What museums can learn from improv: three principles to make museums more human-centered and empathetic
In improvisational theater, there are some shared principles that the improvisers work from. These principles create a positive and supportive platform upon which the improvisers, or “players,” can do their best work. What if the principles that allow improvisers to thrive and excel could be applied to museums?
In this post, I consider three principles from improv theater and share thoughts on how incorporating these principles into museum practice could make museums more human-centered and empathetic institutions.
1. Take care of yourself and each other
One of the most important practices in improv is to take care of yourself and the other improvisers on stage. If your basic needs aren’t met (physical safety, emotional comfort, etc.), you can’t focus on the story and the audience.
Applying this principle to museum practice means taking care of staff. How can museums possibly serve their visitors well if they don’t take care of their own people?
In the majority of museums, the staff members always get the least amount of care and resources, far behind in priority after the objects in the collection and the visitors in the galleries. I’ve worked for numerous U.S. museums throughout my career, from major institutions to small university museums, and I’ve experienced first-hand how enormous the demands are on staff. I can’t even count the number of museums I’ve worked in that house employees in windowless offices or basements (or both), deprived of natural light and fresh air, while boasting beautiful, state-of-the-art public galleries. Budgets are constantly being cut, work is always increasing, and the staff is always asked to do more and more with less—while putting the objects and visitors first.
How can museums create visitor-centered institutions that serve and engage their audiences if their own staff members are unsupported? What if we took better care of ourselves first, so that we could better empathize with and design for our visitors?
2. Make your partner look good
Another key tenet of improv is to make your partner look good. Instead of thinking of a witty, clever, or scene-stealing line or move you can make, you focus on what you can do in the moment to make your partner look good. Because making your partner look good helps everyone: it establishes a supportive environment, moves the story forward, and, ultimately, makes you look good, too.
What if museums adopted this as a core value around both visitors and staff? Can you imagine interpretative materials and public programs that were designed specifically to make visitors look good? Or staff meetings in which colleagues made a conscious effort to make their co-workers look good in front of each other?
For visitors, this might mean initiatives and programs that allow visitors to scaffold their current knowledge of a subject, or even show off that expertise to their peers. For example, I recently worked with the Indianapolis Museum of Art on using design thinking strategies to develop visitor activities in conjunction with an upcoming exhibition of concept cars. One of the ideas that emerged from interviews we conducted with visitors was the notion of developing activities that allow visitors who are very knowledgeable about cars to share (and even show off) that knowledge to peers. This is not meant as a way to appeal to vanity; it is a means of engaging these visitors through their pre-existing knowledge of and passion for cars.
3. Build on each other’s ideas
This is also known as the “Yes, and” principle. It’s the holy grail of improv, and at the heart of the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford d.school. The concept is that you accept all of your partner’s ideas, rather than dismissing, negating, changing, or denying them. You follow your partner’s lead, and build on what your partner gives you. It’s additive, and moves everything forward, getting you to a place you can’t possibly go by saying “no, but” to each other.
When I introduce museums to the design thinking process, we consciously adopt this principle during brainstorming, and warm up by playing games that contrast what it feels like to say “no, but” with “yes, and.” Quite simply, when we say “no, but,” we don’t get anywhere. We stall, discuss, re-think, re-hash and over-analyze the status quo.
“Yes, and” also fosters inquiry, a core value for almost every museum. Jen Oleniczak (@) has written about how the “yes, and” principle is akin to the open-ended questioning of inquiry-based learning. Just as negation ends an improv scene, in teaching, it shuts down the learning process. Oleniczak writes that this is “about saying, ‘Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better’ instead of ‘no, I have a better idea.'”
“Yes, and” is about co-creation and the scaffolding of knowledge; it moves you away from ingrained patterns of thoughts and behaviors and towards new, innovative ideas.
National Public Radio has been doing a series on play this month, with some fantastic pieces about the importance of play for adults. Play builds empathy, strengthens teams, keeps one’s mind sharp, and develops problem-solving skills. To an outsider watching a group do improv, it looks like a bunch of adults playing around like kids. And that’s exactly what it is; it’s play in a safe space with clear guidelines and shared principles.
I’d like to propose that these clear guidelines and shared principles practiced by improv players can inform museum professional practices and institutional cultures, enhancing our ability to connect and collaborate and making our institutions better places for staff and visitors alike.
For details on specific games you can play in your museum to foster creativity and collaboration, see my three-part post on improv games.