Sticky Words

The Contentious Vocabulary of Museum Practice

Museum Human
Oct 11, 2016 · 43 min read
CC-zero license via Pixabay

If you’ve already read the letters from the past two weeks, you can skip down to this week’s new letters, the final of the series, here. (The letters from last week are here.)

The Authors

Robert WeisbergRobert Weisberg is Senior Project Manager in the Publications and Editorial Department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His experience before The Met was in journalism and publishing production, and he was lucky to get into a museum without an art history background. Rob worked on hundreds of Met printed exhibition and collection catalogues until the past few years when he helped reboot the museum’s label program, as well as participating in several print-digital hybrid projects. In addition to his technology and process roles, he’s always tried to mediate and translate between different museum and workplace cultures and styles; he considers discrediting false dichotomies in the museum field — visitor-focused or collection-focused, print or digital, slow or fast, creative or organized, agile or deliberative — to be his calling. He blogs about museums and organizational culture at Rob has been a temporary New Yorker for 25 years and lives in New York City with his real-New-Yorker wife.

Jennifer Foley—Jennifer Foley found her way into museum work when her husband went to art school and she needed to find a job in a new city for which a doctorate in Southeast Asian art history would be seen as a benefit. (Pro tip: the Southeast Asian art historian market is seriously limited). After career turns in grantmaking, academia, the travel industry, and a list of credits as a best boy electric, museum education was a revelation: once she arrived it became clear that this was the destination she’d been aimed at all along. Over the last decade she has been an educator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and recently joined the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, as the Director of Education and Community Engagement. She’s created programs for visitors from toddlers to seniors, worked on apps, audio tours, exhibition interpretation, and brought museum programming to elementary classrooms across rural Virginia. Her academic training in semiotics feeds her interest in the words we use and what we signal through them, from gallery labels to job titles; her subsequent academic pursuits in evaluation feeds her love of data and data analysis. Museum education and interpretation means she gets to always be working on something she loves.

The Initial Prompt

Sticky words have been at the heart of so many of Rob and Jennifer’s conversations since they met at the Museum Computer Network annual conference in 2013. Why do some words stick, irk, and vex those of us in the museum field? Why do they keep being used, even when we know they don’t capture the sense of either the work or the aspiration, or when they mean different things to different people, whether museum colleagues or members of the public? Do these words become a lazy stand-in for making a real case for why museums matter?

Sticky words were also at the heart of a panel that Rob organized and Jennifer took part in at MCN 2014 in Dallas (“User Experience: Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Museum Content”), and again at a presentation organized by Jennifer at MCN 2015 in Minneapolis (“‘Content’ and Its Discontents”). These panels looked at the terms and metaphors that run like a through line across museum disciplines and departments, roles and responsibilities. Over the past two months, Rob and Jennifer reflected on museum semantics through a medium that forces at least a modicum of reflection: the written word.

And away we go …

Jennifer to Rob, August 23, 2016

Dear Rob,

I was thinking of you today. I’m in Dallas (where it is incomprehensibly hot) for the first time since we were both here for MCN2014 and the panel you organized on metaphors and museum content. So in my mind Dallas = tacos + metaphors + MCN. Walking around today I kept thinking about the discussion we had on that panel about the haphazard relationship that we museum professionals have with terminology.

I realize that I’m a little bit obsessed with this topic. I think it may be the longest-lasting effect of graduate school: if there is anything that you learn doing a graduate degree in the humanities, it’s that words matter. Which seems like a statement that plays right into the academic stereotype of a navel-gazer so fixated on semantics that they can’t see the forest for the trees. A lot of what we end up talking about when we talk about museum terminology does, in fact, involve semantics. But it’s rarely just semantics.

Museum terminology is a place of acute separation. I know that every field has its jargon, and it’s well known that the use of jargon is a barrier to communication in general — even for those communicating with each other inside their own field. Museums are like every other field, with our own jargon. But when I think about how much of the conversation within the field, over the last ten years that I’ve been in museums, has been about breaking down barriers for visitors, it is striking how much the fault line between people working in museums and people visiting museums is created by terminology.

The source of so much unhappiness?

I remember once walking through a gallery with another staff member and being stopped by a visitor. The visitor was unhappy that the label for an object he was interested in learning more about was only a tombstone label. What he really wanted was a chat. (Jargon count so far: five.) When the visitor had walked away we started talking about what he’d said. The staff member I was with focused entirely on the fact that the visitor had called the label a plaque, and not at all on the visitor’s concern that the plaque wasn’t doing a great job. In short, there was little concern for the content.

Content. How I loathe that word. I hate it so much I’ve been on conference panels about it! I think one of our first phone conversations was about that word, if I remember correctly, when we started talking about MCN2014. How did this word find its way into museums in the first place? It’s jargon, sure enough, but it’s jargon that has a bad case of mission creep. Moving beyond a table of contents at the start of a book, it’s now everywhere — marketing, television, social media, radio, podcasts, magazines, the entire internet. And museums.

When I think about how much of the conversation within the field…has been about breaking down barriers for visitors, it is striking how much the fault line between people working in museums and people visiting museums is created by terminology.

But what, exactly, is content? Text, image, video, audio, code — all content. Apparently, it’s everything. Which means it’s possibly also nothing. Or at least the word is nothing. It’s a filler word. It denotes such a large category that it fails to denote a category. It’s like non-specific identifiers like “stuff” or “things.” During my undergraduate studies I chose Mandarin for my required language study. I don’t really remember a lot of Chinese, but I do remember learning about counting words — words that were used to indicate the units by which something is counted, like sheets of paper. There is a generic counter word for things that don’t get their own counter word (and for people like me who could never remember which counting word went with which noun): ge.

Content is like ge. You just use it with everything, even when it makes you sound like you don’t really have a handle on the language.

The thing about the word content is that it doesn’t communicate what it is. It can be text, image, video, audio, code, all kinds of things, but text, image, video, audio, code, are not all the same kinds of things. Furthermore, not all text is alike. Not all video is alike. All the word content says is that it is taking up space, it is filling a container, it is stuff that goes in the thing.

