Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Could Kill an Elegant, High-Value Participatory Project?

For the past year, I've been ending many of my talks with this image. It's my "artistic rendering" of one of the most inspirational participatory projects I know of--the Bibliotheek Haarlem Oost book drops.

Haarlem Oost is a branch library in the Netherlands that wanted to encourage visitors to add tags (descriptive keywords) to the books they read. These tags would be added to the books in the catalog to build a kind of recommendation system. To do this, the library didn't create a complicated computer system or send people online. Instead, they installed more book drops and return shelves, labeled with different descriptors like "boring," "great for kids," "funny," etc. This brilliant design allowed patrons to create new knowledge about the books in the library while only slightly adjusting their book-returning behavior. Read the original post on this project for more info.

This design inspires me because it creates new value out of what visitors already do. Too often, cultural institutions design participatory projects that require visitors to learn new tools or make sacrifices to contribute. The Haarlem Oost tagging return system wasn't one of these.

Or, so I thought. Two weeks ago, I decided I wanted a photo of the book drops and shelves in action for my forthcoming book. A Dutch friend volunteered to go snap the library. And then I received this email (bold mine):
I am afraid I have got bad news for you... This afternoon I went to the library in Haarlem Oost to take your pictures. When I arrived there, I noticed that they used 'normal' returning shelves instead of the tagging system. I asked one of the employees and it turned out that they quit using the system some time ago. Of course I asked her why. She explained that it more or less was a victim of its own success. First of all, particular shelves were overloaded in a short period of time (to be frank, I don't see the problem here, but to her it was a big problem, so I guess it influenced their working processes and confused them a lot)

Next to that, people were using the system so seriously that it took them a lot of time per book to decide where to place it. That caused some logistic problems in the (small) building, especially as they have some peak times. That meant that people often had to wait for other people to return their books - and then themselves again needed time to think where to place their books. There was an alternative system next to the tagging system to improve the flow, but people did not want to be rude and waited patiently on their turn- so the alternative did not work.

The woman I spoke to regrets that they do not use the tagging system anymore. She said that it gave them a good understanding on what the people in the neighbourhood like to read. She said that they are determined to introduce the system again when they have a good solution on the logistic problem, but unfortunately she could not give me a concrete term for that.
After I got over my shock (and the urge to delete the email), I realized that this depressing coda is a great illustration of the challenges of sustaining participatory projects.

As it turned out, the Haarlem Oost tagging system DID change visitors' behavior--but arguably, it changed their behavior for the better. Visitors liked the activity, and it helped staff learn more about the usage of the collection.

The problem was not that the system was buggy or hard to use, but that it disrupted staff expectations and behavior. It introduced new challenges for staff--to manage return shelves differently, and to deal with queues. Rather than adapt to these challenges, they removed the system.

This is both incredibly shocking and unsurprising. Librarians--and all cultural professionals--address challenges creatively every day. But the challenges they solve are known ones, emerging from the services they traditionally provide. No librarian would get rid of all the Harry Potter books because they are "too popular." No museum would stop offering an educational program that was "too successful." These are familiar challenges that come with the job and are seen to have benefit. But if tagging creates a line or people spend too much time giving you feedback? Staff at Haarlem Oost likely felt comfortable removing the tagging shelves because they didn't see the tagging as a patron requirement, nor the maintenance of the shelves as part of their job.

These front-line staff also probably weren't involved when the outside architect designed the tagging system. If you want participatory projects to thrive at your institution, you must bring staff along with you in their development and listen to their concerns in the design phase. You have to make it clear that sustaining and stewarding these initiatives is as much "part of the job" as traditional functions. Just as you try to design for minimum guest sacrifice, you have to be conscious of potential staff sacrifice. You can't innovate by capital projects and brilliant ideas alone.

Do you have a story to share of a project that got derailed post-launch in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments on what makes these projects fail (and hopefully, rise again).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Be Explicit if You Want Visitors to Work Together

One of the surprise pleasures of my recent trip to Brisbane, Australia, was the exhibition of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery. It was the most impressive multi-artist contemporary art exhibition I've ever seen. The vast majority of the artworks were exciting, accessible, and visually stunning. I expected a quick in-and-out visit, but found myself immersed in the aesthetic and cultural world of the art for hours.

But there was one exhibit that highlighted a particular frustration of mine. It was a multi-person exhibit that fell just short of inviting strangers to work together. With one simple tweak of the label text, it could have gone from good to great.

The artwork is called I, you, we and was created by Wit Pimkanchanapong. The title is highly descriptive of the piece, which is a little booth where two people can mix photos of their faces into a new image of a face that incorporates bits from each person. You sit down with a partner, make a collaborative image, and then email the composite home to yourself or someone else.

I looked on as many visitors enjoyed this exhibit, which created silly and surprising results. But as a solo visitor, I couldn't find a way in. Here's the label:
This label suggests that the artist is particularly interested in visitors engaging with those who are different from them. And yet there is no invitation for visitors to use the booth with strangers. It's ideally set up for a stranger interaction: the booths are in a public space and are open on both sides, so it doesn't feel like you are being asked to enter an intimate space with someone unknown. The interaction is quick, discrete, and doesn't require sharing anything more personal than your face.

This exhibit is missing just one thing: a statement on the label that says, "Invite a stranger to make a portrait with you." The staff could easily append the cute label shown at the top of this post with this sentence. It would give visitors like me a way into the experience and an opportunity to perform in keeping with the artist's desires. And even for people visiting in groups, it might present the opportunity for a fun interaction with someone new.

If you want to invite people to use your space socially, you have to give them explicit permission to do so. Letting visitors know that an exhibit is a two-person activity is useful information, but it's not enough to help people overcome their fears and approach strangers to help them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Six Steps to Making Risky Projects Possible

Last month, I gave the closing keynote at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand. The end of a conference is often a time of great enthusiasm quickly followed by a gaping maw of inability to act on that enthusiasm back at work. For this reason, I spoke specifically about how to make dream projects possible at real institutions. You can see or download my slides and you can watch the video of the talk. Or you can read this condensed version of the talk.


Elaine Gurian once told me there are two ways for institutions to innovate: they can be so small that no one notices them, or they can have a director who is willing to put his/her neck on the line for the innovation. It’s nice to have both. Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite museums are small, funky places run by iconoclasts—but that’s not useful to most professionals who work for organizations in which they have little control over size or leadership matters.

So if you’re not at one of those weird little institutions, how do you make innovation happen? How do you overcome institutional resistance to change and uncertainty to do something wild and hopeful?

It takes six steps.

First, you have to connect your idea to the institutional mission. I’ve written about this before, and it’s particularly relevant if your idea falls outside the traditional products or services of your organization. Pick apart your mission statement, and look for the words and phrases you can connect your project to. Ask leaders to be accountable to the mission. I used the example of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has a mission statement that includes unusual words like “bold” and “fearless.” If your institution says it is bold and fearless, how do your programs support that? What new projects might allow you to better reflect those aspirations? When you speak in the language of the institutional mission, executives will understand you better and be attentive to the new connections you draw from the mission to proposed projects.

Second, you need to find the right tool to implement your idea. Especially when working with technology, leading with tools instead of mission-driven projects is a mistake. If you say, “we need a blog,” others in your organization won’t know how to contextualize that within the programs and mission of the institution. If you say, “being transparent is part of our mission, so we need a way to share more of the behind-the-scenes everyday work we do here, and since people here are comfortable writing and taking pictures, the best way to do that is via a blog,” then people will come onboard.

Third, you need to align your idea with institutional culture. There are some ideas that will never fly where you work. Maybe the director is obsessed with “company secrets” and you’ll never be able to share behind-the-scenes work. Or maybe education staff are not willing to engage real-time visitors in dialogue around controversial issues. That’s fine. If your idea is mission-relevant, you will be able to find a way to make it palatable within the context of your institution. I used the example of two very different exhibitions that solicited visitor-contributed content: Playing with Science at the London Science Museum, and MN150 at the Minnesota History Center. The London Science Museum team designed an entire exhibition and then left a few open vitrines at the end for visitors to contribute their own toys during the run of the exhibition. The Minnesota History Center team solicited visitor nominations for exhibition topics and then built an exhibition out of those contributions. Both resulting exhibitions featured visitor-submitted content, but each institution did so in a way that felt comfortable to their work processes and abilities.

