Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Want to Activate Public Space? We're Hiring... And Some Thoughts on Iteration and Temporary Positions

For the past two years, I've been working on a project to activate the concrete space adjacent to our museum as a vibrant, community plaza. After years of community town halls, design, and prototyping, we're finally starting to build our dream. It's an exciting, intense, educational time.

We are hiring a temporary contract curator to activate the plaza this summer with 25+ cultural events. The goal is two-fold:
  1. to start engaging the plaza as a creative, event-filled, vibrant space.
  2. to experiment with different kinds of events (time of day, audience, size, type) and get a sense of how we can best program the space in the longterm.
The ideal candidate has a good grasp of our local artistic assets in Santa Cruz County, a knack for participatory placemaking, and enthusiasm about putting on a show... multiple times per week. If you are interested and want to learn more (including how to apply), click here

Capital projects are sexy and exciting, but they are also finite and physical. That makes me nervous. My engineering training taught me to design through iteration. I'm at my best when we can tinker, prototype, and continuously improve our work through a series of small experiments.

This iterative approach is great for growth in an existing organization. But in the case of Abbott Square (the plaza in question), we're building something new. It's literally a project in concrete. We can iterate somewhat, but at some point, we have to make decisions about how the space will work--and those decisions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The size and import of some of these decisions worry me--not because we'll make bad decisions, but because they are so definite.

There's an apocryphal story about a college campus where they started with no concrete paths, and then eventually laid paths where students' shoes were causing wear in the grass. Lovely story, but when you are laying concrete, it is really, really hard to wait for the shoes before building the paths.

How can we wait for the shoes? That's part of the reason we are hiring a temporary contract curator instead of a permanent position. We want to try walking around before we define the program plan for Abbott Square.

Eventually, we will hire a full-time person to curate Abbott Square. But we don't yet know whether that person will be focusing primarily on booking movie nights or launching sketching clubs or engaging buskers... or all of the above. This temporary pilot allows us to test out the possibilities. We can see what works best in the space, and by extension, what kind of person will best make it happen.

I'm curious whether other organizations have taken this kind of approach with positions in new venues/projects/expansions. How do you know who you need before you open? How do you experiment and course-correct as people wear their own paths into the space?


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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Data in the Museum: Experimenting on People or Improving Their Experience?

Every few months, a major news outlet does an "expose" about data collection on museum visitors. These articles tend to portray museums as Big Brother, aggressively tracking visitors' actions and interests across their visit. Even as the reporters acknowledge that museums are  trying to better understand and serve their visitors, there's a hint of menace in headlines like "The Art is Watching You."

We're trying to personalize. We're trying to adapt. We're trying to be responsive. But it can still come off as creepy. In a world of iteration, prototyping, and A/B testing, do we need a new ethical litmus test for social experimentation?

I came back to this question as I listened to the most recent RadioLab podcast about Facebook's mass social experiments on users. For years, Facebook has teamed up with social psychologists to perform social experiments through small changes to the Facebook interface. These experiments look a lot like those conducted in social psychology labs, with two big differences:
  • the sample sizes are many tens of thousands of times larger than those in the lab--and a lot more diverse across age, class, and geography. 
  • no one signs a form giving consent to participate. 
I thought this sounded great: better data, useful research. Turns out not everyone thinks this is a good way for us to learn more about humanity. Last year, there was a HUGE media kerfuffle when people were shocked to learn that they had been "lab rats" for Facebook engineers researching how the News Feed content could impact people's moods.

To me, this was surprising. Sure, I get the ick factor when my personal data is used as currency. But I know (mostly) what I'm buying with it. Facebook is a completely socially-engineered environment. Facebook decides what content you see, what ads you see, and your personal ratio of puppies to snow warnings. And now people are outraged to find out that Facebook is publishing research based on their constant tweaking. It's as if we are OK with a company using and manipulating our experience as long as they don't tell us about it.

