Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Some things not learned in school: mud, money, and making people put away their stupid phones

I am probably doing this right now! Unless you're reading it in
the future, in which case I'm done now. Photo: Mixing cob for an 
oven at the University of Washington. By Josh Larios via Flickr.
So although I am away from the internet right now making stuff out of mud, I was incredibly productive in the days before I left and actually managed to write posts in advance! I know this is true because here I am in the past, writing them, even though you're reading them in the future, except now it's the present. For you, I mean. (And presumably for me, wherever I am. Why isn't there a separate verb tense for this kind of crap?) Anyway, I thought I would entertain you briefly while I was away by explaining that my whole idea of volunteering at the Exploratorium (free education and possible job opportunities!) instead of getting a graduate degree in Museum Studies (totally expensive and not any guarantee of employment whatsoever!) is totally working. For example, today I learned something extremely and wildly important that I probably would not have learned about museums in my first month of school. Want to know what it is? Of course you do.
Museum signs are expensive, yo.

I'm probably not allowed to tell you the exact amount, although nobody told me I couldn't. See, I'm helping out in the graphics department at the moment, which is all kinds of awesome. If you've ever been to the Exploratorium, you might've noticed that all the exhibit signs don't exactly have a unified look to them. They're from all different eras, and they've got all sorts of different shapes and sizes and colors, and each exhibit is signed a little differently. Usually I'm all for groovy bucking of conformity, but actually it is a little confusing to have every single sign set up differently, so you're not sure from sign to sign where the instructions or the explanations are. Because every exhibit is interactive, and actually does something, having the instructions and questions to ask and what-the-hell-is-happening texts set up in a cohesive way is actually very helpful. Also, some of the signs are really, REALLY old. (My dad worked there in the early 80s, and some of the signs he wrote are still there. I've probably told you this before. Oh god, I'm getting old already. )

So, as part of the epic move to Pier 15, they're redoing all the signs. And I get to help. (I drew a chair! You will see my drawing if you go to the new Exploratorium next spring!) As I help, I learn all sorts of things - about the exhibits themselves, and how people use them, and how people use signs, and all sorts of stuff. I also, today, got to see how much the signs cost. We're talking, like 11"x17" here, not like dozens of feet. But a dozen signs is easily a month's rent for me. I know, I know, I'm a broke artist, I keep saying, but this is the SF Bay Area I'm talking about and it is not cheap to live here. Part of the reason? They're solid, sturdy signs. This is a hands-on science museum, and as one staff member put it to me philosophically, "anything that can be banged on them gets banged on them." They're supposed to last; over 500,000 people visit the museum every year.

Here's Frank, by David Barker, Explo Art
Director for Institutional Media, from
the Exploratorium WikiCommons page
Something I would never have thought of: budgeting for signs. I mean, sure, they probably woulda got around to teaching me that at museum school eventually. But that's not the same as watching your boss put in the order for all the signs you've just been working on, deedle deedle dee, and bam, watching it come up in the thousands. No wonder museums have huge operating budgets. Did you know Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium (who, incidentally, is having his 100th birthday celebration this weekend - yes, he's dead, but you can still eat cake), opened the place in 1969 with a $50,000 grant? You know what that would get these days? A hearty roar of disbelieving laughter, that's what. I think about half of that is sufficient to pay for the signage alone. (Secretly I imagine managing to create a start-up budget of $50,000 for my museum. It ain't gonna happen, but a girl can dream.)

Also, people here are super creative. So I have this thing where I think cellphones, especially cell phones with cameras, are a really horrible drain on our ability to actually have meaningful experiences of the world. When you're busy taking pictures of an exhibit, you're not actually engaging with it. I've been thinking for a long time about ways to ban camera & cellphone use in the Museum of Joy in a way that won't make people furiously angry and/or resentful. (I mean, even the fact that I know perfectly well that a request like "please refrain from cellphone or camera use inside the Museum" would be seen as ridiculous and unreasonable is in itself an indication of how addicted we are to our devices.) I was talking to my Explo boss about this today as we were walking around the floor. Some kind of punishment would totally not work, I was saying, because it would make people upset, and that would have the opposite effec of, um, my whole museum.

Well, he said reasonably, it can't be punitive. Why not make it rewarding? Turn it into a game. Give people a reason to explore the museum without their phone. Challenge them to put their devices away, and give incentives or rewards for doing it - stickers, whatever, just something that will push them to actually think about how hard it is to put the phone away, and make them excited to experiment with what it's like to just see with their eyes as opposed to through their devices.

(You see why I like hanging out here?) Yeah! I said. Or have them spend half an hour in a gallery while using their cellphones, and another half hour without, and ask them if they experienced it differently.

In fact, he said, you could even go further. Ask them to take their blood pressure when using their device, and then again after half an hour of experiencing the museum without it. All kinds of things. You just have to think creatively.

What do you think, friends? What would get you to put down your phone, tuck away your camera, and just be in a place? What kind of encouragement or incentive or reminder would compel you to do that?


  1. I went to see Green Day a couple of years ago. My husband and I were on the floor and almost everyone around us had their cell phones in the air taking pictures or videotaping the concert instead of being present. And why? So that they could post a picture on facebook? At one point, Billy Jo said, "Put your fucking phones away and enjoy the show."
    I do not have a smart phone nor do I want one. I've always been more inclined to not take pictures because I'd rather be in the moment and enjoy myself. Sure, my kids will have missing photographic gaps in their lives, but at least their mom was there without a camera/phone separating her from what was going on.
    Maybe you could take digital pictures at your museum and people could go on your website to get them. That way their free to enjoy themselves.

    1. I was thinking about this during the workshop, actually. Even though there were so many amazing things going on, I was always too busy (and too covered in mud) to pick up a camera! The only pictures I took were in the mornings & evenings, when I documented the progress we'd made on the building. That was what felt important. It makes me wonder if the solution is just to get people so completely engaged that they forget their phones are even there.

  2. I'm kind of a nerd that what jumped out of this at me is "never thought of budgeting for signs..." I work in marketing and cover a lot of trade shows. Much of my life is budgeting for signs! :)

    1. Hahaha, now I can understand that! It's amazing the things you learn about the inside workings of an industry that the casual participant never thinks of and yet utterly depends upon.

  3. I don't have any kind of portable device that isn't -just- a camera. For me, the camera is a way to take pictures of my kids doing things, which is a form of enjoyment for me. I don't want anything beyond that, though.

    You know, you could always generate some kind of low level EM pulse that would make all the electronic devices not work. heh

    1. I've thought of that, actually. I just don't want to be that draconian - or for people to get angry and frustrated because something is being taken from them. I'd rather create an environment, if I can, that positively influences people to choose meaningfully for themselves, instead of forcing my ideas on them.

    2. Well, I was -mostly- joking. :P

  4. Great post! I think you're right. More and more education is becoming a take-your-life-into-your-own-hands-by-going-out-and-educating-yourself-and-getting-experience kind of thing. Higher education is great, but very expensive and has no guarantees attached. I really liked this post! :D

    1. Thanks, Liesel! I completely agree - now more than ever. Reading this now that I'm back, I can safely say the workshop was one of the most worthwhile investments of time, money and energy I can ever imagine making. The whole story is on its way :)


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