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Matters of Experience
Matters of Experience is a podcast about the creativity, innovation, and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Each week Abby and Brenda dig into the who, how, so what and why of exhibitions, branded experiences, events, spectaculars, and all the crazy things designers and creatives are putting out there for people who just can’t get enough.

Recent episodes

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Guest Giovanni Zaccariello
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
The way we consume is changing. It started with technology helping us buy whatever we want, wherever we are, with a simple click of a button. And it’s now affected the idea of the retail store’s purpose. We’re thrilled to be joined by Giovanni Zaccariello, Senior Vice President of Global Visual Experience at Coach, to talk technology, innovation, and how to start leveraging experiences to reinvent retail.
Inspired by the creative world of visual experience at a young age, Giovanni Zaccariello has spent over 20 years in the fashion industry revolutionizing consumer experiences. Born in Italy and graduating from Oxford with a 1st Class Honors Master’s Degree in Business & Branding, Giovanni has traveled the world residing in the UK before moving to Holland and Hong Kong for various professional opportunities. In 2014, after 4 years in Hong Kong, Giovanni relocated to New York to lead the Global Visual Merchandising team. His level of responsibilities have consistently increased and most recently, he stepped into a new role as Senior Vice President, Global Visual Experience where he currently leads Visual Merchandising, 3D Creative Studio (windows, showrooms, pop-ups), Brand Events (including the design & production of the fashion shows) & and most recently the Digital Experience Team. Alongside his current professional role, Giovanni is an avid exercise enthusiast – passionate about health and fitness he spends time each day training and enjoying the finest coffee shops in New York City – a place with which he has fallen in love and calls his forever home.

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on the show, we’re focusing on retail experiences, how we consume stories at retail, the shift to Web3, and what constitutes a successful brand experience.


It’s not an original thought, but worth restating that the way we consume is changing. It started with technology helping us buy whatever we want, wherever we are, with a simple click of a button. And it’s now affected the idea of the retail store’s purpose. Things have changed and are changing. They now have to be more than a place to transact, but they need to start leveraging experiences to customers rather than products. Retail strategies are also being shaped by a new generation of customers who shop in a very different way to earlier generations, and we appreciate that technology is a differentiator, not a constraint.


So this group really challenges us to create these unique, immersive moments that include technology as a driver. So, with this in mind, I’m excited to introduce our guest on this journey, Giovanni Zaccariello, who is the senior vice president of Global Visual Experience at Coach. Born in Italy, he’s worked around the globe before landing here in the Big Apple. He currently leads visual merchandising, 3D creative studio, brand events, and, most recently, the Digital Experience Team at Coach. Gio, welcome to the show.


Gio: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you today.


Brenda: Well, we’re very excited to have you and Gio; I’m going to kick start by mentioning the very interesting journey that has led you here today. Could you tell us the path that you followed to get here? And what are some of the obstacles that you had to overcome?


Gio: Yeah, so I think, as you mentioned, originally Italian, from my long name and surname, which you did really well pronouncing by the way, and really lived across, first Oxford, where I went to university, then London in the UK, Holland. And then I really took a chance in my career and I joined Coach, which I’m very happy about, and moved to Hong Kong. And now I’ve been in New York for over six years. And what I think all of these experiences have in common is the idea that you know, we do live in one world, and this idea of globalization, it’s part of everyday life, and I think one of the obstacles has always been about, you know, kind of being an immigrant in some of those countries and really trying to understand, you know, the country, the region and really learn and get educated before you really get immersed. The beginning isn’t always easy, right, but then once you get to it, it can unleash so much creativity and so much new bonds and new friendships. So I definitely would do it all over again.


Abby: The future of retail includes embracing ecosystems like offering free classes or workshops, so, you know, we see a number of brands doing this. It’s not purely about selling the products anymore. You know, I think the future of retail will probably all be experiential. I want to put my neck out and say that, it will all be the experience economy, so, what does a consumer want to feel when they walk into a store in general Gio, and how are stores changing to meet consumers needs?


Gio: Yeah, I think this is kind of like a $1,000,000 question and it’s something that I think we’ve all started to think a lot more about, especially because of the pandemic. But, I think at Coach, we kind of started to have those conversations way before and I think today the statement is that stores are not just the place where there’s bags on shelves, right, because the consumers kind of learn how to buy those bags online.


So I think about my job and the creatives jobs around the world is to really create that emotional connection with the consumer. And we’re using some words in my team, you know, one of the words is hyperphysical. The physical, the way it used to be is not enough anymore, so we are calling it hyperphysical in this way that is the nature of creating immersive experiences, thinking about connecting with the consumer across the five senses, creating immersive spaces where people can hang out. They don’t just need to shop the brand, but they can consume the brand, so I don’t think one of the elements is the solution, I think it’s about this diverging of creating the full immersive space because we’ve been at home for such a long time, and now that we’re starting to go out again, we really want more.


Brenda: Because you do so much tailoring of your experiences to different locations and different cultural centers, we’re curious to know, how do you exercise certain sensitivities? I’m wondering if you could give us an example, perhaps, of how you’ve had to really understand a local culture and tailor an experience for it.


Gio: Yeah, so I think one of the way that we do it here at Coach from a creative perspective is this idea of “glocal” experiences. So it’s a mixture of like a global idea, but then with a local touch. For example, in the past three years, we’ve been opening a few digital stores around the world where the customer can be fully immersed into the brand ethos. And what we’ve been doing is, as much as the design of the store is unified across the globe, the content of the screen is actually made in partnership with the local artist. Not even of the actual country, but of the city where the story is in, or the actual town where the story is in, and we are giving the artists a little bit of a free range. We’re just saying, okay, this is some of the Coach codes, this is, those are the value of the brand, and really express yourself through our Coach stores and I think we’ve seen a huge resonance.


We also partner with a lot of local hospitality vendors. If I think about what we did in Singapore, for example, last year with the bagel shop, or even like the way we are bringing to life craft and heritage around the world, we love to partner with artists to create motifs in different artwork on the bag. We have a program called Coach Create in the majority of our stores globally. We invite artists into stores to support customization, and this has been very, very, very, very successful. We also have incredible talent in the region, within my team, and within the larger Coach ecosystem, so, we really work with them closely before we go to execute an idea.


Also, we do some campaigns that are incredibly local, and they are only local, if I think about Ishii, the way we also bring our efforts around Lunar New Year. This is our very first time that we have launched a Diwali campaign in India. We have used our incredible Coach mascot Rexy, the Coach dino, and we partner with a local artist to create and celebrate the Festival of Lights, which is Diwali. And we have had incredible success. We are not going in and kind of trying to take over the brand or the culture, but really partnering with local ambassadors.


Abby: Talking about your Diwali activation, you activated, you know, throughout the store, the windows, the packaging, I know there was a photo moment, and digitally, you have the AR game. Where does that seed of the idea originate from? Tell us some of the ingredients that need to be present to make a successful activation.


Gio: Yeah, so I think, you know, it all starts with the Coach India team coming to us just saying, hey, we think we have a big idea here. We really want to celebrate the Festival of Lights this year. We really wanted to go a little bit bigger to really create an immersive space, an incredible experience. Once that brief was sent over, I think, you know, my team huddled and we kind of knew, kind of like, that we wanted to bring Rexy to life, but what was missing was a little bit of an understanding of the culture and what Diwali really meant.


Of course, we know it from our own perspective, but we did a little bit of a deep dive with the Coach India team, and then from there, the creative team really goes, goes wild usually, right, and creates a lot of different options that we were able to bring to life. And I’m happy that we were able not only to do a physical installation, but through the augmented reality game that we did, everybody around India, but also around the world, was able to celebrate Festival of Lights.


Abby: How do you work with vendors, like who’s creative on your team, and when do you go outside?


Gio: Most of the creative that you see through windows, pop-ups, installations, it’s done internally at Coach. What we do externally is production, so we have really strong production teams around the world across North America, China, and Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, you name it, Europe, London. So those are the teams that kind of take the idea and then go and do some bidding with some of the vendors from a production standpoint.


Due to the number of activations, we have started to actually go out and pitch to some agencies, and I think that’s kind of like what the future holds for us, to even challenge the brand a little bit and really create a little bit more innovation and creativity at the forefront. But most of the creative is done in-house.


We have a very small but very talented team here in New York, and the team is incredibly diverse. Their background is diverse. They come from all around the world and they’re able to really understand what each region really needs, and I think so far has been incredibly successful.


Brenda: Gio, this question is a bit of a build off of what you were talking about. What is it that you and your team do to always put yourself in an innovative mindset?


Gio: Yeah, there’s one piece that we say when we start a new season, a new idea, we say no idea is a bad idea. And I think when we kind of start brainstorming, you know, no ideas come from the top. You know, we work really closely together, but starting the conversation with we are not going to do something that we have already done. We’re not going to do something that someone else has already done. We really want to come up with something that feels a little bit new and different. And then the other thing that I keep saying a lot to the team is, if you don’t feel uncomfortable about this project, that means you’re doing the same thing again,  right? So you really need to feel like you’re taking a risk. You’re really pushing the barriers because that’s when you’re doing something new and that’s when you can really touch the hearts and minds of the consumers. Consumers don’t want to see the same thing twice, right. Also, I think as a leader, I get really bored of doing the same thing twice. And I think that mindset has trickled down to the organization, to the team, not just the creative team, even the production. The way we produce needs to change, the way we embed technology and digital and AI into the conversations and to the projects that we have, the way we embed events, entertainment, hospitality, pop culture.


So we really start with a blank slate every single time. One of the other things, as well, that we talk a lot about at Coach is test and learn mentality, right? Some ideas are big, some ideas are small, but testing is fundamental, and learning from either success or failure before we start the next project is fundamental, so we do a lot of regroups internally around what did we learn, what went well, what can we do better?


Brenda: One of the things that really stuck in my mind was when you talked about a position of discomfort within the creative team. Now, Abby and I work with a lot of creative teams and a lot of creative individuals, and it is something that I think we might agree is really necessary, and I’m just curious what it is that you do that really fosters creativity and innovation while putting creatives in a position where they don’t know what’s going to happen.


Gio: I guess as a leader and a creative thinker, I guess I’m never too specific about the creative. I do share with them a lot of research, a lot of swipes. I’m online all the time, really trying to read a lot, watch seminars, literally a social media fanatic, to really understand what’s happening in the world. And when that happens with your team, you start seeing trends, right? You start understanding, okay, this is where the world is going. This is what the Gen Z are reacting to. And I think having a dialog with like-minded creatives, like me, even in New York, I mean, I made a lot of friends through this business and really sharing that with my team versus just saying I want you to create a Rexy for Diwali.


Right? And I think that sparks imagination because they think they have an opportunity to make great things. And I think when that becomes part of the culture, I think not only you have a great creative as an output, but you also have an inspired team that wants to continue to do greater and better things every day.


Abby: Yeah, I think it’s a lot about the leader and feeling comfortable being uncomfortable and also wanting to constantly challenge yourself creatively. Because I’ve had people join our creative teams and at first they’re like, whoa, we’re doing like, what are we doing? Where are we going? And it’s about really just letting them know that failure is great. We learn from failure. It’s important. True innovation only comes from stumbling and falling time and time and time again. So it sounds like you also imbue that in the team that works with you and that’s their fuel as well. You know, like when you’re with other people who feel the same way, you can’t help but bubble with inspiration and ideas. And I really feel like amazing things, magical things happen that one person didn’t create. I think it’s really key in a team to have everybody contributing to make that experience even better than it could have been.


Gio: I love it. If I can give you an example of this, exactly what you said, so last year was challenging, right? Every region was in a different part of coming out of the pandemic. We had this holiday campaign with animals going through the snow, and we ended up calling it Give a Little Love, and they were literally finding hearts around New York City, and then you share love with friends, family, loved ones. And two weeks before we launched a game, I just said to the team, those animals are so cute. What if we make them into NFTs. Two weeks before the launch.


Abby: I bet they loved you. They were like, oh yeah, Gio, no problem!


Brenda: Thanks Gio! No problem!


Gio: Right? So rallied a lot of individuals that were totally obsessed with this project, and we launched it on time. We crashed the Coach.com website, and we sold out within 2 seconds.


Abby: Wow.


Brenda: It’s amazing.


Gio: So you can make the impossible possible if you have a vision, but also if you have the team to come on that vision with you, right? So I guess what I’m saying is, it keeps going back to its about creating a culture of change and creating a culture of accepting failure, creating a culture of empowering innovation. Just because we’re doing well doesn’t mean we’re going to keep doing well, right, because the customer is changing so rapidly. We need to move as fast as them.


Abby: So let’s talk about community. People want to come together and share in a common experience. If we didn’t know that before COVID, we certainly know it now. Human connection is fundamental to who we are and how we relate to one another in the world around us. So tell us about the importance of human connection for you. Why do people want to go into a store rather than buy online?


Gio: You know I think I know I say this a lot, but we do have the best workforce in the industry. I am always so inspired when I go into our stores, not just in the US, everywhere around the world. And you know, starting with the store managers, they treat the stores as their houses. Especially during the pandemic, we learned that most of the store staff were actually getting to know the customers’ families, their habits, what do they do, what are they going through in their life? And I think you cannot do that online. And I think creating those meaningful connections are fundamental for the physical world. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m still here after 12 years. I think that those connections, not even in stores, but even in the corporate office, like it feels like it’s a big family, and that is very hard to find.


Brenda: I love what you’re saying about the personal relationships and the feeling and the sense of family that’s being generated. And it’s making me think of a recent quote from Paco Underhill, the retail researcher. He recently said that the hardest thing to change is operating culture and suggested that one of the things that many senior executives are asking these days are about what kind of operational changes they should be considering, and it sounds like you at Coach and your team there are already thinking like this. He said that shortening the distance between the executive suite and the front door is essential, and that is, as stores reopen, senior management need to commit to spend at least one weekend a month on the floor being visible to their staff, listening and watching what customers do, and that leadership in times of crisis is about leading from the front. Would you agree with this?


Gio: 100%. I do think that is part of our culture. The corporate team can learn from the field. The field can learn from corporate, so it’s an exchange of education, it’s an exchange of knowledge, but also it’s a big thank you when we travel, right? The store staff are at the forefront of managing all the challenges that we’re facing culturally, politically, also how consumers are changing, and I think once you get there and you really speak to some of the store managers and sales staff, you really understand what’s going on. Actually, as part of training, everybody at corporate spends time in the field as part of their role. It doesn’t matter what team you work in, whether it’s finance, procurement, creative, visual merchandising, HR. So it is a big part of our culture, so I’m glad you asked that question because it’s really true to our values here at Coach.


Abby: When we look at experiential exhibits that we create, we really try to focus on using and stimulating the five senses of visitors. We created an exhibition for the Jewish Museum, which had props that were food that we actually switched out once a week, and the smells that they created, it was a period piece, really took people back to the time.


So the five senses are so powerful in creating a connection. I really think the best shopping in a store isn’t driven by this sort of necessity to purchase the product. It’s driven by a sense of discovery and the excitement of finding something new. So how do you use the five senses in your work?


Gio: The touch comes to mind the most just because we mainly sell leather goods. So in our stores, we have, we call it the heart of the store, is our craftsmanship bar. We have leathers that you can touch. We also have details of the bags. You can actually see how the bags are made, so the touch is an incredible part of that.


Some of the other elements that we have started to look into are things like, for example, sounds, music, and smell. A lot of our activations include entertainment. Most of our brand ambassadors, including Lil Nas, which was just announced, are musicians. So music is a big part of our pop culture heritage. But also food. I mean, we’ve been bringing a lot of activations through hospitality.


And then also things that you can actually see, like we love things like color, but also bold experiential, bold moves, bold installations, so that even from ten meters away, you can actually see and then you can kind of get attracted to the experience, then once you are close to it, then things like smell and music become a little bit more dominant, but I think from far away, you always kind of start with the eye, right, the eye component, so, we talk a lot about ten meters, seven meters and one meter in terms of how we activate the five senses, Not all experiences count for all five, but I think we are trying to emerge, depending on what we are trying to do.


We do the same thing online. We are about to launch our very first virtual store. We have been discussing a lot about music because music can really create that immersive experience, it’s why you shop and actually what we are doing for the first time, we are activating pieces like Shop with Friends, for example, so you can actually, because you cannot do that on a website, you can shop by yourself, of course a friend could be next to you, but we are launching a Shop with Friend facilities as part of our virtual stores. So, you can do it in different ways. And I think this is an area that I think we will continue to evolve, and it’s fast moving incredibly fast moving and it fascinates me.


Abby: I just want to sort of pop in something that our team is working on right now. We’re part of the Ghost program with Snap and so we’re creating a Lens right now that, we feel like a lot of the AR try on, it looks very fake. It doesn’t realistic. The colors aren’t true. So we’ve developed a Lens where it’s completely realistic.


Our clothing matches the swatch in person, matches the swatch online. So you would walk into a real changing room and then you, for example, could be wearing a white or a black or a blue version of a t-shirt, and then using the lens you flick through and you can try on different colors. Thinking about that idea of collaboration and shopping with a friend, our hope for the next generation of it is this collaboration that you will be able to do on the Lens where, you know, I could be trying something on, and I could share it with Brenda, and she can flick through and show me what she thinks I should be wearing.


Because, you know, when you shop with a friend, you come out, do you like it? You’re not like it or boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever you with, and so there’s a lot of fun things that we’re working with AR right now in the retail space that we really think are going to be so useful and so much fun for the consumer in the future.


Gio: I love that. And you know, one thing that resonates with me is this idea of hidden digital, right, like what you are saying. Something that feels very seamless, I think for me, like just adding screens for the sake of adding screens, like it just doesn’t make sense for the brand. You know, we are such a heritage brand, and I think the way we are going to use digital is seamless, right. To your point, AR could be a great way of doing this, but I think some brands are doing it better than others. And I think what you describe for me is genius because it’s invisible, right? It’s an invisible layer.


Abby: Yeah.


Gio: And it’s going to make your experience smoother.


Abby: Yes.


Gio: And I think that for me, is what success looks like.


Brenda: I’m curious to know, sort of as an extension from this, Gio, what’s the role of social media in the work that you’re doing now?


Gio: Wow. I think social media, I would say, is at the heart of everything that we do because everything that we install, everything that we produce, it’s everywhere on social, right? People love to take photos. People love to share their experiences, and that’s why we actually design the spaces with that in mind. The ecosystem is complex, right? Because everybody’s everywhere. There’s so many different platforms, and I think we definitely, that’s at the heart of our creative process, to be honest. We work very closely with our social media team here in New York City so that not only we have their support from the beginning, but also when we launch something it’s widely distributed on our social channels so people know what’s going on.


Abby: Now let’s focus on Web3 and the metaverse, everybody’s favorite subject. How do you think this is going to affect your industry? Is it something you have to jump into because the risk of not getting in is too big?


Gio: So, you know, I think the word metaverse is being used so much and somehow has become a little bit of a buzzword. I think the way I see metaverse is somehow the future of social and just another channel about how people are interactive. I think about, for example, before social media, right?


Abby: When was that? I don’t think I remember life before social media.


Gio: Exactly, so I think that, that’s really for me, what metaverse is, it’s this kind of like new ecosystem that’s kind of taking off, and NFT and gaming are becoming the heart of the metaverse, but what this is going to look like in the next 4 to 5 years, it’s kind of hard to tell. And I think what we are doing in my team is again, testing and learning.


We’re going to try and experiment. That’s actually the word I was looking for. We’re going to try and experiment, and I think what we’re going to experiment in the US is very different to what we’re going to try and do in China because the consumer is in a different place with Web3 adaptation, and we’re going to have fun with it.


We’re not going to be in the Web3 world because everybody else is in the Web3 world. That is not how we’re going to do it. It’s just a trend. We’re not going to do something because, oh, it’s a PR stunt, you know, like we’re going to do it because it’s going to make sense for us and because it’s going to help us reach a new audience and maybe is not consuming Coach today.


Abby: That makes perfect sense. I hope there’s a lot of your peers here listening in because I think that’s good sound advice.


Brenda: I’d love to follow up by asking, how do you personally measure success?


Gio: Wow, big question. I think, I think for me it’s seeing consumers reactions to what we’re doing, not just in sales but also about changing that perception of the brand, which is true. It’s more like qualitative feedback than quantitative feedback. I think seeing consumer happy makes me happy. And you know, there’s a lot of things that we do because our consumers want it, right?