The thing that goes in the container

I hear this word in museums all the time. We need content. We need content for the website. We need content for the exhibition. We need content for the app. But the slippery application of this filler word seems, to me, really problematic. From an internal perspective, using content for all of those things seems like a great way to get to miscommunication and confusion. One person’s content for the exhibition is not necessarily another person’s content for the exhibition. The word doesn’t even denote the type of container or the format — text? video? audio? — just something to fill a space.

Calling it content does not communicate the job the content is meant to perform. It doesn’t communicate who the audience is, what that audience might be looking for, what they might need in order to get the most of an experience at the museum. It just fills a space.

When we, as museum professionals, are just filling spaces, we are not doing our best work. When we talk about making content we’re framing our work as filler. We aren’t valuing our creativity and our passion. We aren’t empathizing with the person who will be encountering the content. We’re just ticking boxes. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like we’re talking about something I love doing, something I’m proud of, something I’m excited about. It’s like paperwork — something that has to get done, but isn’t why I’m interested in museums.

Sometimes I hear the word being used with visitors and I wonder, why would visitors want to access “content”? There is nothing in that sentence that makes me think I’ll be interested. Even “great content” sounds unappealing and a bit oxymoronic (like “great processed food”).

Yes, content is just a word. I, too, have made content. I’ve been a member of a team that has made a lot, a lot of content. And we did it with passion, and we were creative, and it was full of love and tears. But calling it content frames what we do. And framing everything I’ve put into all the things called content as content devalues those efforts. Turning around and trying to sell that content to a visitor — this is great content! — is like trying to sell four day old doughnuts. They might have been delicious once, but today, not so much. We end up giving both the visitors and ourselves short shrift.

Well, that may be all the content I have for today.

Thinking of you from the Big D,


Rob to Jennifer, August 30, 2016

Dear J,

Wow, you’re a “content”-phobe? And I thought we were such good friends!

I kid, I kid. The visceral hatred of the word “content” has mystified me in the museum workplace setting. The first conferences I went to weren’t in the museum field—I’m thinking of a few years ago when Digital Book World and Tools of Change (now discontinued) were held back-to-back in the New York winter grime. I was one of the few museum people there, and I had gone looking for the art-book-publishing Holy Grail, the perfect digital art book format, which still no one has found. All the illustrated digital pubs the vendors were demoing were children’s books and cookbooks, and still mostly are, interesting lit experiments like The Silent History and Arcadia notwithstanding.

Those conferences were all about content, and even though the word was acknowledged as a cipher, it had an optimistic feel, an unbundling from the containers of print, digital text, video, audio. It was just the business we were all in, publishers and producers of stuff (as you call it), trying to find out what audiences want to read, see, consume, whatever. Sure, these events were chock-full of Simpsons-monorail-selling charlatans (“There’s trouble/in art book city/that’s a capital T/and that rhymes with D/and that stands for … Digital”?), but vendors are a fact of life in anything we do. Maybe mission-driven conferences have smaller exhibitor-to-attendee ratios, and maybe that will change in the future.

So I’d come back to the Met from these content conferences and tell people I was at a content conference, and they looked at me with equal parts “huh” and “corporate.” (I know people who’ve worked in advertising and magazines. “Corporate”? My colleagues have no idea.) And as you pointed out, content still has nasty connotations for curators and even some art-history-raised staff in service departments. They see it as representing so many things that it represents nothing, maybe like Turducken or a spork.

Ce n’est pas content?

But those non-things are very much real things! Maybe I’m not worried because of way I see the book, specifically the art book, based on my background. While my first roles at the Met were strictly about desktop publishing, I always felt my real job was to get all the various stakeholders aligned. (“Hello, workflow? It’s me, Rob.”) I get the text people and the image people and the digital people and the label people together. Content seemed to be an extension of that, a word that open-endedly captured all the stuff that could be produced from the expanding-universe of the first big-bang kernel of the curator’s vision for the material. Stuff might be a placeholder word, but it’s a glorious place that’s being held.

There’s content in there (Time Line of the Universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

And now that I’m involved in print and digital and also labels, I see the interplay of everything that the authors/curators wrote, the images my colleagues acquired, the tremendous editing that got done (seriously, I have no idea how editors do it), the color correcting and scheduling expertly managed by the production staff, not to mention all the marketing, digital, and so on.

So maybe I’m more forgiving of the use of the word content because I’ve had to move between different parties in the publication and exhibition process, where even words like “proof” and “deadline” and “just one more correction” can mean different things. In the end we all wanted the same thing, a beautiful art book, on time. That tension, I think, is a feature and not a bug of the creative and productive process. Maybe it’s the Buddhist in me: all is interconnected, all is dharma, all is suffering.

When you mention my panel at MCN2014 (“User Experience: Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Museum Content”), I remember that we both had ideas for panels (we’d met at the previous MCN, just an hour before you so ably saved my floundering rendition of “Rhinestone Cowboy” at Montreal’s most nefarious karaoke establishment): you were already thinking about terminology and contested spaces, I was thinking about UX as a metaphor to bridge the conceptual gap between print and visitor experience, which was fast becoming the latest museum buzzword (and you’re the semiotician?). It was a kind of “you first” conversation, but my proposal had already been formulated (and rejected) for a different conference, and one of my speakers couldn’t make to the rescheduled MCN version, and I needed someone to join the panel. And there you were!

Then you followed up at MCN2015 with “Content and Its Discontents,” with Jeff Inscho and Ed Rodley (both of whom are participating in previous epistolations in this Medium series). And you guys workshopped “content,” “digital,” and “engagement”! (I hear people went nuts. For a workshop, at least. It was Sharpies™ at dawn.).

