Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Intentions & Modes of Communication

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This is a bit of a blast from the past: A draft blog post that I wrote, but never published, back in July of 2014. I was working at Undercurrent at the time, and thinking a lot about the way that we communicated to our clients (mainly through slide presentations), and about the degree of intellectual seriousness and honesty of that presentation. 

What I wrote below is a bit out of context, so I'll put it bluntly here: I think that slide decks are fine and good as supplemental info during presentations, but do not generally encourage the kind of thought that real strategy and/or evaluation require. 

From an excellent 2001 report by Smithsonian Institution's Office of Policy and Analysis titled "Art Museums and the Public":

Over the last 25 years, many museums have engaged in studying the impact of their exhibitions on their visitors...The research has been largely evaluative, comparing outcomes with intentions, and has been directed towards improving the mechanisms of presentation so that desired outcomes are more likely...
One of the most striking results of this generation-worth of museum audience studies is that the explicit aims of exhibition planners are rarely achieved to any significant degree. In study after study at the Smithsonian, in all types of settings, researchers found that the central goals of the exhibition team (which are usually learning goals) were rarely met for more than half of the visitors, except in those cases where most visitors entered the museum already possessing the knowledge that the museum wanted to communicate. Rather than questioning their aims, most museums, at the Smithsonian and elsewhere, reacted to such results by attempting to improve their exhibition designs and information delivery systems, and by downplaying the importance of such outcome measures.

Here I see a striking disconnect between the stated goals of museums and those of public museum goers. Curators feel a mandate to *educate* their audience, and tailor their exhibition plans towards that end. But visitors remain uneducated, and when curators are presented with that fact, they react defensively.

Later in the report:

Art museums serious about enhancing their public role may also need to reconsider their internal structures to better express their priorities. How are decisions about public programs to be made? Must exhibition subjects be determined solely by the interests of the museum's research staff? Who will be responsible for maintaining the dialogue with present and prospective visitors? Will the dialogue function be called marketing? Program research? Audience research? What role will those specialists play in directing the museum's program plans? What role can be shared with the public directly?

Ultimately, it might even be necessary to review the subject matter distinctions that currently separate museums. If the aim of a museum is to serve a public that is often less interested in the authorship and style of an art object than in the culture that gave rise to it, or the meaning that is currently found in it, there may be little practical reason to maintain the subject matter boundaries that museums have inherited from the departmental structure of academic institutions...

If a museum wants to seriously address its public role, it needs to find a way to engage in an extensive, prolonged, multi-faceted dialogue with that public. There needs to be a way for the museum to listen, especially to those who do not believe that the museum has anything to offer them. And there needs to be a way for the museum to respond to what it hears.

And lastly, in a section titled Rethinking "quality":

The operations of some Smithsonian art museums are deeply affected by a concept of quality that discourages innovation, experimentation, and flexibility. If museums are going to find ways to connect with new audiences, they will have to experiment. Many of those experiments will fail and many will have to look very different from what is currently being done. Unless the museums are willing to take such chances, they will not change.

In my opinion, a fundamental rethinking of purpose is appropriate here: away from pseudo-objective quality and towards popularity. At minimum, museums should be honest with the fact that their curatorial decisions are largely based on an elitist form of popularity. I will leave it to them whether they want to broaden the range of aesthetic and cultural perspectives that they aim to serve, but I find the focus on quality intellectually dishonest and ultimately counterproductive.


On a personal note, I am struck with how this report contrasts with my output at Undercurrent. Here there is a remarkably legible and compelling analysis. It is both academic and personal. It describes the extant goals and performance metrics of both the organization at hand and its broader marketplace, and asks serious questions about how the reader should interpret them. It then suggests both specific action steps *and* general frameworks to consider - all while allowing for some ambiguity in what an optimal outcome will look like. And it does so without sounding jargony or academic, something that I am often bothered by in the world that Undercurrent inhabits.

To be fair, some of the work I've done at Undercurrent has shared these features. I've also not been tasked with such a high-level analysis of an organization's objectives (most of the product strategy we do tends to be more visual). But for the most part, we produce decks, and I can't compellingly argue that they are as thoughtful or intellectually honest as this Smithsonian document.

Now, I should note that there are benefits to being short-winded, and throwing a couple of pretty pictures in with your pitch isn't necessarily a bad thing. But I wonder: In a business that communicates with busy and varyingly interested stakeholders, what is the place of producing text-only reports? Are there specific traits of organizations that are well suited to integrating and acting on such output? And what are the constraints which should be applied to it, such that it can have as great an impact as possible?