This may sound obvious and natural, but it’s easy to underestimate the power of institutional culture. Sometimes staff are unaware of their own cultural biases and requirements even as they manage new projects. I worked on one project in which the client institution thought they wanted unfettered teen expression. When they saw the results of that expression, they struggled with the content and eventually integrated it into their project in a way that diminished the teens’ involvement and hard work. In the end, this generated a substandard product for the client, and disappointment for the teens.

Fourth, you need to find a way to evaluate what visitors do – and more importantly, to evaluate using criteria that are understood and appreciated by everyone in your institution. It’s not helpful to just measure outputs (number of visitor comments, length of stay) if those don’t translate to something that staff understand as useful outcomes. There are several good resources on evaluating participation. There is a preponderance of reports about the value of new media literacies towards educating productive citizens of the 21st century. Assessment tools like the Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills report can help you couch both your goals and evaluation in contexts that are well-understood by funders and executives alike. Another source of resources comes from the growing body of social media evaluation tools. I’m particularly enamored of this simple diagnostic used at the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina to articulate the types of institutional goals they are trying to achieve with forays into participation. They use these explicit goals as measuring sticks for the projects and experiments they pursue.

Fifth and most challengingly, you need to reserve resources (dollars and staff) for project operation. Unlike most traditional cultural products, projects that encourage visitor participation require staff to “tend the garden” of contributions long after the launch date. I consider this the greatest obstacle to the inclusion of participatory practice in cultural institutions because it fundamentally changes the way organizations staff and fund projects. Many museums are making this shift as they hire “community managers” who communicate with users on an ongoing basis. But institutions that incorporate dynamic content and participatory engagement throughout struggle to prove every day that they need to continue providing consumable materials and floor staff to sustain engagement.

Sixth, you need other people to help you. Pushing forward new projects in your own institution can be a tiring and thankless task. If you have friends and colleagues—whether internal or external—who can help you get to the next step or just commiserate and cheer with you, you’ll feel less lonely in your endeavor. I believe you need to find specific people—not just social networks—who can help you in this effort. When you meet someone who can help you, ask her. When you meet someone you can help, make an offer. These transactions will make change possible.


To help jumpstart these relationships, we did one of my favorite activities. People took out two business cards. On the back of one, they wrote something they need. On the back of the other, they wrote something they could offer someone else professionally. We unveiled a giant gong in the front of the room. If you found a "match" - someone you could help or could help you - you got to come up and hit the gong. People bonded over all kinds of skills, from helping digitize collections to performing outcome assessments to strategizing about new programs. And despite the exhaustion of the end of a long conference, everyone got up and moving in their quest to hit the gong (as evidenced by photos like this one).

As a brief design digression, I'd like to suggest that the gong is essential to this activity working. It's a motivator that has no intrinsic value - certainly less value than the outcome of the activity of finding a helpmeet in your work. But it helps focus WHY people will participate in something a bit silly by coupling it with a silly win condition. It invites people to play. It's another example of how scaffolding participation with design objects can make interpersonal exchange more desirable.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Guest Post: The Denver Community Museum

This post was written by Jaime Kopke, the founder/director of the Denver Community Museum, a pop-up community-generated institution that ran from Oct 2008-April 2009. This post shares her reflections on the project, its design, and its impact.

The Denver Community Museum (DCM) was a grassroots operation in almost every sense. There was no budget, no staff, no permanent location, no Board of Directors and no collection. It was me, a handful of occasional volunteers, some very kind local business partners and a city full of participants.

The DCM was a temporary, pop-up museum which ran from October 2008 - April 2009 in an unused storefront in downtown Denver. From the beginning, the museum stated that it would exist for less than year in a well-trafficked area of the city (possibly in multiple locations). It was, in effect, an institution with an expiration date.

There was no agenda or angle in setting up the DCM, the idea was simply to create an awesome place for the community to share their stories. I was inspired by pop-up shops I had seen in NY along with a community museum there called the City Reliquary. Over a year I began to wonder how to combine the two ideas and the DCM was the result. The DCM was a place that was part science experiment. It aimed to challenge the traditional notions of a museum: permanent vs. temporary, past vs. present and fact vs. fiction.

The contents for each month-long exhibition were entirely community generated. A series of projects were announced, serving as calls for participation, which were open to all Denver area residents. These challenges posed a creative test, which individuals could interpret and solve as they pleased. Every month a new challenge was issued and the previous challenges’ results were displayed within the museum. As a result, each month a new community collection was created to be put on display.

While each challenge had a specific question/theme, the form of the artifacts were left up to the individual participants. Whether it was a homemade object, written story, audio clip or drawing, everything was accepted - unless it was was horribly offensive (which never occurred). It was free to participate in and to visit. It did not matter if the memories/stories represented were real or imaginary. There were no size limits, age limits or skill level required and nothing was for sale. This open process may have overwhelmed some, but many, many more found it liberating. Visitors would see a globe painted by a five-year old next to a professional artist’s embroidery and be inspired to create their own item. By far the most important elements though were the stories people shared. Each participant wrote their own text describing the process, meaning or anything else they liked. Unlike many museums that just ask for comments or set a fun little “activity corner,” the DCM gave over complete control and that’s part of the reason it worked.

But not to be led astray, relying solely on specifically-made artifacts to fill your museum is not easy path. Challenges were only announced one month in advance and there was less than a week between shows. Participants would drop off/pick up their items on the last Friday/Saturday of the month, giving me approximately four days to type/print the exhibition text, mount info cards, lay out displays, move shelving etc., set up any participatory elements and organize the opening, which occurred the following Friday or Saturday. I never knew what my contents were until it was time to create the display.

When I imagined the museum before I began, I had fantastic visions of walls filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful handmade artifacts, each sharing a special story. While beautiful handmade objects did come in, sometimes what I got was a big brown ball of soap. A ball of soap dropped off “by a friend” in a paper sack with no information other than a name. When you open the doors to everything, you have to stick with it, but there is no doubt more submissions would have been helpful. If I were to do this project again, the biggest adjustment would be to marketing and outreach. I needed a lot more of it. A lot.

That being said, each show (luckily) had about 30-40 artifacts/participants - though some were done in groups as well (mostly schools). While each challenge always brought in new participants, there were also several very dedicated repeat submitters. Though I usually had enough artifacts to make an interesting exhibition, the size and form of these artifacts was constantly varying. To help fill in the blanks, I often added participatory pieces which allowed the visitors to take an active role. As a project that was based on community sharing, turning the museum into an open platform was essential. There was never an exhibit where the visitor simply viewed and read. The shows always included something that you could touch, take...or most importantly leave behind.

These elements varied from doodled on post-it notes to wishes stuffed in bottles. One of the most successful of these installations happened during the ’29’ exhibition. The challenge asked participants to create an artifact related to them at age 29 (whether that be future or past). In addition to the pieces submitted we set-up an extensive timeline wrapping around the room, weaving in and out of the displays. A typewriter was set-up in the middle of the room with a stack of index cards, asking people to share what they were/will be doing at age 29. The response was amazing. Almost every visitor typed up a card and added it to the wall. Not only did people genuinely enjoy thinking about the question and sifting through their memories, on several occasions complete strangers ended up reminiscing together. A group of three friends realized they were all 29 the year which September 11th took place; their talking aloud brought two other visitors into the conversation and the five of them ended up sitting down and sharing their memories of that year. I was shocked...and very happy.

The magic however, did not always occur naturally. I often had to introduce the participatory elements to get visitors to join in. This wasn’t really out of place since I greeted almost everyone who came in to tell them about the museum. I usually just left it with, “and there are parts where you can do/add things so be sure to look around.” That usually did it. I am a firm believer in people’s desire to explore and be surprised. If someone asked I was more than happy to give them more information, but mostly I left people to discover things on their own. Some participated, others did not.

