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Film: Leading Museum Inclusion

This presentation on Leading Museum Inclusion was presented at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 26 September 2015 by Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Hello, everyone. I talk fast but I’m really nice so I’m going to just first say if you didn’t understand me, raise your hand, yell out. My name is Seema Rao. I’m the Director of Intergenerational Learning at the Cleveland Museum of Art and I, of course, work with them, and many of my programmes were in the programming study, and what I wanted to talk about is how we think about programming those programmes.

And my team does a lot of different things. I’ve a large team of people. We do community engagement so we’re out in many of the neighbourhoods in Cleveland. We also do pre-school programming, we do staff tours, we do studio programming, we do our craft happy hour, and then we also do the content for gallery one, which is our interactive technology space.

So you can see we have a breadth of things that we’re doing, and I was trying to think of how … there are the important things, right – who I am. How can I help everyone think about how we talk about this in our office, and so I was trying to think of visual metaphors and I have to say I’m hoping that somebody from my office is looking. This is really collaborative with my team and my colleagues in my office.

We want to think of what are we doing, why are we doing this, and so we had a lot of different metaphors we were thinking of. I think we kept coming with the sort of thing that we have a lot of ideas and we want people to experience them, and so what kinds of things can we think of, and so one of the things we talked about was thinking of the idea of being woven into the experience, and I think that’s sort of a powerful metaphor, maybe that you’re going along with the experience and you’re grabbing these ideas on a river, conveyor belts, all kinds of different things, and then what we actually ended up coming up with, or I have to say I did come up with is thinking about a party.

I know somebody else … we were talking about parties and I had a party earlier – I should make you put back your hats – but that’s what I would say that we do. We set up a party every time we do an event. Every time you walk in to gallery one, every time that you see me at the Cudell Recreation Centre we’re having, we’re trying to make a really good experience and so I’m going to tell you some of our tips and maybe hopefully, I do talk fast so we’ll have time for some of you to share some of your tips about inclusive spaces.

But we really want to think of setting the table – and I know that’s not always the best metaphor. But for us, it’s really important, and one of the things, the first thing we do, I have, for those of you that have little children, I’m sure you know, like, you have to ask everybody who’s allergic to what and who can’t eat what and all those kinds of things. We actually ask people a lot of questions and so our team was part of some of the surveys and we’ve really thought about them.

But in other ways we do that, and for our community engagement we now don’t do any community engagement programme without sitting with our partners and asking them what they want, and we very specifically say what does success look like for you. People are a little bit shocked. What is your goal? I mean, you know, we walk into a recreation centre – what’s your goal? And then they ask us what our goal is and we said we’d really like to hear yours because we’d like to meet your goal.

And it seems kind of but when we do that we find people are surprised that we do that because I think a lot of museums are, you know, not used to asking people what they want but we’re a service and we want to do that. So we start with that and we want to know what we really can’t do, what we can’t serve at the table, and then we set it up the way we think it’s going to be good but we’ve heard what they have to say, and we’re creating a kind of culture of conviviality.

And when we invite people we don’t want them to feel like this is a party they don’t want to be at, and so a big thing that we talk about is talking to people in an inclusive way, and a challenge I think we have … one of the things I particularly hate is ‘little kid voice’ and so those of you who work with families, one of the things that I really encourage our staff to think about is do you want that feeling. And I’m sure many of you have felt like …

I have real memories of being a small child and somebody saying something to me, “oh, you don’t get it”, and I’m sure you can think back to something where somebody made you feel about that, and you could be an adult, and sadly that’s often in museums we do that; we kind of talk to people above their head and nobody wants to feel like they don’t get it.

We were in the green room, hanging out, having fun and we were talking about one thing that’s really kind of great about this conference is that because we don’t have panels, we don’t have … nobody’s at their computers, we’re actually having a conversation here, and I think that’s kind of like the model that we think about in our programming – we want people to feel like we’re all talking together, we’re all participating together and so we definitely don’t want to talk above people’s heads.

We also don’t want to talk below people. We want to make them feel like we’re talking together, which kind of goes back to listening. It also goes to testing what you’re thinking about, like trying with those people, having conversations, doing better. Elizabeth sent her report out on a Friday night and I had texts from two of my staff members within minutes – did you read it yet? And I was, like, no, it is a Friday night. But they were already thinking about ways we could improve, and so I think being really conscious of that.

