Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Improving Family Exhibitions by Co-Creating with Children

Every once in a while I come across a project I wish I could have included in The Participatory Museum. Shh... it's a Secret!, an exhibition produced with schoolchildren at the Wallace Collection in London, is a lovely example of co-creation that demonstrates the multiple benefits of inviting audience members to act as partners in arts organizations.

Here are the basics. For one year, a group of twelve schoolchildren age 9-11 were invited to work with staff at the Wallace Collection to develop a family-focused exhibition using the museum's artifacts. With the support of museum staff, children developed the exhibition theme, selected the objects, designed the space, developed interpretative materials (including interactives), managed the budget, raised sponsorship, created press and marketing materials, put on the opening party, led interpretative tours, and trained museum guides. The exhibition was open for 54 days and was visited by 14,000 people. You can read a full report on the exhibition process, including lots of quotes from the young curators, staff, and educators involved, here [pdf]. You can also watch some lovely footage of the children showing off their favorite objects along with staff reflecting on the process here.

Pouring through these materials, I was struck by several key elements of this project that made it work. While the staff who led the project cheerfully commented that they didn't know what they were doing when they started, the process they ended up with bears remarkable similarity to other successful co-creative efforts, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum's community exhibition process or the Oakland Museum's Days of the Dead project.

What made Shh... it's a Secret! a success?
  • It started with a real institutional need. The Learning Staff wanted to develop a family-friendly exhibition, and they couldn't figure out what to focus on. They decided to ask children, and the project was born. The exhibition had a real story and theme determined by the young curators. It wasn't just "here's what kids like at the Wallace Collection"--it was a real exhibition designed by the community it was intended to serve.
  • The process was professional. My favorite part of the report is the clear expectations set out for the students, museum staff, and the school (page 7). While the staff did guide students through the exhibition development process, the students had serious responsibilities and lived up to professional expectations. Even without knowing exactly how the process would go, the museum staff set themselves up for success by treating the young curators as respected partners.
  • Everybody learned something. While the exhibition report disproportionately focuses on the learning value of the experience for the children involved (reasonable considering they developed the exhibition during school hours), the staff at the museum learned quite a lot about designing for and with children. As Learning Director Emma Bryant commented, "The exhibition is much more subtle than I think we would have done if we had done it by ourselves for children."
  • The project wasn't isolated to one department of the museum. Because the children were organized into teams (design, interpretation, finance, marketing), they intersected with many staff members across the museum. This created opportunities for institution-wide learning about working with children and understanding family audiences. A curatorial assistant, Rebecca Wallis, reflected that "their creative imaginations allowed me to see the collections in a new light. From the interesting objects they chose, not the usual well-known pieces, to the way they described them in their own words, not museum speak!" The exhibition report includes both successes and challenges of the project from multiple perspectives--children, staff, parents, teachers.
  • The exhibition reflects the particular interests and abilities of children while maintaining high quality. Judging from the videos, the exhibition was well-designed, well-lit, and generally in keeping with others at the Wallace Collection. This was not a poor man's "community gallery;" it was a real show. From the limited view on the Web, I found the artifacts novel (who doesn't love a desk with secret compartments?) and the interactives that connected to the objects smart and appealing. These young curators really made 18th century design, art, and armory accessible and intriguing. I loved the mannequins you could use to understand the relative positions of people in a complex painting, and the hats you could try on to feel what it was like to wear a hidden metal protective cap under your fashionably floppy chapeau. As a lover of audience participation, I was particularly taken by the "souvenir tree," which invited visitors to emulate a woman in a painting carving a message into a tree by writing their own secrets on postcards and putting them in a box on a graphic tree on the wall.
  • The partnership was a manageable starting point for future collaborations. The museum worked with St. Vincent's school because it was just down the road from the museum, making it easy for the children to meet weekly throughout the year at either site to work on the project. While the museum and the school didn't have a strong history of collaboration, this project seemed reasonable enough to try. The project was carefully designed to achieve related but different goals for each institution--for the museum, to learn more about children and generate an exhibition, and for the school, to support children's educational development through a novel opportunity. The museum and school are now planning future projects together, including a youth advisory board for the museum and some shared professional development opportunities across museum staff and teachers at St. Vincent's.
  • The project was well-documented. The Wallace Collection folks did the little things that matter--shooting photos and video throughout the process--as well as the big things--writing a report that included multiple stakeholders. While the exhibition report could certainly be more rigorous in terms of evaluation, I appreciated the focus not only on the children's experience but that of museum staff, school staff, and parents. To me, the group most lacking from the report is the general audience. While there is some reporting about audience numbers and visitor comments, there isn't a lot of content about how people responded to the exhibition. There is an appendix with the full visitor survey, but it was administered with only a handful of folks.
Rather than write more, I urge to you to read the Wallace Collection report and enjoy the story of an institution thoughtfully engaging with community members as partners for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. Here's to many more such projects!

And by the way, I learned about this project through a blog comment by Maria Gilbert. If you know about great projects we should be discussing, please share!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Six Museum-Related Blogs You Might Not Know About That Are Really Good

Need some new inspiration in your feed reader? Here are six little-known blogs I've enjoyed reading this year. I believe that the museum blogosphere is still underdeveloped and there's lots of room for people to share their inspiration, experience, and ideas. I hope next year at this time, all six on this list will still be going strong and accompanied by a chorus of new voices.
  1. Asking Audiences. For a year now, Peter Linett and his friends at Slover-Linett Strategies have been blogging thoughtfully about connecting with arts audiences in new ways. While this blog started by focusing on audience research, topics include subjectivity, participation, innovation, and culture shifts. Peter is a fabulous writer, and this blog has become one of my favorites. It's a pleasure to read and it always gives me something to think about.
  2. Jumper. This is a new blog written by Diane Ragsdale as part of the Arts Journal suite. Diane is still getting her "blog legs" and the posts are a bit haphazard, but she's one of the most brilliant minds in arts innovation, and I can't wait to see where this blog goes. If you need a good reason to read her blog, sit down for an afternoon with this incredible talk she gave in 2008 at an arts marketing summit and prepare to be blown away.
  3. Useum. Want something a little geekier? When anyone asks me who's doing great work blending online and onsite experiences in museums, I send them to Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science. When anyone asks me who's being thoughtful and analytical about social media in museums, I send them to Beck Tench. When any wants to learn how to draw great stick figures... you get the idea. The Useum blog is more of an idea-dump than a public exposition, so it can be a bit confusing to read. But it's worth it for the opportunity to get inside the brain of a phenomenally creative person.
  4. The Museum of the Future. Across the Atlantic in the Netherlands, Jasper Visser has been chronicling some of the truly exciting experiments he and his colleagues have been doing as they develop the national history museum for their country. The posts are infrequent, but where else are you going to learn about history vending machines?
  5. Thinking about Exhibits. A new blog from an experienced developer, Ed Rodley at the Boston Museum of Science. There have only been a few posts thus far, but his humorous writing style, knowledge of the craft, and far-reaching influences will appeal to anyone interested in the exhibit development process.
  6. Poesy-Praxis. One last new blog, this time from Jaime Kopke, the smart cookie behind the Denver Community Museum. Jaime's been pointing to intriguing design projects in museums and on the Web with short, informative posts. I hope she keeps it up--I know I'll keep coming back for a dose of the unusual.

What blogs would you recommend? I'm especially interested in those that might be under-the-radar or a bit out of the mainstream.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Parents Talking with Parents: A Simple, Successful Discussion Board at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

On a recent trip to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, I noted a discussion board in the "Nursery" gallery. The design is nothing special: a question printed on construction paper with a bunch of post-its and pens for visitors to respond. But the board is excellent, and I could see that instantly from a quick read.

What makes this discussion board stand out?
  • The questions are specific, personal, and written to elicit responses that will be useful to other parents and caregivers.
  • People take the questions seriously and write interesting, descriptive, diverse responses.
  • People feel compelled to comment on each other's comments, writing things like "ditto" or "Get over it!" with arrows pointing to other comments.
The questions fuel the high-quality visitor response. The questions are written for parents and caregivers to share tips, ideas, and stories with each other. The question this month is "What are your tips for traveling with an infant or toddler?" Looking at the board, I saw several specific, unique suggestions like:
Use Google Maps to find a park(s) along the way. A short break to run/swing/etc. is good for all. Look for elementary schools just off highway.
Drive @ night: -go during their longest sleep time -split driving w/ someone and take turns napping -You'll be tired the next day but getting there faster is worth it!
This post-it had another one next to it with an arrow and a "Yes!" written on it.