And I think the work that we do, especially in the creative world, is so hard when it becomes so personal, right? You need to make every creative more objective about the customer, not about you. Once you do that and once the customers are happy, I think the possibilities are really endless, and I try to get a lot of feedback from our local teams in region for every project so that we know whether we have reached the consumer in the right way and what they have to say. So for me, that’s a critical part of the process.


Abby: So before we wrap up, talking about personal things you actually enjoy, you know, I know you like coffee, maybe almost as much as I love my coffee. So, my favorite coffee shop right now is Coffee Project on Seventh Avenue. I think they really serve the best espresso. And I wanted to ask you what your favorite coffee shop is here in New York?


Brenda: The question everybody’s waiting to hear.


Gio: Oh, my God. You know what? I live in Hell’s Kitchen in Midtown and I would not survive without a small café that’s on 45th and 9th called Bird & Branch. They were my savior during the pandemic, you know, when we were all stuck inside the house, and I literally used to take my 30-minute break and go and get the coffee through the window, because you couldn’t get in. And there is such a sense of community. Every single neighbor goes there. We chat in the morning very early. It’s about the quality of coffee, but also like a place that’s become like a neighborhood hangout if you know what I mean. It’s one of a kind. They also try and recruit kids that maybe have difficulties and have maybe hard, it’s hard for them to find a job. So I kind of love all about it, to be honest, culturally, and I will give them my business every day. So, but also incredible coffee.


Abby: Yup, key, key.


Gio: Incredible coffee and I love my strong coffee, so, being from an Italian heritage.


Abby: Me too.


Gio: Great question. I wasn’t expecting that.


Abby: Well, it’s such an amazing experience going into a great coffee shop. And, you know, as you said, the smells, the people, the community, you know, and another place to gain inspiration. So, Gio, it has been amazing to have you with us on Matters of Experience today. Thank you so much.


Brenda: Thank you, Gio.


Gio: Thank you for having me, and chat soon.


Abby: Bye.


Brenda: Ciao, ciao.



Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello Guest Giovanni Zaccariello

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Guest Alex Bitus
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Architect Alex Bitus believes that the bathroom is the most important room in a building. Can a lavatory really have the potential to be an indicator of the quality of the structure’s overall design? Beyond the bathroom, this episode explores how architects and designers create comfort through design.
Alex is the founding director of Buro Bitus, responsible for the design direction of the office. Alex leads key client relationship management, collaborative environment design, workflow design, and practice financial management. Alex has extensive experience of large scale masterplanning, commercial hi-rise, transport and residential sector projects. Trained as an architect as well as a structural and civil engineer, he has over 20 years experience in the construction industry and blends his considerable knowledge of technical documentation with a passion for conceptual design. Alex maintains an ongoing involvement with all his projects to ensure design clarity is achieved throughout the detailed development and ultimately the delivery of these projects on site. Alex’s experience included leading teams for architectural, interior and fit-out projects for major UK, Russian and Middle Eastern clients.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I am Brenda Cowan.


Abby: The title of our show – Where’s the Bathroom? – may seem odd, but in our work the bathroom is an excellent subject to represent the difference of opinion, and let’s call it, that we experienced designers have with architects. I think it’s a good place to start exploring the sometimes tumultuous relationship we have with each other. Brenda, I’m referring to the stereotype that the architect thinks people come to see the building, and we think they come to visit the content.


Brenda: Well, with our special guest today, we’re certainly going to get the very important architectural perspective so that maybe we can battle the stereotype. But, as regards what the visitor is coming for, I think that they come for both the architecture and the designed experience. We can’t separate the two, which is why I think in my experience, like yours as well, Abby, it’s difficult to understand why it is that the two are often separated when the process is underway. One cannot work well without the other.


Abby: Yep, completely. And I’m looking forward to today’s podcast discussion because I’m very proud to introduce Alex Bitus. Alex, hello.


Alex: Hello.


Abby: Alex is the founder of Buro Bitus, an award-winning international architecture and urban design firm that values cooperation, not competition, and ideas, not egos. Buro Bitus is 100% employee owned and very proud of it. Alex trained as a structural and civil engineer as well as an architect, and his early days were spent working closely with British architects Tony Kettle and Will Alsop.


Brenda: Alex, I’m going to kick it off with the title of this podcast, Where’s the Bathroom, and why the bathroom is illustrative of the battle between the architect and the design firm, and also why it’s indicative to a visitor as to the thoroughness and care of the design and the architecture of the building. Alex, what does a bathroom mean to you?


Alex: Well, in my opinion, the bathroom is the most important room in the building, and when I visit any public buildings, I’m trying to make sure I visit bathroom, just to see. In my opinion, it’s an indicator of the quality of work, and personally, I’ve had lots of experience designing bathrooms, and at Buro Bitus we put a lot of efforts in designing bathrooms.


We designed Platov Airport, and we spent lots of time designing the bathroom in that airport, and a few years later, we were doing another airport, and I went on the web to search, sort of I would say, common trends about modern design. And when I typed modern bathroom airport design, I swear, a quarter of the results that Google threw back at me was that bathroom we designed at Platov Airport. I would never imagine that so many people would take a picture of a bathroom and post it on the web.


Abby: Look at that. It’s not just this obsessed with bathroom, it’s the users, too. I’m so happy about that. Well, I have many bathroom, or as I’ve been known to call it, loo stories. My most relevant to this conversation is when we are brought on midway through the design of a building and not at the very beginning. And a really prominent architectural firm had provided us with client-approved designs for a five story building, which is about 10,000 square meters, and it had one bathroom, I kid you not. Not one per floor, just one bathroom. We had to have several meetings to explain the importance of more than one bathroom. Clearly, none of these people ever needed to use the loo.


Brenda: Or have children.


Abby: Exactly. Because what I feel some architects forget is that we’re creating an experience and it has to be a comfortable experience. In the case of museums or, as you mentioned, retail experiences, which means things have to be practical. Nobody really wants to be dragging that child along who’s desperate to go to the bathroom up three flights of stairs only to have to stand in a really long line.


So I also really enjoy themed bathrooms, and one of the toilets stalls I’d like to highlight is there’s five stalls at Liberty Market in Gilbert, Arizona, where each stall, Brenda, reflects the individual contributions that go into running that restaurant. So each one’s like designed by a member of the staff and has things like a unique playlist and unique artifacts and photos.


So, for example, the co-owner and chef there, David Traynor’s stall has recipes, photos of his creations, and dangling cooking tools. I love this because it’s not just design. It tells you a story while you sit.


Brenda: This is so mind-boggling. I am so creating a playlist for my bathroom at home. I’ve got to tell you, you know, Judy Rand, museum great, created the Visitor Bill of Rights back in the 1990s. And the right for a visitor to be comfortable is a top item. Nothing has changed since then, and yet the right to have this level of comfort is still a question, which I find mind-boggling. Alex, what are your thoughts about the rights for visitors to have comfort as a top priority? How is it that you’re thinking about things like site, and, pardon the pun, visitor flow?


Alex: Yes, one of the key drivers that we consider is the visitor’s comfort. We do lots of airport design, and air travel for some people is a stressful situation. What we find that calm, sort of calm environment can be created by lighting and natural materials. We tend to provide a comfort, visual comfort and actually, it works. It works, I must say, I’m reading lots of reviews on the web, and people are happy with the environment.


Flow, I believe it needs to be predicted. It shouldn’t be a maze. We tend to do a predicted experience, predicted flow, so people do not get lost, they know where they are going, and high ceilings, big rooms, they tend to help. Yeah. We always consider that in our design.


Abby: Oh, that’s interesting you mention high ceilings. So you’re saying that high ceilings make people feel more comfortable than lower, more, sort of cozy ceilings?


Alex: Lower ceilings tend to provide sort of tension and – well, that’s how I feel.


Abby: Yeah. Yeah.


Alex: High ceiling gives more air. You can put a sign that’s easier to observe from a distance. So if space allows, if design allows, we would have a high ceiling, definitely.


Abby: Let’s talk about the visitor flow in the Arctic Museum that we worked on.


Alex: Yes, I think you were the first to come up with the idea of the museum. And I believe that at that point, you didn’t have any information about the site. In your vision, you had sort of five areas, and those five areas supposed to be five different floors in the building. And when I saw the site, it’s actually a thin, narrow site that the building with five stories or six stories, it actually wouldn’t fit with the surrounding.


So I was trying to find a way to make it flat to fill the site as much as we can. But I also knew that there has to be another area, the common hall, where we enter, where we leave, where the restaurant is, where the auditorium is, cloakroom. So that sixth area has to be somewhere between those five areas, and as the site is thin and long, I put that area right in the middle. And I also was trying to find a way how we visit all the areas by a single floor, entering through and leaving the building through the same area, because, in my opinion, the returning experience is also experience.


A returning experience in Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is quite interesting because it’s a spiral rotunda. You’re going up visiting all the areas, and then to return, you’re going back the same route. So I was trying to find a different solution that you shouldn’t go through the areas you visited before. So it’s a clockwise direction, but shifting the areas would allow us to visit them once and not bypass them on your way back.


Brenda: I’d love to zero in even further on the exhibition space and a real classic challenge that can oftentimes come up between the design firm and the client and the architect is on the subject of windows. So, when we have collections and when we have artifacts that need to be preserved, that sets up kind of an automatic challenge regarding planning for windows and how that could work within concept and visitor experience.


Alex, can you talk to us about how it is that you design solutions is for spaces where you have to either incorporate windows in new and unique ways or somehow convince a client and or exhibition design firm that they can’t have what they want.


Alex: Yes, in Arctic Museum, we, I think initially we had more windows and then you guys said that, no, no, no, we don’t want them. So we left them in the central core and we left them in one of the areas that you actually find a nice solution to, to include them into your experience area. But yeah, there are some buildings that by nature has to be without windows like a retail mall.


With one of the retail malls, we found a quite interesting solution by wrapping the facade with a tensile fabric. It’s a folded fabric. It represents ballerina skirt, and it was the main idea because it was in a city and the city was famous for its ballet, and it looks fantastic, even without windows. So, buildings without windows is possible. It’s a challenge, but it’s an interesting task to find a solution.


Abby:  Well, I love that solution because as you mentioned, it’s a city had a large focus on ballet, taking that narrative and using it around the building continues that story. I just think that’s like a wonderful design solution and content moment. Let’s focus on inspiration for a moment. Do you have a style, and where do you get your inspiration from for a project?


Alex: Well, I think there are a few key drivers. First is environment. I think the building needs to fit with the surrounding location. I don’t say it has to blend with it. No, it can stand on its own, but with respect to what’s surrounding it. Materials is another source of inspiration. As I mentioned earlier, the tensile fabric that we used on one of the retail malls. Historic contexts. If there is a site history. Shapes. If you’re looking to design an interesting, exciting building, then shapes of the building could be another source of inspiration.


Brenda: I’ve got to say, I’m really, really happy to hear you talk about not having this, you know, sort of signature that you just stamp on every single project, and it’s making me think of a question that I received from a student not long ago who was very, very concerned, and he pulls me aside, and he’s like, “Professor, I don’t have a style. And what am I going to do? I’m never going to get work. I don’t have a look.” And I told him, you’re doing the right thing because it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. It’s about everything. It’s about the context and the story. It’s really, really about those things. And no one should ever go into an exhibition and ask themselves about the exhibition designer. It’s our job to allow everything else to speak for itself.


I would love to hear an example, Alex, of a time when you have been able to work with a client, the experienced design company, and you all worked together really, really well. What was at the heart of the success?


Alex: Well, I think the latest project that we had with Lorem Ipsum, Arctic Museum, was a nice example of collaboration between architects, experience designers, and the client. Client is definitely one of the key factors because client never sort of pushed in terms of design. They were happy with our competence, with our experience, and they left it entirely to us.


So, maybe one of the key factors that we knew each other before starting this project, we sort of on the same wave, so we work together respecting each other opinion. And as I think the result is, is quite nice.


Abby: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the client, and their role is so key. They need to listen to the consultants, to the people with experience. Oftentimes, if it’s a very large institution, some of our clients, it’s the first time ever doing this. We need to collaborate with them. They need to also trust and collaborate with us.


I think. Brenda we need a whole other podcast about getting a client to trust you and how do you do that because it is a real skill, and there’s a real effort, and sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.


Brenda: Oh, we are going to get a lot of caller comments for this one.


Alex: Yeah, we actually had experience with a client. It was Platov Airport, when client had a vision on how the airport needs to be designed, and in a design brief, they said that they want to have a flat roof. And when we started with the first design ideas, we realized that it’s a box shape and all we do is just skinning that box. It’s just like a facade design. It’s not, we’re not designing a building, and we, I don’t remember why, but for some reason we decided to ignore the client’s vision. And we came up with the arched roof like a bridge going from the front to the apron where the airplanes are. So, the idea was a sky bridge, and we thought that at least if we don’t win the competition, at least we have something that we will not feel ashamed of. You know, we can be proud of our concept. And when client saw all 11 proposals, all the other architects, they were following the brief, and they did a flat roof, and our building was the only one different, completely different. And then clients thought, hmm, do we really want to have a flat roof? And we won the competition.


Brenda: I would just imagine that at some point you have to determine, and it’s great in a way if it can come up in the bid, will you be able to collaborate with your client if right out of the gate the ask is unreasonable or completely lacking in vision? So, if the client was not amenable to the change that you had proposed, I can well imagine that you still, you know, dodged a bullet, perhaps because, you know, you could have won the competition but been utterly miserable or never been able to really, truly collaborate, to work together. And, you know, a successful collaboration is essential for a successful project, I think.



I even had experience when client, with some residential projects, that a client had an initial idea from done by other architect and they would approach us and say, look, we like the areas, the plan, but we don’t like the facade and architects don’t want to change their facade. They said it’s their vision, and they just refused to, to do anything. So we have the experience when clients approach us and asking to redesign someone’s design. It’s an interesting experience, I must say.


Brenda: Now, I’d love to get just a slight shift of perspective on this and ask you, Alex, what do our listeners need to know about working with an architect?


Alex: Well, I think it’s like with any design team, when you need to collaborate with different parties, it’s just respect each other opinions, but mind your vision as well. It’s probably like playing in a music band. If band is playing jazz and you’re trying to play country, then it won’t fit with the rest of the band, and you will be just kicked off. All members of the team, they play different music instruments, but at the end it sounds like a proper jazz. So working with architects is just not to push your ego and not to allow for architects to push their ego first. It’s, it’s respect at the end, I think.


Abby: Yeah, I love that analogy to playing in a band. I think that’s exactly how it feels. Everybody has the different competencies, experiences and job to do, and they all have to work and respect each other and know those boundaries.


I have a quick question about, you know, I think you’re a unique architect, Alex, because of your history, like you did structural and civil engineering, so when we’ve got all this technical equipment, we’ve got tons of screens, we’ve all our watchout, all our hardware and, you know, often it’s forgotten and it’s, oh, you just need this amount of space, but you’re always planning and making space for us. So can you talk a little bit about your background and how it really helps make sure that the boring stuff is remembered from a structural engineering perspective?


Alex: Yes, I started structural and civil engineering first. I got my diploma, and I realized that it’s not really what I want to do. It’s a bit boring, and I was looking for something more creative, and architecture was the closest sort of thing, and it blends quite well. On all my projects, I do structural design, all the technical areas, they actually come from experience. But at the later stages when structural engineers, mechanical electrical engineers joining the team, it’s always a fight. They need a room, they need a space to run the ducts. And at the design stage, I sort of can predict where it’s going to be and how it’s going to be run just at the concept level, you know, I’m not an expert, but I have a general idea how it works, so that’s how it works from my, for me.


Abby: It’s fantastic from our perspective because we don’t walk in during a build and see a bunch of ducts that weren’t supposed to be there but now have to be there because nobody’s thought about it. So I think having that skill and that expertise really sort of fulfills that gray area between us and you that often is sort of left and forgotten about and really enables us to really design and build what we say we’re going to design and build. There’s no bait and switch. There’s no changing. There’s no large structural problems that come up that mean we only have to have one bathroom just to bring it around to bathrooms again.


Alex: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think it’s down to client. If they want at the concept stage, they can invite structural, and they can invite mechanical electrical engineers just to do a concept on structure and mechanical and electrical. It helps a lot and the end.


Abby: And then, when you think about the future in your work, what are you excited about?


Alex: New countries. I think exploring new cultures is interesting, and learning from those cultures and designing something that we never experienced before is quite interesting. So yeah, that’s I think, the future I see for Buro Bitus.


Abby: Do you have any solid advice for young architects?


Alex: It’s not an easy job, I would say. We do lots of concepts, we do lots of competition, and I think we maybe are one out of ten, one out of 20. So, so many efforts and thoughts and designs, they are never going to be implemented, never going to be realized. So it’s a hard thing to do and be prepared that you’re not going to be you’re not going to win on every level. That can demotivate, I must say, but if you’re prepared for that, then go for it.



Why did you like being an architect then, Alex?


Alex: It’s very exciting. I must say. It’s like a message to future. You leave something behind. You’re not going to live that long, but your building’s going to live, and people are going to use them. It’s an extremely nice feeling. It just gives a warmth inside, and it gives a strength to carry on.


Abby: Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope at the very least you all look at bathroom design and museums in a different way, and at most, the architects listening will recommend to their clients to bring in the experience design team at the beginning, not after the building has been designed.


Brenda: Hear, Hear.


Abby: So thank you, Alex, so much for joining us.


Brenda: Thank you, Alex.


Alex: Thank you.




Abby: Now we’re going to do a double take where we focus on things we heard, read, and saw in the media that a noteworthy and we want to punctuate.


Brenda: So, Abby, it is not just us who are obsessed with, as you call it, the loo. July 29th, the American Alliance of Museums put out on their blog The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People, and I highly recommend this read. So in this blog, you’ll read through if it’s the Smith College Museum of Art or if it is the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, you will read about a number of different bathrooms that are designed by artists, and that include things such as objects from museum collections.


Abby: Oh, I love that.


Brenda: At the Mariners Museum and Park, they have panels in their stalls that explain bathroom elements on ships and about how to use the bathroom at sea. Who doesn’t want to do that?


Abby: That’s fantastic.


Brenda: It is fantastic.


Abby: It’s like putting you in the position of being at sea. I never thought about what it would be like to go the bathroom.


Brenda: At the Glore Psychiatric Museum, according to Ann Bennett, they are “nightmare inducing bathrooms, but in a good way.” They are artworks that, according to Sara Elizabeth Wilson, they are “awesome, but the clown and optical illusion bathrooms are the best.” I think I should just leave it at clown and let all of our listeners imagine for themselves what they would encounter in that particular bathroom.


Abby: There’s a very interactive bathroom at the Denver Art Museum, which sings ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ while you’re washing your hands. And I think if you can get them all activated at the same time, they’ll sort of sing in this canon, so you can obviously spend a lot of time in the bathroom playing along with that. That was developed by Denver artist Jim Green, who’s also known for a laughing escalator at the Colorado Convention Center. So again, talking about sound and how you can use sound to interact.


Brenda: I just, I have to conclude my appreciation for bathrooms. Actually, this one is not in this particular article, but this is my favorite bathroom experience – this is like True Confessions time, my favorite bathroom experience ­– was at the Boston Children’s Museum, where they had inside the bathroom displays of scat, as they put it, of different animals. So, you know what scat is, right? Do they? They don’t say that in in the UK. Oh gosh. Poop. They had displays of animal poop. So, talk about being topical and on theme in every environment, talk about extending the experience in the story.


Abby: I love it. So I think overall our point is the devil’s in the details. And if you’re designing an experience, you have to design the whole experience. There shouldn’t be a blind spot.


Brenda: Hear, hear.


Abby: So I hope that our listeners will do a double take at least next time they’re sitting in the bathroom of a museum and really decide, is this a good experience or not?


Brenda: Don’t miss an opportunity. The bathroom is not an interstitial space, although interstitial spaces are critical. Every stairwell counts, every hallway matters. Definitely use the bathroom. People are captive audiences, folks. Make good use of it.


Abby: Tell your story. Thank you, everybody.


