Going Rogue: A Focus on Conversation and Co-Creation in Digital Learning and Interpretation at MoMA

May 10, 2019 - All

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Let me paint the scene, two years ago I was sitting at my desk in my tiny Brooklyn apartment where I worked remotely for a company in Upstate New York. Working from home is great in theory but in reality when you’re sitting at a desk alone day in and day out, especially in a new city, it can be very isolating and lonely. My job involved a decent amount of data entry and podcasts were always a good source of entertainment while completing monotonous tasks. One day while scrolling through Instagram on lunch there was a post from The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) featuring Abbi Jacobson in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. As a Broad City fan and new MoMA member I was immediately intrigued. Turned out MoMA had made a podcast!

Listening to Abbi talking with her friends, the curators, and others about the works in MoMA’s collection felt like I was there walking through the galleries with a good friend. Hannah Hethmon, a podcaster in her own right (Museums in Strange Places), says that podcasts are a more personal medium than most and I felt that personal connection to A Piece of Work podcast. Fast forward to a couple years later at the Museum Computer Network (MCN) 2018 conference in Denver, wandering into a session about museum podcasts on a whim and seeing Kelly Cannon, Associate Educator, Interpretation, Research and Digital Learning at MoMA, on the panel describing the backstory behind A Piece of Work. I was abnormally excited and definitely geeked out after the session. How could something as simple as a podcast have turned me into an even bigger MoMA fan? Was it part of a larger digital strategy? I needed to know more about how MoMA’s education team created a digital product that was so engaging. So I sat down and had a conversation with Jenna Madison, Assistant Director of Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning at MoMA, and Kelly Cannon to discuss the podcast but also how that great experiment paved the way for future digital strategies with regards to interpretation and education, as well as cross-departmental collaboration.

To start, let’s get an idea of your personal background and what brought you to MoMA.

Jenna Madison: Sure, I have two degrees in Art History, got my Master’s in art history and very happenstance ended up taking an internship during graduate school at SFMOMA on their Interactive Technologies team. So I worked on, what was then a brand new program, called Making Sense of Modern Art. It was a digital learning tool and it started as a teacher resource and then it evolved into a more general public interface that you could use on kiosks in the galleries but also online. From there I went to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where I was a Coordinator of Museum Interpretation. Most of my career I’ve worked in interpretation which is basically trying to tell the stories in the most accessible straightforward, hopefully fun, and interesting ways. I tend to work primarily with label copy, so either writing or editing or both and then I oversee the audio program here, which I also oversaw at the High and various other places I’ve worked along the way. Then I switched gears slightly to the Denver Art Museum, I’m originally from Denver, and was invited to apply to a position that oversaw their participatory spaces. It was a wonderful experience.

Then this position [Assistant Director of Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning] came about and it just made sense to throw my hat in the ring. It’s a really exciting moment at the Museum of thinking about where we are, where we want to go, and what those possibilities look like. Part of that has been just an incredible amount of experimentation, really having the go-ahead to push the envelope and test out new strategies, new platforms, new types of resources and engagement for different audiences, particularly in thinking about this expanded campus that will be re-opening in October. It’s been really fun it’s one of those things where you are like can I get away with this, let’s try. For the most part we do get a lot of green lights and so it’s been really interesting to see what sticks and what doesn’t and also to sort of go through a process of reflection and re-evaluation of content that we’ve already developed. You know what’s really great and what can we repurpose and how can we re-cast it so that it feels new and fresh or keep it activated in terms of the kind of work that Kelly does where she’s constantly interacting with her audience segment, wanting to keep them engaged.

Kelly Cannon: All 600,000 of them.

JM: Whereas for me, I don’t get immediate feedback unless someone’s like this audio stop isn’t working. So for me it’s like you write it or you build it and you put it out into the world and you just hope that people dig it. It’s been interesting to really take stock of where we are in terms of interpretive resources as a field what those trends are now, what MoMA’s maybe not doing well, what we have done well but where we might have room to either expand or improve. It was also very much the genesis of the podcast that we launched two summers ago.

I love the podcast by the way.

