Over the Transom: Why Is History Important?

Before I left my position at the Minnesota History Center leading the gallery program there, I used to get plenty of unsolicited communications “over the transom”–phone calls, comment cards and letters with praise or criticism, suggestions for exhibitions and programs we just had to do, offers to partner on a project, or requests for informational interviews were the most common. Sometimes, I would get a whole packet of love notes from students who enjoyed their field trips. Other times I got apologies from students whose teachers or chaperones felt they had been too rowdy during a visit.

Because I think museums have a deep responsibility to serve the public with respect, I always tried to follow up as best I could. One thing I experienced over and over again was how surprised a messenger was that I took the time to reply, which made me realize how many people who reach out to museums expect to be rebuffed.

Sure, a few of the calls, comments and suggestions were pretty far out. However they went, more often than not, the exchange was limited to one message and one reply or a brief conversation.

But, occasionally, these incoming messages from complete strangers led to review and revision of exhibit content, a change in program direction, meaningful phone calls and face-to-face meetings, extended relationships, and even major initiatives.

Over time, I came to understand that the efforts of these strangers were a gift it was my privilege to receive, even in those instances when reading or hearing what the messenger needed to express was humbling and painful to me. When we are prepared to listen, messages over the transom from strangers help museum professionals stay grounded and focused on what really matters.

One of these exchanges stands out for me. Maybe it’s because it happened fairly recently, but I also think it’s because the questions of a 7th grader made caused me to revisit my career and, by extension, my sense of purpose. It also made me think about how I could explain something so meaningful and important to me to a kid.

 

[Received as a letter by mail.]

September 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Dan Spock,

My name is Jay M___. I am a 7th grade student at Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. We are trying to decide why it is important to learn history.

Two ideas we discussed are:

  1. History helps us understand what it was like before we were born.
  2. History helps us understand past and present culture.

We are writing to people who Mr. M_____ thinks need to know history to do their jobs. I have two questions for you:

  1. Why is history important?
  2. How do you use history to do your job?

I hope you are able to respond to this letter, but I understand if you are not.

Sincerely,

Jay M___

 

[Sent as a letter by mail.]

September 29, 2016

Dear Jay,

Thank you for your thoughtful questions about history! You can probably imagine that I LOVE history and I’m happy to tell you why. I’ll start with a story about my dog.

I had a wonderful dog named Milo who died a few years ago. He was a good boy and did everything you would want a dog to do. He would fetch sticks, point at rabbits, bark when somebody came to the house, did some cool tricks and was always friendly and kind to me and everyone he met. Still, there were times when he could not resist doing something he wasn’t supposed to, like stealing food off the table, or sleeping on the couch. If I got upset, you could tell he felt bad about it, but if he had the chance to do it, he would do it all over again. The thing is, he could never really remember anything after a minute or two. And that’s OK — for a dog.

There are people who can’t remember anything after it happens, but it isn’t normal like it is for a dog. Most of us will know someone like this someday. When a person can’t remember things, they can’t take care of themselves, work with other people, can’t make decisions or plan for the future. They don’t know who they are or where they are going. They can only react to things in the moment. You need memory to understand yourself and the people around you who influence your life. When you get older, the memories of things that have happened to you become a source of wisdom for making good choices, that experience guides you and grows through your entire life because you keep it in your memory. When you lose your memory, you become helpless. It is a disaster for you and everyone who knows you. The word for it is dementia.

Now think about people living together in your family, in your neighborhood, in your country, in your world. History is the memory of all those people put together. It gets saved on paper, digitally, or as places and other things so we can learn from other people’s experiences, even when we don’t have that story in our own life. This is a gift that gives us amazing advantages. When we learn history, it helps us understand others, where we have come from, and helps us make smart choices about where to go in the future. Without history, our communities, our country, become like my dog or someone who lost their memory. Without history, we just react to things in the moment because we can’t understand what is happening or why. Without history, we can’t learn from the past. The worst part is that when people don’t know history, they can misunderstand people who have different values, cultures, life experiences and histories. Terrible mistakes like war, prejudice and violence are usually caused when people don’t understand the history of other people or don’t know their own history.

