A Conversation Moderated by Sally Otis
May 2013 was the beginning of art museum interpreters meeting up for what became the Association for Art Museum Interpretation (AAMI). Flash forward 10 years and while interpretation is established at some institutions, others are only beginning to consider what interpretation means for them. Tasked with initiating the role of interpretation at a mid-sized art museum, I often felt very isolated working to co-define this role across departments with competing definitions of “interpretation.” Through many conversations with interpretation colleagues, I now realize how common my experience is. With that in mind, I reached out to Manuel Ferreira, Ariel Russell, and Loren Wright, all new in their positions, to consider art museum interpretation in 2023. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Sally: To start the conversation, introduce yourself. How long have you been working in the museum field? Where are you working? How established is interpretation at your institution?
Sally Otis (moderator): I’ve been working within the museum field for about 15-18ish years, all in education-related work. I’m currently an independent contractor and recently finished two years working at Joslyn Art Museum, first with their docent program and this past year establishing initial interpretation approaches in preparation for their expansion and reinstallation opening in 2024.
Loren Wright, I work at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), I’m the Assistant Director of Interpretation. Interpretation [has existed since 2015 in different departments] then in August, 2022, became its own department and added a team called Gallery Activation, who are in charge of in-person experiences for adults. There’s the Director of Interpretation, a team of two [full time] interpreters, and an editor who works on interpretation with us.
I’ve been at AIC just over 2 years now. I was an intern in interpretation and publishing. I started full-time Nov 2021 and before that, I was in grad school studying Museum and Exhibition Studies.
Manuel Ferreira, I am at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) where I am the Interpretive Specialist for Ancient and Latin American Art. Interpretation has been around for a few decades in some form. More formally started with Melora [McDermott], but in the beginning my predecessors really focused on convincing curators and admin the importance of interpretation and audience, visitor, user experiences in galleries. Once that convincing was done, then it was convincing them we should be at the table for every part of exhibition development.
Fast forward and now there’s six Interpretation Specialists at the DAM and we each oversee different collection areas. I’m very fortunate to be standing on the shoulders of the people that did a lot of that work.
I’ve worked in museums pretty much my entire adult life in some capacity – desk attendant, collections, curatorial, but I really fell in love with exhibitions design, development, and storytelling. I’ve been at DAM for 1 year, yesterday was actually my one-year anniversary!
Ariel Russell, I’m the Manager of Exhibitions and Installations at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (GOKM) in Santa Fe, NM. It’s a new role at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and was developed this year. I initially joined the GOKM as the Collections and Interpretation Division Coordinator for roughly a year and then transitioned into this role at the end of April.
I graduated from undergrad 2019 with a degree in Art History, after which I joined the National Museum of Marine Corps as a Curatorial Assistant in their Art Collection.
I have an incredible passion for the arts and cultural institutions, and I am proud that my work contributes to creating a better visitor experience for our museum’s visitors. That would not be possible without Art Museum Interpretation.
SO: What’s been the most influential experience to your interpretation practice?
AR: It didn’t really click, the importance of interpretation, until I actually spent some time periodically going into the gallery and doing observations myself. Seeing it in person really meant a lot. I truly encourage anyone interested in interpretation to just go into gallery spaces and just see how people are interacting with labels, with the art, or objects. Are they interested? Not interested? It’s being able to represent visitors when working with curators because everything we do, it’s for the visitors. Seeing it in person really influenced me and interpretation.
SO: I see curiosity as an essential skill. I would hope for all museum professionals in general, but curiosity about why visitors are so engaged in this or “wow they only spent one second here,” and WHY?
LW: We’re doing museum-wide label assessment so I spent a lot of time in the galleries, taking a picture of every object and label, reading every label, making notes. Spending that in-depth time looking at what was on the wall and what visitors were actually reading was really influential to how we think about our text, how our visitors interact with those spaces. It was really eye opening for me.
We really value being paired with Gallery Activation because they interact with visitors all the time as their job and we get to learn from them about the kinds of questions visitors have, the kinds of objects visitors are most interested in seeing.
