Six Museum Words to Make You Vomit

Jim Fishwick
May 28, 2016 · 7 min read

This is the written version of a talk I gave with my esteemed colleague Tilly Boleyn at the 2016 Museums Australasia conference. You can view the original slides here and listen to a recording of part of the talk here. Unlike my previous article about logos, this one is specifically aimed at museum professionals. My apologies to everyone else.

This is a call to arms. We need to nimbly activate spaces in museums to create engaging, meaningful content in a future-facing way for 360 strategic alignment. Stories that do not promote meaningful engagement are being disrupted by an interdisciplinary paradigm shift, which embraces agile and responsive learnings.

Ugh — it’s enough to make you vomit. Well, it certainly induces that reaction in the two of us.

There’s a small subset of words that trigger this nauseous reaction when we encounter them. We want to analyse what it is about these words that makes them so objectionable to us. They sit at the intersection of Jargon, Buzzwords, and Office Speak. They form part of the ever evolving language that we use to talk about our work.

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It’s certainly not a phenomenon confined to museums. Every industry has their own buzzwords and jargon. From government departments to lawyers, sailors — we have it on good authority that academics are very fond of ‘embedding’ things (whatever that is). But when we’re talking specifically about Museums, we like to call these words Musevoms.

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We’d like to share just a couple of these words with you today. Sick bags at the ready? Then we’ll begin.

Let’s start with an easy one. ‘Content’ has been spreading all around the world. What is content? In the Museum world, content can be objects from a collection, interpretive text in exhibitions, hands-on interactive activities, AV, an entire exhibition, articles, journal articles, information… basically it can be anything and everything.

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There’s never been a more exciting time to make content.

A more useful question might be What *isn’t* content?

The best definition that we’ve hit upon is that content is the information that’s contained in a message, rather than the form in which it’s presented, maybe. Even that’s not enough. Content is the painting, rather than the frame.

This can take many forms: ‘Engage’, ‘Engaging’, ‘Engagement’. Engaging is something we do to/for/with/at other people. You can engage visitors, audiences, stakeholders. It’s a very nebulous concept. So what we’ve tried to do take some real-world examples of ‘engage’ being used, and we’re going to try and translate what we think is the intended meaning.

Example 1: "Let’s talk about how we engage kids aged 0–8"
Translation: “How can we be heaps good for kids?”

Example 2: “This content needs to be more engaging.”
Translation: “This is crap, can you do it better?”

Example 3: “How are our audience engaging with us online?”
Translation: “How many clicks, shares and likes do we have?”

Example 4: “That’s a really good engagement model”

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At a workshop at the 2015 Museum Computer Network conference, participants were asked to list words that they thought could either define or be used in place of the word engagement. Here are the words they came up with:

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Image courtesy Jennifer Foley, Running With Visitors

You’ve got to think, when a word is this slippery and can have this many meanings, is it useful? More importantly, is it…

This is skyrocketing up the Musevoms chart. We can have meaningful engagement, meaningful conversations, meaningful partnerships.

We posit that ‘meaningful’ has arisen as a response to ‘engagement’. Engagement is very shiny, it’s glittery, it’s fun. But it doesn’t have that much academic rigour, or intellectual weight. And for the people who like those sorts of things, it’s not enough to have engagement. You’ve got to have meaningful engagement.

Below is a chart from Google’s N-Gram software, that tracks the frequency of use of the word ‘meaningful’ from 1800–2008 in published materials.

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As we can see, up until the year 1920, things were not very meaningful at all. Things were very very meaningful in 1972. A year of peak meaning. Meaningful has been on the decline in general use, but we’re certain in museum circles would be off the chart.

When were trying to figure out what activate means, we went through what you can activate. You can activate museum spaces, you can activate museum staff, audiences get activated, resources, sponsorships and partnerships can all be activated.

We reasoned that activating these things means we’re making them active. Suggesting that if we don’t activate something it remains inactive or passive. Is that a bad thing? Is an exhibition space allowed to be passive? Or does that mean it’s not being used to its full potential? What does that say about the value we had on it? So many questions…

We decided to stop guessing, and look up the definition. We are science nerds, after all. We looked up what activate means scientifically, and we were not disappointed.

Activate (v): to aerate sewage in order to accelerate decomposition of impure organic matter by microorganisms.

Bearing this in mind, allow us to share an activation strategy from our Museum’s collection:

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Toilet, porcelain, Johnson Bros. (Hanley) Ltd, England, 1880–1910, MAAS collection, 86/1812

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks! Telling stories is big right now in many fields, including the museum world. And don’t get us wrong, we are so happy we’re talking about stories, rather than putting things out on display for the sake of putting things out on display.

But if we’re going to Use Objects To Tell Stories, we need to be specific about the kind of stories we’re going tell, because there are many, many different kinds. We can tell the story of our collection, we can tell a story that we know is true because of our collection. We can use objects to illustrate fictional stories. And then on top of this all ask: who is telling the story? Whose stories are being ignored?

Each of these different stories are all equally valid, and equally worth our time, but we need to be specific about what kind of stories we intend to tell, because otherwise ‘story’ just becomes shorthand for ‘series of events’, and that’s not what stories are.

And now it’s time for our last Musevom, which is…

We have made a handy Musevom Bingo Chart for you, containing all our (least) favourites, and a space for you to add your own. Print one out at home to get through your next meeting!

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Advanced players can use this as a drinking game.

You can download the Musevom Bingo Chart at

We’re not trying to be massive curmudgeons about buzzwords. We’re not trying to eradicate them completely, nice though the idea may be. These words are helpful to start with. They come into existence to fill a gap in the lexicon, and make it easier to communicate with each other about our work. But then they get popular, and lots of people start using them for different reasons and to refer to different things. These words get slippery and their meaning starts to shift. You can be having a conversation with someone, thinking you’re talking about the same thing, when you’re not.

Second, language has a social function, and Musevoms become a social issue in your institution. This language becomes not only exclusive but exclusionary. Staff who haven’t fallen victim to these words can be left out of museum-wide conversations.

Third, discourse affects practice. The way that we talk about our work reflects what we think about our work, why we’re here, what we think is valuable, and changes the things we make.

Finally, Musevoms affect everyone. If we use this language all the time, we think it’s normal. And so speaking to visitors or audiences, these words leak out. We find ourselves telling audiences that we’re going to ‘bring them interesting content’. They don’t care. A well-known podcast once asked its listeners: “Tell us how you engage with us.” Yuck.

So just… be aware. This is an awareness campaign.

Firstly, if we ever use the phrase ‘Key Takeaways’ again, fire us directly into the Sun.

We just want people in the Museum sector to be mindful of the language that they use. We want people to stop and think about the words that they use. More importantly, think about what they could mean to someone who’s never heard it before. And then think about what it is that you want to communicate, and do it in another way.

Friends don’t let friends use Musevoms. If you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re not sure what ‘agile co-creation’ is, ask them! That’s legitimate.

Finally, we’ve created a hashtag so you can share, tag, and track the evolution of Musevoms over time, and help defend our community: #Musevom. Good luck to all of you.

Audio recording is courtesy of Jonny Brownbill. Our sincere thanks to Ed Rodley, Jeffrey Inscho, Jennifer Foley, Alli Burness, and Kylie Budgefor their assistance in the development of this talk.

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