In America, we are fortunate that we get to vote for the people who will make important decisions that will change our lives. When we know history, it helps us choose leaders who are wise. When our leaders know history, they are much, much wiser than leaders who don’t. If you learn history, you also learn that the greatest leaders in history learned from history too. A country full of people who don’t know history is like a person without memory — and that’s a disaster! The bigger and more powerful the country is, the bigger the disaster will be if too many people don’t know their history.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Why should I learn history? It won’t help me get a job!” I think that’s pretty ridiculous. If you use your brain for making a living, history will always give you an advantage. If you are a lawyer, knowing the history of law will make you better at your job. If you are a scientist, knowing the history of science will make you better at your job. If you are a car mechanic, knowing the history of cars will make you better at your job. If you are an architect, knowing the history of architecture will make you better at your job. If you are a designer, knowing the history of design will make you better at your job. If you are a musician, knowing the history of music will make you better at your job. If you are a coach, knowing the history of your sport will make you a better coach.

When I was a kid, I got interested in history by getting books out of the library that had a lot of pictures in them or by visiting old historic places where it felt like traveling back in time. When I read books, my favorites were biographies because I liked the stories of other people. It was especially cool when the biographies talked about someone famous when they were just a kid. My parents and grandparents also told me lots of stories about my family and I loved to hear about what they did in the past. I would think about somebody in the past and try to imagine what it was like for them. One important thing I learned was that everybody has a difficult time at some point in their life. I learned that you can make terrible choices, fail in front of everybody, but still bounce back. That meant a lot to me, because sometimes I had a hard time in school. When I was in 7th Grade, I already liked history, but I didn’t think I’d ever work in a history museum. I thought I would be a cartoonist! I spent a lot of my spare time drawing cartoons with my friends. When I went to college, I got my degree in art. I got my first job after college as graphic designer in a children’s museum. I found out that I liked to design museum exhibits even more than I liked drawing cartoons. I didn’t work in a history museum until I was pretty old — almost 40 — so it took awhile, but my interest in history really paid off. Now I get to run one of the coolest history museums ever.

When I think about running a history museum, I try to remember the things that interested me as a kid. For me, the facts and dates aren’t the most important part. For me, the stories of real people are the thing I feel are the most meaningful, that most people coming to the museum can relate to. I like to think about my museum being a big house of memories and stories for everyone to share.

Good luck Jay! It was really fun for me to figure out how to answer your questions.

Best,

Dan Spock, Director, Minnesota History Center Museum

 

[Received as an email.]

From: Jonathan M______

Date: Jun 9, 2017 3:15 PM

Subject: An Overdue Word of Gratitude

To: Dan Spock

Dear Mr. Spock,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to my student’s questions at the beginning of the school year. I very much appreciate you taking some time from your busy schedule to answer Jay’s questions.

Of all of the letters I received, yours resonated the most with my students and was one of a handful I plan to re-read to future classes (with your permission, of course). Speaking of which, I hope to bring future classes by the MN History Center next year!

Your response–along with the responses of 43 professors, politicians, non-profit leaders, writers, and others–helped provide a multitude of reasons for my students to actually care about history. Further, your explanation of how you use history to inform your own work helped my students appreciate the real-life applications of the class content.

On the final day of class, my students were tasked with providing their own answer to the question of why history is important. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “History is important because it teaches us about the past and why things happen or why something is like it is. And it also teaches us to respect the older generations that went through harder things to create our country, and our society.”
  • “History is important because it helps you understand why people behave in the way that they do. It helps us understand more about our own Hmong and Karen cultures, too”
  • “History is important because we can learn from our mistakes and we are able to find out why things happen in this world. And we can really understand someone’s background more if we go back through time to see what they’ve been through.”
  • “Learning history is important because understanding history allows us to make decisions that positively affect people.”

As educators, we are constantly seeking ways to engage our students in a meaningful way with our content area. Your letter helped me do just that.

