior to that he was principal keeper at Hull Museums, where his major projects included a new Transport Museum and The Old Grammar School. He started his museum career as founder-curator of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, York.

David is currently in his second term as President of the UK Museums Association and has served on several Government committees and task forces. In 2002 he was named in the Independent on Sunday as one of the ten leading people in UK museums. He was awarded an OBE in the 1997 New Year’s Honours List for services to museums.

Read more about David Fleming at the National Museums of Liverpool.

Previous Episodes

Episode 22: Human Behavior

Museums that want to impact their visitors are often concerned with changing their behaviors. However, before any kind of change can take place, it’s important to understand visitors, and the behaviors that they bring into the museum with them. In this episode, the ‘Punks ask how museums can better understand and align their work around existing visitor behaviors. We talk to the first Neuroscience Researcher in an art museum to learn more about how the human brain understands the physical world, and how that connects to our emotions, and then connect with an experience designer whose work has focussed on social media use in the cultural sector.

We also want to know: are you a museum geek who is also a fan of professional wrestling?! Reach out to us on Twitter and let us know.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That wasn’t too awkward, was it? Suse-

Suse Anderson:                    Hey Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s going on?

Suse Anderson:                    Not much. It is a warm, warm, uh, day here in Baltimore, and I am sitting sweltering in my home because I have realized I can never put, um (laughs) I can never put a fan on when we’re recording because my microphone is too powerful.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I-I know. I shut off my A/C and so-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s a little, little hot in here.

Suse Anderson:                    A little steamy.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s that like that Nelly song?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) You wanna break into some song now Jeffrey?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I don’t know. I will say though we have to not record on Monday nights because you’re cuttin’ into my WWE Wrestling time.

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, tell me about it. I had just been watching a couple of, uh, great, uh, great matches, the women’s match tonight was pretty fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, so, uh, yeah, tell me about it … Who knew that, uh, we were both into a little bit of wrestling?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      There’s a museum and professional wrestling, uh, connection here, uh, somewhere, I’m sure.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Listen-listeners, I’m sure other listeners, um, are into, uh, wrestling and, um, if you, if you are, hit us up. Let us know.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I, I’m, I’m less confident than you are actually Jeffrey. I have asked about this a couple of times on Twitter, and the answers have been few and far between, and in fact, when I’ve been at, say, professional gatherings like conferences and mentioned my, uh, my, my wrestling interests … Crickets.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Really?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Unbelievable.

Suse Anderson:                    People do not understand and, you know, it’s, it’s one of the great storytelling, uh, platforms of our time-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Some might say.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I think museums can learn a lot from the compelling narratives that take place, um, a-at … Through WWE.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I agree.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Who’s your favorite wrestler?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ah, that’s a tough call. I, I, I’m, I’m pretty partial to some of the, some of the women’s division wrestlers such as, uh, Sasha Banks-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And, uh, Becky Lynch, I have to say. They’re pretty good, and then you have some really fabulous heels, a term you might have to explain, like, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Chris Jericho who, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    I’m a big fan of. (laughs) What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m a Bray Wyatt guy.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh!

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I like the, I like the cre-, I like the creepy ones, the ones with some, some deep dark-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Backgrounds.

Suse Anderson:                    So, should we, should we explain to people what, what a face and a heel is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    If they’re not familiar?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Go ahead.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) Um, so wrestling is, as I say, one of the great storytelling spaces, platforms of, I think, our time, and one of the ways it plays with these big meta-narratives is having very clear, um, people to cheer for and people to boo.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    In, in a simple, in a simple sense, and so a face, a baby face is, uh, someone that you cheer for that you love, someone who, uh, does the right thing more often than not. And a heel is the opposite. A heel is someone who will, uh, win by dirty tricks and that you … It can enjoy, uh, cheering against them anything they come onstage. Does that, does that, does that sum it up?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It does. And the moral of this story is that museums out there, you got to be the face.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right? Anyway, enough wrestling, on to, on to Museopunks Episode 22. How you, uh, what are we talking about tonight?

Suse Anderson:                    So, tonight we’re talking about museum visitor behavior, but really about the behaviors that visitors come into our museums with. This started from, uh, some interesting research that you’d been doing actually, Jeffrey, and you published not that long ago-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Talking about, um, phone use in museums. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work that you were doing?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, yeah, sure, so at the studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, uh, like I talked about in an episode earlier where we’re building a chat bot, which, um, is an artificial intelligence, um, bot that visitors could, um, or will be able to interact with over SMS text messaging-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And we wanted to base all of our design decisions on real world data, uh, and we wanted to align those decisions with the behaviors that we’re h-, we thought were happening in-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Our galleries. We had a, we had a pretty good, good inclination that yes, people were bringing phones. Yes, people did not really make use of existing museum apps, and yes, people sent text messages and felt comfortable sending text messages, so we did a, um, several week study of several hundred museum-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Visitors, and um, found out some interesting results, um, and those results are now informing our design decisions as we develop this chat bot over the next couple months.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s r-, it’s really great. It was a really interesting paper to read, and we will obviously include a link in the show notes. I think one of my, um, favorite stats from that, uh, although not a surprising one was how, uh, few, uh, visitors have museum apps on their phones.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and you know, it’s I think one of-, you know, one of the things I’m looking forward to talking to Alli Burness or one of our two guests about is, you know, figuring out a way that we can start to create data sets across the sectors because I could, I would only assume-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That my data in Pittsburgh, very kind of regional market, not a lot of tourists varies, v-very much from, say, New York museums or London museums, so, um, while, you know, it’s … Our data is very important to us as we build our experience, it would be interesting to kind of start to compare some of this data with other museums if they sh-, if they do do this type of research.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely, I mean there’s always benefit in being able to see very much what applies to your own institution but also for us to start to see trends across the sector in, in where those differences lie.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. So, like I said, we’re talking with Alli Burness, um, who, um, has a museum background but has, has been making a transition outside of the sector to, um, to, um, the, the larger experience design field, um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. And she’s done some really interesting work over the last few years around how visitors are using their devices, particularly around things like selfies in museums and how visitors are using Instagram and social sharing and what they’re sharing in museums.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Definitely valuable stuff, and uh, but first we’re gonna talk to Dr. Tedi Asher who is, um, I believe the first neuroscience, uh, researcher, uh, at a museum, at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I am so excited about this. I … Areas of … I am not a scientist. I am not … I have never-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Trained formally in any of the, you know, major sciences, but I find, I find science in all its dimensions fascinating and the idea of neuroscience, of digging into how humans process behavior, how the brain works, how the body works and how they all work together is fascinating to me. I am so excited for this interview.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Me too, so let’s get to it. Dr. Tedi Asher is a neuroscience researcher at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The position, which marks the first for an art museum, supports the museum’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from The Bar Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her PhD from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At The Peabody Essex Museum, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

Tedi, thanks so much for being a guest on Museopunks.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh, uh, our pleasure. So, um, Tedi, you, yours is the first neuroscience position in an art museum, but before we get too deep into your work at the museum, could you just tell us a little bit about what neuroscience is and the kind of research that falls under its purview?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure. Um, well the way, the way that I think of the term “neuroscience” as kind of an umbrella, um, that spans a number of different disciplines, so you can have, um, you know, the study of human behavior that falls more into the psychology realm or, um, cognitive neuroscience where you might do some neuro imaging of the human brain all the way down to the cellular level and molecular level using animal models to study gene expression and cellular mechanisms-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      In the, in, in, in neurons.

Suse Anderson:                    So, with such a wide range then of, of such terms that, that this covers all, all areas of science that this covers, what aspects of this have you been bringing to PEM and how does this kind of research apply to an art museum?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure, so, um, this, this job has been a bit of a transition for me. I’ve always worked in animal models studying the brain-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but this, this position, um, gives me the opportunity to really delve into the human literature, so I’m sort of focused at that end of the spectrum, um, and you know, we’re, we’re interested in researching all kinds of topics pertaining to attention and visual and auditory perception, um, and wayfinding, so navigating through a, a localized space, um, so I’m researching all of these different kinds of topics and bringing what I find to, into meetings, um, so that we can collaborate and try and extrapolate from those basic findings to how they can be applied in the galary.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, I mean it seems like your, your, your view of the museum is, is, is intentionally kind of holistic, right? Everything from like, uh, you know, wavefinding and space navigation to the more conceptual aspects, so who do you work most closely with at the museum? And can you talk-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      A little bit … Can you talk a little bit about how that position was, was created or, or what area of the museum, um, kind of brought you in?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure. Uh, so I kind of float (laughs) is the way that I see it. Um, so PEM takes a very team-based approach to designing expeditions-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, and I’m part of some of those teams, so any given team will have a curator, an interpretor, a designer, a project manager, you know, so there are all of these different roles, and for the teams that I’m on, there’s also a role of neuroscientist. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so that’s, that’s basically how I integrate into the structure here.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s a little bit wild. Uh, this actually sort of blows my mind thinking about the different types of positions and, and other ways that museums can be investigating, um, everything from how our brains are wired to appreciate art, which is something you’ve spoken about in one of your blog posts, as well as how we can use knowing more about these sort of things within expedition design and, and even sort of further out into the museum as well, not just looking at expeditions but other aspects of the museum design. Where do you even start such an investigation though? I mean how do you, how do you even start asking the right questions when you’re faced with a new expedition?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, that’s a really good question. (laughs) Um, so I think we’re all still sort of figuring out how this works-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but basically the way that I come at it is I see, um, basically that there are two categories of influences on our perception. There are those influ-, influences that come from the so-called bottom up and those that come from the top down, so let me explain that a little bit.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      So, what I mean by “bottom up influences” are those, um, factors that stem from the physicality of a stimulus, so its color or contrast or lighting, um, whereas by “top down”, I mean sort of more of an inside out influence, what associations do we have with a stimulus, what memories or emotions does a particular stimulus conjure, so either bottom up or top down influences can impact the nature of our experience. Um, so to me, it seems like our access to a visitor’s top down influences are mu-, is much harder to access-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Right? Accessing their memories or their, you know, what they were just doing before they came in the museum, all of that is sort of sequestered from us, um, so I’ve started by focusing on the bottom up aspects, so one really clear example of that, I think, is learning about how visual system is structured to influence our perception.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m just kind of blown right now. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Me too.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um (laughing)-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughing)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Did any of that make sense?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, no, it makes, it makes complete sense-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Okay.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And you know, it’s something that, that we, I-I don’t, you know, we … At my museum, we don’t have a neuroscience on staff, but we definitely are starting like to think about things in this way, in this way, um, and I’m wondering like how, like what kind of insights, if you can talk about any of it-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What kind of insights or data that I-, you know, have you been generating and, and um, or, and, and incorporating into the design of an expedition or the way the museum is laid out-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      If you have, have you gotten to that point yet?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so you phrased the question in an interesting way that makes me think of two things-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, you asked what kind of data we’re generating, and so, um, hopefully we will be generating data of our own, um, using various evaluation techniques, so um, once we create hypotheses about what kinds of, um, changes to expeditions, um, to, to, to make, we can implement them and then evaluate the effects, so that’s sort of one form of data collection that we’re in the process of starting. Um, but then I think what you’re asking is more about the findings from the literature that we draw on to inform expedition design?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, so, um, there are lots of different kinds of data that we draw on, so just to start with something super simple, um, just to give you an example of the way that the structure of our visual system might impact choices that we make in the gallery, so, um, probably everyone is familiar with the idea that, um, the retina, the tissue in the back of your eye has two kinds of, um, cells that are sensitive to light, rods and cones, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yep.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And so, cones can detect color whereas rods can detect just light and dark. Um, and so what’s interesting is that the cones tend to be centered in the middle of your eye whereas the rods tend to be clustered on the periphery of your eye, so what this means is that when we wanna see something in high detail and in color, we need to use the center of our vision-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      But when we’re trying to just detect brightness levels, it’s actually more effective to use our peripheral vision, which is why you may have noticed that stars actually appear brighter out of the corner of your eye than when you look directly at them.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm. Okay.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      So, this is a very simple, um, kind of elementary example of how learning about the biology of the visual system can help us figure out, well, where should we place this colorful object relative to the lighting or, you know, to, it help … Might help us to compose scenes within the gallery.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, that’s amazing. (laughs) It also, I think, helps make sense … I was thinking about what you were saying about starting with sort of bottom up versus top down, and correct me if-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I’m wrong, I, I’m just trying to sort of get my head around this, would there be much more commonality with the bottom up experiences … So, thinking about the biology of the eye and how it takes in light versus the top down, which would be much more individualized if you’re looking at things like memory and experiences people are bringing into the, into the space?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      That’s the hypothesis that I have, yeah, is that the bottom up systems, because they’re based in our sensory systems, which should have some common biology, that those are gonna be more common across cultures and across the population.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Interesting. So, one of the things we’re looking at in my museum is, um, aligning the experience with, um, with the behaviors that have, you know, um, been permeated throughout our culture recently, specifically new technologies, right? Like people are bringing these mobile devices with them and, um, and using them in the spaces, so could we optimize our experience to kind of align with those in interesting ways? Have, have, does any of this, any of, any of the techn-, technological developments or have these, have any of these technologies had impact on, on the way people think and process information in the museum in your opinion?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, you know, I don’t know if I’ve had enough experience working in a museum yet to know that.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs) Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, I think from a neuroscience standpoint, um, I would imagine that it, it does change the nature of your experience, you know, to be acting with something digital versus something more analog that might be right in front of you. Um, but I, I feel like I haven’t quite been here long enough to observe enough to really have a definitive answer for that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure. Do you think m-museums could be doing a better job of, of, um, sharing research in this area, like, you know, um, whether it be publishing evaluation data or, um, you know, you know, so that we can start to learn from each other? Would that be, in your opinion, a valuable, um, w-way that museums could-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Work together? Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah. Definitely. I think, uh, I mean it’s just my stance across the board that the more open and, uh, the more we can share information, the further we’re gonna go.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely. Uh, Tedi, I read that one of the ideas that sort of motivated bringing a neuroscientist into the museum was this desire to better understand how the human brain not just connects to the physical world but how that then connects to and feeds into our emotions, so I’m-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Really curious what you sort of anticipate the impact of the scientific or neuroscientific approach might be to the emotional aspects of the visitor experience.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, that’s a really good question. Um, so I think that’s something that we’re very interested in figuring out. Um, there’s definitely data out there to suggest that, um, the more emotional an experience is, the, the better you’re going to remember it basically. Um, and I … There also seems to be some connection there between the emotionality of an experience and deriving meaning from it, um, and I say that more in an anecdotal way than in a data-based way, but um, so I think we’re really interested in gleaning what we can from the literature about how various changes to the physical environment can evoke emotion or can impact one’s emotional experience, um, in the hopes that that will help to create a more meaningful experience that, that visitors are likely to take with them when they leave the museum.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm. This is such a progressive approach to experience in my opin-, in, you know, from my perspective. I’m wondering, uh, how more, how some of the more traditional, um, I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase this … How more of the, some of the more traditional museologists at PEM or-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Throughout the sector may, um, uh, start to think about this, um … Uh-uh-I-I-I … Basically are, are curators receptive to this (laughs) in your opinion?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, yeah, no I think everyone here at PEM at least, I haven’t had too much contact with museum professionals outside of PEM-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yet, um, but certainly here at PEM, everyone has been really welcoming and really open-minded. Um, when I first started, I met with each of the curators and sort of talked to them about how we could work together and what their approach, you know, in the past has been and what, how they envision it going forward. Um, I think there’s definitely, um, and with, you know, good reason, I think, not skepticism but-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      You know, faith in the fact that curating in the, you know, with, without a neuroscience, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Perspective has been going on for many, many, many (laughs) years-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And you know, that it’s been productive and meaningful, and so I think there is some desire to not lose what that brings-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um but in, in my experience, people have been very open to what can be gained by incorporating a neuroscience perspective.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and I think, I think definitely there’s value around, um, you know, talking about this type of approach, communicating it, again, sharing what this type of approach, the impact it can have on expeditions and programs in the museum and, um, you know, it’s, it’s completely fascinating-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      In my opinion.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Tedi, I, I, I’m actually just … I-it … You’re really a pioneer in this. You, you are the first person certainly in an art museum that I know who is doing anything like this, uh, particularly in a permanent way. I’m sure there might’ve been some other short-term interventions. What, what do you hope to take out of this? Or what do you hope to, to achieve in bringing your own work and your own perspectives to this ’cause it’s not just the museum that … Although they, they sought this position out, it’s obviously not just them that are bringing, um, a desire for investigating to this. You must have your own thoughts and, and things that you’d really like to get out of this position.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, um, well, I sort of see this position as an exploration, um, sort of personally and professionally, so this is my first job out of grad school. Um, it’s really my first job out of a lab. Um, and so I’m sort of exploring what can be done out in this great world-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs) Um, without a pipette in hand. And, uh, but I think more conceptually speaking, you know, I’ve always had this really strong interest in trying to understand human emotional experiences, um, you know, where they come from and why they manifest as they do and why they affect us as they do.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Uh, and so I really am taking this as an opportunity to dive into the literature that’s relevant to that question, um, and really just glean as much as I can from it, um, and then apply it to something that has the a-, the potential to impact other people, which is really … Something that I was looking for in grad school was that kind of human element to my work-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so, I, I really see this as just a great exploration.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Well, I, I can only assume that the listeners of this podcast and, and many throughout the museum sector will find, uh, your work to be, um, as interesting and fascinating as Suse and I do, so I’m wondering, um, if, if there’s a, a way that people can, can follow you and follow your work at PEM, um, uh, where they might be able to do that?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah. So, right now, um, we’re not too outward facing about it yet-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but as part of the, the grant from The Bar Foundation, we will be putting together a publication, um, at some point.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Great. Great.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And so, um, I hope that that will be accessible once it’s complete, um, and I can certainly keep you updated about where to find it.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, that would be fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Fantastic.

Suse Anderson:                    It might be really great for us to check back in with you when you are a little further along in your research as well and start to see … You know, this, this is a program in its, in its infancy, and it would be really nice to see how and where it develops and what that can start to mean for the sector longterm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It was so awesome talking with you today. Um, we really appreci-, appreciate you taking the time, and we look forward to really keeping up with you and watching what happens there at Peabody Essex.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Well, thank you. This has been really fun.

Suse Anderson:                    Alli Burness is currently an experienced designer with Think Place, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human-centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value. On the side, she’s a freelance digital producer designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and non-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors, and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. Alli previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She’s created content for institutions such as The National Gallery of Art in the Was-, in Washington DC, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Welcome Collection in the UK, and The Powerhouse Museum and Museums, and Galleries of New South Wales in Australia.

She is now based in Sydney. Alli, welcome to the show.

Alli Burness:                           Thanks so much for having me. I’m a longtime listener, so very pleased to be invited.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s so exciting, and I have to say a little bit of a shout-out to home. It’s nice to be talking to someone back on the, uh, on the, uh, other side of the world back in Australia.

Alli Burness:                           Yeah. Over the [crosstalk 00:27:20].

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I feel outnumbered here.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing)

Alli Burness:                           (laughing)

Suse Anderson:                    Now you know how I usually feel Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    So, in this episode we’ve been talking about how museums can really better align their work with the behaviors that visitors bring into the gallery. Alli, you recently published a study with Kylie Budge looking at the way that museum visitors engage with objects through Instagram, the social media platform. Can you tell us a little bit about that study and your findings? Why do visitors to museums take photographs and share them on social media?

Alli Burness:                           Sure. Um, so yeah, I did, I did this research with Kylie Budge who at the time was the research manager at The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences here in Sydney, and so that includes The Powerhouse Museum. And another really key, um, member of our research team was Jim Fishwick who’s a program producer at the same museum. He’s also a freelance experience consultant and general immersive theater punk rock warlord, whatever we want to-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Response we wanna take. Um, so, um, in, in all the research that I do, I take a human centered and qualitative approach. I don’t have a quantitative or market research background. I’m always looking for motivations rather than what people are doing. I’m looking at why they do what they do. Um, and so in this particular piece of research, Kylie and I took one data set, and we took a, a case study approach. We looked at 400 images that was posted to one geotag on Instagram, uh, for one museum in one week. Um, we actually semi-automated that collection through, um, IFTTT, um, so, um, we were able to go in and, and click particular images and we removed the museum’s post from our data set. We really centered the visitor’s eye, and we just wanted to look at what visitors, um, were taking images of.

Um, that automated system isn’t possible anymore unfortunately since Instagram changed its API. Um, so that, that, with that first, um, with that data set, the first approach we took to analyzing that was through a visual analysis approach, um, so, we, we printed out each of those 390 to 400 images, stuck ’em up on the wall, and we grouped them into categories that organically emerged from the data set. Um, we looked at the images first and then referred to the captions if it helped to clarify, uh, what an, what an image might be focusing on or what its purpose might be.

And out of that, we had a, a range of categories, um, categories that had objects in them. It took up about 75% of the data set, um, and but these were kind of overlapping, so there were, um, categories that included people, and that might, um, be social happenings, selfies, that kind of thing, um, and they had about 45%, so you know, you can see that social inclusion and the social motivations for a visit is really manifesting in our images, um, but of course, we’re in buildings full of objects. That’s the prime purpose. It makes sense that objects are so present. Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, so A-Alli, when a museum does this, for example, say they mine posts that are happening on Instagram and other social media to kind of get a sense for what and why their visitors are, are posting-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      How might they start to engage those people around, um, that content?

Alli Burness:                           Yeah, well, I think that’s the ultimate end goal for, for this research. Um, a few things we found about why, um, visitors were posting that we can build on. Uh, visitors were really enacting their own sense of agency by weaving themselves and their experience into the collection, the exhibition, the programming through their photography.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Um, we can see that in the captions. We could see that in the images. Um, and I mean our social media managers, uh, wander around with this intimate knowledge about our visitors are interpreting, um, our collections every day. It’s this data set that, that sits in our social media managers’ heads. Um, and you know, that, that’s something that is sitting pretty … It’s just this ripe opportunity to build on, um, and I think if we were to be ab-, we were able to build our social media managers and, and provide them with the resources to do similar studies … And, and I think the findings of this initial paper aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but I think the method that is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

Alli Burness:                           Is where the value is. Um, anyone can to … Can follow the same method, uh, and, and discover what it is visitors are doing and, and find insights for why they’re doing it in the data set that they are being given every day by their visitors.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And, and think about also expanding that out beyond social media managers. Imagine the value, uh, that, you know, if a curator were given access to that or an educator were given access to that to see which objects and which, um, subjects are … People are resonating with. Right?

Alli Burness:                           Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I mean is that goal-

Alli Burness:                           But at the same time, as we have [inaudible 00:32:58] and visitor service offices on the floor of our museums who have a deep understanding every day of what visitors are doing physically in the museums, social media managers, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Have that comparable knowledge-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           And for them to work closely with programming staff, education staff, curator, that, that’s incredibly powerful. Social media’s … Media managers need time, professional development, and a team and, and, you know, that they’re there. The curators are there, can, you know, to co-design, um, some kind of response from their museum together. Um, that, that would be incredible. And I know Meghan Estep at The National Gallery of Art in DC has talked about this really, uh, compellingly about the idea of using our visitors as teachers-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           And building on our visitors’ interpretations of our collections. So, what’s our response going to be? And I think, um, that’s, that, that’s … The answer’s still hanging. Um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, Alli, it’s interesting. You sort of mentioned that although this was a singular case study, the methods were actually really useful, and you think they could be more broadly applied. Are there any data sets that we have that do span the sector, or are there ways that we might be able to compare, say, tourist market museum behavior with regional behavior? A-are, uh, I guess what I’m really getting to … Are there ways that museums can begin to share their social data and collaborate around the sorts of work that you’ve been doing to analyze behavior across the sector rather than in an individual exhibition or an individual museum?