Brenda: Thank you.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Buro Bitus

Liberty Market

Judy Rand’s Visitors Bill of Rights

Yamalo — Nenets Autonomous Region – Lorem Ipsum Corp

The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus Guest Alex Bitus

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Guest Monica O. Montgomery
October 26, 2022
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda discuss Monica O. Montgomery’s decades-long journey from unpaid intern to director of Community Engagement and Programs for Historic Germantown, and how using community engagement as the primary lens of her work has allowed her to utilize the museum as a hub of humanitarian activity to serve society.
Monica O. Montgomery believes museums must be in service to society! She is the newly minted Director of Community Engagement + Programs for Historic Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia. She works at the nexus of culture, community and creativity, through a lens of equity. She previously served as Curator of Social Justice for the FUTURES exhibit celebrating the Smithsonian’s 175th Anniversary. She has directed historic houses and cultural centers, and independently curated 40+ social justice, contemporary art and public history exhibits, and festivals, with renowned organizations like the South African Embassy, Brooklyn Museum, Portland Art Museum, T Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, Teachers College and more. As a museum consultant she works with a myriad of organizations on DEI and community engagement, building diverse representation for BIPOC audiences and careerists in museums. Additionally Monica is a keynote speaker and professor who loves engaging students in discussions around society, humanity and activism. She teaches graduate courses around Museums, and Social Justice at renowned institutions like, American University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Pratt Institute and NYU. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Broadcast Communication from Temple University and Masters of Arts in Corporate Communication from LaSalle University.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on the show, we are focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, specifically in museums – what it means, how to do it right, and why it’s still important.


Brenda: Abby, this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, which is why I’m so excited to be able to welcome Monica O. Montgomery to the show today. Monica, you are the director of Community Engagement & Programs for Historic Germantown. That’s in northwest Philadelphia. And there, you work at the nexus of culture, community, and creativity, all through a lens of equity.


I’m also excited to add that Monica is contributing a chapter on this subject to a book titled The Flourishing Museum. And this I’m co-editing with museum scholar Kiersten Latham. Monica, hello and thank you for chatting with us today.


Monica: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be here.


Abby: So, we’re glad you can join us, Monica. Can you tell us what was your path to where you are today?


Monica: Well, I originally was working as a teacher, teaching early childhood education, pre-K. And while I was teaching, this year was the year where Trayvon Martin was ruthlessly murdered by George Zimmerman. And that incident really rocked the nation and brought up a lot of angst and anxiety for adults, but also for children, who are sponges, right.


They’re hearing everything that’s going on, things are being whispered and said, but not necessarily to them. And so the kids in my class would ask me questions and say, you know, are we safe? Or can people shoot us if we eat Skittles or if we wear a hoodie? Is that a bad thing? So they were asking these like really heavy questions that no one prepares you for when you go into education.


So I decided to help my children process through their emotions to create a curriculum around community care and Black Lives Matter and help them understand what was happening in the world. We did a lot of service learning. We did activities where we made Mother’s Day cards for Trayvon Martin’s mom, and we talked about prejudice and what’s the root of it.


And at the end of that school year, everyone was feeling much better. We had done all sorts of good things for the community around us and had a better understanding and a better handle on our emotions. But as a result of that, the principal called me in my office on the last day of school and said that she didn’t hire me to be an activist. She hired me to be a teacher and that I was not welcome and my ideas and approaches weren’t welcome, and she fired me.


And it’s from being fired as a preschool teacher that led me into this path of museums and seeking to infuse museum spaces with social justice and equity. So that is how I got my start.


Abby: Did you try to explain to the principal how what you were doing was educating your students and empowering them for the future, and enabling them to understand more of who they are and where they come from? Which, isn’t that what a teacher supposed to do?


Monica: One would think that, yes, I did. I did try to explain that. I had parents that were happy with what we did and wrote testimonials, but ultimately, this is a charter school system, and it is their discretion on whether to invite teachers back. There was no union, so I didn’t have much recourse. But I am happy to say even though I miss the classroom, it was great to be able to realize even if I can’t talk about social justice in a classroom, where can I do that? And that space is a museum where informal learning happens, where socialization and contextualization happens, and I decided to bring that ethos to the museum spaces, so it all worked out in the end.


Brenda: You know, Monica, one of the things that I really appreciated about what you just said was when you were referring to your work as a teacher and referring to the students as your children. It’s reminding me of a project that I just did with my kids who happened to be graduate students, but they are my kids and I think, God help me the day that I don’t think of them like that.


But we were doing a project working with a photographer activist who works with juveniles in the justice system. And I remember day one, he came and he met with my students and we kickstarted, you know, what turned into a museum exhibition project relating to these young people in the justice system.


And he said, here’s what you need to know. These are our kids. And he said, they’re not kids in juvenile, they’re not kids in, you know, the justice system, they’re not, you know, incarcerated. He says they’re our kids, and that’s how you’re going to refer to them. And I just thought, here is a human being who really gets it.


Monica: There’s a term called mother work. You know, what is the work of mother work? How do we bring mother work to our professional spaces? You know, whether that’s to nurture or to convene or to be the cheerleader in the company. And certainly being an educator, especially for little ones, is a form of mother work. And I’m proud to have had that identity, to have done that career, and then to take it forward in a new way.


Abby: You mentioned you were a teacher, and they decided to fire you. They didn’t like what you were doing. They didn’t feel it was education. Tell us a little bit about how you landed on the sector you’re in and the museums.


Monica: So coming from being a teacher and caring a lot about what was happening in society with current events and social issues and wanting to find a place where these discussions can happen, I realized that the place where my students came alive the most was on field trips to museums, and I thought, what if a museum could be a vehicle, not just for art, history, culture, science, media, but what if a social justice message can be carried through a museum experience?


And so in going into the museum field, I had to start from the very bottom, worked my way up from unpaid intern to per diem educator, up the ranks through many gigs and many institutions, and to a point where people wanted to hear what I had to say and I was able to become a keynote speaker, a curator, and executive director, and many of the other titles I’ve held.


And so in that process, I was able to prototype my idea, my belief that a museum has to serve society and can talk about social justice issues. I got to try that out at the institutions I worked with, and curate exhibits and have festivals and events to this and prove, like proof of concept, that this is valid, that this is good, it’s real, and that the audiences want this.


So in that decades-long journey from unpaid intern to museum leader, I’ve been able to show through the course of 50 different exhibits and festivals that social justice has a place in museum spaces.


Brenda: Monica, you talk about how social responsibility in museums is an everyday piece of business. It’s an everyday affair. And I’m curious if you could tell us about any uphill battles or anything that’s challenging in the work that you’re currently doing that would help our listeners understand the complexities of DE&I work.


Monica: Sure. So diversity, equity, and inclusion is the work of people and the work of drawing out common threads and consensus among people. And some people represent institutions. Some people represent neighborhoods. Some people have very particular perspectives. And in my current work with Historic Germantown, we are doing a deep dive into community engagement as the primary lens of our DEI work.


And so the Northwest section of Philadelphia has many different neighborhoods. And within those neighborhoods our historic sites and museums are located. So we have 18 museums and history sites as part of our consortium, and we realize that we can’t use a one size fits all treatment, and for us to understand how we could be a resource as a museum to the community, we need to ask them, and what does that look like?


So we are engaging on a campaign of survey work and outreach by doing good old-fashioned things like a lemonade stand. You know, here’s a lemonade. Will you take the survey? Give us your feedback. We’re going to have digital touchpoints. We’re going to be asking people through focus groups and one on one what it is that they need, what are they seeking? What is their perception of us?


And as we do that survey work, we’re using the results, along with our general interpretive content, to create customized community engagement plans for the 18 different neighborhoods where our 18 museums are located. So that means whether the neighborhood is affluent or low income, whether it’s full of multilingual persons and or native-born English speakers or any variety or facet of diversity, we have to engage meaningfully and fully and create a plan for how the museum can be socially responsive, how the museum can reach out to their neighbors, how they can overcome challenges and legacies in the past where they haven’t been so inclusive to now focus on that. And it’s going to be a fraught process. I am diving in and looking forward to it because I love the work of people and the messiness of humanity, but I know that already there are folks who are kind of doubtful, like, oh, you all are coming to the neighborhood now. What is it you want? We don’t necessarily want to tell you everything we’re thinking, but yet we still have to show up. We still have to ask. We still have to be earnest and forthright and have integrity in our dealings. And we can’t say, oh, this is too hard. We’re going to go back in the office and lock the door and see you again next festival season, but rather we have to be present. And so myself and a fleet of community engagement coordinators, unpaid interns, and other staff and volunteers are about to go out in the community and stand outside and hear what people need and want from us. And that is one example of a way that we are enacting DEI.


Brenda: And in response, I’m wondering how do you identify the communities that you need to reach? What does that look like? How do you do that outreach and identify the people that you need to really be engaging with?


Monica: So we’re looking through a few different parameters. We’re looking geographically, that is all households, businesses, residents and citizens in a ten block radius of each of our museum historic sites. We’re also going to be looking at census data and working with other human outreach organizations, you know, people that do human services work, whether that be social work, or mutual aid, or giving out pantry items, groceries, food boxes. And then we’re also going to be looking at the school systems and the educators and the students and what it is that that audience needs.


And hopefully, through that combination, that multifaceted approach, we can then draw out, here is who is in the community, here is what they say they would like, and not just to take that back and then, again, shut the door and never come back outside, but then to be responsive in how we plan things. So to take that feedback and create a model of shared authority where we’re taking what has been said, revealing this to the museum leadership, and putting everyone in conversation together so that they can start to change, right, plan and pivot based on that feedback.


So maybe that looks like there is a new festival or holiday celebrated. Maybe that looks like local residents want yoga or they want to do something that is a leisure activity or a recreation activity that’s not currently happening. How that can happen. Maybe local residents are upset. Maybe there’s something happening that they don’t like and the museum and its leadership and its board need to know that and be aware of that and be able to pause and pivot and say, oh, we don’t want to offend our neighbors. And ultimately, what can it look like that neighbors again become stewards of the museum, are invited to the board, are invited to committees, are invited to positions of power, even to work in the space so that our neighbors become those who are leading these spaces.


Abby: What happens if we look at a museum like the Met, for example, a large establishment, a huge tourist attraction. It had about 4.5 million visitors in 2007, and ten years later, that was up to 7 million. When you think about these larger museums, do they really need to engage their local community? Do they have that responsibility or even fiscal need, really?


Monica: They definitely should focus on their communities. Everyone should, and everyone can, and it’s not only for smaller spaces, but it is the work of the industry, the work of our sector. Large museums have a lot of hurdles to overcome because oftentimes, they are seen as places that are just for tourists or that are inaccessible. There is a term that’s coined by a museum scholar named Nina Simon out of California. She’s written some great books, one of those being The Art of Relevance. And she talks about something called threshold fear, where people are nervous, anxious, scared to come in the door of a museum or to go in a museum because they think it’s not for them or they think that it’s too expensive or they won’t have accessibility considerations.


Whatever it is, there’s a perception that is stopping them from a visit. Oftentimes those people are locals, so we have to go above and beyond, especially as leaders of larger spaces, to make sure that our audiences feel welcome, that they know that they belong, they know they can get their needs met, and that all of what is happening is being considered for the everyday local as well as the tourists.


And the Met is also in a process of remedy, right, as most large museums are, reconsidering their internal structures, the diversity initiatives, as well as what they put out to the world. I’m happy to share that recently they had a project where they created an Afrofuturist period room called Before Yesterday We Could Fly that featured textiles and furniture and artwork of different contemporary Afrofuturist artists. And this is interpreting the history and the legacy of Seneca Village, which was a black colony in what is current day Central Park, where many black persons who were escaping enslavement went to live and ultimately, the city decided it needed to be torn down to make way for the park. And so they got rid of it and there was a lot of other human rights abuses there.


But it’s great to see that they are embracing that story, imagining new narratives, and meeting the needs of those who are interested in Africa, African-Americans, and this type of art and history. So I’m excited to see how the Met and other large institutions can challenge themselves to be better stewards and socially responsive.


Abby: And Monica, it’s interesting you bring up that whole notion that there is a large group of people that don’t identify with the actual architecture and museum buildings. Because we recently worked on a project for the Smithsonian, where our goal was to reach a broader audience than usually enter the doors of a museum. Because these older institutions are often in these very formidable buildings that are not very inviting to many communities.


And we really wanted to bring the museum on the streets where the people were. And so we created an app called Doorways Into Open Access, where you load a portal on your cell phone, so it’s accessible, free to everybody. Anybody with a cell phone could use this app and walk around and experience artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collection.


So it’s interesting you mention that. I completely agree that a lot of the buildings really are exclusionary, and trying to find lots of different ways using different technology to break down these physical boundaries, to bring more people into museums and more people to experience these amazing stories is really important.


Brenda: Monica, I’d like to ask you about the term community care that you use in your work and community care with specific actions related to engagement and advocacy. Can you tell us what community care looks like for you practically?


Monica: So community care is a term that has existed probably since time began, and I’m using it in a way that applies to museum spaces, and I define it as a museum practice that honors our humanity, centering advocacy, empathy, and social responsibility. Community care embraces partnerships, programs, visitors, our community, and ourselves. I first began speaking about this in 2017 at the MuseumNext Conference and have since tried to canonize this term.


And to me, it looks like many of the things we’re seeing museums do now. So, for instance, beyond the exhibits, museums are really turning into a hub of humanitarian activity. There are museums like the Queens Museum that have what’s called a cultural food pantry. They give out food and free access to the arts, to anyone who needs it, anyone who wants it, starting during the pandemic, continuing today.


There are museums that have really pivoted towards making much of their offerings digital. Museums that are taking a stand on social issues, standing in solidarity against wars, right, or in solidarity with persons who are marginalized and affected. There are some museums that are employing docents, particularly there’s a museum that used to be a penitentiary that are creating a docent track of people who were court involved and formerly incarcerated. So taking those who have been in jail, who have suffered through that criminal justice system and training them to be docents, to tell a story about law enforcement, historic penitentiaries and ways that we can evolve today.


And so many other spaces. When I think of Bryan Stevenson’s museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, how they interpret the legacy of lynching. That is a somber space but a necessary space. So when we think of social justice in museums and community care in museums, it’s not so far-fetched to believe that a museum can be a space that helps, a space that heals, and a space that offers people a platform for whatever they are trying to champion. And that’s what I’m excited to see happening more and more. There’s a groundswell of that happening today.


Brenda: Monica, I really appreciated you referring to museums as increasingly hubs of humanitarian activity. You know, when I think about your work, I, you know, I’m going back to 1909. I think about John Cotton Dana, him saying that good museums fit the museum to what the community needs. And I just think, thank goodness you and other folks are doing the great work of keeping that essential idea alive and thriving, and I’m curious about content. When you work with communities and museums, are you listening for content or themes that the museum needs to put on their agenda or particular ways in which a story should be told to meet the community needs?


Monica: So any time you’re doing the work of outreach, it’s good to try to record everything because you never know what could come up later and how it can be shaped and molded for a variety of uses. So, the curator in me, when I hear people talking about their neighborhood histories, public histories, personal stories, I think of exhibits that can go on the wall. The DEI consultant and practitioner in me is thinking about, okay, we might need to release a statement or have a special task force or a truth and reconciliation commission around themes that are coming up. The community engager in me just wants to talk and wants people to feel comfortable talking and sharing and not feeling surveilled. So I’m just encouraging a spirit of open discussion and exchange.


And then, you know, the other hats I wear have other agendas, certainly, but I am always excited when someone shares something, right? Like right now, I’m creating an exhibit about Juneteenth in Philadelphia and the area that we’re in, Germantown, Philadelphia is one of the first parts of the city to celebrate Juneteenth before it was ever made a federal holiday, before it was even popular. I’m excited to tell that story, but not just to tell it institutionally, but to tell it through the eyes and the accounting and the oral histories of people. Right? So there’s always different ways we can take themes and content and put it on these different tracks.


Abby: When we’re thinking about content, Monica, some of the museums that we design for have already sort of a very specific mission. They have artifacts in their permanent collection that they want to have on display to support that story. What we try to do is, as we’ve been talking about today, bring in the local community. My question is, when you know the story you’re going to tell, and you’re working with a design group that could be from somewhere else, how does the community itself get interpreted into the design? How do they work with the designers, and how do the designers work with the community?


Monica: That’s an interesting question. I feel like there’s probably many different approaches. I’m not sure quite how design firms work with communities. Sometimes it is through, you know, focus groups and open houses and town halls. Sometimes it’s more discreet, one-on-one or small group experiences. But I do think that is an important part of the process that can’t be skipped because when people in the community know that something has been put up and they haven’t been informed or consulted or involved, there is a resentment, there is a lingering mistrust.


And certainly, people feel like, oh, well, this happened, but I didn’t know about it, and no one asked me. And I’m not going to patronize this. I’m not going to support this because this was done without me. Right. And there’s a saying in movement activists circles, nothing about us, without us, so it’s really important to include community voices. However that comes forth in the ways that, you know, a project can.


Abby: So we did a museum up in the Arctic Circle. And it’s interesting you mentioned how important all the details are to the local community and how they will definitely call you out if anything’s wrong. And in that particular project, it was a lot about the local community, their history, their art, their culture, and a lot about their way of life.


And so we consulted with them completely. I would say we shared 50/50 on the content that we were creating, and there was a video that we were making all about their cooking and the unique foods that they use and make. And there’s a fish up there in the Arctic. We couldn’t find this fish because it’s only available during a short season. Our prop master found a fish that looked to the naked eye almost identical to this fish. And it was really Monika, like, almost identical. So we shot this fish. It’s beautifully frozen, and you just sort of slice it, and it curls up, and we put it in the video, and we showed it to the community, and immediately they just said, that’s not the right fish. And we were like, we can’t get it right now. It’s not the season. We have to shoot this video now. So we ultimately had to keep the fish out, but you are 100% right in terms of you can’t fake it.


Monica: Agree, and there is a saying that, you know, who speaks for whom in a museum. Half of the contention in museum spaces is that one person’s art culture or, you know, foodways is being elevated on a pedestal, but oftentimes the people who are curating that experience are not from that culture. And so there is a whole process by which people feel left out, marginalized, silenced, and erased when their culture is being put on display, but they were not consulted.


Similarly to, if you have a house or a place that you live and let’s say 100 years in the future, they want to build a house museum to honor you and they take what they saw in a few pictures and they think about, oh, what did they put on Facebook, let me look at their Facebook memories, let me look at a few different things and they try to recreate what your house looks like in this house museum, but they get it all wrong because they only have shadowy glimpses of what your life was like through very select mediums and never consulted you or your descendants. And so the house museum ends up looking like someone else’s house, and it wasn’t your house. And I reference the movie Interstellar, that’s what happened at the end, the character came back, and they did a house museum, and it was like not like what his house looked like. All of that to say, there just has to be authenticity in the process.


Brenda: The design process is often thought of as being this kind of closed-door kind of thing, where maybe you open the door for a few minutes, have a chat with your target audiences or the community, and then the door is closed again, and all of the big secret work happens where presto, a big exhibition pops out at the end.


And that’s really not how it should work. And there are amazing people and companies out there that are doing work where communities are at the table, really knuckling through the development of concepts and themes and really developing the story to create listening exhibitions. That means that every perspective possible is listened to as well as shared. Thinking about exhibition creators, Monica, what kind of advice can you give to folks in the creative disciplines who are creating exhibitions and striving to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work?


Monica: I think number one is to always have an interactive element where people can leave their feedback, their views, where they can make their mark on that exhibition. In curating Futures, I realized that we were showing some really great work, speculative technologies, historical artifacts, art commissions, but there was nowhere for the visitor to have an outlet. And so I conceived of a space simply called the Action Center, which is a simple feedback wall, but with one main prompt; how can we create a hopeful future?


And I wanted people to be able to gather and write out and read each other’s sentiments about what we can do to create a hopeful future. And people from all different ages and walks of life were invited to write on these feedback cards, these colorful postcards on the wall. So all of that to say, feedback mechanisms are super important.


Give people that outlet to express and create in whatever ways they can and to really, I guess, assumption test your exhibit, your experience, you know, as oftentimes their exhibit advisors or, you know, evaluators who can go through and give a first, second pass, give feedback, let people experience your space in small doses and small groups and get their feedback and tweak based on that.


Don’t get it all shiny and new and perfect and thinking, okay, we are done. And then people come through and are not having the kind of experience that they could have because you never actually gave them a chance to give that feedback. So assumption test at all points. I think those are some good things to keep in mind.


Abby: And I think one of the things when I listen to you talking about museums and what they need to be is that basically at our heart, humans need to communicate with one another, and we do this through stories which we share. And museums need to be less about a monologue and much more about a dialog with the visitors, and to also be a place where you can leave your mark when you walk away, and you feel like you’ve made a difference as a visitor. Monica, it’s been amazing to have you with us on Matters of Experience today. Thank you so much for joining us.