With gratitude,

Jon

 

 

Exploring the Emotional Landscape of Risk and Failure

The following remarks were delivered in October 2016 at the invitation of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. The occasion was a fascinating symposium on the subjects of risk and failure bringing together museum professionals, academics, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. With the benefit of hindsight, I had a lot on my mind at this point in time: a growing sense of unease about the direction of the 2016 presidential election (the election was just days away), and a dawning realization that it might be time for a major change in the direction of my career. The zeitgeist shows in the thinking, I only hope it still proves relevant today.

I’m going to start with a story. A few decades ago I was recruited as a team leader to create something new — a museum of creativity. It was supposed to be a museum devoted to the creative process rather than the products of creativity.

The supreme irony of this effort is that it failed. Yes, we utterly failed to create a museum of creativity.

With the benefit of hindsight, this was a transformational experience. I could not know it then, but our complete failure would inform my professional perspective for the rest of my career.

For one thing, this brief detour provided me with a crash course in creativity theory. We studied history, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, anthropology, all manner of -ologies, in a desperate attempt to glean enough insight to render “the process” into meaningful and engaging museum exhibitions.

As the project went on, panic set in.

It was like trying to put a pin in an amoeba. Every time we thought we had creativity nailed, it turned into something else. The struggle got so stressful, that it haunted my dreams. I had a dream one night that I had reached a creative breakthrough. The breakthrough was that we’d do exhibits on people named Fuller. Specifically, the exhibits would be on R. Buckminster Fuller and Alfred C. Fuller, who, in case you don’t know, was the man who founded the Fuller Brush Company.

After fully feeling the elation of that creative insight, I awoke to bitter reality.

After a little inspiration and a lot of perspiration, our team was finally beginning to hit its stride at the precise moment our patrons lost interest. One day, after Christmas vacation, we were all canned.

In nearly every field today, experts talk about creativity as desirable. Economies are fired by it. Needs are satisfied by it. Entire regions are desirable to live in because of it. If you run a business or an institution, you better want it, or risk running aground on the shoals of relentless change.

Still, creativity is not a commodity that you can buy. You can hire creative people, but they will require care and feeding when they fail, and attention and resources when they succeed. Just as a creative person must be resilient and resolute in their pursuit of a problem, the complex system of support behind the creative person must also be resilient and resolute. Few are actually prepared to pay the full price of creativity and its uncertain rewards.

We talk about tolerance of risk and failure in the abstract, but little attention is given to the dominant attributes of risk and failure: the emotions of fear and shame. Let’s admit that we experience risk and failure as feelings — and those feelings can be crippling. Innovation nearly always swims upstream against a steady current of internal and external anxiety. Better get an appetite for ambiguity, or get out while there’s still time.

At the Museum of Creativity, one approach we took was to develop exhibits that were case studies. One of these cases was the Wright Brothers.

Superficially, you might think of them as risk-takers. After all, who in the world would trust their lives to a primitive flying machine?

But actually their breakthrough was due to a creative response to risk. While other powered flight pioneers like Santos-Dumont and Langley tried to hurl their machines into the air, the obscure bicycle mechanics put most of their focus on what they would do once they got into the air.

They’d watched their source of inspiration, Otto Lilienthal, plunge to his death in a glider, and they were anxious not to follow his example.

Their successful problem solving approach attacked the source of their anxieties head on. The secret to powered flight wasn’t merely how to get a technology off the ground, but how the hell you could control the thing once you got up there so you wouldn’t get killed.

Still, the native caution of the Wright brothers almost proved to be their undoing. They were so suspicious of others infringing on their patent, that for years after achieving flight, they refused to demonstrate their machine outside of the closest circle of trusted associates.

The Wright’s claims were widely derided by skeptics around the world. It took them five years of fruitless and stubborn struggle before they finally traded off their anxieties and demonstrated their aircraft to the public. The acclaim that followed was deserved, but in the meantime others had seized the limelight. Claims of who was first to fly have been contested ever since.

What we have in the Wright’s example is two approaches to risk, one productive and the other not. One channels anxiety towards curiosity, persistence and solutions, the other allows anxiety to block progress, recognition and results. Innovation can fail at any one of those stages.