It seems that the ethical objections were loudest when the intent of the experiment was to impact someone's mood or experience. And then I started thinking: we do that all the time in museums. We change labels based on what visitors report that they learned. We change layouts based on timing and tracking studies of where people go and where they dwell. We juxtapose artifacts to evoke emotional response. We tweak language and seating and lighting--all to impact people's experience. Do we need consent forms to design an experience?

I don't think so. That seems over the top. People come to the museum to enjoy what the invisible hands of the curators have wrought. So it brings me back to my original question: when you are in the business of delivering curated experiences, where is the ethical line? 

Consider the following scenarios. Is it ethical to...
  • track the paths people take through galleries and alter museum maps based on what you learn?
  • give people different materials for visitor comments and see whether the materials change the substance of their feedback?
  • cull visitor comments to emphasize a particular perspective (or suite of perspectives)?
  • offer visitors different incentives for repeat visitation based on behavior?
  • send out two different versions of your annual membership appeal letter to see which one leads to more renewals?
  • classify visitors as types based on behavior and offer different content to them accordingly?
I'd say most of these are just fine--good ideas, probably. I suspect we live in an era where the perceived value of experimentation outweighs the perceived weight of the invisible hand of the experimenter. Then again, I was surprised by the lab rat reaction to the Facebook experiments.

It's hard sometimes to differentiate what's an experiment on humans and what's an experiment to improve your work for humans. As the Facebook example shows, just claiming your intent is to improve isn't enough. It matters what the humans think, too. 

I guess that's what makes us more than lab rats--we can speak up and debate these issues. What do you think?

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spend Summer in Santa Cruz - or Just a Weekend - Exploring Community Engagement at the MAH

Do you dream of a summer filled with learning, community engagement, and sea lions? Time to stop dreaming and start doing.

This summer, we're offering some amazing museum internships, as well as MuseumCamp: a weekend-long professional development experience that is part retreat, part conference, part summer camp. There are two more weeks left to apply for MuseumCamp 2015. You can learn a lot more about that experience and how to apply here.

INTERNSHIPS

If you want to join us in Santa Cruz for more professional learning, consider an internship at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Most internships run from late June - late August. There are five different types available, and you are welcome to apply for more than one. We're offering internships this summer in:
  • Participatory Exhibition Design. We've been working for two years to redevelop our History Gallery to be a more dynamic, diverse, engaging space. Help take the participatory elements of this permanent gallery to the finish line. A great opportunity for folks interested in design, fabrication, prototyping, and interactivity.
  • Community Engagement. We're expanding our engagement with Latino families in our community, and we want your help with our partnership programs. This is a bilingual internship position. Expect lots of contact with the community on different levels as you learn alongside us how to be as relevant and embedded as possible.
  • Community Programs. Curious how we develop participatory family festivals with 20-100 collaborators every month. You can help make the magic happen.
  • Video/Photo. How do you capture the energy of a community? Help tell the story of our museum and amplify the creativity that visitors share.
  • Youth Programs. Kid Happy Hour. Balloon Art Brigade. Button bombs. This group knows how to have fun and invite families into it.

All of these internships are unpaid. I know this is controversial, and believe me--I am well aware of the complexity of the issue. We offer unpaid internships for three reasons:
  1. We prefer to focus on developing paid opportunities for people who are in our community and can be part of the museum for a long time. We have been slowly expanding paid positions here with a focus on local connections and diverse backgrounds. We've also been expanding paid opportunities for local artists. When we really thought about the options when it came to incremental dollars, we chose to spend them locally in this way.
  2. The demand is very high. We get many, many solicitations from people who would like to come intern, shadow, volunteer, etc. 
  3. We provide interns with opportunities to do real projects that they can't do anywhere else. We support our interns and their future careers both with the experiences they have here and relationships that continue after they leave. We feel strongly that we are following the requirement that unpaid interns get more than they give... though we prefer to think about it as a situation with shared benefits and sacrifices.
If you want to know a bit more about what the intern experience is like at the MAH, check out their occasional blog on Tumblr.

