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Guiding Light: How Values Exercises Can Help You Present Challenging Content

Category: Alliance Blog
A huddle of street lamps shot from below
Difficult topics and challenging perspectives can provoke an emotional response in visitors, but with the right approach, this response can be the start of a learning experience. Here's how you can find that right approach by leaning into your values. Photo credit: Urban Light by Chris Burden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Photo by Jermaine Ee on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in experiencing Ashley’s wellness work for yourself, come see her at AAM 2024, where she’ll lead two unique “Empathy in Motion” sessions in our Wellness Lounge in collaboration with certified Pilates instructor Queen My’Asia Ward. Stop by the Pratt Street Lobby in the Baltimore Convention Center on Friday, May 17, at 12:45 pm or Saturday, May 18, at 12:45 pm.

When a visitor enters a museum, they arrive with more than just their belongings. They bring their entire cognitive framework to interpret and store knowledge, including their complex understanding of how significant events throughout human history shape the world today. As institutions that display objects related to these histories, and strive to present multiple viewpoints on them, museums must contend with these psychological dynamics. If a visitor encounters a perspective that does not align with the interpretive process they use to navigate their social worlds, they can experience emotional fluctuation, leaving them to feel conflicted. However, this does not mean museums need to avoid presenting challenging content. With the right approach, this reaction can be the start of a beautiful exchange between the visitor and the museum, encouraging vulnerability, sparking new connections, and building a renewed state of understanding. But what is the right approach, and how can you find it for your institution? Here’s what a recent museum partnership taught me, and how you can apply it to your own work.

Preparing the Next Generation of Gallery Guides

As the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art prepared for a new exhibition that highlighted sensitive historical events, staff invited me to help a group of student gallery guides prepare for their upcoming tours. Given the nature of the content, it was vital for the guides to approach visitors with genuine curiosity and empathy as they provided an informational overview of the content. The cohort consisted of undergraduate students from multiple academic backgrounds and levels of experience facilitating group tours. They were evidently excited to jump into the training headfirst as we began, sharing their experiences with previous tours. However, as we continued to focus on the upcoming exhibition, the energy began to shift toward apprehension, as we reflected on past encounters with visitors who expressed strong emotional responses to complex themes. The students shared reservations that even the most seasoned professionals stumble upon:

  • What if a visitor does not have a satisfactory experience on my tour?
  • What if a visitor disputes the information provided?
  • What if I am unable to answer their questions with complete accuracy?
  • What if there are elements of the exhibition that I am unfamiliar with?

Hearing these concerns, I decided we should focus the training on our values to set the tone for creating an intentional and thoughtful gallery experience for both the visitor and guide.

Tapping into Your Inner Principles

To begin this exercise, I presented the group with a list of values and asked them to identify three to five each that they considered guiding principles for how they interact with others. Here is a small sample of the values I provided:

  • Respect
  • Justice
  • Mindfulness
  • Excellence
  • Dignity
  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Accountability
  • Trust
  • Flexibility
  • Humility
  • Spirituality
  • Integrity
  • Fun
  • Value

As students began to report their selections, their answers revealed common threads, such as respect, humility, and excellence. As more responses poured in, further values like creativity and fun began to surge as well. Once we had identified these commonalities, we dove deeper, identifying factors that influenced their selections. Some said they were influenced by their relationships with elders to value respect, while others shared that academic experiences had influenced them to value innovation. One of the students recalled facilitating a tour for an elementary school group and the energy they brought into that experience. Incorporating creative elements and spontaneity encouraged the kids to use their imagination and fully engage in the experience. Hearing this comment, the group began to reflect on how adults also seek this type of excitement, even during the toughest of conversations.

Once they had identified their values, I prompted the group to pause and reflect on the upcoming exhibition and identify intentional ways they would like to incorporate these concepts in their tour. This approach would give students the flexibility to explore how they could bring their unique selves to the tours while creating an environment that cultivated vulnerability and trust.

Sharing Your Light with Others

As we moved toward putting the pieces together, I wanted to review various approaches in which we could practice these values with others when reviewing sensitive content. To do this, we engaged in roleplay exercises in partner groups, which gave students the opportunity to practice mindful listening, self-awareness, and acknowledge the viewpoint of others.

Each pair alternated discussing a general topic (e.g., Why did you decide to attend Auburn University) for two minutes. While the speaker shared their thoughts, the listener practiced listening without interruption, paying attention to verbal/nonverbal communication and recognizing distractions. At the conclusion of the practice, each group reported their experience listening and speaking.

These practices sound simple in theory, but they’re not always easy to do in practice. Self-awareness helps us remember that there may be another way to view a scenario. Furthermore, making an intentional leap to respect and appreciate these differences is one of the most important things we can do to build visitors’ experiences. This approach has the potential to deepen connections and resolve conflict.

Putting It to Use

At the conclusion of our time together, students reported feeling confident moving forward and said they appreciated the opportunity to practice these concepts with their peers. As a result of receiving real-time feedback during the exercises, many reported feeling less isolated in their thoughts and reassured that utilizing values as their sounding board would provide a tangible solution to approaching difficult conversations. We also included their direct supervisory team during portions of the experience to help them gain tools to further support their students and learn how to conduct formal and informal check-ins throughout the year. We provided the supervisors with prompts for these conversations that also centered on values, for example:

  • Tell me about the values you have identified and how you have incorporated them into your tour?
  • How has this experience been for you?
  • Are there any additional values that you would like to consider?
  • If so, how would you like to incorporate them into your next tour?
  • How can I help you during this process?

Like the students, staff reported that the exercise had been eye-opening. “It prompted me to have several conversations with staff about values and even helped inform my questions for visiting job candidates,” says Dr. Randi Evans, the museum’s Manager of Public Practice and Community Partnerships. She also found it helpful for learning more about the students she works with. “Working with a university student population, we are always meeting students at a similar point in their life trajectory,” she explains. “I’ve thought a lot about how the life transition they are in informs their values and how their values might change over time. I look forward to returning to these exercises in the fall to see how their values may have shifted and changed.”

Conducting a values exercise requires the facilitator to position themselves as a guide, allowing participants to shape their own experiences and practice vital communication techniques. Sharing the material museums do, from historical events, to present-day issues, to predictions for the future, can be a significant responsibility to fulfill. However, reminding the people guiding these interactions that their engagement is tied to their values and giving them permission to let their light shine in the face of difficult conversations can make a powerful difference.

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