How much do you know about Star Wars? If the answer is very little, do you have any desire to know more? Probably not? Do you find yourself cornered by people who want to explain to you WHY YOU SHOULD? Does that make you want to know more about it? No? Yeah.
Now, substitute “Star Wars” for anything else. Including the history of art or how museums function. If you don’t know a lot about it, being lectured on why it’s great and you should know about it probably isn’t penetrating your armor of ambivalence. But – if you get to experience a thing on your own, and then interact with someone who is passionate about it and willing to answer your questions, you might build an appreciation for that thing in a way you never thought possible. And that doesn’t mean you have to like it! Any and everything is a specialized field with accompanying jargon, history, controversies and insider established do’s and don’ts. Including, but not limited to, art history, museums, Start Wars and Lord of the Rings, the Batchelor franchise, Dungeons and Dragons, playing guitar, higher education, fashion and the healthcare system.
Recently I consumed the first season of a truly delightful podcast hosted by my favorite comedian, Nicole Byer, accompanied by the very funny Lauren Lapkus. It’s called Newcomers. The premise is that two people watch Star Wars for the very first time! In addition to the many bouts of giggling I was gifted by this experience, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much it resonated with my work. Star Wars is 110% one of those things that people use the language of the thing to explain the thing. Many people in the Gen X and Millenial generations learned about it through osmosis and so they never have it explained to them and never need to explain it to other people.
Listening to this unfold in real time between the hosts and their Star Wars-expert guests made it that much more obvious how polarization forms between people who like a thing and people who don’t like a thing. People who like the thing don’t necessarily think everyone else should know about it, (unless they are try-hard gatekeeping buttheads) but they also don’t know how to explain it. It creates a deep divide between people who understand and people who don’t. The divide feels impossible to breach, and so the people who don’t know about the thing choose to wear their not-knowing as a badge of honor. For example, I personally feel this way about Game of Thrones and running. I’m sure you can think of your thing. This is the space museum interpretation jobs were created to live in; the deep chasm between those with insider knowledge and those without.
What was surprising about Newcomers was the way that it perfectly played out three roles. The hosts, as the title of the series suggest, are completely new to all things Star Wars. They have an aversion to it because they’ve spent decades hearing people gush about it. They don’t like the first movie. But in addition to being hilarious and a treat for those of us who have grown up knowing words like “Mos Eisley” for absolutely no reason, the structure of the podcast demonstrates how valuable dialogue is in helping people become familiar with things that they previously felt an aversion to. Had Ms. Byer and Ms. Lapkus been asked to watch these films on their own, and then listen to podcasts, say, in which people “explained” the Star Wars universe, they would have been left with more questions than ever and learned very little. Instead, this podcast is enjoyable because they are able to engage with individuals who are passionate on the topic. It underscores how crucial the back and forth and option to ask questions and express confusion is for learning. It’s evident listening to all of the episodes that certain individuals are more gifted when it comes to interpreting and explaining than others. Some people have a hard time deconstructing their insider knowledge enough to meet the needs of those who are new to a topic. That’s why both the role of the person with the insider knowledge and the explain-er are crucial roles in this equation.
Museum Interpretation is a thing that has always existed in museums, but has only become formalized as a subset of the museum field in the past decade or so. The museum interpreter’s go-to line is, “from a visitor perspective…” Even with huge data sets and endless books on the topic, it can be nerve wracking to try and imagine the amalgam of “the visitor” when everyone comes with a different level of experience and prior knowledge. Are we sacrificing content that will interest an intermediately knowledgable viewer to appease visitors who are total newcomers? Newcomers helped me remember that not knowing anything is going to result in a worse experience for someone than re-learning for those with some familiarity. I had the experience of listening to this podcast along with two people and between the three of us we have different levels of expertise in and around different aspects of the Star Wars franchise. This helped me to assert that listening to people experience it for the first time led to deeper and more interesting discussions around a topic we were all already interested in. None of us were bored by having to listen to someone learn something for the first time.