When we look at today’s technology, one important way we work through our anxieties is through science fiction. Science fiction typically extrapolates from some worrying aspect of our contemporary society and imagines how that might be elaborated when taken to the extreme. Orwell looked at the rise of Totalitarianism around him and imagined Big Brother in a not-so-distant future.

Now Big Brother has arrived.

But what Orwell never anticipated was that our natural desire–our feelings–for human connection and community would compel us to sign up for Big Brother voluntarily.

I did. I’m sure most of you did too.

What Orwell also couldn’t imagine is that the natural restiveness of human beings would produce a vast, international subculture of renegade hackers and leakers, bitcoin, insurgent recruiting and The Dark Web.

He couldn’t imagine that the totality of available personal data would be scattered across an vast cloud of vulnerable server farms, that the power of Big Brother would be dispersed, pluralized, growing like a mold in the back of the fridge rather than held in the iron fist of one autocrat.

We now live in a world where all can be watched, and all can be watchers. As they used to say in high school, it’s all on your permanent record. Big Brother, it turns out, is all of us together.

What’s interesting to me is, not so much the rise of the surveillance aspect of the information society, but rather the incredibly blithe assessment of personal risk by nearly everybody who joins in.

We feel we need the purchasing power and legitimacy of credit and debit cards, the social cohesion and belonging of Facebook and Twitter, the convenience of Amazon, smartphones, the 24-hour news cycle, and online porn. And we need these things more than we need privacy.

Psychologists have noted that humans are generally terrible at accurately assessing risk. And this has everything to do with how we process fear. Terrorists and demagogues have made an art of this. We are distracted by the spectacular and limited act of violence, while the pot billions of us live in is slowly brought to a boil by global climate change.

Fear is a perfectly natural response to certain kinds of external threats. We are told that our fear response is an ancient adaptation for survival. It is prehuman and subcognitive, lodged deep in the animal part of our brains.

We experience fear before we are even consciously aware of it or put a name on it.

The emotion of fear cascades first from our amygdala, then through our central nervous system. and then our entire body. Our heart and respiratory rates climb. We grit our teeth. Our throat swallows hard. We flush and break out in a sweat. Our guts churn. The sensation overrides our rational faculties at first. We become aggressive or defensive, run away, or are simply paralyzed.

All of this is perfectly appropriate if you spend your days eluding sabretooth tigers. But this survival gear is hardwired into us every day, when we go to work in our office cubicles, conference rooms and executive suites. As creatures, these responses have evolved to become a critical part of our social interactions with other people. We experience fluctuating anxiety all day long to such an extent, that we are scarcely aware of it.

In my experience, it is not the rational assessment of risk or a considered aversion to failure that stops creativity cold.

Instead, it is the prevalence of fear in our response to the challenges creativity represents. When arousal becomes fear, it has the power to blot out curiosity, critical thinking, introspection, persistence, and resiliency…in short, all of the tools necessary for creative problem solving. Fear will always be with us. Fear can convert anticipation of success into a dread of public shame for failing. It is a part of being human. The question is, can fear be managed? Does it have to dominate our thinking, particularly when we seek to create and foster an environment in which creativity thrives?

Can we develop the insight necessary to identify and interrogate our anxieties so we can channel them towards the appropriate problems and problem solving strategies? Can we lean into anxiety instead of running away?

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that a flow state occurs in a groove of deep concentration between anxiety and boredom. When our challenge is suited to our ability, we are not overwhelmed, nor do we find it tedious. We can concentrate, solve problems and be productive.  Sheer terror might exist on the end of a continuum beginning with attention, arousal and anxiety, but, at some point, for certain people, arousal becomes deep curiosity rather than fear. For some people failure becomes an engine for renewed curiosity, persistence and resiliency rather than shame and discouragement.

These people have the capacity for creativity.

I don’t think it’s a matter of vanquishing fear. Instead, I think we can look at anxiety as a perfectly natural–if not rational–alert system. The alert is trying to tell us something. It’s trying to tell us that, if we listen to it, and interrogate it, we just might learn something new. It might teach us something in the way of self-knowledge or something about the external world. It might teach us to pay attention to something we missed until that point in time.