Alli Burness:                           Um, there’s hurdles in the sense that technologically it’s a challenge, and as I mentioned-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Instagram changed its API, which means it’s really hard to even semi-automate some data collection from it.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

Alli Burness:                           Um, that, that’s a real, uh, [inaudible 00:34:52] in the works for creating a similar data set again, let alone doing so across institutions, but I know there are people working on this, and, and I think, um, well, I, I presented … I was part of a panel at The Museum Computer Network Conference next year, and Chad Winard who … Talked about efforts to develop a process for ingesting data sets that might sit along and link with collection data. Um, so there are efforts there, and, and I know that, that, you know, museums do collect … Well, some museums do collect these huge data sets. Ryan Dodge from the Royal Ontario Museum has talked about having an enormous collection-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           Of this data that’s waiting to be interpreted and, and it’s certainly, um, a set that I’d be keen to sort of, um, you know, expand my own research into.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. So, photography, now that we’re all walking around with, you know, incredibly powerful computers in our pockets, the thing, you know, one of the things, uh, most everybody does is obviously take photographs ’cause the cameras are getting better, the quality of the imagery is getting better, do you think that museums really have fully understood or even embraced the, the ways that visitors are starting to use these devices, like taking photographs or, you know, s-sending text messages and, and just the full capabilities that these little computers now offer us at any given moment.

Alli Burness:                           Yeah. Um, I think we’re getting there. Um, I think it’s a journey. I mean museums have this centuries long history that began well before digital technology. It, it, and that is now still being worked into the core processes of what museums do, and so it’s a journey that we’re on. Um, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to use digital technology ourselves as an organization. Um, and then there’s this other question of, well, our visitors come in with these little computers in their pockets, what are they doing with them?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           You know, how do we leverage that as a separate question to what technology are we using internally? Um, so-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It … Maybe I can rephrase the question.

Alli Burness:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you feel that museums n-need to or should be aligning with these, uh, existing behaviors because or, or should, or should our experiences be meaningful enough that we can change the visitor experience or visitor behavior?

Alli Burness:                           I feel that, um, there’s a sweet spot that we should be aiming for, and it’s knowing what our mission is an organization, as a museum, what, what impact we would like to have on visitors when they, they interact with our collections, knowing what visitors are doing with digital technology and, and their phones in this particular example, and why they’re doing that, where do those two interests overlap and leveraging that little overlap. That’s the sweet spot-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Where the museum’s interest and the visitors’ interest are one. That’s what we need to be going for.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I was quite interested. A few minutes ago you mentioned the importance of user agency, and it’s something you also talk about in the studies; this idea of user agency and authority. And I think often when we think about authority in a museum context, we mean it quite differently from what you were thinking about, so getting to that sweet spot, how do museums empower their visitors or help, um, enable that sense of agency and, and give them that agency over their experience, um, whilst, whilst they’re in the galleries but also help them find the sweet spot that is also the sweet spot for us?

Alli Burness:                           Um, I, I think visitors come in and enact their agency whether we like it or not.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Um, and um, I, I’m not sure if I have the most compelling answer to this. It’s about talking to our visitors and, and, and doing the research to deeply understand what they’re doing with their phones and why. And I mean there’s been a hell a lot of conversation around what our expectations of visitors are in terms of behavior and how Smart Phone technology is disrupting that. If we can take the time to properly understand why these behaviors are happening in our galleries and then work out how they align with our missions and what we, what we want, what we want for our visitors, um, that’s, that’s what … That’s the goal. Rather than changing visitor behaviors, it’s working with them to support what our missions are.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, for sure. Um, so Alli, I’m gonna change gears real quick ’cause it’s-

Alli Burness:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, and think back to I think my, my first memory of you and how I think I became in contact with you. In 2013, you took a 12 month museum pilgrimage, right?

Alli Burness:                           Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And visiting more than 200 museums across, you know, tons, like dozens of countries. Um, and so you had this opportunity to travel the world, visit museums of all kinds, gain really nuanced insight, I think, into, um, just the, the diverse, diversity, the breadth of museum practice, what has stayed with you about that trip?

Alli Burness:                           I have so many answers to that. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) That’s great.

Alli Burness:                           And so, I didn’t take any systematic approach to my experience that year when I was touring all those museums. Um, often people have come to me and asked, you know, through your analysis, what would be your answer to these questions? I, I didn’t analyze. I immersed myself in the visitor experience.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           So, I described that year as my, um, human-centered design origin story. It, I, I cannot think o-outside of that. I am inherently visitor-centered-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           And user-centered in my mindset now, uh, so that’s, I mean, in that sense it has radically changed my career and, and my outlook on what I do. Um, it, there was all sorts of things that came out of that that have stayed with me and keep rising up again. Um, one of them is, uh, sort of like a differences on a, on a vertical level, so differences in how collections that try to speak to a broad geographic area, a national narrative, how they engage or inspire engagement in their visitors in comparison to those tiny, tiny collections that have a very community-specific focus and, and the kind of reactions they inspire. They’re quite different.

People engage very differently, and, and that’s, that’s a really interesting spectrum, um, and, and there’s so much that our really big collecting institutions can learn from our really tiny collections that maybe don’t even have a curator. Um, so that was definitely something that sat with me. Um, and now the topic that seems to be becoming a bit of an obsession is the relationship between art and design because I came from an art historical background. I’ve moved into design, and museums kind of sit in that hot spot, um, so I’ve been thinking about how art might sit on a spectrum of innovation. And art would be the creative R&D hot house, so we’re all-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Is this magic? I don’t understand.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Where is design is that real implementation place where we trust what designers make and they implement at scale. Um, it’s a … And I’m still teasing out that relationship. I’m always innately drawn to the boundaries of things, so it’s been a fascinating leap to make, and, and, and museums kind of sit within that.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) It’s really interesting hearing you talk about this idea that people trust designers or we trust designers but don’t necessarily have the same trust in art? Is that, is that something you were getting at? Is there a, is there a trust gap between art and design?

Alli Burness:                           Potentially, and that would be a really interesting topic to, to dig into. I know that in Australia, the art sector has sort of been under attack-

Suse Anderson:                    Ah.

Alli Burness:                           And the, the sense of public value that art can bring is not, not very broadly understood. I think, um, because it’s so hard to measure, art can … The impact is hard to measure. It has a smaller audience. Um, and so the art sector I know here in Australia has been forced to defend itself in, in all sorts of ways. Um, yeah, it’s, it’s a, um, really interesting, interesting topic. Yeah. I think that, that’s … I haven’t sort of come up with a, um, with a comprehensive answer on that one yet.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s totally okay.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    I’ve been really enjoying you, um, ’cause you started writing about some of these things of sort of trying to define the differences between art and design, and it’s been really interesting to watch you grappling with some of these ideas-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Suse Anderson:                    And to know that they were really coming out as much as anything of, of museum pilgrimage and that real deep dive into visitor experience, so-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Suse Anderson:                    I think one thing I’d love to ask then is you’ve been making this career transition from being a digital producer in museums to becoming an experienced designer, in your view having experienced both inside and outside the museum sector, what insights or approaches do you think museums can borrow or adapt from the private sector with respect to aligning with better, better with user behavior patterns?

Alli Burness:                           Um, I think there’s a really strong movement inside the museum to adopt to user-centered design and design thinking. That’s a really strong trend, particularly in those areas that directly interface with visitors. Sometimes I wonder if that can be expanded more deeply into those, um, into the organizational structure, into the design of deep strategy. Um, they also would benefit greatly from co-design techniques, from design thinking. Rather than those strategies being conjured in-house at high levels of management and then pushed out, let’s co-design a digital strategy for the museum with audiences. What would that look like? Um, if audiences wanted to have some input into, um, the organizational structure of the museum, what would that look like?

Um, so instead of it being on a project by project basis, what about at a deeper level of the institutions? I think, I think there is scope to grow that human-centered design skill at those deeper levels.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Um, Alli, do you, do you miss being in it every day? (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           (sighs) Um, uh, no. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           No. No, you know-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           I mean one thing that I’ve learned is that to work every day and to devo-, devote your whole life to a burning passion, something you so deeply believe in, you’ll burn out really quickly, and you will also become disillusioned really quickly because you’ve got really strong views about how things could work. And I always end up at that forefront trying to push things into a more innovative space, and it … I … As an industry, I don’t think it naturally sits there.

Um, so I-I think, um, I’ve learned that there’s real value in dipping in and out for self-preservation, um, um, but also, you-you know, leveraging that opportunity to work with other sectors to grow knowledge from that to bring it back into the museum sector but also to take a breather in those, you know, those other spaces where, perhaps, you know, it’s not coming out of y-your sense of identity. Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           That’s a really heavy load to carry all the time.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      T-that was a brilliant, um, link back to Episode 20, which deal with self, self-care.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, true.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs) Indeed-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    And also, in fact, Episode 21, dealing with insiders and outsiders. (laughing)

Alli Burness:                           Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. There we go.

Alli Burness:                           Yes.

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, way to bring it home, Alli.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Excellent.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes, Alli, thank you so much for coming and chatting to us about this. It has been really enjoyable to hear about the work you’ve been doing and the way your thinking is evolving as you continue looking at these different things from both inside and outside the museum.

Alli Burness:                           Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. It’s, um, been a very interesting discussion. Thanks.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suze, a lot to, uh, process there.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, there always is. Every single episode I walk away with so much to think about, and this gave us, I think, some really different perspectives, thinking about research in the museum and working with visitors and about the behaviors that visitors are bringing into the museum with them.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. I cannot wait to see how Tedi’s research, uh, progresses over the next few months and years really.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely. I do think we should definitely check back in with her in a year or so and see-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Definitely.

Suse Anderson:                    What she’s discovered.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Season three.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Season three, I like it.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Well, that, that is a, a really classy segue, a nice way for us to thank our presenting sponsor, uh, this month and every month. We are, as always, presented by The American Alliance of Museums, and we are so happy about that. Um, Jeffrey, if people wanna find us on the internet, where can they do so?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You can tweet us at Museopunks, and you can also view show notes and links and information about all our guests at

Suse Anderson:                    Yes, and uh, this month in particular, we would love to hear your wrestling stories. If you are another closet wrestling fan out there in museum world, we have to believe they exist, get in contact with us. Or if you just don’t understand why we are into wrestling, hit us up as well. I am sure we would love another excuse to, uh, dive a little bit more into this incredible narrative format.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And maybe in the future, we’ll have an episode dedicated to what museums can learn from professional wrestling.

Suse Anderson:                    I absolutely think we should.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suse, that’s another episode in the can and, uh, look forward to chatting with you next month.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, Jeffrey, it has been great fun. I can’t wait to chat to you again soon.


Dr. Tedi Asher
Photo of Dr. Tedi AsherDr. Tedi Asher is Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The position — which marks a first for an art museum — supports PEM’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At PEM, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.
Read more on Dr. Tedi Asher’s work at PEM

Alli Burness
Photo of Alli BurnessAlli Burness is currently an experience designer with ThinkPlace, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value.  On the side, she is a freelance digital producer, designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and not-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. She previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She has created content for institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Wellcome Collection in the UK and the Powerhouse Museum and Museums and Galleries NSW in Australia. She is currently based in Sydney.

You can find Alli on Twitter @alli_burnie, on her website, and at

Show Notes

Field Study: Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum

Museum in a Bottle

NYTimes: How to Get the Brain to Like Art


Museum Objects and Instagram: Agency and Communication in Digital Engagement

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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 21: The “Outsiders” Edition

Since the 1960s, artists have been critically examining the practices of museums, at times critiquing the idea of what a museum is and how it presents its stories. One of the most influential exhibitions of Institutional Critique was Mining the Museum–installation by artist Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society, in collaboration with The Contemporary.

In this episode–25 years after Mining the Museum–the Punks explore the role outsiders such as artists and external consultants play in driving creative change and innovation within museum practice. What can outsiders do within the institution that permanent staff cannot? What are the limitations they face? And how does a reliance on external talent impact the sustainability of progress in the museums they work with?

Jeffrey Inscho:            (singing)

Suse Anderson:          Ice (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Suse, how are you?

Suse Anderson:          Ah, good day Jeff. I’m really good Jeff. What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Uh, I am getting ready to be on vacation mode here.

Suse Anderson:          Hey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            So, I am like-

Suse Anderson:          That’s sounds good.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. I am ready to be, uh, under a palm tree … um … on- on a beach and-

Suse Anderson:          So-

Jeffrey Inscho:            … some hot sun with a cold beverage.

Suse Anderson:          A serious vacation then.

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is a serious vacation.

Suse Anderson:          Oh.

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is no wi-fi.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is … this is disconnected.

Suse Anderson:          Ah, so you’re not gonna have any sense of how, uh, people react to this- this show once we push it out this- this month?

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll- it’ll be a surprise.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            A few days … a few days when I get home we’ll see how … we’ll see how people like it. Uh, hopefully, uh, don’t at me on Twitter. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) That’s great. How- how often do you actually intentionally unplug? Do … You- you do it pretty often don’t you?

Jeffrey Inscho:            I do. I do it quite a bit. I do it … uh … I do it s- … uh … substantive- substantively at … you know, every couple months I try to just because of the nature of my work being digital, and fast, and … um … connected all the time. So, I try to like just take a- an intensive week and step away. So, that’s next week.

Suse Anderson:          That’s really interesting. I actually don’t think I’ve done anything like that for a long time. But now with a-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh, you should do it.

Suse Anderson:          Well that’s … N- now that, um, I’m only a few months away from motherhood and the kid coming along-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … I’m actually trying to start … um … moving away from technology-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Just ’cause I don’t want my first few months of my- my child’s life to be-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          … my head embedded in- in something digital.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          I want it to be engaged with her; and so, I’m actually pretty consciously now starting to create some barriers for myself.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative). I- I think once- once your daughter comes along … um … w- we’re gonna have some interesting discussions about the place of technology in children’s lives and the next generation’s lives. I- I, you know, I look to my kids and I’m … I- I sometimes I don’t even recognize the w- … the world that they’re growing up in.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know, and, um, I guess that’s, uh, maybe we had the same thing with our parents when- when we were kids, you know? The kind of like parents don’t like your rock music, but, um … I don’t know.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I think that’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll be-

Suse Anderson:          I- I think that’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll be just-

Suse Anderson:          … really interesting and, e- even similarly thinking about museums differently for me.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          I only had the realization this week. That it will be the first time I really regularly go to museums with children instead of as an adult.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Yep.

Suse Anderson:          And, how differently I’m going-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Wow, yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … to experience them.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You’re gonna go see a lot of dinosaurs.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. That’s fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:            So, do we have any followup from the last episode? I kind of feel like the self-care episode was pretty well received. We got a lot of nice- nice Tweets and reactions to people telling us how- how they take care of themselves. Um …

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I think that’s true. I mean to be fair it’s not a … it’s not a topic that you’re going to be really nasty about to … (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            True. Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Most of the time. Um, but yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            For sure.

Suse Anderson:          I- it was interesting to see how many people it resonated with and that they’re really w- … there does seem to be a very conscious-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          … effort that people are making to figure out what is and isn’t working for them in terms of museum careers and I-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          I’ve noticed that trend continuing around just online conversations that I’ve been seeing happening lately.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Around how people prioritize themselves and- and what their needs are within their careers.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Um. I also want to apologize to some people, um, who requested stickers. Um. We’re still waiting on a- a reorder, so, uh, we did send out another shipment, but we have a- a- a backlog that- that we’re working to fill. So, just hold tight. Stickers are on their way.

Suse Anderson:          And keep asking us for them.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          But, just know that they might be, uh, lovely surprises when they arrive (laughs) as opposed to, uh, ones that you’ll get immediately.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Cool. So, um, Suse what are we talking about today?

Suse Anderson:          You know, today we are talking about a thing that I think is a really interesting dynamic. We’re talking about that role of outsiders in museums and in pushing change in museums; and that can be outsiders like artists.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          For artist inventions, but also the importance of … uh … commercial practitioners and vendors; and how people outside museums are often really … um … important catalysts for-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          For change and transformation.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. This is … this is something that I- I- I, you know, I’ve been … it’s been on my mind a lot lately just because the studio is kind of tasked with thinking about what- what skills and resources need to be internalized for a- a museum-

Suse Anderson:          Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … of the 21st and- and, you know, now that we’re well into the 21st century, the 22nd century. Like we gotta be thinking about that. So, um … thinking about what we outsource, what vendors we work with versus what we bring in to the fold is something that … um … I am really cognizant of at this point. So, I’m looking forward to having this discussion with our two amazing guests this month.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. It- it’s funny. I’ve also been thinking about this topic, but particularly since I left, uh, working within a museum and went back into academia is just really thinking about, well, what my role is now as someone who sort of straddles these worlds of I’m no longer an insider in museums, and yet it is still my world absolutely and completely.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          So, who are we talking to today, Jeff?

Jeffrey Inscho:            We have a couple rock stars this episode. We have, uh, George Ciscle. Who, um, many of our listeners may, uh, know from founding the Contemporary in Baltimore and, um, being a driving force for, um, one of the … I- I would say one of the most influential exhibitions, uh, over the last couple decades Mining the Museum.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Uh. In Baltimore with Fred Wilson.

Suse Anderson:          Absolutely. I had an absolute fan-girl moment when he said yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          And, (laughs) to coming and talking to us today and I’m really, really excited about it. We’re also talking to, uh, Jen Brown otherwise known as the Engaging Educator. Who does really interesting work bringing improv and improvisation techniques into museums as well as into many other spaces; and she is gonna talk to us about what she gets from working with museums and we’ll get to dig a little deeper into both of those.

George Ciscle has mounted ground-breaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor studying with Isamu Noguchi. And, for 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985 he opened the George Ciscle Gallery, where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.

From 1989 to 1996 Ciscle was the director and founder of the Contemporary, an un-museum which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in nontraditional sites. Focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ work with the people’s every day lives. From 1997 to 2017 as curator and resident at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, curatorial studies concentration, and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.

George, welcome to the show. It is so great to have you here.

George Ciscle:            Thank you for the invitation.

Suse Anderson:          Uh. So, we are talking today about outsiders in museums and I- I- I think sort of that balance between insiders and outsiders; and I’ve always been really excited about the Contemporary and the work that you did there. So, you were founder and the first director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Which continues today as a nomadic non-collecting art museum. In its early years the Contemporary was dedicated to redefining the concept of the museum.

I’d really love to hear a little bit about how the Contemporary started and what drove you to seek to redefine or reimagine museums and museum practice.

George Ciscle:            Yes, that is certainly the core question. And, um, I always when I talk to my students I want to put this in sort of historical context because in, uh, 1989, um what was going on, certainly in the museum world, uh, looked a lot different than almost three decades later.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. So, I always try to put that in a context because in 1989 we look back at that point in history, especially in art history and the art world, it was the height of the culture wars.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            And, uh, during the culture wars as we know, uh, people really were looking at the- the work, you know, of Serrano, and Mapplethorpe, and … uh … and Annie Sprinkle, and people like that; and- and questioning the government. Meaning our government was questioning, you know, who is this art for? Why are we putting funds towards this? And, it was a … um … it was an unfortunate time. It was a very difficult time. Um, but the … the fortuitous thing that I think that came out of that was that museums had to start questioning what they were doing; because they were being accused of being elitist in terms of what, you know, what they were showing, the artist they were choosing, because they were not seeing a relationship, um, to the world outside of the art world on terms of the larger audience.

So, my interest really was in looking at that. Looking at could we exam, explore, deconstruct what a museum was in 1989. And that in- … that included many areas. It wasn’t just looking at what museums collect, and how they collect them, and their exhibition practices, but also very important elements. Such as, their board make up, their staff make up, you know, the people that were making the decisions, raising the monies for this. And, out of that, uh, really to- to me was the core question of audience.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            So, (laughs) all of that to me in 1989 was about who was the audience for museums outside of the museum world. So, outside meaning of the museum members, of artists, you know, of collectors, of art historians. All very important audience, but it was a very … it was a limited audience. And so, I really wanted to r- … sort of raise the- the- the other question was who cares? (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            Who- who- who cares beyond that- that audience that already was existing and supporting the museum, um, beyond that. And it’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know-

George Ciscle:            Yeah. Go ahead.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. George, this notion of audience centrality even in 2017-

George Ciscle:            Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Is, uh, it considered to be … um … I- I guess a mildly progressive, um, idea. And so, in 1989 I mean you’re talking about this in 1989, 1990, um, that must have been … uh, uh … must have blown some minds. That- that-

George Ciscle:            Well it was interesting, um, in ’89. I remember ’89, and ’90, and ’91, uh, Lisa Corinne and Jed Dodd, staff members who worked with me back- back then at the Contemporary. We went to AAM, uh, conferences.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            And, uh, no where in any panel, in any discussion, in any thematic discussions were they talking about audience, uh, like we are right now. Right? Like museums are today. And so, it’s interesting that- that it was quote unquote revolutionary. Not just the concept of what a museum might be, but the fact that … that no one had ever really … And, I’m not … I’m not saying that no one. You- you- you notice I haven’t mentioned education departments and museums, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Sure. Sure.

George Ciscle:            (laughs) Because the education departments were the ones-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            … looking at audience. Right? But, they were looking at audiences that were more in pro- … programmatically, in terms of what they were doing and they- they were doing and continue to do incredible work. You know? But, it wasn’t the curatorial staff that was doing that. It wasn’t the directors that were … or the boards that were dictating what the mission of the museum might be that included the larger audience.

But, the education department, of course, was; because it was made up mostly of artists. (laughs) Uh, who were really not just practitioners in the field, but really saw what they were doing as important beyond just their own studio.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. George, what … uh … at, you know, in those early days of the Contemporary, what- what affordances or freedoms came from being a museum without a space, right? Without- without a building?

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Or a museum without-

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … a collection.

George Ciscle:            Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And- and then on- on the opposite side of that, what were some of the constraints you had to deal with kind of working outside this more traditional legacy model?

George Ciscle:            Right. Well I- I would … I would say certainly the- the freedoms were that we really were able to be nomadic. We were able to go into different communities. We were able to form collaborations and create resonances that the projects and the exhibitions we did were really almost customized. Site specific, if you will, to that artist, their work, the content of their work, the audience, uh, where- where we’re taking these projects to, uh, whether that audience was a traditional audience or was a nontraditional, you know, a- a nontraditional audience.

And, so we had these freedoms to- to create these very interesting, uh, dialogues, uh, with artists and with communities, um, throughout that. And, also I would say the freedoms it gave us was to … because we were questioning what a museum was w- we had to question ourselves. So, (laughs) we were constantly looking at what we were doing, why we were doing it, and sort of using this as a- a- a continual constant assessment tool going into these different communities.

Um. I would say the- the re- re- restraints of it back then, were that unlike today, um, it was not a … not, um … uh, Baltimore or- or elsewhere even. Uh. It was not a collaborative community. Right? So, both the art community and the community at large. So, everyone talked back then about the pie … the pie. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          Hmm.

George Ciscle:            Yeah. So that- that was the huge discussion.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Right? And, so we were … there were front page articles before we even did our first project in Baltimore, uh, with museums have existed in Baltimore, saying we don’t need, right, we don’t need this. Right? We hadn’t even done anything yet, (laughs) to even show people how … what it … what it may have been different than what they were already doing. But, they were really trying to say, well the pie … Again it had to do … It didn’t really had to do with a concept what we were doing, or saying well let’s expand the contemporary art world here.

It really had to do sadly with money.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            And- and because again back to ’89, the culture wars it became about money. Uh, it became about that the funding was being pulled from museums who were doing e- exhibitions that weren’t reaching a wider audience. And so, it’s interesting to think about that how the funding, of course as we know, shifted away from exhibitions into audience development and community outreach. Uh, so I’d say with the re- … the … that restriction really was that it wasn’t a collaborative community so we were working in isolation from … I don’t mean the artist community, but I mean the institutional community, because they felt that again that- that funding pie and that … and, um, … membership pie and all of that, and from foundations was only so large; and it … and it was not gonna … it was only gonna be the cut into six slices. Not eight.

Suse Anderson:          Huh. It- it’s interesting, ’cause when I think about … um … Mining the Museum, which is one of … one of the things that we wanted to talk to you about, which was such a revolutionary exhibition, uh, created 25 years ago. It- it was, as far as I’m aware and I’m sure you can talk to this, a collaboration between the Contemporary, and the Maryland Historical Society, and- and obviously artist Fred Wilson.

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          And, in that exhibition for- for people for listeners who might not be familiar with it, basically Wilson came in and subverted the way history was being told and presented within the museums. So, he- he used the collection, and the archives, and the resources of the historical society to highlight histories of African-American slavery and stories that really hadn’t been told within the museum context.

George Ciscle:            Sure.

Suse Anderson:          So, Wilson was essentially critiquing the idea of what a museum is through his intervention, but obviously you as the Contemporary were also critiquing what a museum is. But, you … uh … this- this notion that actually it was not necessarily a collaborative space initially, you must have been forging so many connections … uh, uh … that were then quite challenging both I’m- I’m sure from all sides. Can you talk just a little bit about then the germination of this exhibition? How it came together, and then how it affected your own thinking about m- museum practice, and what a museum should be doing?

