Why I picked it up: The subtitle of this book is "why certain experiences have extraordinary impact." Or what our field (and other fields as well) calls "transformation." If museums are capable of these moments (and virtually all of us believe that to be so), than how do we optimize the experiences we share to trigger more of them? I've also read a couple of other books by the Heath brothers, and generally like their work.
My research to date that likely affects my read of this book: We are all interested in what makes museum experiences particularly meaningful, or at least stand out in some ways. In my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, I asked museum-goers to share with me stand-out or meaningful museum experiences, which I then painstakingly coded. Generally, what the Heath brothers write is in agreement with my findings.
What you need to know: What are the most memorable events in our lives? What makes them memorable? And how can we optimize the odds that the experiences we design for museums become defining moments?
For the authors, "defining moments" are our most memorable positive moments, the peaks (as well as, to be fair, the pits) of our lives.
They examined what they see as the four main components of those moments:
Elevation: an event that isn't normal, but out of our every-day lives. Includes elements of surprise, serendipity, and multiple senses. They focus on three types: transitions (e.g., weddings, first day of new jobs), milestones, and pits (negative moments). For museums, I think the "surprise" and "serendipity" types are crucial, especially since visiting a museum in and of itself is typically and out-of-our-every-day-lives moment.
They advise that to create moments of elevation, you need to boost sensory appeal, raise the stakes in some way, and break the script. Or, in other words, surprise people with a more multi-sensory, immersive experience that they don't expect, and make it feel random and serendipitous.
Insight: a change in our understanding of something. This is the type of moments that museums excel at, because they are moments of realization and changed thinking. They happen when a visitor learns something surprising, or connects what had seemed to be two disparate things. These moments also often feel serendipitous, because they are not expected.
These moments also occur when a visitor learns the depths of something that is troubling, difficult, or worse than tragic. When they "trip over the truth." An example that came to mind for me is the inherent privilege of whites in society. Whites often cannot see their own privilege because it is so ingrained, but if they are forced to trip over the truth, and see how it is often at the expense of others, would that create any change in our society? How can museums enable that realization, while also promoting positive action? But the Heath brothers point out to do this, we cannot share our feelings or insight, but create a situation where the visitor comes to the same conclusion, and thus takes ownership of it. That means not telling a white visitor they are privileged, but instead installing a cognitive trip wire so that they figure it out on their own.
Pride: moments of achievement or courage. While we can create ways of doing this in museums (such as youth art shows, or science competitions), the things I considered while reading the book had mostly to do with engaging staff more effectively to improve productivity, creativity, attitudes, and well-being. So if your museum needs to shift the culture among staff, this book has lots of ideas … especially in terms of pride.
Connection: milestone moments we share with family and friends, which connect us to each other. So think of shared experiences. Museums do a pretty great job at shared experiences with family members, such as parent-child experiences. But this section had me thinking more about how shared experiences can help communities, giving people a shared purpose to effect change. To do this, according to the Heath brothers, we have to provide understanding, validation, and caring. Does your staff do that? Do your exhibitions signal these things?
The overall conclusion of the book is that real meaning making isn't just a serendipitous realization (though it often feels that way), but a jolting into action. And here is where I think museums struggle. We're pretty good with the realization part, but not the action. Perhaps, then, it isn't surprising that I deeply appreciated what I think of as the "call to action" room at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But ultimately, defining moments are magic, and the good news is that museums inherently create these moments all the time. Visiting a museum is already an outside the day-to-day experience, and is optimized for serendipity and meaning making. But that doesn't mean we couldn't optimize it even more, thus creating even greater impact, greater fulfillment of mission, higher engagement with museums over a lifetime, and better connection between realization and action.
My stumbling block with this book (which I otherwise thought was great): One of the points they make is that most of the defining moments in our lives are clustered in our teens and twenties. Well, sure, because that time frame includes many big moments of separation from our childhood lives, maturing into adulthood (and all of those responsibilities), and perhaps becoming a parent. But I thought the Heath brothers failed to clearly pick apart the two types of defining moments.
Let me explain. Joseph Walters and Howard Gardner examined what they called "crystallizing experiences" back in the 80s, and they differentiated between "initial" and "refining" moments. An "initial" moment are those big moments of life, those moments that mark a big transition, that fill you with big awe and wonder, or a sucker-punch to the gut of insight. These moments, in museums, are what we tend to talk about and aim for. But aside from young children, they are not that typical, and you can't force them.
But "refining" moments. Wow, my research is replete with them. They are little moments of insight, connection, revelation. The "I didn't realize" moments. Or, "I didn't know that!" They build on each other in meaningful ways, they feel serendipitous, and they positively reinforce the behavior that creates them (the dopamine hit they create may have something to do with this). Museums excel at these "oh!" moments, and they are vital to the extraordinary impact we have had in the lives of some museum-goers. This is where there is a great deal of opportunity to deepen meaning-making in museums.
The Heath brothers lump these all together, and I think that is a mistake. Because while initial moments are amazing, in museums they are unpredictable, difficult to create, and likely resource-heavy. In contrast, refining moments are easier to plan, easier to optimize, and bring museum-goers back, over and over, ultimately effecting deeper impact.
Read or skip? I have to look at this two ways:
Full citation: Heath, Chip, and Heath, Dan. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.