JM: It’s so funny because I really love it too and it is so different from what we envisioned it would be. In a magical, wonderful way. It is very much to the credit of Abbi Jacobson, for sure. Her personality and her insights took it down a road that was even more generous and wonderful than we thought. And then I think also in terms of the way the content ended up flushing out and the works that we focused on, which sort of broadened over the span of the project, weren’t necessarily directions that we had considered and that through the partnership with WNYC, through their understanding of a broader audience. So the opportunity through that partnership and also through the brilliance of Abbi herself it helped us to take a step back, it took some of the onus off of us and it became a lot more irreverent, a lot more creative and a lot more cheeky and just light. It was much more light-hearted than I think we could have achieved, I know because we piloted it.

You did a pilot episode, what was that like?

JM: So this all started from data analytics and also a long held view by myself, but also many of my colleagues, where we just understand that in particular when you work with the public, when you teach with objects, modern and contemporary collections are challenging. My lovely colleague Alex Roediger, who works in Management Information, among many kinds of data that he analyzes for the museum, he tracks reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor. We used to have a working group that would get together, it was a cross-departmental working group, and he was one of those people. He would consistently bring us these findings where MoMA, despite the crowds, despite the ticket price, would always rank really high in visitor satisfaction and bucket list things to do. Where things started to get negative were around literally specific works of art. So where we would get negative reviews they were more often than not tied to people’s engagement or inability to engage with certain things in the collection.

So we started brainstorming how can we create something that is a self-guided opportunity that really gets down to the point and addresses people’s discomfort with modern and contemporary art and gives them an opportunity to think about it differently without foreclosing or forcing a museum perspective or authoritative interpretation. We decided we would do a very quick and dirty pilot in the galleries with one of our amazing educators who was already giving a live tour where she was problematizing works. It was awesome content, for an audio tour. It wasn’t far enough away from the MoMA narrative from the cannon that we just vomit out, frankly. It wasn’t quite an, it’s good because we say it’s good, but there was still a level of justification, like we’re building a case to tell you not only that you should appreciate it but it’s so important that you do appreciate these things that we think are so special and wonderful. It just didn’t work. We didn’t have the time, patience and probably creative bandwidth at the moment to take it all on. Then we did an RFP [Request For Proposal] and landed on a couple different possible partners. Ended up partnering with WNYC because we felt that they had a huge reach, they were tapping into audiences that may or may not be museum goers but they had the expertise. We worked with their podcast incubator.

They also had this wonderful laundry list of star power to bring to it and Abbi happened to be among those folks and she was so willing to do it even though she had like a two-week window in between filming and a vacation. So then it became these wonderful conversations, even with several of our curators who are featured. They’re the same voices that are up in our galleries for just our collection based Charlie Brown talking head audio tour, but she is disarming in a way that those conversations are so much more. I literally have an audio stop about the Duchamp bicycle wheel with the exact same curator and then when you hear her talk to Abbi about it the passion, the enthusiasm, it’s a world of difference. That’s what we wanted and we wanted these things to be really engaging.

We started out just thinking about works that are hard for people, right, and we had from Alex’s research and data collection we literally had these lists. We’d pull these spreadsheets together and be like that’s the Ryman that’s the Carl Andre, you know because people would just describe, they were angry enough by the situation that they didn’t write down the artist name from the wall plaque but you could tell and they would come up over and over and over. So we came up with a preliminary list of works that we thought should be treated and both Abbi and WNYC weighed in and they were like I think we need to expand this, I think people are going to have questions about this. So like design, or video, performance, the Turell over at PS1.

We did the heavy lifting for sure on the content. Editing transcripts, sending comments back. There was a lot of back-and-forth between us and WNYC in terms of places we just didn’t feel we could go, roads we didn’t feel we could quite go down. WNYC was responsible for the production, the sound editing, which was great because that was too much for us to take on internally. And also they know what they’re doing.

KC: They were also so good at pushing back. When we felt uncomfortable they would be like, “You hired us specifically to help you move out of that institutional voice so this is when we have to say let us do what we’re good at doing.” We had to ride through some of that discomfort and I think it was much better because of that.

JM: On the flip-side there were equally, challenging conversations where we were like no actually leave the art to us, leave the selection of artists to us. Because this is what we do and we know, one, what’s going to be on view or not.

KC: And yet we have found when testing excerpts of the podcast on site, that it doesn’t work as an audio guide. We wanted to test it just to see. The tone we like, and we want to move forward with, but actually exerting podcasts didn’t work.

Have you considered making the audio stop a conversation between two people now?