Educator and philosopher John Dewey believed that learning was a byproduct of perplexity. When we encounter something new, it unsettles what we believe we know, or believe is true. Perplexity can feel like a threat. Many reflexively react to perplexity with resistance, hostility or denial.

When we look at museums today, we can talk about innovation, but in doing so we have to acknowledge something deep in the mindset of museums that makes innovation incredibly difficult.

In truth, the mission of every museum is a version of the Chicago Police Department motto: We Serve And Protect. As a cultural form, museums are designed to protect assets, and to provide cultural continuity. In this sense, our instincts are profoundly conservative. We love policies and resort to them in periods of uncertainty. Our fear that assets might be destroyed or that continuity might be disrupted drives our decisions far more than we consciously realize.

Why should this be so?

It’s not that we simply fear change. It is rather that we fear the loss that change represents. We can sense that creative destruction destroys the past. This engenders grieving for what is lost and nobody grieves loss more than museums.

Bob Dylan once said, “museums are cemeteries.” This might be unfair if it was just intended to describe a repository of dead things.

But another way of looking at this is the consolation the cemetery provides for those who are mourning. Museums in particular are a hedge against the obliteration of human meaning making, striving and achievement by the ravages of time. Because our inclination is to hold on to so much, there is terrific anxiety about what we might lose.

In museums, we grapple with technology in ways that betray our ambivalence towards technology’s change power.

We worry: Will it irrevocably change our relationship with the authentic object? Or with the public? Will it distract people from the important things? Will it undermine our authority? Will someone poke a hole in an artifact with a selfie stick? What about copyright infringement? Will people learn anything? What about, what about..?

Well, this conversation is already moving on without museums. We are living in the Anthropocene Age. This means that no matter who or what you are, you are living on a planet that has been irrevocably designed and changed by humans. A few years ago, an exhibit called Massive Change posed the question this way: Now that we can do anything, what will we do?

Fear of new technology is often revealed in the early forms it takes. An automobile first appears as a horseless wagon. A television appears in our living room disguised as a credenza. These nostalgic echoes give us consoling, psychic space for the new. It might take a generation or two before the technology is allowed to be what is really is in our lives. Until that time, technology masquerades as the familiar, a Trojan horse for change.

When it comes to technology in museums, we have to accept that it is here to stay. We have to push away our inclinations, driven by anxiety, to seek consolation in the familiar, to tack technology on as a glowing screen version of the hoary old object labels and audio tours. Or, conversely, to fall for its seductive siren song without really listening to our anxieties.

There is more computing power in my pocket right now than there was in the entire world I was born into 57 years ago. Think about what that means and ask whether an extended object ID label is a creative use of that technology in museums.

We forget that museums are themselves something relatively new. They have only become ubiquitous in the last century or so. In spite of their outward gravitas, there is no guarantee that they’ll be any more durable than department stores or newspapers. We might ask, what have they been masquerading as? What are they a Trojan horse for?

There is no turning back. As the slow-moving tortoises of the cultural universe, museums must ask: what is our niche? If we are eager to move forward, what will be give up? What can we destroy? Will that destruction be intentional or unwitting? Can we risk it? Can we see the promises ahead? Who are the leaders prepared to take the necessary risks? Can we support them in failure as well as in success? Can we bear the public shame of failure as a lesson for redoubling effort? Can we see our anxieties as avenues for exploration rather than as threats to be avoided at all costs?

Time will tell.

Museums, Romance and the Elusive Attentions of the Museum-goer

Last summer, I was drawn into an interesting conversation around a session for the 2017 American Association of Museum’s annual meeting. The session, initiated by Richard Rabinowitz, sought to “…critique the notion of attentiveness that has been an unspoken criterion for museum exhibits and programs…[to} explore whether the techniques developed by interpretive designers in the past generation— narrative, dialogue, interaction, simulation, role-playing, and other modes of experiential learning—can successfully meet the challenge of new cognitive styles brought by new and more diverse audiences…[and to] weigh in on whether museums need to and can develop new techniques, perhaps employing social media and multiple learning paths, and thereby redefine what we mean by an attentive audience.” In short, the question could be distilled this way: Is there an ubiquitous attention deficit disorder in the digital information age which has profoundly changed the way museum-goers learn? And, if so, does this demand a change in museum practice?