The other thing I would encourage is empathy. We’re actually all people and we spent a long car ride together, the three of us yesterday, and talking about this empathy. It doesn’t mean that, sometimes you’ll have an audience like this. This is not a talk I would give to the average museum visitor. This wouldn’t be terribly helpful to them, so empathy means understanding who that person is and talking to that person. It actually also means knowing that person’s name, kind of knowing what they’re about.

So trends are challenging, I think, in the museum field. People want everything on social media. They want faster videos, they want whatever is changing. One of the trends we’re sort of tackling here in our office are adult colouring books. Colouring book pages were like verboten. I’ve been at the museum for quite a long time and I started out, one of my jobs was to be a classroom teacher, and colouring books we’d be, like, ha-ha-ha, colouring books, sure, we like creativity, and it was a very negative thing – no colouring books.

I remember a little while ago a community partner wanted to do an event; they were really excited because they were going to have colouring books of their neighbourhood’s … one of the claims to fame in their neighbourhood is a cemetery, and they were really excited: “We’re going to bring in our colouring book pages of the cemetery stones”. One of my staff members, she was, like, I thought she was going to lunge at this woman but I was, like, well, you know, I think for a family day, probably cemeteries, it’s a little challenging, whatever, and so we now are thinking about colouring books a lot because now a lot of people are asking us for colouring books and so we’ve had this debate.

We haven’t answered the debate so I’m not going to give you the answer, but one of the things that it really made me think about is that there’s a lot of things that feel like they’re very childish – crayons, colouring books, and then you’ll find that somehow, somebody [re-clothes] them for adults.

There isn’t one thing that’s really kids, there’s not gone thing that’s for this gender or this race or this whatever category somebody would like you to serve, and so you might find that you could probably do a colouring book for adults and it would be just gang busters. You could also find that they really don’t want it and so it’s really about how you frame it. It’s about how you think about it and why you’re doing it, so if you’re doing it because you think’s creativity, it might not be. If you’re doing that because you think that might be a good entry point for them, it might be ideal.

So you want to think about where you’re putting in each of these experiences and why you’re doing them. You’re going to ask yourself some tough questions and sometimes you’re going to find what you’ve been doing is wrong, and that’s happened to us quite a lot. We’ve been reframing, thinking about – we have an adult studio programme that was very, very successful for many years and now isn’t. A lot of our audience is, sadly, passing away and we’re trying to think of new things and we realised a lot of what we were doing isn’t going to work for us anymore and that’s a really painful, painful thing.

But if you think about what happens to society, it’s not always your fault, and so if you can kind of think about what it is, what you want, and what your assumptions are, and then rethink those and go back to them and then do the thing that’s, I think, sometimes hardest – be honest with yourself about why you believe something. And so if you believe that colouring pages are bad but you don’t really have a good reason, then maybe you should try them, and then if they don’t work, then throw them out.

And we’ll tell you, on that note, one thing that we have done little tests with some colouring that we involve, they’re sort of half colouring pages and then we let them cut them up and make them into puppets. We’ve done it for adults and kids and they do actually very popular with people and they do make people look at the arts.

So another metaphor that we were using is that we sort of think about in our office how do we make it so people can opt in. if you’ve been to gallery one, you’ll see that the technology’s not right next to the art. If you’ve been in our family space studio play you can see that there are places that have technology and places that don’t. Different people want different things and we have a very high repeat visitorship. I couldn’t hear Bethany and Elizabeth’s talk so they might have already said to you but we know people come in many different ways.

They come with their family, they come with their kids, they come with their friends, they come for date night, and so when we think of programming and we think of technology experiences with people we think of it as opt in. That means that if you don’t opt in you still have an experience, you still have a good experience. Your experience is modulated by how much you opt in but if you don’t opt in you still have an experience; you still walk in, you still see it.

Open Fields sort of talked about that experience of just walking by, still part of being there and we don’t require anybody to participate. Nobody is forced. Nobody’s … We invite you but if you don’t, that’s fine, and so in order to have an opt in experience we think of them as being modular, and so like a salad, it has a lot of things and if you really don’t like tomatoes you could pick them off, but at the same time, we don’t really want to dumb it down for people and so there are some people who really don’t like fish but that doesn’t mean we don’t serve fish.