There were also funny ideas, like "Grandma in the back seat," as well as a healthy debate about the merits of DVD players. I didn't see a single off-topic comment, and while the board wasn't overflowing, it was certainly well-used.

Yvonne Atkinson, the Early Childhood Specialist who runs the Nursery discussion board, shared with me a few favorite questions from the many years she's been running the board:
"What was the best conversation you've ever had with your child?"
"How do you feel about your child playing with toy guns or combative toys like swords and knives?"
"What have you found out about yourself from being a parent?"
"What's the oddest food combination you've ever seen your child try?"
Yvonne told me that some questions fall flat--those that are too involved and require a complex response, as well as some that just receive generic answers. She's found great questions from her training in early childhood development, parenting magazines, and the occasional visitor comment that can be translated into a new question. Yvonne has been collecting the questions and some of the best answers for the past eight years, and she keeps refining and adding new ones as time goes on.

I firmly believe that questions work best when they have a real "listener" on the other end. While I'm sure a board with a question like "What's your favorite thing about being a parent?" would receive some heart-warming responses, it wouldn't be as useful as this board is. I always ask staff members who are writing questions, "Who cares about the answer to this question?" In some cases, it might be the institution or staff. For the Nursery discussion board, it's other adult visitors to the Children's Museum. You get the sense reading the question that someone needs your advice, and if you've figured something out that works for you and your child, you want to share.

Every adults who takes a child to a Children's Museum cares about his or her identity as a caregiver. They want to do a good job of it; it's part of the reason they came. To me, this simple by-parents-for-parents board is a great way to serve an important constituency of the Children's Museum--adults.

This is a participatory comment board in a true sense. The institution facilitates the space and tools to allow visitors to provide information to each other. The information is as diverse as the adults who visit the museum, and different answers are useful for different readers. The museum doesn't have to have all the answers. It just has to host the space for the conversation.

What's the next step? The Nursery is changing, and Yvonne is using questions like "What's your favorite book on parenting?" to figure out what resources to stock in the Nursery's library in its next iteration. The staff members are also considering expanding the project in two ways: inviting visitors to share their own questions on a second, nearby board, and documenting some of these questions and answers online. They have eight years of archived content from this discussion board. I can't think of a more perfect starting point for a children's museum interested in encouraging conversation among its visitors online.

Note: for more on designing good questions for visitors response, check out these posts.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Participation Starts with Staff: The Ruru Revolution

Let's say you've gotten excited about some innovative ideas for your institution. You want to get some projects going, but you're not in any particular position of power. Where do you start?

Ruth Harvey has a brilliant solution to this problem. Ruth is a curator of pictorial collections for Puke Ariki, a museum/library/visitor center in the small city of New Plymouth, New Zealand. Last year, Ruth received a Churchill fellowship that allowed her to visit U.S. institutions that were doing innovative work in audience engagement. (We met when I sent her a list of offbeat places to check out.) She came back inspired and eager to get moving on some experimental projects at Puke Ariki.

But Ruth was really smart. After a meeting with staff members from across the institution, she realized this was an opportunity not just to engage with visitors in new ways but also to energize and connect staff from across Puke Ariki. Puke Ariki has about 70 full-time staff members, of whom 10 work for the museum, and the institution is pretty siloed. As Ruth put it, "There was the feeling that staff often stick just to their teams and didn’t see themselves as a part of a bigger Puke Ariki – people tend to refer to themselves as “library”, “museum” or “i-Site” staff rather than seeing themselves as a part of the whole."

So Ruth decided to start with a simple project in which she'd invite staff from across Puke Ariki to write first-person labels about favorite objects. It was a project anyone could participate in that would hopefully create a shared sense of purpose and excitement among staff.

But she didn't just ask people to write labels. With a few cohorts, Ruth started a group called "Ruru" (which means owl in Maori) and a blog called Ruru Revolution. Ruru Revolution is a staff blog (which, luckily for us, is also public) in which Ruth and her colleagues cheer each other on for participating in the personalized label project. Every time someone writes a label, he or she gets a badge (a pin featuring the Ruru mascot owl), a photo taken, and an energetic writeup on the blog. This entire first phase of the project is set up to encourage staff to participate and reward them for doing so. Even the way the labels are being rolled out--first for staff in a January scavenger hunt, and then later for visitors--promotes a sense of fun, buy-in, and a special experience.

This is really unusual and totally brilliant. I've known people who start new experiments by writing high-concept proposals about the reasons behind the ideas. I know people who organize small meetings and try to push things forward. But this is a direct cheerleader approach. The Ruru Revolution blog documents a group of people getting excited about doing something new. And it looks like it's working.

Perhaps the most notable and potentially silly part of the Ruru approach is the badges staff get for participating. Why on earth would people want to participate to get a pin? But the badges are a brilliant stroke that really fit staff culture at Puke Ariki. Ruth explained that staff at Puke Ariki wear badges of all kinds on their key fobs and see them as a kind of unofficial currency, so it was a natural choice for this project.

Ruth explained the Ruru approach this way:
We see ourselves (currently) as an underground group that is working to affect institutional change at Puke Ariki – we want to encourage different and better ways of working and of providing satisfying experiences for visitors. So the badge, in my view, is about identifying other ‘revolutionaries’ – it’s a talking point. It helps to keep the project fresh in people’s minds and gets people chatting about what people have done to deserve their badge. However, that said, bribery really DOES work! People have been excited to get a badge and I imagine it has been, at least to a degree, a motivating factor in getting their labels written.
But that reward has been coupled with a lot of energy spent encouraging people, keeping them informed and praising them for their participation. The blog has been a great way of keeping people informed and I have certainly spent lots of time asking people about what they plan to write about in informal settings (and I imagine the other Ruru group members have too). The badge, though, has been a good way to get to praise people who have contributed labels in person – when they email their label to me I take them a badge in person and tell them what I loved about what they’d written. I think that has really helped with making them feel integral to the whole project instead of on the periphery. I’ve also intentionally described the staff as “experts” throughout the project and I actually think that – when the individual’s talents are often overlooked in a big organisation and its hierarchies – being given the chance to prove what they have to offer is very empowering.
Read the blog, get inspired, and find a way to bring the Ruru Revolution spirit home in a way that fits your institutional culture!

And by the way, I learned about all of this because of a cold email from Ruth. If you're doing something special and participatory, for goodness sakes, let me know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Next Book Club: Sustaining Innovation in Nonprofits and Government Organizations

There were so many fabulous recommendations for the next Museum 2.0 book club, in which we'll focus on a business book about innovation and organizational learning. After much perusing, I've selected Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally by Paul C. Light.

This book, suggested by Susan Wageman, looks like a fabulous, off-beat, and highly pertinent read for librarians, museum folk, and cultural professionals of all sorts. The author, then-director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, studied 26 Minnesotan non-profits and government organizations in writing this book. It appears to blend high-level recommendations with specific case studies. Including one on Wile E. Coyote.

More importantly, this book appears to confront questions I've been hearing frequently this year: Now that we've tried a couple new things, how do we institutionalize innovation? How do we move from one-off experiments to something more sustainable?

It's time to figure out some answers to these questions so we can keep moving forward. Enter Sustaining Innovation.

This book club will work like the last one. Starting in January, on Tuesdays, the blog will features a mixture of my thoughts along with guest posts from you reflecting on how the book is useful in your own work. If you'd like to participate...
  1. Get your hands on a copy of the book in the next couple of weeks.
  2. Read it (or a large chunk of it).
  3. If you are so motivated, fill out this two-question form to let me know you want to write a guest post or participate in a group discussion about the book. I'll be looking for guest posters who represent different types of institutions, countries, and approaches to the material. You don't need to be a museum or library professional to be eligible--just a good writer with an interesting perspective to share. In this case I'm particularly interested in people who are in institutions that are trying to "sustain innovation" in some way.
  4. For four weeks starting in January, each Tuesday there will be a Museum 2.0 post with a response to the book. I'd like to write one or two of these at the most. The goal is to make the blog a community space for different viewpoints.
Happy reading!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Can You Make A/B Testing Part of Your Practice?