JM: Yes. So lots more of that happening. I think it taught us to be open to telling alternate stories in a way that, theoretically were always open to that, but a big part of an editorial process and certainly developing interpretive content is picking the right story for the right platform. I think the podcast really opened our eyes to the power of diversity of perspectives and multiplicity of voices. And sometimes it’s actually more interesting to hear from someone who’s not in the know or in the art world because it’s authentic, it’s a real reaction. So that’s very much part of our thinking as I redo half of the audio.

How many people within the museum were working on this?

JM: So the core team from education was myself, my boss Sara Bodenson. And then we enlisted the Assistant Director of Teen Programs and Community Partnerships, his name is Calder Zwicky. And that was pretty much it. We brought Calder in mid-way in the process. And then our team had transitioned and we brought Kelly on. Our Digital Media team not so much when we got through the RFP process. That was part of the impetus to partner with an outside podcast production company because no one on our team had the time to devote to this and to do it well and that was it. It was just the four of us?

KC: And Alex Roediger who did the analytics early on.

JM: From there Kelly and I did a lot of scheduling with curatorial voices that we thought made a lot of sense when we wanted curators. I feel like we spent two weeks solid just up in the galleries, or the conservation lab with Abbi. And then there were several things that happened offsite where WNYC would take the lead on that. And I’m not going to say it was a partnership without hiccups but I think it was a learning opportunity for both sides of the team and I think they were the best choice in terms of who we could have picked to work with. I think we absolutely exceeded our goals both in terms of reach but also impact.

KC: My favorite feedback that we would see in the ratings and reviews on iTunes was that it feels like it’s Abbi’s podcast. People would describe it as Abbi’s podcast, which I loved because it suggested that we really did step out of MoMA’s voice.

JM: MoMA was the backdrop for Abbi to have these conversations. Which was awesome and amazing because we didn’t want it to feel forced and we didn’t want it to feel curated. It was fun! It was a whirlwind but it was fun. We had less than 12 hours to turn script drafts around. It was like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, in order to meet a launch date that organizations had agreed upon for messaging and marketing purposes. It was intense but it was amazing. Abbi never skipped a beat, what a delight she is to work with. She really brought her A game every day.

Stepping outside of the podcast, was it part of a broader digital strategy on the part of the education team?

JM: Yes and no. I think it’s become a part of it. Now whether or not we would do another big project like that I think we’d always be open to working with Abbi. But again, it takes a lot of time and dedication and we often don’t have the resources.

How long did it take in total?

JM: I would say overall 4 months. So it was quick.

KC: And it felt very fast-paced towards the end as Jenna said.

JM: I think if we did it again, we would learn from that lesson and give ourselves a longer lead time. We still got great content it’s just that everyone was working under duress, which I think some of the back-and-forth conversation between us and our colleagues at WNYC a little more tense than it need be because it was just like we don’t have time. And we’re educators so we like to hash it out and brainstorm something to death. It all worked out beautifully but I do think we would be more generous with lead-time and production time, just for everyone’s sanity.

And then, in addition to Alex’s data gathering, the other thing that we were really excited about at the moment that we decided that this should become a podcast as opposed to an ancillary, check out of a device, listen while your standing in front of works of art thing, was the success of the online courses. Particularly, Seeing Through Photographs, which had launched and it was our first opportunity with our partner Coursera who was our partner for the MOOCs [Massive Open Online Course]. It was our first opportunity to do a general learner course. We had been working with them for a while but primarily developing courses for K-12 educators to teach with objects, or to teach with themes, or what have you. So the Seeing Through Photographs course had launched February of 2016 and by the fall we were seeing these phenomenal numbers. It was sort of summer into fall of 2016 that we had piloted the original podcast idea and that’s when we really started to see where the digital strategy overlap was. Here’s this thing, this Seeing Through Photographs course, which much like Abbi’s podcast, people were finding through photography, when they were searching on Coursera they were not people who were familiar with MoMA or MoMA’s collections at all. They were interested in learning more about photography. Whether it was via making or critical engagement and dialogue. The feedback we were getting, and I think still get, about that course was very much a catalyst. And the way the course was designed, it wasn’t teachy preachy, it wasn’t just an instructor, we were talking to a lot of artists.

KC: It wasn’t didactic.