Monica: All right. Enjoy your weekend, all. Take care.


Brenda: You too, enjoy. Thank you, take care.


Abby: Thank you.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Historic Germantown
The Art of Relevance 

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum – Lorem Ipsum Corp

La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

FUTURES | Smithsonian Institution

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery Guest Monica O. Montgomery

October 26, 2022
Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Guest Joy Bailey-Bryant
November 2, 2022
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Joy joins Abby and Brenda to explore what DE&I means to cultural institutions of all types and what it takes to design meaningful exhibits and memorable museum experiences. Joy reflects on her journey, consideration for the future of our profession, and shares how she connects with diverse communities to create welcoming spaces that foster feelings of ownership for everyone.
Joy Bailey Bryant is the President of the U.S. office of Lord Cultural Resources and a specialist in municipal engagement around culture. A certified interpretive planner and outreach facilitator, Joy works with city officials, institutional leaders, and developers, in global municipalities like Chicago; New York; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Dharan, Saudi Arabia to creatively plan cities and bring people to public institutions.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today’s show is called Follow the Crowd, and it is the second part of a show focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. And we are thrilled to be chatting with the wonderful Joy Bailey-Bryant. Joy is the president of the U.S. Office of Lord Cultural Resources and a specialist in municipal engagement around culture. A certified interpretive planner and outreach facilitator, she works with city officials, institutional leaders, and developers around the world to creatively plan cities and bring people to public institutions. Hello, Joy, and welcome.


Joy: Thank you, Abigail.


Brenda: Joy, we are so delighted to have you. To get us kickstarted, can you tell us what led you to the position that you are in today?


Joy: I worked for years in public relations, and then I found my way to a wonderful program at American University in Arts Management. And that program actually led me to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is a granting agency for our country. And through that process and through that work, I started to do some work with particularly African-American institutions.


I then moved on to work at Lord Cultural Resources because they were working with what became the August Wilson Cultural Center in Pittsburgh. And so that was one of my first projects working with Lord, and realization of this entire world of opportunities with consulting with different organizations, arts organizations, artists, individual artists to help them to realize their goals in creating organizations and creating public spaces that would really help to tell their stories.


Abby: So one of the things, when I look back over my career, Joy, I reflect on one of my first visits to a museum that really sticks in my mind. And we were at the Tate in London, and I was there with a school group, and we were going through the rooms, and I suddenly became fascinated by the Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko.


And I remember sort of sitting down, being surrounded by these paintings and experiencing something that I’d never felt before. It was very transcendental, and I actually sat there for over an hour while the rest of my schoolmates moved throughout the museum, and I was running a little late, so they all came back to find me, and now I reflect back on that and what large impression it actually made on me. Do you remember one of your first visits to a museum or a gallery, and how do you think it impacted you?


Joy: Absolutely. One of the things – I’m a native of Atlanta, Georgia, anybody that knows me knows that, and we have a few really excellent art spaces. And one of them is called the APEX Museum – African Panoramic Experience. And at the APEX Museum, you learn both the history of African Americans in Atlanta, as well as kind of this broader story of people of African descent.


Combined with that there’s also a large arts campus called the Woodruff Arts Center. And the Woodruff Arts Center has the High Museum of Art. It has the Alliance Theater. As I was growing up, my mom was part of this group called The Black Involved Parents, and they would take us to various and sundry shows. And I remember that there was a Faith Ringgold – it wasn’t a show – and this is so interesting because there’s a Faith Ringgold show at the New Museum that just closed here in New York.


Brenda: It’s incredible.


Joy: But there was a storytelling experience, and it was around The People Could Fly, it was Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly story, and Faith Ringgold had done the illustrations for it. And the paintings, the pictures that the book showed were just so vivid and so imaginative. It captured me, captured my imagination. I wanted to see where it went. I wanted to know where it came from. I wanted to read more of the stories. I was a voracious reader, but that was the first time I had been captivated not just by words, but by pictures as well. And I heard Faith Ringgold give this talk, and she was talking about the way she draws flat. And that also, I didn’t know that was what she called it, but that’s also what really, I said, oh, my gosh, I can, you know, this doesn’t just, it doesn’t have to be real, photorealism, three dimensional. You can have flat images and still depict a story and really still captivate people. That was one of my first experiences and it was just such a full-circle moment for me. We went to the show and I was able to take my five-year-old daughter, my seven-year-old son, and they so enjoyed, they enjoyed the images, the quilts, of course. But what they really enjoyed was sitting down with the books just like I did all those years ago. It was just such a wonderful experience for me.


Brenda: What a delight to hear you talk about the Faith Ringgold show, which I was fortunate to just go see before it closed with my daughter.


Joy: Yes!


Brenda: Yes. Oh, and Faith Ringgold was an early point of entry for me, too, in my career. And I grew up in a context where, you know, museums were not for people like my family. They were for people who were well-educated. They were for people who were wealthy. And it wasn’t until I was out on my own when I started actively going to museums, really, for the first time. My question for you, Joy, is in your work, what is it that we should be aiming for when we create truly inclusive and welcoming – I like the word welcoming because I think that’s really what this is about. What are we aiming for? To create welcoming experiences where everyone can feel like they belong?


Joy: You know, you’re right. So many people do not think that museums are for them. I, along the way decided, it was a decision that I wanted to get more people who looked like me to enjoy these spaces, a lot of them public spaces that are paid for by tax dollars or certainly get grants from tax dollars. And I would ask people, I would say, oh, let’s go to X, Y and Z and see this show or let’s go do this, they’re having, such and such is having, you know, having this kind of program. Oh, well, I mean, I don’t I don’t have anything to wear. It’s the first thing you probably hear because there is this thought that you have to have a special attire on and you have to be a part of this particular crowd. And that is an indication that people don’t feel like they belong, right?


So, when you talk about, we talk about these words of inclusion, we talk about the word you just used, welcoming, people feeling like this is their space. If people feel like it’s their space, they truly belong in this space. They truly own this space. If we I mean, you know, there’s always pushing, pushing, pushing, so we’ve moved from inclusion to welcoming to belonging to owning, right? I own this space. If I own my house, I can wear whatever the hell I please in my house. So I feel the ultimate sense of ownership. These stories are mine. I should be reflected, I should have connection. Everything that is here is mine. I share that with others, and it is mine.


So I think it’s really pushing ourselves to get to the space of ownership, everyone having ownership. And this is where you get into the stance of, you know, power concedes nothing, of course, is not my quote. Power concedes nothing without a demand. And so we all have to demand that the places that we own reflect us.


Abby: So, let’s talk about ownership and how a museum can start to reflect their communities. A lot of your work centers around cultural management consulting, and you talk about process helping you go from the big idea through to final execution. Can you tell us a little bit about your process, what it is and how it really helps with the end result?


Joy: Absolutely. One of the things I’m super proud of is being able to work with people who have amazing ideas. Sometimes they have great collections, sometimes they just have really compelling stories and helping them to really think through in a methodical way what that can mean for their communities.


And I define communities in two ways. The first is your kind of communities of practice. So those are your affinity groups, people who are naturally attracted to you. You know, if you were to take something like a collection of toothbrushes, for example, you might make a safe assumption that there might be a dental community that is interested in a collection of toothbrushes, you know, but there’s also, if you have a collection of toothbrushes and you’re located, for example, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, then you want to know the people in the communities of your geography, right?


So you’ve got your communities of practice, so people who are in the dental practice who I’m assuming would be interested in this collection of toothbrushes. And then you’ve got a second community, that other community of your geography, right, so people who are walking around right outside your doors, these are the people who are going to come to your afterschool programs. These are the people who are going to come to your weekly toddler times. These are the people who are going to be your most frequent visitors because you’re accessible to them. So the important part is you’ve got to make yourself accessible for them.  


So the first part of what we do when we’re figuring out this process is really to understand who those communities are. So when we are identifying your communities of practice and your geographic communities, really taking a methodical approach to looking at that and examining that and really moving forward from there and allowing those communities to tell us what they want and most importantly, what they need.


And that’s important because a lot of times people feel like I know what my community needs, and so they want to make X community do what they want X community to do. But that community is saying, actually, no, that’s not what I need, because actually because I have other obligations and therefore this is not going to work for me. So they tell us these different types of things and we’re able to then build programing. We’re able to think about what that means for exhibitions. We’re able to think about what that means for collections. We’re able to think about what that means for the types of spaces you want to have. And what’s exciting is that we’ve been able to then take that information and put dollars signs to it. Talk about how much staff are you going to need? What are those staff going to need to be doing?


All of these different types of things to build up to a business plan. And we’ve done this with so many organizations and institutions, and I talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and that’s been one of the highest honors of my life, to be able to have these conversations with communities, to understand what that means for what the Smithsonian calls general museum requirements.


Abby: Joy, it’s great that you just bring up the National Museum of African American History because I know you had almost a thousand stakeholders, which sounds pretty overwhelming. What were some of those challenges, juggling all those people and voices and what was some of the positive outcomes as well?


Joy: What was really great about the process was that we were able to, in multiple cities across the country, really talk about things that previously people had just kind of said, oh, you know, we need to be talking about what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We need to be talking about what made the civil rights movement so powerful that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. What were the implications of enslavement, of 400 years of enslavement, on people of African descent today?


What was really powerful about that process was that we were able to have these conversations, grapple with these conversations, and really start to write down on paper what that would look like in a museum. We were not, and I say we, but I really mean Dr. Lonnie Bunch and Kinshasha Holman Conwell and many, many, many people who really led that process were not afraid to talk about, okay, where do we start?


We were present, and a part of the identification of the framework of what people said and what people said was – tell the truth. People said we need a space to celebrate. People said we need a place to commemorate. People said we need to know about agency, right? So in telling the truth, yes, you are sharing the hard stories, and in sharing the hard stories, we want to talk about the agency that people of African descent used in a lot of times, being super active in freeing ourselves. And so that was a really great opportunity.


I think when we think about what was hard, what was hard was exactly what I said. Where do you start? And making sure that you’re not daunted by the fear that you are not going to tell the right story and the understanding that the process is iterative, meaning that over the years the stories can change and that the museum can change with those stories.


Brenda: Something that’s a definite takeaway from all of this is the need for museums to be highly descriptive about their communities and the persons that they’re speaking with. I’m curious. You use the term, Joy, follow the crowd in your work. Tell me, what do you mean, what do you mean by that?


Joy: So it’s actually quite simple. Where are the people that you want to speak to? So when I talk about the communities of practice and your geographic communities, there are watering holes where, we have a client that’s using that term a lot, where are the natural places that these communities are gathering? And instead of trying to create your own watering hole, okay, you know, why don’t you save yourself some money and some heartache and go to the places that already have created themselves? They have proven themselves to be natural spaces where people gather.


We always are talking to people that are saying, I don’t know where young people of, you know, a certain age or, you know, where are young people who are college-aged or young people who are moving from this kind of, you know, I’ve just graduated from college, I’m trying to find my footing. Where are they going? Well, number one, if you want a college-aged students, go to colleges. Right. That’s the first part. Go to where the colleges are. If you want students who are particularly knowledgeable about a particular piece, you know, say you have an automotive museum. Why don’t you go to those places where those students are training?


We have this thing because we are always trying to make things fun. We would go to conferences, and we would sponsor, you know, a happy hour, right? You sponsor a happy hour, give everybody one drink ticket because you want them to be sober enough to tell you what you need to know. And, you know, 45 minutes to an hour of your time, you’re going to tell me what you want to experience in an Urban League museum, an Urban League experience.


So, by following the crowd, it really just means going to, genuinely going to where they are. And I’ll tell you something funny. A woman was speaking and she said, well, you know, it’s in truth, it’s what we’ve always done in the church tradition. You’re meeting people where they are, mentally and physically. So things like Alcoholics Anonymous, things like hosting a food pantry, things like having a closet, you know, a work closet, so that people who are going for jobs can come to your space and get clothing. And I never realized that that’s what I was doing. I did not realize until a few days ago the woman said, yeah, you know, this phrase, meet people where they are. That comes from religious practice. So I hope that I’m known as a person who brings both the bars and the religious spaces onto your podcast. I’ve been able to mention them both in one in one podcast.


Abby: So when we think about actual the design process for the exhibit itself, I’ve heard you use the term first voice before. Can you explain what this means in terms of the exhibit, the design landscape, and why it’s important?


Joy: Essentially, it’s ensuring that the people whose story is being shared are the actual voice of the story. If we’re telling an indigenous peoples story, if we’re working with indigenous peoples to tell their story that they are at the table from day one and being paid and a part of the team that is paid and that the experience of creating the exhibit is centered on them and that that table is really set by them.


You know, when I think about it, like I’m bringing process to the table, but at the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, middle and end of the day, the most important piece is actually the first voice. The first voice that we hear, the last voice that we hear and understand and listen to has to be the voice of the peoples whose story is being shared.


Abby: Within those voices, those stories, those narratives, would it be a group decision then, on which specific stories to tell because often I find when we’re designing museums, there are a ton of different directions you can go. But because of restrictions, either financial, logistics, space restrictions, you have to cut some of the stories out. So, you know, whose responsibility is that decision?


Joy: It’s always the first voice, right? Like we, you nor I as the interpretive planner or the designer, we can’t make that final decision. You know, Alice Greenwald from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum always tells the story of when she was at the national Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, that they had a massive exhibition that was of the hair; before people went into the concentration camps their hair was cut off, and the exhibition designers had gone through so much red tape and everything to get this out of the country. All the permissions had been signed, all of the different documentation that was needed had been put through. You can imagine the amount of money, effort, and time and one of the family advisory groups and committees, one of the women who was a survivor – this was many years ago, of course – said absolutely not.


And the question, of course, was what? Why? Because that might be my mother’s hair. And so the exhibition was scrapped immediately. And the story there, I mean, that’s an extreme story because it illustrates the importance of making sure that at the end of the day, if it is truly the first voice, then that is the last voice that has to be heard before it goes up.


Brenda: Wow. Joy, what kind of advice do you have for people who want to do work with diverse communities, which, by the way, everyone should be doing? But what’s your advice for folks who, for whatever reason, might just be starting out?


Joy:  Great question. Okay. So first of all, listening, everybody wants to talk, but it is important to listen. There’s two things that we do when we start a program. First is to start with a land acknowledgment, because it does something for you to you to really stop and think about the heritage of the people who came before you.


And then we do what’s called meeting agreements. And one of the meeting agreements is to recognize your space of privilege, to say, okay, I’m an African-American woman who is blessed to have come from a family where my mom and dad were present. I have a college degree. I have a master’s degree. I’m able to sit in a space where people ask me questions and want to hear what I say.


It is imperative of me to be quiet and listen when people who don’t walk into the room with the privilege that I just expressed, listen when they speak, because maybe they won’t be in the spaces that I am in tomorrow, and maybe I’ll have the opportunity to say, Hey, I was just in this room with X person. Why don’t we invite them in to speak so that we can hear their stories, first voice?


Brenda: You know, I’m listening to you talk about first voice, and a translation for me is thinking about the work that I do, as a professor. And where I teach, my students are very, very diverse. And when I say diversity among my students, you know, it’s race, ethnicity, their identity, socioeconomic status. It runs the gamut. I’m endlessly in a position to have to be keenly aware that not everybody is like me. Everybody brings different perspectives, backgrounds, life experiences. And I’ll tell you something, if I ever lose sight of that, I’ve got about, you know, 40 young people who are very eager to correct me and make sure that I am back on the course.


Joy: I love that.


Brenda: Oh, boy, it’s a real privilege. And it’s also, it’s really good exercise for me, God’s honest, and I’ve got to tell you, you know, there’s never room for presumptions or assumptions. Joy, how do all of us continue to exercise this kind of inclusivity in our work, whatever that form might be?


Joy: I think, Brenda, it’s questioning ourselves and allowing ourselves to be questioned. I practice not being jealous, but I’m a little bit jealous of your experience in the classrooms because I do know that you are continuously being questioned and pressed because those students are saying, well hey, this is different from what I thought it would be. Or why is it not?


And they imagine this future or they know a future that we never could have imagined because we assume things should be a certain way. And so I think that what you are doing, you’re making yourself vulnerable, right? Like that’s that space of vulnerability and, oh my God, it’s so tiring, but really great, right? Because wow, when you look up and think about how you’ve grown, right? But it’s continuously allowing yourself to question and to be questioned.


Abby: Yeah, I completely agree with you, Joy. I think too many of us are happy within the safety of the environment we know and enjoy familiarity. I remember as a little kid, my mom came in. I was trying to go to sleep and had some big worry on my mind, and she said, Abby, life’s like a trapeze. When you’re holding on, going backwards and forwards, you’re not going anywhere. You’re truly alive the moment you let go and reach for the next bar. And that’s really stuck with me in life, that idea of really sort of questioning, pushing yourself out of that comfort zone. And I think museums really should do that for their visitors. They need to be places that make the visitor question, and as you said earlier, Joy, press them.


Our last question of today is, why do you think a visit to a museum is so memorable?


Joy: One of the things that we do need to keep in creating ownership is that kind of event opportunity. And by that, I mean excitement about being in a space that’s doing amazing things for whatever reason. And I think that the event opportunity is nothing without the connection. And the connection comes exactly through that ownership. We think about that Faith Ringgold story I told at the beginning. I was so excited about the connection of the flat drawings and then connecting to my daughter. Now, all these many years later, that is why I will remember that event. It is that connection that is most important.


Abby: Well, Joy, this really has been a joy. Your parents definitely named you accurately. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights with us today. It truly has been a real pleasure.


Joy: And thank you. Thank you both for doing the work that you do, and thank you for your questions. This has been such a thrill. Thank you for the conversation.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Lord Cultural Resources

APEX Museum

The Woodruff Arts Center

Mark Rothko: The Seagram Murals – Display at Tate Britain

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant Guest Joy Bailey-Bryant

November 2, 2022
Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Guest John Falk
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda talk with John Falk, social scientist, educator, and author, on the meaningfulness of museums, their role in our well-being, and how satisfaction is a critical achievement in the museum experience. The three explore the meaningfulness of museums, why they matter, and what motivates us to visit them. This episode analyzes how designers can push boundaries, impact how the visitors value the experience, and how their experiences inside the museum can affect them long after they have left the building.
Dr. John H. Falk is Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation and Sea Grant Emeritus Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University. He is internationally recognized as a leading expert on free-choice learning; the learning that occurs while visiting museums, zoos, aquariums or ecotourism sites, watching educational television or surfing the Internet for information. Dr. Falk has authored over 250 articles and chapters in the areas of learning, ecology and education, two-dozen books, and helped to create several nationally important out-of-school educational curricula. His most recent books are The Value of Museums: Enhancing Societal Well-Being (2021, Rowman & Littlefield), Learning from Museums, 2 nd edition (2019, Rowman & Littlefield, with Lynn Dierking), and Born to Choose: Evolution, Self & Well-Being (2018, Routledge). Prominent in all of these books is a new model related to well-being that provides direct insights into why and how people (and other living things) make the endless set of choices they do, every second of every day of their lives. His current research focuses on studying the impacts of free-choice learning settings on the public’s understanding of, interest in and engagement with science, history and art and understanding why people utilize free-choice learning settings during their leisure time. He also has a keen interest in exploring new ways of thinking about, measuring and supporting lifelong and professional learning. Falk earned a joint doctorate in Ecology and Science Education from the University of California, Berkeley.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience, with our guest, John Falk. John, we are excited to welcome you to the show today to discuss this very intriguing idea.


Brenda: John, you were the Executive Director for the Institute for Learning Innovation and the Sea Grant Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University. You have amassed decades of experience in leadership, audience research and practice on the subject of why and how museums and exhibitions matter. Could you tell us about your work with museums and audiences, and, well, what led you to your current role?


John: Well, first of all, thank you, Abby and Brenda, for inviting me here today, and I am delighted. So where to begin? I’ve been working for nearly 50 years to better understand why people go to places like museums, what they do there, and what value or outcomes they derive from such experience. And over those decades, I’ve worked variously at the Smithsonian Institution, Oregon State University, and for the majority of that time as executive director you mentioned, of the not-for-profit Institute for Learning Innovation. And across all these years, my goal has been to understand these issue, first and foremost through the lens of visitors themselves. What do actual users of these experiences believe is the value of their experiences? And why?