Hope to see you here in Santa Cruz soon.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Audience Demographics and the Census: Do We Have a Match?

When you look at this infographic, do you see a problem to be solved? A snapshot of the market for the arts? Or something else entirely?

About five years ago, I sat in a planning meeting for a museum that was undergoing a major renovation. The director boldly stated that one goal of the remodel was to reconnect with the community. What would success look like? The demographics of the museum visitors would match those of the city at large.

That vision always stuck with me. This goal seemed simple, clear, and important. Now, as a museum director, I'm thinking about that goal less abstractly and more concretely in terms of what a target audience can and should look like.

The first step is to know who is already engaging. Arts audiences, on average, are older, whiter, and more affluent than the American population. Supporting data comes from many corners, but primarily the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Since 1982, the NEA has conducted a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This survey focuses on attendance to traditional arts institutions--museums, theaters, symphony halls. The data gets sliced and diced in different ways: to explore motivations for participation, to look at trends over time, to dive into data for specific regions or sectors.

When I look at this data, I have one question: what's the target?

In your dream situation, who would participate in your organization? Here are three options:
  1. Everyone. The demographic profile of those engaged would match that of the nation/region/city. 
  2. A subset, targeted for their unique characteristics. That target could relate to ethnicity, or education level, or gender, or age. It could be chosen for reasons related to the institution's mission (for example, a focus on youth empowerment) or for reasons related to the market demographics (for example, a growing number of Latinos).
  3. A subset, self-selected by voluntary engagement. Those who want the experience, come. The demographics are what they are.
Most arts organizations, for a long time, focused on #3. With a few #2 programs sprinkled in. 

At our museum, we've started shifting to #1 as an aspirational goal. This is that vision of inclusion that inspired me years ago. We got our hands on our local census data (free and easy). When we collect demographic data about participants, we measure it against the census figures. 

This helps us with program planning: we know who we are "under-engaging" and can work to involve them. It helps with fundraising: we can talk knowledgeably about how our visitors line up to the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. 

But as we've continued working on #1, I started wondering about #2. What if there is a group that is particularly marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved when it comes to the arts? 

For example, there is good research suggesting that school field trips to art museums are disproportionately valuable for students from poor and rural backgrounds. Does this mean that we should try to make school tours disproportionately accessible to these students? If the opportunity for impact is greater, should we go there? If the cost of doing so is more, is it worth the price? 

We're also considering these questions with local data in mind. As we have gotten more involved in data initiatives in our county, we've learned about clear demographic divides in quality of life and enrichment opportunities among specific groups. We're debating whether we should try to "over-engage" some groups relative to the needs and resource allocation in our County. Is matching local demographics "enough"? Is it even realistic or sensible?

I realize that this post is riddled with question marks. I'm sincerely curious about how others are approaching these questions of audience demographics and targets for engagement. 

How do you think about these issues in your organization and your community?


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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

We Need Fewer Bottom Lines in Nonprofits

If you run a for-profit business, the bottom line is your financial profit. The goal is to make money. At the end of the day, you are measured by how much money you made or lost. That's the bottom line.

People in social enterprise talk frequently about the idea of businesses with a double bottom line: money and social impact. The financial return on investment is important. But so is the social outcome of your enterprise.

There are also companies that talk about a triple bottom line: financial, social, and environmental/ecological impact.

And a quadruple bottom line: financial, social, environmental, and future impact.

You can see where this is heading. Lines upon lines. More good things to strive for, less clarity in achieving them.

We are especially guilty of this in the nonprofit arts. Since most of our organizations don't have one very specific, measurable mission (i.e. "ending chronic homelessness"), we measure lots of things. The beautiful part of a broad mission is the opportunity to explore diverse facets of its fulfillment. The depressing part is the inability to see clearly and concretely whether and to what extent you are achieving your goals.