George Ciscle:            Right. Well it’s interesting because, uh, Mining the Museum was our fourth project.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. We’d only … we were only two years old. And, uh, the three projects before that, that we had done, uh, visual aids a photo manifesto US … uh, photography from the USSR, and soul shadows urban warrior myths. So, exhibitions really dealing with very timely topics, um, in terms of what was going on in 1990 and ’91 especially. Um, uh, mass incarceration, uh, the y- … uh, censorship in the USSR by artist, and- and o- obviously the AIDS epidemic, right? But, these … and so, these three projects in our first two years were getting a lot of attention here in- in Baltimore and, um, a lot of support and- and interest, and- and excitement. Right?

And, people were starting to understand very much this exploration. How we were trying to connect artist, and art, and audiences. Right? How to sort of connect people’s everyday life to what contemporary artists were doing. People understood that. But, no one in those three projects ever talked about or wrote about the first question that we had, (laughs) as an institution. Which was de- … what defines a museum. Right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            So, no one was talking about that. Right? Even though … So, no one was talking about these, uh, case studies. Right? But, they were very impactful, effective exhibitions without question. So, we after our- our second project … a- after the second project and going into the third, said to ourselves, um, both the board and- and staff, Lisa Corinne, and- and Jed Dodd, and- and the board, and myself really talked about, wait a minute, let’s stop a second. We’re doing s- … we’re doing work that obviously people are receiving very well. Uh, in the … in these three different communities. Because again those three … uh, uh … were not in- in institutions. They were in nontraditional spaces.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. So, we said to ourselves, we need to choose a project and artist. That the whole purpose of it is to question a museum. (laughs) Right? And so, we of course looked at obviously the history of, you know, artists. Uh. You know like Hans Haacke and, uh, Andrea Fraser, and other people who certainly had been doing that. Right? Uh, in their own prac- … in their own practice, but we wanted to as an institution to say, well, what would happen if we used that as the guiding force of a project?

And so, we started looking at artists, emerging artists at the time. This is 1991. And we knew of Fred’s work, uh, in … at … in commercial galleries and in alternative spaces in New York and the Bronx. So, we- we were aware of what he was doing and we certainly knew that his practice was a- almost a faux museum practice. In terms of using, you know, reproductions of objects and, uh, you know, creating spaces that look like natural history museums, and things like that. But, we know had never actually worked in a museum or worked with real objects.

And so, we brought Fred, uh, to Balti- … we brought Fred to Baltimore, um, basically to look at all the museums here; and took him on a tour and, um, in the long run by the end of the day the Maryland Historical Society was his number one choice. Uh, because when he went into that museum, he came out and he said, where- where am I? (laughs) Where am I in this museum and where is my s- … where is my story? You know, as an African-American, uh, represented in here?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Hmm. That- that-

George Ciscle:            And, origin.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. That origin story is … is so interesting. Um, and you know I- I think, you know, even though Mining the Museum was a cross-institutional partnership and an artist intervention, you know, looking … looking back on it I kind of, and maybe this is just my personal view of it or I’m sure some other people have this view, but it’s … it almost seems like it took a lot of bravery for the Maryland Historical Society to be a part of this, and almost is-

George Ciscle:            They- they deserve so much credit for that. It’s very interesting that you say that because, uh, people sort of a- a- a- assume that they got all this criticism for doing it, uh, you know, uh, for doing this kind of project.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

George Ciscle:            For being under the microscope. Of course the opposite as a matter of fact history the … the history books sort of show, I mean, the majority of the history books were, you know, presented as their project. Um, and, uh, you know, we the Contemporary of course, you know, worked with Fred, and presented the, uh, proposal, you know, to the … the- the Maryland Historical Society, and, you know, created the collaboration, and what the parameters would that … would that be. Um, it … So, all that was an uncertainty as a collaboration that- that Fred was at the core of and the two institutions staff, and volunteers, and docents, uh, worked together. You know?

So we- we created that structure, um, um, subsequently, uh, from that. And, also I would say that so- so that being the case, so now we had Fred, we had this artist who was really interested in this opportunity to work in the museum with a real collection. To sort of tell his story. You know? Through his eyes, but with their work. Um. But we also had this uncanny opportunity (laughs) that again we did not plan, but became apart of the scheduling that AAM’s first conference in Baltimore, was in, uh, 1992.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh my gosh.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

George Ciscle:            So, all that … so-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Perfect timing.

George Ciscle:            So, we’re like … when we found that out it was like, okay, let’s schedule. Can we … can we? Can the historical side and the contemporary in terms of our, uh, planning, um, can we s- … Are we able to schedule this for when that is here? Um. So, which of course we did and, um, and over 4,000 delegates came, uh, during that- that weekend … that week-

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

George Ciscle:            … to see the exhibition. Which of course forced us … And of course the New York Times came and covered it. And, it forced us to, uh, fortunately to ex- extend the run of the show so that museum from all over the country, uh, came with their staffs, uh, and met with the contemp- … especially with the Contemporary to really talk about that. With their questions, uh, the- their museums questions were what’s next? (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

George Ciscle:            So- so, that was the course. No one had … I mean, we knew what was next. The Contemporary, we were all … we were all from there-

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

George Ciscle:            … with Alison Sorren in the back of a 1957 Chevy pick-up truck. Going into-

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs) Right.

George Ciscle:            … 80 communities and five states.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            So, we knew what was next for us, but the question was, well, what happens now? Would … How do you … Can you d- … sustain this? Meaning- meaning in terms of a museum, uh, its practice. So, yes. The historical society, back to you’re saying in terms of the bravery, without question that they, um, uh, people had and still acknowledge that. That they were really the heroes in that and that they also allowed the Contemporary as an outside, as a young … I mean we were just new kids on the block. Uh, to be able to come in there (laughs) and- and … You know the … it’s the oldest institution in the state of Maryland. You know? (laughs)

And so, here we were the youngest.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            Um. Coming- coming and so it was an-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh. That’s … yeah.

George Ciscle:            … interesting collaboration in terms of- of that perspective also. And, also of course thinking about the audience that we were bringing into there was not just this museum field, but were artists. So, artists from our community and outside the community ra- … had rarely ever entered the doors of the historical society.

Suse Anderson:          George, do you think that … the- the museum or in fact the museums in general can perform this kind of introspection themselves without an external catalyst? I mean I think you- you’re talking about having so many delegates come and see this exhibition at AAM’s conference and how that led to this question of what’s next. But- but how important is it being able to work with an external catalyst for something like this?

George Ciscle:            Well it’s interesting. When, um, at … when it was ov- … the show was over and the director or it … L- L- Lisa and I, uh, met with and the board presidents, we all met to- to talk about this, right, and, um, the board was asking the historical society’s director and the curators what’s- what’s next. And, they looked to us wanting us to continue collaborating with them. Uh. As sort of the answer to that. Right? Which is an interesting answer. Like that- that they were actually open to us con- … staying there in- in their home and work- working, you know, together. Uh, but of course as I say we were onto other things.

But, my answer to them was that, well the answers are easy. It’s artists, artists, artists. Right? (laughs) So, Fred made that. You know? Yes we fac- … we … we had the idea in terms of what our next project would be. We engaged him in- in that. We commissioned him to do the work. We created a collabor- collaborative structure for- for it and the process. Yes. But, Fred … it- it- it’s the artist and everything the Contemporary did was always centered around the artist. Um, but he’s the one who did that. So, yes. It’s always wonderful, uh, to have collaboration, to bring outside people, and perspectives, and to look at different working processes. But, for me it really is about what … the- the artists is the one who has the vision.

We- we … The Contemporary didn’t have the vision for my museum. Fred did. Right? We just have a … O- our vision was basically to say how- how do we open this up to give artists opportunities, you know, to make these connections with audiences outside of the art world?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. You … George, you have no idea how many meetings I’ve been in at work where- where Mining the Museum has come up as a reference and, you know, I almost like I it- it … as we were kind of thinking about this, you know, I almost placed the … placed the … that exhibition as like the … like the A.D. (laughs) You know? Like it’s after Mining the Museum, everything kind of like, uh, seems to … the perspective seems to- to change. And, I’m wondering if, um, you feel that anything has changed in museums, and the way that we deal with stories, and with history since …. since that exhibition? Um-

George Ciscle:            Well I think without question they have.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … or do you think that that exhibition has had a- a lasting impact on the sector?

George Ciscle:            Yeah. Uh. Without question and- and again w- whether it- it … even if it doesn’t directly go back 25 years ago to Mining the Museum in terms of what’s happened since then, right, because again there are other factors we have to look at. In terms of the culture wars, and funding shifting, to audience development from- from- form the government, and things like that. So, there- there are certainly lots … lots of f- factors, right, in- in all of that. And, artists- artists also came more to the forefront in terms of working in museums, right? They were given a- a- a- a voice, uh, uh, not just a curatorial voice, but also a- a voice in- in terms of, um, how they work in museums. Right?

So, I think that this … There has been a great change. You look at AM today. You look at the last 10 years of the … of the themes of the AM conferences. Right? Every single one of them have to do with audience, and engagement, and equity. Every single one, right? So, there is a huge shift and a … and a focus now. Not that there’s still for- for change. There has to be still room for it, if not why are we still talking about Mining the Museum? Why (laughs) … Why are we still having these conversations if- if it … if our- our approach and our methodology of working in museums has completely shifted?

No, it’s certainly shifted and certainly we see that in- in … um … the training, you know, of curators, and the training of educators, and, uh, and people in museum administrators. That in their training they are now having to talk about, you know, who is the audience for these institutions.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. George it’s actually listening to you makes me feel incredibly optimistic, uh, because there is a sense, I think sometimes when your working, uh, as a progressive practitioner or someone who is seeking to make change, sometimes it feels like such a, um, you know, that you’re- you’re really pushing the sort of proverbial rock up a hill. But, you’ve been really doing progressive practice and boundary pushing work for close to 50 years now within the sector. I’d love to hear just any particular insight that you’ve gained from … from being progressive over such a long period of time and- and what lessons you’d pass along to emerging practitioners or those who are still concerned with change and concerned with trying to put the audience at the forefront, uh, and really think about what museum practice is today.

George Ciscle:            Well, I- I would say that I always sort of look at the … what the creative practice of an artist is in terms of their process in working making art. Um. And- and certainly it all begins it … with, you know, research. You know? It- it begins reflection. It begins with an idea, um, before you know how to develop it. Right? So, for me, uh, and people who are looking to- to make change in the field, um, one really has to sort of step back and really examine, do that research in terms of what the history of the practice is, right, because again, there are a lot of good things we’re still … we need to still retain that happen in museums.

With our … you know we … we’re not going to, uh, negate that. But, we need to I think … I say to my students all the time, know the history, but also then figure out in terms as- as an artist would do. What are the options before you edit down to the final one that’s gonna be the- the most effective. You know, as- as your … as your art, or as your ex- exhibition, or as the project you’re working for. So, I’m- I very much … um … and, I think within in that is- is inherent the willingness yourself to change, and to adapt and to adjust. Um. I very much am an advocate in terms of a- a consensus model of- of working, uh, as a team.

And so, I always talk to my student about that. About to me the real success of the Contemporary, um, was not just the projects, was the we. And, I mean the we. I mean this, uh, it wasn’t me as the founder. It was the we. It was the staff. It was the board. They were all the partners and collaborators. It was all the hundreds of volunteers. All that worked to carry out an artist’s vision. And so, I- I think that- that one needs to know how to … to- to make- make decisions together as a team. That there’s not this hierarchy of the decision comes on high and everyone else carries out the work for you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            George, before we let you go, I just wanted to touch on, um, something that came out of, um, the recent, uh, talk you gave with Fred Wilson, um, celebrating the 25th anniversary or Mining the Museum. This happened a few weeks ago. Um. And, this notion, um, I’m not sure if it was you or Fred who br- brought it up. I can’t remember, but the notion that a museum should be a place where anything can happen. Um. Notion that- that a museum should a- a delightful, surprising experience. Um. I’m wondering if … um … if, uh, … I- I assume I know the answer to this, but, um, if you … if you still believe that if, um, and if- if you feel, um, that we’re making progress toward that end.

George Ciscle:            I- I feel just … just as if Fred when he walked through the door at [inaudible 00:34:51] just like he said, where am I in this? Right? Where- where am I in this? I think for me that this museum space and again the Contemporary tried to do this in the environments we created as these un-museum, you know, spaces. That it has to be a welcoming, inviting environment, right? I want to be able when I say to my students like, you know, I- I want to bring my aunt Doris. We all have … I want to bring my aunt Doris.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. (laughs)

George Ciscle:            Like, you … so wh- wh- what am I bring her to, right? What is she experiencing? Does she feel at home? Does she feel welcome? Does she feel that this is part of what she can talk to me about? So, yes. They certainly are these and sh- … need to be places of again that we welcome and invite people into; and I think we’re very fortunate. It’s interesting almost three decades later in Baltimore, like five years ago, our two major museums became free. Right? And, the different I mean you could look at the statistics in the … at the Walters and the BMA and see just at … so this is not just in terms a number but issues of diversity of the audience. Right? Of the difference that that made because it- it- it made them places where there were another … wasn’t the obstacle of education, knowledge, income (laughs), right?

It was just our doors are open to all, and- and to me that’s … I mean that has to be them message, right? I mean it’s another … nother … uh … quandary, uh, challenge of course once they get in- in there. Inside the doors then what happens, and what are they looking at, and what- what it means to them, and who’s interpreting it, and what they’re collecting, and all … and also like how they said, uh, before like who’s making the … those decisions in terms of the board and the staff. But- but- but I think those things are shifting also.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah, I think that’s a great place to end. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. Uh huh. Amazing. George, thank you so much.

George Ciscle:            Oh, thank you.

Suse Anderson:          Just as Jeffrey was saying-

George Ciscle:            And- and- and thank you for sponsoring what you’re doing.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) Indeed. Well when- when Jeffrey was talking about how influential, um, Mining the Museum has been in his work, similarly for me it- it was I think a- a definitive moment was learning about that exhibition, ’cause it really shifted the way I was thinking about museums and museum practice. So, to have the opportunity to talk to you about its history and- and all of the issues that have come out of it, has been an absolute delight.

George Ciscle:            Thank you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Jen Brown is the founder and artistic director of the Engaging Educator. Through The Engaging Educator her pedagogical approach to … of improv as continuing education has reached more than 25,000 people. All non-actors. Since 2012 Jen has given TEDx talks on the power of improv, grown The Engaging Educator to three locations in New York City, Winston-Salem North Carolina, and Los Angeles. And recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, which is a 501c3 offering free and low cost improv workshops for educators, at risk adults, teens, and students on the autism spectrum.

Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, Saint Joseph’s University, and Second City.

Jen Welcome to Museopunks.

Jen Brown:                 Hey. Happy to be here.

Jeffrey Inscho:            I’m glad to have you. Um. Been wanting to talk for a long time. Um. So, uh, The Engaging Educator does work with museums but also with fortune 500 companies, startups, universities, and a broad kind of range of- of- of clients you have. Before we get to far into this interview, can you just talk to us a little bit about how the museum sector became one of those focus areas for your company?

Jen Brown:                 Sure. Sure thing. Actually the museum area is where it all started. I was an actor for a long time. When … Decided in New York that I really was not happy being a actor. So, I went back to school for art history at City College and one of my professors actually flat out told me, he’s like, “You are no curator. You should look into museum education,” because I was so excited with making museums accessible. I- I would fight people in class pretty much when it was the whole like high and mighty art conversation.

So, I still remember this single professor from City College, Professor Hauser; and he’s like, “You are a museum educator ten-fold. Go do this.” And, I applied for an internship at the Guggenheim and the rest is kind of history on that front, because I worked there for a few years when I realized that I really missed improv. So, when I went back I was looking at improv in a very different way because my nickname at the Guggenheim was the Show Pony, by Sharon Vatsky.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 Which, she’s- she’s lovely, but I still to this day, when I ask her about that, she’s like, yeah, you don’t get ruffled. You go out there, and you do what you gotta do. And, it was so much of my improv training that got me in that place to begin with. So, when I started EE, the Engaging Educator, I was offering class only to museum educators, and then from there it ended up opening into like educators from schools, random sales professionals; and I finally made a choice that I was like, hey, I am not gonna turn my head at money. I’m gonna say yes to this and will teach everyone except actors.

So, while I still work with a lot of museums, we also do work with corporations, and schools, and kids, and people on the autism spectrum. Museums are still my … like they’re close to my heart. So, I just actually got back from a consulting job with the Ringling in Sarasota, and right before that I was in Sarnia in Ontario with the museum. So, we’re still very, very rooted in museums. We also just happen to say yes to everyone.

Suse Anderson:          Huh. Which I guess is very much, uh, the- the improv notion of yes and. You know? The- the you- you start in one area and then you take the possibilities as they … as they come along and you accept those gifts. So, I guess tell us a little bit more then about w- why improv? Like what- what the techniques or what it is in improvisation that can really help the museum work, or really work in general?

Jen Brown:                 Well I think the biggest thing is the idea that improv is … is rooted in communication. So many people misunderstand it. I- I ask everyone at the beginning of improv workshops, like, what’s the first thing that you think of? And the answers range from like terror, to Jerry Seinfeld, to laughter, to spontaneity and really it’s just listening and responding. And, I’m museums I think it’s something that we don’t often do very well. Shockingly many other careers feel the same way because the same problems that I see in educators, and docents, and boards from museums they’re the same problems on different levels for kids in school, or teachers at schools, or even some of the companies that we’ve worked with.

I think communication skills is the biggest draw in people signing up for improv workshops. Whether that be presentation skills. They want to be better speakers, or they want to listen better, or they just want to have some fun doing what they do and their taking something like that idea of risk taking. So, while improv like touches all of these different ways, I think personally, the idea of being able to just listen and respond to a moment, and be in that moment, and actually be able to be present, and speak to it, and- and do a good job in that moment. (laughs) In the sense of you’re not thinking 20 steps ahead. You’re not thinking of your own agenda. You’re really focused on the here and now. Which is something that we don’t do anymore.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. That’s so interesting that, um, that broad view you have of- of multiple sectors and seeing commonalities or consistencies that run across them. Do you notice anything different or special about the museum sector compared to the other areas, uh, other sectors that you work in?

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. Um. When I work with museums, I’m usually working with either like education. So, we’re thinking like museum educators, docents, anyone that’s dealing with the public. Visitor services is another branch that we do a lot of work with, as well as with boards. So, uh, the museum’s board we might do a story telling workshop or communication workshop. And, what I find very specific with museum’s is it’s really hard sometimes to get people to just have fun; and we talk about the idea of having fun and being light-hearted, and I think we take … we all take ourselves so seriously no matter what profession.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Brown:                 I feel like museums for some reason has this like it doesn’t matter if you’re in visitor’s services, or if you are a docent, or if you are a child … like an educator that’s working through K through 12, you have to learn to laugh at yourself, and you have to get out of your head sometimes. And, I find that museums are the- the sector that has the hardest time with that. And, we’re working with like accountants, and salespeople, and like Viacom CEOs, and people that are working in sales. And, museums have the hardest time getting out of their heads and just having a little levity.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I’m really interested also that boards are a big part of the-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … the people that you work with, ’cause in- in- in some ways, and this might be a really naïve perspective, I think that education and that makes sense. I think about visitor services and these communication skills make sense, but if you’re talking about communication as being core to this, then having our boards be part … like be part of this process or go through this process sounds hugely important, but to me pretty unintuitive. I’d love to hear a little bit more about sort of A, whether that’s the same work that you’re doing or whether there are different expectations when you’re working with boards and also just a little bit more about what that … what those outcomes start to look like.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And how it comes about. Like how do you get invited in to talk … to work with the board?

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. So, when we’re working with anyone, it all starts with their goals. I make sure to have conversations with any museum, any board, any visitor services department, whatever it is and it’s always that breakdown of like, what do you want to accomplish? I don’t really accept the answer we want everything fixed; and I’ve gotten that answer before. (laughs) So, it’s not … it’s not me just making a joke. Like I’ve literally had a museum saying well we have a lot of problems. Please fix them.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And it’s like I’m not … that’s above my pay grade beyond anything.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 And, I- I’ll try and it’s really coming down to those core issues. So, thinking about boards and things not being incredibly intuitive like you wouldn’t think like, oh, a board should take an improv class. Well a lot of times a board is drawing together a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, and they need to find some commonality under a mission, under a focus and that lies in this idea of communicating ideas. So, we don’t end up a lot of times working with the board first. We’ll do a workshop with another department and someone will say, oh this was incredible for X or this really worked out for our facilitators becoming better to communicate to our visitors. Maybe we should try something like this for the board.

So, it’s similar work. Not the same in the sense of when I’m working with the board, it ends up being revolving around both their mission statements and the idea of communicating the mission of the board, of the museum, being able to talk about the museum, or foundation, or whatever umbrella organization is pulling that board together. And, then also the idea that always comes in, we get the people want to have fun. We want to get to know each other in a different way and have fun. And, it’s that part of improv that I have a love hate relationship with in that sense of team building.

Where when people call me for a team building activity, I cringe and think of a trust fall,

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Brown:                 Because I don’t do any of that stuff. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 But, people understand that word team building. So, I always say it’s a side effect. It’s never a core focus. We do laugh together. We get to know one another. And, what ends up happening specifically with board workshops is they become more comfortable speaking about areas in the museum that they have to be ambassadors for. Much like with museum education, you’re an ambassador to that museum. You are talking about the collection, the objects, the educational programs. Whatever you’re doing, you’re still speaking about something and have to be some sort of I would say … I don’t want to say expert ’cause I hate that word. But, it’s more of like an authentic voice on the subject.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. So, Jen, the focus of this episode is- is kind of on the infusion of outsider perspectives into the museum whether that be artist interventions or commercial kind of interventions like yours. Um. Do you think there are things that you have license to do as an outsider within an institution that’s … that like internal staff are- are unable to do? And- and why do you think this might be the case?

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into organizations, museums specifically, and heard, I really want to say this but I can’t. So can you? And, that- that whole mentality of someone else coming in from the outside it’s- its both sides. It’s that and it’s also if someone’s coming in from the outside and they’re telling you something, you might listen to them a little bit more because it’s a different voice, because it’s someone with a different perspective, because someone is looking at it in a different way.

I … when I come in, I- I make sure that I am working for the goals that I was hired on. Like I have an objective. Someone has asked me to do something. At the same time, I probably never will see these people again. So, that’s not saying I’m gonna go around and, excuse my language, be- be an ass; but I am going to be really honest because that’s the kind of person I am.

I was just doing a workshop like I said with the Ringling and I- I was talking about this. We were walking around with the docents, after it was a new class of docents. They’re all fantastic lovely people. And they were throwing around all of these really academic terms. And, I kept like raising my hand and saying, “What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?” And, I feel like as if I was a member of the staff that wouldn’t necessarily be taken in the same sort of way as it was with me; because I spent all- all morning with them. Showing them like, hey, you need to reach people where they’re at. You need to talk to your audience. Not at them. We’re working on leveling the playing field. Making this accessible.

So, me calling out something like that, with that much forwardness and- and being that abrasive, was something that they actually thanked me for afterwards; and at the same time it was received in a way that it was constructive criticism because it wasn’t the voice that was kind of nurturing them through things.

I think as an outsider you- you both have that ability and then at the same time there’s that problem that comes in where you could be seen as just a satellite workshop; and, that’s why I really try to incorporate as much as like the museum’s pedagogical approach to whatever we’re doing into what I’m doing because if you’re just a satellite workshop … We’ve all gone to them. Like you go to one and you’re like, hey, that was fun. I’m never gonna use this again or I’m never gonna do this again. At the same time the ones that happen once that incorporate language that you’re used to hearing, or talk about things that you know are happening in your museum, or works that are on the wall, or objects in the collection, that sticks a little bit more.

So, being an outsider you kinda … it’s like a double-edged sword. Where you can say all this stuff and- and it doesn’t matter kind of, as long as you stay on mission; and at the same time you can say all this stuff and it doesn’t matter because-

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 … they can chose never to listen to you again.

Suse Anderson:          It’s one of the things I find sort of funny and I- I- I- think it could be frustrating. Although, I- I choose never to be frustrated by it. Uh. As an academic is, you know, I- I can teach things to my class and then I bring an external person in who can say very similar things and … but they listen to quite differently from me. In part because they are coming from this outsider and, you know, coming from immediately from the professionals, as opposed to me. Whose now teaching and- and-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Totally.