Abby: In your current work, you think museums can and should provide experiences that enhance well-being in their visitors. Let’s talk about that. In fact, you see museums as excelling at supporting well-being. So what do these experiences that help our well-being look like?


John: Well, to really answer those questions, I need to step back and explain how I came to this conclusion in the first place. So starting over 40 years ago, I began to ask people to tell me, why did you go to a museum? Do you remember going to a museum? Tell me about your experience. What do you remember? And over those 40 years, I have interviewed hundreds of people.


Three things stand out. So, first of all, virtually everyone who you ask, have you ever been to a place like a museum can recall that and say, yes, I can remember that. And that’s true whether it was days or months or even decades. And the other interesting thing is virtually everyone has something positive to say about their museum experience.   


And the third thing is everyone remembers something, but virtually no one’s memories are comparable. Everyone remembers something unique and idiosyncratic. In fact, even to the point where I purposefully interviewed groups of people who had gone through the museum at the same time, and they all remember the experience, but they tell entirely different stories about what their experiences were.


So of course, various people, including me, have interpreted this data in various ways, but more recently, when I looked at it and stepped back and tried to make sense of it, I was really struck by a couple of things. And the most significant is this non-trivial reality that everyone remembers their museum experience. Most people remember virtually nothing of what they’ve done in the past, and research would suggest the only things we remember are things that are meaningful, and what is meaningful to someone are things that affect their well-being.


We’ve evolved four big categories of perceived well-being, what I have called personal, intellectual, social, and physical well-being. So let’s talk about personal well-being. As people, we derive great satisfaction from feeling a sense of amazement and wonder, from being spiritual, from feeling creative, from feeling like we have an understanding and can enhance our sense of who we are, a sense of identity. And it turns out that places like museums and exhibits are pretty good at stimulating these things.


People also work really hard at what I call their intellectual well-being. We derive great satisfaction from being able to exercise choice and control over our world, and we seek to accomplish this by being curious, by learning and understanding our world and using that information to affect future decisions as well as to make sense of what happened to us in the past. And again, museums are great places for people to do all those things.


But humans are highly social creatures, and so we have this desire to love and be loved and to show respect and be respected. And it turns out that, again, places like museums, turn out to be pretty good places for enacting those kinds of experiences.


And then, finally, not to diminish it, going back to the beginning, life evolved the ability to work really hard to make sure that it’s well-being was enhanced in terms of food, shelter, also safety, and security. If anything, events of the last couple of years with COVID would suggest we are very adverse to doing things that we think are going to make us sick or ill or going places that we think are going to make us sick or ill. The reason people historically went to museums is because they did feel safe and secure in those places.


So the specifics are unique, but you can generalize that the basic outcomes can be categorized into these four categories, and that’s really important, and that’s pretty cool.


Brenda: John, this is high praise for museums, and I love the idea that you suggest that everyone experiences or can experience the sense of awe when they go to a museum. So I just wanted to really underscore what, what I think is really very hopeful work.


There are folks who would say that well-being is, it’s intangible, it’s squidgy. But can you actually measure well-being outcomes in museum experiences?


John: So the short answer is absolutely yes. Most of the ways people are collecting well-being data these days is by asking people these generic questions about their life over the past year. What is true for health is equally true for my social situation, because, you know, today I may be feeling good because my spouse and I are getting along, but tomorrow we may have an argument, and I feel terrible about my relationship with my spouse.


These things go up and down and that’s just the way it is. That’s life. Life is always fluctuating and so our well-being is always fluctuating. So if you want to accurately measure well-being, the long and short of it is you have to say, ask a question about a specific event over a specific time period. And guess what? We can do that with museums. We can say, so when you went to the museum yesterday, or a month ago, did that experience make you feel good or bad, and in what ways? Because that’s a discrete, definable time period, and I can reflect on that and give you a reasonably valid and reliable answer. And as a consequence, we can quantitatively measure the degree to which people have well-being as a outcome of those experiences.


But the other caveat to that is well-being develops over time. It’s not instantaneous. So my perception of well-being of a museum experience changes over time because the quality of that experience depends on what happened, not just at the museum, but after the museum. So it suggests that if you wait longer, if you wait days, weeks, ideally months to ask people, their ability to say, yeah, not only did I have a good experience, but over those couple days and weeks and months since then, I’ve continued to have a positive experience. We keep talking about our museum experience and the value of that experience actually increases, and if you’re clever, which I tried to be, I found that I could actually not only measure the quality of museum experiences, I could monetize it.


And lo and behold, I could find that even though the average cost of going to a museum was on the order of tens of dollars, $10, $20, $30, the mean value that people ascribed to those experiences because of their persistence were on the order of hundreds of dollars. And if you even go further and calculate the return on investment, what you find is that the return on investment is on the order of 1,000%, which is really important and significant.


Abby: So first of all, I think our minds are blown with that type of return on investment. That is fantastic and very heartening.


Currently, your work looks at the idea that meaningful experiences are satisfying experiences, that visitors are sort of innately driven to museums to experience satisfaction as part of their well-being. How would you define this notion of satisfaction?


John: So satisfaction is immediate feedback. Well-Being is longer term feedback. So as you remember, we can’t really accurately measure well-being when people are still in the museum. We have to wait weeks and months later, but we can measure satisfaction as a proxy for well-being immediately. Satisfaction, as it turns out, is an anticipatory reaction.


Satisfaction is not really about what has happened. It’s about the anticipation of what’s to happen. And that anticipation is based on our expectations and perceptions of novelty. So, I have higher satisfaction for something if I hope that this would happen, and I have a sense that it’s about to happen, and I have even higher satisfaction if I think that what’s about to happen is really surprising and novel and is likely to exceed my expectations.


So the good news is, over the past decade or so, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists have made a lot of progress in trying to figure out how satisfaction works and what are the important clues that help to determine whether this complex phenomenon is going on. So we can build on that information to not only understand how satisfaction acts as a precursor of well-being, but to measure it and to use this as a tool to begin to disentangle whether people are having satisfying experiences or not within the museum.


And it turns out one of the reasons this is really critically important is that satisfaction is really closely tied to a couple of really, really important things: long term memory, long term motivation and future action. Satisfied people are significantly more likely to repeat an activity than unsatisfied people, and satisfied people are significantly more likely to want to share that experience with others.


Abby: I don’t understand something, though, John. So you mentioned that there’s a lot more satisfaction before you do the thing, for example, before you eat the ice cream, than actually when you’re eating the ice cream. So how does that work with a museum visit, for example? So wouldn’t there be more satisfaction about going to see the exhibit or the experience and more potential for a lack of satisfaction during and therefore after the experience?


John: Yes and no. So actually, what my research suggests is that virtually everybody, whether they are conscious of it or not, goes to the museum with expectations of what they’re going to experience.


When I first started working in museums some 40, 50 years ago, it was estimated that something like 25 to 30% of the public went to a museum-like setting at least once a year. These days, pre-pandemic, mind you, those numbers were more like 60%. It’s really hard to bump into anybody these days who’s never been to a museum, an adult, in their life. And so even if I’m going to a museum I’ve never been to, I have some expectations of what I’m going to see and what I’m going to do. And satisfaction is deeply tied to those expectations. And so, more than anything else, I’m using the museum to fulfill those expectations, and I find that very satisfying.


Abby: To play devil’s advocate, do you think there is that expectation to answer, yes, I was satisfied because there’s that pressure to have been satisfied after you’ve visited a museum.


John: That is also there. It turns out that those are self-fulfilling prophecies and people work really hard to make those come true because there’s a cost to you and being disappointed. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in doing this activity, and so I’m highly motivated for it to be successful, and so I’m going to bend over backwards to make it successful, and in fact, there’s evidence that people will do that, that they will ignore negative information because they want it to be successful.


You know, there’s such a thing as bad design, but people will work hard to overcome that bad design. You can make it easier for people to be satisfied. You can make it harder for people to be satisfied. But overall, most people are satisfied because they want to be satisfied.


Brenda: On the subject of design, though, people are bringing very high expectations and desires. They’re motivated in many different ways to go to a very wide variety of experience spaces these days, and we have many folks listening to the program who do work in museums of all different forms, but also branded environments and different kinds of events and spectaculars, really the world of design as we have it today.


And I’m wondering, how do you think that we can all better serve visitor satisfaction and well-being in the work that we create?


John: Yeah. So one of my favorite quotes is from the psychologist Kurt Lewin, who said, back in the fifties, there is nothing so practical as a good theory, and I want to believe this is a good theory. I want to believe that this new model of museum experiences represents a figurative Rosetta Stone. It’s a way to basically decode what’s going on in these visitor experiences.


And once decoded, professional experience creators can use this information to figure out how to create better and more satisfying, and engaging experiences. Because if we more deeply understand why people derive value and what it is about these experiences that create perceptions of value, then we can build on that information and reinforce it.


Abby: Just thinking about a satisfying experience, that must differ depending on who the person is, because I would imagine a mother with a child, for example, a young two-year-old going to a museum for something a bit different, take myself out the rut, hopefully, the kids will be quiet, they’ll see something visually that entertains them for 5 minutes. How do you think designers should work to create satisfaction in different types of visitors?


John: So, first of all, our historic use of demographics is a bankrupt way of thinking about needs and diversities, because understanding that, for example, I’m a sixty-year-old white male with a college education gives you no clue as to why I showed up that day or what my needs are. Because today I may show up by myself, and as you say, tomorrow, I show up with my grandchild, and my needs and interests would be entirely different on those two days, although my demographics would be exactly the same.


So we need to get deeper. We need to understand people’s expectations. We need to understand what is going to give people well-being on that particular day. And that’s a really tall order. But we can begin to unpack this and at least come to some initial approximations and do what in industry is called mass customization, as opposed to total customization of experience.


So I can at least create choices. I can at least attempt to create some kind of interface. The best one would be a real person who greets me at the door and tries to understand what I’m interested in today. Or you could use technology and have people answer a couple of questions on their website before you come so that you can give people suggestions on where to go and what to do.


And in some utopian future, we would meet everybody’s needs uniquely. But in the short term, we at least have to create more customized experiences. But the key ultimately, the reason these experiences are considered so valuable by so many people is because they afford choice and control.


Abby: John, yeah, I’m really happy that you mentioned people, visitors before they actually enter the building and engaging them before they engage with the museum itself. I think that is so important.


John: And I would actually go so far as to suggest the corollary of that is equally true, that we have historically defined and seemed to think that the only thing we have control over is figuratively what happens in the box when somebody comes to the exhibit. And that’s just not true. We can push those boundaries out and we can try to influence why people come and what their expectations are.


And we can influence and continue to have impact on what they do afterwards and how they value that experience. And the better we get at that, the more successful we will be at supporting people’s enhanced well-being as well. And satisfaction.


Brenda: You said something quite a while back about awe and the power of awe, and I’m listening to this idea of mass customization and the customization and the individual, which is so critical, and I keep thinking about awe and something that we know about the experience of awe that can happen in museums and happens, right, oftentimes in nature and in grand moments, as well as in quite small, intimate moments.


But we know that awe is a pro-social experience, right? We know that awe is a human unifier and that it unifies people in really powerful ways. And as you were talking, as I’ve been listening, I’ve been wondering, is there such a thing as mass well-being?


John: I mean, at some level, the answer is yeah, I mean, there’s a reason why tens of thousands of people every year go to gawk at Niagara Falls or Iguazu Falls or to look at the Grand Canyon. Those are mass awe experiences. And every year millions of people go to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History to see the Hope Diamond, and I think there are some museums and some contexts in which we can tap into that. But those are really few and far between and exceptional experiences. The awe that most people get from museums is more of a lowercase awe than the uppercase awe of seeing Niagara Falls or the Hope Diamond.


And so those too can be shared experiences. And virtually every museum has its own version of the Hope Diamond. It’s just maybe a lowercase Hope Diamond, in the sense of a little less awe inspiring then maybe something like that. But those represent shared experiences, and I think museums can tap into that, but not to the exclusion of other kinds of experiences.


Abby: Returning back to the concept of satisfaction. It seems sort of like a low benchmark in a way. Is satisfaction enough? It provides us with a memory, it seems. But how does it influence us to action? When you think about going to museums, seeing stories, being impassioned and wanting to leave and make a difference, do something after our experience, satisfaction seems a little too comfortable.


John: Well, that’s if you trivialize satisfaction. But if you think about satisfaction as a mechanism for determining whether an experience is worth paying attention to, is memorable, is something that will be meaningful to you in your life, then if we don’t achieve that bar, which is a fairly high bar, nothing else is going to happen. You aren’t going to take further action if it wasn’t perceived as a valuable and satisfying experience.


But I would also hesitate to suggest that many professionals have rather overinflated expectations for what they can accomplish through the medium of exhibits or museum experiences. We’re talking about for any particular exhibition in a museum, this is a 15, 20, gosh, 1-hour event in somebody’s life. So what reasonably would you expect would come out of that? How many 20-minute experiences in your life have changed what you do for the rest of your life?


Well, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two of them have, but it’s really hard to script that. That’s not a reasonable expectation. It’s not. For people who are inclined to move in that direction. Going to an exhibit can be a catalyst, can reinforce and help move people in that direction. But it’s totally unlikely to dramatically change the trajectory of someone’s life.


And the fact that people hold those expectations is misguided. We should be grateful that these are memorable, long-lasting experiences. We should be grateful people feel that these experiences have value to them and enhance their well-being. But we should be humble about in what ways they do that, for what reasons they do that, and for what the outcomes of these experiences should be.


Brenda: Well, I think that measurable well-being in museums is extraordinary, and listening to you, John, it’s, it’s so hopeful. And I think of it, it feels almost like fuel. And from the designer perspective, anyway, the idea of measurable well-being, the idea of the meaningfulness of satisfaction, it can drive us to really know that what we do is purposeful. And for that, I’m really grateful. And I want to thank you very much for sharing that and sharing your work with us today. I’m also going to add in a quick plug for your most recent book. This is The Value of Museums: Enhancing Societal Well-Being. And I’ll also point out that, to our listeners, John is going to also be writing an upcoming chapter in a volume that I’m coauthoring called Flourishing in Museums.


John: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to have an opportunity to chat. And hopefully what I’ve said, I’m sure is provocative and hopefully will get some people thinking.


Abby: It certainly was.


Brenda: It’s fantastic. 


Abby: Yeah, thank you John. 




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Institute for Learning Innovation

Why Well-Being Is at the Heart of Museum Experiences – John H. Falk

Episode produced by Anton Baptiste

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk Guest John Falk

There’s No I in Team

There’s No I in Team

October 19, 2022 47min 48sec
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda shine a spotlight on the creative team: people, processes, war stories and success stories, as we explore the questions of who takes ownership, what’s gained when a team works well, and what’s at stake when it doesn’t? We share techniques for breaking through creative blocks and our thoughts on the role of good communication, thoughtful leadership, and managing emotional moments. In a special Tech Talk segment, we discuss AI: friend or foe? Episode edited by Stephen Maneri and produced by Anton Baptiste.

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.

Brenda: And I am Brenda Cowan.

Abby: Brenda, I’m really looking forward to today’s podcast because it’s one of those things that seems so obvious, especially in what we do. But whenever you bring together a team or work with teams, there’s always an ego or two lurking.

Brenda: Or four or five, or, yeah.

Abby: And dealing with these personalities so that the group can work harmoniously is critical but sometimes difficult, and it can make or break a project. And I’ve seen other vendors or the client be the culprit who wants to dominate and assert themselves in meetings. So coming up with ways to handle and manage these people is necessary, and so is knowing when to throw the towel in and part ways.

The first thing that’s clear is if you want to work in the exhibition or experience design profession, you need to enjoy working with others. You have to play well. We’re not artists who work alone and then, presto, we appear with all the answers and are ready to build design set. We need designers, engineers, architects, modelers, fabricators, AV integrators. There’s a huge cast of colorful characters involved, and they all have to have patience and respect to make a project truly unbelievable.

Brenda: I couldn’t agree more that we don’t enter into this thinking that we’re fine artists. And I’ll also say that you have to have an ego in order to be in this business. But there’s a big difference between behaving poorly but having the right kind of healthy ego where you can make decisions, put out suggestions or even push back against an idea.

And oftentimes, clients kind of expect you to be like that. A client will say, okay, ready, set, go. Come up with all of the answers. And that’s not collaboration. That’s not teamwork. And the design firm’s job, I believe, is to really sort of help educate the client oftentimes anyway, not always, but often times that we are going to work together, which means that you are going to be valued and we need you to participate, and we need you not to expect us to have all of the right answers right from the gate.

It’s really difficult to do what we do. It’s hard enough to create. It’s hard enough to work together. And egos just block it everywhere. It can’t be one person’s vision.

Brenda: I think another way of really thinking about this is the idea of knowing who you are, knowing how you individually, personally work the best. What is it that makes you really great at what you do? And then being able to allow for and recognize that in others, in a great team, everybody shines in one way or another, in one piece of the process or another.

And I come across people often who will suggest that, well, I don’t work well in the team because I’m an introvert. And listeners, let me tell you, introverts everywhere – you are essential to the process. And you can be an introvert. You can be a quiet person, you can be a shy person at the table, and with a good process, with a good team process, you will be heard, and you will be expected to participate and contribute.

Abby: And it starts at the very beginning, I think, with setting those goals and the parameters of the project, right, so establishing those solid relationships with the client, being inclusive, as you mentioned, of all stakeholders, everybody at the table from the get-go is vital. And I just can’t emphasize this enough.

Brenda: Abby, I would love to hear about some of your experiences recently during our COVID years, and how has the collaborative team process changed as a result of being in Zoom meetings and things being handled remotely more?

Abby: So, the loudest voices often dominate on Zoom, so you really need to make sure everyone’s included, and I encourage people to turn your cameras on. Seeing each other is really incredibly important, especially when your team’s remote. It’s really important to provide a platform for everybody to be able to contribute, not just the usual suspects. And it’s also the same if someone says, I have an idea, it’s probably bad, that self-deprecating –

Brenda: Oh, never start a sentence with I’m sorry and never start a statement, right, or a suggestion with –this is probably absolute rubbish.

Abby: No, no, no, no. There’s zero bad ideas. No, no bad ideas. And there’s no dumb questions. Trust me; I’ve asked them all. I can’t count the number of times someone suggests a left-of-field idea that spurs someone else’s imagination. That’s what I’ve noticed. Somebody will say something. It seems a little sort of obtuse. And then somebody else is like, Oh my goodness. And they’ve made a connection. And then you start ideating together. So you have to have patience with ideas. The aim isn’t to get to the idea fast. The aim is to have ideas and germinate and enjoy the process.

Brenda: Well, how does diversity in a team play into that?

Abby: You know, everybody has a different perspective and a different point of view, which is why it’s really important to have diversity on your team. So not only diversity in terms of background, ethnicity, religion, and gender, but also of the jobs they do. What role you have on the project really contributes to what ideas are brought to the table, and through collaboration of multiple disciplines, we really can create something truly fantastic, because our AV team, as we’re ideating something, will say, oh, you know what, you can do that, that’s been done before, but we were wondering if you wanted to project it this way or do this with it, or wouldn’t this be interesting? And suddenly, you have an idea that is owned by everybody. It’s imaginative. It’s creative. It’s new. So I really think diversity all around is hugely important, especially when we’re working on our projects.

Brenda: It’s great that there’s an ideal out there, and I wish I could say that, you know, everybody has that kind of experience. But over the years I’ve kept a running list, this is what I do in my spare time, I keep running lists of stuff that doesn’t go right. So here’s a quick list. Number one, no one is clear about who gets to make decisions, and it ends up being the loudest voice in the room or the Zoom. So we’re talking about the lack of clear roles, and that can kill any team process right from the get-go.

Here’s another one. There isn’t a real balance of contributions from everyone in the room. So that’s a lack of an inclusive process. And Abby, that’s what you were just giving this great, robust example of. Here’s another war story. Boy, you’ve never experienced this. Coworkers are emotional, unpredictable, and lack trust. So, having guidelines for how we’re going to respect each other, they need to be established and oftentimes, they’re not.

And here’s the last one. I hear this a lot from folks in industry, that during a collaborative team process, they can actually feel alone. They can feel separated out. And we have the responsibility for ourselves to step up and to insert ourselves in the process, and at the same time, if the process is not truly collaborative, you’re going to have people who are just pushed to the outskirts, and that can kill.

Abby: You mentioned a lot of things to talk about.