Most recently, I gave a presentation for teen interns. The kinds of comments and questions that they have are really refreshing – teens don’t have a filter. Lots of: “I never read labels.” I showed them sample sentences of things that were bad vs good and they said “I stopped reading that sentence after the second word.” Very refreshing to be reminded that we don’t have these perfect visitors who read everything or who particularly like museums. That was a really unfiltered refreshing take on who interpretation is for, who we should be trying to serve.
MF: Just like you, Ariel, going through our exhibition spaces and seeing what people love, or like you, Loren – what they don’t love and are vocal about, has been very influential to figure out what kind of Interpretive Specialist I want to be and what I want to promote.
I don’t have a formal art history or art background, so learning from my colleagues what’s successful or not and what they’ve been doing for the past decade has been influential. I’m trained as an anthropologist, so I come from more natural history and history museums and seeing what’s been successful there. I also like to turn to popular culture- podcasts, video games, movies, and how do they structure their narratives and their visuals. How do they structure it to keep people’s attention or tackle many different themes in subtle and non-subtle ways? How can I adapt different display and communication methods into an exhibition space?
SO: Something that keeps coming up for me is that interpretation is not exactly art history and not really education either. I connect it to sociology, so it’s interesting to hear all three of you talk about observing visitors, how culture and people operate in society – studying people and behavior.
SO: What do you feel are essential skills someone needs to be effective at interpretation?
MF: A surprising part for me was that a lot of my job is problem solving. Trying to balance what the curator wants, what the artist wants, what the visitors want and just problem solve until we have something that actually works.
AR: That’s a great one!
LW: And diplomacy, being able to let things go sometimes. Because our role is so collaborative, we’re working with other people’s ideas, not necessarily our own. There’s a certain delicacy you need in order to make suggestions to do it in a better way, but not offend whoever’s idea it is. Not everyone supports or understands the work of interpretation, so you’re starting by fighting an uphill battle – telling others, “I’m an expert in this and my opinion is valid. You should listen to me and trust what I have to say.” I encounter that a lot less now, there’s a lot of institutional buy-in at AIC, but in the early days there was an unspoken undercurrent of “Why should I listen to you?”
AR: I agree with that; you have no other choice. I would add transparency and communication. At the end of the day [lack of transparency and communication] are just going to cause people to harbor certain emotions and it stops creativity and collaboration. I’m a huge proponent of getting everyone in a room, or at least on a Zoom, to say what it is they want to say. Be honest. State your truth. If you have an opinion, get it out there. Facilitating conversations to get from point A to point B. Easier said than done, but letting people know – whatever you’re thinking about, your biggest ambition, let’s hear it. There’s a certain finesse, having our own wants and dreams and what we know about our audience, but also engaging those wants and dreams of the people we’re working with and making a product out of it.
MF: Yes – all of those. I also think relationship building has been a really important one for me. Whether that’s professional networking and more casual relationship building with different people in the community because we do so much community outreach. Also internal relationships. I’ve walked through the museum to chat with our Gallery Hosts and security guards because they’re the ones who are there everyday, all the time, and they have such an incredible amount of knowledge. Knowing how the layout of exhibitions work or how people engage with activities. I constantly go to them for more casual evaluation or bounce ideas off them – do you think visitors would like this? Or would YOU like this?
SO: Yes! Many of us are a conduit between museum professionals and visitors or future visitors, or communities outside the museum. It’s navigating both of those worlds and building strong relationships in all of those realms. Even within the museum, like you’re talking about Manuel, not just with curatorial and exhibition teams, but throughout. We’re the person that allows everyone to be heard, or try to in some way.
SO: What difficulties have you encountered this past year-ish?
At this point, the four of us talked off the record so we could be more candid. Needless to say, we all experienced difficulties. The most common are the result of systemic issues found across many art museums. Examples include learning internal unspoken processes, more work than staff available, lack of understanding about interpretation, resistance to and slow-moving change. Particularly frustrating is the lack of support for changes that directly support visitor needs and align with stated institutional goals or values.
SO: Since 2020 museums across the US and beyond are reckoning with questions about the role they serve to their communities. Many art museums reexamined their role in social justice work internally and externally. What have you noticed at your institution and do you see DEIA* work as a specific job duty that falls within interpretation?
*DEIA, or “diversity, equity, inclusion, access,” is used here as a stand-in for all variations of acronyms that refer to social justice work.