One of the things that fascinates me about comment boards is the extent to which design impacts visitor contributions. Each of us (and every visitor) has within us the capacity to be both profound and banal, and our choice at any moment depends not just on how we feel intrinsically but also what external prompts, tools, and motivations are provided.

It's not surprising that design impacts behavior, but many people want proof that visitors are capable of more than writing "I was here" in a comment book. How do I know that design impacts visitor participation? I've seen it in project after project. I've seen how a typewriter can silently encourage people to write letters. I've seen how a "bathroom wall" can garner graffiti.

But the simplest evidence I have for the statement that design impacts visitor contributions comes from a formative evaluation performed at LACMALab for their nano exhibition in 2004. In the report, evaluator Marianna Adams described a simple experiment in visitor response. LACMALab took one question--"What connections do you see between art and science?"--and created two ways for visitors to respond. In March, visitors were offered white 4"x6" notecards and golf pencils. In April, these were replaced with blue hexagonal cards and full-size pencils.

What did they find? From the report:
The percentage of "unrelated" responses for this question decreased from 58% (with the white cards) to 40% (with the blue cards), and "specific" responses nearly doubled, increasing from 28% (with the white cards) to 50% (with the blue cards). These findings strongly support Hayes (2003) research that while the question itself has an important effect on the quality of visitor responses, the physical design of the response areas plays a prominent role in eliciting richer responses and decreasing unrelated ones.
Does this mean that visitor response stations should always use hexagonal blue cards and full-size pencils? Of course not. This finding suggests that giving people unusual or special tools can increase their dedication and focus on the task at hand. Other studies comparing regular pens and silver pens have had similar results.

This kind of experiment is called an A/B test. The museum compared visitor behavior in setup A to that in setup B.

Most museum prototyping does not follow an A/B model. We test one thing, learn from how visitors respond, and (hopefully) reiterate for the next round. This may make sense if you are trying to see how someone explores a space or approaches an activity, but it's not nearly as useful as A/B testing if you're trying to figure out how to write a great label or design a good question for visitor response.

I use A/B testing all the time to write questions for visitor comment. I've been amazed to learn that "what's the best job you've ever had?" is a lousy question but "what's the worst job you've ever had?" is a fabulous one. I'll frequently test up to ten different questions around a single exhibit. It's easy to quickly determine that some questions really are better than others in terms of prompting desired visitor response.

Here are three reasons I want to encourage you to consider A/B testing in your next experiment:
  1. It forces you to set priorities for what makes a "successful" project or visitor experience. When you compare different behaviors, you will naturally express preferences for one outcome over another, and these preferences can help you understand what you value and consider to be a "good" project.
  2. It helps you communicate about what you've learned with others. When you mount an exhibition and study it, the typical report is a matter of degrees--how much did people like it, how long did they stay, etc. Unless your institution has clear marks of success (i.e. more time with the object is always better), it's hard to figure out where these projects fit against benchmarks. A/B testing lets you say: "X helped us accomplish our goals more than Y." This is good internally for talking with board and staff, but it's also great externally for helping advance the field.
  3. It helps you make decisions that you can apply to future projects. A/B tests reveal theories that can help you make more informed design decisions, whether in ongoing development or for your next project. Instead of saying "people learned from this exhibit," you can say, "people learned more when we did X." Websites use A/B testing all the time to see how users respond to different visual styles and prompts and introduce redesigns that will be more effective at communicating desired content or prompting desired behavior. Designers put up multiple ads on Google AdWords or show users different versions of the same site and make decisions based on what's most effective.
I know there are a few museums playing with A/B testing (most notably, the Exploratorium). But I'd love to see a whole lot more, and I'd like to see museums doing it with everything from membership drives to exhibitions. These tests don't require fancy evaluative practices or expensive equipment. To my mind, we learn best as a field from A/B tests, because they allow us to compare the incomparable and glean new insights about visitor experience.

So how about it? How can you integrate A/B testing into your work?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Next Book Club: Your Recommendations?

Hi folks,

Seems like it's time for another Museum 2.0 book club, where we pick a book, read it, and then I and guest bloggers write about aspects of the book that intrigue and stimulate us. In the past, we've read about:
  • museum theory in Civilizing the Museum by Elaine Heumann Gurian (eight posts)
  • social media in Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernhoff (five posts)
  • participatory projects in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions edited by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock (four posts)
  • third places in The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (six posts)
This time, I'd like to find a great book about organizational change, learning organizations, and or promoting a culture of innovation at work. The more I talk with cultural professionals about promoting experimental practice in community engagement, the more I hear that the obstacles are internal. If the problem is us, let's start 2011 with some ideas on how to change.

I've read a couple pop business books that haven't thrilled me, and I'm hoping you might have some ideas of where we might find something really worthwhile to learn from and discuss. Please share your suggestions and ideas in the comments and we'll start reading soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Month at the Museum, Part 2: Marketing, not Science

Kate McGroarty's month living at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is over. The young actress and teacher beat out 1,500 other applicants and spent 30 days exploring exhibits, participating in live demos, talking to visitors (both in-person and online), and romping through the museum at night. She blogged, tweeted, and Facebooked her experience for a crowd of eager followers. She learned that "Science is beautiful, engaging and just about EVERYWHERE." And she earned $10,000 for her efforts.

Now that the smoke has cleared, so what? What is this project really all about and what did it accomplish?

Month at the Museum was a marketing success for the museum. It got people excited about a huge and potentially impersonal institution by connecting them to a unique, highly personal experience. In July, Director of Public Relations Lisa Miner told me, "Under the past five years, we've undergone a lot of changes. This is a way to talk about those changes and all the things that happen in the museum." The goal was to "reintroduce" the museum to people who hadn't visited in a long time, and to do so through authentic, energized experiences of the museum roommate.

Lisa's goals were met. Kate's enthusiasm and humor made her an attractive spokesperson for the inner life of the museum. Her tweets, posts, and Facebook updates are uniformly upbeat, quirky, and riddled with exclamation points.

And it works. On her Facebook page, hundreds of people have made testimonials to how inspiring she is and how much they've enjoyed following her experience. Kate was able to put a personal face on a large institution. People were excited to talk with her online and then to visit her in person--something that's pretty much impossible to do with other museum staffers visitors meet through their web presence. I have no doubt that her efforts will bring people back to the Museum of Science and Industry and help people reconnect with what they enjoy about the museum.

Despite all its positives, I struggled with this project. Partly, I felt uncomfortable with the unrelenting Mickey Mouse club feel of Kate's posts. I haven't found a single negative or even complex comment about Kate's experience. It's all "totally awesome."

But my bigger struggle is based on a misunderstanding I had about what Month at the Museum is fundamentally about. When the project started, I thought it was about science. I had this mental picture of someone coming in and initiating unorthodox projects, testing hypotheses, and generally playing with science in a way that science centers don't typically engage.

But that's not what happened. Month at the Museum was a creative marketing project, not a scientific endeavor. The storyline of the experience was simple: girl comes to museum and is transformed by science. Lisa Miner told me this story before the project even started; Kate just substantiated it. In July, Lisa said:
This is really the best time to have someone move in and be able to really see the changes we've made here and ultimately the changes we make in someone's life. We've heard from a lot of famous people how they were totally inspired by this place--and that's just a single visit. What could happen for someone over a whole month?
I was a bit surprised that Lisa already had this fixed idea of the story, but Kate delivered in her final blog post:
How did one month in the Museum of Science and Industry transform me? I expected to come away from this experience with a new understanding and appreciation for science. The month has definitely lived up to that expectation.
I used to think that because I was more naturally drawn to the arts and literature, science did not have a place in my life. INCORRECT! The only person who told me I couldn’t love science was myself. Silly, silly Kate. And now I have a whole new world to discover for the rest of my life.
This is marketing, not science. Lisa and the museum team decided what story they wanted to tell, and then they found a way to tell it. I appreciate their success, but it is also somewhat antithetical to the scientific process in which you make a hypothesis, experiment, and discover the results. Science is about answering an unknown question, not telling a scripted story.