Suse Anderson:          … and I find that a really interesting dynamic. But, it makes me wonder whether museums, or classrooms, or other institutions actually need to bring in those external voices and those external perspectives to work through difficult or challenging problems, or even just to reframe the current problem.

Jen Brown:                 I think it’s really important for the outside … Not just because I’m an outside source. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 But, at the same time thinking about what I do, not just for museums, in the sense of working on your speaking skills. When you’re constantly listening to the same voice, that has the same cadence, and the same movement, everything that’s happening. So, your voice is moving at something that can be akin to white noise if you don’t think about changing it up and becoming more dynamic. I think the same thing happens when we’re listening to people in professional development or in class. If it’s constantly the same voice, then you can tune it out after a while. If you hear things in different ways and you’re getting these different methods of input, they tend to stick a little bit more because you’re hearing all different tonalities. You’re hearing all different manners of speaking. You’re hearing different ways of presentation. Because, everyone has a different speaking style.

I- I’m very upfront when I’m consulting because that’s generally what I’ve been asked to do. If I’m … When I was teaching at a museum and leading, uh, leading a PD for peers, I was a little different and I- I know I was a little more apologetic because I’m like these people are my peers. Like I’m telling them … I’m basically going into their house and rearranging their furniture and they didn’t ask me to. Whereas, if I’m coming in as … as a … as a consultant or as an outside force, someone’s hired me to do this and someone’s asked me, hey, rearrange our furniture and we’ll put it back if we don’t want it this way; but for now rearrange our furniture. (laughs)

So, I think the- the voice, and the different ways of speaking, and then the just the different ways of presenting information helps different learning styles learn. So, that in the end-

Suse Anderson:          And how-

Jen Brown:                 … it’s a … it’s a good thing.

Suse Anderson:          Y- yeah. I hadn’t even considered really the physicality of it, or literally using different language, or like- like sometimes I think you think about, uh, when someone is coming in and speaking about things that you yourself know, and believe, and have been speaking to, uh, you know. I think there can be a certain level of frustration but I hadn’t actually put together how important just actually difference becomes … And, also as you say you have then liberties to … you- you’re not having to engage in the long term dynamics. You’re not having to engage in these long developed relationships where this conversation or this series of conversations it’s just one of a- a- a much longer dialogue. You’re actually being able to come in and say, well, no, let’s just focus on this issue as opposed to having to think through all of those other factors.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. It’s a … it’s- it’s always interesting because I- I get the side wh- when coming into any organization. So, museums, yes. Every organization. I get the side that’s presented to me and then I get the side that’s in the first 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs) Right. Right.

Jen Brown:                 (laughs) Which on occasion are very different sides. And, then I get the participant’s side which either happens like midway through, afterwards, in an email after. And it’s just … it’s just fascinating because you’re dealing with people. So, of course there’s relationships that are happening and some of them might not be great, and some of them might be amazing, and there might be a big set of change happening in the museum or in the organization. And that I find is- is when I come in sometimes is when there’s like a huge change happening in the organization or something needs to be different.

So, there’s all of this tension that’s already being built in because of change. It doesn’t matter if you’re … I’m spontaneous. Change makes me a little crazy sometimes. And it’s … Change is stressful. So, that- that energy builds itself in sometimes. So, it’s a … it’s it’s a big psychology experiment, I think, coming in from the outside because you’re suddenly like thrown into this microcosm where everyone’s been existing just fine and you’re … It can be frustrating and I- I just … I love it because it’s a moment that I know that it’s like these people … You’re getting what you get right now and you can choose to take it. And, I tell everyone before we start.

And, it was something that I actually heard from an outsider workshop at the Guggenheim. Where a group psychologist came in and her first sentence to us was, “You can like me. You can hate me. You can like what I do. You can hate what I do. Make up your mind at the end.” And, I say that to every group I’m with because you give them the option to choose and then they don’t spend the whole time trying to make judgments about you. It also ties into improv in the sense of, okay, you’re in the moment. You’re not like thinking about, oh man, I’m hungry, or, oh man, I want to go to lunch, or when is this over, or what are we doing next. You’re paying attention to the here and now.

And, then after if you want to send an email like, hey, this was a waste of my time, or I felt like this didn’t do anything, by all means go for it. You can really see a person’s mentality when you say that though, because if they spend the whole time judging and thinking about it, then they have a hard time themselves being in the moment.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. For sure. So, Jen you … I … you know, you approach your work with the EE through- through a lens of professional development, or continuing education, and I think that’s really great because I … because I- I kind of feel like you’re contributing to the capacity of the museum. Uh. Boosting their in- internal resources kinda by building up, uh, their internal skill sets. Um, and so like when you’re gone, they can implement the learnings. Right? It’s … And the museum itself doesn’t become reliant of you in perpetuity.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely not.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Um. Right?

Jen Brown:                 Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And- and they’re not outsourcing their core competencies to you. So, they’re kinda bringing this stuff in and, you know, some other nonprofit or some other for profit, um, agencies aren’t so healthy for the wellbeing and sustainability of museums. Is- is this something that you’re consciously aware of and- and is it … is it … how important is that to the aspect off your work? Kind of onboarding these new skills?

Jen Brown:                 Yeah, I’m so consciously aware of this. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Okay. Good. (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 Like as- as a … I’m so aware of this and I’m glad that it comes across like that because I- I- I can’t stand when it’s like a one off that takes away from … it’s a one off that is all bells and whistles. A one off workshop or a program that comes in and it’s like great now what? Like so what?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Jen Brown:                 And, that’s such a big question that we actually ask during workshops. Like after every activity I do with museums, specifically with everyone, museums specifically in this example. we’ll do the activity and then we’ll have a reflection. So, it’ll be, okay, so what? Now what? And, how that so what is like how does this apply to your every day? How does this connect with whatever area you’re working with in museums and how are you going to use this? Now what? When we did workshop for SFMOMA before they even reopened, I worked with all of the docents, educators, the- the term that they use is I think specific to SFMOMA. We’ve also worked with their visitor services. So, in this instance it’s just the people that are giving both public and school tours.

And, before they even opened we were talking about how we could continue to use this and incorporate this into every day programming when the museum reopened. I just came … I just was back at SFMOMA, they’re open clearly in May and come to find that some of the new- new class we’re doing a yes and activity and this one gentleman raised his hand and he said, “We already do this in the gallery.” And, the person that hired me Julia Chows says, “Yeah, Jen taught everyone how to do this.”

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 “So, what you’re seeing is them doing it,” and, it was such a lovely moment because I tell people, I’m like, this is not proprietary. Like you don’t need me to do this. These are skills that even if you don’t work at the museum anymore, you’re gonna need to know how to be a better listener and you’re going to have to yes and someone in the sense of yes I hear you. So, I’m affirming what you said and I’m adding information instead of saying like, yeah, yeah, whatever, but here’s the real story. Well, actually here’s the real thing.

So, I- I really do believe in that idea of professional development and continuing education for staff, because if you give them tools to make things better and to make a change, then you don’t have to depend on all of these outside sources. I- I’m thrilled that if a museum’s like, hey, we do this all the time or we warm up in staff meetings with one of your activities. I’m like that- that’s amazing. Thank you for telling me so, I know that things aren’t going out into the ether. And, at the same time I’m always happy when I end up coming back and they’re like, hey, we’re doing this. Now what can we do next?

So, I see they’re actually … it’s like going to the gym. I see that they’re like doing the first set of workouts and they’ve plateaued. So, they want to one up it or do more.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah that’s nice. This idea of it being a platform where you can build on. A- a lot of what you’re talking about can really be sort of distilled down or extrapolated like … ex- extrapolated out to being about an organization’s ability to embrace change or transformation and to build on the change that’s been happening. Which can be pretty intimidating. Especially for, you know, the legacy institutions and also I’m sure some of the private enterprise you work with. Do you then see the work that you’re doing as really being more at that sort of meta level of organization change and transformation or is it much more about sort of tactical immediate skills and- and- and sort of is it of the moment or is it that really long term sort of organizational change?

Jen Brown:                 I think it’s both and I think it’s- it’s both a little bit in- in museums specifically because of how we run those workshops or how I teach those workshops; because I- I let people know from the get go. Say, I’m working with educators, I say, “Well some of these activities if you have a tour today or a program today, you literally could take this activity and do it immediately.” So, in that sense it’s affecting both the long and short game of we want our tours to be more interactive and we want our programming to be more audience centric. And, at the same time, I also do the idea of like risk taking in improv as a big g- goal that happens with museums or the ideas of yes and communication, and audience centric, and visitor centric. And, that’s more of a long game because you can’t change a behavior immediately you have to work on something like that.

And- and so, it’s a bit of both in the sense of they’re looking to be more interactive or looking to be more visitor centered; and at the … at the same time that can be something immediate because I’ve had people leave the program and go to give like a spotlight talk on an artwork, or go to give a program right after and I get an email that day saying, hey, I used this and it was awesome. So, that’s very immediate like I took this. I don’t feel like I have to work towards something. I can use it right away.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Hmm. So, that’s all … it’s just so fascinating. Um. Before we wrap up with you, Jen, we’ve been following the discussion online, on Twitter that’s kind of been happening over the past couple days about when and why people leave the museum sector. I think it’s, um, you, and Ally Rico, and, um …

Suse Anderson:          I think SEMA’s been part of it.

Jen Brown:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:            Jen, and … yeah and SEMA’s part, SEMA, previous guests have been part of it. So, can you tell us a bit about your transition from being an insider to and outsider, and maybe the factors that- that played into that to the extent that you can talk about it, and do you think that any of the resistance factors that we have talked about in- in this entire interview, things from organizational change, or whatever contribute to staff churn? Museum staff churn in- in some way?

Jen Brown:                 Ab- absolutely. I … I was extremely lucky with one of my museum positions. So, in New York for the … for people that aren’t familiar, if you want to teach, you freelance at a lot of different organizations. So, you’re not just at one place. If you’re at one place, you probably have a lot of admin responsibilities as well. And, even today outside of the museum field, I am not an admin person by any stretch of the imagination. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And, I’m comfortable admitting that flaw.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And, it’s okay. I- I really enjoyed the teaching aspect. So, I was jumping around with different organizations for years. Like, I was at the Frick Collection. I was at the Guggenheim. I was at the Queens Museum. I was at the Children’s Museum of Art. I was at the Transit Museum. So, in- in all of these different experiences I found that wh- when I was actually at the Guggenheim as an educator I was so lucky, because I was encouraged to take risks and what I was this- this outside theater perspective on things was actually encouraged and embraced by people there. My supervisors, my fellow educators and I think I was told no once there when I had an idea; and that was when I wanted to grow bacteria in a summer camp program.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 So I was-

Jeffrey Inscho:            They said no?

Jen Brown:                 They said no and shocking. And, then they later … Sharon actually I’m sure remembers this, ’cause she called me later … emailed me later and she’s like I was just grossed out. You can do it if you want to; and I was like no.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 I’m over this idea already. It’s fine. ‘Cause it was a Kandinsky workshop that we were thinking about.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 So, we looked at … Anyways, there was art tied in. It wasn’t just growing germs in the Guggenheim.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Sure.

Jen Brown:                 And- and at- at the same time though, I- I saw in a lot my other organizations, as much as I got from the, I saw this inability to kind of embrace a new, or change, or try something different and not the same old, same old. So, when I … when I saw EE like being something that I actually could change and it was something more than just the- the few school groups that I ended up having, I could actually think about ha- having other educators really start to focus on working with their audience. And, I- I didn’t get that same opportunity with some of my other organization is the sense of even though I was on staff, I would be like, hey, I can totally lead a workshop for you guys; and people were like no. No thanks.

Meanwhile, my coworkers were like why do I have to pay to take your class? You work here? Like you should be giving it to us for free. And, I was like I have offers. Not happening. I don’t know what to tell you right now. (laughs) So- so, in the end it was this idea that I was like, I can do more as a … as a outside person than having to sort of answer to whatever powers that be. Whatever ideas that be as well as I knew for a certain extent that I was getting more and more outside of the box with a lot of my teaching. I- I knew that some of my improv activities and some of my theater based activities that I was proposing were … sooner or later would get shut down; and had been shut down at other institutions. In the sense of like, it’s too active. It’s too much. That’s not how we do things here.

And, that … I- I can’t. Stagnancy isn’t something that anyone’s really happy with deep down, and I definitely am not. So, when I … when I left it was less to do with the conversation that’s happening on Twitter right now. Which is fantastic with the idea of salary and- and this idea that museum professionals are not often taken care of for a much as experience that goes into it; and more to do with the idea of like, well, this is how we’ve always done it and we’re not changing. This is to different. And, for me it was like I had to step out in order to step back in.

So, when I stopped working at an institution as an educator, that’s when I think more institutions we’re like, hey, do you want to lead a development session for us on improv in the galleries or on communication. And, that’s when I knew that it would have a- a- a more of a lasting effect. So, I- I wasn’t in a position … I- I feel the salary thing. My husband actually works at a museum. So, I’m still very much embroiled in the museum-ness in that sense; and it’s … uh … it’s- it’s just this strange, strange world out there with museum people need to be appre- … We- we do so much. Otherwise it would just be stuff collecting dust.

I mean it … Visitor’s services, guards, e- everyone that touches the public, like that’s the opinion. People aren’t necessarily gonna remember the thing they saw. They’re gonna remember how they felt when they saw it, and all of that builds in. Like you got to a restaurant and you have a terrible waitress, you’re gonna remember the terrible waitress. Not the food, and same thing with museums. It’s all customer service in the end.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. That’s fantastic. It’s funny you talking about what you can do and, you know, from inside and outside and, uh, part of … part of my thinking in when we were coming up with this episode is, of course, I’m not straddle- straddling this insider, outsider role as being back in academia but also teaching to museum studies. And, one of the reasons that I ended up going back sort of to this outside from within the actual museum was in part because I felt like I could make such … um … greater impact by being able to teach the- the next generation of people coming up through. As opposed to being within a single institution. So, I think there are lots of … lots of reasons why we have this sort of straddling between the inside and the outside.

Jen Brown:                 I think that’s- that’s a good … having that, having some outside perspective be kind of a connection or a core because I- I mean I tell museums all the time and I’m not- not afraid to say it from the rooftops about anything. Like we all need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Like take a wheel. Make it work for you and make it better. Don’t keep trying to create this next big thing. Like work on … work on what you have an make it … make it work and in that sense of people … Like sometimes museums get so insular. Where they’re not talking to one another. Like, we say we talk to one another at conferences and we know we don’t. And- and having like an outside point, a reference where people can say, oh, hey me too. Or, oh, hey I- I go through this too.

That’s why the Twitter chat sometimes are so incredible. Like I tweet museums. Being able to have like that connective tissue where people can have that me too moment. They can … they feel like they’re going through a similar thing.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. Absolutely. Jen, thank you so much for- for joining us on the show. This has been really, really wonderful and it’s so nice to hear more about your work, but also your observations from connecting with so many institutions. Um. Both with in the sector and beyond it.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely it was awesome to ha- … be here. Thank you guys for having me.

Suse Anderson:          So, that was amazing. They were two incredible interviews, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. I, you know, I think the fact that they come from different de- … perspectives, um, balancing the artist intervention with-

Suse Anderson:          Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … the private enter- enterprise and intervention really give a full picture of the impact that, um, outside thinking can have, uh, on- on a museum.

Suse Anderson:          And, how it uses actually a really important thing. I- I know that when I was sometimes working in museums, uh, seeing outsiders come in and hearing them be able to say things, um, with- with a different level of recognition could- could sometimes actually be a little … a little frustrating.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          But, it’s also an incredibly important thing. I think Jen’s point that people actually speak differently, and they actually use different language, and they have these different abilities to, um, to interact because they’re not trying to balance, you know, the same dynamics that you are day in and day out … day out.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          Is a really significant thing.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah, and you know even that the, you know, the tactic of bringing in an outside voice to help tell the story or t- … or tell the, um, um, the … tell the mission that- that you … that you’re trying to move forward within your own institution is something that- that- that many of us in the museum sector utilize right? I- I bring people in and talk about, um, progressive ideas. The, um, to- to- to my museums and I hope that, um, the- the network of … of progressive museum workers can use each other in that way.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Um. You know, e- … it doesn’t … you don’t have to be a huge, uh, museum community rock star but you know, bring in outside voices from other museums in your city. You know? To talk about things. Drinking about museums. All that stuff.

Suse Anderson:          True.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know?

Suse Anderson:          Absolutely. I mean and even this is sort of part of the point of Museopunks right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Is that we get to talk to people who will push us and challenge us to think about our own practice, but also it- it … I mean it’s a great reason to talk to people who can phrase ideas differently, or who are just thinking about them with different background.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Definitely. So, all of the things we talked about today on this episode links, uh, everything, uh, show notes can be found at Museopunks dot O-R-G.

Suse Anderson:          Yes, indeed, and we absolutely have to, as always, thank our presenting sponsor. Museopunks in presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums and we are so grateful to be working with you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Thank you AAM. Uh. You can find us on Twitter at Museopunks.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And, with that, Suse … I think we’re done.

Suse Anderson:          Is that it? I think we’re done?

Jeffrey Inscho:            We’re done.

Suse Anderson:          Amazing. I can’t wait to talk to you next month, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Next month. Bye bye.


George Ciscle
Photo of George CiscleGeorge Ciscle has mounted groundbreaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor, studying with Isamu Noguchi. For 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work-study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985, he opened the George Ciscle Gallery where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.

From 1989-1996 Ciscle was the founder and director of The Contemporary, an “un-museum,” which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in non-traditional sites focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ works with people’s everyday lives. From 1997-2017 , as Curator-in-Residence at Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, Curatorial Studies Concentration and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.

Jen Brown (The Engaging Educator)
Photo of Jen Brown, The Engaging Educator

Jen Brown (Oleniczak) is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator. Through EE, her pedagogical approach of Improv as Continuing Education has reached over 25,000 people – all non-actors!

Since 2012, Jen has given three TEDx Talks on the power of Improv, grown EE to three locations in NYC, Winston-Salem, NC and LA, and recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, a 501(c)(3) which offers free and low-cost Improv workshops for educators, at-risk adults, teens and students on the Autism Spectrum. Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

Currently, Jen happily resides in Winston-Salem with her husband, who she met while teaching an improv class – and no, he wasn’t the best person in the class, in fact, he was the worst.

Connect with Jen on Twitter @TheEngagingEd or check out her youtube channel or website.

Show Notes

How Mining the Museum Changed the Art World.

Artist Fred Wilson in conversation with Curator-In-Residence George Ciscle

The Contemporary

MICA Curatorial Program

Maryland Historical Society

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Episode 20: An Ode to Self-Care

Progressive museum work, particularly when focussed around community engagement, is often a form of emotion work that demands emotional labor. Museum professionals who are deeply engaged with the challenges of changing their institutions, negotiating a volatile political climate, or facilitating community work, can experience compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout. So how can museum professionals look after themselves, in order to better care for their communities and colleagues?

In this episode, the Punks investigate the role of self-care in museum practice. Although the concept is often co-opted by marketing professionals as a kind of balm against open-ended anxiety, self-care first came to prominence alongside the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement as radical, political act; a reclaiming of the body against a system that suggested it lacked value. Today, these ideas continue to resonate.

Suse Anderson:                    I’m gonna mute myself and go feed a cat.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So, uh, did I tell you that I got um, that I, we got a new dog?

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, yeah, you did.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And so, today’s his first day at doggie daycare. We’re trying it out ’cause we’re going on vacation this summer, and uh, they, the place that we take him has this uh, service, I guess, you can … This website you can go and watch like, the cam, on camera. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, that’s amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So I have like a tab open. I’m constantly just watching. Is Buddy okay? Is Buddy okay?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    That’s fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. How’s you, how’s your cat doing?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ah, you know what, he really likes the house we moved into. ‘Cause now he … We moved into this spot, it’s got this amazing little courtyard in … Like in between all of the apartments and it attracts birds. So, he’s really excited ’cause he just gets to lay there all day and just watch birds.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s the, he’s the happiest he’s ever been.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool. Pets are, pets are awesome.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So, anyway we’re, we’re here. Suse, how you doing?

Suse Anderson:                    Good Jeff. How are you doing?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I’m doing pretty, pretty well. Um, this is, uh, episode 20. Big uh, big milestone for us.

Suse Anderson:                    Hey, congratulations.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, congratulations.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We’re out of our teenage years and into, into our, uh, into our 20s, which uh, as anyone can say is a, probably a, a great time of life. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. Time for maturation.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, right, right.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool, so we have any, uh, any followup from the feed, from the last episode? I mean I think feedback’s been pretty awesome. Um, thanks everybody for listening.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s been so nice. We, ah, I think people who follow us on Twitter would assume we put a call out for anyone who wanted a Museopunks sticker.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    And we had so many people contact us. And a few people have started sending back photographs of them using their stickers on their laptops and things, which is so nice.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, that’s awesome. Thanks to American Alliance of Museums for hooking us up with those stickers. We do have some more, um, and we have some shipments going out at intervals, so … I guess if anybody wants a sticker, just uh, shoot us a note on Twitter @museopunks and we’ll make sure to get, get one out to you. But, I think we should probably do something for like the most creative display.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) I like it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     That’s not like vandalism, right. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) I, I think that’s a great idea. So, uh, yeah, send us your photos and uh, if you don’t happen to have Twitter, that’s okay. We, there are gonna be other ways to contact us, I’m sure. Jeff, can people email us at Museopunks?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Uh, they, they … When this airs they will be able to. So yes, we’ll set up something. Uh, just email

Suse Anderson:                    Fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um.

Suse Anderson:                    So what have you been up to for the last few weeks since we, since we started this show and since we last spoke?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I’ve just been kind of checking out dinosaurs on Tinder really. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Really. Um, yeah, I don’t … No, um, things have been really busy. We’ve um, at work we’re, we’re working on this chat bot project which is pretty cool. Um, kind of breaking the mobile experience out of an app and into system level, um, um, functionality of, on our devices. So, it’s a year long project that we just kicked off. We’re really excited about it.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, and you’ve been doing some research into chat bots and things, haven’t you?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, yeah, and it’s interesting ’cause the, the whole project um, is supported by the Knight Foundation and they supported a year of research, development, um, human centered design. So, we’re starting right from the top, right. So we did um, we’re doing literature reviews. We’re doing kind of landscape analysis, and we’re doing um, you know, field studies of what our visitors actually want, right? (laughs) That’s one of those things that um, sometimes we don’t have time for. But, um, this project is nice ’cause it builds all that into it. So we’re taking uh, the first couple weeks, um, to, to really kind of dive deep into those things, yeah. Fortunate, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s … Really, really interesting. I think it might be something that we should revisit over the next coming months sort of what you’re finding out from that research. ‘Cause I think there is still this space for, for us to investigate further things like chat bots and how they work and what that response is, um, to a visitor, and those sorts of things. So, I’d love to hear more about this project as it, as it starts to come together.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, definitely. We’re gonna be kind of documenting the process in real time. So, happy to chat about all that. How about you? The semesters have done, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Semester is done. Uh, you know what, I … So, this might seem very strange.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Are you just all like margaritas and bon bons this summer then? (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ba, basically. I mean more mocktails than cocktails, but sure. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, right. Oh that’s right, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no margaritas for you.