I've been thinking about all of this recently because I'm in the midst of negotiating a partnership with a for-profit real estate developer to enhance a public plaza adjacent to my museum. One of the things that is really apparent from these negotiations is how clear he is on his bottom line. He cares about the social impact of his projects, but at the end of the day, he uses financial profit to measure their success.

He's got clarity about what success looks like. In contrast, I've got a mirrored funhouse of measurements for success. How do we value attendance against diversity of attendees? Depth versus breadth of programming? Individual outcomes for participants versus collective outcomes for the community? If there's just one thing at the end of the day that we care most about, what is it?

This multiplicity of goals causes a few big problems:
  • We spend too much time debating what the desired impact is and not enough time on how to achieve it. If we are constantly debating what "good" or "quality" looks like, we're wasting time we could be using honing our work to better deliver on the social impact we've all agreed is important. I'd love to work for an organization that clearly knows that the impact it wants to have is X--so we can focus on doing X.
  • We gather too much scattershot data and don't invest in deep measurement on the things that matter most. We've been on a big evaluation push at my museum, and the hardest part is editing ourselves down to a few indicators that we feel consistently reflect impact. Not the things we're curious about for a particular program. Not the things we're interested in but don't relate to our impact statement. It's hard to cut back, but it is leading us to more productive conversations about the data. When we measure less, we attend to the individual indicators more.
  • When we enter into partnerships--especially with entities from different worlds--we can't clearly express our purpose and needs. I'm seeing this strongly in my negotiation with this developer. The project is forcing me to hone in on what is absolutely MOST important to our institution when it comes to developing shared goals in partnership. I can't hand him a fifty-page engagement handbook and expect him to glean which parts are essential. I need a small handful of specific targets so he can understand what success looks like for us as quickly and clearly as I understand what success looks like for him.
  • It can allow organizations to deceive themselves about what is most important. If your director, your board, or your boss is making decisions based on one piece of data, then that's the data that is most important to your bottom line. It doesn't matter if you're collecting tons of other data if he/she/they always decide based on money, or attendance, or learning goals, or patron complaints. If they are focusing on the wrong thing, it may be because no one in the organization has put a stake in the ground about what the "right" indicator is. They may just be choosing one that is easiest to quantify (money, attendance, press), or the one that they understand best.

All of this said, it is really, really hard to reduce the number of bottom lines in any organization. We're down to about seventeen indicators of success at our museum that roll up into five bottom lines. It's a heck of a lot less than we used to have. But it's still probably too many to do the best work we can do.

How many lines are you tap-dancing on? What have you done to reduce or clarify the impact that is most important at your organization at the end of the day?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Join Us at MuseumCamp 2015 to Explore Making Space for Self and Others

illustration by Beck Tench
Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part summer camp.

This year, our theme is SPACE. I've been obsessed for years with the idea of "space making" as an approach to cultivating creativity, avoiding burnout, and empowering colleagues. This August, at MuseumCamp, we will spend 2.5 days together exploring the ways we make space, both for ourselves and for others.

You can make space by making room for others to shine. You can make space by inviting non-traditional partners into your work. You can make space by giving yourself permission or time or a paintbrush.

This MuseumCamp will be challenging–but not in a frenetic, obstacle course way. It will challenge us to confront blank canvases, empower others, and take care of ourselves. Our goal is to learn and practice new ways of energizing and renewing ourselves and others. To empower people to feel rich in time and resources even as we work hard to make change in a limited world.

Last year, I learned how awesome it is to partner with someone outside of our museum to co-produce MuseumCamp. This year, I am thrilled that we are partnering with Beck Tench, a creative designer and deep thinker about making space (and the person who first introduced me to the term).

Learn more about MuseumCamp 2015 here, including dates, program plan, and more on the theme. Watch the video from MuseumCamp 2014 if you want to get a sense of the silliness behind the seriousness.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community.