One interesting outcome was that as time went on, some participants started designing more and more interactive artifacts all on their own. They had either submitted before, or visited and experienced the nature of the space firsthand. By the end, I had participants giving me directions on how to display their pieces and what people could do with them. In terms of visitors, I never really counted (maybe I should have), but I would have to guess that each show roughly 150-200 people stopped by, with most of the activity centered around the openings.

I think the reason the DCM worked was because it was informal and honest. We have all seen museums that try a little too hard with their interactive elements, jazzing them up with highly polished graphics and fancy displays. The DCM was approachable and had no expectations. Things did not have to fit a pre-conceived space, they weren’t confined to a bulletin board and nothing was forced. There wasn’t a separate area for “community submissions”. I also had to let the little things go. Some people never submitted the story to go along with their artifact, no matter how many harassing emails I sent. Some people dropped items off the DAY OF the opening. Many more surprised me with the most enchanting and heartfelt objects/stories - far beyond what I could ever have dreamed. The DCM was grassroots, but it may not have worked otherwise. Everyone played a part and that part was equal for everyone.

Jaime would like to open up the comments to any questions you may have, please feel free to fire away. Also, Jaime will be speaking at the next AAM conference in May 2010 during a panel titled “On the Road: Nomadic, Pop-up and Ephemeral Museum Experiences.” You can reach her directly via denvercommunitymuseum @ gmail . com

Monday, November 30, 2009

Guest Post: Top 40 Countdown at the Worcester City Museum

What happens when you combine reality TV tactics with a traditional art collection? This guest post, written by Philippa Tinsley, Collections Manager for the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum (UK), describes the innovative Top 40 exhibition they mounted in the summer of 2009.

In my experience, museum professionals aren’t big reality TV viewers. If you don’t watch Big Brother, The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars or X factor you probably dismiss these shows because they revolve around people you don’t know in an environment you find uninteresting and over-hyped. This is, of course, the same reason why many non-visitors don’t come to museums.

The secret of reality TV’s success is the viewer’s involvement with the ‘journey’ of the contestants. You are encouraged to develop an emotional commitment to your choice of participant (not necessarily monogamously), learning more about them as they stay in the programme, and in live shows, to support your favourite with your vote each week.

This was the main aim of this year’s summer exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, Top 40: Countdown of Worcester’s Favourite Pictures. We wanted visitors not just to tell us their favourites, but to develop a stronger emotional connection to specific paintings in the exhibition (and as a consequence to the museum as a whole during a time of major change).

The format of the exhibition was extremely simple – forty ‘star’ paintings from Worcester City Museums’ collection were hung in a visually pleasing layout with no reference to date or theme. Written interpretation about the pictures was kept to a minimum, although we did include family-orientated activity workstations relating to five individual paintings. In the centre of the exhibition we set up a ballot box and voting sheets and encouraged visitors to vote for their favourite picture and, if they wanted to, tell us why.

Each Monday morning we counted up the votes cast during the previous week and on Wednesday, the museum released a new Top 40 chart. A fairly large label with this week’s chart position was placed next to each artwork. We also sent out a weekly press release about the new countdown and announced the new number one on Twitter.

On the opening day someone wrote ‘About time we had a curator’ in the comments book and I was gutted – I thought the idea had failed. However, by the end of the first week it was clear that the majority of our audience was hooked. Spontaneous discussions broke out in the gallery on the relative merits of different pictures; visitors of all ages came back again and again to see where their favourite was in the chart that week and to cast another vote – at times they were queuing outside before we opened. As well as our existing audience, new visitors came just because they wanted to be part of it. I was particularly pleased to see young children persuading their parents and grandparents to participate. The minimal but family-friendly interpretation from us meant visitors were confident arguing that they liked a picture because it was ‘happy’ or ‘colourful’, but it didn’t hold anyone back - some visitors shared very considered art historical opinions on their voting sheets.

In reality TV, producers manipulate viewers’ reactions by shrewd production choices and editing that make boring contestants seem more interesting (see this great article for more analysis on this). I was in two minds as to whether it was ethical to influence our visitors’ commitment towards certain paintings in the exhibition and I’d welcome your comments on this. It was hard to avoid it completely: for example I deliberately chose to link the activity workstations to five very different paintings and this meant Mark Wallinger’s Samizdat (a very intense and quite academic contemporary artwork) probably got more votes because we actively encouraged up close examination. And there was the phenomenon we called the Thomas Creswick Effect: after four weeks of it receiving no votes at all, I wrote a press release about Worcester’s Creswick painting and our local newspaper ran it as an article. The following week it shot up the chart from number 40 to number 14!

The contribution of the positive support from our local paper, the Worcester Evening News, cannot be underestimated. They enjoyed being part of the project and reporting the chart each week – it made a great local story. It was clear that their publicity had more impact with our audience than our tweeting and Flickr posts. I believe this local emphasis intensified our visitors’ emotional connection and this was a key part of the exhibition’s success.

Staff were very supportive of the exhibition, perhaps because they too have a lot of love for the collection. We encouraged visitors to email us photographs of themselves with their favourite picture and the first pictures arriving in the inbox (unsolicited) were all taken by staff! Our summer exhibition is always a very lively show aimed at a family audience. Within this framework, lots of participation and little curatorial interpretation was not difficult for our staff or visitors. What was unexpected were the positive comments about the format both in the gallery and in the newspaper from very art-informed visitors. We are now actively looking at ways to build on this success in all our exhibitions, although it’s a much bigger challenge in touring or artist-curated shows.

Just like live reality TV, Top 40 felt like a risk at times. It was relatively low budget, but unlike most exhibitions took a lot of curatorial and technical staff time during the exhibition’s run. It could have gone badly wrong: a larger proportion of our audience (and our peer group) might have considered our interpretation strategy as dumbing-down or a demonstration of the museum’s curatorial ignorance. Or our visitors might have become bored and we could have lost that valued connection before the exhibition ended. But in reality, the exhibition format really worked, both for the participating visitors and for the future shape of Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum. The challenge now is to take that audience connection into the next step of the museum’s organisational development.

Philippa will be checking in to answer any questions you might have in the comments here on the blog. I'm on vacation this week and will join the conversation when I return!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preservation in Action: Ambition and Excitement at Zealandia

This week at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, a librarian stood up and said, “one of the great challenges of this sector is to make preservation sexy.” People laughed with incredulity; no matter how CSI-like the pitch, it’s hard to capture public attention with preservation projects. And yet earlier in the week, at the Zealandia nature sanctuary in Wellington, I’d seen some hints of how to do just that.

Zealandia is a nature preserve with a big hairy audacious goal: to restore a neglected valley into a haven for native birds, plants, and a few special ancient species. Their signage is upfront and specific about this plan; the large sign at the entry says, “It will take 500 years to reach our goal.” Miles of public trails are littered with evidence of the ongoing efforts: volunteers at work, temporary feeders and enclosures, experiments ongoing and hibernating.

Zealandia provides visitors with a beautiful, peaceful experience in nature. There are interpretative trails and helpful staff to aid visitors in tuning in to the bird sounds and identifying the native animals now thriving in the preserve. But the thing that stood out most was the sense that Zealandia is a place of action, where projects are actively underway. Many of the projects—like a huge, specially designed fence to separate birds from lizards until the populations of each stabilize—were both impressive in scale and were communicated well as short-term steps on a long path to a thriving natural habitat. As a visitor, I repeatedly ran into objects, staff, and signs explaining the specific science at work on the preserve and how the project was evolving. The interpretation was frequent, clear, and adult in tone and content. I felt respected as someone who could understand science and might be interested in more than just a nice walk in the park.

This sense of action, coupled with Zealandia’s ambitious goal, gave me a feeling that I was visiting something Important. Some of the signage pointed out “firsts” happening at the preserve—new techniques for introducing species into new habitats, creating a completely mammal pest-free environment, and inviting people to visit the project while underway. I felt like the sanctuary staff and their 400 volunteers were welcoming me into their vision for a future version of human coexistence with nature. This feeling was reinforced by inclusive signage that used the lovely construction “visitors like you,” as in “Seven years after taking control of the land, the Sanctuary was ready to receive visitors like you, seven days a week” which made me feel specially engaged as an individual.