Brenda: That was the shortlist everybody.

Abby: Well, when you have a new team, you’re right. It’s so important to explain roles and responsibilities to the whole group. So everyone is clear who has the final say. Because that somebody, at the end of the day, has to have the final say. And since COVID being remote makes it very easy for people to not participate or multitask, it’s very hard to focus on a call when you don’t have your camera on. Again, my pet peeve. Another reason I ask everyone to turn the cameras on is because, you know, I’m a victim of this. When you camera’s off, you can be on Slack, you can be on your phone, you can be shooting off an email. But if my camera is on and I know people are looking at me, then I actually have to pay attention.

So sometimes the reason someone isn’t contributing is that the call is sort of overstaffed and some people have nothing to contribute. So making sure the people that need to be on the Zoom, for example, are the people that are on it, is very important. I’ve been in meetings where I was just like tons and tons of people, and some of them don’t know why they’re there. I don’t know why they’re there. So you have to make sure that people have a purpose. They know their purpose. We all know that purpose. That’s another key. I think it’s a common error. You know, the more, the merrier. I don’t think I believe in that.

Brenda: I couldn’t agree more that communication over Zoom is so tricky. I think that things work so much better when we can allow for nuance. And I’ve got so many thoughts about communication, so, you know, settle in, folks, get comfortable. Let’s talk about things that sometimes can be considered overkill – meeting notes. How often does somebody come up to you after a meeting, and they’ve either completely forgotten what was discussed or they’re confused by what was discussed. How often do we just simply need to have detailed meeting notes that are then distributed to a team and that these always will have action items? What an incredible difference, as well, for people feeling included when they are a part of the resultant notes and if nothing else, the action items, again, clear roles, clear responsibilities.

Brenda: Abby, how does this work in your experience?

Abby: Yes, I completely agree. Action items from a top-line perspective which say what was decided, what needs to be done by who is imperative. Otherwise, project management breaks down, and things start to fall through the cracks. I am often surprised after a meeting when a group has all listened to the same thing and come away with very different conclusions. So, these short recaps really help at least flag any differences that are interpreted in a meeting. Make your notes simple, quick, and really easy to understand. This sounds straightforward, but people also misinterpret notes. So think about what you’re writing.

Brenda: So let’s talk about the E word. Let’s talk about egos. How does a creative ego help the team process?

Abby: Creative egos are good, right? I don’t think you could aspire to create without one. But there is a real difference between a healthy ego, which allows me to genuinely appreciate my strengths and accept my imperfections, and an unhealthy ego which will tell you to stick to what’s comfortable and avoid uncertainty. It makes you have unrealistic expectations of yourself and then your team.

So an unhealthy ego is sort of rooted in fear, anxiety and often results in a designer who is reactive, defensive, or easily triggered. Can you tell that I’ve worked with some people with unhealthy egos? So I’ve worked with designers who personalize what others say and see everything as a criticism, or they feel the opposite, a sense of entitlement or grandiosity, and they’re shocked when someone discusses their work and its effectiveness.

Brenda: So when I say Abby, you know, X, Y, and Z person is going to be in your creative team and, you know this individual and this individual has what you would consider to be a healthy ego. You’re really excited because they’ve got a healthy ego. What is that person doing?

Abby: So when we’re talking, when they’re showing us their work, when we’re workshopping together, they are open to criticism. So I ask them why they did this. What was their purpose? What were they trying to achieve? What does this communicate? And then, they can defend their design decisions. And you have a very constructive conversation. It’s not just what I think. It’s not my role to insist upon them what I think. My job is to have them question what they’ve made in terms of the client’s mission, the mission of the museum, the design mission. Is it aligning with those points?

Brenda: Right. But with the goals, with the project, and this is another thing that I find fascinating. When a project does not have a very clearly articulated audience and when a project does not have clearly, clearly defined, and even differentiated sets of goals, at the end of the day, any kind of a conflict or a challenge or a debate or whatever, oftentimes can be resolved, not everybody might be pleased, but at the end of the day, it’s about the audience, right? And it’s about why are we here and what are we aiming to do?

Abby: And I think that’s key about a healthy ego. It’s not about the designer. It’s about who we’re designing for. And the flipside, like an unhealthy ego, the designer tries to defend everything they’ve done. They’re not listening. They’re not hearing you. You know, you get a very defensive, well, you know, that wasn’t what I focused on. It’s like, okay, that’s cool, but I think maybe in the next iteration you want to think about that, or you want to think about ADA compliance or children or whatever the issue is with the design. And so making sure that it is somebody who is open-minded, that’s what I mean when I say they’re not defined by their design. And so too many people define their success on if everybody’s going, bravo, we love it. Nobody’s ever said that.

Brenda: That’s what I experience all the time. I don’t know what your problem is, Abby, but you know. I think that, and part of this I’m sort of feeling at this moment a number of designer listeners going well, and then there’s the client who can be a little bit difficult, or it can be upper administration, who can be a little bit difficult, or project leadership can be a little bit difficult. And I will say this, if you’re in a situation where you’re kind of in a lower station, if you will, within the sort of hierarchy of the project, and you are having to respond to or not respond to somebody who’s in a position of greater authority than you and there’s a conflict or a mistake has been made, let’s talk about having the very difficult conversations that nobody wants to have to have. But in order to move forward or fix a mistake or address a problem, we have to approach somebody else and kind of put it out there.

Abby: Well, you know, my mom brought me up really well. Honesty is the best policy. And when you see a mistake, you let everybody know immediately. I have never had a problem with anybody telling me they’ve made a mistake. I’ve had a problem when somebody has tried to hide a mistake, it always just goes down the rabbit hole and it gets worse and worse and worse and inevitably always gets found out.

So, if I see that I’ve made a mistake, or, on behalf of my team, someone on my team has made a mistake, I explain the mistake, and I always present the solution. And I’ve found that clients are always really forgiving, they’re like, okay, great. They know you’re human, they know they’re human, and then you’ve just got to fix that mistake ASAP. But they’re never fun conversations, especially the awkward conversations I have to have with team members because you have a personal relationship with everybody, you know, you know where the heart is, you know they care about what they’re doing. But I realized that some of these conversations are necessary.

Brenda: And I think the same thing applies certainly if you are not the owner of the company, but you have to kind of have that conversation up or very often if you are the firm or the project manager, the representative of the project, and you have to have that conversation with the client. So I’m going to share a tried and true teamwork tidbit. How’s that for alliteration? And I promise you, it really works. And it’s a series of steps. And you’ve got a conflict, create that moment, as horrible as it might be. Schedule that moment, ask your colleague, your partner, whomever it is to describe to you what’s on their mind. And you’re going to actively listen and try to be very present in a state of mind. It is so hard to actively listen.

So here’s how you can make sure you do it. You’re going to pause. When you are in this particular dynamic, give it wait time, take two beats before you then paraphrase, okay, here’s what I heard you say. Okay, so on and so on and so forth. What you’re doing, this is so important, you’re slowing down, and you’re letting the colleague or the other individual know that you heard them. Sometimes that moment can even just be enough. You’re making sure that you’re not operating on your own assumptions, and that check-in makes an incredible difference. At the end of the day, you’ve all got a shared mutual purpose, and that’s ultimately what this is about, is you go through this process so that you can get to the, okay, we’ve addressed what happened, we clarified what happened, we’ve heard each other and we have accepted feelings. Mostly we have clarified what it is that now needs to happen. So getting to that, that’s your endpoint. That’s your end goal.

Abby: So, Brenda, a job done well. The client’s overjoyed and –

Brenda: Of course.

Abby: – head of the project gets all the praise. This is natural sometimes because that’s the person maybe who’s been working 24/7 with the clients, the point person, the conduit of most things. But how do you make sure that everyone feels that praise and appreciation throughout the team?

Brenda: Oh, you give it. If you’re a team leader, give appreciations. Say thank you. It makes a difference. I’m always shocked when I hear, well, I shouldn’t have to say thank you because you’re doing your job, and I’m not going to say thank you for your job. Yes, folks, if you haven’t experienced this, there are indeed actual human beings out there in the world who say things like that. I think that giving a thank you to folks at the end of any given workday, as you’re saying goodnight or goodbye or good morning or whatever it might be, say thank you. It really does go a long way. And appreciations need to be an everyday thing. Even, you just had a rough conversation with somebody, right? Say thank you. Say, look, I am, you know, this was a really rough moment that you and I just had, but I want to let you know, I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

And certainly, when the team does something great, the project lead does get all of the praise. Project leads, follow up and not just with a verbal appreciation to everybody on the team, but write it down, put it in an email to the entire team and copy higher-ups, copy in the client, copy in whomever it is that is frankly in the highest positions of authority so that it is well recorded and known that the team, that everybody with their feet on the ground did a fantastic job. What that does is obviously it should hopefully engender really good feelings among the team, create unity, really help that shared purpose. But what it also does is it models behavior, and you will see this. You will see team members giving appreciation to each other, and you will see clients, and you will see upper admin, whomever it is that’s kind of on the, on the upper tiers of a project, you will see them offering appreciations as well.

Abby: And I think, you know, saying, hey, thanks, everybody is important, but I try to speak to individuals, and it can be for small things, things that, you know, they think you didn’t notice they did. Taking a moment to just thank them.

Brenda: Yeah. And do it up as well. I mean, tell the client, I appreciate how much you brought to the table right now, and I want to let you know, you were so clear, so descriptive, I understand where you’re coming from, and I just want to appreciate you because I know that you really listened. Always, always give appreciations up, and know that it’s not, you know, being a goody two shoes or trying to be a suck-up, if you will, or anything like that. Give genuine appreciations that are descriptive even to folks who are above you.

Abby: Yeah, because when a client’s done a great job for you, they’ve laid something out, written something that’s helped us do a good job. I want them to know, this is great. This is exactly the kind of thing we need. Thank you so much for helping us because, again, we’re all in the trenches together. I think about teamwork as I played a lot of sports growing up, a lot of team sports. I love team sports. You very quickly realize that, why you need a team around you to succeed, you know, it’s not that –

Brenda: Say it, it’s basketball. Abby is actually seven foot three, for those of you who have not met her in person, she’s a dynamo.

Abby: Very bouncy.

Brenda: Dynamo.

Abby: Jump very high. Oh, my God. Absolutely not. So being in it, being, playing sports, I think was great for me because you realize the different positions, the different skills everybody has, and that it all has to come together for success. And that’s how I think about our teams. Everybody brings something to the table which is really important, and without it, we can’t have success.

Brenda: Abby, let’s talk about something that is really part of your wheelhouse, which is making film. There’s so many similarities; there’s so much that is comparable between the process of creating a film and working and experience design in terms of processes, protocols, the structures of teams, the roles, the responsibilities. Tell me about what a great creative team process looks like in filmmaking that you think would really inform folks in our industry.

Abby: That’s a fantastic question. There is a lot of analogies with filmmaking and experience design. You’ve got the team that write the script, and often now it’s a team. And then you have the director who really is the creative vision. That’s usually our equivalent of a creative director or the lead creative on a project, and then you have everybody else under that. That can be the actors that bring it to life, but without the DP to shoot it and the way that the camera moves and how that tells the story and the lighting and the way that tells the story, exactly like in design. You have sound – just as important in exhibitions, you have the sound team and you have people that edit the story. When you’re telling a story in a museum like in a film, information and emotion has to ebb and flow. There has to be those moments of reflection.

Brenda: So when you’re talking about moment of reflection, are you talking about within the designed experience, or are you talking about is a part of the team process? Because I’m listening to this, and I know you’re talking about product, but part of what I’m thinking is how much this, I think, also applies to a great creative team process. A great team process is one that has ebbs and flows, and it has moments of intense productivity, the brainstorming, the ideation. You need to have a lot of energy. You need to have a lot of openness. You need to basically make a giant mess. A wonderful, beautiful, creative mess. And then you need to have moments of pause, moments of reflection, moments of review.

Abby: You know, when we’re working on projects that can take anywhere from two, three, four, five and counting years to complete, you have turnover of staff, and then you have sometimes people who are on them, you know, they get married, they have babies, they get divorced, like a lot of things happen. So you are right. It’s making sure to celebrate the stages and have those moments of rest and bring the team together because otherwise, everything just blurs, and then everybody burns out.

Brenda: You absolutely, I think, have to build in a moment’s reflection for the team to then look at the work that is sitting in front of them before moving forward. And I don’t care if it’s one hour in one day, but let’s talk about what we just did in that great, crazy outpouring of product, whatever the phase is. How completely insane is that, Abby, from your perspective?

Abby: The sad thing is I think it’s absolutely not insane at all. I think it’s much needed. I think the insanity is in not pausing, and it’s hard to pause. It’s really hard to pause because once you’ve accomplished something, human nature is to, we accept that immediately and we move on to the next challenge. So it’s almost about like going against yourself and saying, no, we all need to pause. But I think the key is that it can be an hour.

Brenda: Sure, sure.

Abby: Very quick brief. You have to schedule it. It’s got to go in, and you just look back and reflect on what you’ve accomplished.

Brenda: And add in some appreciations.

Abby: It’s like a wrap party. That’s how I think about it. On a film set, you finish, you finish, you have a little wrap party before you go into the next year of editing, right? So it’s taking that little wrap moment. I think it’s incredibly important and you should write a book on it. I don’t think we do it enough.

Abby: I think we should rename today’s podcast not there’s no I in team, but hit pause.

Brenda: Hit pause. I like that very much.


Abby: So Brenda, let’s move on to our next segment, Tech Talk, where we look at any advances or trends in technology that are happening that may have a use in or in creating an experience. Today, we’re going to talk about your favorite subject, AI.

Brenda: AI.

Abby: Well, specifically, we’re going to talk about collaborating with AI, because it’s happening in a more interesting way every single day. The last month we’ve been collaborating with AI on a project, and it sort of was initially working with us as kind of spitting out these random images, and it wasn’t really working, and it wasn’t easy to understand, I mean, if it was some sort of wacky high art, maybe it was really cool. But for what we were trying to do, which was collaborate and design with AI, it wasn’t really working.

Brenda: Can I ask a question on behalf of listeners who, like me, may not be up on the absolute latest and greatest? Can you give us just a quick definition of, as you’re using it, what do you mean by artificial intelligence?

Abby: Basically, in the context of what we’re talking about, we are inputting information, and the artificial intelligence is taking what we’ve inputted and all its storage of, let’s say, for example, images, if we’re talking about collaborating on an image, it’s millions and millions and billions of images in its library and taking our direction, for want of a better word or our words, and sending us back a composited image, an image that reflects what we input.

Brenda: What is it that is just really getting you all so excited about this new tool?

Abby: I think it’s how quickly it’s learning. We’re hoping soon that it’ll be at a stage where we’ll be able to work with AI to design with us. So we don’t draw anymore. You won’t need to draw. You’ll have to be able to explain what you want and use words, and so it’s words that produce images. So it’s a very different way of working.

Brenda: How is this impacting your process? Will it help your creativity? Will it bring ideas to the table that, you know, a human being sitting at the table just wouldn’t have thought of?

Abby: I think that as long as you have a focus on an end goal of what you’re trying to do and a problem you’re trying to solve, it’s going to be really helpful. I think right now we’re just working to start to be able to collaborate in a meaningful way with AI and to get results that are not too leftfield. There is a moment when you create that you don’t know what you’re creating. It’s that inspiration. We all iterate, and so potentially with AI, maybe there’s some new outcomes.

Brenda: It’s unique.

Abby: Yeah.

Brenda: Who would you recommend work with AI or use AI as a tool?

Abby: I think our industry needs to lead and I think we need to embrace technology and everybody should have an R&D wing and be willing to spend time and money and efforts in finding out how new tools, new technology can help us tell our stories. I don’t think that we should be slaves to technology, but I think we should be aware of how they help us tell stories and also creatively think about how to tell stories in a new way.

I mean, not just take the tools and serve them up. Oh, yeah, we can use that. How can we immerse people with this technology in ways they’ve never been immersed before? And that’s on us. We in our own industry need to have this appetite and this conversation around technology, around storytelling, around design, around curation. We need to start having a voice.

What do you think? Do you think the future will be you sitting with your students, collaborating with AI?

Brenda: I mean, the answer is yes. We will be working with AI. Colleges and universities that engage in design and in specialized design like ours certainly will be increasingly engaging with AI. What that looks like, I’m not really sure, but I think that a big part of it involves engagement with companies such as yours and being able to work with, and as you were saying, you know, work with companies and work with different institutions that have R&D as a part of their modus operandi and that are experimenting with AI and playing with latest technologies.

Abby: One other thing I want to notice is already companies that could take our podcast in English and translate it with the same intonation and the same tone into different languages around the world. So I see AI as nothing to be scared of, and I think that it will enable us to create new and interesting things, and I think that it will open up the world and make it a closer place.

Brenda: Like any technology is, as long as our visitors are still driving their experience and as long as it is a very human-centered design, then we’re doing the right thing.

Abby: Thank you so much. Brenda.

Brenda: Thank you, Abby. Thank you, listeners.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

There’s No I in Team

There’s No I in Team

October 19, 2022 47min 48sec
Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Guest Sina Bahram
October 19, 2022 47min 48sec
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Nearly 2 billion people worldwide have a disability. So, how do we incorporate inclusive design and sustainable practices into our work to ensure we create experiences that are inclusive for everyone? Abby and Brenda’s conversation with Sina explores how to enhance true inclusivity and why it makes the entire experience more enriching.
Sina Bahram is an accessibility consultant, computer scientist, researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur. Believing that accessibility is sustainable when adopted as a culture, not just a tactic, Sina and his team work with executive management, policymakers, engineering teams, content creators, designers, and other stakeholders within institutions to promulgate accessibility and inclusive design throughout the fabric of an organization. Sina collaborates with the United Nations and serves as an invited expert on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) working group where he helps shape the next generation of digital accessibility standards and best practices.

Prime Access Consulting
Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design
The Warhol Expands Award-Winning Technology-Based Accessibility Initiatives
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art


Sina Bahram Articles:
10 Best Practices of Accessible Museum Websites
How to Procure Digital Services with Accessibility in Mind

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor. My friends call me Abby.

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.

Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Behind the Glass, with our guest Sina Bahram. Sina is an accessibility consultant, researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur. He founded Prime Access Consulting to support building a more inclusive world. Sina enjoys collaborating with both colleagues in the field and individuals of diverse professions to devise innovative and user-centered solutions to significant real-world problems. In 2012, he was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for his work, enabling users with disabilities to succeed in STEM fields. In 2021, Sina was selected to be a Mission Astroaccess Ambassador, which aims to make space and space travel accessible to all. Hello Sina.


Sina: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Brenda: Sina, we’re so delighted to have you, and just to get the ball rolling, we’re really curious to hear how it is that you ended up where you are today. How did you become an expert in inclusivity and accessibility?

Sina: I think, really, it started with a lot of lived experience. I happen to be blind and so being a blind computer scientist means that you encounter a lot of the mechanisms by which society, whether it’s education, whether it’s fun, whether it’s video games, what have you, are deeply inaccessible. Also, knowing how they got that way, because I understand coding and technology and these kinds of things, led me to believe that I had something to contribute to making it not be that way.

So throughout my undergraduate and graduate career in computer science, I kept having to invent the stuff that would allow me to succeed. And then noticing that those were also the tools and the frameworks and the systems that could be useful and amplify others in the field as well, you know, people with different abilities. And that’s how I really got into inclusive design and digital accessibility.

Abby: Tell us about one of your first visits or what it’s like or what it was like when you remember visiting a museum or an exhibition.

Sina: Yeah, I mean, this has changed a little bit over the years, but it was a lot of stuff behind glass, right? Interactives and digital systems, totally inaccessible. And so, you know, when I was going there on a school field trip, as you do, it was definitely a personalized experience. They had somebody that walked me around, a docent, you know, a visitor service, a staff member that would walk me around and, you know, try to desperately find some things that were touchable or that were in some way multi-sensory.

But there was no dedicated program, right? There was no really dedicated effort around that stuff. And so that was my first exposure to museums. And then, you know, little did I know that I would be helping build them and do so much work with them, you know, a few decades later.

Brenda: Sina, I’m curious about some of the emotional aspects of your work. I’m listening to you, and it sounds like you’re almost on some kind of a mission. What’s it feel like to do this work that you do?