And, yet, content is already in the museum. Content is not an invasive species, borne into the museum on the backs of digital departments and non-museum people. That’s silo talk, I’m afraid. Look, I’ve had digital-side colleagues tell me, to my face, without a hint of hostility, that the printed book was dead. (Dude, that’s my job.) But a funny thing happened on the way to the death of the printed book: people realized that books do, in fact, have a UX, a technology that separates them from scrolls and has endured for centuries. All it took was a bit of a mental expansion of the ideas of UX and printiness, and boom, there we are, the boat’s big enough for everyone.

It’s a good reason to discuss another sticky word: text.

Now if content feels like here-come-the-Borg, then to a book person like me “text” should feel like home, mom-making-French-toast-in-the-morning, with yule logs crackling on the cabinet-sized tv. In no way should “text” be contested space.

Or is it?

You see, text actually is the word that really gets people into trouble, precisely because there’s so much of it. An editorial or publications department has text (among other things) in their books; an education or interpretation department has text (among other things) in their labels. Digital departments have text (among other things) in their in-gallery digital interactives. If content carries a certain shallowness of form, then text is supposed to convey a deepness of understanding, right? It carries “context.” And that, as we say, is fight fight fight.

My contribution to the field of info-squiggles.

The point you make about content and containers is a good one. Brian O’Leary made some excellent arguments about that relationship a few years ago in some articles and an online book. What’s baking the noodle of publishers is that this relationship is unsure, constantly-changing space, pushed ever further away from their comfort zone by the onrushing behavior of readers, I mean users. (Substitute “visitor” for “readers” or “users” and you can see where I’m going with this.) Publishers have to figure out what readers want, and where digital departments can help is their experience in user testing — in the museum world, that’s education departments who are constantly speaking to the visitors.

So just as technology is allowing text to deepen around any particular exploration of an artwork, it’s also flattening text by expanding the universe of what the visitor can access. Back to my astronomy analogies: the universe looks flat to us.

It’s for that expanded universe that the word content has usefulness and the word text causes nothing but trouble. When I wrote about a MuseumHack interview with Frith Williams in my blog, it was for a while my most-read piece. It hit a nerve. (As did writing about this platform, Medium, as a way to help discovery of museum content.) Williams’s title is Head of Writing at the Museum New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. She came to the US on a funded museum visit and loved her time here, but when she was done, she said that she couldn’t remember any text, only the experiences of being at the museums:

What struck me was that I hardly remembered a word I read. The really powerful experiences were the physical, social, or creative ones, which matches research into what makes content memorable.

So what is it that she doesn’t remember? Labels? Digital? Catalogues? And what does this mean? Do we not have time to read anymore? Or does it just mean that our text has to get better? And we’re talking about a museum professional. I don’t begrudge any museum visitor, even a colleague in our field, saying they didn’t have the time to read; or, in Williams’s case, that they didn’t remember what they read, or that the text didn’t stick with them as much as the overall museum experiences. At the tech conferences I attended, I had several experiences of telling someone I work at the Met making art books, and they say, “Oh, I LOVE my giant exhibition catalogues from the Met! I never read them, of course, but I just love having them in my home.” (Once more, with feeling: Dude, that’s my job.)

Whole lotta text (photo by the author)

So, are we doing something right by getting the average-museum-going public to buy this thing that reminds them of the experience of the exhibition? Or something wrong by getting people to buy something that they won’t use and won’t provide positive word-of-mouth about? Read this LA Times article’s Andy-Rooney-esque “what’s with these giant art books that people still buy?” screed. There’s something that’s drawing people to still buy these printed things and not abandon them for e-books, or whatever. And it’s not just the text, or even just the images: it’s also the experience of the museum that makes them want to bring the book home. (I mean general readers, not scholars, here, but the best art books can serve multiple audiences.)

That’s why I think content can unify us in ways that text cannot. Are we working in museums for the excellence of the collection or the visitors? Why not both? If one of us moves from one container (books) to another (labels) like I’ve done recently, am I less involved in text than I used to be? Obviously my work has changed, but I prefer to think that, in a more profound way, nothing has really changed other than the size of my InDesign files.

Just today I had lunch with three people from my digital department and everyone threw around the world content like it was “Malkovich”, but there was no throwdown there, nothing demeaning of the museum. Content was an “or” word rather than “and” word, to use mathematical logic. (Or, in Design Thinking terms, it was “yes, and” and not “no, but.”)

Publishers using content rather than text hasn’t killed the printed book. (Though it hasn’t done shit for print newspapers or magazines.) Has content hurt visitor numbers? Has it had an effect on visitor engagement? More likely, society and devices have already done enough of that. (Or has the flood of device-reading turned information simply into content?)

Content is not an invasive species, borne into the museum on the backs of digital departments and non-museum people. That’s silo talk, I’m afraid.

Has content made museum work less pleasant? Technology, and onrushing contradictions about workplace culture, have done that just fine, thank you.

So if content signifies stuff, then why does text signify printed matter, and is that a mistake? Maybe text feels more permanent; it remains in place, like a label, while the visitor moves on. No one thinks of the books in their shelves as merely texts, do they? Content, on the other hand, feels endlessly portable, but also easily forgotten. Texts get archived; content, well …

And yet, digitally-accessed information is here to stay, and a dichotomy between printed text and digital content is only going to pre-silo ourselves. I think the relationship among all the stuff that our visitors experience is more nuanced.

I remain your contextual servant,


J to R, September 2, 2016

Dear R,

Your last letter was sooooooo interesting. I got to your description of content as optimistic and had a bit of a moment. Not like a bad moment, but a wait, what? moment.

Because for me, “content” feels like it is so far from optimism I have a hard time reconciling the two ideas in the same sentence. When I think about my gut reaction to accepting the idea that I make “content” (rather than that I make something that one day someone will come up with a better name for but am stuck calling content for now), I’m filled with ennui because I think that at that point I will have officially ceased to care deeply about what I’m doing.