In the discussion, fellow panelist Alice Parman drew our attention to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead who theorized (way back in 1929) that all learning progresses through three stages, the first being romance in which the learner’s interest is aroused by some life experience igniting a curiosity and passion for further and deeper learning. Alice’s contention is that museums are particularly well adapted for inspiring this romantic stage of learning. I completely agree, and what follows are the remarks I delivered at the session elaborating on Alice’s timely reminder.

There is always a tension between what people find intriguing (or distracting) in the present and a more universal set of human wants and needs. In the moment, it can be hard to pull them apart. We can talk about what we perceive as new, but let’s also remember what is old. Museums have always been about seduction and we have to admit that our success as museum-makers in this regard has always been limited.

Think about a date with a cold, emotionally distant and didactic boor who only wants to talk about himself. Is that the guy you want a relationship with? Sure, some people wind up marrying that guy because they see the good in him, like how Elizabeth managed to warm up to Mr. Darcy. But that courtship took a long, long time to develop, a luxury most museums can’t afford.

There have always been a large number of prospective lovers who have resisted the amorous advances of museums. I do believe we need to go to charm school as a part of our practice. We need to be lovable or risk being loveless. Otherwise, who will care for us when we are old?

All great romances are built on reciprocity. Museum-goers love museums when museums show love in return. Ultimately, it’s a symbiotic relationship. In this culture and at this time, if we are to fall in love, the primary precondition is that we must be free to choose our lover. By the same standard, all the knowledge and good intentions in the world cannot cause a person to learn in the museum because the superpower of the museum is that the learner is completely free to take it or leave it.

How about we think of museum-going as a playful activity? Like loving someone or loving what you do? Courtship is a series of playful encounters when the process captures your imagination. It involves empathy, a fundamental imaginative process where we seek to understand what it is like to be another, making room for another in the space of your life. Museums might court their patrons as assiduously as people court each other.

Piaget defined play by two critical attributes: voluntary participation and doing it for its own sake: for pleasure. By this definition, it’s a misconception that play is the opposite of seriousness. This duality is rooted in a kind of secular Calvinism, in other words, an utterly unnecessary glorification of suffering. If we take Piaget at his word, a biologist who is motivated by sheer curiosity about the natural world, is playing. The historian who revels in detective work as they try to imagine and recreate the past by piecing together the scraps of evidence, is playing. The artist or writer who is absorbed in introspection and a desire to express what they find, is playing. It is not an accident of language that we “play” music or go to the theater to see “plays.” And this is something very serious.

If play has an antonym, it is not seriousness. The opposite of play is drudgery. In other words: doing shit because you have to, instead of doing it because you want to.

This helps explain why museums undercut their missions when they design approaches that feel obligatory, where museum-goers feel trapped, lectured at, hectored, or even shamed or scolded. Who wants to have dinner with a boor? Even a whiff of coercion is enough to end a romantic encounter. It’s a buzzkill. And the same goes for museums.

It’s useful to unpack pleasure while we’re at it, since pleasure is so often conflated with frivolity. Pleasure isn’t always something naughty or frivolous, nor is it simple. We humans experience pleasure in an awesome variety of ways, many of which can be pretty specific to us as individuals. Pleasure is terribly complicated. Sometimes we are attracted to a romance that is dangerous, unsettling, rationally inexplicable. On reflection, it becomes obvious that pleasure isn’t limited to warm-and-fuzzy sensations. Shakespeare’s most popular plays are tragedies, but 500 years later many of us still pay good money to have our feelings stirred by their moral dilemmas and ambiguities. Pleasure is often tinged with anxiety, wonder, sadness, astonishment, grieving or the realization of a new insight. Isn’t that strange and wonderful?

So let’s unpack the new, the current predicament we find ourselves in.

Are museums just a bunch of losers? Failures at romance? Wallflowers at the dance? Is anyone paying attention? Is the thrill gone? Does everyone have their noses stuck in the tiny screens on the supercomputers they carry around in their pockets to the exclusion of all else? Have attention spans grown too weensy for anyone to truly appreciate what we (museums) have to offer?

