While waiting to get my hands on Nina Simon’s newest book, The Art of Relevance, I enjoyed working my way through her blog, Museums 2.0. I was especially touched by a pair of posts I’d read just before Labor Day weekend: (1) a “sneak peek” of The Art of Relevance; and (2) an honest, reflective post about her vacation from 2008, in which she examines the field-wide conflict between elitism and inclusivity in the context of her experience at Yellowstone National Park. I thought about these posts while biking on the Mt. Vernon Trail that weekend because the trail’s ultra-accessibility (parking lots, paved walkways, picnic tables, etc.) makes for a crowded ride. I almost wished that everyone else would just go away so I could enjoy zipping along the trail’s curves at top speed. When I felt annoyed after navigating around joggers, walkers, other cyclists, and picnickers of all ages sprawled along the trail, I found myself reexamining my mindset in the context of Simon’s reflection:
Yellowstone…was an access dream—and my nightmare. You could drive right up to the geysers…I hated it…On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful…I get it now. I felt it at Yellowstone.”
So how can I, as an advocate for accessibility and relevance in museums and parks, reconcile my advocacy with my attitude? For parks and museums, there is value in hosting a range of people who fall at different points on a spectrum of museum literacy. In some of our studies, RK&A helps museums identify different “clusters” of visitors, understood by their ranges of prior knowledge, conceptions, and attitudes. Audience segmentation allows the museum to meet visitors “where they are,” welcoming people with all levels of museum experience; one segment is not necessarily more ideal than the other. According to theorists in educational psychology, in classrooms and beyond, peers with different levels of mastery of the same subject can help each other learn. For example, Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) refers to the difference between what someone can do on their own, and what they can do with help. So, those more comfortable with using the museum or park can actually help less experienced users who want to engage with museums to learn more than what they could learn on their own. (Not to mention, teaching someone something new causes the more experienced person to understand the subject more deeply, too.) While museums and parks are considering how to best serve different audiences, what opportunities can they create for visitors to “scaffold” for each other, stretching the value of visitors’ museum experiences beyond themselves?
As museums can facilitate opportunities for visitors to grow and learn together, evaluators can scaffold for museums’ development in understanding visitors, too. Research shows that experiential learning, much like the learning opportunities offered by many parks and museums, is a powerful tool for enhancing our empathetic abilities. After experiencing a “Yellowstone” moment, I have a better appreciation for the impulse to preserving the authenticity of place or experience I hold dear or sacred, and why we might feel reluctant to welcome people who might not only have varying amounts of experience visiting an art museum, but also have different ways of using a museum or park than you or I do. Gretchen Jennings reminds us to build our capacity for empathy by remembering “when we have felt like part of an ‘out-group,’ to savor those experiences…that show that our institutions can empathize with the concerns of their audiences.” Only two years ago, I was brand new at navigating multi-use trails; I remember what it’s like to feel like I didn’t belong on a trail that I now know well and use with ease.
Evaluators move fluidly between empathizing with multiple audiences, sharing the visitor experience with the museum in ways their staff find understandable, meaningful, and useful—stretching them just beyond the realm of what they already know about their visitors. As a new team member at RK&A, I’ve been observing my colleagues as conduits who transmit information about a museum’s audience to the museum staff who are responsible for enhancing visitors’ experiences. Evaluators fall in between the visitor and the museum, facilitating a relationship between two entities that seek to better understand the other party. That understanding can come from walking in either the museum’s or the visitor’s shoes—or, in the case of the evaluator, by wearing both.