And I’m kind of fascinated by this disjuncture between us in response to the word. We’re both doing a lot of interacting with content, but our experiences of what that means seem really different. You say that seeing content as an invasive species is silo talk, but I’m seeing the optimism/ennui response to content not so much as silo talk but part of why silos are so hard to break out of. So much of what you and I usually talk about is lined up in a similar way, but here is something that seems to be a fulcrum of our work that has huge implications for misunderstanding and miscommunication. We’re both talking about content but we aren’t talking about the same thing at all.

Or are we?

When I got this this illustration in your letter I thought, YES.

Info-squiggle redux

But what I was seeing in it was maybe both the same and different? I think of our (not just you and I, but humans’) relationship to content as being shallow. Long, perhaps, but only in the sense of its ubiquity: we will, throughout our life, interact with content. Not the same specific content — our relationships with content are shallow and “content” feels disposable, single-use. The thing that I worry about is that if we approach making content with the mindset that we are making “content,” we approach it with the dedication of making something single-use. It may be that someone who consumes the content we create only interacts with it once — that it is, in fact, single-use — but I want to be making things that will stand up if someone went back to them again.

The comparison to the description of text as deep but narrow really fascinated me. It’s a dichotomy that I’m still thinking about. What is content, then, in this instance? Is it all other things that aren’t text? Video, audio, podcasts, interactive screens? I like the text/context set up (“If content carries a certain shallowness of form, then text is supposed to convey a deepness of understanding, right? It carries “context.”), though it seems like there’s slippage in there somewhere — context can live outside of text, right? BUT, there was still a part of it that was ringing a bell in the back of my mind. We imbue text with depth, with weight, because it’s the place where we care. There is a specialness to the text that we, as a field, don’t assign to other media. We assign permanence to text — even to text that lives in the books that people tell you they’ve never opened. Even to the text in labels that will come down with the next rotation. Even in the text that appears in rack cards and calendars and all manner of things that we call ephemera.

The field (particularly art museums) is a side step away from academia, and the text is still where many people pour their heart and soul. Or at least their blood, sweat, and tears. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an academic refer to their research, journal articles, or a book manuscript as content. But I have heard those things referred to as texts. If content is shallow and text is deep it seems like this is so because text is where much of the field assigns value. It’s the place where people pour the most care, and it is also exactly where the most friction can be found: it is where, as you say, all the fight fight fight lives.

For me, I don’t want text to be the only text. I want that kind of investment in the other stuff, too. I don’t really think that text is the right term, or one that should replace content (as you note, it has its own freighted history), but I think that if there was a general understanding of the possibility that (non-text) content could carry some of the core message of, for example, an exhibition the way that text is approached as the heart of the same exhibition, we might be able to get closer to a cohesive experience of the exhibition for visitors. Instead, it often feels like there is Text and there is Content; one is Important and one is there for The Millennials. And with the slipperiness of the word (stuff that goes in the thing), it feels like a concession to this problematic, value-laden dichotomy.

Of course, I have a particular relationship with both content and text through the experience of yet another rather problematic term: interpretation. When we had that initial discussion on the panel at MCN2014 I was the Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I love art museum interpretation, and I got to work on so many awesome projects in that role. Interpretation is still an important piece of what I’m doing now as well, and so much of what I love about working in an art museum, so much of the potential that museums have, is all embedded in interpretation.

It is also such a hard thing to describe to anyone. Every time I would meet someone new they would ask what I did for work and I’d say, I’m the Director of Interpretation at the art museum. Invariably, I would get one of three reactions: 1) “So you do a lot of things with languages and stuff? or “You must speak a lot of languages”; 2) blank stare tinged with discomfort; or 3) “Director of Interpretation. What’s that?”

Telling people my job title was eerily similar to answering when someone would ask what I wrote my dissertation about. Dissertation topic reality: no one really wants to know unless it’s something that can be boiled down into a phrase of six words or less. I have a friend who has a PhD in neuroscience. We finished around the same time and would go out sometimes where we would meet new people who would end up asking what we’d written our dissertations about. Her topic? “I wrote about depressed rats.”

Not part of an ideal job title

This is a conversation starter. Depressed rats? What did you find out? How do you know they are depressed? (Answer: throw them in water and see if they swim). My description? Could not sum up in a five word sentence. Halfway through the description the fire in their soul was extinguished. I was pretty sure that if I threw them in water they would not swim.

Certainly this says something about my dissertation topic, which I maintain is an interesting topic, but is, however, esoteric. It is only interesting if one has been initiated through the various levels of knowledge that would make it interesting. I like to think of it as a classic dissertation topic, destined to live a classic, but shockingly lonely life on a shelf in a university basement until enough years of non-usage have passed to make it acceptable for them to ship to offsite storage.

And this is also the problem with my former job title, Director of Interpretation: it requires initiation through a number of layers of internal museum knowledge to understand. What is being interpreted? Why does it need interpreting? For whom are you interpreting? What does making videos have to do with interpreting? I’d try to explain, but people would usually glaze over pretty quickly. People who work in museums care about the mechanics of how museums work, but the dance between departments that gets a chat label up next to a Rothko is a lot less interesting to everyone else.

Orange and Yellow, 1956, Mark Rothko, Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo: Jennifer Foley

When I think about what interpretation is I think a lot about empathy. A lot of it is thinking about what someone — lots of someones, in fact — might need or want in order to connect with a work of art. Some of those someones need a text. Some need a video. Some need a person. Some need a touch screen. Some need a really different text from the one that might end up on the wall. In my interpretation role I am working to imagine what we can do to offer different entry points. What kinds of questions might someone have? How can we anticipate and answer those questions? How can we make content that really works for as many people as possible? We need to counterbalance the terrible feeling of wanting a question answered and not being able to satisfy that curiosity. The text alone can’t do this, and we are left with visitors for whom the void becomes the experience.

So, interpretation ends up being a lot like content for me (as you say, it is all interconnected). When we use these imprecise words as shorthand for things I wonder, and I worry, whether framing them within a false mantle means we lose some of what makes those things important. Or that we miss our marks, running the danger of leaving our visitors frustrated to discover that what looked like an entry point was really a false door.