If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through February 28 and inform people of selections in early March. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. In past years, many campers felt that the best part of the experience was the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we particularly encourage you to apply if you:
  • identify as a gender other than female
  • identify as a person of color
  • consider yourself at an advanced stage of your career
  • work outside of the arts/museums
So if you are interested, please apply--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. It's going to be out of this world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Is There a Formula for Free Admission?

There are plenty of great arguments out there for WHY to make museums free. But HOW do you do it?

It's much easier for art and history museums than for those museums that rely on admissions for a majority of their income (science, children's). Nationally, admissions income generates only 1-4% of most art museums' annual revenue. Max Anderson, currently director of the Dallas Museum of Art, is a fervent champion for art museums being free. As Anderson put it, "At what point are you going to allow something like 2.5 percent of your revenue to get in the way of mission fulfillment, of serving the fullest potential audience?"

Indeed. I've been curious about free admission for a long time. It's one of the things I'd like to do at our museum in Santa Cruz but haven't made happen yet. The philosophical rationale is simple: if we are really a community institution, an institution for and with the public, we should be free.

The financial rationale is a bit more complex than replacing 1-4% of the budget. There's the potential loss of membership gifts from people who are motivated by receiving free daytime admission. There's the potential need for more floor staff and security (hopefully)! There's the expectation--hopefully backed by a plan--that new philanthropic gifts will outweigh the loss of "value"-motivated members.

We've started looking seriously into making the move to free admission at our museum, and as we've done the research on other institutions, a pattern has emerged. Museums that are successfully moving to free admission appear to use the following formula:
  1. Secure a philanthropic gift equivalent to 3-7 years of the lost revenue from daytime admissions.
  2. Aggressively market the philanthropic benefits of a free museum. Create a new value proposition for giving that is rooted in the idea that the museum is free and open to all. Recruit new members and donors who are invested in supporting public access. 
When we looked at museums that went free and then switched back to charging, we noticed that either one of these factors was missing or broke down. 

You need the multi-year gift to give you some runway. Even 2% of the budget is hard to replace if there isn't an obvious other source out there. Five-ish years appears to be long enough to build up the replacement philanthropic support for being a free institution.

You need the emphasis on philanthropy because donors are the only ones who are willing to pay for free admission (even in small increments, like Tacoma Children's Museum's Pay as You Will policy). You shouldn't expect gift shop or cafe sales to increase with free admission. When museums are free, people use them more frequently, for more casual reasons. They don't treat the visit as a destination multi-hour experience necessitating a meal and a souvenir.

Does this formula add up?
Any other ingredients you have seen work--or fail--in making a museum free?


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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

What I Learned about Strangers from Jane Jacobs on my Winter Vacation

Yes, I was that woman on the beach with a library book about urban planning. And loved it.

One of my vacation goals was to think big picture about public space. I'm entrenched in a project to build a creative town square in Santa Cruz connected to my museum. I wanted to reconnect with the philosophical goals of the project.

So I decided to read Jane Jacobs' classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's a masterful work: witty, story-ful, righteously indignant, and wise. (I also received many other book recommendations and look forward to reading and writing more about urban planning and public space in the months to come.)

My favorite part of The Death and Life of Great American Cities was Jane Jacobs' treatment of strangers in public space. It challenged my pre-conceptions and made me think twice about "good" design for social bridging.

STRANGERS IN ORBIT

Jane Jacobs writes beautifully about the anonymity of big cities. Lively public space creates opportunities for social contact without commitment. Share a smile. Pay for someone's coffee. Flip someone off. You'll never see them again.

No friction, no repetition, no expectation. These anonymous collisions may seem trivial, but they aren't. They are continual reminders that we are all human. They often reinforce civility and empathy. They allow us to be kind, and generous, a bit wild even, without consequence.