As a side note, my positive feelings about the onsite Zealandia experience were somewhat undermined by their branding as a "conservation attraction" on their website and on billboards around Wellington. I presume that this branding will help them appeal to a potentially large audience of those seeking exciting experiences in nature, but to me, this veiled the truly exciting work at the physical site. Online, you can access some evidence of their powerful work, such as this clear and impressive timeline of key achievements, but these messages are not front and center as they are at the preserve. Zealandia isn't more than just a nice place to go see animals in natural habitats, and I think it's a disservice to market it that way.

But let's get back to the good stuff. Reflecting on the impact of my Zealandia visit later at the National Digital Forum, I realized how rare it is that cultural professionals communicate with the public about the exciting ongoing nature of preservation projects. As at Zealandia, cultural preservationists often pursue incredibly ambitious goals—to digitize huge collections of records, or to save centuries-old objects. Zealandia’s signage opened with an unambiguous image: a black and white photo of the valley pre-nature preserve—barren, clear-cut, devoid of natural life. Standing there looking at the photo, and then taking in the rich diversity of plants and bird sounds around me, I was instantly compelled by the sense that the work going on at Zealandia was valuable, and that it was going in the right direction.

How can cultural preservationists communicate the largeness of their dreams, the dire state of the unpreserved landscape, and the potential richness of successful projects? By communicating the need, making the process public, and inviting “visitors like you” to enjoy the richness of the expanding cultural assets made available by the effort. I hope that I will one day walk into an archive or history museum and feel the same sense of urgency, purpose, and progress that I felt at Zealandia.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Museums, Church, and Doable Evangelism

I often think museums are like church--passionately loved by staff and devout audiences, irrelevant or off-putting to lapsed or uninterested adults, alien and overwhelming to newcomers. Devotees would like to attract new audiences, but must balance the desire to make newbies feel welcome with authentic demonstration of core values, beliefs, and practices.

What is the appropriate way to evangelize cultural institution use to the unconverted? Is it the "mission" of cultural professionals to help people connect to what we see as positive personal and community outcomes, and if so, how should we go about it?

On Nov. 6, the radio show This American Life included a segment about bait and switch tactics used by Christian evangelicals to entice non-believers onto the path to salvation. The show coupled an uncomfortable ex-evangelical sharing deceitful techniques he had engaged in with a minister named Jim Henderson talking about "doable evangelism," a practice that doesn't rely on what he deemed "acting like jerks."

Jim argued that many pastors overfocus on "conversion-centric evangelism," expending effort on sneaky pitches and highly produced rallies that result in previously non-religious people making statements of faith in Jesus. He suggested that those events are not effective in creating Christians in a meaningful way--the statistics of conversion and continued involvement are abysmal--and that Jesus' instruction to "make disciples" requires much more than making "converts." Instead, Jim and his compatriots focus on being good Christians, connecting with other people in real relationships free of artifice, and hopefully, enriching community members' lives with the evidence of their own faith.

Jim cares more about helping people to the "finish line" of lifelong Christian practice then getting them over the "starting line" via some kind of bait and switch. His techniques sound a lot like model social media practice: listening, being respectful, and encouraging ordinary Christians (not just experts) to act as evangelists. He spends time with non-believers visiting churches and talking about what's persuasive, what's off-putting, and how they think about faith. He does what so many cultural professionals are fearful of or see as a waste of time: "helping Christians see themselves through the eyes of outsiders."

Jim made me think of the recent debate about blockbuster exhibits with tenuous ties to institutional mission, as well as evening events that are more about socializing than content experiences. So many of cultural institutions' efforts are focused on getting people over the starting line--into museums, paying tickets--as opposed to focusing on the long game of connecting people to cultural pursuits in a sustained way. And while first-time attendance may be a good step towards lifelong connection, Jim would argue that if a visitor comes for the first time based on a lie, you are unlikely to build a meaningful relationship with that individual.

How can cultural professionals practice "doable evangelism"--making new visitors feel welcome and encouraged without resorting to activities that are not mission-relevant? A couple ideas:
  • Welcome new visitors with genuine affection and interest. Vishnu Ramcharan, who manages the floor staff (called "hosts") at the Ontario Science Centre, has a simple rule for hosts working the lobby: treat every visitor like you are thrilled that he or she has come today. Not excited generally or about the institutional content, but sincerely pleased that that person in particular has arrived. While overenthusiasm can be off-putting, genuine interest is almost always a comforting start to a new experience. Content in non-majority languages, strollers, and other affordances help too.
  • Help people understand why you do what you do. I'm amazed by the number of museums that don't make it crystal clear that admission tickets help pay for research, education, and outreach activities by the institution. Make it clear that your institution is there to help the community. Encourage staff to share why love their work, the objects on display, and the stories behind them.
  • Listen to what visitors and non-believers say about your institution. Two years ago, my dad and I embarked on a podcast project called Museum Hater. The idea was that we would visit museums and talk with each other (and other visitors, and people outside) about what didn't work for them. After getting thrown out of one museum and rejected by others, we aborted the project. Museums saw us as a threat, but we thought we were going to expose the discrepancy between staff and visitors perceptions to mutual benefit of everyone. Even if you don't want my dad and I to come to your institution, consider taking off your badge sometime and engaging in some of these conversations with visitors and other community members.
  • Thank people for coming, and encourage them to reflect on the visit's outcomes. A good host isn't just happy to see you enter; she also enjoys the goodbye at the end of a satisfying interaction. In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk suggests that it is just as important to confirm that visitors have had their needs met and to validate the positive outcome of the visit as it is to provide affordance for those needs in the first place.
  • Make your core ideals clear in other community venues. Evangelism can mean being present in larger conversations related to your content outside your institution's walls. This can be formal--like children's museum staff getting involved with local parks and school boards--or informal, like science museum staff pitching in on the climate change talk on Twitter.
What do you think? Is "doable evangelism" something we should strive for? Or is the starting line so important that we need to keep focusing on getting people in the door?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Quick Hit: Meet Me Down Under

I'm about to leave on a month-long trip to New Zealand and Australia. If you happen to be in the land of kiwis or kangaroos, you can find me:
  • At the National Digital Forum at Te Papa on Nov 23-24, keynoting a closing session about how to move risky projects from dreams to reality.
  • Offering free workshops open to the public on participatory museum practice in Wellington (Nov 26), Christchurch (Nov 27), and Auckland (Dec 14). Click on a city name to learn more about how to register and attend.
  • Hiking in the Wakatipu area Nov 28-Dec 6.
  • Leading internal workshops with Te Papa (Nov 25), the Powerhouse Museum (Dec 8-9) the State Library of Queensland (Dec 10-11), and the Auckland War Memorial Museum (Dec 15).
See you in the southern hemisphere!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ASTC Recap: Questions, Colors, and Reflective Research

Last week, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) held their annual meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. I participated in three sessions: a Pecha Kucha design blitz, a dialogue on bridging online/onsite connections, and a discussion of the IMLS 21st Century Skills report. This post recaps these sessions, provides my slides, and shares what I learned at the conference.

Designing Questions

Kathy Gustafon-Hilton coordinated a massive Pecha Kucha session, featuring 19 design professionals sharing 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. Beyond being totally exhausting, this session offered some highly varied insights into the value of prototyping, the dangers of the color red, and what happens when good exhibits go bad.

I spoke about the importance of designing intentional frameworks for asking visitors questions, based on this blog post. Exhibit labels in science centers ask more questions than any other kinds of museums, and yet the questions are often awful--teacherly, overly rhetorical, and totally meaningless. While questions like: "Where were you last night?," asked by a cop or mother, garners the full attention of asker and askee alike, museum questions like "what is nanotechnology?," are fairly meaningless to all involved. I shared examples of question frameworks designed for specific types of visitor experiences: personal framing of exhibits (as in Facing Mars), private sharing (like the Storycorps booths), public dialogue (as in the Advice exhibit), and so on. Download my slides here.