Yes, Jennifer has plenty of text

With delight for my collection of exhibition catalogs with barely cracked spines,


R to J, September 4, 2016

Dear J,

I first have to mention that the large exhibition catalogue front and center in the image above, The Glory of Byzantium, was one of the first huge books I typeset, almost in its entirety, for The Met. I still shudder with the memory of have to type from scratch the all-Greek, diacritics and breath-marks included, statement of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the frontmatter.

None dare call it content: left column took a full day to type in Quark in 1996

Anyhoo, who knew content would be the epistolary gift that keeps on giving! I think it’s great that you wrote content and “content” in the same sentence with different meanings. It made me think of the colleague who absolutely loathed my too-often use of air quotes, not because she thought I was being imprecise with speech, but because I was making an (mansplaining, expert-splaining) assumption that the listener won’t understand what I’m talking about.

I’m glad that content is a contentious word, that you and I (and entire fields) are still hashing out what it means for our jobs, our workplace culture, our society. I’m glad you’re insisting that, if the word is going to be thrown around in museum work, that all our work be done with passion for the art and for the audience — if there’s anything that’s going to get us past the (false) dichotomy between excellence-of-collection and visitor experience, it’s that baseline of passion and zeal. In reading your letter, I saw the reference to my previous response about text, and all the people who ignore text — or, perhaps, just can’t absorb it when there’s so much else in their lives clamoring for attention, and experiences nowadays usually win the battle over text — did I mean to launch a broadside against the print publishing industry in which I was professionally raised? Do I enjoy biting the hand that feeds me? All over one word: content.

“Strategy”: museum sticky word for another time

What is it about our field (at the intersection at museums, education, publishing) that encourages the use of selective signifiers, words like text and interpretation that have very particular meanings? If content is very contested and text generally uncontested, then interpretation is differentially contested, as your previous institution used it but the Met does not (I would mention your job title to colleagues at The Met and they’d be like, wha?, the same reaction you got.) Do different museums really have different ideas of practice? Do different departments within the same institution have different ideas of practice? That is a far greater issue, it seems, than overall societal indifference towards museums.

We work with material that carries epic amounts of history and information and yet try to present them for the widest possible audience. I didn’t mind the people who said they had piles of Met books at home that they never opened, nor the people who told me that printed books were dead. But the people who called what my department produced “coffee table books”? They’d get an earful. They’re both scholarly and general audience books. Mellow mediator of contentious silos, heal thyself.

And that’s one of those agreements, those uncontested spaces, within the museum: we work for the art, for art history, for the public, for posterity. No curator would say their exhibition is meant only for their colleagues, or that they were running a secret training academy requiring a letter of introduction — and I doubt any of them think that, either. The most esoteric topics (not looking at you, J!) are intended to reach the same millions of annual visitors as the most trot-out-the-Impressionists blockbuster. That empathy you describe as being part of your work of interpretation isn’t particularly controversial.

If content is a description and text a subset of that, interpretation is a transitive act, as is curate. I’ve always been surprised how few people call me on my description of what departments in my general area of the museum — in addition to Publishing and Editorial, there’s the Libraries, Education, Archiving, Design, and Imaging — as “curating the curatorial vision.” Not perfect, but I like it, and, more importantly, no curators seem to mind. There was no threat to the curator in this because it was clear we were interpreting, sending the curator’s work forward to the public, with the curator a full participant. (When the curator feels they’ve been left out of the equation … woo, disintermediation doggies, look out.)

So within the institution, curate is a term that applies to communicating with the public with the object and curator as the starting points of the equation (we could include the donor here). As long as the curator is active in the process, all is good with the world. If service departments, as they are sometimes, not-entirely-happily called, don’t work through the curators, that’s bad. If the public tries to curate the art themselves, the way that they curate their music collections, or the way that some digital companies (or, um, bloggers) curate news or celebrity happenings, well, it’s hello apocalypse.

Who’s gonna curate all this stuff? (From

What pushed museums to take seriously making collections available online? I remember when Shyam Oberoi, now at the Dallas Museum of Art, was still at The Met a few years ago, he gave a staff talk and asked, are photos of our collection online? Most people in the audience — mostly curators — gave a Homer Simpson shrug, but then Shyam said, yes, it is, and he proceeded to show various visitor Flickr feeds (now The Met has an official stream, even though we’re moving on to a Flickr-what’s-that? world), tagged to show Met objects people had photographed themselves. That was why, he said, The Met needed to get serious about getting images of every object in the collection online. Was this an implied threat of curation by the public itself? I’m not sure — the room didn’t feel panicked, just maybe a little bewildered, like when parents ask about Tinder. It put everyone squarely into the DAM crucible and made curatorial department tagging of every object for The Collection Online of great importance to our administration — and, in a way, led to the question over just what work is core to the museum’s mission. (FYI, The Met has about 15,000 photos in its Flickr stream, while there are nearly 200,000 public Flickr photos tagged Met Museum.)

With this photo I curate what the curators curated of what someone curated (my photo from the recent New Museum exhibition “The Keeper”)

When museums were first fooling around with digital publishing, there was a concern that low-end publishing would undermine curatorial authority, as if people would scan museum pubs in the bookstore and output their own on color printers. (The idea that people would create unofficial museum apps and send them into the packed galactic core that is iTunes discovery hadn’t yet really been raised.) People curate personal collections of every kind, algorithms curate (or aggregate) news, everyone’s a curator, but I don’t feel that museum curators were concerned about disintermediation (oh, what a word) regarding the public as they were about colleagues working too quickly with the public. The barbarians, it was feared, were already inside the gates.