Suse Anderson:                    No margaritas for me. No, you know, one of the nicest things. I had never been through a graduation with my own students. This was the first time I went through that. And something that might seem really weird since I have been to university so much myself is I avoided all of my own graduations. Um, I’m not quite sure what it is. I just have always found this certain awkwardness in graduating. And so, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel having to sort of be on stage and watch my, my students graduate. And I cannot tell you how moving it is to see people have reached a point of accomplishment and uh, to really know your students and to have seen their journeys through learning. And then actually be able to see them graduate. I, I was really shocked by how meaningful it was for me seeing, yeah, seeing my students actually-

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    All graduate.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I, you know, I can only imagine, you know just kind of having invested that much time and that much um, you know, um, uh, just dedication to, to seeing them through and seeing their progress, and then that final kind of like culmination point I’m sure has to be, um, uh, moving for them and, and you as kind of the one who is their, been their fearless leader. Or one of their fearless leaders.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) One, one of many. But yeah, I think I was really surprised by how, uh, impactful. How, how well you really do get to know students when you are working with them full time.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s quite different from other times that I had taught, where I’d really had a lot, uh, different level of investment. And then seeing that go through. And it really got me thinking, in fact, about today’s topic we’re talking a lot about self-care, that I was thinking about community care and the role of, role of mentors.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And how much, uh, having a group of peers or a, a group of colleagues or, you know, the, the importance of the communities that you surround yourself with, and how much that makes a difference when we’re starting to talk about things like self-care and just, (sighs) valuing yourself as well as your colleagues and your communities. And how, how much of a difference that makes in your, in your world.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, you know, self-care is something that is very important and I’m really excited to kind of dive into that, um, this episode. But, I’m wondering Suse, do you, I mean, we all get overwhelmed. And I’m wondering if you have any, um, methods for kind of dealing with that, um, you know. We, we get overwhelmed with work or family or, um, you know, commitments, over-commitments sometimes. I’m just wondering if you have any ways that you personally kind of, uh, deal with that?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, so, many years ago, about a decade ago I got so overwhelmed that I effectively had a, a little breakdown.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I could not cope with anything. And it was, I think the first significant time that I had really understood um, what can happen to you physically, mentally, emotionally when everything builds up and you have not been making time and space for yourself. And when you have not been prioritizing what you need. Uh, that was the greatest thing to happen to me professionally in some ways. ‘Cause it made me much more aware of what, what my endpoints are.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    So I think, the biggest thing that I do now is just pay much more attention when I can start to feel those, um, the warning signs that hey.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I’ve gotta stop saying no to things. You have to stop uh, adding things to what you’re doing. So, so, saying no has become, uh, I think the biggest thing for me. But it’s not something I do naturally or easily. It’s something I do once I start already pushing those, those boundaries.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, I um, you know. Something over, over-commitment is something that I struggle with, um. You know especially I think kind of working in the areas of technology and innovation, um, you know, it’s so fast. It’s so, moves so fast that I feel like you know, constantly have to stay up to date and constantly have to pay attention, and.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um, it’s part of what I love about it. But, it’s also part of what contributes to, um, being over, becoming overwhelmed really quickly. Um. And I also think that you know, you, you and I and many of the people listening work in this space. Museums or non-profits, libraries, whatever, because we’re passionate about them.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Because we believe in them. And so, um, we tend to go that extra mile for them. Um, which is again, part of you know, why we do this. Right. But, um, the, their, a, you know. I, I definitely struggle with, with going the extra mile and, and being kind of over-committed overwhelmed, and so some of the things that I do, um, on a tactical level to kind of like reset myself you know. I, I, I step away from the computer. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     You know, I move away from screens a lot. Um, you know, phone, I put the phone down. Sometimes I want to throw my phone in the ocean.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Play guit, I play guitar. I, uh, you know, go out in the yard with the kids. Walk the dog, um. You know, that type of kind of just stepping away from the environment. Um, the, the, the digital environment, the screen based environment, does a lot for me. Uh.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I definitely understand that. I think there are some, a number of times when I would really like to step away from social media.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But as someone who teaches on that, I don’t feel that I can.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    And so there’s these, there’s these tensions that I think we’re constantly fighting against. One thing, uh, being pregnant has actually made me much better with my self-care. It turns out that knowing that my self-care is going to directly impact the health of someone else.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Has really, significantly changed how, uh, how I eat, how deliberate I am with, um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    You know, things like taking vitamins and really sort of simple things. But their things that you, I certainly don’t prioritize for myself, uh, a lot of the time. And now, I have a reason to do that. And it has definitely helped sort of overall. And it’s been, it’s been such an interesting, uh, experience for me.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    To be putting someone else first in looking after my own self.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But actually to have that have a real impact.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting take on self-care. You know, it’s self, it’s self care for like the next couple months. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um, anyway. So we’re talking with um, some interesting people, uh, related to this topic. Um, we’re gonna talk with Seema Rao, who is with Brilliant Ideas Studio. She has some interesting ideas around the politics of self-care. And then, we’re welcoming back, uh, Beck Tench who, um, was a guest on Season One, uh, one of the live shows at MCN in 2013. But we’re a, we’re asking her back to dive a little bit deeper into mindfulness and intention and, and caring for, for oneself when they’re … Kind of potentially overwhelmed or, or over-committed.

Suse Anderson:                    Seema Rao is the principle and CEO of Brilliant Ideas Studio, helping museums, non-profits and libraries bring their best ideas to light. Brilliant Ideas Studio specializes in content development and strategy, change facilitation and inclusive community building. With nearly 20 years of museum experience M. Rao has extensive experience in interpretation and programming for leading content development for all audiences. She’s used many of these teaching and drawing skills to facilitate meaning-making experiences. In her recently published book, Self-Care for the Resistance, a Workbook for the Socially Conscious and/or Stressed, available now through Amazon. And she’s currently working on a followup book focused on self-care for museum workers. Seema, welcome to Museopunks.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Suse Anderson:                    It is so, so great to have you hear. So, we’re talking today about self-care. But, if we’re going to discuss this big topic, we should probably start with a, a bit of a definition. What is self-care? What do we mean by this term, and how do we practice it?

Seema Rao:                             So, I think it’s an interesting question, um, because it should be defined by your self. So, you, you might have a different definition in self-care. Part of it is knowing what makes you feel like you’re a little, feeling a little bit better. So, I, um, might have a very definition, very different definition than the both of you. I would guess if I asked you right now what makes you feel a little bit rejuvenated, each of the three of us would have a different definition.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Seema Rao:                             Um, and so, for, for me in the book I was sort of, and in all the writing I’ve been doing, in all the things I’ve been thinking about, um, particularly it came out of my own stress, uh, I guess since November. During political seasons, I’ve always been really political. I had to figure out what it meant to make me feel better. And so not, um, and my definition is, for example, different than my husband’s. You know, I might really enjoy reading. And for me that is, that’s what it is. So, both of us looked internally. I guess self-care, a good definition would be, you look internally. You think a little about what you think makes you feel better. You try it. Um, and then, then you try it again. And as you get, um, better at being able to check your emotions and understand how you feel, then you yourself build your best definition of it.

I don’t know does that make sense? Am I sort of talking around it?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, no. I, I think it does. Um, Seema. So, how, how do you realize or identify when, when you’re in fact in need of self-care?

Seema Rao:                             Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say, um … So, I was raised a Hindu, and I don’t usually think a lot about faith. But one of the things that, that um, that my parents used to say is that um, suffering is partly because you, you need to realize that you’re suffering. And you’re suffering because you have desire. And so, while I’m not terribly religious, I think one of the things I realized is that like, hey, I don’t feel really good, and it’s not physical. You know, like I was just constantly agitated. I couldn’t read the news. Um, my husband and I, this sort of … Actually the book grew out of this fact that my husband and I decided that we, in November, we wouldn’t listen to any media for 30 days.

Suse Anderson:                    Wow.

Seema Rao:                             Anything. No Facebook.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, yeah.

Seema Rao:                             No Twitter, nothing.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Wow.

Seema Rao:                             And it was because we felt like our, I felt like I was gonna crack. Like, you know, and I think that, the thing about self-care, thinking about your emotions as your emotions and your physical self are so connected. And so, you often have physical manifestations to me that make me feel bad. And for some people it’s different. I mean, I, you know, we’re all different human beings. We deal with things differently. So, you just figure out if it’s either that your brain feels a little fried. I read this thing recently about self-care that involved um, this great graphic. And that, that you felt like your brain, the, um, ideas in your brain were tipping out. Like it was truly full, like a cookie, you know like a cookie jar was full. Um, and it could be that.

Or you could physically, for me it felt like I was … I felt like I was constantly holding all this stress in my um, neck and in my shoulders. So, I would say, to answer your question Jeff, you would have to answer when you feel sort of like something is off.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. Ah, I, I know recently I’ve been going through just some stressful things with some personal changes in my life.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And it’s, I get snappy. It, it’s the time when I just know that I, suddenly don’t have room in my self to be generous anymore. And that’s where I start to notice that, oh, hang on, something is out of whack here. The, you know, the force is out of balance within me. So, I think um.

Seema Rao:                             Balance is a great word. Not, sorry, not to interrupt you.

Suse Anderson:                    No.

Seema Rao:                             It’s always hard when you can’t see the person. But, um, balance is a great word. I think it’s like when you know what your best you is, and if you’re out of balance you need to put yourself back towards your best you. So, it could be for some people exercising more. In fact, I’ve been walking the dog, and I’m not really an exercise person. But I’ve been doing that, not because I wanted exercise, but because I wanted to be outside. Because I used to be outside more. Not, and so it’s not, it wasn’t that I needed the exercise, it’s that I used to be outside more. Or whatever it is. And so it’s balance, I think that’s maybe … Self-care may be is when you take yourself to a point where you feel balanced again. Maybe that’s a good definition.

Suse Anderson:                    So, you were talking about how, you know, the book started to come about. And I know that a lot of the really influential work around self-care has come out of marginalized communities which consider sort of looking after the self and the body, uh, when it’s under attack from various forces as a political act. And in your own book, you do talk about this relationship between taking care of the mind and the body and honing political action. So, I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about this relationship between politics and self-care and what that meant for you. But also what it means for other people.

Seema Rao:                             Um, so I think that’s a, a great question. And it’s interesting because self-care has become like a real, um, kind of buzz word right now. And I, I probably, because so many people are you know, and I’m, I was actually very careful, and I will say this even generally. When, when, when I … I used to work in a museum for, you know, almost 20 years, and I don’t personally want to take a political stance in my public work job. You know, you have, everyone has their own political stance. And so the book even doesn’t take a decision on which, you know, what politics, what things in political life are the right things. Because, again, it goes back to you defining yourself.

Um, but for me, and I think that the thing about any activist, and there’s you know, a number of great quotes by people who are activists. And I pulled a few for the book, but I have a like a whole slew of them, um, that I just sort of look at every once in a while. Anybody who wants to make a change in the world can only do it if they’re at their best. And so, for me, I realized you know, I have two young daughters, and I wanted them to raise, be raised. My family had, I grew up in a very political family for generations, and my par, my grandparents were raised during a colonial state, and so that, that …

There was always this belief that you have to make the best of the world. You have to do something good. But in order to do it, you have to basically be able to stand up. If you’re so incapable, so upset, so emotional, you won’t be able to do that. And so, in order to make the best in the world, you have to be the best you. And so that’s sort of where a lot of my ideas grew out of and, you know, like I, I’ve made sure that my daughters understand and are able to articulate the best them. That’s something that I think self-care also says. It’s not about, um, you know, jammie time on the weekends. That could be your self-care, but that’s not the only thing. You have to be able to articulate and be able to act in ways that make you feel like you’re doing the best things you should do. And for me, that happens to be political.

Um, and political in the broadest sense of things. You know, I think in some ways working in museums is a political act. Because we, we’re … Politics in that you’re making a stand for arts. And I do, that’s an important part of, you know, my beliefs that I believe in museums. I believe in cultural good. And so, to be the best at doing that, that means that I have to not be burned out and um, in fact, I think I went to, um, working in a different kind of, part of the museum world and the consultant world partly because I knew I could make a better good if I was in a better place. And that, that’s sort of how I think of it. I think of any act that you do to make the world better is political.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. And hearing you talk about politics and hearing you talk about being hon, kind of open and honest about the, the buzz word.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Nature of, of um, self-care. Do you think that it’s recently emerged around this idea of politics. I mean, I, I, I think about after the election. Like I kind of, I like you, I took 30 days, 45 days.

Seema Rao:                             Nice.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And just took, tuned out, you know. Um, it, it … Does this political nature feed into, um, how self-care has become such a dominant public idea?

Seema Rao:                             You know, I’m like … I’m terribly suggestible. Like, if you said to me right now, we’re not in the same room. But, if we were in the same room, and you said, you know, I have a cold. I would definitely feel like I had a cold. So, I don’t know. But I think that there is something about that. That people are very, humans are social and we’re suggestible. And I think that negativity breeds negativity. And a lot of political situations, um, you know, starting in November, but even before that. You know, the, the … There’s so much media about the election and afterwards. And I all, so I think that there was a huge number of people who felt negative.

And so, my hope is that it’s not just, you know, a buzz word, but actually that all collective, a huge number of people thought, wait a second, we’re all out of whack. And we all have to do this better. Um, so, I, I think it does grow out of it. I also think it probably grows out of other things like, um, the fact that uh, so many, there’s sort of the backlash about being, you know, on so much social media. I love social media. But then you also feel yourself isolated. And again, I think people put themselves in, trying to find balance from these factors. So, politics or social isolation. And self-care is sort of the natural growth of it because people, I …

I mean, we want, we want to be the best us, you know. And I don’t know if, it’s sort of … I’m trying to talk around it because I don’t want anyone who … I’m not answering your question kind of on purpose, um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Seema Rao:                             Because.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     No. No.

Seema Rao:                             Because, because I don’t want people who aren’t feeling political but also feel like they need to have self-care to feel like they can’t. Because the thing about this book and about sort of in the, the sort of feeling I’ve been in since the, since about January. Since the march actually. Is that I want people to feel open arms. And for me, self-care is incredibly open. And so for me it was political. And for me, and a lot of my friends who were using these, before I put it into a book, my husband, my kids, my you know, friends. I was giving them these sheets of paper and these practices that, um, it was political for them. But somebody might come to this book and not have been political. And I don’t want them to feel like, um, then this is not for me. You know, and I’ve had people say, you know, there are people who want to opt out of politics. And I might personally not be able to do that, but I don’t want them to feel like this is not a good idea for them. Because self-care is a good idea for anybody. But, certainly if you’re somebody who’s political you’re gonna feel, um, stressed and need it. Does that answer it?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think one of the things that I’m hearing you saying when I, when I read about self-cares, one of the ideas … There’s often a relationship between self-care and empathy. And when I hear you.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Sort of say, oh, if we were sitting in the same room, and I knew you had a cold I would feel like I had a cold. That’s sense that, um, there’s constantly a giving, uh, of ourselves to other people and one of the ideas that this starts to bring up, pref, uh, sp, specifically in a professional capacity is this idea of compassion fatigue. So this notion that you are, um, particularly if you’re doing say, work that’s community focused and you’re, you’re constantly seeking to, uh, work with others and put yourself in the position of other people. Uh, we get this, this notion, whether it’s personally or professionally, of this sort of compassion fatigue from witnessing, uh, the pain of others. From participating in the work of changing institutions. So, even when it’s not explicitly political, there is still this opportunity for exhaustion.

So, I guess, that’s then, starts to make me wonder how we care for other people and make room for the needs of others. So, it’s whether we work with them or interact with them, those in our museums and coming into our museums, even when we’re actually feeling quite exhausted.

Seema Rao:                             Oh, this is such a hard question. Um, yeah, I know. And this is what I, I’ve been reading a lot of sort of the literature of empathy. I think in some ways, um, to go back to the previous question about politics. Self-care is in some ways easier. Because you are yourself. I mean, admittedly, like you could be somebody who really has a lot of denial issues and you might (laughs) have a really hard time figuring out what makes you happy. Um, or what makes you feel centered. And you know, you have to work through all those. But, you are with yourself all the time, right? So you eventually either do or don’t.

But, empathy and learning to connect to other people, and then also being able to connect to them is so much harder. Because, you know, I can, you know … I think about people who maybe you want to be empathetic to, but they have so many barriers. You know, they just are so prickly and they’re just so difficult. And you, and you know, it’s hard for some people like I would say for me. You know, we all have our personal failings. I would say for one of my personal failings is that while I try to be empathetic, sometimes I can’t be empathetic without putting it through my filter. And a lot of people, humans have this failing.

So, I don’t think I’m alone, but, you know, learning to try to um, not own other people’s grief. Not own other people’s histories. You know, we all have things that make us, whatever it is that makes, makes your family, makes you, makes your experience, um, feel somewhere in society. Maybe marginalized. Maybe you don’t feel marginalized but maybe you feel empathetic to marginalized people. Whatever it is. And so I don’t know exactly the answer. I would say though the, the one thing I’ve been sort of thinking a lot about is, where, where do send, how do you put yourself in that position? Where do you put yourself in next to that person? Do you put yourself behind them? Do you put them, yourself … Do you center yourself in the conversation? Is it all about you? Do you put yourself to the side? You know, those kinds of things that where you’re basically reflecting on your actions are a good place to start.

Um, I, I think that empathy … A lot of people think that they’re empathetic and they’re in fact sympathetic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hearing you talk about exhaustion and you know, knowing the importance of balance on our lives … And, and I’m gonna speak generally here. But I kinda get, I kind of feel like museums are really good at, at being additive.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     At adding things on on top of other things, and you know. But we can’t always do more, uh, because our resources aren’t additive. So, in, when we think about self-care, in your opinion, how can we strategically begin to start to take some things off of our plate?

Seema Rao:                             Yeah, that’s a great question. And I will say that um, I don’t know that I’m wonderful at saying no. I’ve tried to teach myself that, and um, one of the things … But I, I think that the first thing you need to do is be like … Well, you have to do what I said. You have to say to yourself, okay. So this is not a strong suit. Some people are very good at saying no. And really bad at saying yes. And that’s also has its downsides. So you start by saying, okay this is where I am on the no/yes boundary situation. This is where I am on, um, deciding on where priorities are. Because I think that’s what you’re sort of talking about.

Like in a museum, every bit, if you … Especially if you’re in a big comprehensive museum, and I know that at least the three of us have worked there. You know, lots of people who are listening obviously work on that. Your audience is everybody. And if you work an institution that has the name of the city in it, then that is your audience. You know, if you think about it. Or if you have a website, then the whole world is your audience. (chuckles) You could, you could be as expansive as people in, in the world are.

And so, then what you need to do is first as a person, teach yourself, um, to try to think systematically. Like, where can you do the best? Where is it that you probably aren’t needed? Where is it that your department isn’t needed? You know. And I say this, it sounds very cavalier, right, because I have … I don’t, um. There’s probably people listening who are the lowest. You know, you’re the person who doesn’t get to make any decisions. And so then, that’s … You know, it’s easier when you can make decisions. But, actually when you’re not making decisions, it’s your self-care and your decisions matter more. I always think that institutions, um, the people who have the most face time with the visitors. You know, like visitor experience, and guards, they are actually making the experience the people know. More than any, almost, you know, even, they … The directors don’t see the visitors as much as the guards do, usually.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, exactly.

Seema Rao:                             And so, their decisions really matter. And so what they can do, for example, is um, they can say yes to having a positive moment there. They can say yes to, um, just being in the moment and not checking their email at that moment. You know, it’s sort of like instead of saying no to things, where can you say yes to? You know, it’s like a code switching. And that’s what I’ve been working a lot on, just personally, to make myself feel a little bit less out of control. And when I, when I … I just left the museum, my museum job in February. So, you know, just striving to say, well, okay I’m saying yes to this really good experience for our visitors. And no to these bad ones.

You know, like you, you just sort of trying to think, okay, it’s um … Maybe imagine a, um, uh, a scale. You know, and you’re thinking okay, well, we could have 25 mediocre experiences or five really good ones. I could say no to five really terrible things and yes to two really wonderful things. You know like as you think about your life and your choices, um, like I could have chosen to not be on this podcast. Or I could chose to be on this podcast. And for me, it was a really great choice. ‘Cause I get to talk to really, you know, I was thinking. I get to talk to two really cool people. And I get, you know, get to talk about things I really like. And so, instead of um, thinking no to something, I was thinking what is the positive and what is the negative?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We’re happy you said yes, Seema.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you, thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Seema Rao:                             I am too. I am too. But, I mean you know, I mean, I’m thinking you guys. I mean you guys, we all make choices. And you know, you lead people, you teach people, and you know, you, if you think about all the times you’re saying no, often. Or, and I said no, certainly. Um, every time that you’ve probably said no in a thoughtful way you probably made a really good choice. You know, like you’ve got to a certain place in your careers. You’ve obviously made a lot of good choices. I bet that the nos really came out of something very thoughtful.

Suse Anderson:                    Ha, it’s funny you say that. Before I mentioned that I think when, ah, the way that I know that my, uh, that I’m out of balance is that I stop being generous. I become much better at saying no at that moment. So, I think my natural impulse is to say yes to things. And yet, it’s only once I start finding myself, um, stressed and unable to imagine how I can fit this thing I’d like to say yes to into my life. That’s when I get really good at saying no, so, it, it’s funny. I’m still not sure that then my balance is correct. Um, because it’s not until I’m under pressure and under stress that I start to figure out when exactly to start saying no. So I don’t know whether I need to be more deliberate earlier or, uh, whether actually that is my way of being in balance.

Seema Rao:                             But, it’s true right. Like the yes and no, it’s, it’s hard. You know, it’s hard because … It’s like and I, I’m trying to think of other analogies other than a roller coaster. But, you know, that there are so many experiences in life where if you’re paying attention to it, then you’re probably not at the best moment. Like, you know, you’re just … It’s like when you’re writing about love, or you know, you’re just … You’re not, you’re not really in it. And it’s when you’re really in it that you don’t even realize it. So, you know, like, I was saying that when you go up the roller coaster, you’re noticing you’re going up the roller coaster. When you go down you know you’re going down. But, it’s at that peak moment that you’re not paying attention. And you’re just in the moment. And that’s sort of yes and no. Like if you know that you’re saying a lot of yes, that means you’re kind of conscious.

And so self-care is a lot about it is, like the book or any of these books. And I mean I like my book, but I think there’s lots of good ways to do it. Um, but, but you know, like I’ve been um, doing different activities every day at noon, and I’ve been tweeting them, um, when they’re fun. And I think it’s like, I’m teaching myself. And so when you’re teaching yourself you’re very conscious of it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Sure.

Seema Rao:                             Like you’re teaching yourself to say no or to say yes. And once you are actually doing it, you sort of not notice that you’re now good at it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, Seema I’ve, I know you’re working on a book about self-care specifically for museum professionals. Can you give us any tidbits there, or leave us with any top tips maybe for, uh, for museum professionals that you’ve, that you’ve, will be included in the book?

Seema Rao:                             Well, um, it’s interesting. I’ve been talking to a lot of people. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with people. I don’t know if I’m gonna be using them or not in there. I’m kinda figuring out how to do it. Just to hear about other people’s experiences, so that it’s not just all about me. Um, and so some of the things that I really like that the people were saying … And it’s in- I’m not sure how I’m gonna take this. It sort of goes back to, um, some of the things we’re talking about. That like humor, and you were saying snapping, but sarcasm is for a lot of a … I mean I talked to a lot of museum people. I’m somewhat sarcastic. You know, humor, those are the kinds of things, um, people have been sort of talking about that sarcasm is sometimes a powerful tool for humor. So that’s one thing I’m sort of thinking about.

But at the same time, it’s sort of, I’m trying to be very open to that. So, I, because I’m taking other people’s advice. I’m trying to be open to all of them, you know, empathetic and thoughtful. Um, so that’s one. A bigger thing that I’ve been working a lot about is, um, kind of taking the, the tactics of appreciative inquiry, which is one of the sort of strategies people use for, um, strategic planning for example. And it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Seema Rao:                             What it does is it starts with and what I really like, and actually, I’m hoping to um, try it out with some people, uh, before I write the book. I’m gonna do more case studies. I’m gonna have people try these tactics. More than just me. But, so I’m hoping to try it out this upcoming month. But, um, you start by kind of diagnosing a positive core. So, in an institution what you do is you work collectively and you all talk about what’s best about your institution. And um, I’m guessing many people have been through strategic planning. Often you start with what’s wrong with your institution. Um, and so appreciative inquiry flips that.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about this for self-care, and I’ve been trying to find x, experiences that I could um … The book it will be like my previous book in that it has drawings and it’s sort of like a workbook. It’s an active experience. So, I’m trying to figure out ways to frame this. Where you would start with your positive core. And kind of talk about what you’re best at in visual and in text and in, you know, trying different ways of getting people at, understanding what they’re good at. And then after that, then you take a path that goes through um, your goals. And then, then sort of future-casting. So, you know, if it’s good for an institution, and I did do a little bit about this, um in the first book. I asked people to write their own personal mission statement, it’s those political people.