I think a fear of institutions is that we’re going to dumb it down, that we’re just going to make it so stupid, it’s not going to be our quality. You don’t have to do that. You should trust your visitors. They’re pretty smart. They’ve decided to come here. So they already want certain kind of quality from you; it’s just about how you’re framing it, and if you don’t give them steps they’[re not going to walk up.

And so as you think about the things you do, think about how, and if you have a programme – this has been particularly successful for us in multi-visit experiences and this is true in our staff [vetted] tours and also in our family day programming – that we’ve stepped up the kinds of things you can do, and you can do this for someone. You know, if you taste something ten times, you might like it? We give them the opportunity multiple times to try something like a kinaesthetic experience in the galleries, and we do it a lot of different times and eventually maybe they’ll opt in and maybe they won’t, but we just don’t judge – we just let them try to experience it as they wish.

So another sort of food metaphor is I’m, sadly, the person if, you know, if I’m having people over for dinner I’m going to make way too much. I just don’t want anyone to leave hungry. That’s a big thing at my house – nobody should be hungry because I really hate the feeling of being hungry, and maybe you guys feel like that because it’s almost lunch.

But one of our challenges, though, is I think we give people too much, and I hate to say that because I like giving a lot of content. This is a really hard thing to do when you’re thinking opt in, right, because you’ve got to give them more because you don’t know what they’re opting in to, but I think we give them too much in one sitting. I think we just burden people right away with ideas and it almost seems like we’re almost desperate sometimes, we’re just throwing ideas at people and it’s hard to scale back. It goes back to working with people like Elizabeth; Elizabeth helps us scale back. She helps us think about it in a research-related way so we’re not just guessing; we’re not just pulling something out of what we used to do but we really sometimes give too, too much.

The other thing we want to think about is appropriateness and so the metaphor I have for this are the different cups. We do have programming that’s really for adults, our make and take our cut, sorry our Adult Studios programmes, they’re during the day, kids don’t take them, they’re really for seniors and they’re meant to be that way. Then we have programmes that are really for kids. We have classes for kids starting at 18 months old and we have, if you’re a kid without a grownup you start at three years old. Kids need Sippy cups. They’re going to drop your glass cup.

But a lot of our programming is for a lot of different levels and so make and take … what we thought was our craft happy hour is a great example of that. We planned that on Wednesday nights, right after work. We have lots of people in our … we’re sort of a museum – there’s a number of museums around – a lot of people come over, get a cocktail, make something with a friend, it will be really a good 20-something programme, and then we realised we’re getting lots of people. We’re getting people with their teenage daughters, who didn’t know what to do with their kid, and so what we decided was this is really showing us something, we’re going to frame this in a certain way that it could be like just any cup you use. Lots of people can do that.

We still have some of those really specialised programmes because those people really need a specialised experience sometimes in their life but then we also have these sort of general experiences that a lot of people would opt into. And then that way, that means that we’re very adaptable, and the metaphor I would use is a chair. If you ever have people over for dinner and somebody just needs a cushion, you could do that.

Now the cushion isn’t the best way to help that person stay on that chair, particularly if it’s like a toddler, and so then you could have a seat. You could make the choice based on the experience. If it is something that you’re going to do long term, I would suggest you move towards the child’s chair or a really sturdy, kind of a really good solution for that audience, and in that way I would say one of the programmes that we do art stories is a literacy programme for kids under five.

They have very specific needs. We do not meet that in, like, a casual “Hey, we could try this programme”. That’s a very structured programme and that’s what they need, versus we have other programmes that we offer during second Sundays; we have a movement programme that anyone can opt into. That’s one way we try to be really adaptable because it’s not a programme that has a multi visit. People sometimes come; they sometimes don’t.

So there’s a lot of metaphors and aspirational ideas that we have in our office but I wanted to give you, finally, some practical things to kind of summarise a lot of what we do is think about how we use technology with intergenerational audiences. And one of the challenges we’ve learned, and something that we realised that maybe we were doing a little backwards, is about content, putting content into technology.