I bring this up because the gravity of digital is changing behaviors and expectations on so many levels, compressing (professional) curatorial practice and the (public) practice of curation: think of the huge changes that were promised by Digital Humanities (read Digital Humanities guidebook or Diane Zorich’s Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship, both from 2012), or what our friend (and fellow Dallas panelist) Kimon Keramidas did with bringing digital practice to curatorial training at the Bard Graduate Center and now NYU, and the curatorial world should be changing. Is it? Professional publishing is supposedly in turmoil because of the rise of self-publishing, yet I think these changes are more about societal preferences than a perceived need to reduce employment in a particular industry because everyone’s doing it themselves. I think a museum publishing department would be more upset that colleagues can do their own publishing than that the public can. Just where is threat to authority?

Another gateway drug

I think that’s where our letters and the words that we’re discussing, J, align: it’s the terms of museum practice that are blurring, the roles and responsibilities (and perhaps more importantly, the possibilities) merging and shifting, that’s roiling our field. It’s like we have to slightly change our vocabulary every few years — or every new job, or job title, or conference attended. We can do it, but it makes authenticity a challenge. When we worry about content, we worry about a decay of our professional practice, that what we’ve learned to do isn’t so special anymore. A threat. Content, here, is our gateway drug.

We’re talking about practice, practice,


J to R, September 17, 2016

Dear R,

Remember that innocent time, lo these less-than-a-decade years ago, when people didn’t curate their breakfast? Apparently, the swift slide (after centuries of stasis) of the curator from expert who cares for the collection to person who instagrams food can be blamed on Damien Hirst. That it took so long may be a tribute to the socially stratified history of museums: most people hadn’t the foggiest idea what a curator did because most people had never encountered a curator, probably didn’t spend tons of time in museums, and even if they did, curators weren’t the people they generally interacted with. The word has now moved off the list of internal museum words — it does not bring the blank looks of interpretation, or even label. What people are picturing the word curator means, however, probably has a questionable connection to what the work of curation actually is.

In part, I think the general confusion about what curation is Hollywood’s fault. Filmmakers, TV show writers — they love to insert museums and galleries into storylines. Need a cursed object? Museum! Need a snooty, out-of-touch character? Contemporary art gallery curator, at your service! Hollywood museums and galleries are magical places (often literally) with staffs of one: the curator. Every time a “curator” is shown on TV doing what is clearly conservation work (in a dramatically lit warehouse without any conservation equipment), a kitten dies because of how wrongwrongwrong this is.

Goodness me, Matt Damon curator, is that a paintbrush in your hand?

It also makes it even more difficult to explain what any of the rest of us are doing in museums. It denies all of us who aren’t curators professional personhood and also denies curators professional personhood at the same time by turning them from specialists in a field to jacks- and jills-of-all-trades.

The publishing of snarky conversations about curating breakfast perhaps indicate we’ve passed peak usage. I definitely laughed at this exchange, but it also made me think about what in it was funny. It starts with the nod to the overuse of the word curation and the pomposity of applying the term to the mundane act of making breakfast. Which, in the framework of the #AskaCurator meme (“Feel free to ask me questions.”) worked well as a twitter one-liner that was not, initially, aimed at museums. The discussion that unfolds is a deeply snarky commentary on artspeak and art writing.

And while there is certainly art writing the lives outside of museums (in journals, in criticism, in essays), the reality is that members of the general public usually do not encounter that kind of writing in those forums. Instead, if they are going to encounter the kind of jargon-filled, navel-gazing language that is being lampooned in this exchange, it is going to be in a label at a museum.

snark is the breakfast of champions

That bit about lying “between protein and gluten, between the crisp and the soft, between over-easy and toasted,” in fact, bears a striking resemblance to the worst label I’ve ever seen — one that was so bad that I felt compelled to take a picture of it and have since used it as an example of what not to do when talking about museum interpretation. The thing that I find most funny about the exchange is how little of it applies to the overuse of the word curation outside of the museum or gallery context, and how much of it is about (at least obliquely) museum practice. It’s very similar to what was so successful (for me) in Miriam Elia’s book/art project, We Go To the Gallery.

from Miriam Elia’s book/art project, We Go To the Gallery

Part of what makes these things funny to me is that the alignment of the content (that word!) of the twitter exchange or of Elia’s book and the audience (i.e. me). As someone trained in artspeak with a career in art museums, watching two people apply the most pretentious, most over-used phrases to bacon and eggs feels like it is for me. It’s funny because it pulls the rug out from under the self-importance inherently backed into that kind of language, but is also largely funny because I recognize the language that is being made fun of. (And is thus connected to what we’ve been talking about all along — the sticky words, the lingo, the jargon, the crazy argot of museums). I suspect it may also be funny for someone less familiar with museum work, but familiar enough with art and art presentation to recognize that it’s making fun of the gobbledygook writing that one sometimes encounters. For someone who is suspicious of contemporary art, they might find the page above from Elia’s book funny because it confirms their suspicion that contemporary art is confusing or worthless (or a prank, which is may be, which, in turn, may make it art). Recognizing the Nietzsche quote (and the avalanche of subsequent deaths, from The Author on down) isn’t necessary, but it might make for a different experience of the piece.

Thinking about those differences that can be experienced by different people encountering the same thing, and how much of that experience is dependent upon earlier experiences, is where my head was when I got your most recent letter. Reading it made me think of Roland Barthes. (Like I said, dependent upon earlier experiences). More specifically, there was a moment that, for me, felt like Barthes’ description of the punctum in his book, Camera Lucida. (“Its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.”) It’s been few years since I’ve had a chance to revisit that book, and it has kind of been on my mind anyway because of a recent conversation*, so it was quite nice to go back to the text. Because there is always the text, right?

So here is my punctum moment from your letter:

“The most esoteric topics (not looking at you, J!) are intended to reach the same millions of annual visitors as the most “trot out the Impressionists” blockbuster. That empathy you describe as being part of your work of interpretation isn’t particularly controversial.”

So I read that and thought, who says empathy isn’t controversial?

Okay, let me back up. I don’t know of any museums where there is a fight over whether empathy is good or bad. Most people believe empathy to be good. Museums have people working in them. Therefore, I feel pretty confident that most museum workers believe empathy to be good. BUT.