Um, but you know, even museum people, we, we, we all have such great ambition. And my goal for the book is that you’re able … That I want people to be able to find out what’s best about themselves, um, away from just the mission. Because one of the, the reasons I wanted to write the book is that so many of us, and I would say myself included, that we often um, devalue ourselves for the mission of the institution we’re working for. And that, you know, and just in small ways. You know, like I would say to my husband you know on a Sunday. I had to work on a Sunday. The girls had music. And you know, I can’t go to their music lesson, I have to work.

Well, do I have to work? I mean you know, and … I mean have to work … I mean obviously we all have to make incomes. But I also was choosing it. And you think about all these choices that you make. And I think I want people to feel, if they have … If they want to do that that’s okay. You know, if you want to overwork, that’s your choice. Um, I want to make sure that people are making that choice consciously. That they know when they’re choosing the mission, and they know why they’re doing it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that’s a super interesting, uh, way to, to even think about what the choices that we make. And the priorities that you put forward. That actually we are often, you know, coming from mission driven places. And that can be really hard when you care about the mission. But you also care about the people in your life, and you care about yourself. And you care about your community. And if, in choosing one thing it means sacrificing some of those other things, whether deliberately or not.

Seema Rao:                             You know, I think also for you, as a teach, as a professor, but also a teacher. You’re, you’re profess, you’re obviously, you know, at a university level, but you are their connection to the field. It’s so important for … And I was an educator. That for us, in those positions, you know, what you just said, it’s so true. That we have to be conscious of our choices. Because we’re not just making our own choices. We’re sort of modeling this for other people. Um, and that, that’s a big part of it for me too. That, that so many of the educators are the ones who are real burned out. And we’re the ones who are really interacting with people and you know, we want to make sure that the field is, is healthy. And so being healthy as teachers is really important.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, definitely. Um, Seema, thanks so much for, for taking the time to chat with us today. If people wanted to keep in touch with you, or follow your work on progress on, on the books, um, where can they do that?

Seema Rao:                             So, my blog is at BrilliantIdeasStudio/blog. And so that’s a good place to find me. I’m also on Twitter and I’m kind of obsessive about it. And I’m artlust.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Seema Rao:                             I’m (laughs). I know.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Aren’t we all?

Seema Rao:                             It’s horrible. But, um, I’m artlust A-R-T-L-U-S-T.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Awesome. We will put links to, um, your Twitter and your website in the show notes. And Seema thanks again.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you guys.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We really enjoyed this.

Seema Rao:                             Have a great day.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Beck Tench was formerly trained as a designer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and has spent her career helping people and organizations of all types embrace risk taking, creativity and change through technology and personal space making. Her work has been mentioned in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Scientific American, and several books and blogs. Some of her favorite work was done in partnership with the Museum of Life and Science, the Exploratorium, Michigan State University, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Illinois State Library. In 2016, Beck began her studies as a PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School, where she researches contemplative practice and information science. Beck, welcome to Museopunks.

Beck Tench:                            Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, we’re happy to have you back, actually. You were, ah, you were a guest at, ah, during our first season in one of the live shows at MCN.

Beck Tench:                            That’s right.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Montreal. Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That’s right.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     It was a great, great time. We’ll drop a link to that in the show notes. But, it’s so great to have you back on the show. And part of Season Two.

Beck Tench:                            I’m glad that you’re back.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs) We are too. We are too.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s nice to be back.

Beck Tench:                            The museum world needs you.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Beck Tench:                            More of you. It has you, but more of you.

Suse Anderson:                    Hey, hey. Beck can I just say, because you are, I think our first repeat visitor, I’m gonna get to use the phrase friend of the pod for the first time ever. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Beck Tench:                            (laughs) I’m so happy about that. And also just having that status. As the first repeat visitor is such an honor.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right on, right on. So, Beck, last summer in summer of 2016, um, you and I exchanged hand written letters kind of exploring the topic of mindfulness and intentionality in museums as part of the Code Words Essay Series. It was great. Um, and so much of that exchange was actually happening at a very turbulent time for me professionally, and, and … The simple act of kind of stopping to reflect in a mindful way, um, with you, really helped me kind of navigate that time in, in a productive way. So, first of all, thanks for, for being a part of that with me. Um.

Beck Tench:                            Of course.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And second of all, let’s start this discussion today kind of on the ground floor. So how did you personally begin down this path of mindfulness and intention?

Beck Tench:                            Um, well, Jeff, actually I’d like to, to react for a second to what you just said to, um, to, to acknowledge that your decision to engage in that, um, that exchange that we had was, uh, I think a piece of wisdom on your part. And I, I just hope that you, I hope you see it that way too. That, that you needed that and you made that happen for yourself. Um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and, that’s, I think, kind of partly my story.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It’s something that you can see in hindsight. Um, a lot of times I’m going along and, um, (laughs) and just absolutely full of doubt and questions. Uh, those doubts and questions are evidence of the real work that I need to be doing, and it just doesn’t often feel like, um, it doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing at the time. And, and I look back I can see that it, that it’s exactly what was needed and I just basically need to continue to trust myself to do the right thing. Make space for myself to do that work and, and, and it will happen.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            So, um, I think that what you, what you experienced with Code Words and what I experienced and how we were there for each other and not really understanding in the moment what was needed is, is very evocative of what contemplative practice actually is.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It’s a, it’s an openness and a trust.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     This kind of reflective practice, um, I, I, is it rooted in kind of intuition or following your gut, or um, learning from previous ah, experiences, or a combination of all of that. I mean how, like … How does it work for you?

Beck Tench:                            Yeah, thank you for that, that qualifier, for me. Um, I think it absolutely is intuition. Um, you know, there’s something about what we’re cultured to believe is okay with regards to work, um, that is problematic. Um, and I think that, I, I’m seeing that in this new field of academia. Um, and it’s certainly the case here, where sort of rationality and science thinking and evidence and all of those sorts of things, um, are very important. And, and, and, um, and respected and you can’t really. You have to incorporate them in how you communicate otherwise you’re not really seen as, um, doing the right work. And I, I felt that way in the museum world too. It’s everywhere in our culture.

Um, and so whenever you, you, you do things … We say … When you make statements that make intuition real for example, (laughs) uh, you know, it’s something that we get and we know, and at the same time we don’t feel like we can say. So, I’m gonna, I’m gonna just flat out say, yes, it is intuitive and reflective. Um, and that, that time spent respecting those two states, state of intuition, state of reflection, is critical and important time. And it’s not critical and important because at the other end of it you will be smarter or more productive or more efficient. It’s critical and important because you’re a human being living a life. And we have to incorporate these things, and the more and more I study about it, the more sure I am of that. And the larger the forces at play convincing us that we shouldn’t seem.

Um, and so, I guess what I have to say about that right now is, no one listening to this should feel, um, guilty or ashamed or embarrassed that they don’t value and don’t make time for themselves. Because that’s sort of what we’re inculturated to do. And it’s an act of, um, resistance.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            An act of self-care and a very, very important thing for us to be figuring out ways that we can tell each other how we feel about that. And how we struggle with it. And help enable each other to make that time. Just like you and I did last summer.

Suse Anderson:                    Beck, I find this incredibly interesting, this idea that, um, sort of these embodied experiences, but also these really intentional and deliberate experiences, are not necessarily valued, and not valued in a lot of contemporary work places. But even, whole professions. Why do you think that is? Is it a lack of trust in the body? Is it that it can’t be rationalized in the same way? What do you think is at the root cause of this?

Beck Tench:                            To be (laughs) really kind of frank and morbid, Suse, I think that the root cause of it is the fact that we walk around the planet aware that we’re gonna die. And we’ve …

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            Want to do whatever we can to distract us from that. And um, to sit with our selves and to face … Because, you know, that’s the problem I think with a lot of this McMindfulness, is a nice phrase I’ve heard.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm. Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That gets kinda spread around is it does not honor the fact that when you truly go there, it’s hard. And, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good. And you really have to wrestle with truths. Which is why, at the beginning, I said that, that statement about how doubtfulness is sort of a sign that it’s working. Um, for me at least, because, ah, can, just being in a contemplative space really just means being with myself in that moment. Not distracting myself from, um, the reality of any given moment. That reality may be suffering and sadness. That reality may be boredom. That reality may be joy that I dont’ want to let go of, and want to keep on forever. You know, whatever it is, and uh, there’s just so many things in the world. Um, a lot of them exist on our phones. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That are just, just waving their hands ready to take us away from that reality, and allow us to not really deal with the harder, harder things in life.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, Beck, um, one thing you wrote in the Code Words exchange that really hit a nerve with me, and along the lines of, of what we were just talking about is we need to stop elevating being busy and in demand and over-committed.

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And especially in the museum/non-profit sector. You know, we pride ourselves on those things. Doing more with less, right? Less money, less staff, less time. What are some things that people can do to start to, you know, combat this culture of over-commitment for themselves? You know, are there any kind of, um, simple exercises or just maybe ways that we can flip our thinking a little bit to start to, um, honor, honor the need for more space?

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you know, I, I think that the answers, whatever they are, and I don’t have them, um, but, but I have some ideas. I think that, that the answers reside in two domains. The one domain is the individual and the other domain is the collective. Um, and so I don’t think change is possible without both. And, and I think that there’s a starting point that’s easier, and that’s with the individual.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Sure.

Beck Tench:                            So, my, I guess my, my advice and my caution is that you cannot do it alone, and there is so much to be gained from having connection with others with regards to wrestling with making time. I mean we’re talking very bare bones. Like how do you even give yourself five minutes? It’s, it … Like that same culture that I was talking about before that sort of distracts us all the time it also gives us self-esteem. Um, and, and it, it helps us feel like we are part of something and that we’re important and that we belong in the world and that we’re needed. And, and those things aren’t entirely you know, Mr. Burns in some closet, or some boardroom you know, rubbing his hands together trying to convince us of things. It’s just like, we’re creating this for ourselves because we need to know that we’re okay.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And so, and so we, you know, whenever I quit working at the Museum of Life and Science and went on a two year exploration of what work would look like if I were more spacious about things, I really wrestled with not feeling like a valued and valuable member of society because I didn’t go to a work place every day, or wasn’t busy in the ways that I used to be busy. It’s very, um, like I said before with you know, engaging in contemplative practice, and it being kind of like a hard thing. Making time for yourself, um, and, and, and … And letting go just even for a few minutes of this identity we build around being very needed is hard work.

And um, and so, I, I recommend that um, I think that, that ritual is, is a very, very powerful thing we can borrow from some of the more successful religions of the world. Who use ritual and community very, um, very successfully. Um, you know, my rituals honestly are, are very coffee (laughs) focused. Like, I, I love coffee. Coffee, is something that brings me, you know, just, it feels like, um, such consistent, reliable happiness. And, and so, I take something that’s already … And I think for some people that might be, uh, a dog that they walk, or, or some you know, commute with, with on their bicycle or, or with their child, or whatever it is. But, you’ve got this sort of centerpiece that feels reliably good. And then I, I tack on a contemplative intention to either proceed or go after that experience.

So I, I ritualize things that are very easy to do.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            In order to, to, to just, just bank a little time on one end or the other. Or a lot of time. Um, to, to enable myself a reliable space.

I also, you know, right now we were talking before we started recorded about the fact that I’m on Bainbridge. Well, Bainbridge is far away from the University of Washington. It’s a two hour door-to-door commute. That is, of course, with bicycling. I’m bicycling and taking a ferry instead of a, a bus or a train or whatever. Um, and I, I engage in this four hours a day. Um, and, and, and it is, um, it is my life. It is not my commute. It’s my life. And, and I think that that shift in thinking to, to realizing that what, what exists in that time is, is completely as valid an education and connection space and thinking space and being space as any other thing that I do. It’s not getting me to school. It is my life that I am living.

If we start looking at all these little like interstitial moments of our lives as, as potential possibilities to be open to connection, to be open to just noticing the world around us, there’s actually a lot of, I think, time available for us to make choices that are more intentional than just sort of, um, prescribing that this is an activity I do to get somewhere and so it no longer has value in, in, in kind of like a, edify me in any kind of way or allowing me some time and space.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. You know, Beck, I’m, I’m gonna keep kinda pointing back to this Code Words essay from last year. And you know, I, I think one of the really interesting questions that came out of that for me was um, you know, this idea of … You know, what if our institutions matter a lot less than the individuals who are in relationship because of them? And we’ve been …

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Talking a lot about internal experiences, right. The work, the workplace, and self-care, in that respect. But, you know, the reason that we work with museums is because of, of, of the impact it can have on the public and the visitors and the communities that our museums are a part of. So, I’m wondering if, you, you’ve noticed, um, ways that museums or museum practitioners could potentially create spaces that could contribute to the emotional wellbeing of visitors and communities and the public? Um, any interesting observations, you’re now kind of being out of the museum world, in academia, looking in from, from, from that view that you’re noticing?

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, um. So, feel free to scratch this and edit it out if you, if you find it’s a little too controversial, but uh, my reaction to that, uh, to that question is … What I begin to see in my observations of the museum world and also in my memories of my experiences working for museums, um … And this isn’t, you know, whole cloth, but it is, it is certainly there, is a, is a really strong growth mindset and always trying to figure out how to scale and, um, stay alive. And, and by staying alive make money. And I just, I feel like that, that sort of money driven, attention driven, um, perspective is … It’s, it’s … It needs to be questioned, and, and we have a bit of uh, we’re, it’s a bit at odds for, for, for what we’re trying to do.

I mean, I felt that way specifically about technology in the Science Museum. We pulled off some really cool projects. But we spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to engage people in ways that just putting a table with some blocks (laughs) on it could have in some ways done a better job.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and I think that as we look at our institutions and our, um … Our motivations for how we interact with folks, we have to really, I think examine where is money and scale influencing and guiding what we’re trying to do? And really asking the question, what are the values that are informing that? Um, and being honest with the answers. I think that a lot of technology is built with really good intentions. And it manifests in the world problematically. And so, when we’re thinking about our role as museum practitioners, uh, I think that we need to basically play the doubting game with our own work.

We, we’re, we’re really good at playing the believing game. We’re really good at convincing ourselves that we are creating something for the public that will enrich their lives and we know better. And it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to look at things from a different view, and say, you know, what if this didn’t exist? What could this person do with their time? And how can we enable that? Or does this really, you know, in all the ways that we can look at it, does it really ultimately end in what we think it ends in?

Um, it’s so hard to be a technologist right now. Technology just, it’s outta control. Like, when we put it into the world people do things with it that we would never imagine. And that’s in the best case (laughs). Like in a lot of cases, they don’t do anything with it at all.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right.

Beck Tench:                            And, and so, I just, I think that the complexity of that picture is something that we need to be engaging with and be a little bit more critical and honest about, to be frank. And um, I say that because if we are, and we say we need to do less, then we have, um, more agility and, and, and more time to be thoughtful about how we do engage with people and we don’t just paint everything with this sort of magic that, uh, this magical tech, technology brush that uh, isn’t necessarily gonna, gonna do what we think it’s gonna do.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s sort of, as you talk, it really reminds me of the importance of time and space and the, you know, there is … Everything we add into our institutions, everything that we add into, um, what we’re trying to do that we ourselves have been feeling this rush of busyness is also things that other people, that our audiences, that our visitors, need to fit into their lives.

Beck Tench:                            Exactly, exactly.

Suse Anderson:                    So.

Beck Tench:                            That’s exactly what I was trying to say, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely so we, we sort, we were just talking to, uh, Seema Rao, and we were talking a little bit about balance and the importance of balancing your life. And, and saying yes and saying no and I think bringing this sort of back to the audience and to, to the choices that we make, you know … We, we’re sort of reaching a point where it’s so difficult to fence off areas of our life because there is this sort of professional and personal blurring. And there’s this public and private blurring. And so thinking about how we create, um, we actually simplify that for ourselves, but also for the people who are coming to us. How we give them maybe fewer choices but richer choices as opposed to just more and more choices. Whether that becomes a better use of sort of institutional time and resources. As opposed to, uh, trying to do everything and be everything for everyone. Looking at how and where we’re actually utilizing our resources, and how that brings a difference into their, into audiences lives and where we can be most useful and most beneficial.

Beck Tench:                            Absolutely. And you know, I recently gave a talk at, uh, at a conference called Art Summit. It’s about creative place making. And I found myself wanting to really scaffold the talk. It was a workshop. Really scaffold it and provide as much, (laughs) kind of like, as much content as I could in those 90 minutes, you know. And then I, I kinda looked at what I had done and realized that in my experience of, of, of moments where I felt like I was in capable hands of a facilitator and teacher, there wasn’t … There was, there was an openness. There was not all this content totally structured and coming at me. There was a competency in the person sitting in front of me to handle whatever would come up, and then a big open invitation for that to occur. And, and so, I just scrapped all of it, and I went in with basically a really solid question. And then, had a great conversation over 90 minutes with people who were incredibly articulate and totally available to have a really good conversation. Because it was at the heart of, you know, what we’re all thinking about.

And, and I, and I think that all of our institutions have a mission that is at the heart of what it is to be human, frankly. It’s probably true for every single institution that is listening to this podcast. And that if we just trust people to show up and fill space that we provide, that space is so rare in life.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It may be, it may be a little awkward at first, but that awkwardness is beautiful. And if you just sit with it, I think that we have a lot to provide by just being open and trusting and providing space, and not filling it because we are scared that people won’t fill it for us. I mean, I think there’s really something to be said for that. And I really appreciate that comment, Suse.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     You know, Beck, I think we could talk forever to you about this. There’s so much to dive into and, and, and explore. But if listeners want to stay in touch, or follow your work, or um, you know, just kinda stay up to date with your, your thinking and your practice, where might they be able to, to do that?

Beck Tench:                            Um, well, you know, I’m very Googleable. is sort of my, my, my online home. Um, and I have also started a (laughs), I’ve started a Slack channel, uh, or Slack group that is about contemplative practice. And it’s, it’s, it’s a real, um, it’s a real experiment. I very well may just scrap it one day because it’s so counterintuitive. (laughs) We, and that’s actually one of the, the, the primary conversations we’re having right now about, uh, on the Slack channel. It’s about (laughs) the irony of using Slack to do something like this. But, anyway, uh, so Contemplatives, that’s plural, um, uh, is a place to uh, to go to uh … I don’t know actually if … You may need to um, go to my website to get an invitation to it. Um, so, how about and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that that works to a signup form. Um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool.

Beck Tench:                            But uh, that’s also a play space to think together. Um, but you know, to be, to be real, I’m, I’m in this space where people are talking and publishing, and sometimes saying things when there’s nothing to be said.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            We just, (laughs) to get something out there and so, I kind of you know, if you don’t hear from, from me online, not meaning like if you contact me, I’ll of course reply. But, I’m trying to actually listen more than speak these days and just, um, sit with my thoughts a little longer than I normally would. And be very intentional about when I publish and why. Just because of exactly what we’re talking about. The more that we, you know, kind of grope for attention, even if we think it’s for really good reason, the more we are filling, uh, a finite resource. What, what, what the human brain and senses can attend to has limits that, um, we’re, we’re approaching. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and so I, I kinda don’t want to contribute to that as much as possible. So, happy to meet up and you know, have conversations over email or Skype or whatever. And all that’s on my website. But, I’m trying to be a little bit more quiet these days.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, we definitely appreciate you taking the time to speak and be unquiet with us today.

Beck Tench:                            (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um.

Beck Tench:                            Of course, of course.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Beck, thank you so much.

Beck Tench:                            I, I, I am happy to any time. I think the two of you are wonderful. I’m glad you’re doing this work, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Suse Anderson:                    So, I don’t know about you Jeffrey but I feel really, relaxed and really good having had those conversations.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs) Yeah, definitely. Uh, you know, it’s uh, it a … Taking time to reflect and step back and, um, consider these things you know, always puts me in, in a, in a positive frame of mind. So, I’m glad that, I’m glad that it, it’s doing the same for you right now. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. And I think, there was a point that Beck made during her, her um, discussion where she said people often can tell that she brings mindfulness practices into her world because she is exceptionally mindful even in her conversation. And I do have that feeling just from talking to her of, ah, I can, I can take this time and just be a little bit more deliberate myself.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. Definitely. There’s something, there’s value in slowing down. There’s value in, in being intentional. Um, so show notes for this episode uh, can be found at Um, and this episode of Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums. Thanks to AAM for the support. Suse, if somebody wants to stay in touch with us, or tweet us, where can they do that?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, on Twitter we are @museopunks, uh, and we would love to hear from you. As I say, having the response from people over the last month has been amazing. It’s so great to have so many people getting back in contact with us, and new people connecting with us for the first time. So we would really love to hear from you.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, it’s amazing, those new people are great.

Suse Anderson:                    We’d love to hear, uh … Totally, absolutely, and it’s a … We would love to also just hear how you refocus, recenter, look after yourself when you’re feeling emotionally drained or physically drained or when work gets overwhelming, and if your museum has actually started to bring in any of these techniques. I know some museums have done.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yoga classes for their staff and those sorts of things. We would really, really love to hear about it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah definitely. Tweet us @museopunks and just a reminder that you can subscribe in iTunes or Overcast or Stitcher or any other podcast, um, app, that uh, that is your podcast app of choice. And if you do enjoy the show, we’re really love, um, just taking a moment to rate because that does help, um, enormously with, with spreading the word. Um, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Episode 20 in, in the bag.

Suse Anderson:                    In the bag. We are done. Ah, we will catch you again in a months time from now, and we cannot wait.


Seema Rao
Photo of Seema Rao
Seema Rao is the Principal and CEO of Brilliant Idea Studio (BIS) helping museums, non-profits, and libraries bring their best ideas to light. BIS specializes in content development and strategy; change facilitation; and inclusive community building. With nearly 20 years of museum experience, Ms. Rao has extensive experience in interpretation and programming from leading content development for all audiences. She used many of these teaching and drawing skills to facilitate mean-making experiences in her recently published book, Self-care for #TheResistance: A Workbook for The Socially Conscious and/ or Stressed, available through Amazon. She is currently working on a follow-up book focused on self-care for Museum workers. Seema tweets @artlust.

Beck Tench
Photo of Beck Tench
Beck Tench was formally trained as a designer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and has spent her career helping people and organizations of all types embrace risk-taking, creativity, and change through technology and personal space-making. Her work has been mentioned in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Scientific American, and several books and blogs. Some of her favorite work was done in partnership with the Museum of Life and Science, Exploratorium, Michigan State University, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Illinois State Library. In 2016, Beck began her studies as a PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School, where she researches contemplative practice and information science.

Check out Beck’s website, or connect with her on Twitter.

Show Notes

Jeff’s new puppy, Buddy | Instagram

Museopunks Stickers!

Royal Ontario Museum’s T-Rex Teddy on Tinder

No App Required: Toward a Utilitarian Museum Mobile Experience

Brilliant Idea Studio

The Self-Care Guide for #TheResistance

Museopunks @ MCN2013: Communication Breakdown w/ Beck Tench

Mindfulness, Intention and Museums – CODE | WORDS: An Series of Epistolary Romances

Beck’s contemplative practice Slack experiment

We’d love to hear from you! How do you refocus and recenter when emotionally or physically exhausted? Hit us up on Twitter and share your best solutions with us.

Never miss an episode! Subscribe to Museopunks on iTunes or Stitcher

Episode 19: The State of Love and Trust

Don’t call this a comeback! After an almost three-year hiatus, Museopunks returns to explore progressive museum practice. How much has changed since the ‘Punks last hit the airwaves? Does Jeffrey have any new tattoos? Has Suse lost her Australian accent?

In this first episode of season two, the ‘Punks unpack the trials and tribulations of trust with Dr. fari nzinga and Adriel Luis. Report after report indicates that public trust in institutions is plummeting. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveys more than 33,000 people across 28 countries, showed the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Meanwhile, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit downgraded the US to a “flawed democracy” in its 2016 Democracy Index, due to erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

Museums have traditionally appeared to be cushioned against drops in trust. The American Alliance of Museum reports that museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America. Yet a 2013 UK study on public trust in museums showed that although museums are highly trusted, there was “a strong sense that if they started “telling people what to think” or became spaces for controversial debate, this might damage their integrity.” What does this mean for our institutions at a time when there is increasing pressure on public institutions to promote social justice, and intervene in political and social discourse? Join us to unpack these questions and more.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, let’s, let’s do this whole bit.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Let’s start that again.


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s 2017.

Suse Anderson:                    How did that happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I don’t know, but it feels good to be back.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) It really does.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      How are you?

