Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review - The Art of Relevance

You know when you start reading a book and you can just tell it's going to be good? The Art of Relevance is one of those books.

In my Remembrance Day blog post, I shared that after I became a mother, I noticed a baby consignment shop in my neighbourhood for the first time, even though it had been there for several years. I went in because I was curious, and I am now a walking advertisement for this business. Why? Because inside, I discovered a place that would meet Allie's growing needs as well as my own. They have regular mom nights, and last spring and summer Allie and I were part of Baby Book Club. It became the highlight of our week. It was a place for Allie to socialize with other babies, preparing her for daycare. It was also a place where I could compare notes with other parents and feel supported and understood without having to put a lot of effort into explaining the realities of parenthood. And it is just a short walk from home.

I thought this place had nothing to offer me before I became a mother, so I subconsciously blocked it out. But this is how relevance works. It shifts with life. Nina Simon notes that as she researched relevance, she learned that it was more than just being able to connect. "Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table." There is also a correlation between the level of effort required to obtain the new information and how relevant you feel it is. The easier the access, the higher the relevance.

Simon cautions that there is a real danger in oversimplifying relevance or of just thinking about it as a means to boost attendance numbers or generate income. It is easy to get distracted by flashy and exciting things that don't actually have anything to do with your mission but might get people through the doors for a limited time or special event. This is one of the arguments against blockbuster exhibits. Sure you might have a few more people than usual, but does it add meaning or value or benefit to your community? Simon also cautions people to think outside their organization. It is easy to be so familiar and comfortable with your museum that you can think everything is relevant to everyone, and everyone should be able to easily access the facility, information, programs and services. This is a bad mindset. Simon uses the terms insiders and outsiders to explain this; "insiders are in the room. They know it, love it, protect it. Outsiders don't know your doors exist. They are uninterested, unsure, unwelcome. If you want new people to come inside, you need to open new doors - doors that speak to outsiders - and welcome them in." Now before you start screaming about maritime hospitality and that everyone is always welcome, let's keep in mind that these barriers and feelings can be perceptions, and they are valid. The doors that Simon references are not always physical, but just a means of accessing the museum.

I love this:
"If you're going to open new doors - especially doors to the heart - you have to start at the front door. You have to show that you are inviting people in on their terms, with generosity, humility, and a nod to what speaks to them. Effective front doors have greeters who look like your community welcoming them at the door. Speaking their language. Providing entry points that match the keys they use every day. Opening that first door is important. But if you only engage at the front door, your relevance will be limited...the front door is only the introduction to the experience within. If a newcomer opens the door and has a lousy time in the room, or if she only feels welcome at specific times or events, she may start questioning the value of the key in her hand."

Last month, ANSM opened a new door of our own by delivering 5 webinars on CollectiveAccess and collections management. It was a test for us; a way to dip our toes into online learning. We hoped people would participate, but we had no idea what to expect. What we learned was amazing. Museums that never participate in workshops or attend conferences were the first to sign up. We had museum workers from other provinces asking if they could participate. And people we do not know were spreading the word by sharing links and information about the webinars through social media. To use Nina Simon's lingo, ANSM outsiders were becoming insiders. We became relevant to people who would otherwise have walked right by us without noticing, just like I used to do with the baby shop. Having said all that, it is also important to acknowledge that opening these new doors is change, and change is hard. Especially on insiders. So not everyone in your organization may be really excited about these changes, or may question why these newcomers can't just love the museum the way it is/was/has been. Sentimentalism can make us grumpy.

If you haven't read her blog or seen her speak, Nina Simon has a bit of a reputation for telling it like it is. We need those people in our amazingly friendly and supportive museum sector. In her discussion about wants and needs, she exclaims, "it's not about you. It's not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It's about them - their values, their priorities." She goes on to say that in order to be a relevant organization, you've got to "shift from thinking about what's in it for your organization to considering what's in it for everyone." Your insiders will tell you they love things the way they are, but this won't let you grow and become more relevant to others". A key piece of this shift in thinking is your mission statement. I have been talking a lot about the need for museums to revisit their mission statements, especially if they are actually just the definition of museum (we aim to collect, interpret, preserve, exhibit...). While Simon doesn't talk about definition missions, she talks a lot about the need to have a specific, clearly defined mission. Otherwise people will argue about priorities and you'll spin your wheels in frustration rather than seeing clear answers to the endless possibilities of activities and programs. Your mission statement is your guide to serving your community - to considering what's in it for everyone.

Simon reminds that connecting to people and what they care about is not always a comfortable or neutral activity, ie not traditional museum work. It can mean taking positions on issues (the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice comes to mind), including a heartbreaking rather than lighthearted story in an exhibit, rewriting exhibit labels to acknowledge racism, misogyny, colonialism, etc etc ad nauseam. One of the other tactics Simon promotes is learning about your visitors by asking simple questions like "how did you hear about us" or "what brought you to the museum today?" We have learned through the Museum Evaluation Program that most museums aren't gathering or using visitor statistics in meaningful ways. Boxes are checked, reports are sent in to government, and that's the end of it.  But think about how much easier it would be to relate to people if you asked them a few basic questions when they came in, and really listened to their answers. Rather than having an audience for a tour or program, you can start building a relationship by drawing connections that matter to people.

So how exactly do you start to tackle relevance? Define your community. Get out there and meet people; talk to people outside your usual circle and learn about what they are doing, what they care about, and look for shared goals and potential cross-over. Rather than assuming you have a good handle on the issues facing your community, ask people to weigh in on this - concerns, things they love, ideas for making the community better. More likely than not, you will find roles for the museum. "When you ask outsiders what is relevant to them, you don't just learn what matters to them. You learn what matters to you, what protocols you are able or willing to shift and which you are not. And that's a way to measure relevance: by measuring your own institutional tolerance for relevant activities that challenge traditional ways of working." It's going to take time, require commitment from all involved (insiders and outsiders), but once you get on that relevant pathway, the rewards can be amazing.

And I love it when I can do this. Read the book online! Or watch Nina's Tedx talk. And then, read the book!