Create, Learn, Believe

Enriching Museum Experiences

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Children in Museums

A very interesting discussion has been taking place on the Museum-L listserv. Here is my take on children and museums.

> There are always going to be examples of people behaving badly in public, regardless of age. Think about scary drivers you encounter on your commute or the last time you saw an adult having a meltdown in Starbucks over her drink order.
> In looking at the bigger picture of children in museums, it is incumbent upon museums to first examine their own practices. A great many museums are quite aggressive in marketing towards school groups and families. The rack at any state highway welcome center shows scores of brochures for museums, especially historic sites, featuring smiling children engaged with some activity. It is very rare, in my experience, that museums exclude children and families from marketing outreach. When they do, they tend to attract fewer kids. Most museums see kids and their caregivers as a necessary audience segment.
> However, even though museums actively solicit child visitors, they frequently fail to engage them because they do not plan experiences that meet the cognitive and social needs of child visitors in exhibits and programs. Rather than planning for children's accessibility, they design for adults. The result is child visitors who may express boredom in misbehavior. Parents who have been led to believe that the museum experience will be good for their kids, and perhaps paid a hefty admission, may soldier on looking for the elusive engagement and benefit past the point where behavior is redeemable.
> People who visited museums as children become adult museum visitors. People who did not are unlikely to develop the habit in adulthood. It is to all our professional benefit to encourage child visitors so that we have future adult visitors. Before indicting modern parents or considering banning children from museums, museums need to first examine their approaches to accessibility. They cannot assume that a few computer interactives in a gallery or a half hour children's tour grafted onto regular programming meets children's needs. Much in the same way that applying the principles of universal design improves experiences for all people, examining and adjusting the way that content is presented will also improve adult experiences. This does not suggest "dumbing down" content at all, because children are capable of processing sophisticated information. Rather, look at how your exhibitions can become more conversational and less didactic. Look at physical layouts and consider how they can better promote discovery and inclusion. Train interpretive staff to talk with visitors rather than at them and to focus on big ideas rather than the "name the thing" tour. (This is a painting, this is a chair, this is a tool.)
> Once you have committed to accessibility for children and carried it out through design, I believe that you will find fewer misbehavior issues overall and higher general visitor satisfaction. This won't eliminate outrageous examples; after all better highway design hasn't eliminated road rage. But the more you match offerings to expectations, the better your chances for success.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Museums and volunteers

Question: If it was important, why did you assign to a volunteer?
Answer: Maybe you assigned it to the volunteer because it was important.

The relationship between non-profits and volunteers
Museums and non-profit organizations often rely on volunteers to advance their missions. Volunteers provide two distinct services. First, they provide labor, such as staffing information desks, cataloging objects, and leading tours, which allows museums to accomplish more tasks. Second, volunteers link institutions to their communities. They serve as ambassadors who promote the museum’s value and mission to audiences and potential visitors. The vast majority of museums and non-profits recognize the value their volunteers provide; however, within the relationship there is still a potential for miscommunication. How often have you heard staff complain that they have trouble “managing” their volunteers? The frustration can be palpable on both sides. The solution may lie in rethinking the institution/volunteer relationship through a paradigm of social vs economic transactions. Understanding the difference can provide new insight into these relationships.

In the last post, we talked about Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, and described the difference between social and economic transactions. Under an economic norm, people perform work in return for economic benefit, and those engaged in social transactions seek emotional satisfaction. Unless a non-profit has no paid staff, volunteerism in many museums is a social transaction occurring in an economic context. Volunteers are not “free”. There is a cost associated with recruiting, training, and managing them, and a volunteer coordinator is usually a paid position. In theory, volunteers return more value to the museum in the services for which the museum would otherwise pay. Implicit in this relationship is a potential for miscommunication and conflict between paid staff members who, though mission-focused, apply economic norms to their work and volunteers who apply social norms. Operating under two different norms enhances potential for misunderstanding and conflict.

“June” volunteered to chair an event at the elementary school. Her goal was to create a fun, social experience for the families. June, who works full time, was already an active PTA volunteer and knew that she would have to make personal sacrifices to plan the event. Imagine June's frustration was when four days before the event, following weeks of planning and meetings, the principal—who to that point had attended no meetings—insisted on a series of changes that had to be incorporated or she would cancel the event. Sacrificing sleep, June accommodated the changes. The day of the event, June arrived at school at 7 a.m. She organized materials, decorated the cafeteria, and set up activity stations. After the event and the parents on the clean up crew had left, the principal insisted that June re-wipe down tables and then returned to her office to wait until June finished. At 10 p.m. June headed for the door, vowing never to chair another PTA event again. June is still fuming six months later. She feels that the principal was treating her like an employee by first telling her to alter her the event and then to re-clean the cafeteria. More importantly, even though the PTA president, numerous parents, and several teachers thanked June for her efforts, the principal never said thank you. This informed June’s belief that the school leadership did not value her contributions and that future volunteer work was not worthwhile.

Why do volunteers do it?
Social norms are tied to individuals’ needs to build and maintain community. People volunteer to feel good about themselves. They look for opportunities to receive positive feedback and emotional nurturing. They resist formal evaluation because it is associated with economic norms. You are evaluated and disciplined at work, not in your personal life. People take offense when social and market norms come into conflict. Once a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm evaporates and does not return for a long time, if ever. Anyone who has worked with or been a volunteer understands that the currency of volunteerism is a hearty thanks. If they perceive that their contributions are not valued at the same level at which they have assigned value, they are likely to end the association. In other words, if volunteers experience a thank you deficit, they will leave. As the preceding example demonstrates, they do not necessarily leave quietly. If they are angry enough, they will share their complaints widely, which may undermine the organization’s relationship with the remaining volunteers as well its community standing.

