November 29, 2010

Should cultural institutions be in the business of “romance” or “precision”? Ask your newcomers

The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.

In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall.  And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.

No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”

Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.

But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.

What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)

To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...

Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was a mathematician and philosopher who turned to education theory late in life. His essays on education remind me of John Dewey, but where Dewey has been deeply influential, at least in museum education circles, Whitehead isn’t read nearly enough. What Beverly pointed me to was Whitehead’s idea, from The Aims of Education, that learning naturally proceeds in three stages: “romance,” “precision,” and finally “generalization.”

Romance is the period in which initial interest in a subject is kindled. Newcomers find “the vividness of novelty” in the content, along with the excitement of conceptual messiness, mysteries, and half-glimpsed possibilities, all of which lures them on to further exploration and discovery. In this stage, Whitehead insists, the subject matter is disorganized, undisciplined, and “not dominated by systematic procedure.” It’s just (my word, not his) cool. In this stage, what counts most is feeling.

Precision, the next stage, is when the systematizing happens: when all those facts and possibilities are “classified and placed within conceptual frameworks” and the messiness gives way to “exact formulation and careful analysis” (these quotes are from a William Garland essay about Whitehead). The excitement shifts in character, and the enjoyment becomes a kind of work.

Generalization is the synthesis of the first two stages, a return to the passionate engagement of the first phase but this time with the benefit of directed, disciplined tools for abstracting, connecting, and building onto the knowledge.

There’s more to this than my summary suggests, but you can guess where I’m going. Whitehead noted that precision is the stage that educators are most familiar with and that they’ve all but ignored the romance stage. Can’t the same thing be said for most museum and arts professionals? When we close our eyes and picture a ballet performance, a museum exhibition, or a symphony concert, the words that best describe the scene are organization, discipline, categories, frameworks — not the messiness and pre-coherence of the romance phase. Cultural institutions tend to skip the romance and head straight for precision and generalization.

Yet that romance phase is where the newcomers can get on the bus. It’s where the inspiration and transformation that we talk about so often is likely to occur. If cultural organizations are offering experiences (and interpretive materials) based on those second and third phases, then they’re inadvertently making it harder for themselves to broaden their audiences and bring new “believers” into the fold.

It’s easy to see how this could be. The curators, conductors, choreographers, and others who set the shape of those cultural experiences are obviously in the generalization stage, themselves. The trick is to get them to remember what brought them into these fields in the first place — their own romance stages — and share it with their audiences, messiness and passion and all.

Not easy in those highly competitive, professionalized fields, I realize. But necessary if we’re to reach beyond the familiar audiences and conventions that constitute the box we’re in.

Beverly Serrell — November 30, 2010

Great post, Peter. I certainly agree that museums need to make exhibits that appeal to newcomers as well as the devout within a single experience if they hope to diversify their audience. It can be done; many places already do. It happens when this idea has been kept firmly in the minds of the exhibit developers as they plan and execute new shows.

I would not, however, describe most museum exhibitions -- at first glance -- as being organized, with clear categories and discipline. Visitors move through exhibitions relatively quickly and incompletely, and often the exhibit elements do not seem to relate to each other, the big ideas are not obvious, and even the boundaries of the exhibition are not noticed. We see and hear evidence for this in summative evaluations.

The romance of exhibitions, to me, is the WOW factor: the first impressions of color, light, activity, the invitation to interact, discover, and experience a variety of modalities. The second phase, precision, is often lacking as visitors attempt to engage, are successful or not, and skip many things along the way. Exhibit labels stress the generalizations but fail to support them with enough reinforcing examples to make the case. Visitors are left on their own hoping to bump into something that relates to them in a meaningful way -- and usually that means entertaining and piecemeal.

The curators, as you suggest, are steeped in their own generalizations and they want visitors to get them, right now. But they forget that learning is a process that requires lots of steps and making the pieces fit together in the learner’s mind. Exhibits should help visitors make their own generalizations, instead of rushing to them.

We all love to be romanced and wowed. We also enjoy putting the pieces together with multiple examples -- some easy and fun, some more difficult, some messy, cool, or mysterious. This can and should be a process that the learner is very aware of -- even achieving a state of flow (a sweet spot between being overly challenged and bored). This is NOT “learning without realizing it” that so many science museums claim is happening.

You and I interpret Whitehead a bit differently but we both agree that his ideas are amazingly relevant and inspiring for our work today.

Corina M. Paraschiv — November 30, 2010

I loved this post!! I think the British Museum has done a really great job at the romance stage btw. I remember going through as a Kid and being hooked on the most banal-looking objects. Like pieces of borken pots or stuff that was so old it had obviously "fallen apart" -- but their ability to spark our imagination as if we were going on a trip in time was amazing. It was what you were imagining that turned out so fascinating - while learning - not so much the object itself in front of you. Like its "significance".

I do wish like you mention that more museums were like that! :) A museum is a place that can inspire :)

Stephanie Weaver — November 30, 2010

Another wonderful way to look at our work in cultural institutions. I'll definitely reference this the next time the phrase "dumbing down" comes up (as it inevitably does)... now I can say... it's not dumbing down, it's romancing up. :)

Dan Spock — December 11, 2010

Peter, I also really enjoyed this post and Beverley's follow up. It completely echoes the psalmbook I've been preaching from for most of my career. (I also had the good fortune to read Whitehead when I was still young and impressionable. At Antioch Beverley?)

Even in the relatively progressive museums I've had the good fortune to work with, the concept of the wow/romance factor has been hard to sell (internally, that is, prospective donors seem to get it and want it more often than not.) I think parts of the problem are that the written word, along with abstract reasoning, are still completely dominant in nearly everybody's prior training. The rigors of academic training and all the rewards skew to biases that are detrimental to the wow.

The designers can be exceptions to this, since what we're talking about exists in the visual/spatial realm, but there's a real gulf of credibility they have to surmount since the language we have to support this romance is inadequate to describe what it is, what it means, why it matters. There's also a strong bias toward developing ideas from the words out, rather than from the desirable experience in. I like to think our task is to build some excitement around learning, even to reverse the damage formal classroom education does to kids.

Here's a link to a related white paper I wrote on the importance of nostalgia which overlaps what you're saying a bit.

thepoliticalworld — May 07, 2013

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