Elsewhere in the session, I was incredibly impressed by:
  • The new Dialogue in Silence exhibition, presented by the same group (Dialogue Social Enterprise) that created the incredibly successful Dialogue in the Dark exhibition. Where Dialogue in the Dark is a tactile and auditory experience led in complete darkness by blind guides, Dialogue in Silence is an exhibition of interpersonal challenges that must be completed in total silence.
  • Two presentations (by Mikko Myllykoski of Heureka and Chuck Howarth of Gyroscope) that questioned whether science center exhibits should be cutesy and colorful. Both of these designers presented compelling images and evidence from exhibit work and child development experts about the idea that you can make sophisticated, muted exhibits that help children slow down, focus, and enjoy themselves with interactive content. Chuck offered a quote from an advisory psychologist who commented that "children should be the brightest thing in the space." Mikko noted that when Heureka switched to digital screen-based exhibit labels from graphics, they saw an entirely new behavior: kids reading labels, instead of their parents reading while the kids hit the hands-on elements. Mikko suggested that the kids saw the screens as being "for them" and felt drawn to read long paragraphs of text when presented digitally.
  • Jane Werner, director of the fabulous Pittsburgh Children's Museum, talked about the Charm Bracelet project, a local collaboration among arts organizations that is both incredibly ambitious (with a goal to transform the troubled North Side neighborhood into a cultural and educational jewel of the city) and wonderful distributed (they make microgrants for small projects that make a difference in the neighborhood). We so frequently over-focus on our own institutions' problems, and Jane and her cohorts in Pittsburgh are thinking much more expansively about their collective power to make positive change in their community.

Bridging Online and Onsite Experiences

Tamara Schwarz (Chabot Space & Science Center), Seth! Leary (NRG! Exhibits), Rob Semper (Exploratorium) and I hosted a wide-ranging discussion session on design techniques for developing projects that involve both online and onsite elements. Rob shared some of the Exploratorium's forays into electronic guidebooks, Seth! talked about the Bellevue Sculptural Travel Bug project and geocaching, and Tamara and I both talked about content experiences that incorporate exhibits, social networks, and in the case of a newish project I'm working on, cellphones. Download our slides here.

I particularly appreciated Rob's thoughtful description of how people use guidebooks in real life - first, as inspiration for a hazily considered trip, then to really plan specifics, then on the ground as a guide to pre-selected and new opportunities, and finally, as a memento, peppered with comments on experiences sampled or postponed for future visits. How can a device-based guide offer the same range of experiences packaged in a small container?

This session also led to some discussion about physical infrastructure to support web-based experience integration. Many museums, especially those of the big old box variety, need guidance and help figuring out how to build data services into their facilities, and I suspect that these kinds of considerations will become a constant feature of new construction projects once a model is developed.

21st Century Skills

In the final minutes of the conference, Marsha Semmel (IMLS) hosted a session with myself, Julie Johnson (Science Museum of Minnesota) and Bronwyn Bevan (Exploratorium) to share the IMLS report on 21st Century Skills. Without getting too deeply in the weeds, 21st Century Skills is a phrase that has gained a lot of traction in US policy circles around education and workforce development. The basic idea is that there is a set of skills that need to be emphasized for kids today to be good citizens, workers, and leaders in the 21st century--skills like collaboration, global awareness, and media literacy. While most of the national discussion has focused on schools and enterprise, IMLS wanted to demonstrate to policymakers that museums and libraries already communicate many of these skills. IMLS also wanted to help museums and libraries improve their skills, both for audiences and for their own professional communities. So, IMLS convened a group of advisors (including Julie, Bronwyn, and I) to consult on the creation of a report and diagnostic tool for museum and library professionals, which you can download here.

During the session, we discussed how the 21st century skills report can serve as an actionable tool both for fundraising/advocacy activities and professional and program development at science centers. Marsha also gave a brief overview of IMLS grants available that support regional groups and institutions performing 21st century skills audits and professional development workshops.

The REFLECTS project at MOSI

In keeping with the session on 21st century skills in museums, I want to report on one other session I attended that really inspired me for its forward-thinking approach to professional development and visitor experience. A team of researchers and floor staff from the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, FL, came to the conference to talk about REFLECTS, a huge initiative in which floor educators are trained to perform self-reflective research on their own interactions with visitors and adapt their behavior to improve visitor engagement.

The REFLECTS project blends practical institutional demands with deep research. The point of the project is to train educator staff to be able to appropriately scaffold visitors' experiences at the museum. The team defines a "successful" visitor experience as one that is both active and engaged (as opposed to passive and disinterested). Floor staff are recorded via both video and audio as they interact with visitors, and then those floor staff go back later and code the recordings for cues that they define as indicating active engagement: visitors making comments about the exhibit, asking and answering each other's questions, making connections to prior experiences, and so on. The researchers don't judge the content of the cues (i.e. whether a visitor asks a silly question or a complex intellectual one), just their incidence. And then they head back out on the floor to adjust their behavior and try again.

In the session, MOSI staff showed video of themselves engaging with visitors before and after working in the REFLECTS program, and the difference was impressive. The educators weren't doing a better job communicating content in the "after" videos; in fact, many of them offered less content in these videos. Instead, they were doing a better job supporting visitors having their own content experiences, rather than trying (often unsuccessfully) to coerce visitors into engagement.

The primary researcher at MOSI, Judith Lombana, offered some hard-nosed business reasons for the REFLECTS project. She noted that in a region driven by tourism, MOSI must do whatever it can to deliver memorable experiences to visitors that will encourage repeat visits. She also noted that museums spend a lot of time giving visitors scaffolding that is not successful at improving engagement or learning, and that this is a business problem. As she put it: "waste occurs with activites or resources that some particular guest does not want."

But Judith also noted some other major professional development values of the project, especially that the floor educators who are engaged as researchers via REFLECTS feel empowered and validated, able to improve their performance as educators and understand the framework in which they do so. Sadly, there is little on the web so far about this project, but you can find a one-page brief at the bottom of this page. Hopefully, they will soon start publishing their findings for the broader museum audience.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More Delightful Secrets: How Much Space Would You Give to an Exclusive Subset of your Audience?

A month ago, I wrote about the pleasure of secret, exclusive places in cultural venues, and many of you wrote in with stories of your own. Last week in Denmark, I experienced two more delightful hidden treasures, and they led me to this simple question: how much space and money would you devote to providing an exclusive experience within your institution?

Let me explain. I visited two museums in which resources were devoted to experiences that only a tiny fraction of the visiting public would consume. In both cases, these exclusive experiences were wonderful surprises. Were these underutilized wastes of space or special places for the special visitors?

My first experience was at the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen. The Experimentarium offers an impressive mobile phone-based activity called Ego Trap which transforms a two-hour visit into a narrative, social game. Ego Trap uses voice and text messages to immerse visitors in a research study carried out by mysterious hosts, who entreat them to use certain exhibits, answer questions, and perform multi-person challenges as part of the elusive study. Eventually (spoiler!), players realize that a hacker has gotten into the system, and they must choose whether to side with the scientists behind the study or the hacker. Visitors who choose the hacker approach a secret door, marked STAFF ONLY. They input a code into their phones and the door unlocks to reveal the headquarters of the science research study: a dark lair filled with electronic equipment and... rats' nests. The scientists running the study were in fact rats out to enslave humans and turn them into lab animals! The rats' HQ challenges visitors to tackle a final game to escape successfully from the rats' lair.

This game, and the secret room that hosts it, is only available to the tiny fraction of people who play Ego Trap and make it all the way to the conclusion of the game (which takes about 2 hours). I was only able to access it because a staff member was touring us through and gave us the behind-the-scenes look. As my husband said, that secret room with its mousy trappings was "the coolest part of the whole museum." Is this an example of a powerful reward for highly engaged visitors, or a missed opportunity for more visitors to see the Experimentarium as full of secrets and mystery?

As a second example, we later sojourned north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a lovely art museum surrounded by incredible grounds on the seashore. At one point, we strolled out a non-descript door from the cafe to examine an outdoor sculpture. Beyond the sculpture, we noticed a path, and then a gate. Uncertain whether we were leaving the museum's grounds, we wandered through the gate and into a magical enclave that included a mist-covered pond, a wavy slide, and several art installations--whimsical huts of all kinds. While the museum and the main grounds were packed, this large and beautiful outdoor area was virtually deserted--not surprising given how hard it was to find.