This has interesting applications for museum interpretation and programming. Do museum audiences largely come to learn brand-new things? Or do they visit or attend a program to affirm their knowledge and interest in a topic? This isn’t a new concept for museum educators and interpreters, but the more opportunities we can provide for brand-new audiences to ask questions and explore, the more likely we are to actually attract new audiences. Panel discussions or teaming up docents on gallery talks or tours fosters that conversational environment that encourage participants to jump in. Response walls invite feedback from people without the credentials to comment on a subject. How about an even more directly influenced initiative – a museum podcast where your audience gets involved?
To back up a bit and practice what I’m preaching – what is a museum interpreter? Doesn’t the curator just know everything and write the little plaques next to the artwork and call it a day? Sometimes – yes. And sometimes, your curator, museum director, and head educator are all the same person, and you scoff at the notion of a fancy museum with a big ol’ fancy budget to support all these different fancy titles.
Sometimes those smaller museums have the absolute best interpretation because if you do everything, you don’t have the option to be out of touch from any element of the process. However, if you do have the funds to get fancy, here’s what roles probably look like:
- Curator: content and subject matter expert. The curator and their team does the bulk of the research on artists and artworks. They typically know the most, and the running joke is that they’re like that Jimmy Fallon IT guy sketch from SNL – they don’t know how to communicate with normal people about what they know. (Hi, curator friends, love you!)
- Educator: audience and Common Core expert. Educators tackle training docents and volunteers, writing school tours and creating educational programs. Educators are hard-core project managers because they serve the most physical human beings. The Educator trope is a bunch of busy bees. Educators generally boil down the curator’s content into talking points and align that content with school curricula or adult tour group interests.
- Interpreter: lives in between these two positions. They think about accessibility and meeting visitors where they are, rather than prioritizing the delivery of content. The Association for Art Museum Interpretation‘s definition is:
- Creates multiple pathways for understanding by creating an experience that equally values the visitor, the art object, and the organization’s mission.
- Encourages audiences of varying backgrounds, knowledge levels, and learning styles to make relevant connections between art, ideas, and their lived experience.
- Practices socially, intellectually, and physically accessible and inclusive interpretive strategies onsite, offsite, and online.
- Creates learning opportunities that invite visitors to shift previously held views and expectations through intentional, respectful, and often playful provocation,
- Utilizes collaboration, curiosity-driven experimentation, rigorous evaluation, reflection, and skill building, to create meaningful interpretive experiences.
Ever since I have been doing this job myself, I have realized how useful it would be to have an interpreter to help me understand how other fields work and what I’m supposed to take away from my everyday interactions just going through life. Every job has jargon and let me tell you what, I don’t get it. Every time I go to the pharmacy and I have a question? I would benefit from someone who wrote up an explanation for me at an 8th grade reading level. Same at the doctor’s office in general. Investing? Girl bye. Interpreters are the ones who recognize in their work that what you are doing is not for you, but for the people outside of your field. Fun fact: they also enact this strategy on the Netflix show you may recognize Nicole Byer from, Nailed It! The bakers are hilariously bad, but instead of being shamed, they are nice to everyone, and the professional bakers on the show lend their expertise for the benefit of the contestants and viewers at home.
I’m a professional development junkie and my bible is Museums and the Visitor Experience by John Falk, so I’m accustomed to keeping the experience of the museum-newcomer at the top of mind. But sometimes that research isn’t going to hit as hard as witnessing this type of experience unfold for someone in real time. That’s why it’s so important for us as professionals not to get hung up in our incestuous little circles! Seek experiences and information from sources outside of your field! Listen to podcasts! Watch TV! If you’re an arts professional, step out of the current of the academia to museums pipeline. If you’re a visitor, tell arts professionals what you want to see! (We know it’s Bob Ross. Be creative.) Listening to Nicole and Lauren discover things about Star Wars brought me so much joy. I want us to feel the same joy with museum audiences, instead of believing that they won’t get the content we think is important if we let them figure it out for themselves.
And like, at the end of the day, if we can pull in new audiences with a shameless appeal to the masses like a “baby Yoda,” let’s not be too afraid to start there. 🙂