Suse Anderson:                    Good day. I’m (laughs) doing well. How are you?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m doing, I’m doing okay. Yeah, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s like they say it’s like riding a bike and it, it is.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Who would have thought that podcasting would be the exact sort of thing that you can, uh, drop for a little while, a bit of a hiatus and pick up and still feel really at [harmon 00:00:48].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, a little bit of a hiatus. How long, what was it, three years?

Suse Anderson:                    Three years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow.

Suse Anderson:                    A lot’s changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      A lot has changed in three years.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, what’s new with you?

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, um, just about everything. I think (laughs) last time we had spoke I had just arrived in Baltimore to work at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And that ta-, ti-, time just about everything in my life has changed. I am no longer at the BMA, although I am still in Baltimore. I am now an assistant professor in the museum studies program at George Washington University, which is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice.

Suse Anderson:                    … fantastic. I am really loving teaching on museums and technology, but also museums and visitor experience, which is really lovely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh, still in Baltimore, though, so I guess that hasn’t changed, but, uh, married. There’s a, there’s a little, uh, kid on the way later this year.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What?

Suse Anderson:                    So, I, yeah, the, uh, the world-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Holy cow.

Suse Anderson:                    … has definitely changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow, a lot has gone on with you in the last three years. That’s all awesome stuff, though.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. Yeah, it’s all very exciting stuff. What about you? Tell me what’s been happening?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s been happening with me? Uh, professionally I’m still in Pittsburgh. I am, uh, I’m running the studio here at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which is kind of like the design, development, and workflow laboratory for our four museums. It’s really, um, inspiring, creative, uh, fascinating work. Um, yeah, so I think we’re, I mean, personally the kids are getting bigger, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Playing some rock and roll again, which is good.

Suse Anderson:                    Excellent.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      But, yeah, I know, but I’m super stocked to be, um, talking with you again. It’s, uh, something that I did miss over the years and, and looking forward to, uh, getting back into the swing of things and, and, and, and exploring, um, some really interesting ideas here in Season Two of Museopunks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, you and me both. So how did we get back together? Tell me a little bit as to why people are hearing our voices again.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, yeah, it was, um, you know, it was, it was one of those things where we were, uh, we were doing our things for a couple years and got a really great email from, uh, from Liz Neely at AAM, uh, and, uh, she basically asked us, you know, would we ever think about doing version 2.0 of Museopunks. And, uh, I think we both kind of jumped at the chance, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. It’s so exciting to be back doing the podcast again and also doing a podcast that this time around is presented by the American Alliance of Museums. I think if you were to ask me about aspirations for this podcast when we’d started, I just hoped that someone would listen. I never-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … imagined that this would actually become something that may live on a professional body [inaudible 00:03:43] as well as, as well as doing something that we just both get to love and explore what it means to be a progressive museum or a progressive museum practitioner.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, so-

Suse Anderson:                    Do you think that’s something that’s changed for you over the last couple of years? How different do you think what you’re thinking about now is from when we last did this?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I, uh, you know, I think a lot has changed in the sector, um, when it comes to thinking about, um, progressive ideas. You know, when we started this in 2013, um, you know, progressivism, at least for the focus of this podcast, was, was squarely rooted in kind of digital at this point.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know? A lot of our, our first 18 episodes were really focused on, on digital pro-, progressivism in the sector, and I think over the years, um, and, you know, some call it post digital, some call it, um, other things, but I think the, the holistic nature of progressivism is permeating through areas of the museum, um, you know, outside of digital into education, obviously, and, and curatorial and it’s all kind of mingling together with these really forward-thinking ideas. And so, you know, in my opinion I think that’s really where, where I’m interested in, in, in exploring. I don’t know, what do you think?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I agree. It’s sort of been funny. Th-, the time away, sort of this maturation period has also been my time living in a different country and-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    … in a country that’s really been going through a lot. I mean, I think internationally, the world has been going through some really interesting times and interesting conversations lately, but we have … I think the conversations now that we are having and that we need to be having are very different from the ones that I would have said were, was important three years ago. I think technology, uh, while still hugely important for being a catalyst for a lot of these decisions, I think my emphasis on it and my thinking about it, I started to get a very different relationship to where I think technology fits within, um, sort of, within the complexity of these discussions.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. You know, I think, um, Season One is, is … will serve as a nice snapshot of, of, of where thinking was at a point in time for the museum sector-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And hopefully Season Two, um, you know, you know, five years down the road you’re looking back at Season Two and, hopefully, you know, it was serve as that, as that snapshot in time. Speaking of snapshots in time, Suse-

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, and doing some research for this first episode, um, uh, I, I noticed that our last episode was published on September 29th, 2014.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you know … I, I did some triv-, let’s do some trivia. Do you know, uh, what the number one song in the United States was?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      On September 29th, 2014?

Suse Anderson:                    I really don’t, but I’m going to … Ooh, had, had T. Swift’s album dropped by that stage?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It was right before T. Swift.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, okay. I, I don’t know. I, I will say I went and saw her live in concert, and that was pretty amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But, uh, okay. Tell me, what was, what was the number one song?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, it’s just starting it’s eight-week reign at number one. It was “All About That Bass.”

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) You know, Star Wars had not been rebooted yet.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      We were still six months away from the launch of the Cooper Hewitt pen.

Suse Anderson:                    (Gasp)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And Donald Trump was still a wealthy real estate developed in New York City. So a lot has changed.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) A lot has changed. I had not even experienced my, uh, my first Halloween living in America by that stage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Right, right, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Or my first Thanksgiving. There have been many changes (laughs). Wow.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, well, it’s good to be back, and so what, what are we, uh, what this epis-, first episode, what are we going to be talking about?

Suse Anderson:                    So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, you know, we’re talking about some political changes, as you just mentioned. Uh, last time we were on, there was a very different political, uh, space in terms of the President, et cetera, here in the US. And the last couple of months I’ve been noticing report after report after report which is really looking at how public trust in institutions has been plummeting in recent years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And, you know, that’s often thinking about government and business, but it’s also reaching out to, um, non-profits, non-governmental organizations. In fact, in 2016, late 2016, um, there was even one particular scale that dropped America to the level of a floored democracy given the erosion of trust in government and elected officials. Now, museums have often been, um, I think saved from drops in trust, but I really wanted to talk to you and, and, and some guests-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … to, to think about what these huge institutional shifts in trust mean for institutions. Are museums still trusted? What does the nature of trust look like? And how does this, how does the new political environment start to create different shifts for us as organizations?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, I mean, it’s such an important fundamental topic for, uh, for museums to really think about. Um, and so we’re (clears throat), we’re very, um, fortunate to, to have some … A couple really great guests this episode. Um, we’re going to talk with Dr. fari nzinga, who is doing some interesting, uh, writing on the topic of public trust and art museums. And we’re, we’re also going to talk to, to Adriel Luis, um, from, uh, the, uh, Asian Pacific American Center, uh, in DC.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Who, who is thinking a lot about how, uh, and, and whether museums, in fact, trust their public. So two sides of a very interesting, um, issue there.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely, so why don’t we get into those conversations now?


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated with a BA from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her MA and her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions as well as the political economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the public policy officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion, and equity. Currently, fari is an adjunct professor of museum studies at Southern University at New Orleans, one of only two historically black colleges and universities to house a masters level museum studies program in the United States. Fari, thanks so much for, uh, talking with us on Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thanks so much for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh, our pleasure. Um, so I think Suse and I both discovered your work at MCN last year, uh, in New Orleans where you gave a talk called public trust and art museums. Um, and to the thesis of that talk really hinges on the nuanced differences between trust and public trust. Can you explain how these are different for our listeners?

fari nzinga:                              Sure. Um, I think that trust in interpersonal relationships is a two-way street and the way that public trust has been defined has largely been from within the art museum sector itself and hasn’t really taken to … into account, um, all of the contributions that audiences and other stakeholders are willing to make or wanting to make. So it seems to me like public trust in the art museum context is, is really, is really a, a way of thinking thoughtfully about why they’re doing what they’re doing on behalf of the public that they’re serving. Um, and so sometimes it can be a bit aspirational and sometimes it can act like a justification, um, but I think that for art museums in particular, or museums that have collections in particular, um, public trust is really about understanding the time scale in a way. Like everything we’re doing isn’t just for the now and isn’t just for today, but is really about preserving things so that the next generation or however many generations down the line people will still be able to look at these objects and interpret this information.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s a really interesting idea that public trust was defined for the public and not with the public, whereas you took that sort of interpersonal trust as being a two-way street. Do you think these ideas are mutually exclusive? Do we need to have, um, an inter-, sort of interpersonal trust in order to have public trust? Or are they such different ideas?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I do think there’s overlap and I … especially in museums that have a very close relationship with the communities that they serve. Um, and I do think that public trust should take into account the, um, the ways in which the public wants to interact with and engage with museums. So I see that museums over time are opening themselves more and more to understanding the visitor experience and to, um, really having conversations that try to move their practice forward, whether that’s, um, curatorial practice or whether that’s, you know, a new innovation in terms of exhibition design or technology, um, that helps, you know, make things accessible to people. I really do think that, hopefully, you know, we’ve been in a kind of 30-year period of conversation, so hopefully 30-something is the charm-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … and, you know, we (laughs) can really start to put some of these ideas into action.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know, wi-

fari nzinga:                              And some of the best museums out there are already doing that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, most definitely. Um, you know, when I think of the term public, I think, you know, um, it’s so broad, right? And I, I come from kind of a communication background where there’s a general saying that there’s no general public. So, you know, what, what do you think museums can do to start to learn more about their public, um, and the communities and, and the, the people, um, and really start to identify who it is they’re, they’re serving?

fari nzinga:                              Well, one thing that I learned when I was at NOMO wh- … Our offices were in the basement of the museum and all the fun stuff happens on the first, second, and third floors. So what I had to do, even though, you know, I felt tethered to my desk on so many occasions, was really create reasons to go outside of my, um, office-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … and to get out of the basement and to see with my own eyes the visitors coming in and the field trips and how people are interacting with the space. Um, how people are interacting with each other in the space. And even going outside of the museum wholly and, um, talking to folks who don’t necessarily frequent the museum, but who are very much involved with arts and culture in the city or in the town where the museum is located. So I really do think that museums have so much, um, fertile ground that’s been … that hasn’t been tilled just yet in terms of going outside of their own walls to meet people where they’re at and to understand, you know, what it is that they want and how they would like to engage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that. I mean, you’re, you’re also just talking about people going inside their own walls and really spending time watching their visitors, talking to their visitors, and being with them, which it shouldn’t be a rare practice, but in some ways it actually is that notion of getting away from your desk to go and spend time with visitors often seems to be quite a rare one. But, I guess that also then brings up this idea that part of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about things like public trust is an element of access and access can be, uh, right across the museum. We can talk about the physical space to digital collections. What do you think are some of the key areas of access that when we really open them up can impact how museums serve their public and serve the public trust?

fari nzinga:                              One of my favorite quotes is by a woman named Anna Julia Cooper and Anna Julia Cooper was a black American woman who was born, um, enslaved, and who over the course of her lifetime eventually saw freedom. Her mother was enslaved to her father, in fact. And, um, Anna Julia Cooper would go on to graduate from Oberlin College, my alma mater, um, and write books and attend international, um, conferences around issues of Pan Africanism around women’s rights and she said, “When and where I enter the whole race enters with me.”

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And she was talking about the ways in which when you offer a seat at the table to a black woman, she’s not just going to represent her own interests, but she’s also going to represent the interests of the young people and the children in her community, the men of her community, as well as the women of her community. Um, and I think that that quote for me is so powerful because it rings so true. And she wrote this in 1892, by the way.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Right? And it’s 2017 and I see, um, and I see museums as a place that can greatly benefit some people having access to go into that space on an equal footing, not just as visitors, but behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … in order to make some decisions, in order to contribute to the conversation being had about art and culture, about civic engagement, you know, about some of the great Democratic values of our time, if you will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              Uh, which I think that a lot of times museums love to tout themselves as these kinds of citadels where this heady intellectual, you know, thing is going on in the background even if they’re trying to make it accessible to the everyday person by not using language that could, you know, be confusing or exclusionary or what have you. Um, so all that to say that I think issues of access really … We do them a disservice when we speak only of, A, the physical plant, or, um, B, the visitors who are able to, you know, be in the physical space because a museum is a physical space, but it’s also the ideas that animate that physical space. And so when you don’t have people at the table behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              … constructing those ideas, deconstructing those ideas, representing those ideas, engaging with them, interpreting them, and so forth, then you really get a very monotone narrative that puts people off, and in turn, makes visitors feel as though that’s not for me. And that’s where you start to see issues of access really jamming up the works, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              But it starts at the root, not at the level of the diversity of your visitorship. That’s really just a symptom.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, I think it’s really interesting to hear you talk about that. One of the things … One of the lines that really stood out to me, uh, in the piece that you wrote about public trust and art museums was this line that, “The trust of the public is earned when an art museum is seen as an authority on matters of artistic excellence.” But then when we talk about inviting people into the door and not just into the building, but actually behind the scenes, I sometimes worry, or not worry, but I’m, I’m curious about how those different ideas relate to one another. Do we … Is the museum still seen as the authority at that point when you’re, um, when you’re sort of handing over that authority? How does that work?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I think that’s a really interesting conundrum, but as a, as a professor when I am talking with my students, they always remark to me, you know, it’s so interesting that just by virtue of being in a museum an object becomes more valuable. An artist becomes more valuable, an idea becomes more valuable, right? And, and, you know, we may not have any idea what that object was because guess what? We might not have anybody who is culturally competent enough to judge whether this object is of artistic excellence, right?

So I think the anxiety that people, uh, have around, you know, if we let more people in, will we be lowering the quality, is really, um, it’s the wrong question to be asking, you know? I mean, you know someone smart when you see them. You’re not just inviting any old person into the space and say, “Here, have access to all of the treasures and the resources that we have.” You’re making a, a judgment and you’re going out and you’re trying to look for people who are going to have something to contribute, who are going to, um, also believe in the value of excellence, right? I mean, some people don’t believe in excellence. Some people don’t believe in perfection, right? It’s just a question of, you know, good enough.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And then some people really strive and always want to push themselves, and those are the people that you try to find and those are the people that you try to partner with, and every community has that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Unfortunately, that is not reflected in the museum sector, but that doesn’t mean that (laughs) they don’t exist. And I, I think that I speak for myself and for many other people when I say, “I’m tired of hearing museum workers, and especially people in leadership in museums say, we just don’t know where to find these people. Well, where are they? Are there qualified people out there who can do this?” Right, it’s like hello, yes (laughs), yes there are people of every race, of every sexuality, in every geographic region who are smart and interesting and have something to contribute. And if you can’t find them, then that really says something more about your skillset …

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, for sure-

Suse Anderson:                    … than it does, you know, about their lack of numbers or their existence or nonexistence.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and to, you know, speaking, you know, to your point of what is included or enveloped within the museum or within the organization as, as conveying meaning or value, if you look at what is not, right? I mean, um, there’s, there’s definitely, um, work to be, work to be done there, um, at, at, kind of analyzing the semiotics and meaning around, um, a lot of that. And speaking of, of, um, 2017 and the, you know, the status of things as it is at this point in time, you know, I look back at your MCN talk and realize that that was given mere days prior to the presidential election here in the-

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … United States.

fari nzinga:                              It sure was.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And we, we all know how that turned out. Um, but how does this heightened level of polarization or uncertainty that we’re experiencing, um, you know, throughout the fabric of our society impact, um, the public’s ability to trust institutions in a way, you know, be it government or be it museums? Like, how is, how is the s-, the situation that were, that were living in impacting things in your opinion?

fari nzinga:                              In my opinion, everyone’s on edge (laughs).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Everyone’s suspicious. That’s what polarization does, you know, it’s like, well, if you’re not on this end of the pole, then I have to be suspicious of you because I don’t necessarily believe in the spectrum. Um, and so the spectrum becomes unintelligible and I don’t know what to make of anything that’s not, you know, what I understand it to be, my position. I think that in this time museums have a tremendous amount of power that they can wield if they choose to. It’s the same amount of power that they had before Trump was elected, but this can add some urgency to it. Um, people want to know that institutions are indeed thinking of the public’s best interests. And one of the things that I think is a little bit upsetting is that, um, there … People want to kind of stake out this neutral territory and I think that’s very dangerous. And I think that that has gotten the museum sector into the jam that it’s in now, quite frankly. It’s so neutral that for scores of people who would be natural, you know, members, supporters, visitors, um, what … Not stakeholders, but what’s the word?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Board members, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure.

fari nzinga:                              People who would naturally because they’re into the arts they’re upwardly mobile. They have a certain class status, a certain educational background, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              I mean, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the museum community or the museum sector.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Fari nzinga:                             Well, every race has this, every sexuality has this, every ethnicity has this, and every geographical region has this, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Um, however, the public always is assumed to be neutral and that neutrality always takes on a racial, uh, understanding, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              I don’t have to tell you what it is, but I bet you can guess it when we’re talking about the public, what does that mean and who then begin to envision in your mind as your every person.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right. So, you know, looking back at this MCN talk, you, you know, you, you really astutely point out that, that libraries have been making great strides and kind of earning higher, higher levels of credibility by championing the rights and civil liberties of those they serve. And I, I might even go further and say that I think this is, this progress is really due to the fact that libraries have kind of successfully transitioned into a, into a service model, right, with a-

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … a primary focus on providing access to knowledge for everybody.

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, and so do you think, you know, A, do you think museums might learn from this, uh, transition to a service-

fari nzinga:                              I sure hope they will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And ho-, how? I mean, uh, you know, is there, are there things we can look to and point to and say, um, yes, this, this is where we need to pivot and this is where we should be, um, working toward, you know?

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, uh-

fari nzinga:                              Yes. So one thing is, um, when museums talk about diversity and inclusion, or they talk about cultural equity, or they talk about, you know, expanding their publics, um, you know, it’s, it’s not enough to just talk about it, but, um, you have to actually make those audiences aware of the fact that, A, you would like them to be, you know, at your table.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And then you have to court them just like you would court anybody because nobody’s going to give you the time of day just because, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              No free lunch in this capitalist society we live in, right? Rule number one, econ. Uh, but I do think that, for example, when I was doing the research for this paper, I interviewed Arnold Lehman at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              And he said, “You know, we have been so tremendously successful because we took an activist stance. We said Brooklyn is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-lingual community and we’re going to make sure that in every facet of our operation in, in our institution we’re going to reflect that. And we’re not going to settle for, oh, well, this is just how the cards fell, right? We’re going to go out there and if people aren’t coming to us, then we’re going to go to them and we’re going to find out why they’re not coming to us and what can we do differently?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              “And we’re going to be aggressive about it and we’re going to pursue,” you know, be not perseverant, but, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Determined and, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, determined or even-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Dedicated, right, like … yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … a little bit pesky, you know what I’m saying?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Like he … Persistent is the word-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … (Laughs) I was trying to say (laughs), yes, you know. Um, and so I think that libraries are kind of … They have an easier sell because there’s a ton of books there and there’s computers that people can use and there’s already stuff that people want. And in museums with collections, a lot of times that is the case, but a lot of times you have to tell people why they should want that stuff in the first place.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And you really have to be active and you really have to be deliberate, um, and you, you can’t take anything personally and you can’t be willing to take no for an answer, you know?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, one of things that I think is really interesting coming out of this discussion is you’re sort of talking a lot about, um, neutrality and taking almost an activist stance. There was a 2013 study in the UK which was around public trust in museums and when the museum association in the UK wrote about it, they noted that it, it suggested that museums are highly admired because of their apolitical stance. And there was a strong sense and again, this was a few years ago and it was in the UK, but there was a strong sense that if museums started telling people what to think or became spaces for controversial debate, it might damage their integrity. In fact, the museums association in the UK went so far as to say, “Attempting to shape values even in a transparent way could be seen by the public as betraying a museum’s essential purpose of conveying factual information.”

But I think particularly because of the current political climate and even just in general, it really feels like there’s a lot of pressure from within our sector to be political and I think a lot of it actually comes from the people working within our sector see themselves, um, as seeking to make change. So I’m curious as to what you think about this tension and how we sort of resolve this idea, this gap, between almost a, a notion that public trust may relate to neutrality or, or does it? I mean, I’m really curious to unpack those ideas.

fari nzinga:                              Well, I guess what I would want to know more about were the kinds of methods behind the survey. Who was surveyed? Who were amongst the surveyors, you know? Uh, because one of the things I was put onto when I got MCN was the visitor of color project by Nikhil Tivedi and who is the other person that was with him on that?

Suse Anderson:                    Is, is it Porchia who does that? There’s Porchia [crosstalk 00:33:50].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I believe it is Porchia, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, Porchia[crosstalk 00:33:52]. Um, and I think it’s brilliant and fantastic and it is so needed and so necessary because until visitors of color tell museums look, we’re tired of the same hack-kneed narrative that you keep serving us.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And we’re tired of your interpretation of our history and of our culture and of our contributions to science innovation or what have you, right? When will you … And this goes back to the question of excellence, right? So who gets to judge and who gets to interpret what from our rich history and artistic traditions is excellent and what is not excellent?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And why? And how … And what makes you the authority on that, right? And so, um, when I teach their, uh, entries in my class, a lot of times my students who also, you know, SUNO is as you said in the introduction, a historically black university. So my students are African-American for the most part, and when I, you know, expose them to this, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I can relate to that. I can definitely relate to that. Let me tell you about the last time I went to such-and-such museum,” you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And everyone had stories. Everyone has stories and some of them are recent, and some of them are like, “I don’t even go to museums because when I was in fourth grade this thing happened and it just turned me off completely.”

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              You know? So I really do have to … I think that we all should question like you were saying, Jeffrey, this public, who is the public-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              … that gets to say, you know, this is what museums should do or should be?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, hmm.

fari nzinga:                              How, I mean, how can we say that attempting to shape values is at odds with, um, disseminating factual information? Are those two things not in alignment?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Are those two things automatically contrary to one another? I don’t think so.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Big stuff.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, before we let you go, fari, I … There’s, uh, uh, I’m just, I’m personally curious. I notice that when you, you write your name you use lower case letters. Why is that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, it’s kind of an homage to Bell Hooks who is a feminist, theorist, and also a writer and, um, a social critic, cultural critic. And that’s not her given name, but she writes under the name Bell Hooks because she is herself paying homage to her grandmother.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              And I love the way that she doesn’t capitalize it and I love the way that she takes her grandmother’s name because she is representing for everybody’s grandmother. She’s representing for all of those black women who, you know, had a contribution to this society that whose names we don’t remember and who we might not capitalize (laughs)-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … because they aren’t seen as important.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm.

fari nzinga:                              Um, in addition, she also doesn’t capitalize it because she’s like, “I want you to talk about my ideas, not my name.” And so I really, I really want people to engage with the scholarship. I want them to engage with the analysis. I want them to engage with the critique, with the level of imagination, you know? Um, and it’s not really supposed to be about a [inaudible 00:37:31] of personality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              So that’s … Those are some of the things I’ve borrowed from, from her.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Very cool. So if listeners to the podcast, uh, want to stay in touch with your scholarship and with your ideas, um, where might they be able to do that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, actually, I’m on the editorial board of and so people can check out some of the work that I am helping to do research and writing on. Um, and until then I guess they’ll have to follow me on Twitter, @fari_nzinga.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool, and we’ll put links to all this stuff in, in the show notes so that listeners can, uh, can definitely stay in touch and, and stay up to date with, uh, the amazing thinking and, and work and, uh, scholarship that, that, that you’re doing. It’s, it’s, it’s fantastic stuff, so fari, thanks so much for, uh, being a part of, of Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an honor and really, really fun.


Suse Anderson:                    Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes that imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the curator of digital and emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he’s focused on exploring intersectional identities in the US and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He’s also part of the illiteracy art collective and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asian with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities and how varying levels of freedom of expression channel artistic political imagination. Adriel can be found across online platforms as at Drzzl, D-r-z-z-l. Adriel, welcome to the show.

Adriel Luis:                             Hello, hello.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s so wonderful to have you joining us here on our first season back of Museopunks.

Adriel Luis:                             Ah, so excited.

Suse Anderson:                    We have just given you a, a sort of grand introduction with your full bio and I really want to drill down a little bit into the Asian Pacific American Center and the work that you do there. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? I’m not sure everyone, of our listeners, would be familiar with what, uh, one of the centers is at the Smithsonian and a little bit more about your job?