This prescriptive marketing approach to Month at the Museum meant that there were few surprises or plot twists to the thirty days. "Science can change your life" is not a new storyline for science centers and museums. Institutional marketing, educational programs, and exhibits constantly reinforce that message constantly. Instead of posing it as a hypothesis and seeing what would happen, Kate immediately took on the message, joining the museum team as a cute, funny new cast member.

I appreciate that this project is about marketing, not muckraking. But I wish there'd been a little more focus on the nuance of making science part of your life--the story behind the institutional message. I wish that Kate had been more of a scientist, experimenting with herself and her own attitudes, rather than a science communicator.

The Museum of Science and Industry has had a great marketing and PR success with Month at the Museum. Next year, I hope this gives them the confidence to be a bit more experimental--and scientific--in their approach.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Does Participation Work in Multi-Lingual Museums?

Spending time in Europe, I'm reminded how complicated it gets when you have to interpret exhibits for a multi-lingual audience. Here in Barcelona, it's standard to see three languages on labels (Catalan, Spanish, English), and in Scandinavia I've seen as many as six. Even in North America, it's becoming typical to see two languages on the walls.

And this leads to a basic question, one I haven't figured out: how do you encourage visitors to participate when they speak different languages? While there are some kinds of participation that are not language-based like making art or voting, most participation is lingual. If your goal is to promote a social experience among visitors, it can be tricky if they can't read or speak the same tongue.

In the most extreme cases, I've talked to folks from museums that are government-mandated to provide all content in multiple languages who say they are unable to invite visitors to make comments because they'd have to translate all of them and simply can't dedicate the resources to do so.

So what are the options? As far as I see, an institution like this could:
  • focus on non-language-based participation. Many fabulous participatory projects--like the Johnny Cash Project or the Art Gallery of Ontario's "In Your Face"--don't require language. This certainly could work well in an art museum, where visitors can make art, or science museums, where they could participate in citizen science projects, without sharing a language. You could even get creative with documentation--photos instead of text, music instead of words--but it's limiting.
  • designate the difference between languages using design. A comment board, for example, could offer blue cards for English speakers, green for Spanish, and so on. The result would be a board that is colorful and makes it easy for people to find comments they can read. This would work best in an institution where there's likely to be a parity of participation among different languages. It would be disappointing to see just one card in "your" color among lots of cards you can't read.
  • invite visitors to translate others' comments if willing to do so. I'm now imagining a card with a place for "Your Comment (English)," "(Spanish)," and so on down the side. You write your comment in the slot you feel comfortable writing in, and other people can fill in the rest of the card if possible. This may sound silly, but there are probably some people who'd be happy to contribute in this way (and may not want to write their own comment). People could also caption each other's videos, but that's more intensive. The challenge here is some kind of vetting to keep people from writing obscene and false translations. I'm not sure if there's more of an impulse toward obscenity in translation than in commenting, but it seems particularly rife because you're distorting another visitor's comment, which isn't nice.
  • use digital interfaces. Machine translation is by no means perfect, but for short two-sentence comments, it's probably good enough. We're likely only a few years from being able to translate text and audio on the fly at a reasonable level of quality. Many museum projects are on long enough leads that this is a good time to seriously investigate digital comment interfaces that incorporate automatic translation.
I'm sure there are people out there with clever ideas about this to share. It's not just a museum issue--it's all over the social web as people maintain global friendships. What have you tried? What have you seen work? What are you experimenting with? What could you imagine?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Navigation by Recommendation: Lessons Learned from a Little Experiment

How do you find your way around a multi-faceted museum? Do you interrogate the map? Create a plan for yourself? Get deliciously lost?

I spent some time playing with this question last week at the Milwaukee Art Museum, a large general museum that is moving toward redesign of the permanent galleries. I was there for a think tank about the reinstallation along with a handful of designers and academics.

As a visitor on my own, I got instantly lost in the main part of the permanent collection. There's no central spine or hub to anchor you. I wandered through labyrinthine galleries labeled only by tiny white-on-white numbers in high corners, feeling more and more like I should have unspooled a string behind me so I might later escape. While for me meandering was mostly pleasurable, if I were there with a particular goal or a group of people, I would have been stressed out. The galleries weren't huge--most seemed to be under 2000 square feet--but they had poor sight lines from one to the next. Parents in particular were keeping close watch on kids who might quickly slip from antiquities to modernism without an obvious way to reconnect.

So when the folks at the think tank asked us to make a media piece to address one problem we saw with the current setup, I decided to do a little experiment in visitor-driven navigation. I'd had a good experience earlier asking a guard what he recommended--it had taken me into a gallery I otherwise would have missed completely. I wondered what would happen if that interaction was scaled up.

I partnered with staff member Bambi Grajek-Specter, and we went out into the galleries armed with a simple question: "What would you recommend that I see?" We'd approach people who were looking at art, ask them what else they'd seen that they thought was cool or interesting, and then we'd write it down on a little card with an arrow pointing to that other work. The idea was to make lots of these cards and lay them on the floor around the galleries so if you wanted, you could follow them to a (potentially interesting) work. It was a super low-tech "if you like this, check out that" strategy.

At least, that was the idea. We talked to visitors and made and placed cards for about half an hour. We quickly learned a few things:
  • You really can't guess what people will like. A teenage boy recommended a silver tea set because "I like seeing things that were used." A couple lavished attention on a painting because "we love lemon meringue pie". People told us about mummies and infinity rooms and gold crosses. A young boy recommended "the dental floss," referring to a large contemporary work by Cornelia Parker featuring rocks hanging from wire. This work is in the same room as another piece by Robert Gober that is considered highly appealing to families (and I saw many staff members pointing it out to parents), but the eight-year old we spoke to was drawn to Parker's abstract curtain of rocks instead.
  • It's easy to ask visitors just one question. Bambi noted that she felt like she learned a lot more talking to twenty people for just a minute than trying to administer a two-page survey in the same amount of time. We never really had to apologize for taking up their time since the encounter only required one verbal exchange. In many cases, we ended up in long conversations with visitors, but that was always driven by their interest in telling us more about what they liked, why they were at the museum, etc.
  • Most people enjoyed talking to us. They liked that we asked, and then that we listened. Our favorite pair, a father and daughter on a visit for the daughter's school project, were unsure of what to recommend to us when we first met them. But they showed us a couple things, and later in the hour, they approached us again and pulled us into another gallery to show us another beautiful object. Even though people were mostly pretty hushed in the galleries, almost all of them perked up when asked. This was reflected again in a great encounter I had at the Walter's Art Museum later in the weekend, when a silver-haired, well-coiffed lady (the perfect image of a traditional museum goer) told me "I get so annoyed by how quiet museums are. When I visit, I want to talk to people, strangers, about what I'm seeing." Amen.
  • People who didn't want to do it saw it as a test. No one expressed that we were intruding on their visit or that they didn't want to talk. But a few people seemed nervous that we were trying to trick or evaluate them. They were okay talking to us, but weren't willing to have something written down or their photo taken. Interestingly, this included two young employees/volunteers.
  • The cards are ok, but the people (and the conversations) are what matters.We had documented the activity with pictures of the people with their cards, and it was abundantly clear after the dust cleared that the personality and energy of the recommendations were in the images, not the cards. The cards were friendly but generic; they just said things like, "if you like this, check out XX around the corner," or "I love how realistic this sculpture is." As we flipped through the photos of the people we'd talked to, we saw hints of the curious stories that connected face to painting. A recommendation is a gift, and it is best packaged in some positive or intriguing sentiment. That packaging was in the photos, not the cards.
So what would I do with this little experiment? While visitors did notice the cards, it was clear that we had in no way created a good prototype for a navigational recommendation engine. It was too impersonal, in addition to it being just too darn hard to find something in one gallery based on a card-based recommendation in another. I could imagine expanding this to something digital that would be easier to use but no more compelling. It's a great example of a situation where even a simple prototype exposes a core flaw in a technology concept.

