Beyond the Buzzword: Analyzing Museum Language

Every organization establishes a vocabulary of jargon or special terminology. But why do buzzwords get so popular? How do we define them collectively? ‘Beyond the Buzzword,’ a session at AAM 2017, brought current museum buzzwords to the table to examine and understand them in an effort to use these words more effectively. Each presenter, moderated by Christian Adame from the Phoenix Art Museum, brought one word to the table to examine closely.

Buzzword #1: Engage

  1. Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).
  2. Participate or become involved in.
Props to Marcus Harshaw for an A+ presentation slide

“Engagement is not an interchangeable word that means anytime that anyone does anything in or around a museum. As a field, we need to be more intentional when using the term engagement. If we do not, we will continue to make the word meaningless and buzz-worthy!” – Marcus A. Harshaw, Jr. Indiana Historical Society

Buzzword #2: Important

  1. Of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.

“For years the over-use of the word “important” in museum texts has bothered me, so it was finally time to talk about it. Of course museums are important for many communities, and the materials collected and displayed by museums can also have great significance. But when we scrutinize the common usage of “important,” we see that it is often neither explained nor justified. The result is the term frequently serves a position of authority that can put off visitors.” -Peter Tokofsky, J. Paul Getty Museum

Buzzword #3: Silo

  1. A tower or pit on a farm used to store grain.
  2. Isolate (a system, process, department, etc.) from others.
Audiences presented in the session, with possible overlap areas.

While silos are used to define groups we target or visitor groups, this creates a problematic view by isolating audiences. Presenter Sarah Bloom from the Seattle Art Museum poses the question, should we be breaking down silos? Look at audiences you currently work with and identify areas for overlap to re-engage in a new way. Adjusting current programming to address audience overlaps could broaden your museum’s visitor base.

Ultimately, the words we use should express clearly and precisely our goals and mission, not simply cultivate excitement. Being aware of the words we use – and being clear about our intentions for using them – forces more honest conversation.

How do you feel about these buzzwords – are they banal or buzz-worthy? Which ones make your list? Let us know!

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