How can Human-Centred Design work in museums and cultural organisations?

On February 6th, 2018, posted in: different perspective by

A short interview with Merete Sanderhoff went from a review of a recent workshop to three interesting provocations. We’ll be taking a deeper look into them over the coming weeks.

In mid-November the Frankly, Green + Webb team headed to Denmark to attend the Sharing is Caring conference in Aarhus run by MMEX and Merete Sanderhoff, Digital Curator at the Statens Museum For Kunst (SMK). As part of the trip, we suggested to Merete that we could run a free “Re-thinking Digital Services in the Cultural Sector” workshop as part of SMK Open. The workshop was open to anyone working in a cultural organisation and used a mix of case studies and hands on activities to introduce tools and techniques to explore how to design more human-centred experiences. What is commonly known in our sector as being more visitor- or audience-centred.

As you’ll know, we love to share our process and insights so we planned to post a short review here, in the form of an interview with Merete and our Danish colleague Isabel Froes, looking at the experience of the workshop and what had resonated with her and the team. But it hasn’t quite worked like that…

When we came to review the transcript of the conversation we realised there were lots of interesting things about the workshop but Merete had put her finger on several key challenges we hear regularly, in cultural organisations across both the Europe and the US.

So we’re sharing the interview here but what we plan to do is use this article as a springboard to talk about some of those challenges — what it really means to be visitor focussed and data driven as knowledge based organisations with limited resources who are open and welcoming to wide and diverse audiences. We don’t pretend to have all the answers but we’ve been giving it a lot of thought and, as we share those thoughts, we’d love to hear from you too — there’s a lot of work to be done!

Isabel: So, Merete, to start off, can you give us a brief introduction to SMK Open and your role

Merete: SMK Open is a project to build infrastructure for everything digital at SMK. But SMK Open is not just about opening our collections to our audiences, but about maintaining an open dialogue, progressing experimentation and exchange across the sector.

So when FGW approached us offering to do a workshop for Danish Museum people, we thought it was a great opportunity to do this event using SMK Open as a hub, because this is what SMK Open is about — dialogue and mutual knowledge exchange.

Isabel: In our presentation we talked about our perspective of putting the audience first or in the centre, how do you think this approach fits or challenges existing strategies in the Danish cultural sector?

Merete: In many ways, this has become accepted as best practice, at least in principle, within our sector. It’s not news and it’s not controversial anymore to think like this. And that’s often where we come to a halt, because we want to embrace these principles, but sometimes we don’t know where to find the right tools or where to start. What was great about your workshop was that it provided actionable tools to start implementing this into our practice.

Isabel: And an insight into which tools should be used where and when?

Merete: Exactly. So in that way, it was very useful to have your presentation and try the tools, however briefly, during the workshop and to get a sense of what we could do to ‘walk the walk’.

We are starting a new website project and many of the scenarios that you were presenting, I think they will be very obvious to bring in when we think through user-journeys. Actually, the whole foundation of your work — that before you start prototyping and building anything go talk to the users and observe, have a dialogue and know them — is relevant.

Museums are full of super dedicated geeks who really, really love their own content. And sometimes it takes a huge effort for an art historian like me to fathom that not everybody out there is going to love this content just as much as I do. But if we think about our role in society as public institutions, funded by the public, and really recognise our public service obligation, we have to change the perspective and start with the public view and ‘how can we help you?’

The case study you presented from the Van Gogh museum , with an app that supported defined user needs, was very interesting. Users really felt their needs were met, and that the experience of visiting the museum became much more rewarding. In the end, I think this kind of scenario will also be much more gratifying for us.

Isabel: You mean that it is rewarding to know that during the visit, some exchange, for example in the shape of learning, happens? That both parties get something out of this and hopefully a good first experience brings people back?

Merete: Yes! But at the same time, I had an interesting discussion today with one of my colleagues who attended the workshop. We were talking about this aspect, that as museum people we have this desire for people to come and learn something. This is also something we tend to project (onto the visitors) — that if people respond to our work by saying that they did learn something, that we thought they should learn, we feel that’s a success. But art is complex and doesn’t necessarily have a learning ambition or a learning objective.

As a sector, we are brought up with, and feel very strongly about, that going to a museum is about learning something. However, there should also be room for going to a museum and being very confused or being ‘out of your comfort zone’. A lot of the initiatives museums are taking today are about making the museum welcoming, make you feel at home, reduce friction and so on. There is an interesting debate here can we also maintain some kind of friction and some type of discomfort in the museum visit? — that people will feel it’s ok, it’s a part of art, it is part of life.

Isabel: That’s a really interesting question — often really profound experiences happen when we feel slightly outside our comfort zone but friction and discomfort can also ruin an interaction.

Merete: Yeah and one of our really important roles is to help people feel ok about coming in to a zone where they don’t understand everything. Where they don’t feel they are expected to understand everything, but they can be themselves in a complex space and feel somehow at home there. There are expectations surrounding the museum institutions that we should really work to change.

Isabel: Going back to the workshop, what would you say were the other main takeaways?

Merete: A main point for me was that working with these tools can help me as a museum professional to gain a different perspective. There was this “Aha!” moment during the exercise where our perspective shifted. That kind of exercise takes us museum professionals out of our comfort-zone, helps us think differently about how we structure a project and achieve different outcomes. That was a great takeaway for me.

But I think there were challenges too.

Isabel: Tell me more…

Merete: I look at the kind of work FGW is doing with the Van Gogh Museum, Tate, National Gallery in London, where they have millions of visitors and really need to manage crowds, etc. I was struggling with how might a smaller institution put the approach into practice?

We have different kinds of issues to tackle here, so I was thinking about how the approach could work for smaller institutions, and I know many colleagues here in Denmark and in the wider international network share my curiosity.

Another question I see being raised by colleagues, is the degree to which we should be audience led. One of the things we often talk about here at SMK for instance, is that we have the biggest Hammershøi collection in the world, and his reputation is growing. We could easily capitalize by telling everybody ‘hey, we are the place to see Hammerhøi’. At the same time, being a ‘National’ gallery, we also have quite a deep resistance against always showing or promoting the highlights because it flattens art history terribly, deplorably. We feel strongly that we should surface the lesser known parts of our collection, for instance historical female artists and various outsiders in art history — stuff that nobody rarely cares about — because they are also part of our common history, but can be less easy to ‘sell’. Does an audience-centred approach potentially lead to a narrowing of what we talk about and represent in our museums? That’s certainly a concern I hear amongst some of my peers. Or can it help us find new ways to tackle difficult content?

Isabel: Wow. Those are two more big questions! And really important ones that, interestingly, we are hearing in the UK and USA as well. My immediate response is that we are proposing a way of analysing, understanding and responding to the challenges and opportunities around us — not a specific set of solutions.

Merete: Exactly, it is also about challenging our own ways of thinking about our own resources and what we can do with them, that’s very helpful.

Isabel: But what you’ve articulated here are three very profound questions that I think get to the heart of what we are trying to do as cultural organisations, as researchers and designers. I’d like to take this as a challenge for the FGW team to respond to more fully — perhaps in subsequent posts.

So here we are – three key questions:

  1. Does an human-centred approach potentially limit what museums can offer? Or can it helps us find new ways to tackle difficult content?
  2. How might smaller cultural organisations put the approach in to practice?
  3. Is there a role for friction and discomfort in an human-centred experience?

As we mentioned above over the next weeks we’ll be taking be sharing our thoughts on these great questions – but we’d love to hear your thoughts too.

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