But the activity itself WAS compelling, because of the fun conversations, unusual recommendations, and evocative photos. There are two clear next steps I'd take with this:
  1. Do more of this, and publish the photos of people with their recommendations. The pictures I took are full of life and reflect the diversity both of the museum collection and the audience. I could see a great online campaign, map series, or touchscreen interactive where you can browse people and their recommendations.
  2. Test out a "by visitors for visitors" version. This is the holy grail for me. I'm imagining a game where visitors are encouraged to approach each other and get recommendations for what to see (functionally what Bambi and I did). This might sound unlikely, but with the right instruction set and a kind of game piece or card to use as a prompt, I think it could work. The instruction becomes a kind of social object that gives people something to talk about. And hopefully the conversation could yield more useful instructions about how to get to the recommended work than a card can.
This is definitely an unfinished idea--we only spent an hour on this experiment. Want to take it to the next level? What would you do? What could you try in an hour?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New to the Field? Want to Attend the AAM Annual Meeting for Free?

Since I posted my "how I got here" post earlier this week, I've received lots of emails and comments from museum professionals, old and (mostly) young, about their own paths and struggles to get into the museum field.

As a followup, I want to note that there are at least six ways to attend the American Association of Museums annual meeting in Houston May 22-25, 2011 for free. AAM is the granddaddy of American museum conferences, bringing together several thousand practitioners to share, learn, argue, and socialize. While at first I found it a bit overwhelming and corporate, it has become my favorite museum conference both for the breadth of content and the volume of leaders present from whom I love to learn.

I'm a member of the board of NAME--the National Association for Museum Exhibition--and we're offering three fellowships to attend the conference in 2011. EdCom--the Education Committee--offers three fellowships as well. Here are the specifics on these fellowships.

NAME student fellowship (2):
  • WHAT YOU GET: conference registration, $500 for travel/hotel, free tickets to NAME events, and a NAME mentor to hang out with you during the conference.
  • YOU MUST BE: a full-time graduate student in an exhibition-related course of study.
  • ALSO, YOU MUST: not have attended the AAM annual meeting before.
  • TO APPLY: send me one email titled "NAME Fellowship" with the following attachments: a cover letter (1-2 pages) about why you want to go to the meeting and why you need the money, your resume, and a letter of recommendation from an academic advisor or professional supervisor. More info here.
  • APPLICATIONS ARE DUE FEB. 18, 2011. Recipients will be notified by March 22.
NAME new museum professional fellowship (1):
  • WHAT YOU GET: conference registration, $500 for travel/hotel, free tickets to NAME events, and a NAME mentor to hang out with you during the conference.
  • YOU MUST BE: working or trying to work in the museum field with less than five years of museum experience.
  • ALSO, YOU MUST: not have attended the AAM annual meeting before.
  • TO APPLY: send me one email titled "NAME Fellowship" with the following attachments: a cover letter (1-2 pages) about why you want to go to the meeting and why you need the money, your resume, and a letter of recommendation from a professional supervisor or mentor. More info here.
  • APPLICATIONS ARE DUE FEB. 18, 2011. Recipients will be notified by March 22.
EdCom diversity fellowship (3):
  • WHAT YOU GET: conference registration, one-year EdCom membership, free tickets to EdCom events, and a EdCom mentor to hang out with you during the conference.
  • YOU MUST BE: a full-time graduate student in museum studies/education or new museum professional (3 or fewer years experience).
  • ALSO, YOU MUST: be a person of color.
  • TO APPLY: fill out this form, provide a resume, and a letter of endorsement. More info here.
  • APPLICATIONS ARE DUE JAN. 14, 2011. Recipients will be notified by February.

Hope to see you in Houston!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

How I Got Here

Last week marked four years for the Museum 2.0 blog, and it got me thinking about how and why I first started doing this. People--especially young folks looking to break into the museum business--often ask me how I got here. This seems like an appropriate time to share the story. It's a long post, and you might not be interested. This is for those who ask for it again and again.

Ed Rodley recently wrote a blog post about museum jobs entitled "Getting Hired: It's Who You Know and Who Knows You." My story is more a case of "Getting Hired: It's What You Want, How Aggressive You Are, and What Ideas You Can Offer."

Part 1: It's What You Want

In 2002, I was finishing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at WPI, a hands-on, technical university in Worcester, Massachusetts. I'd always believed in engineering as a creative path to changing the world, and my professors encouraged that mindset. But internship after internship didn't live up to those expectations. I met lovely people in engineering, but I found the work to be too detail-oriented and microscopic in scope to satisfy me. I had a healthy second life as a slam poet, and I loved the world of artists and performance. I'd always joked that my dream job was to design pinball machines--a technical problem wrapped in creativity and pleasure. There's not a lot of work in pinball, and I had a deep secondary interest in unschooling and free-choice learning. So when I finished my bachelor's degree, I traded engineering opportunities for science center internships and was instantly hooked.

I never pursued or wanted to pursue a graduate degree. I've always been good at school but suspicious of the gold stars. I wanted to be in the real world as soon as possible. And while my parents were a bit nervous about me turning away from engineering, they trusted me. I've always had confidence that I can make the life that I want, and I credit them for empowering me with that perspective.

Part 2: It's How Aggressive You Are

My first year in museums, I tried to get as much broad experience as possible. I went to two science centers, one huge (Museum of Science Boston) and one tiny (Acton Science Discovery Museum), and told them: "I'll work for you for free for three months, and then let's talk about whether you are going to pay me." I stayed at both for about 8 months, making about $7/hour by the end. I believe that setting that expectation at the outset made a big difference both in my eventual pay and the responsibilities offered to me.

At the tiny science center, I got to do everything from leading programs to building exhibits to managing volunteers to cleaning snot off of plexiglass. At the big one, I worked on a small project with teens to design science exhibits for community centers in their own neighborhoods. I learned to appreciate the audience reach of a big institution while vastly preferring the diversity of work and lack of bureaucracy of a small one.

I also learned that the best money in museums for someone who's starting out is in art modeling. After a long day running around a science center, I would show up at the Worcester Art Museum in the evening and make $20 just to stand around and listen to a painting instructor talk about art. It was like getting paid to process the day in a lovely setting. I survived the first half of 2003 financially on art modeling and poetry gigs.

By the spring of 2003 I felt I'd learned what I could in Boston and tried to figure out where to go next. I applied to work for This American Life (rejected) and in the meantime fell in love with someone who lived in Washington D.C. So I packed up and moved down the East Coast. In DC, I worked half-time for NASA as an electrical engineer and half-time for the Capital Children's Museum (now defunct) as a science educator. I made $26/hour at NASA and $7.25/hour at the Museum. While I'd often grit my teeth and think "one hour doing math in a peaceful room equals three hours running like crazy around this museum," I loved the museum work more. I wrote puppet shows about science and ran a "stump the mathematician" booth. I designed electricity workshops for families. Every time a kid said, "I never knew science could be like this!" I got hooked all over again.

In the spring of 2004, I quit both my jobs and decided to try to get a full-time position in a museum. My goal was to find an incredible professional to work for in an institution that was small enough that I could actually make a contribution. I didn't really care what kind of museum I went to as long as I could work for a rock star. After being rejected for a job at the Institute of Learning Innovation (founded by one of my heroes, John Falk), I discovered that person in Anna Slafer. Anna had been the founding Curator of Education at the National Building Museum, led the Rolling Rainforest project, and was a real innovator in developing in-depth participatory design experiences with community members (though I wouldn't have used those words at the time). In 2004, Anna was the Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the International Spy Museum. I wrote her a letter expressing my admiration for her and what I thought I could contribute to her department, and then I pestered her and her staff for weeks until they'd talk to me.

Eventually, they had an opening for "Exhibits and Programs Associate"--a low-level jack of all trades position supporting the department. I didn't have the graduate degree they wanted, but I tried to differentiate myself by really demonstrating the specific ways I could enhance their work. For the second interview, I even built a little lie detector and brought it in. I made it clear that I could do the job and was thoughtful about what they were trying to achieve.

The Spy Museum was a dream place for me. The reach is huge--at the time, about 800,000 visitors per year--but the staff is tiny. We had only eight people doing everything related to content and programming at the museum. In my first six months, I got to help research and install a temporary exhibition, manage youth and adult programs, start a podcasting program, and learn how to run department budgets. I tried to master the administrative work as quickly as possible so I could keep volunteering for other creative projects.

Six months in, the Museum committed to creating a highly interactive, separate ticket "you be the spy" experience (now open and named Operation Spy). It was going to be developed by contractors and overseen by Anna. I went to Anna and argued that we should have someone internally who could lead the creative development and manage the process under her--someone without all the other responsibilities that Anna had as a department head. I promised to commit to stay through the opening if she'd let me take on this role, and I suggested that she could keep me at my (low) salary instead of hiring an expensive project coordinator. I also told her if I couldn't work on this project, I'd likely move to the West Coast within six months.