In places where there is healthy social contact among strangers, people help each other out. They intervene when a stranger is in trouble. They hold open a door. They care--because they only have to care for a minute.

If social life ranges from "being alone" to "being together," public social contact exists in the middle. When we lose the public space that facilitates it--active sidewalks and thoroughfares--we lose the simplicity of anonymous collisions.

Suddenly, the stakes get too high. Now we can't just nod at each other--we have to get to know each other, exchange numbers, have a conversation. Social contact becomes work, and that work pays uncertain dividends: Friend for life? Bore? Injury?

"Being alone" and "being together" are both useful ways to be. But they are extremes. When we don't feel safe in public space with strangers, we're stuck with these extremes. Either we're having a coffee date or completely ignoring each other. There's no in-between.

Many of us live in towns where we rarely have the opportunity for this kind of anonymous, safe, positive social contact. This is a problem. It means we smile less at strangers. We take care of each other less. We fear it opens up a social contract for too much more.

DESIGN FOR STRANGERS

I am obsessed with designing opportunities for strangers to interact meaningfully with each other. I've always had a bias that building community means people moving from "alone" to "together." But Jane Jacobs showed me there are lots of different ways to experience togetherness. More "together" isn't always better. Sometimes it's a stressor to be avoided.

My museum's mission is to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections." Reading Jane Jacobs, I felt glad that we're doing work to enhance low-expectation social contact. We do this in simple ways, like always putting out multiple chairs at an activity station. But I also worry that we sometimes set unrealistic expectations for the intensity and duration of interaction among strangers at the museum. Is it really necessary for visitors to share their life stories with each other? Is it OK for them to just share a pair of scissors?

We're in the process of developing more consistent evaluation tools at our museum, and one of the things we track is how often strangers interact in the museum. I think we have a bias (I know I do) that deeper interaction--a longer conversation, an interaction with followup--is "better" than brief encounters. We've actually had internal debates about whether it "counts" if someone self-reports "talking to a stranger" or if they have to actually "have a meaningful interaction with a stranger."

Maybe it's time to reconsider what kinds of stranger interactions are most important for us to cultivate at our museum. Maybe it's just as important to be a place that reinforces the joy of anonymous interactions as one that encourages the work of building relationships.

How much do you work on supporting people "being alone?"
How much do you work on supporting people "being together?"
How much do you work on the social contact in-between?


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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What You Lose When You Become Embedded, and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations

In the community engagement universe, there's a high premium on arts organizations becoming "embedded" in their communities. Instead of being lone islands of culture, the goal is to be part of the fabric of diverse cultural life.

I'm proud of the way that my own museum works on embeddedness. For us, it means showing up at other people's events. Supporting organizations and community projects that are extended family to our own goals. Partnering, everywhere. Joining a long list of people and organizations working together to build a stronger community.

But today I want to acknowledge the loss that comes with being embedded. The loss of distinct space. Of voice. Of importance.

This loss is real, and I'm feeling in it another sphere of my professional life: this blog.

I've always treated blogging as a learning practice. I learn twice; once in the writing, and once in the reading and engaging with commenters.

In the past three years, the number of comments on this blog has declined significantly. Readership is up. Comments are down. What used to be a lively online discussion--with some posts garnering over 50 comments--is now fairly sedate.

People are still engaging with these posts--they just aren't doing it on this website like they used to. When I talk to colleagues, I hear they are using Museum 2.0 posts for all kinds of things: office discussion groups, Facebook debates, grad school homework. In its own small way, Museum 2.0 is "embedded" in many platforms and mediums.

Problem is, I'm only part of a tiny fraction of those conversations. I'm learning less. I feel more lonely in my writing. It makes it harder to keep it up.

This "problem" disproportionately impacts only one of this blog's thousands of users: me. For me, this content being embedded across different platforms and conversations is lovely in the abstract but frustrating in the day-to-day. I used to feel like a party host with really amazing guests. Now I feel like a street performer. I'm part of a bigger city. I supply some content but only get to talk with a few gadflies who stick close to the show (of whom I am very appreciative). One of my greatest blogging-related joys is when someone shares a blog post with a colleague and accidentally hits "reply" instead of "forward"--thus letting me in on their conversation.