In both of these museums, our favorite experiences came when we stumbled onto or were let into these secret, exclusive places. We felt a special kind of ownership of these spaces that we had discovered. We were like the early explorers, delighting in our own cleverness, ignoring evidence that these places had been previously discovered by other worthy trekkers (and of course, created by their designers).

It's very hard for a museum to justify dedicating space and resources to something that will remain unmarked and unadverstised. Especially in the case of Louisiana, which was packed with people, we were shocked that such a beautiful part of the grounds were kept "private" when it could have been occupied by many happy visitors. But these were also the most memorable parts of our visits, the aspects I felt compelled to share with friends and family--and with people like you.

Could your institution include an intentional set of hidden surprises, a secret "extra level," or just a hidden door to a small experience? Would you be willing to exclude the majority to give a small group a sense of specialness that might not be otherwise attainable? What's the business argument for doing so, and how much space and money might be usefully employed in such a manner?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quick Poll: Progress on the Book and a One-Question Poll

Hi folks. This is just a quick post to update you on the status of my book on design for participation in cultural institutions. Three items worth noting:
  1. I completed the entire draft manuscript. I'm currently slowly uploading the new text to the wiki, and it will all be there for you to review, edit, and explore by the end of this week.
  2. I've retained Jennifer Rae Atkins, superlative graphic lady, to create the cover art and illustrations for the book.
  3. The current schedule is to complete content development by the end of the year, copy-edit and layout in January, and go into final layout and production in February. You should be able to hold a book in your hand in March 2010.
I promise this blog will not be overly book-oriented in the coming months; in fact, I hope to get back to a more regular blogging schedule now that the creative work on the book is mostly completed.

But for now, I have one simple task I hope you can help me with: naming the book. Please fill out the one-question poll below to share your thoughts on the most effective title. And thanks!

Reflections on MuseumNext and Facilitating Brainstorming

Last week, Jim Richardson and I hosted MuseumNext, a 24-hour workshop for museum professionals focused on bringing new, wild museum projects into the world. It was held in Newcastle in the north of England, and about 70 folks from around the world (but mostly Europe) came to play, learn, make stuff, and help each other work out challenges inherent in trying to make risky ideas happen. Thank you to everyone who came and helped co-create an exciting experimental event in a beautiful city.

MuseumNext had four main sections:
  1. Interactive activities, including an opening workshop with a group of designers associated with an extremely wonderful exhibition called Doing it for the Kids featuring sustainable toy designs. Participants sewed sock aliens, injection-molded army men, constructed robots, and drew animals. We also ended the entire event with one of my favorite exercises, the Exquisite Corpse game, in which participants co-created comics of their craziest museum dreams.
  2. "Wild idea" sessions, featuring six dream projects, some already in motion, others firmly ensconsed in their creators' heads. Folks from the Utah Museum of Natural History, Worcester City Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Centre for Life, Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Knowledge Media Research Center (Germany) brought projects they wanted to make happen, and each worked with a group of about 10 other participants for about four hours over the course of the two days to work out plans and ideas to move the projects along. The projects ranged from activating a dead collection to developing a mystery game around a strange artifact to developing a hackerspace to planning for massive changes to institutions new and old. Click any link above to see the video from the initial pitch and final report from each group.
  3. Unconference sessions, featuring topics as diverse as "playing an ARG" (with real labyrinth adventures), "engaging visitors who were dragged to the museum," and "measuring and defining success in participatory projects." We only did two rounds of these, but they were very active and I think a lot of people were surprised to find them so useful even though they were organized on the spot.
  4. Facilitator bits. I gave an hour-long talk about participatory design practices (video here), and Jim gave a small tour of an exhibition he had organized nearby. We also had quite an extensive reporting-out session at the end with the Wild Idea session leaders sharing what they had learned and where they would go next. I was thrilled to frequently hear, "I started out thinking X, but my group convinced me Y."
To me, the greatest value of MuseumNext was the Wild Idea sessions, but they were also the component that I would most revise in a future incarnation of this kind of event. On the positive side, the Wild Idea sessions allowed people to do something that is usually very expensive: get outside perspectives and support on their projects. I was very interested in the way an event like this can effectively flip the standard model for brainstorming with outsiders; rather than each project leader paying individuals to come help work on their project, everyone paid to come and help each other. While the program still involved money and travel, to my eyes, it was much more efficient to bring together a large group of smart people, let them pick the projects they thought they could both contribute to and learn from, and then let them go at it. I'd like to see larger conferences incorporating an element like this--a structured opportunity for people to brainstorm with those who are outside their own personal networks.

That said, the phrase "structured opportunity" is where MuseumNext suffered most. While Jim and I explained clearly to Wild Idea proposers what they needed to do to submit their project for consideration before MuseumNext, we didn't give them enough support in actually facilitating their group brainstorming at the event. The groupwork was not easy; few participants knew each other or the institutions in question before showing up the first night. I realized too late that brainstorming with strangers is something I'm used to, but it's not inherent in the job descriptions of most museum collections managers, educators, and researchers who were leading the groups. Everyone worked hard and did do a fabulous job, but we had the typical problems with unbalanced participation, people getting confused or frustrated, and overall project time management.

And so I would like to offer a public apology for this, and to share with you some of the lessons of facilitating brainstorming that I have learned over many years of successful and not so successful workshops. I tried to help workshop leaders work some of these in on the fly, but that put unreasonable stress on them. I'm sorry. You did great.

To remedy this error, here are four things I've learned about facilitating brainstorming sessions. They sound obvious, but several took me years to figure out.
  1. Vary the activities. I like to incorporate talking, writing, and doing/making into workshops. This both breaks up the time and supports participants who feel most comfortable expressing themselves in different ways. By varying activities, you can involve everyone without putting quieter participants on the spot--instead, you find the activity where they shine. This started for me when I worked with a group that included some very vocal and very quiet folks - we used worksheets to balance out the skills and avoid always favoring the big talkers. And I'm a really active person, itchy if sitting too long, so I like to add in some physical exercises to get people moving (and, where reasonable, engaging with visitors). If you need a source for good activities, there's a world of training methodologies on the web.
  2. Give a schedule and list of target goals, even if you don't entirely stick to it. People like to feel that they are making progress, and if you can "check things off the list" as a group, it helps everyone stay focused and motivated.
  3. If you are working for several hours, slot it over two days. In my experience, one-day brainstorming sessions for new projects leave some people a bit uneasy because it moves so quickly. They feel like things are getting "decided" before they can really think things through. Sleeping on it often brings people back on day two focused, confident, and ready to work. At MuseumNext, we used this model, and while many people left on the first night in some form of despair, they were amazed at how everything came together on day two. I've seen this bear out in many kick-off meetings for projects, and that's why if you call me about a one-day workshop, I'll probably ask for two.
  4. Always start and end with something creative. This may reflect my bias towards doing, but I find that if you get people doing something a bit silly, they get out of normal patterns and hangups and are more willing to think broadly. Also, how people feel at the beginning and end of a workshop significantly impacts how they feel about the overall event. At MuseumNext, these creative bits were the design workshop and the Exquisite Corpse activity, but I've done everything from social games to zombie yoga (seriously).
What do you find helpful in facilitating brainstorming on new projects with diverse group members? If you were at MuseumNext, what else can you share about the event to help others understand what you got out of it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Please Don't Send Me to My Personal Webpage

Yesterday, I visited the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen in Denmark. There were many intriguing exhibits and a novel cellphone game (more on that in another post), but I was particularly interested in their new special exhibition on the brain. This exhibition uses RFID tags to allow visitors to save their work throughout the space--something that many institutions have been experimenting with for almost ten years now. And while the Brain exhibition has some qualities that were significantly improved over other RFID-enabled exhibitions (better scanning of the tags, more content-rich personalized welcome screens, effective timeouts if you walked away, a semi-useful group option to accommodate families), it offered an output mechanism that is dated and downright frustrating: the personal webpage.