It is true that we live in a time of many distractions, but by most measures museums are still busy places. In 2017, just try getting a walk-up ticket at the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the Yayoi Kusama show at the Hirshorn.

As museum-makers, we forget that we serve human beings beyond the narrow confines of the prefrontal cortex. I’d like to pose some rhetorical questions that could help us focus on the things that help museum-goers focus.

Museums are a medium that can encompass every medium known to humankind. Did we think about which media delivery vehicle might optimize the experiences of a diversity of museum-goers? Did we consider a wow? Or two or three? If variety is the spice of life, museums are part of that variety. Here’s a t-shirt analogy: Did we give people a range of things to look at from XL down to XS? Did we go beyond objects and labels to think about the settings and the tangible and physical ways to interact? If we hoped people would linger, did we give them a place to sit down? Did we provide the physical and psychological conditions conducive to attentiveness? Did we reward attentiveness?

Did we show things that have stories? Not a thesis, but drawing some perceptible and compelling connection to the lives of our fellow human beings? Were these people from all walks of life? Did we give consideration to the variety of people who come and pick stories that might resonate for many rather than for a select few? Do we think about the stories museum-goers bring with them and might later tell about their experiences with us? Did we think about who museum-goers are today and are likely to be in the future?

Did we stage things as a kind of drama where museum-goers participate, not merely as audience members, but as roleplayers? Was there an opportunity afforded to express oneself? Or did we stop at thinking only about what we wanted to express?

Did we study methodically by watching and listening to our guests? Did we honor what we learned from them and find a way to respond? Did this encounter change us as practitioners?

Did we recognize the social nature of museum-going and find ways to reinforce and reward the natural desire to see, talk, share, and learn with others?

Curiosity begins as a feeling. Inspiration is a feeling. Romance begins as a feeling. Did we reach people emotionally as well as cognitively? Did we plan and design for that? Did we think about what might cause someone to stop and pay attention? Did we try to inspire curiosity, or did we merely throw stuff out there with no thought to the potential impact?

Museums are better at prompting curiosity than satisfying it. Were we disciplined label writers? Did we anticipate the questions visitors are most likely to have?  Did we pile on too much written information with labels starting above the head and nattering on below the knees? Did we write for our colleagues rather than for our guests, using insider language to exclude, knowingly or unwittingly, a broader swath of readers? Did we bury the lead, relegating the most interesting tidbit to the fourth paragraph? Did we acknowledge the mystery inherent in every discipline?

Did we buy that app just to pile on more information in addition to the info on the wall labels?

Our date might appreciate it if we buy them a pizza. It could get a little awkward if you buy more than your date can eat. But we never expect a date to consume the entire pizza with one mouthful, right?

If any of these questions are unfamiliar to the museum planners among us, I would suggest that we haven’t done everything we could to attract attention and generate romance.

Attention is a form of energy. We wake up each day with a fund of it, and we begin spending down that fund the moment we open our eyes. It is human nature that this fund is limited and must be restored. We have known for over a century that museums can be exhausting. It takes a lot of strength and endurance to love a museum.

We can squander energy on so many irrelevant and irritating things.

We have to be mindful not to beat the energy out of people. Our mission is to sustain the delight and playfulness inherent in the relationship.

Yes, romance can be stoked by the grand gesture, but it is also nurtured by a thousand small considerations; empathetic acknowledgements of our partner in the affair. Courtship means conceding some of our own prerogatives to show we care about someone other than ourselves. A little empathy. Is that so hard?

When a person invests their energy with us, it is an expression of romantic hope. People don’t very often come to museums closed to the experience any more than we go on a date with someone appealing without anticipation. The museum-goer is already in a receptive frame of mind. They tell us that by showing up. With all the competing distractions, they picked us! Wow! Imagine that.

Museum-goers want to fall in love with us. They really do. They want to laugh and cry, reflect on their lives, raise children with us and grow old together. Let’s not leave them looking for love in all the wrong places.