MF: Curators and my other colleagues are much more aware now, so when we push for visitor studies and question whose stories or perspective we’re not talking about – they’re more open to having those conversations.
LW: We made headway internally with a cross-departmental staff group focused on DEIA, as well as with a Staff of Color group and other affinity groups, creating places for staff to meet and come together. The AIC staff unionization also came out of pandemic, so there’s a huge change in how the museum functions.
I definitely say it’s part of my job as far as it applies to [things] you find in-gallery. In Marketing there’s a community partnerships team who works on building relationships with people who don’t come to the museum – South Siders, Black and Brown Chicagoans, Spanish speakers. But for museum content, it’s on our shoulders in interpretation, and I feel my team-members would agree that we’re the place for that within the museum.
MF: I also agree, I definitely see it as a part of my role and I think [my interpretation colleagues] do, too. Within our larger department, there are [also] people whose job it is to build those relationships with communities.
AR: Being a transplant to New Mexico, there’s a lot of history and culture that I’ve had to learn to better contribute to the community and our mission. There are so many cultures in NM, chief among them being Native populations, the Hispano-Spanish population, and the Anglo population whose history is a three-way conversation that I truly didn’t have any experience with. None of my own personal experience overlaps so it was a real lesson in empathy, realizing a lot of my role is listening, so I can do my very best to help uplift what is going on.
I think an ongoing mission of the GOKM is not just to provide for our visitors, who are typically tourists from outside of the state and have no connection to the state. Our mission is to provide a space for New Mexicans, not many people have been to the GOKM and the more I learn, the more I understand why.
A lot of the larger changes and policies that we exhibit now came as a result of post-pandemic. We learned a lot about ourselves and revealed a lot of opportunities for growth that the GOKM staff have really pushed to keep up with and continue those changes. This influenced how interpretation works with an eye toward accessibility. The whole creation of extended labels in exhibition spaces, we didn’t have museum-wide until now. The opportunity that that tragic experience, that the world went through, did open the opportunity for a lot of changes across the board that I think all of our institutions are benefiting from.
SO: And hopefully continuing in some form. There were DEIA assessments and evaluations at AIC, GOKM, and Joslyn – all with different things coming out of it, but the staff saying “yes, that consultation was for this time period and we want to push this forward and keep this alive to continue these conversations.”
SO: Ten years ago, in May 2013, the first group of art museum interpreters found each other at AAM in what turned into AAMI. Interpretation has come a long way and yet still evolving. Where do you hope interpretation will go in another 10 years?
AR: In talking with a lot of museum professionals, especially in interpretation, I appreciate the transparency of it’s not always easy to have interpretive specialists heard in the conversations. This is a field that you have to love to be in half the time, the beautiful poetic reality is you truly have to have a passion for it. Understanding there’s going to be some hills to climb to have a seat at the table is a reality you might have to face.
In 10 years I hope it’s not as much of a fight, or it’s a non-existent fight, that we are at the table from start to finish. A lot of our colleagues also have a seat at the table from start to finish. It’s not fair, it’s such incredibly important work, especially if you want to continue to have museums stay relevant and important as cultural institutions. You have to give those in interpretation the place to speak and to be involved in the process.
LW: Having to fight that uphill battle to even get curators to listen and value your ideas. I hope we’re past that in 10 years and everybody understands the value of our work and we can just do the work. Hopefully be able to dream even bigger and achieve even more wild, fun, and creative things when we’re not wasting 50% of our energy on explaining why we’re here to begin with.
MF: I absolutely agree. I would also love for people going through grad and undergrad to know that this exists because I did not until I applied for this job. While it’s kind of known, I want it to be known across the field and recognized as a discipline or section of our larger museum discipline. Give students the chance to know that this is an option for them. That curation, collections, education, isn’t their only way, there’s a whole new path to go forward.
SO: If interpretation is talked about the same way marketing or education are, as these known things and departments that museums do, and the piece they play within the broader team. Manuel, when you talk about the representation at the grad school level, I think that will be the validation, that Key Performance Indicator (KPI) that it is its own thing. That’s my hope too. Let’s hope that we keep growing and across the board any kind of museum beyond three people has an interpreter.