Adriel Luis:                             Okay, cool, cool. So, um, the Smithsonian is the institution that essentially presents the, the national museums of the United States, uh, so we are a complex that includes a bunch of museums and research centers and a zoo and observatories. Um, we are part of a center that, uh, or we are the center that focuses on Asian Pacific American history and culture, but we’re not a traditional museum in that we don’t have a brick and mortar building. We don’t have, uh, traditional kind of collection. And a lot of the work that we’ve been doing because of those circumstances have been I think a lot more along the lines of, uh, tackling topics that we hear our communities, um, you know, uh, who, who are interested in talking about these things. And, and so because we don’t have a collection, we, we do have a community and, and that’s kind of the way that we look at it.

Um, we … Our flagship project recently has been, uh, what we, what we call culture labs which are basically museum happenings that like museums feature art and, um, and historic objects and, uh, you know, are places of learning and realization. But they’re developed from start to finish using community organizing practices as opposed to, as opposed to going straight to sort of the traditional museum handbooks for putting this together. Um, and so we really kind of see, for example, as opposed to lineups for group shows, we’re developing arts collectives, um, artist collectives out of the people who are, who are developing the work instead of the curators telling the answers, the curators are asking the questions. And, and we see the work that we, that we curate as prompts for, for things that, uh, that our visitors can come in and actually engage with directly and on site with both the artists and the curators.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice, so, uh, one of the recent, um, culture labs was, uh, was called CrossLines and, um, you know, it was kind of, uh, pitched or talked about as a culture lab on the intersectionality and it featured, you know, more than 40 artists and scholars, right? Can … How did this particular … Was this the first culture lab that you did?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah, that was the first culture lab. Um, it took place at, uh, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Adriel Luis:                             … which used to be the US National Museum. So before any of the other Smithsonian museums opened, this was the kind of where we showed off our stuff-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, back in the late 1800s.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Walk us through the process of how that, that particular culture lab took shape. I mean, how do you, um, how do you start talking with participants and, and, and that sort of thing?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so I guess that all kind of starts with, like, when I, when I started at the Smithsonian, um, I had come fully from a background as a full-time artist, um, you know, who was also doing, you know, web and graphic design, um, on a freelance basis. And so going from that into becoming a federal employee of like the largest institution of the world was like yeah, definitely a big ice bucket of water.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Really?

Adriel Luis:                             Right (laughs). I was, like, why is it so hard to buy a pencil [crosstalk 00:43:37]?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But, um, you know, I think it also just gave me a lot of, um, of avenues to think about things in, in just, like, in a kind of a scale that, that I, I just really couldn’t imagine when I was just kind of working, working on, on, on my own thing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             Which I really appreciate and I think, um, you know, that, that’s where I kind of came to console myself whenever I was, like, going through crazy bureaucracy was, like, the fact that it’s, like, okay well, you know, at … what … at some points this was just an idea and, you know, there’s all these checks and balances now, but you know, like, you can actually be creative in the way that you navigate that stuff. Um, you know, that, that kind of goes into, um, you know, uh, when you’re reading my bio and I was talking about kind of different levels of freedom of expression, you know, like, we think about that in different societies, but in each setting you go into, you walk into a bar, you walk into a museum, you work in a museum, you’re constantly navigating what you can and can’t say and that’s kind of, like, you know, uh, a creative exercise in its own.

And so the culture lab was basically, uh, you know, what we came up with after, I think, several years of just learning the ropes of what it means to work in the Smithsonian, and, and how can we still have difficult conversations, um, but in ways that, that still, I think, are digestible to people who are, um, are used to kind of traditional exhibitions and stuff like that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, fantastic. In terms of the subject matter, CrossLines was an exploration of intersectionality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    We’re talking today a lot about trust and public trust. How important is intersectionality to this trust dynamic between museums and the public?

Adriel Luis:                             Sure, so intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw,um, and it is essentially the understanding that, I think, past concepts of, like, diversity and things like that have still kind of segmented people into groups that are very, uh, one dimensional. And so diversity is often times, like, allocated to just race or to just gender and things like that. And intersectionality is, is really, um, recognizing that, that, uh, the ways that we as people, um, interact with each other and with the world is this really messy, complicated, um, smorgasbord of all the different things that, um, that, that encompass us. Um, you know, like the ways that, that my race and my sexuality and my gender collides is really how, uh, how my experience with the world is formed as opposed to, you know, like, me going through one situation and being, like, “This happened to me because of my Asian-ness.” You know, and so-

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, for, for me growing up in California in a very diverse neighborhood, um, and, and city and environment, intersectionality, you know, like, even though the word was relatively new to me, the, the concept was, um, you know, very organically understood. But, um-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … When we started talking about at the Smithsonian, um, you know, some of the reactions that we got within the institution was that, oh, this term is very academic, um, you know, can you use a different word to promote this event because, um, the visitors might not understand it? And, you know, I saw that as actually an opportunity to do what the Smithsonian does best, which is take concepts that are foreign and abstract and make them, uh, accessible, family-friendly, even fun, you know, and it’s like-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … if you can, if you can, kind of, kind of what I say a lot is, you know, if the Air and Space Museum can explain rocket science, then surely we can explain how someone can be gay and a woman and black at the same time.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, uh, CrossLines and culture labs, they, um, you know, from the distance that I’m, I’m viewing them from, uh, seem to be really making some strides and achieving the goal of kind of growing trust between a, a museum and, and its, and its public. And in some ways, uh, and in interesting ways I think it, it kind of blurs the line between the two in, in fundamental ways. How has this idea, this progressive idea of cultural labs, how is it being received internally and particularly among your curatorial colleagues?

Adriel Luis:                             Mmm. Well, specifically within our center, we’re super-duper small, and so we’re, we operate like a grassroots organization on a day-to-day basis because we have, like, a staff of, like, seven or eight.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             And, uh, and, and so, you know, whether you’re a curator or an admin or education, um, when you have an idea it, it’s heard and it’s processed. And, um, you know, this whole idea of community organizing based museum practice isn’t just me. Um, most of the people on my staff come from sort of non-traditional backgrounds or backgrounds that are outside of museum scopes, and we all kind of bring that to the table. So, like, one of, uh, you know, one of my co-curators, um, [Kuluva Korea 00:49:02] is like based in the big island of Hawaii. He has done everything from, you know, like marine research to like farming his own land, and so he brings that to the table in ways that me, as digital and emerging media curator, you know, it’s very new to me, but I think that the, the idea of just kind of, like, trusting, trusting what’s around you and especially for museums. If, if you are to be a reflection of the society that you are contextualizing, then, then where can you loosen the grasp? Like, where can you kind of as a curator be the person or the group of people who are actually, uh, taking, taking down barriers, uh, as opposed to kind of putting up guidelines and, and, and, um, you know, rules and things like that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, it sounds like there’s a, there’s a really strong element of cross-disciplinarity or transdisciplinarity there that, um, really helps to enable these type of things.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, and I think it’s, it’s kind of scary for, for people who are coming from more traditional museum backgrounds, um, and I get it because you’re operating from a status quo of, like, the … your average visitor is going to come into a space expecting answers because that’s what, that’s what they’ve been raised, right? They’ve been raised with this certain kind of didactic, um, you know, with a certain kind of pedagogy that, um, you know, could be its own lesson in itself, you know? But, but that’s kind of where we I draw from my experience as an artist because I started off as a spoken word artist and so your, you know, a lot of the job is going into a space and saying I’m going to do poetry and then, and then proceeding to dismantle what people think is poetry by presenting something different, right? And then so that’s kind of what we’re doing with these culture labs is, like, we’re a museum. We’re going to do this museum happening now in real time while we do this amazing show. Let us also, um, complicate the ways that you, um, are used to interacting with museums.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. In your curatorial practice you’ve champi-, championed this idea of sort of the democratic shine of information and how that gets unlocked by digital space. Can you talk to us a little bit more about how this concept comes together because it seems really, um, aligned with what you’re talking about and I’m, I’m curious how, how much of this has been formed by your world not just then in sort of, uh, spoken word spaces and artistic spaces, but also in digital spaces.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative), um, yeah. You know, like, I, I didn’t think I was going to get the job when I applied for it-

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … and, you know, like, I didn’t know anybody at the Smithsonian. Someone forwarded me the job application and I just filled it out, like, like it was a, you know, like I was filling out an application for, like, Top Shop or something, I don’t know.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Uh, and then and, and I didn’t really get, I didn’t really know what a curator was, um, and googling it didn’t help.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Um, but what I do like to say is that I am one of the early results of the, the fact that to be a curator has become a more democratic concept. Um, you know, to the dismay of some curators who I think, you know, worked really hard and like to, to, to get that title. You know, by the same time it’s, again, it’s the same thing as like poets who, um, have their MFAs and are [inaudible 00:52:34] at like 13-year-olds who are, you know, like on, on the microphone and also calling themselves poets, right? Um, and, and that’s, that’s kind of tension I think is not necessarily to be resolved, but rather to be a case study for kind of how we as people just kind of, you know, decide how we’re going to move forward in, in the ways that we, that we communicate and share knowledge. Um, but, you know, a lot of how I’ve been able to excel has been specifically from people that I’ve encountered who’ve just trusted me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, like, despite the fact that I don’t have a traditional museum background or despite the fact that I’m new, um, you know, and, and that value, the fact that my questioning and my, um, my wandering around, uh, had the potential to make something better, because you’re able to ask questions that you can’t if you’ve been in the museum world for, for however long, right? And so, you know, I’m, I’m approaching my fourth year, um, in the museum would and I’m feeling that kind of, uh, unfamiliarity fade.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             I’m starting to get used to things and starting to assume stuff and, and you know it when you start referring to people or artists by just the last name and like just mo-, continuing forward without explaining things and, you know, using acronyms and stuff like that and, and living in DC, working at the Smithsonian, like, I am oh so susceptible to that, right?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             And so, um, you know, like, when I started realizing that that was happening, um, you know, which was happening the more and more I was being invited to speak at, um, you know, on podcasts and events and things like that and started, started being looked at as, like, sort of an expert, um, you know, which, which was also just kind of weird just because I am still very new to the museum world. Um, I found that, like, a solution is to hand off certain responsibilities to people who do not have the kind of, I would say, overexposure of, of museum, uh, manner-, mannerisms, right? And then so, you know, it began with, like, first making sure that I was just hanging out with enough artists and, and, and activists and organizers and people who completely don’t know the museum world, because then when I refer to certain things they can be like, what, what, what the hell are you talking about, right?

But then uh, also seeing well how can I actually rope these people into the work that I do? You know, like, how do, how do we make sure that we’re not just working with artists who have been through the museum circuit before? How do we make sure that we’re constantly also including organizers and, and, um, you know, people from other fields who can ask the questions that, that, you know, might seem like no-brainers to, um, to those of us who have kind of, like, just, you know, dri-, driven, driven in, you know, driven around the block en-, enough times already.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and, and, you know, thinking about this idea, um, of, uh, democratic sharing of information and, and doing research and … on, on this episode and, um, you know, kind of internet stalking you to learn about (laughs) your work-

Adriel Luis:                             (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … Um, I kind of, uh, you know, I kind of realized that you could potentially be taking cues from like peer-to-peer software and, you know, and that got me thinking of, you know, what, what is your take on this idea of museum as a node, rather than museum as a gatekeeper, right? Is that kind of what we’re thinking about and what we’re talking about here?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah. Like, I grew up, I grew up, you know, stealing so much music via the internet (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, that [crosstalk 00:56:11].

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Everybody did.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, um, and, um, you learn so much when you kind of stare at this progress bar on like [inaudible 00:56:19] or like BitTorrent, right? And, you know, peer-to-peer is a great example, right? The more, the more seeds, the more peers, the faster the download, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             You want, uh, you know, and, and you’re literally, you know, trying to access a story. Let’s say you’re downloading a movie. You want to access a story. You’re, you’re going to choose, you’re going to choose the link that has the most peers because you know that you’re, you’re pulling information from a bunch of different sources as opposed to one person. Um, and if you have … If you’re trying to download a movie and you have one, and you have one seed, if that person decides that they just want to log off or kick you off, then you’re done, right? But if you have, like, you know, 300 seeds, then it doesn’t matter, you know, like who logs off, there, there’s always going to be someone else to kind of, like, pick up, pick it up, right?

And I think that that’s kind of, you know, where, uh, as a, as a, as a curator of digital, that’s, that’s where I, I’m really interested in stuff, um, because that can manifest in, in person-to-person situations that have nothing to do with pixels or, or touchscreens or, you know, like, uh, all those things that look really nice on like digital, digital program brochures at museums, but-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … But, um, you know, like-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … don’t really speak to kind of the potential of, of digital culture.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      For sure.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, I think we set, we set the bar so low when we think digital and it’s just like, you know, when people ask, like, but what’s, what’s the digital component of this project? It kind of irks me because it’s, like, you just really want to see a picture of seven-year-old with their finger on a touchscreen, you know, I can give that to you if that’s what you want, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But there’s so much more, there’s so much more, and so yeah. Democratic understandings of, of information is exactly why now people on Pinterest and Tumblr and, and Instagram and all that are calling themselves curators, and that’s empowerment, and, and I think that, um, you know, the more people who feel like they can be curators, like, the better because that’s just more seeds for these stories.

Suse Anderson:                    So, Adriel, one thing that I’ve been really thinking about and I can’t figure it out. So this is something that I’ve been stuck on for a little while. Lately there have been a lot of studies coming out showing that the public’s trust in the institutions, and that means government and financial institutions like banks, is dropping.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But even institutions like science, the, the public’s trust is eroding and, in fact, it’s dropping to pretty unprecedented levels. And one of the things I’ve been trying to make sense of work out is whether there’s a relationship between this rise of the kind of peer-to-peer citizen curation where we trust, uh, we trust the person who happens to have the file we’re after.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But we don’t necessarily trust the institution because that nature of authority is shifting. And I’m wondering if you think there is that relationship whereby we’re much more likely to trust someone we can connect to directly rather than someone through an institution? And if so, how that starts to have an impact for museums?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah. Um, I think that, uh, you know, like sometimes I feel like museums, often I feel like museums are asking the wrong question, right? So-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, you know, people are, are trusting institutions less and less and so the institutions then ask well, how do we get people to trust us again, right? And, and I think that that’s, that’s not necessarily the best way to, to tackle that issue, um, because I don’t think it’s about getting people to trust you again like the way that they did in the ’70s or whatever. Um, it’s about how do we understand the shifting nature of what trust means, right? And, um, you know, again using, like, uh, you know, an analogy of like social media, like, part of what makes social media social media is, you know, at least among, among individuals, it’s like on Instagram, I’ll like your post more if I see that you’re liking my posts more, right? Like, that’s kind of how it works, um, because there’s, there’s a presence and a conversation, right? It’s like, oh, this person is interested in what, in, in what I’m saying. Um, if this person’s interested in what I’m saying, I’m going to be interested in why they’re interested in what I’m saying and so, therefore, I’m interested in what they’re saying, right? Um, and, and, and that’s different than just kind of, you know, going to a well of information and just drawing from it, you know-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … and, uh, and, and then, and then having to, like, then evaluate without conversing with that source, um, you know, what it is that I can trust and what it is that I, that I, that I can’t, right? If I question something, um, there, like, where, where’s the room for me to process that, you know, like, uh, in the museum space? And I think that that’s, that’s hard to find, and then so people, you know, even if they’re getting their information from institutions, they’re processing it with their, with their friends and eventually, they’re just kind of, like, oh, well, I can just ask my friends in the first place because they’ll, they’ll talk back.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so Adriel, I mean do you ever think about or envision what it would like to the sector if museums put complete trust into their publics, and, and, and never think about, like, how the museum practice would change if that were the case?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, yeah, they’re like culture labs.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             I mean, but, but here’s the thing, though. I don’t, I don’t … I’m not trying to replace anything. I think that that like people generally, you know, that’s the fear with digital, you know, like, people are worried that, like, well if, if you do a digital exhibition then, you know, no one’s ever going to look at a thing again. And it’s, like, no, we’re just looking at more options, right? And so right now, um, exhibitions have the monopoly on how people experience objects and art, um, and so we’re just kind of thinking, you know, and I think that there’s def-, you know, it’s not like I go into museums and every exhibition I go to I’m, like, this would have been better if it was a culture lab. I wish I could draw on this right now, you know? It’s, like, it’s not necessarily like that. You know, like I think there’s-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … There’s definitely a lot to be said about exhibitions. They are important, important formats that I think, um, you know, it is good in many circumstances to have someone who has thoroughly researched something and is providing, um, you know, their opinion even if framed as fact. Like, I, I see the value in it. I’m not trying to kill that, so I just want to make that clear, but um, I, I, I do think that there is something to be said about offering another way, you know, and, and when I was in Hong Kong, uh, in 2014 for the, uh, for the uprising, um, that was one of the, the first situations that I encountered where I was, like, wow, this is really … What organic, you know, curating with trust is. Because there was no chief curator of this occupation, but there were installations everywhere. There were sculptures, there were, um, posters, um, you know, people were making art live. There, there was, you know, there were workshops happening and all of it was, um, telling a story in a very concise and tight way, right?

And, um, and, and because nobody was trying to say that this was a great exhibition or that this is something that, you know, like museums should do, like that, just that, that, the, the limitations that you get once you bring that into the, into the, um, mind space just wasn’t there. But I got everything that I w-, all I ever wanted to get from all the other past times I had gone to Hong Kong and and left museums unsatisfied, I found there was local art. I had a sense of, like, what society there wanted to be. I had a sense of what society had been and, and is. You know, I was, I was entertained. I was, you know, there, there were certain things amazed me. I had moments where I was, like, how did they do that? You know, like all that stuff. And, and, and, and I also got a very accurate understanding of at least how society sees itself, you know, which is very different from-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … you know, and I, I would argue is no less accurate than how the state or, or whatever, whatever kind of institution sees, um, you know, the, the subject matter as.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, just, I’m just curious. How, how do you refer to the non-APA entities that are involved with culture lab? Is it public? Is it audience? Is it community? Is it … Do you, do you, do you have some type of ethos when, when dealing with, non, uh, museum or center, um, participants?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, not really.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             Um, I mean, I think that’s actually been something that I been kind of wrestling with.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             Like right now we’re writing our manifesto for the culture labs because eventually we’re going to, uh, we, we want this to be a model that, that other museums and organizations feel empowered to adopt-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … um, at any scale. Like, we work with over 40-50 artists, but you could do a culture lab with three artists as long as you pay them and there’s local representation and you’re thinking intersectionally, you know, and so.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             It’s like, um, you know, I’m … But we’re writing this manifesto and, and there’s certain segments where we’re thinking about, like, the institution, um, the artists, the art-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … um, you know, the other kinds of participants that are, like, curated. But then when it comes to, like, the people who come into the space and engage with the stuff, like, sometimes I’ll call them users. Sometimes I’ll call them visitors. Sometimes I’ll call them the public. Um, I’m not really happy with any of those terms quite yet. Um, and so that’s something that I’m still kind of figuring out.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, I mean, in some ways you always made a term that crosses the intersectionality of their roles as well. You know, I mean, this is that people aren’t just one role even when they come into the museum, not just at a personal level, but even, you know, if we’re talking about someone who comes as a visitor but then becomes a participant, you know, throughout, there is also, I, I think that’s one of the things that we do in museums is we often have ways of thinking about our audiences or publics or visitors and even that do not themselves … They relegate them to one role whereas they’re not actually one thing even within one visit, and even at the same time within that visit. So even sort of the way the museum thinks about who its publics or participants are, there’s a, there’s a narrowing or a blanking of how we think, like, we think that down as opposed to broadening that out.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Adriel, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for coming onto Museopunks and sharing with us the work that you do.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, this was super fun to talk about, and I know we’re just scratching the surface, and so I’m so excited just to hear who else you have on this series. Um, I’ll definitely be, be tuning in.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Awesome, and so, Adriel, if, um, if the listeners want to stay in touch, um, uh, follow your work with culture labs, um, where can they do that on the internet?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so, um, I would say that the dashboard would be Um, and that’s also Smithsonian APA is also our, our user name on, um, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Um, and then for myself personally, it’s Drzzl with no vowels, so D-r-z-z-l. Um, it’s for the website, and then I’m on, um, I’m, I’m on Twitter and Instagram kind of, um, I’ve been, I’ve been getting, like, worse at social, but, you know, I’m, I’m still around, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) It’s all good. It’s all good. Uh, thanks so much, Adriel, uh, for, for, uh, speaking with us today. It was, it was awesome.

Adriel Luis:                             Great, thank you. Thank you so much.


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suse, uh, a lot to digest there in, uh, from those guests.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, a huge amount to digest. It feels so nice to be doing this show again and I have just remembered how stimulating these conversations are. Uh, you sort of forget, I think, uh, when you’ve had some time away from it just how interesting and how meaty these subjects are and how great it is to talk with really thoughtful people-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … about them.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, you know, I really feel like Fari and Adriel kind of hit all, all sides of this issue, um, kind of balanced sides really, um, kind of strong inquiry into, into this concept of trust and how museums can, um, can start to operate in, in, in this, in this space. So, um, yeah, and I’m going to be, like you, I’m going to be thinking about this quite a bit over the next couple weeks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I’d also really love to keep talking to people about it. I know that I will be reaching our to Adriel and to Fari online. They’ve both given their Twitter handles and will obviously drop those into the show notes as well. But if people want to find us on the internet so that they can continue talking to us about this issue, where can they do it?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      All the show notes for this episode can be found at and you can tweet at us at Museopunks. Um, I think we both want to also send out a really big thank you to the American Alliance of Museums for, um, lighting the fire again.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. We are now officially presented by the American Alliance of Museums and it is such a great pleasure to be back on the, uh, digital airways so to speak. But I think also within that, we should give a special thanks to Liz Neely and Rob Stein for helping make this new season of Museopunks happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, definitely, and with a new season comes a new graphic design for, uh, for, for Twitter and the website and, um, really just another shout-out to, um, Selena Robleto for, uh, the, the amazing graphic work she did for, for the, uh, reboot of Season Two. Uh, so definitely thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. I’m really excited. I’m hoping we can get T-shirts or something so that I can be wearing this logo everywhere.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, sounds good. Well, Suse, this is the first episode of Season Two in the can and I, uh, I really look forward to, to, to next, uh, next episode.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, me too, Jeffrey. It has been so much fun and I can’t wait to speak to you for the next episode of Museopunks.


Dr. fari nzinga
fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, MA and graduated with a B.A. from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her M.A. and Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored Black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions, as well as the political-economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the Public Policy Officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion and equity. Currently, fari is an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) — one of only 2 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to house a masters-level Museum Studies program in the U.S. fari tweets @fari_nzinga.
Read fari’s thoughts on public trust and art museums

Adriel Luis
Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he is focused on exploring intersectional identities in the U.S. and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He is also a part of the iLL-Literacy arts collective, and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asia with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities, and how varying levels of freedom of expression.

Show Notes

Public Trust and Art Museums | The Incluseum

Anna Julia Cooper | Wikipedia

Visitors of Color

bell hooks | Wikipedia


Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality

The public puts great trust in museums, and now it’s time museums trust the public |

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Find Season One of Museopunks on Soundcloud

Museopunks is a podcast for the progressive museum. Every month, co-hosts Jeffrey Inscho and Suse Anderson investigate the fascinating work and personalities in and around the museum sector. The pair explore some of the sector’s most stimulating questions, institutions, and practices, with a focus on emergent, boundary-pushing work and ideas.


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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

All Museopunks published material is released as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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The ‘Punks

Jeffrey Inscho. Photo by Joshua FranzosJeffrey Inscho
Jeffrey is a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His work plays thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion and DIY.

Jeffrey currently runs the Studio, a nexus of design, development and workflow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He has previously held positions at The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University and the Mattress Factory. Jeffrey tweets @jinscho.

Suse Cairns Anderson HeadshotSuse Anderson
For close to a decade, Suse has explored the intersection of technology and culture, with a focus on the impact of digital technologies on the museum. She is currently Assistant Professor, Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she teaches courses on museums and digital technology, social media, and visitor experience. She holds a PhD (Creative Arts) and a BFA (Hons – 1st class, Faculty Medal), both from The University of Newcastle, Australia, and a BArts (Comms – Journalism) from Charles Sturt University.

Since moving from Australia to Baltimore in 2014, Suse has fallen in love with the city she now calls home. You should visit her there one day, or connect with her on Twitter.