Many institutions that are pursuing online/onsite experience connections have lighted on the personal webpage as THE way to deliver post-visit experiences. Here's the basic idea: while you are at the museum, you save digitizable content--either content you make (photos of yourself) or content you collect (museum-supplied text or media of interest). When you get home, you type a long code into a web browser or receive an email with a link. Go to that link, and you will find a custom webpage featuring all of the assets you saved or made onsite.

The personal webpage has many adherents, and some institutions, like The Tech Museum in San Jose, have been offering them for almost a decade. There are some obvious positives to this strategy. It provides visitors with a "special place" for their content, which is both highly customized to their experience and out of view from other visitors to the museum's website. But these positives are outweighed by a glaring negative: these personal webpages are (usually) an experiential dead end. They provide the bare bones of what you've created in a totally decontextualized way, outside the infrastructure of other institutional digital content and outside the social context of other visitors. These pages often look barren. They don't live in an ecosystem of other experiences. They display the assets you've created and beyond that, nothing but a link to the institution's main website.

This makes for a very low-engagement post-visit experience. For example, check out this personal webpage I produced with my partner, Sibley, at the Experimentarium yesterday. We swiped our RFID tags all over the Brain exhibition to save our actions, scores, and preferences. We spent time on a digital profile-building activity that required us to enter many fields, including name, age, gender, and four screens of subjective questions about how we think (so much that our friend Nynne didn't do it because it was taking so long). Given all of the time commitment we were asked to put into the tag system onsite, I assumed that when we got home, we'd get some kind of personal profile that showed what we'd done, how it mapped to our profiles and our behavior relative to each other or other visitors to date.

Instead, we each got a basic set of text recommendations to cultivate our brains, against a psychedelic background that provides links to the exhibition's webpage but no substantial ties between our experience and the exhibition content, or even with each other. In some cases, we were provided with the same results we saw onsite (Sibley's time in a learning curve activity... not sure what happened to mine), but onsite, we were able to explore that data relative to other visitors to date, whereas the webpage just provides a static image. At the bottom of the page, there's an option to "remove my personal data" (please don't click this) - and I found myself staring at it semi-incredulous that this impersonal website had anything to do with the data I had generated onsite.

I will not be using this webpage to dig deeper. I will not be coming back to it for more in the future. While it has generated a single click from an email to the web (and many more clicks if you check it out), it has not sent me down the road towards a deeper relationship with the content, the exhibition, or the institution. It didn't even let Sibley and I laugh at how we compared to each other! It's an outpost for some cheap content, and that's immediately obvious to me when I get there.

The Tech's system is barely better in what is provided, offering a glimpse into the actual exhibits you visited and the content (mostly photos) you took onsite. But again, this content is not connected either to more content nor to other visitors. I'd love to see my thermal camera shot in a gallery of many thermal camera shots, and learn from how other visitors used the camera to generate strange images. Instead, I just get my narcissistic output, which may be a reasonable souvenir but is little else.

How can museums improve on this personal webpage strategy?
Contextualize the output with more content. There are some museums which, instead of giving you your content on a bare webpage, create an "account" for you on a more dynamic and content-rich site. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Take Action website does this. Associated with a small exhibition on genocide in which visitors can make personal pledges (extensive coverage here) that are digitally tracked, the website allows visitors to "log in" with their pledge number to access custom content--but that content is layered into the multi-media site rather than living in a barren online outpost. This means that visitors are encouraged to keep exploring the rich content on the site related to genocide, rather than checking out their creations and then closing the page.

Contextualize the output socially. It's perhaps even better (and cheaper) to wrap visitors' digital creations in a social enviroment than to do so with authoritative content. You don't even need your own platform to do this. Exhibits that produce content that goes to social websites like YouTube or Flickr are automatically presented in relation to other visitors' productions. When you make a video in the Mattress Factory's iConfess booth, it shows up on the iConfess YouTube channel. When you augment a photo in the Chicago History Museum's Get Lincolnized! system, your image becomes part of a Flickr stream. This allows each visitor to see her actions in the context of what others have done, and to become part of a light "community" of participants.

The Holocaust Museum's Take Action website incorporates this social context with a digital display allowing online and onsite visitors to browse pledges made and see their own words amongst those of others. Particularly for activities that emphasize the collective power of many individuals working toward the same goal, showing how each visitor's action is connected to the larger effort is essential.

Finally, if visitors are saving their activities in competitive environments like games, being able to see your score relative to others--either in your party or overall--is incredibly engaging. Imagine the return visit potential if the institution could automatically send visitors online alerts that someone else has bumped their top score off the chart, or if it challenged dad to try a comeback game against mom next month.

Motivate further active engagement. Remember, the people who chose to produce content onsite--to track themselves, to play games, to make pledges, to mess with their photos--were drawn specifically to active participatory experiences. They may not be the same people who are driven to read or consume lots of authoritative content on a topic. And so while some may appreciate deeper content experiences based on their initial entries, more may seek further ways to actively engage with the institution. If visitors make stop-motion animations at the museum and come back to the web to view them, why not provide a tool or links to places where you can make really complex animation products (which can also then be shared with the visitor community)? If visitors make pledges to reduce waste or stop genocide, why not provide more activities for them to do and ways to track them? I worked with the Boston Children's Museum on a project called Our Green Trail (check it out!) that encourages visitors who play games at the museum related to green behaviors to keep doing those behaviors and playing associated games online in a social virtual world. In this way, Our Green Trail tries to keep people motivated and focused on the activities that initially attracted them while opening up more and more content and social experiences to fuel continued action, in their own lives and on museum visits.

What online/onsite connections have you seen that work particularly well or poorly? What do you want from the digital component to your next cultural experience?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Conversationalists: Reflections on Being a Dial-a-Stranger

The afternoon of September 24 was hectic. I called in to participate in a radio show in Seattle, then zoomed downtown for meetings, after which I headed home to cook for a dinner party. I had everything timed to the minute, and was just getting into the chopping zone when my partner yelled that I had a call. I ran in and picked up the phone, fully intending to quickly dispatch whoever was on the line and get back to my tight cooking schedule.

What followed, instead, was a 20 minute phone call that changed my day and has had a powerful impression on me since. The call was from Mercedes Martinez and Zachary Kent, the people behind an internet radio show called Dial-A-Stranger.

Dial-A-Stranger is what it sounds like. People sign up to be called by submitting a phone number to be added to a database. Other people submit questions they'd like to have answered by strangers. Mercedes and Zachary pick people randomly out of the database, call them, and ask a contributed question. They edit the conversations into radio shows, which are then made available as a podcast (you can listen to episode featuring me, #89: Museum Secrets, here).

But it's more complicated than that. I've known about Dial-A-Stranger for awhile, but I haven't written about it before because as a listener I don't find the show that compelling. The conversations are often long--20 minutes or more--and Mercedes and Zachary only get to the question at the end of a meandering conversation with the guest. As a listener, I get frustrated that the show isn't more tightly edited, and I wonder who really cares to hear the conversations Mercedes and Zachary have with perfect strangers.

Now that I have been a Dial-A-Stranger, my perspective on this has changed. I still get fidgety listening to the podcast, but now I see it as an artifact of a supremely conducted participatory project rather the sole product of the process. Dial-A-Stranger was one of the best participant experiences I've ever had. It improved my immediate mood and made me feel special in a lasting way. Mercedes and Zachary did all the work with no apparent effort, carrying the conversation in a friendly, positive, interested and interesting way. And they made me appreciate them as superb facilitators as a particular kind of participatory experience: conversation with strangers.

What made Mercedes and Zach such great conversationalists?

They really cared about me. I've written before about how, when designing questions for use with visitors, staff should make sure they genuinely care to hear the answer. Mercedes and Zachary don't even ask their own questions, and yet they demonstrated unbelievable interest in me and my experiences during our conversation. I even made some gaffes--for example, confusing the University of Texas natural history museum with the Utah natural history museum (the "UT" slipped me up)--but they took it in stride, continuing the conversation without embarrassing me. They made me feel comfortable enough to make some dumb jokes and brag a bit--things I'd probably be reticent to do with strangers in most situations.