But. What, exactly, does it mean to practice empathy? What, exactly, does it mean to conduct one’s museum practice with empathy? Whose job is it to be empathetic? For whom shall we have empathy?

When I think of interpretative work, the starting point is the audience. What might an audience member need in order to engage, encounter, enjoy this work of art, this exhibition, this collection (in short, to find their own punctum)? Do they need text? What kind of text? Do they need a video? Do they need to be able to access information through their own device? Do they need a tactile experience? Do they need a making experience? Do they need to be able to connect to that experience later through a digital trail? Do they need a bigger font? Do they need an audio tour?

all art criticism in handy poster form (hanging in Rob’s office)

But who is the audience? Oh, this question. Who is the main audience for this program? one might ask. Very often the answer is everyone. But it can’t be for everyone. Museums aren’t for everyone, in the same way that pretty much everything except air isn’t for everyone. Museums are things that only some people feel compelled to consume. We can (and should, and need to) do many things to make museums more welcoming to more people, but they will never be for everyone, just like curling will never be for everyone.

If we’re able to get beyond that there is, perhaps, some discussion around whether it is for everyone within our small slice of everyone (answer: probably not). Even if we agree on an age group (say, adults), there often isn’t widespread agreement about what that group would need in order to connect. This is where empathy runs into trouble. I think there are two ways in which we end up falling short both on empathizing and on agreeing. We try to imagine being in a visitor’s shoes. What might they know? What might they not know? Not everyone in the room will imagine the same level of experience and knowledge. We may all agree (or not) that Carlo Crivelli’s work is fascinating, but we may have different ideas about how many visitors will understand a reference to Andrea Mantegna in a Crivelli label. We may have read statistics about mobile device market share, but we may have very different ideas about how familiar owners are with their devices and what they will and won’t find intuitive.

Which brings me back to the different ways in which people can experience the same thing. The idea of empathy may not be controversial, but the best way to put empathy into practice isn’t always obvious. We museum workers are all different people with different histories, different knowledge, different friends and families, and different interests. We’re likely all imagining a different “audience” as we try to hash out how best to serve our visitors together. And no matter what we imagine, the audience that actually comes will be comprised of different people with different histories, different knowledge, different friends and families, and different interests, from us and from each other.

So I am going to have to disagree that empathy is without controversy. But I’m also going to have to throw audience out there as a problematic term. We use it all the time in museums but only with great rarity is it clear what we are talking about. Before we get to digital, before we get to empathy, before we curate anything or create any texts or other content, we need to understand for whom we are doing this, both internally (who is the audience for this program? Everyone) and externally (by talking with the people who are coming through the door). It took me all these letters to realize just now that we never talked about who the audience for these things are.

Here’s to modeling museum practice poorly,


* A short, but worthwhile, digression: the conversation that recently sent me back to thinking about Barthes was with Divya Rao Heffley at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Albright-Knox Education team took a field trip to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks back to see the museums and had some fantastic discussions with colleagues there. Divya was telling us about the project she had been working on with the Innovation Studio that was set to launch — LIGHTTIME. It’s a pretty amazing project and I encourage anyone who can get to it to make the trip. You can read about the project — and the connection to Barthes — here.

R to J, September 29, 2016


To quote you, emphasis yours (who gets to say that!):

“So I read that and thought, who says empathy isn’t controversial?”


“Okay, let me back up. I don’t know of any museums where there is a fight over whether empathy is good or bad. Most people believe empathy to be good. Museums have people working in them. Therefore, I feel pretty confident that most museum workers believe empathy to be good. BUT.”

Empathy not controversial? Maybe not the basic idea of empathy, but I think that’s when people confuse empathy with just being nice, with sympathy. And believe me, not everyone in the museum field believes that they have to be nice. But, to be fair, everyone in the museum field believes they have the best interests of the audience at heart, with two caveats: 1) whether the audience knows it or not, and 2) not necessarily the same audience others in the museum field think of. Sometimes these best interests are expressed in terms of the art and the collection, and sometimes in terms of the experience of the visitor. A Mohammed/mountain dichotomy — do you bring the art to the audience or the audience to the art?

I was just at the New York Art Book Fair, held in always-too-sultry late September at MoMA’s PS1 campus in my home borough of Queens. I’ve worked on hundreds of art books in my time at the Met, and the vast majority of them could not be more different than what I saw at the NYABF, as thousands of people pushed their way around the non-air-conditioned classrooms of a converted schoolhouse. I think of the early part of our conversation about content, and I can’t help but think I and everyone there had more in common than we did apart. We’re all interested in art, and all interested in books, we all flip through the offerings at every booth like nerds we all are. Out there, in the wild, it’s art books all the way down, and the difference between the 600-page book I typeset in 2003 in which I learned to type in Old Church Slavonic and the pamphlet-sized version of Die Hard with a yippi-ki-ay Homer Simpson inserted into the Bruce Willis character is just a location on a bookshelf. I don’t want to live in a universe where there isn’t ample room for both.

Because art books: Tyler J. Hutchison’s Die Homer, which I found and bought at the New York Art Book Fair

Which makes all these dichotomies functions of difference in practice within the museum — which might have seemed obvious, but somehow we’ve blown up our differences into universal ones. But that’s hopeful for the future. We just have to improve our practice of communicating.

Ok, stay with me here: did you ever play D&D? Remember how when you first created a character you had to have an alignment?

This isn’t what I had in mind when I thought I was Neutral Good

In real D&D, each alignment has its own dialect (called a cant). For 8-year-old me, that was mind blowing, like, hey, you old third-level-magic-user, let’s talk neutral good, if you know what I mean. (I was always drawn to Neutral Good. Still am. What alignment are you, J? [note: J later confirmed she was also Neutral Good. So we had a nice chat in Neutral Good-ese.]). It was the can’t-we-all-get-along alignment. To quote Winona in Heathers, I just want my school to be a nice place.