Anna accepted my proposal. I stayed on for three exhilarating years, during which I got to develop story, game, and scenic elements for the project, prototype the experience, manage contracts and contractors, and be intimately involved in every aspect of a huge and complex project. I learned about game design, theme park design, video production, script-writing, show programming, and air compressors, working with cranks and fire marshals and brilliant folks of all kinds. It was exhausting, stressful work, and I loved it.

Part 3: It's What Ideas You Can Offer

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in November of 2006, about halfway through my work on Operation Spy. While now the blog's a big part of my life, at the time, it just felt like an experiment--a place for me to develop my ideas in a public setting.

The blog started with a conference experience. I'd been attending conferences like ASTC for a couple of years and had mostly been incredibly shy. I knew how to be assertive and social in small settings like my museum but not in larger groups. I'd see exhibit people I wanted to learn from, people like Kathleen McLean and Paul Martin and Darcie Fohrman, but I literally didn't know how to talk to them.

When Kathleen starting talking at ASTC in 2006 about the idea of a "wikimuseum" and visitors as users, I realized it was something I wanted to explore further. I started the blog as a personal learning activity, but also for the dorkiest reason in the world: to have something to talk about with my heroes. I had this dream that I would write about a topic they cared about, send them an email about it, and maybe the conversation would go somewhere.

It didn't happen like that, but other things happened instead. First, blogging gave me the confidence and drive to call up people who did cool projects and talk to them. I started meeting people through the blog--both those I interviewed and early readers who commented. I also found that blogging was a great outlet for the side of me that missed my previous life as a poet. Like slam poetry, blogging is writing for an immediate and hopefully vocal audience. Blogging helped me develop my ideas, engage in reflective practice, and pursue a growing passion for visitor participation in museums (and it's funny to look back and realize the first lines of my book came from one of the very first posts).

By summer of 2007, when I left the Spy Museum to move to California, the blog was a big deal. At AAM and ASTC in 2007, people I'd never met, people who would never talk to me the year prior, were eagerly approaching me saying, "Oh, you're Nina Simon!" This phenomenon has grown tremendously over the last few years, but it was never as strange as it was in 2007, when I viscerally felt the difference a year of blogging had made in my career and network of colleagues.

The blog naturally and easily spawned a consulting business, but even more importantly, it connected me with a whole world of inspiring, challenging, thoughtful colleagues. Heroes I admired from afar became friends and mentors. I'll never forget when Elaine Heumann Gurian cold-emailed me in 2007 to ask if I would consider reviewing a new paper she was writing. It was like the God calling to see if I could give my opinion on a new planet. I've been struck again and again by how generous people in this field have been towards me. Instead of seeing me as a threat or a young person not worthy of their attention, experienced members of this field have given me their time, conversation, and guidance.

Now, as a freelancer, my work combines long-term, creatively challenging participatory exhibit projects with lots of little workshops and brainstorming sessions with institutions around the world. I'm associated with a narrow niche (visitor participation and social engagement), so people call me specifically for that, which means I don't have to pitch "my approach" to hesitant potential clients. I'm getting weary of the travel, but I've learned a ton in the past three years and have gotten to do some incredibly cool things. As one of my friends says, "You're lucky. You get paid to go give people ideas." It is lucky. I feel that way every day.

Blogging radically changed my understanding of how you progress in the museum field. Before the blog, I assumed the way you moved up was by taking on bigger jobs and projects over time. I thought I would be judged for new opportunities based on prior work. But as it has turned out, almost none of my consulting clients care about my experience at the Spy Museum or other institutions. They don't care how young I am. They care about the blog. They care about the ideas. And while I'm proud that I have the experience and competence to get the work done, I'm always surprised at how little clients seem to worry about that.

Possibly Transferrable Generalized Lessons

This is the most self-oriented post I think I've ever written. I don't pretend that anyone else can or should follow my path into the field; everyone approaches learning and careers differently. But here are a few things I think worked for me and might work for you:
  • Be aggressive and clear about your intentions. Tell prospective employers or supervisors what exactly you want to do, what you expect to accomplish, and what you want to receive. Bosses are like boyfriends; they're not mind readers. You have to tell them what you want. Lay out your goals so they understand where you're heading and hopefully can help you get there.
  • Articulate what you can do for your organization, not what you can do generally. Many people focus job application cover letters and interview content on what they've done so far. That's fine, but for a prospective employer, it's much more powerful if you can explain specifically how your skills will improve their organization. It's not overreaching to tell an interviewer your ideas for programs or exhibit fixes or even to mock up an example. It's a good way to demonstrate thoughtful intent, and at the same time, to see if your ideas are welcome.
  • Take opportunities to do things you love, even if it means more work. If I had spent all my time at the Spy Museum on the admin part of my job, Anna would have seen me as a great administrative assistant. Instead, I got all the admin work done quickly and well and spent extra time differentiating myself as a creative producer. That made her see me as a creative asset beyond my initial job description.
  • Seek out mentors. I'd rather work for someone brilliant somewhere lousy than vice versa. Even at conferences, I tend to pick sessions 75% based on people, 25% based on content. This may be a personal defect, but I learn more from people who inspire me.
  • Find a starting point for conversation. At those conferences five years ago, I literally didn't even know what I might say to someone like Kathleen McLean. It took blogging and developing a specific interest for me to gain the confidence and voice to know what I wanted to ask. (I'm fundamentally terrible in cocktail party/conference situations, so if you're more naturally shmoozey, you probably don't share this problem of finding something to say.)
  • Share your ideas. I used to say that the Museum 2.0 blog's popularity was a case of "right place, right time." I expected the museum blogosphere to explode in 2007 or 2008. But here we are in 2010 and I can count on my hands the number of frequently-updated blogs by people sharing ideas and experiences in the museum field. There is lots of room for new voices online. If writing isn't the way you like to share your ideas, there's room for video series and podcasts and drawings and photo sets too.
I hope this is helpful for someone. If you have any questions, I'm happy to share more. Thanks for reading, discussing, cheerleading, arguing, and being part of this exploration for four great years.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Johnny Cash Project: A Participatory Music Video That Sings

One of the questions that comes up most frequently when I talk with folks about participation is: what should we do with the things that visitors create? What should we do with their post-its and stories and drawings and poems?

This question is a byproduct of the reality that most participatory projects have poorly articulated value. What's the "use" of visitors' comments? If you don't have a sense of an outcome--whether that be internal research, community conversation, or something else--you can't decide how or whether contributions should be documented or archived. When a participatory activity is designed without a goal in mind, you end up with a bunch of undervalued stuff and nowhere to put it.

But the best participatory projects don't suffer from this problem, because they solicit visitors' contributions toward a very specific outcome. Whether visitors' work will be used to create an artwork, a dataset, or an exhibit, the solicitation is directly tied to an intended product. This works best when:
  1. Visitors have a clear understanding of the overall goal for the project. When everyone knows how their work will collectively build toward something greater, it increases motivation to participate and encourages participants to contribute high-quality work. It's not just a personal activity; it's an opportunity to be part of something.
  2. The project is designed to scale. Ideally, it can absorb lots of repetitive or voluminous visitor contributions and deploy this additional material in a thoughtful way. The project never gets "full" and is always open to new contributors.
I was reminded of these two design principles when exploring the Johnny Cash Project, a crowd-created music video for a posthumous recording of Cash singing "Ain't No Grave." To construct the video, artist Chris Milk assembled images and footage of Johnny Cash in a sequence along with the song. That's hardly revolutionary. But what happened next is: Milk created a simple tool to invite visitors to augment the frames of the video with digital brushstrokes. The result is a beautiful animated video that composites together alternative frames created by participants all over the world.

There are two basic ways to participate on the website: you can contribute your own augmented frame to the video, or you can assemble a video by selecting frames from the huge volume produced by the crowd. The first activity is creative, the second editorial. You can also rate frames, which changes their likelihood of being displayed in the default video, which features the highest-ranked frames submitted by participants.