Sina: Well, it’s deeply important, right? I mean, for millennia, really, since the dawn of time, we’ve had different swaths of humanity, different marginalized groups of people, whether it’s women, people of color, you know, LGBTQ, persons with disabilities, etc., all not be able to fully participate in the society that we’re building as a species. And so, I tend to be long-term optimistic, short-term pessimistic, and so I believe that we’re arcing towards a more progressive and inclusive society, but we all have a role to play in that. And I fundamentally believe that technology is an amplifier, right, is a magnifying glass, and this is not a new theory; many other folks have said this. It makes the good stuff amazing, and it makes the bad stuff really terrible.

And so I want to use tech, tech-enabled solutions, and also just clever thinking and ways of understanding systems so that we can be creative and harness that creativity, not only to make the world more accessible and inclusive, but also so that we can facilitate all of these, quite literally – you know, 1.9 billion people in the world have a disability – to get those brains working on the hard problems of our time, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s space travel, whether it is virtual reality, you know, whatever floats your boat.

And those are lots of incredible creative problem solvers that are being ignored and actively prevented from fully and equitably participating in all aspects of society.

Abby: So you just said a number which sort of probably shocked a lot of people. 1.9 billion people have a disability. What?

Sina: It’s about 20 to 25% of the world’s population. It adds up, right? And again, like sometimes it’s things that you may not consider. It’s like, oh, yeah. You know, there’s somebody with a walking difference, right? They’re not a wheelchair user, perhaps. So it’s not as visible of a disability, but all of a sudden you realize that three stairs may be okay, and six is going to be out of the question.

Right? Or imagine like just spraining your ankle. So these things come up, you know, your contact lenses are bothering you that day, so you take them out. That shouldn’t mean that you can’t then still enjoy with your kids the museum exhibits because the text is nine point font. So we can do things that make it more comfortable and inclusive for people, understanding that there’s an entire vector of human difference or spectrum that we all fall along when it comes to our abilities. And then we want to be able to honor all of those differences of ability when we’re designing and making stuff.

Abby: So overall, there is this lack of accessible exhibits. I would say, in general, it’s all to quote you behind the glass. What are some of the things designers should be thinking about when they begin designing to increase accessibility?

Sina: Sure. So there’s a couple of concepts there, right. There’s accessibility, those things that we do specifically for persons with disabilities. Right. Those who may use assistive technologies like a cane, a wheelchair, a screen reader, which is a program that reads me digital interfaces, a hearing aid, that kind of thing, that’s accessibility. Then we think about inclusive design or universal design, and they’re subtly different from one another, but inclusive design is really a methodology that considers that entire vector of human difference at the beginning. It means that, when you’re thinking of a building, let’s decouple the affordances, which is a fancy way of saying, let’s think about what we want to offer people and then figure out how we’re going to offer people that thing.

So we’re building a building, and we’ve got multiple floors, okay? So we’ve got the first floor. We’ve got the second floor. How do people get to the second floor? I mean, you could use stairs. Architects love stairs. A lot of the world’s population can’t use stairs. So we’re already excluding just with a simple, you know, drawing in a file. It costs you nothing right now to fix it.

But that decision has already been made before a shovel hits the ground that we just actively chose to exclude millions upon millions of people. So we use elevators. Then we think to ourselves all right, well, now we’ve got elevators, and we’ve got stairs, I guess we’re accessible, but then we’re segregating our audience based on ability. Now, you and I go to a museum. Let’s say I’m a wheelchair user. I don’t happen to be, but let’s say I am. And now I’m using the elevator. You’re using the stairs or rerouting to come with me in the elevator if it’s big enough.

We don’t need to do any of that, right, you could have just used a ramp and everybody could use the ramp, right, and you have the elevator for maybe somebody who is unable to, those things that we haven’t predicted in advance and also to lift up and down equipment. But we just made it inclusive, and we made the experience non-othering, right? We’re not discriminating or segregating based on ability or any other difference.

Brenda: Sina, the demands for accessibility in designed experiences and to content in a variety of ways, it’s higher than ever. And we’re talking about physical access, but also intellectual access, also emotional access. Do you think that we need to be working well beyond the established national tools for accessibility? I’m thinking of the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design in specific. Is this the time to make substantial updates and our established benchmarks in our profession?

Sina: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve nailed that one yet.

Brenda: Any minute now.

Sina: Yeah. Any minute now, that’s right. It’s like AI, it’s always five years away. So look, my opinion on the ADA and by the ADA, I mean the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is simultaneously the most landmark, significant piece of civil rights legislation the world has ever seen. And it’s also the bare minimum you can do under federal law in this country for 30 years. It’s 1% of what you need to do.

Let’s talk about the ADA and the Smithsonian guidelines you mention. Think about the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is a mouthful. So let’s call it NMAAHC for short. NMAAHC has an exhibit on the Greensboro counter. Greensboro is actually a city about 45 minutes away from me in North Carolina here.

And there’s this civil rights story that’s told, these men of color sat at a lunch counter, right, they were subject to horrible abuse. This is during the, you know, the civil rights movement going on in the 20th century in the states. And this is a recreation of that counter, and there’s a touch screen exhibit in the middle. And at the end of the counter, there’s a lowered section. And that’s the wheelchair section, that’s the ADA accessible area. So what you, as the museum, are telling the black woman who rolls into your exhibition on segregation is that she needs to go to the end of the counter to experience this content on segregation. This is terrible.

This is something that’s completely unnecessary. It’s inexcusable in this day and age. And it would have cost nothing to fix. You lower the counter by a couple of inches and you remove the bolts off the stools that you’ve got in front of it. Then wheelchair users can use it. Somebody with a walker or oxygen tank, or service animal can use it.

And it’s just it’s not hard, but it takes that level of thinking, and also it takes that prioritization from upper and senior management in order to do that at the beginning. Now, that exhibition I just told you about it is ADA compliant. It’s legal. It complies with the guidelines that you mentioned. It’s not inclusive, it’s not even remotely inclusive, but it is accessible. And that’s the difference, right? That’s what we try to avoid at all costs is that delineation. We want to build things that are equitable and inclusive for everybody.

Abby: So let’s discuss the experiential quality of the experience for everyone in the essence of what we’re creating. I know sometimes the question is leveled, does the overall experience suffer when you start to fold in accessibility?

Sina: Yeah, this is a classic one, right? Like I want to do something sexy and colorful, and you know, accessibility means we have to make it all black and white and all these other things, which is just, you know, terribly untrue. The suboptimal approach and haphazard implementation of making things accessible is terrible, but the suboptimal approach to making soup is also terrible. So don’t do it badly. When you do inclusion well, then you not only enhance the number of people that can access it, but you end up making the entire experience more enriching, immersive.

We had the privilege of being on dozens and dozens of projects. Not a single one of those projects has gone by, and this has never been elicited from us, it’s never been prompted, where the engineers, the designers, the management team has not come to us basically either in the middle or the end of the project and said this, you know, they always say, oh, my God, I didn’t know any of this accessibility stuff. You know, we learned so much on the inclusive design, all of those things.

But then they say, You know what, though? The thing we didn’t expect was that this would make the project better, like full stop better, not just for a small percentage of the population, not just because of cost savings or anything like that. It’s just better. And the reason is that when we do the work of inclusive design, we ask a very simple question, and we ask this of every client we ever work with.

What is your design intent? We first have to figure out what we’re trying to do and then figure out how we’re going to do it. That sounds really easy. It’s almost reductive, but if you ask yourself those questions and force yourself to answer it, then you go, What am I trying to do? Okay, I want to have people feel like they’re in a forest.

Okay, now how are you trying to do it? Then we can talk about the fancy stuff. Projectors and audio systems and vibrotactile feedback and wind blowing on your neck and all these kinds of things when you’re making a virtual reality experience. But first, you have to ask, what are we trying to do?

Brenda: So when we’re talking about the how we’re going to do it, and I’m thinking about multi-sensory rich exhibition environments, things like smell, touch, auditory experiences, and so on. Now, some folks would argue that those are highly inclusive environments, or certainly much more so than what a more conventional passive behind-the-glass kind of environment would be. I’m really curious; what’s your take on this? Are exhibitions going far enough?

Sina: Multi-sensory is not accessible nor inclusive. Good aspects of multi-sensory and multimodal design are critical requirements of accessibility and inclusion. So it’s like the whole, you know, square versus rectangle thing, right? And so people think, okay, well, it’s multi-sensory. There’s an audio piece, and there’s a lighting piece, there’s some stuff you can touch, and there’s some stuff you can see. So we’re good, right? Like we’re, you know, we’re done, you know, like solved accessibility. Next problem. And the thing is, hold on a second, are those things linked in a redundant and strategic way? For example, does the light show reflect the emotional connotations or the gestalt of the experience that you’re experiencing auditorily? Or are they synched together so that when the sound is louder, maybe the lights are brighter?

What about the stuff that you can touch? Are you receiving the information at the right time, or are they off in a corner? What is the linking in the content with respect to these multi-sensory things? For example, we had an exhibit we worked on on fire, right, and fire safety and they were like, okay, we’re going to teach people, you know, you got to check the doorknobs if you think your house is on fire before you open it, because there could be a fire behind the door and they were going to light it up to show kids, they were going to light it up in red or blue.

And then they were asking, how do we make this accessible? It’s like, hold on back up for a second. Forget about how to make this accessible. Let’s first make this just logical and reasonable. If there’s a fire behind the door, the doorknob is going to be warm. And frankly, if it’s the middle of the night, you need to be touching it anyway. You might not have your glasses on. You just woke up, etc. You might have smoke in the house, so you should touch it and see if it’s warm. You can also color it red or green, or blue for that visual reinforcement. So once we did that, then the entire experience design changed, and all of a sudden, that’s inclusive now for everybody, but it also reflects reality.

So we got that engineering and that cool tech piece, we got the inclusivity piece, but we also got the, we actually taught people something more by thinking inclusively piece as well. So that’s, that’s how I kind of approach that sort of thing.

Abby: So when you get to build, is there a cost perspective because all this sounds sort of expensive. Have you found that it’s financially viable, or will it throw off overall costs? Because I know a lot of people often have limited budgets.

Sina: Yeah, I mean, it depends on the scope of the project. We have done projects with multitrillion dollar companies. We have done projects with nonprofits with barely one full-time staff member, and their entire annual budget is less than most people’s salary. Okay. And the difference has never been the amount of access they have to money. It has always been, universally true, it has always been the commitment to do the work. And the reason is because there’s different ways of doing the work. So you don’t have to be fancy with the door knob saying, right, they were doing a fire exhibition and a science center. They had some dollars so we could do the infrared stuff. But you can do other things as well, right?

You have the ability, for example, of writing visual descriptions yourself for the artwork. You don’t need to farm that work out. If you want to make tactile reproductions, you can spend thousands of dollars on each one like the Andy Warhol Museum did with us. Or you can just make some arts and crafts based reproductions, but that are high fidelity for, you know, 50 bucks, for 20 bucks. We’ve actually seen this done, there’s a woman at Crystal Bridges who does this kind of work, and she gets local supplies and reproduces incredible artworks, and they not only feel amazing, but they also look like the original artwork.

And so it’s really about commitment. It’s about sequencing, right? Adding captions to a video when you have, let’s say, a $15,000 video budget and the cost of captions is $45; this is a rounding error in Excel.

And then, when you start getting into large projects, there’s really no excuse. So yes, on very, very tiny projects, you may not be able to spend money, but you can always do something to make it more inclusive.

Abby: So Sina, you and I recently worked together on our project Doorways Into Open Access for the Smithsonian and Verizon, and we collaborated right from the start. You steered us around many a minefield, but let’s say a museum has money to spend on improving the accessibility of the museum design. How do they make sure they’re spending it on the right things besides hiring you, of course.

Sina: That’s very kind. I think the most important thing is to sequence your tasks. So what we don’t want to do is have people get excited about accessibility, and then they’re like, okay, we got some funding, we’re going to do this. And then, like next week, okay, everything needs to be accessible, and now all of a sudden it’s an overnight requirement.

So the real trick here is to sequence your approach to inclusivity against the tasks that you’re already committing to. You’re already agreeing as an institution to spend time, money, and people’s effort on this exhibition that’s coming out in the fall. Great. Are there a lot of videos in it? Maybe that’s the opportunity to nail down captions and sign language, and audio description in transcripts.

Are there a lot of paintings in it? Maybe that’s the opportunity to nail down your visual description practice. Are there a lot of like interactives and digital components, you’re doing some really cool tech stuff. That’s the time to get better about digital accessibility. And so, if we can sequence these tasks against already committed resources and time, we eliminate the cost conversation, but we also smooth out the level of effort conversation, so people don’t perceive this as an added thing that they were never asked to do before. And now they are because it’s just part of enhancing the workflow and their practice. That’s one aspect of it.

The other thing is sometimes there’s some really easy ones, right? So if you’ve got some dollars to spend, you know, caption your videos, right? Invest in audio description, make sure your website is WCAG or WCAG conformant. There’s some very simple things that you can exchange dollars for if you’ve got the budget, but the real trick is to make it sustainable.

Do you have somebody in the organization that’s like a chief inclusion officer, for example? Like what are the ways that you can build sustainable practices? Not just a flash in the pan is really what I would guide people to spend those resources on.

Brenda: Sina, you were mentioning the Andy Warhol project. I think you mentioned that there were touch elements, and did you do that work pre-COVID? And if so, what is the changing landscape post, or well, currently with COVID and in the post-COVID landscape look like for this work that you’ve been doing?

Sina: Well, remember, I’m a pretty evidence based guy, and so let’s talk about, you know, fomite transmission, right, which is the ability to get COVID through touch and how that pales in comparison to respiration. And so museums are taking away things that are touchable, but they’re perfectly okay with all of these humans occupying the same enclosed space. So just from a scientific perspective, I will argue that the lack of touch access is patently ridiculous.

But we can’t do much about that because it’s perception. Think about a touch object in a museum. Disinfecting it is not that big of a deal. Now, putting that aside, look at what’s happening now. So many people took down all the touch stuff, and they ripped all the things out of the gallery. And what are they doing now?

Now they going through and figuring out how to put it all back. But what did the people do that didn’t depend on a single modality? The people who had an app companion for their interactive, the people who had their content also on the website, the people who were already doing tours over Zoom, not just in-person because they cared about remote audience engagement.

Those people did way better during the pandemic. And this, again, is where we see these synergistic, these amazing benefits that come out of, that emerge out of thinking inclusively at the beginning instead of reactively to whatever the current trend or, you know, emergency is.

Abby: You’re a myth buster. I think we should add Mythbusters to your resume there. So I want to chat a little bit about some of the things that people think are going to help them when they’re starting to design for accessibility, like overlays.

Sina: Overlays, yeah. So for those who are not familiar, overlays are – what we were talking about with overlays, there’s many definitions of that word – are these accessibility overlays from various companies that will basically sell you something like this. They’ll call you up and say, listen, you install one line of code on your website – and this part is true – and you’ll be done, you’ll have our thing running on your website – and now we get to the false part – and it’ll make your website totally accessible, right? It’ll make your website compliant and conformant, and all these other false claims, and they end up making websites less accessible, not more. They end up causing a lot of problems. They give a lot of folks false hope. And so we need to be really careful in the community of just, you know, educating ourselves and telling our friends, colleagues, bosses, employees, boards that this stuff is not good. And it’s really building a pretty terrible web experience for many persons with disabilities. And it’s horrendous, and it’s really shameful.

Brenda: Sina, we all have a role to play, as you said. And I’d love to hear for all of the designers that we have listening out there, where do they go to learn more?

Sina: One of the things that we are working with various colleagues in the field on is there’s no good training on this stuff. There are some trainings, but you know, operative word being good and it’s a problem because design schools are not teaching it as much. Now, this is changing. There’s some cool stuff out of NYU. There’s some really great work being done in interdisciplinary programs where it’s not just computer science, it’s not just museum studies. It’s a combination of both. And these multidisciplinary programs are, I think, the way to go because then the thinking is already inclusive in a different way of different disciplines. And now we can think to ourselves, how do we use our skill sets for good? How do we think about all audiences at the beginning, not just in the middle or at the end of a project?

So some of that I’m seeing, you know, develop a little bit in terms of courseware, but it’s it’s really, your question is indicative of a pipelining problem that we have in this country, which is that there’s very few people that have this skill set, that think about this way, that were trained in, you know, to think about design inclusively. And I mean, I suppose that’s why we have so much work. But I, trust me, I would love to be out of it. Right. I mean, you know, running a vineyard sounds like a really cool thing to do. I’d rather go do that, right? But the world is deeply inaccessible so this is what we’re doing. And I think that as we get more and more awareness of these things, it’s going to take people participating in different ways.

So the work that we do on projects and capital builds and, you know, helping people roll out various technologies and inventing solutions, that’s one aspect of the work. But there is also what can you do if you’re a professor listening to this? What can you do if you are a student in a program? Maybe you’re a graduate student looking for a topic, right?

And there’s a lot of work to be done just academically and pedagogically in being multi-disciplinary and inclusive in all the ways we think about this, whether you’re in a music program, architecture program, museum studies, philosophy, it just it simply doesn’t matter. We need to be incorporating this way of thinking into these different disciplines so that then we’re churning out more and more humans that bring those values and also that knowledge to their first job and are advocating for that stuff.

Abby: And are there any articles that our listeners could use to learn more about this?

Sina: I wrote one for, actually, 2 for AAM, the American Alliance of Museums. One is some website accessibility tips and tricks, and that one is just some hands-on stuff. What do you do about media? What do you do about things like headings and links and all the stuff that people talk about when it comes to digital and web accessibility.

Another one is how do you procure? How do you buy stuff with inclusion at its core? How do you not triple or quadruple pay for accessibility where you hire somebody like my firm, then you hire your developers, then you pay them once to make something, then we critique it, then you pay them to fix it. This is a terrible cycle. We are just tripling the cost and this leads by the way, to that perception of accessibility being expensive.

Imagine, if you will, where your basic requirement, your acceptance criteria for the work is that it is inclusive and accessible. All of a sudden, people play ball. All of a sudden, if they want to go for that contract, they’re going to do it in a better way, and they’re going to listen to all of that advice upfront.

And we recently saw this, you know, the Obama folks released a media RFP, but they had some requirements in there. They said all of your proposals must be accessible. And guess what? It was the first RFP process I’ve ever participated in, where I could read every single proposal that was submitted. And so essentially, that’s the trick, right? Like, that one sentence that that team put into the language of the RFP all of a sudden made all think about visual descriptions and how they were laying out their documents and font faces and things like this.

So procurement is kind of boring. It’s dry. It’s the meeting you can sleep through. But it matters so much because the ways in which we spend the money are one of the most powerful things we’ve got as tools in a capitalistic society. And if we attach to that expenditure our requirements, real honest to goodness, not performa requirements around accessibility and inclusion, then we can have massive, you know, sustainable and systemic impact.

Brenda: Wow, Sina, well, I am a professor, and I can guarantee you my graduate students who are just about to enter into their thesis work are going to be very delighted to learn about you and your work and hold on to your hat because you might be getting a ton of contacts from them. We shall see. But it’s been absolutely delightful listening to you, and I want to thank you for your time and sharing your long-term optimism with us.

Abby: Yes, thank you so much, Sina. It’s always wonderful to chat, and a transcript of today’s show will be available to accompany this podcast.

Sina: Thank you so much for having me.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram Guest Sina Bahram

October 19, 2022 47min 48sec
Exhibition Versus Experience

Exhibition Versus Experience

October 19, 2022
Listen now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda respond to the current influx of questions about the differences between what industries deem to be “exhibitions” and “experiences”, and why the conversation matters. Are experiences always event or program-driven? Where do content, learning, transformation, and meaning-making fit in? Does thinking about experience mean that we are thinking more about audiences? In a special Tech Talk segment, we look at advances and trends in technology that might be useful and inspiring when creating an experience.

AAM Core Standards for Museums
Brooklyn Children’s Museum – NBBJ | ESI Design
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
Boston Children’s Museum
Mark Rothko: The Seagram Murals – Display at Tate Britain

City Museum
Carnegie Museum –Tim Pearce TikTok
Black Country Living Museum –1920s Grandad TikTok

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor. My friends call me Abby.

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan. Abby, my friends call me Professor.

Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast on the gigantic topic of exhibition versus experience. What are the differences, if any, and why does it matter? We’re going to look at how exhibitions were traditionally defined and how and why is this changing. I first want to acknowledge that this is a topic for about 10 hours of the show. Right, Brenda?