Our field is huge — you’re in education/interpretation; I’m in publishing, most of my career with books but now with labels, unofficially workflow, sort-of tech. You’re trained in art history, I’m not, and got into the space ark of The Met through my publishing background. I was at a Williams alumni lunch last week, and around the table were trained art historians, conservators, someone in the museum’s counsel’s office (who got in through the business side of architecture via law), and a recent grad now working in a gallery. Oh, and me. Our field is multitudes. It takes all kinds to make an RPG universe. (Sorry, “role-playing game.” Didn’t mean to get jargony.)

Yet I still find myself going back and forth on the question, is there one museum work culture, or are there several, or many? I know it’s sort of past its sell-by date, but I sometimes think of CP Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, which posited a breakdown of communication between (and this is important) highly-educated elites in the sciences and the humanities — the work was controversial and later accused by SJ Gould of actually creating the very fences, or silos as we call them today, Snow was decrying.

Culture, silos, empathy. Is it really nothing but controversial words all the way down? Do we have to just keep our mouths shut and do our work in order to get by? Digital has somehow been cast as an invading culture (much like content, see our first two letters) in the narrative of the single-culture museum, yet its hallmark isn’t bleeps and bloops but speed and audience, as if it’s audience obsession versus the excellence of the collection. Talk about false dichotomies! Still, there’s a reason states are called Red or Blue, or only very occasionally Purple. Our minds like these absolutes. Ask the Sneetches.

Because I didn’t think I could put Seuss here without copyright problems. They could be Star-Bellied Sneetches fighting, right?

Which is why I think the ability to work in gray areas is in itself a culture. Of course, this leads to its own arrogance: it’s easy to think oh, we’re the culture that believes that there doesn’t need to be a culture, which makes us meta-right, because we’re inclusionary, not exclusionary. But as often happens, the absolutist side has the strength of focus, and if they also have institutional power then fostering change into a more communicative, collaborative culture is that much harder. Look at this great chart from the recent ResponsiveOrg conference in Berkeley — it’s about org culture and not museums per se, but the key metric is power (which I think of as agency) and leverage (which I think of as authority). Without either, you’re just an instigator. I don’t like the sound of that.

From presentation by Adam Pisoni at the ResponsiveOrg conference in Berkeley, September 19, photo by Kaleem Rahman and posted on his Twitter timeline

But it’s not just “can’t we all get along?” Museums are workplaces, and curating is a face to the public. Decisions have ramifications, and workplace org decisions have knock-on effects that ultimately do end up in front of the public. There are so many potential cultural divides — digital vs print, curatorial vs interpretive, fast vs slow, and so on. But I think to even claim there are cultures is itself a culture, because many of my colleagues will say there’s really only one museum culture, and you fit into it, or you don’t.

I think of my work on digital-print hybrids, and one of the most interesting parts was watching the cultures of print and digital work together. Usually, the disagreements were about timeframes, and the level of corrections we needed to make to go into the product. My digital-side collaborator (oops, another controversial-but-shouldn’t-be word, collaboration) thought, hey, we get it done and fix it later, and I, from my print background, couldn’t help but think, no, it has to be as perfect as possible when we post it. (Yeah, I know, perfect is enemy of the good and all that.) We disagreed, which happens, and it might have harmed the product, but we never really hashed out who was right and how we were going to go about it. And that was what cost us because we didn’t have a tie-breaker. The culture was not to agree. That’s wrong.

So you and I started talking about sticky words and we end with one that asks the question: have cultures (or silos, or mindsets, or whatever) grown up around these words or are the words merely descriptive terms for something deeper in museum practice? I think back to the way you discussed jargon in your first letter:

Museum terminology is a place of acute separation. I know that every field has its jargon, and it’s well known that the use of jargon is a barrier to communication in general — even for those communicating with each other inside their own field. Museums are like every other field, with our own jargon. But when I think about how much of the conversation within the field, over the last ten years that I’ve been in museums, has been about breaking down barriers for visitors, it is striking how much the fault line between people working in museums and people visiting museums is created by terminology.

More to the point, what is it about our field that is allowing jargon to divide us? Is this different than the past, as museum work began to specialize? At The Met, a curatorial Forum formed in the Sixties in response to perceived dictatorial overreaching by then-director Thomas Hoving, and a body called the Educational Assembly formed in 1970, though whether as a counterbalance to the curators or just wanting to get in on the organizational action is lost to the mists of history and yellowing annual reports. It’s easy for non-curatorial fields to think they’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the museum, but it seems similarly easy for curators to believe that they’re being disintermediated. Have we wandered into a self-pity of cultural self-identification? Why is everybody always picking on me?

“Service” departments at museums?

I think of the times I’ve been accused of using jargon — when I was my department’s sole typesetter no one minded technical and typography terms, but as I started paying more attention to the Met’s culture, words like “staff engagement” and “empathy” and “silos” mostly got me some serious stank-eye. (Never mind “content,” as we’ve discussed.) Jargoneers are accused not of obfuscation but of using words to hide the fact that they’re not doing any actual work. Ouch.

I think we have to remember that communication takes work, and there can be a bias against talking. A workplace culture is an intentional decision. But you and I have written to each other about content and de-fanged it, at least for now. If talking is seen as subversive (why can’t we all just shut up and do our work?) isn’t that the real problem here? That we can’t communicate? We all need to agree to reach out across some divide, any divide, and bridge that space. Because talking amongst ourselves means better talking to the public. If that’s controversial, then we do have a fight on our hands.

Communicationally yours, always,


You’ve now read the last of the three installments of Sticky Words. Check us out on Twitter (Jennifer, Rob) or in the blogosphere (Jennifer, Rob) as we keep talking about those words that affect museum practice so deeply, and leave us comments here or there. Thank you from both of us to all who read, commented, and continue to inspire us!

A Series of Epistolary Romances

The second experiment by the CODE|WORDS collective

Museum Human

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Hi, I’m Robert J Weisberg. I write about the culture inside cultural orgs. I also blog as Museum Human at

A Series of Epistolary Romances

The second experiment by the CODE|WORDS collective