The result is a video that changes dynamically based on what people contribute and rank on the site. It's not a waste to have multiple participants contribute versions of the same original frame: at any time, any version could be more popular, or more appealing to a specific subset of viewers, than the others. Some viewers might enjoy populating a video with frames that feature references to Christ; others might prefer highly photorealistic images. The additional frames add volumes of data that make the user experience more personalized, diverse, and powerful.

There are a few other things that make the Johnny Cash Project compelling:
  • The creative activity is well-scaffolded. If you want to make a frame, you don't have to start from scratch; instead, you get to draw over a pre-existing reference frame. While the drawing tools could be more intuitive, remixing a reference image is likely less scary for non-artists than other more involved ways to produce a frame. You can also watch time lapse video of any frame being created. These videos inspire and instruct would-be participants while stroking the egos of past contributors.
  • The collective outcome (a cool music video) is clear. The video is a cohesive, beautiful story, and it's obvious to any user how her frame might be integrated into the whole. This is not just an opportunity to venerate Johnny Cash or perform a personal creative act but to contribute to an understandable and compelling product.
  • There are lots of ways to participate. Even if you don't want to submit a frame, you can vote on frames or compose your own custom video based on the frames submitted thus far. You can even explore the submitted frames by artistic style ("pointillism," "sketchy," "abstract").
  • The site gives credit to contributors. Every frame is labeled with the name of its creator, and the Credits section also lists the contributors by name. The terms of serviceare reasonable and thoughtfully written (though the underlying terms are full of draconian legalese that seems somewhat contradictory to other language on the site).
Design-wise, there are some lousy aspects of the site, especially when it comes to accessibility. The color contrast is poor, the instructions are somewhat mysterious, and everything's in Flash.

But overall, this is a model project that starts with an outcome, not an activity. Chris Milk didn't say, "How about we let people draw pictures of Johnny Cash and then we'll have a huge collection of portraits we don't know what to do with?" He said: "Let's make a dynamic music video--and let's set up a tool so fans can help us do it."

Are you making that shift in your thinking about participatory project design?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Post: World Maker Faire and the New York Hall of Science: Radical Trust

I’ve long been interested in the intersection between maker culture and museums. On September 25 and 26, the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) hosted the first East Coast Maker Faire. Maker Faire is a massive public event, hosted by Make Magazine annually in San Mateo, that brings together hackers, crafters, and do-it-yourself scientists for a weekend of demonstrations and explosions. In this guest post, Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer of NYSCI, describes the partnership to develop and manage the World Maker Faire and its impact on his science center. Eric will check in to respond to any questions in the comments and is also available by email at esiegel@nyscience.org. It’s worth mentioning that the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit also hosted a Maker Faire at their facility this year.

Why at NYSCI?

It wasn’t obvious to the Maker Faire team that Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, where the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) is located, was the ideal location for an East Coast Maker Faire. The park is among the largest and most heavily used in New York, but it’s not glamorous. Remnants of two World’s Fairs, both impressive and neglected, are scattered around the park. NYSCI, which was founded during the 1964 World’s Fair, occupies approximately 20 acres of the 1,255 acre park. Every year, sections of the park are spruced up for the US Open tennis tournament that takes place in a stadium within the park, but large sections of the park are rather threadbare. We toured Flushing Meadows Park with the Maker team on a grey day and even I had to admit it looked a bit desolate. It was frankly hard to imagine how it would come alive for Maker Faire. At the same time, others in New York were pitching for a more urban setting on Governors Island or a more suburban setting in New Jersey.

After the tour, the group came back to NYSCI and we had a brainstorm… let’s just do it in the museum. We could clear out some exhibitions, dedicate some large dramatic venues and workshop spaces, and devote NYSCI’s 15 acre “backyard” to pavilions and large scale outdoor exhibits. Rather than NYSCI hosting Maker Faire within Flushing Meadows Park, we would make a partnership and really collaborate on the Faire.

One of the attractions for this collaboration was NYSCI’s diverse audience, many of whom were not part of the current Maker Faire community. If you do something great and exciting for families in Queens, you are going to get a virtual United Nations of visitors. Museum people think of New York City as Manhattan and the hipster communities of Brooklyn, but it is in the great immigrant communities that New York City really distinguishes itself and Queens is the epicenter of immigration to the City.

Building the Partnership

So now we had the critical task of constituency building among museum staff, most of whom had no idea what Maker Faire was, and in the maker community, many of whom had no idea what NYSCI was. We scheduled a series of “getting acquainted” meetings between the Maker Faire team, including Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, and senior staff and trustees at NYSCI. These turned out to be essential. As anarchic and unhinged as Maker Faire in San Mateo seems at one level, it is also clear that the logistics are handled expertly by a very experienced and dedicated crew. Sherry and Dale represented both “go with the flow” spirit and a sense of complete competence, calm, and conviction. Virtually every NYSCI staffer who met with them agreed that these are people that can pull this off and we all had a great feeling about working with them.

We also met with key members of the maker community in New York and nationally. This was the beginning of what I think was one of the primary benefits of Maker Faire to NYSCI. There is a whole range of recyclers, hackers, metalworkers, weavers, builders, circuit benders, and artists up and down the East Coast that NYSCI connected with through the Maker Faire planning. The indefatigable Nick Normal, who works with a makerspace/gallery called Flux Factory in Queens, was Maker Faire’s local maker community coordinator. Martha Stewart hosted a reception at their amazing loft/work space in Manhattan for local makers. We set up a website and gathered several hundred applications, from which about 400 were selected for participation.

Most of the makers came at their own expense, paid no money to Maker Faire, and were pretty independent. This is one of the fascinating and risky things about World Maker Faire: the whole experience is pretty emergent with a very low barrier to entry. Decisions about who could participate were made on the basis of sparse information from the online application, a lot of intuition, and a lot of self-organizing community support. If you are a hacker known to other hackers, your participation is more likely; if you are outside the existing community, the likelihood of your participation is a bit sketchier.

About a week before the event itself, the morning after a tornado touched down in Queens and tore up a dozen trees on the NYSCI site by the roots, the Maker Faire team arrived and turned our conference room into their operations center. Pavilions went up. Makers arrived with their equipment. On the evening of the event Red Bull sponsored a maker party featuring drinks made of Red Bull and vodka. It was probably a high water mark for NYSCI’s hipster credibility.

The event went pretty much flawlessly. The weather cooperated, the crowds showed up, our transportation arrangements went smoothly, most of the exhibitors things worked nicely, everybody looked engaged. We had over 400 makers at the Faire and 25,000 visitors in two days. The makers ranged from Eepy Bird doing their Mentos and Coke crowd pleaser to a really loud and terrifying ramjet powered ride by the Brooklyn-based Madagascar Institute (whose motto is “Safety Third”). There were scheduled speakers including Steven Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica software, who talked about coding as making. There was a secret noodle restaurant in an anonymous panel truck in the operations yard created by performance artists, serving delicious free noodle soup for those who discovered it. A large “maker shed” pavilion sold hundreds of books and kits for do-it-yourselfers. An open source 3D printer kit was a clear hit, supported by 3D printing workshops. A third of the outside area was devoted to crafts, with free knitting lessons, paintable soft circuitry. The phrase I heard most often was “something for everyone.” I can’t imagine someone coming who wouldn’t find something fascinating and engaging.

So What?

It’s hard to draw generalizable “Museum 2.0” insights from World Maker Faire. NYSCI has a previously untapped capacity for change, trust, and flexibility that turned out to be a vital resource for this undertaking. But none of that would have come to pass without the very specific conditions of timing, location, and above all the goodwill and expertise of the Maker Faire team.

The risk in this approach is frankly completely at odds with the typical meticulous care with which science museum exhibitions are planned. Science center exhibitions are planned by teams who thoughtfully consider content, visitor impact, and learning outcomes. We hire designers with expertise in human factors and visitor flow, engage PhD researchers, experts in learning sciences, and content advisors. The makers, on the other hand, are solo operators or artists/hacker collectives who are principally concerned with self-expression, experimentation, and excitement. The NYSCI staff all were amazed at how seamlessly visitors went from our carefully crafted exhibitions to the occasionally funky Maker Faire work without missing a beat. At least for the one weekend of Maker Faire, excitement and experimentation with touch of danger and anarchy trumped the careful and intentional approach of NYSCI’s exhibits. It also helped that the creators themselves were at each of the Maker Faire exhibits, engaging visitors and answering questions. Very thought provoking for the museum exhibition community.