JM: I think moving forward, both the courses and now the podcast have fed into really thinking about how to be, one more strategic, but also a lot more dynamic in terms of viewing our audio program as part of that engagement strategy. As something that should be just as entertaining and enjoyable if you listen to it online on home or on the app on the train as if you listen to it here with the thing. So really trying to take those two experiences and think far more broadly about the audiences we could reach, if we do it well and if we don’t make it site specific.

KC: So interesting, I didn’t know that backstory about seeing the success of Seeing Through Photographs as a general audience course and being on a different platform, with a different partnership, finding new audiences where we haven’t yet met them.

JM: Yes, exactly. And meeting them where they are out in the world. And that is a very different thing. Not everyone gets an opportunity to get to come to MoMA. Not everybody even knows what’s inside MoMA when they get here, it’s like a bucket list destination, you have no idea. A lot of people don’t know what it is they’ve come to see they just know they’re supposed to come. It definitely cemented for education but I think helped switch the thinking for other departments and senior staff that MoMA is a place of resources that we should be disseminating out into the world instead of holding them so close that people have to come here to see them. We’re in a global economy, a global environment, and the things that we chose to communicate about the works in our collection are interesting in and of themselves. We don’t have to be the keepers of knowledge, we should be a repository where people can dip in and dip out as they choose from wherever they are. And I think the courses and then the podcast not only really illuminated that for our team but it drove it home for the people that we needed to get buy-in from. Which is great because it started, I would say that these projects as well as other things have started an entire conversation about how to be welcoming and inclusive. How not to foreclose on people’s perspectives and backgrounds and the things that they bring with them. How to allow for interpretation and engagement to happen without our structuring it. I think that the success of these more global initiatives, these digital learning initiatives have definitely changed the conversation internally, which has been brilliant.

It’s interesting to hear that the education department here seems to be what’s driving more of a digital outreach? Compared to other institutions.

JM: Yes, well that depends. Digital learning was usurped at the end of 2014. Digital Learning used to be part of our Digital Media team. Now our Digital Media team and our Digital Content team are more the marketing. They’re the marketing, they’re the social media, they’re that kind of messaging. Whereas what we do with digital learning, and why we’ve drawn a line of distinction is that we produce educational content for consumption, whereas they may or may not.

KC: But now we do have this new Editorial Content Strategy team that’s brand new, they’ve been formed over the last six months to a year. And so we now do have this team that will be producing content. The YouTube team is under the Digital Content team and they’ve always been separate from Education but we have such a good partnership. Rather than saying Education is the one pushing these forward I would say that we actually just partner really well with Digital Media and other departments across the museum. We had a Chief Digital Strategist, Fiona Romeo, she was here when we started the Coursera partnership, making general audience courses on Coursera she was here, and she was also a supporter of the podcast. And she was in the Digital Media department. So it’s actually always been products of really good collaboration.

Breaking the silos?

KC: Yes.

JM: It shouldn’t go without saying that MoMA’s mission was founded as an educational institution. So I think all departments are thinking about, to greater or lesser degrees, depending on what their purview is, but we’re always trying to be mindful that we are a public institution and we need to be visitor focused or audience-centric. And I think that that’s just part of the MoMA culture, I think it’s gotten better recently, or maybe it’s just risen back to the fore. But we were when we were founded it was very much about sharing art with the public. So I think that sort of is always in our brain. To Kelly’s point particularly, with the YouTube team and our social media team, really thinking about the changing landscape of how people engage and consume digital content and what platforms they’re working on. It’s a constant conversation as part of our collaborative process. We advocate for each other’s programs and platforms too. I think there’s a lot of commonality in terms of what we think our work is supposed to do and that really helps to build these really collegial relationships internally. That also allows for us to be really nimble in terms of partnering with other organizations. While we have a stake in everything we produce, we don’t have an ego attached to it.

KC: I would also say that it allows us to be really efficient and flexible about reusing content, like we’ll plan videos for the courses that are simultaneously planned for YouTube. So we’re sort of shaping them according to the video strategy.