Think of yourself as Julie the Cruise Director: it is your job to make volunteering fun.

The question remains, if the task is really important do you assign it to a volunteer? The answer depends on the organization’s point of view regarding the role of volunteers and its ability to meet their social needs. Effort correlates to perceived value. Low value tasks receive low effort, and high value tasks receive high effort. Social transactions are high value tasks. According to Ariely’s research, volunteers who feel highly engaged in a social transaction perform at levels equal to or greater than paid employees. Consider the positions of arts organizations that recruit volunteers to chair annual galas to raise large portions of their operating budgets. If your organization can create and sustain an environment that keeps volunteerism firmly in the social realm, then by all means recruit volunteers and give them high value tasks. If your organization views volunteers as strictly replacement labor for eliminated jobs and sets joblike standards of performance or maintains a volunteer corps only because it’s the non-profit norm and assigns make work tasks, then reconsider whether the potential conflict between market and social norms is worth it.

The take away:
  • Volunteers seek emotional satisfaction and will take offense if they think that they are being taken advantage of.
  • High value tasks receive high effort. Low value tasks receive low effort.
  • Meaningful and specific recognition is an important component of a social transaction. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Museums and social transactions

I've been reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who is frequently featured on NPR. Ariely studies purchasing decisions. He repeatedly demonstrates that markets are not impartial and that individuals and businesses do not tend to automatically act in their own self-interest. In fact, he shows that people often make decisions that are not only not in their best economic interests they appear downright illogical. For example, he asks: Why do people buy one to get one free when they did not need the first one?  Why do people drive across town to save $5 on a small dollar purchase but not on a large one? Why do people who own a thing value it more than potential buyers? Ariely asserts that seemingly illogical decisions are actually very logical, or predictably irrational, when you examine the basis of human decision making.

Social vs economic transactions
In his book, Ariely describes and defines transactions as either social or economic. Simply, an economic transaction is one in which there is an exchange of money. People recognize these as business transactions and expect that they will be governed by rules, such as when and in what form payment will occur. They are not offended by demand for payment. A social transaction is one in which one party does a favor for another with no expectation of payment, and, in fact, would take offense if payment were proffered. In Ariely's example, you would not offer to pay your mother-in-law for cooking Thanksgiving dinner unless you wanted her never to speak to you again. You can ask your neighbor, the lawyer, to bring in your mail while you are on vacation but you would not ask him to spend the same amount of time drawing up your will. Did a wise elder ever warn you not to lend money to a relative with an expectation of getting it back? If so, he was cautioning you not to mix a social and economic transaction. The context of the request and the relationship sets the tone of the interaction.

Ariely points out that people have very different expectations from these two kinds of transactions. Upon conducting social science experiments, he found that people will work harder when they are performing a social transaction rather than an economic one. They expect that the social transaction will be personally meaningful to the recipient, whether the activity is holding open a door or donating a kidney, and they derive pleasure from helping. Moreover, they expect that they will be repaid in the future by an equivalent social transaction, whether directly or through karma. If I help you move your sofa today, I do not expect that you will move mine tomorrow but rather that I may ask you for an equivalent favor in the future. Social transactions break down when people are called upon too often for too much and they begin to feel taken advantage of. Newspaper advice columnists frequently arbitrate just these scenarios. Ask Amy responds to one writer who describes a difference of opinion as to the type of transaction she had entered into when she agreed to tend bar for mom's anniversary party. Social transactions have at their heart an expectation of thanks while economic transactions are expected to provide value. 

Under the aegis of an economic transaction, parties can demand more accountability from others without being offensive. Ariely cites the example of a bank charging an overdraft fee. People are not offended by a business enforcing a contractual obligation, though they may feel free to dispute it. But they do become offended if they have been led to believe that their banking relationship has a personal as well as professional basis such as when the bank trades on its status as a community supporter. This can be a danger to companies when they use social mediums to build economic relationships. People react much more vehemently to betrayals of social contracts, even those that are merely perceived social contracts, than economic contracts. If you hire your neighbor's brother-in-law to remodel your kitchen, you may interpret his inability to show up when scheduled as a personal affront because your economic transaction is masquerading as a social contract. People are much more likely to excoriate companies through negative word of mouth that they perceive as having failed them socially rather than economically. Poor customer service is more often the result of a failed social interaction rather than economic transaction.

So what can museums learn from Ariely's book? 
Museums are wonderfully interesting institutions that since the beginning have walked a line between social and economic relationships. We ask our visitors to pay admission (at least most of us do) to listen to our curatorial point of view and be persuaded to support our missions. Yet we also present ourselves as community members or "friends" and seek to create personal relationships with individuals such as volunteers, teachers, web site visitors, and members. Museums are constantly switching between economic and social transactions. Viewing the many types of interactions as either social or economic and understanding what each side expects from the transaction provides very interesting insights into common problems and misunderstandings faced by museums. In subsequent postings, I will talk about three issues and how we can better understand them as predictably irrational.

  1. If it's important, why was it assigned to a volunteer?
  2. Which is more valuable, the admission-based or the free museum?
  3. Are we friend friends or Facebook friends?