They started with a good question. Mercedes and Zachary have a formula to the beginning of their calls. They call in the evening, announce themselves, and then ask, "how was your day?" This is a great question because it is comfortable and open-ended. Everyone has answer to this question, and in the context of a show like Dial-A-Stranger, few people give a one-word answer like "fine." They want to explain themselves, to assert some aspect of their identity (consciously or unconsciously) that then drives the conversation. When I answered their question with a response about work, we spent the rest of the call talking museums, but I suspect if I had talked about moving the woodpile, we would have just as easily continued on that vein.

They listened, responded, and shared. Mercedes and Zach aren't just interrogators; they also shared their own reflections and stories throughout our conversation. We never would have talked about taxidermy (and the basement I shared with dead animals at the Boston Museum of Science) if they hadn't started talking about their local natural history museum. They never steered the conversation in a direction that was jarring or expressed a disinterest in what I was saying; instead, they kept building on a shared experience, validating and querying and scheming, which made me feel like we were in cahoots together rather than having a typical interviewer/interviewee relationship. By the time they got to the actual question at the end of the conversation, I was ready to share personal stories with them and did so enthusiastically.

Of course, all of this greatness is still coupled by the problematic feeling that the product of the conversation--the podcast--is not (for me) a great audience experience. But now I wonder if I was too literal in seeing the only product as the stranger's stories. I've learned to listen in a more nuanced way and to appreciate the skill with which Mercedes and Zachary draw out their guests, who are after all perfect strangers. And there are other products as well: the database, the conversations, the questions and the people behind them. The podcast is take it or leave it, and there are probably people out there who love hearing the relationships Mercedes and Zach build with strangers in a short time over a phone line. I know I hear them differently now that I engaged in one, sort of like how you see art differently if you make it.

When I asked Zachary why they don't edit the shows more tightly to focus on the questions and answers, he explained that they sometimes do edited shows, or shows borne from conversations at live events, or shows that focus on voicemails received on their line. I listened to a couple of voicemail shows and found them more quirky but less satisfying in terms of their depth, and I can see why from Mercedes and Zachary's perspective it might be most valuable to engage in longer conversations with people. He commented that, "When we started this it was an experiment to see what would happen so we thought up a lot of ways that Dial A Stranger might work and we've been trying them. As the show grows and changes we grow and change how we do it and make different kinds of shows along the way."

And so I wonder--in which direction can and should Dial-A-Stranger grow? Should Mercedes and Zachary train others as hosts, to support more conversations and provide more people with transformative experiences as participants? Should they experiment audially with ways to produce an audience-facing podcast that better conveys that transformation? What would you do with this kind of project?

And even if you don't have an answer to that question, I encourage you to sign up with Mercedes and Zachary, be a stranger, and let us know what you think.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Are So Many Participatory Experiences Focused on Teens?

Over the past year, I've noticed a strange trend in the calls I receive about upcoming participatory museum projects: the majority of them are being planned for teen audiences. A large number of the collaborative projects of which I'm aware (in which staff partner with community members to co-develop exhibits or programs) are initiated with teens. Even the most traditional museums often manage educational programs in which teens develop their own exhibits, produce youth-focused museum events, or provide educational experiences for younger visitors. And while I enjoy working with youth and consuming their creations as a museum visitor, I'd like to call into question the idea that they are or should be the primary audience for participatory experiences.

Why are teens over-represented in participatory projects? I see four main reasons:
  1. Most participatory experimentation in museums starts in educational departments, and many educators primarily engage (and are funded to work with) students. Teens are a known (and somewhat controllable) entity.
  2. Teens are developmentally focused on social identity-building and may feel more compelled to share their voices and express themselves than others than other visitors.
  3. Teens are perceived as more interested in technology-mediated experiences and more familiar with social technologies in particular than their adult counterparts.
  4. Teens are perceived as an audience that is particularly disaffected and hard to reach, and institutions are continually seeking new techniques that might connect them to core content experiences.
The first of these reasons is practical. The other three are cultural, and I'm not sure how accurate they are. Teens are certainly not the only people who like to express themselves and engage socially through technology. There are plenty of people who don't feel compelled to visit museums, but teens' disinterest may be more immediately evident because droves of students are forced to visit museums on field trips (whereas adult non-visitors are invisible). The challenge of engaging disaffected visitors is not teen-specific, and the potential for participatory techniques to address this challenge need not be limited to this audience.

Here are four reasons I think that cultural institutions should look more broadly at potential audiences for participatory experiences:
  1. While teens are heavy social media users, they may not be the right audience for content-focused social experiences. Teens more commonly use the Web to stay in touch with their pre-existing social groups than to join new communities based on content affinities or interests. As researcher Danah Boyd has pointed out, teens spend time on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks because that's where their friends are. This means that teens are not necessarily more savvy or more interested than other groups in engaging in communities of practice around content experiences. Users active in online social environments based on social objects like Flickr (photography), Ravelry (knitting), and Wikipedia (information) often trend older. Presumably, cultural institutions are more interested in providing opportunities for people to participate with and around content than providing venues for pre-existing friend groups to hang out, and this suggests reaching out to a broader audience.
  2. If your activity is compelling because it involves gimmicky new technology, it's not a good activity. In several instances, I've heard about new gadgets and handhelds that are targeted at teens because of their novelty. While some youth (and adults) may be seduced by sexy technology, is that really the reason you want people to engage with your content experiences? I'm working on one cellphone-based game project that was originally conceived as being focused towards teens because, the thinking goes, teens like using their cellphones. In the end, we've developed a program that uses phones in such a simple way that the client is now talking excitedly about how much fun seniors are going to have playing the game. Complex technology integration may appeal more to some audiences than others, but it's denigrating to suggest that teens will engage just because an experience involves something shiny that beeps.
  3. Teens are already frequently engaged as active participants in museums, and while they are a good starting point, focusing on them may have less significant institutional returns than expanding to other audiences. I suspect that one reason teens are often a core audience is that museums are already comfortable providing participatory experiences to youth in the form of camps, internships, and classes. It's potentially easier and more in-line with standard institutional practice to add a new special kind of internship or camp that focuses on teens contributing or collaborating on production of new content under the guise of youth outreach. For example, the National Building Museum offers an excellent summer program called Investigating Where We Live (IWWL), in which thirty local teens work with museum staff for four weeks to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a neighborhood of D.C. The program is coordinated and directed by staff, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and generally shepherd the project to completion. The program operates like a camp that is co-led by the teens involved. While this program is wonderful, it's very enclosed within the "youth education outreach" activities of the museum, and doesn't necessarily push other staff members in design or curatorial to consider integrating community members into their exhibit development processes. Also, from the teen perspective, while IWWL is a unique and valuable experience, participants may not differentiate it from any other ways they engage with the museum. This means that it may have less impact on their perception of and relationship to the institution overall, as compared to the potential impact on audiences with whom there are no pre-existing collaborative relationships. Imagine if instead of working with teens at the museum, IWWL was conducted as a collaborative project with mixed-age residents of the neighborhoods to be exhibited. IWWL would undoubtably get more complicated (and potentially harder to fund), but it might connect the National Building Museum with a much broader community of locals who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have more varied prior relationships with the museum.
  4. Teens are not the only people with stories to tell. Teens may be particularly drawn to self-expression, but that doesn't mean that their contributions are any better than those of others. Because of their comfort with expressive technologies, teens are low-hanging fruit when it comes to participatory projects, but again, the impact of participatory experiences on them (and on other museum audiences) may be lower than that on participants with less access or ability to share their stories, skills, and memories. I'd like to see more multi-generational participatory projects in which young people are employed as staff or volunteers to help older audiences contribute their own content. Museums are not in the business of giving anyone who wants one a soapbox. Cultural institutions should be deliberate about setting up opportunities for communities of interest to participate, whether those be artists or amateur astronomers, veterans or housekeepers, gardeners or genealogists. The more thoughtfully we design participatory platforms, the broader our opportunities to use them to work with the visitors and audiences who matter most to us.
What do you think? Is it a problem or a great starting point to focus on participatory experiences with teens?