Brenda: Oh, yes. I teach in an M.A. degree program in exhibition and experience design. So, Abby, we can safely put it at several hundreds of hours.

Abby: So let’s talk about a museum. Museums have been around for a long, long, long time, and they’re traditionally places for collections of artifacts. And the exhibition portion is what the public gets to see, which is usually part of the collection of a museum. Recently, these exhibitions have been asked to become experiences. So what we’re here to talk about today is sort of any commonalities between exhibits and experiences and any differences between an exhibition and an experience.

Abby: The definition of an exhibition is, I quote, a public display of works of art or items of interest held in an art gallery or museum or at a trade fair. So I think we can probably all pretty much agree. That sounds like an exhibition to me. What about you, Brenda?

Brenda: Sure. Did you get that from Merriam-Webster?

Abby: I got it from Google.

Brenda: Google. Thank you, Google. I think that, sure, it’s important to have a grounding. And I know that we’re going to dive in in terms of really looking at the sort of the semantics. But one of the things that’s really, really important to me to point out is the idea that experiences are somehow new or that experience in relationship to exhibitions is new because it’s not.

If we go back to the 1970s and look at Ed Schlossberg’s work with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, we are seeing pristine experience design. If you look at any children’s museum or science center, all of them museums, right, recognized as museums, you automatically are looking at all of the kinds of elements that we use to define experience design, immersion, kinesthetic, we’re looking at interactivity, audience-driven and I think that, you know, I began doing work in children’s museums 30 years ago, and I think that it’s kind of weird in a way to be talking so much about experience design because it kind of was, you know, do they use the expression in Britain, cut your milk teeth? I cut my milk teeth on creating, you know, children’s exhibits, which is all experience design. So I don’t know that you can really extract the two.

Abby: So way back then, 30 years ago when you were working in museums, children’s museums, did you ever use the term experience for your exhibitions? Like was it something ever synonymous with what you were doing or was it something you were doing and you didn’t realize it?

Brenda: Probably both. And look, you know, we talked endlessly about experience, but experience design was just not on trend. It wasn’t the language or the lingo that was being used. At the time, in the early nineties, when I was working in children’s museums, there was an enormous push to look at education and outcomes, and there was a tremendous amount of work that we were doing with the, at the time, it was the American Association of Museums, now the American Alliance of Museums. We were working tremendously with AAM and looking at their standards of excellence in museum exhibition, and they’re all experiential.

Abby: No, they are. I’m so happy you brought up AAM’s standards of excellence because they’ve been there for so long, and one of them for museum exhibitions said, and I quote, An exhibition is successful if it’s physically, intellectually and emotionally engaging and accessible to those who, wait for it, experience it. As we think about what an experience is today in a museum, one of the things I think they have to have is that interactivity, that communication, that conversation, whether it be physically or from an intellectual perspective.

Brenda: I think that the idea of human development is what drives, especially the early great children’s museums. We’re talking about Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Boston Children’s Museum, and well, I could go on from there, but those were really the first two. And the whole idea was to provide experiences and environments for experiences that help children grow and learn in a natural way.

But at the end of the day, the idea of interactivity and play and design is just as much for adults. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Abby I don’t know. The idea that adults play too and that interaction, kinesthetic experience, multisensory experience, engaging with objects, it’s not, it’s not just for kids anymore. It’s always been for adults. It’s just the profession is only just now, I think catching up with that.

Abby: I think things like, I totally agree, I think recently things like Roblox and other games, and so I agree. I think that the atmosphere that we’re designing in right now is a very open one to be able to incorporate play and maybe education also has sort of slowly turned more to understand that play and interaction actually helps people retain and learn.

I feel that that is where education has lagged and museums, more traditional museums have also lagged behind in terms of that. So let’s talk about experience versus exhibition. Tell us a little bit about the definition as far as the standards of excellence go.

Brenda: Sure, and I should just put out there, I really struggle to separate the two. Exhibition versus experience. I don’t think it’s a versus. I think that they really are two faces of the same coin or just two different perspectives.

Abby: I want to interject with a question then. Does that mean you think that every exhibition needs to be experiential or have an experience tied to it?

Brenda: I think that every exhibition does have an experience tied to it. I think that once you have a visitor in an environment engaging with content in, you know, in whatever way, engaging with the environment, you’ve got an experience.

It’s important for us to recognize the nature of humans and the physical, the intellectual, the emotional framework that is the human being. And every time people go into, especially into a designed environment that has been curated, that has been designed by a creative team that’s gone through all of the elements of design, I think that you are going to have engagement in those three primary ways, and I think that that’s what experience ultimately is.

It’s the human having the experience within the space. I think the great spaces have thought about that and have designed towards that and that welcome people to engage intellectually, physically, emotionally.

Abby: Right, and we’re not talking about a bad versus good experience here. We’re talking about an experience based on what the curator or the team were trying to share, the design team.

Brenda: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s also we need to make sure that we get in there, that we’re also not just talking about museums, but we’re talking about and certainly, these days, branded environments, retail environments, trade shows, expos, spectaculars. You know, we’ve got so much that is happening right now on intimate scales and on grand scales, and with innovative uses of media, all of the same defining elements apply in terms of human experience no matter what.

In any of these kinds of environments, we’re having the physical, the emotional, and the intellectual experience. And ideally, people get what they want. They feel good about what they have experienced.

Abby: I’m just thinking as we discuss that an experience and exhibition are one and the same. It’s interesting to even question what an exhibition is today. So I just visited a pop-up in the Meatpacking District yesterday. It was laid out, it looked very similar to an exhibition, but it was actually a store. The pop-up had a product in which like when you go into a traditional museum and they have artifacts, it had text panels explaining all about the product.

It had labels identifying the product and a call to action. Everything was really well designed. When you talk about messaging, it’s all on point. There was hands-on moments where you could touch things and interact. They had hair clips. You could take off, try on and there was a huge glass mirror there so you could actually look at yourself in them.

There was a lot of intention that had gone into the design of the space and the presentation of the objects, very much similar to an exhibition. They knew their target audience. Everything was totally geared to that. But in my opinion, one of the shortcomings was that it lacked what I would call cultural significance. Its aim, at the end of the day overall, was to sell me some stuff.

The satisfaction from an experience perspective was pretty low level. It wasn’t intellect actually, or very emotionally engaging, but I did have a basic interaction, and so I would call this an experience.

Brenda: I think that, you know, first of all, the expectations that you had going in clearly did not match up with what you got. And we’re going to be talking in a different episode with the brilliant John Falk, who’s going to talk about the meaning of, to him, education and exhibits and the idea of satisfaction as well. I don’t know that the whole point is necessarily to get an education and certainly not in the one that you were experiencing.

So if you were kind of expecting to learn something new that could certainly be why it just really wasn’t hitting the right marks for you. One of the people who I go back to as well and I think of is another one of these museum greats, Dan Spock. And he once gave a cool definition that exhibitions are the medium of media, written words, sound, image, moving image, performance, digital media. And he says that when an environment has all of these and yet it retains its inherent exhibit-ness, then you’ve got a great experience. You’ve got a great exhibition. And really, one of the delicious things about being in exhibition design is that you’ve got the entire candy shop, you’ve got it all, you’ve got so many tools and toys to work with.

Even exhibitions that are didactic or they’re static. There’s always a lot going on beneath the surface that you’ll hear the word numinous experience when people have encounters with objects and objects that are very evocative. People have sensory experiences in environments that are so moving to them, and it’s subjective, and again, it’s based on what their expectations are, what their motivations are, what their desires are. But experience is not always something that you can see happening is an important point to me.

So you could have gone into an exhibition that has not had a ton for you to, let’s say, play with or be super stimulated by. But you still could have a very moving experience, and you could still have what to you would be a really great experience in a designed environment.

Abby: I think back actually to when I was 12 years old in the Tate Gallery in London, surrounded by Mark Rothko’s and all my classmates. Yes, it was a fundamental moment in my life. For some reason, I stopped and paused, and I looked around and I couldn’t move for about an entire hour and I was completely transformed and transfixed, and that experience was unbelievable. I still remember the way I feel to this very day.

Nobody else in my class had that. That was just something that I had in relation to the Rothkos around me. I think it’s interesting also that we aim to create an experience for everybody to enjoy, but a lot of it depends on what a person is bringing into the space, what experiences they’ve had before, and what experiences they’re hoping to have.

Brenda: Part of how I really love thinking about this is that visitors are responsive, but they’re also drivers of their own experience because they come with expectations. And there are things that we want. We have chosen, we have self-selected to go to a particular place, to have a particular experience on some level we have gone there even if we’re a tagalong and are going there because, okay, the husband wants to go here. You bet. I will absolutely come along with you and I’d really rather be wherever.

Abby: Oh, come on. You’ve never agreed to go along with your husband.

Brenda: I always agree to go because he’s wonderful and I just can’t, just, I always want to spend time with him. I’m serious. But the point of the matter is we set ourselves up to have a certain kind of experience. And what is interesting, I think, is when an experience is designed for, being that it has multi senses, let’s say, or it’s accounting for as many different physical modalities as possible and there’s emotional aspects to it, then all of the sudden we get to be responsive and let’s say, you know, in a situation if I am a tagalong, all of a sudden I get to be responsive to an environment where I really was not very willing to give myself over. I can also direct my experience. I think that experience design is a dance. It’s a, it really is a dynamic conversation between an environment and a visitor.

Abby: That’s what I was going to add, because I was going to say I’d describe it as, I guess, contrary to a film, which is a monologue, you’re being talked to, you’re not being asked any questions. Your participation is purely to sit and absorb. And I feel like experience and experience design is all about the dialog, and it’s about that interaction, it’s about that conversation.

And that’s what really creates this immersive experience and something that’s long-lasting, something that you feel part of. I mean, how many times have I been in an amazing exhibit, and you are invited to give your point of view or your legacy, and then you feel like you’re part of that institution. So I think it operates on a really profound level when you can start to have those connections with the visitors and that really incredible experience.

So when we’re thinking about breaking down the differences between exhibitions and experiences, do experiences without driving narratives have an easier time of it? Is it harder to reach people when you have a specific story you have to tell? So the opposite of film, I guess, where a good story moves you and a film without much of a story loses you.

Looking at spectaculars as experiences, do they get away with a lot because they really don’t have to tell a beginning, a middle and an end. They just have to have people leaving, going. Wow. Wow. What was that, question mark?

Brenda: So what do you mean by getting away with a lot? What are they getting away with?

Abby: They’re getting away with being able to show you something big because scale is usually linked to these things. So it’s big scale either in terms of square footage or meterage or ginormous screens or something truly hugely immersive. And then, if you don’t have to tell a narrative, then you don’t have to worry about a direct story. You can show something fun and playful, and abstract.

It doesn’t have to have a set parameter. It doesn’t have to communicate any facts. A lot of the historical museums we work on have to convey facts. It’s part of their backbone, and they’ve got to be factually accurate. With some of these bigger spectacles, I think it’s more about being there with a crowd and sharing a common moment.

Brenda: So there’s a lot there. And the first thing I have to do is I have to respond to your super exuberant description of these big awe environments. And I’m just, I’m sorry, I’m going to get just slightly scholarly about this, but it is so exciting. There is work that has been done and it’s called small self. When you are in a place and you suddenly feel really small, it ignites something in the human animal.

It is absolutely amazing, and it is spectacular and true to the terms that is used oftentimes to describe or capture these really giant over the top events and experiences that are created these days. Part of why you love those moments and why so many people love those moments is that there is something in the feeling of the world as much larger than I or things are much larger than I that actually kind of helps us psychologically. It literally kind of grounds us, which is a very good kind of feeling. And it also makes us feel prosocial. When you’re in an environment like that, oftentimes, you know, maybe a stranger will sort of maybe lean over to you and say, Can you believe that? Yeah.

Abby: There’s a commonality of it, right? We’re all experiencing it together. You do feel one of many. And so in that most people take great comfort.

Brenda: Yeah. When I was listening to you, I was thinking about the super brilliant City Museum in St. Louis. And so, it’s lush. It’s, if you haven’t seen the space, I have to give a blanket apology to the creators of the City Museum because I am so awkwardly going to try to properly capture you in a description. But it is an artist generated museum and the entire space is recycled, repurposed, upcycled, crafted objects, environments made out of hand-sculpted materials, and the entire building includes elements of other buildings. And for all of our listeners, Abby is making a wow expression.

Abby: I am making a wow face.

Brenda: She is making a wow face, and it is well justified. So the whole institution is this artwork, and the narrative is the environment. And this is where I see this really gorgeous sort of syncopation between experience, designed environment, built environment, and story.

Abby: So did you leave with that feeling of the human interaction with this geographic area and the kind of people that were there and the kind of buildings? And when you walk away, when you think back on it and you remove the experience, what did you learn?

Brenda: I learned, I think about other people sharing the space with me. And part of that again is I want to pick up on your wow experience, that became, as per the nature of awe experiences, it became kind of like a very resonant, shared social connector. And because every single thing that you were seeing, touching, interacting with was literally a physical part of the city created by people of the city in terms of learning something, I feel like I learned about other people. I learned about myself quite a bit, I must say.

Abby: And I think at the end of the day, you know, we can argue semantics or experience versus exhibition. I think ultimately the goal is that of both is to learn a little bit more about who you are and your place in the world. So it sounds like St. Louis is a place that I need to go visit and check out that museum. It sounds incredible.

Brenda: It is.

Abby: I think about one of the major differences potentially between the exhibition and experience is you always want to get visitor participation upfront. It’s incredibly important if you want to make a successful exhibition, when you think about the location of the exhibition, the target audience, you really need that visitor participation ahead of time to make sure that what you build is for the community.

I think that is less of a concern when you’re talking about these pure experiences, some of the branded experiences, where of course they know their target audience if it’s a brand or a product. But there’s less of that conversation that goes on about what’s going to be created.

And then multiple touch points, thinking about multiple touchpoints before an exhibition opens. How is this museum or exhibition communicating to the public before the doors officially open? What’s that strategy? How could you replicate the narrative online and talk to the audience about the stories before it opens? And then when we look at the designer’s perspective, there are no differences between exhibition and experience design, I believe, in today’s world. I think what’s changed is all the tools the designer needs in order to design a great exhibition or experience.

So you’re talking about understanding media, video, interactives, you know how you design an interface, how users interact with that interface, how they sit and enjoy media or walk by and enjoy media. AR, a whole new arena. VR, another one. And then, if you add on top of that the metaverse, you have this ginormous toolbox that our designers have at their fingertips to create these unbelievable immersive exhibitions.

And then we move to curators. Curators really need to work with companies that can help them tell their story using this broader toolset. It’s really difficult for curators to keep up on what’s actually going to stick, so it takes them a long time to be persuaded, and sometimes I feel a little frustrated that you can see all the other industries that are providing these experiences and our more traditional museums haven’t got there yet.

Brenda: Well, large or small, I think that something I want to pull out something that you said earlier, which is that an element of design, I think, it’s definitely happening right now and it’s increasing is audience participation and I think of co-creation. And I see that as a very valuable and a really vital element of design that I think should be in those standards of excellence as AAM updates its work in upcoming years.

I think that co-creation, audience participation in the actual generation of experiences of the exhibition environments is critical. And related to that, I think that another element of design that is starting to really appear on the radar and being done really effectively is social action. I mean that specifically as an element of design, something that designers need to be trained in.

I know that we do social action as an element of design in our program and because our designers need to not only have that enormous tool kit that you just went through but in a sensitivity towards and a knowledge of all of the different roles that people are playing on our client teams. But social action, they need to understand the fact that whatever the kind of environment is, is a part of society. It is a part of our culture, it is a part of distinct cultures, and it’s a part of human culture. So to create these forms for experiences, but then also enable people to be prompted towards positive action.

Abby: Yeah, I totally agree. There’s nothing worse than actually going through an exhibition, being completely motivated, touched and moved, and thinking, Well, what do I do now? I’m now completely frustrated, I feel useless, and nobody’s providing me with any way to help or do something or any action items. And again, when you think of Gen-Zers, I think of them in this positive way, all that they’ve sort of brought to us is bringing into focus this idea of positive action. And I feel like they almost demanded it. They’ve grown up in a world where they want to make a difference, be given this opportunity to act and be heard. And speaking from experience with my two teenage girls, that’s what I live every day. So I think social media has a lot to do with why they are the way they are.

It’s provided this platform since they were born to find a community, a place to speak out, show their passions, and really get support in large numbers. And I think that’s what they demand from their exhibition experiences.

Brenda: Abby, we have only scratched the surface.


Abby: So. Brenda, let’s move on to Tech Talk, where we look at any advances or trends in technology that are happening that might be useful and inspiring in creating an experience.

Brenda: Abby, I am going to just make a quick plug about TikTok and how the app, which apparently is thought of as being most popular among 13 to 21 year olds, although I’m in my fifties and I know an awful lot of folks in my age group who absolutely love TikTok, TikTok reaches over 1 billion people.

I’m mentioning TikTok because very recently I read a piece that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has posted 12 films on TikTok, and they have been attracting over 1.5 million views, which is more people than visited all four institutions in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh last year. And these TikTok videos are these brilliant little pieces of Tim Pearce, who is a curator at the museum. Who, folks, he tells snail jokes. That’s it. It is our beloved curator telling snail jokes, and it is reaching that number of audience. It’s absolutely amazing. So I want to put in a plug and highly recommend that museums play with TikTok. It’s your friend.

Abby: I think that’s absolutely fantastic. I just love the authentic delivery. I also wanted to give a shout-out to the Black Country Living Museum in Birmingham in the UK. They also use TikTok, especially during COVID, and they got a third of a million followers since using the platform in August. So this particular video features Grandfather giving out advice from the 1920s, you know, like all of our grandfathers do, tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. And it went viral. They even actually got on the official UK TikTok 100 chart, believe it or not.

So I think that’s kind of amazing. So they take their actors, their docents from the museum and brought them to life on TikTok in these very short little vignettes, really well produced. They’re all in costume. They’re in location at the museum, telling stories, singing songs. It’s really brought the museum visitor experience to life on TikTok. So not only did they get a global audience, but it really worked during the pandemic, which I think, you know, is a great use of social media and has really pushed social and pushed digital to the forefront of a museum’s thinking, given that, you know, we don’t know when the next pandemic may happen. Yes, I said it, ladies and gentlemen.

Brenda: Oh, Abby!

Abby: Sorry. Better to be safe than sorry, that’s what I say.

Brenda: Well, pandemic or no pandemic TikTok is certainly not going away any time soon. And the truth of the matter is, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun.

Abby: So that’s all that we’ve got for today. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. Please send us any thoughts, suggestions.

Brenda: Tik Tok Videos.

Abby: And tune in next week.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Exhibition Versus Experience

Exhibition Versus Experience

October 19, 2022

Meet your hosts

Abigail Honor

Abigail Honor

Abby is a founding partner at Lorem Ipsum, an experiential design agency, and has over 23 years of experience in storytelling through physical and digital design. She has crafted dynamic and inspiring narratives for global brands, companies and institutions, using cutting-edge technology to communicate compelling and thoughtful messages. Abby has won multiple design, film and directing awards such as the SEGD Honor Award, HOW International Design Award, Muse Award, to name a few, and maintains affiliation with associations including SEGD, AIGA, and the American Advertising Federation.
Brenda Cowan

Brenda Cowan

Brenda Cowan is a professor and former Chairperson of Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design at SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology. Brenda is a Fulbright Scholar in the disciplines of museums and mental health, and her theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics (2015) has been presented for the American Alliance of Museums; Museums of Hope; MidAtlantic Association of Museums; National Museums of World Culture, Sweden; and has been published with the National Association for Museum Exhibition; Society for Environmental Graphic Design; O Magazine; and Huffington Post Science. She is currently co-editing a volume on the subject of flourishing in museums.

Inspiring Encounters

It’s a big world out there! Life is just brimming with things that make us pause, think, scream, squeal, chuckle or simply smile. We want to hear about the weirdest, strangest, most curious or just beautiful things that have inspired you and feature them in our special segment Strangely Inspiring Encounters. Submit your encounter to our producer Anton:

Double Take

What was that you just read? Submit your recommendations of industry press and media pieces that shouldn’t be missed and we will share the wealth in our special segment Double Take. Submit a link or pdf of that news that can’t be missed to:

I have a question not answered here, who should I contact?

If you have a question for Brenda and Abby or feedback you’d like to share with the team, email our producer Anton at