We really thought people needed a whole lot. We imagined something like if you read the New York Times now app – I read that every morning – it has different stuff. It has a lot of stuff and you can keep going deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, and we’ve sort of thought of that level for a lot of our technology and now we realise that really isn’t it. We need to think about each experience differently and oftentimes it’s about physical space. It isn’t just your dream, it isn’t … somebody said, which I love, the sort of creative utopia that we create during our programming and experience in museums, it’s also about certain really practical things, and when somebody is at a screen, they’re standing, they’re going to want less. They maybe only need one or two ideas. When they’re at a touchscreen, maybe there’s only two people next to each other, but then there’s three people who are watching, and then if they’re at a phone of course they might be sitting down like I am, reading the New York Times now app or they might be running from one gallery to another.

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about families and your intergenerational groups and your families are often really taxed. They’ve got a lot going on. They’re looking this way and the kid is running that way, and so maybe they don’t want technology at all, and so what I wold say about all of these metaphors is these are sort of what we use in our office to think about our audience. It helps us when we get, meet up with Elizabeth and think about how we’re going to plan something. But these are sort of just coping strategies that we use and these are parameters that help us and hopefully they’ll help you. And I have two minutes for questions. Yes? Mike Hello, it’s nice to see a friendly.

Question: So my question in my mind, the title of your talk was ‘Leading Inclusion’, and I wanted to know from your perspective how you think leading inclusion is different than just leading successful engagement in a museum.

Seema : You know, I meant to say when I came out, one of the things – and I didn’t, so thank you – one of the things about leading inclusion is that I kept saying my team plans this. Leading inclusion is actually all of our jobs. Even if you run a department, sure you’re helping them but they have to do it and it’s everybody, and actually it’s the visitor too. It’s the community partner, it’s everybody.

And somebody asked me in the audience when I was walking in, if I was going to talk about diversity and I said, you know, I’m not going to talk about diversity; I’m going to talk about inclusion, and I think what’s really important about inclusion is that you’re setting the sort of stage, you’re setting the table to let people kind of do that, but you’re also modelling in the sense that all of us have to help create something that feels like a positive inclusive environment. Anybody else? Yes, in the middle somewhere.

Questioner: I just wonder if you’ll talk a bit more about offering too much scaling back? Are you talking about too many types of programmes, too often, too much content at a particular programme or none of the above?

Seema : Scaling back. Yes to all of those. I think scaling back depends on what’s happened, and Elizabeth was really focussed on the adult side of her programming study but we’ve also sort of thought a lot about her programming study as well and so sometimes it is about having it too often. We were just saying some of Bethany’s programmes, for example, it seemed like they weren’t going to have a good audience. We’ve been offering a too little and so maybe we can partner, so sometimes scaling back isn’t exactly like taking away a programme that might be changing a programme.

I will say it offers a lot, and I think a lot of museums, scaling back is about the volume of content that we give. And the balance between listening and telling, I think that’s probably our most prominent scaling back. In everything that we’ve looked at we feel like we maybe were giving too much, and then I think the next thing would be the number of times we get to do something. We are pretty good because of [nap] time and people needing to get back for whatever reason, we’re pretty good about how long a programme is, but I think the number of programmes and the amount of stuff. Time’s up, I’m told.

Question: Thank you. I’m very interested in this issue of siloes and wondered if any of your programming were done in co-operation with your symphony or if you have a local theatre and dance.

Seema : Yeah, we’re very lucky. I do think siloes are a challenge actually, because Bethany, Elizabeth and I all work in different departments. Elizabeth and I … we work all together very, very often, we see each other all the time but we actually aren’t always collaborating, so I think, for us, siloes are often within our own institution, but we’re very lucky that we have a lot of partnerships so we partner very closely, in our preschool programming particularly, with the orchestra, and as well, with our player [square], which is our theatre district.

And then our community outreach is a huge part of my department that I run, and every programme is a partnership with an institution so we partner with, we have two library systems in our area so we partner with both of them, and every one is different, and every one you’re negotiating how you’re going to work out both of your siloes, and sometimes both of your bureaucracies are just extraordinary and it adds sometimes 18 months to a project.

We do collaborate, but I think in terms of that, I would say it takes a lot more time, it takes a lot of patience and it also takes some level of translation. I mean this, no, you mean that, okay, and so back to talking. I was saying about talking over someone’s head – I think a lot of our partnerships start there or maybe below, talking down to people and then trying to find a way of converse together before you even really start thinking about something so it takes a lot more planning. My time’s really up. Thank you, everyone.

This presentation on Leading Museum Inclusion was presented at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis on 26 September 2015 by Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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