The World Maker Faire was bracketed by two related events. The first was the Open Hardware Summit on the Thursday before Maker Faire, which brought 300 young open source hackers to NYSCI to discuss the technology, philosophy, social context, and practical issues surrounding the creation of an open source community. As I said in my greeting to the group, seeing them makes NYSCI’s goal clear: we want to encourage our very diverse audience, many of whom are first generation immigrants, to acquire the confidence and competence to engage the world the way the open source community has. Not only do the open source hardware people have technical skills, but they also have the courage to work outside of normal commercial frameworks to create social value. We want that for our visitors.

The National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sponsored a conference on the Monday following the workshop at NYSCI. We invited about 70 educators, technologists, thinkers, and makers to come to the Faire on Sunday and spend a day talking about the potential impact of the maker movement on education in general. There were great discussions which we are assembling into a report I will be glad to share as soon as it is completed. [UPDATE - here is the report as a downloadable PDF.]

The NYSCI staff fell in love with Maker Faire. I didn’t hear a single cross-grained comment through the haze of exhaustion we all experienced. For me, it was among the highest points of my 30 years of museum work. And I am proud to say that I think the feeling was entirely mutual with the Maker Faire staff. They were amazed at the diversity of our audiences, the museum’s flexibility and willingness to collaborate as true partners, the incredible efforts put in by our staff, led by our COO Bob Logan and VP for External Affairs Dan Wempa, and our willingness to allow the event to emerge and to trust in the maker community and the process.

Since World Maker Faire, I have had dozens of comments from makers who were unfamiliar with NYSCI, and from the “People In Black” community of young artists and activists in New York. These people are now eager to collaborate on projects and participate in our community maker activities. So our universe of potential audiences and collaborators has opened up as a result of World Maker Faire 2010.

At this point, a few weeks after the event, it appears that World Maker Faire will significantly transform NYSCI’s programming and identity. We had already been moving toward more open-ended, design-based exhibit and program experiences, but this lit one of Madagascar Institute’s jet rockets under that process. We are refocusing our public program staff on maker activities and maker weekends with open-ended design challenges. We are working to fund partnerships with makers in the local communities to bring them into new maker clubs which will work to culminate in a large community maker presence at World Maker Faire 2011.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Quick Hit: 2010 Horizon Report on New Technologies and Museums

The folks at the New Media Consortium have released their annual Horizon Report, a roundup of up-and-coming technologies relevant to museums, archives, and libraries. Like its predecessors, the report provides succinct backgrounds and reference projects for technologies predicted for widespread adoption on the 1, 2-3, and 4-5 year timescale. 2010 is the first year that the NMC has released a museum-specific report, but previous reports have been informed by museum professionals (as well as other educational technologists).

From my perspective, the Horizon Report's value is in its quick technology descriptions and links, not its predictive power. The technologies are selected by a large and diverse group of professionals, and it's probably impossible to pick a single set of near-term technologies for institutions with different budgets, capacities, and technological experience. One institution may be struggling to provide open wireless while another is messing around with augmented reality. Over the past five years, there have been some technologies that came and went (virtual worlds) and others that seem to be permanently on the five year horizon because geeks really like them (semantic web, internet of things).

The Horizon Reports ARE really useful if you need arsenal to explain the relevance, utility, or educational value of new technologies in your museum. Their descriptions of the technologies are clear, brief, and loaded with links.

Here are the technologies covered for the past five years, along with links to the reports. Happy reading!

  • mobile
  • social media
  • augmented reality
  • location-based services
  • gesture-based computing
  • semantic web
  • mobile
  • cloud computing
  • geo-everything (similar to location-based services)
  • personal web
  • semantic-aware applications
  • smart objects
  • grassroots video
  • collaboration webs (collaborating on the web)
  • mobile broadband
  • data mashups
  • collective intelligence
  • social operating systems
  • user-created content
  • social networking
  • mobile phones
  • virtual worlds
  • new scholarship and emerging forms of publication
  • massively multiplayer educational gaming
  • social computing
  • personal broadcasting
  • mobile phones
  • educational gaming
  • augmented reality and enhanced visualization
  • context-aware environments and devices (similar to "smart objects" in 2009)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting People In the Door: Design Tips from the Retail World

Are museum visitors "customers?" Are library patrons "shopping?"

The retail analogy falls in and out of fashion in cultural institutions. Some swear by it. Some eschew it. Last week, I learned to think about it in a new way. I don't think cultural institutions should be more like retailers in how we treat visitors who are already in the door. But we have a lot to learn from how retailers attract and encourage people to enter in the first place.

I attended a workshop by Bob Gibbs, an urban planner who designs malls and shopping districts around the US. He started by saying "In the next three hours, I will show you how to increase sales in your store. I'm going to talk about the theory and practical techniques for doing so. We're not talking about values or how to make your city better or how to change the world. The focus here is on increasing sales."

What followed was a fascinating assortment of statistics and tidbits about how design influences how people shop. Some bits were familiar from my experience in exhibit design (i.e. people like to travel counterclockwise, don't over-clutter displays) but a lot was new to me. Some particularly useful ideas:
  • It takes eight seconds to walk by a typical storefront. Once someone is two seconds past the door, they will not turn around. You have to grab them in the first four seconds while they are approaching.
  • Within two seconds of entering a store, 70% of people know whether they will buy something. Stores use simple window displays and a "front and center" table to clearly and quickly convey what's hot, and most train a staff member to welcome customers immediately upon entry.
  • An open door generates 35% more business than a closed door. Doors that are flush to the sidewalk are more inviting than recessed doors. Outdoor planters and a lot of downlight can make a recessed entry more welcoming. How many museum and library entrances are hard to find, dark, and require opening a heavy door?
  • The highest-performing malls and shopping districts (in terms of sales) have lots of clear sight lines from one storefront to another. People like to be able to see the fronts of other stores and are more likely to browse a high volume of stores if they can see store windows from multiple locations. In a museum or library, this translates well to being able to see across to other exhibits or areas (especially when visiting in a family group that frequently splits and recombines).
  • People like to walk in a loop. They avoid "cul de sacs" that they can see are dead-ends, because they don't want to get bored walking through the same merchandise twice.
  • People really care about the cleanliness of doors and windows, especially at entrance. This is most important to parents; some people will not visit a store with children if the door looks too dirty. If there are public fixtures in front of your storefront (trashcan, hydrant), you should spruce those up to maintain a clean, friendly image of your store.
  • 75% of American spending occurs after 5:30pm and on Sunday. Stores should be open when people want to shop.
  • The average shopper in America does not like shopping. She's a single mom with very limited time. She wants to get in and out quickly, with a good deal on the thing she needs. The only time she likes shopping is when on vacation. Shopping is one of the most popular vacation activities, and many Americans plan their trips in part around shopping.

Where Cultural Institutions and Retailers Fall Short and What We Can Learn from Each Other

Both museums and stores sometimes commit the sin of not respecting people's intelligence, but they do it in different ways. Museum staff tend to treat visitors as people who want to be there, who need a little help, who might be a bit confused or overwhelmed by the experience. We talk about trying to break down "threshold fear"--the uncertainty some people might feel about whether they are qualified to enter the museum at all. Museums may deter potential visitors by treating them as not smart enough or worthy enough to enter.

In contrast, most retailers treat potential customers as imminently smart and worthy but once inside, grant respect only for their purchasing power. The customer is always right, but if she doesn't buy anything, she's a waste of time. Bob talked about eradicating "threshold resistance," not threshold fear. People aren't afraid to enter a store, but sometimes they don't want to. Retailers use all kinds of tricks used to get people to buy and buy more, to boost their confidence and positive feeling about shopping.

Retail stores are good at dealing with potential customers. Their design and staff approach focuses on attracting people in the door and making them feel confident and happy once inside. Cultural institutions, on the other hand, are good at dealing with customers who are already in the door. Their design and approach offers people a wide variety of ways to experience the content and encourages them to do so in whatever path works best for them. You're not just as good as what you buy, but what you learn, what you share with others, and what you contribute.

Museums and libraries don't need to be more like retail stores inside. We don't need to offer sneaky sales or push impulse purchases at the register. But we do need to find better ways to communicate what's available inside from the outside. If your institution was a store, would you walk in?