For those of you who can't or choose not to watch the video, Bela was sitting in NBC's New York studio with Bob Costas, reacting energetically and effusively to Nastia's routine. He pounded his fist, clapped his hands and repeatedly exclaimed, "yes, yes!" and "she is an Olympic champion"--and I felt it. Watching him watch her didn't teach me more about gymnastics, but it exposed me to a world of passion about it. It taught me how to care about gymnastics. And that got me thinking about how bad museums are at doing the same thing--using passion to promote visitor engagement in new content.
Museums shy away from presenting passionate views. It's ironic that we expect visitors to fall in love with our artifacts and exhibitions without ever presenting Bela-like models for that kind of passion. I think there are many visitors who wander into museums the same way they'd wander into a foreign sporting event--they don't know what's going on, why people care, and most importantly, why they should care. At a sporting event, there are little Belas everywhere yelling at refs and hooting with glee. By following the cheering, newcomers can start to understand what parts of the game are most valued, and get a window into the deep love some fans show for the sport.
Museums don't have a cheering section. As visitors walk through galleries, it's easy to wonder: where does this stuff come from? Why is it here? Who cares? Museums do a decent job addressing the first two questions, but we rarely tackle the third. The use of an "objective" authoritative voice makes it hard for visitors to assign value or significance to items with which they don't already have a connection. Most museums train their docents to maintain an objective, neutral tone, so they aren't conveying their passion either.
This passion avoidance affects more than just how visitors perceive museums--it affects the kind of content we can convincingly convey. I was recently in a meeting at a museum with a wonderful natural history collection, discussing how we might use their collection to convey urgency about global warming, deforestation, and other natural resource issues. One of the participants commented that scientists are often passionate, even spiritual, about their work when you get them alone--but they never show that face to the world. The fear of professional stigma and the desire to appear objective silences their passion. The love that drives these scientists is off-limits to exhibit designers, even if that love is the key to unlocking related appreciation on the part of visitors.
One astute participant pointed out that "you have to love nature to want to save it." Everyone nodded in assent... and then continued to grapple without how we could inspire visitors' love without presenting love of our own.
It's not going to work. Sure, some people are passionately inspired by museum exhibits--but those are probably people who are already fans of the content or the institution. There are many more visitors walking in without context, without comprehension. They may leave with some facts, but that's not enough to teach them to love the game. This relates to this post from last year about the Creation Museum--when Paul Orselli commented:
The Creation Museum has gathered the "holy trinity" (sorry!) of storytelling in passion, people, and purpose.Let's not leave passion to the NBCs and Creation Museums of this world. We need to let out our inner fans, the Belas that got us into this business in the first place, and give ourselves permission to tell the deep, passionate stories. We need to tell the funny stories, show our anger, gasps in delight, and help visitors do the same. If we can "co-anchor" our standard content with some passion, we can start help visitors tackle the "why" of exhibitions along with the "what."
Each aspect of their "three ps" is clear and unapologetic. Director Ham has a missionary zeal in getting his simple message across ("everything in the Bible is literally true AND science supports it.)
By contrast, who, most often, delivers the message of science museums? Marketing and Development departments by and large. By the time the "marketing package" is developed for an exhibition much of the original purpose and passion are wrung dry.
And then maybe someone who didn't get it before will learn how to care.