JM: Right, and they would be pulled for audio and vice versa. When I do audio I share all of that with our Digital Content team so that they can then figure out how they might do a teaser video on the exhibition. So there’s a lot of moving parts. And I would say in the last year-ish, we’ve gotten really smart about sharing resources instead of working in silos because it is a big place. It’s really easy to get your task and run with it and I think it’s been a really good shift in our working practice and moving forward it will continue to enable us think one, more strategically, but also just more creatively about how we use, produce, reuse, disseminate, push our own selves in terms of creating different content because learners are different, interests are different and really thinking together about what those through-lines look like and what those points of entry look like for people with different interests. Like the guy who’s wife drags him to the museum. Or the small child who really just wants to play. And the grandparents who are not leaving here without seeing Starry Night. And then for the people who can’t get here or who might not come but then who see something really awesome either via Twitter or on the website or on YouTube and they’re like well actually, that is my jam.

KC: And a lot of people we know from the learner’s stories on Coursera will never come to MoMA but this is a way for them to feel like they’re taking part, they’re learning where ever they are. They don’t have to be at the museum to still learn about art and about our collection and about the artists who are in our collection.

They’re still part of the community, even though they’ve never been onsite.

JM: And they create their own communities as well, which is really brilliant. Again much like Abbi’s podcast, there’s an ownership that we pass off and that then develops these organic lives of their own. That is something that you can not reproduce onsite. You’re not going to get five strangers chatting about a label in the galleries. There’s just this organic discourse that happens through digital platforms that I don’t think can happen in other ways. It’s brilliant in terms of just being able to put it out there, take a step back and let it go and let it grow. And it’s just not something I think museums are great at doing onsite, but online I think there’s just so much opportunity.

KC: We’ve never created Facebook groups for any of our Coursera courses but people have created three that we know of. Two are through Seeing Through Photographs and one is the Italian Seeing Through Photographs Facebook group and it’s huge, it’s really big. And then there’s another private one that the learner’s have told us about but it’s private and you have to be invited to join.

When I was doing research about Instagram Stories and Snapchat I was reading a lot about co-creation and these are great avenues for co-creation with the museum.

JM: Yes. I think it’s point-in-case, it’s about providing the invitation and then the platform. It’s about saying we do value what you bring to this conversation or to this experience, or to this work of art, or to this space. I think social has really pushed museums to have to think about what that looks like and become more generous, hopefully, with that invitation. Shift our thinking as a collection of institutions from the ivory tower keepers of knowledge to every perspective and point of view that walks through our doors or visits our website online, or takes one of our courses, those perspectives are equally as valuable. Sometimes more so because it’s not ancillary, right? I mean we have this lens onto a collection or a work of art, but the possibilities are myriad. So I think that’s where digital does something that even face to face interaction can’t often do.

Wrapping up and getting back to more of the strategy aspect, is there a specific strategy document that you have?

JM: There should be, but no it’s more, I mean I think we certainly have a couple of concrete principals we put forth. I suppose there is a course strategy and I think we have a pretty solid audio program strategy but it’s not written down anywhere, it more lives in my head. And from that we’ll iterate based on what’s sticky and what isn’t for people.

Does the museum have a digital strategy?

JM: Probably. That would probably live with our creative team. Certainly from a marketing perspective we have a digital strategy. And I would guess somewhere along the line, and I’m certain it’s evolved over time, there’s a digital learning strategy somewhere. Again it’s one of those things where you just know it, where you now what isn’t working and you pivot. But there must be something between Coursera and MoMA in terms of how we structure our courses. I know that there’s a digital strategy for marketing and communications. The podcast again, that was just sort of us going rogue. Which was awesome. It’s funny because now that going rogue project has given me so much data to be like look it’s not that our audio offer that we have now isn’t good enough, the content is good, but it’s not diverse enough and there’s not a menu. That’s it, you get one set of audio as you move through the collections and maybe you get a special exhibition audio, which is typical of most museums but it’s just boring and we have the opportunity, because we have our own app, we have the opportunity to put as much or as little up there as we want and frame it however we want and we certainly have more flexibility now to experiment. I would say in the moments leading up to and during the closure we are in the midst of a ton of experimentation and hopefully that will lead, as we reopen, to some wonderful opportunities for more data collection, to see what is working and what isn’t and then that will further refine our strategies moving forward. At least in terms of didactics and audio. But yea I’m sure those things exist and I just haven’t seen them or it’s been years since I’ve seen them.



Going Rogue: A Focus on Conversation and Co-Creation in Digital Learning and Interpretation at MoMA was originally published in Museums and Digital Culture – Pratt Institute on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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