This is what it means to be embedded. To not be the center of attention. To be used by someone else, somewhere else, without notification or participation. To be more important, but to feel less important.

I absolutely believe that being embedded makes us stronger and more resilient. But it also means less control of space. Less people coming to our party. More time blowing up balloons and giving them away. Wondering--rarely knowing--where they will land.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How Museum Hack Transforms Museum Tours: Interview with Dustin Growick

A new company in New York, Museum Hack, is reinventing the museum tour from the outside in. They give high-energy, interactive tours of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The tours are pricey, personalized, NOT affiliated with the museums involved… and very, very popular.

Today on Museum 2.0, an interview with Dustin Growick. Dustin is a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) by day, Museum Hack tour developer/leader at AMNH by night. 

How did you first get involved with Museum Hack? 

Dustin: About a year ago I met a couple of people from Museum Hack at a conference. They were “preaching the museum gospel” in NYC via alternative tours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was intrigued and curious to learn more, but also skeptical of the merits of an outside group running roughshod in The Met.

So I went on a tour…and experienced the museum in an entirely new way. I heard incredible—and often salacious—stories behind hidden gems I’d walked past numerous times. We interacted with the art and with each other through dynamic photo challenges, kinesthetic activities, and conversations. We discussed impressionism from Manet to Monet, and delved deeper in pointillism and Greek sculpture. Heck, I even learned about a 17th century German drinking game. For the first time in a long time, I was personally interacting and engaging with the museum, the collection, and with complete strangers in a way that highlighted the art. 

When the opportunity to design my own two-hour museum adventure at the American Museum of Natural History presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been leading my own Museum Hack tours at AMNH for about 9 months now. The tours boil down to three key things: engagement, relevance and fun. I want to help people find interactive and accessible points of entry and give them the tools to curate their own experience during every museum visit.

Can you give an example of the kind of Museum Hack activity that makes this different from other museum tours? 

Here’s an example that I experienced on that first tour of the Met. While in the American Portrait Gallery, we played a game called Matchmaker Matchmaker. Here’s how it goes:
  • Take a few minutes to allow a subject in one of the paintings to “find you”. It can be a human or an animal, and they can be the main focus of the piece or some strange-looking fellow lurking in the background. Go to whatever piques your interest and draws you in. 
  • Use both the posted information and your imagination to come up with a simple backstory for this individual. What is their name? Why are they in this scene? Where did they get that phenomenal feather boa? 
  • Find a partner or get matched with a partner. You now have exactly two minutes to concoct the epic love story that brings together the two characters you’ve chosen. 
  • As you stand amongst the portraits, share your tale of deception, love, mystery, and intrigue with the rest of the group. 
During this simple, ten-minute activity, we curated our own experience by practicing “high levels of noticing” and by investigating museum signage on the wall and online. We were encouraged to use our smartphones to search accession numbers if we wanted to dig deeper than the copy on the wall. We shared what captivated and spoke to us on a personal level, not just what we were told was “important." But perhaps most significantly, we used the art and the subjects therein as jumping off points for bringing the museum collection to life.

Who is the audience for Museum Hack? You are a museum insider and a content geek. But I know that Nick Gray, the Museum Hack founder, often emphasizes that Museum Hack is for people who don’t love (or even like) museums. 

We at Museum Hack have gone back and forth about our target audience: is it people that don’t like museums that we want to convert, or people who want a more personal experience, or people who want an active museum experience?

I don’t think anyone who doesn’t like museums would ever pay for a tour. Then again, many of our most passionate participants are somewhat ambivalent towards museums--or people who are daunted by the Met or AMNH and want a more personalized experience. I think of us guides as “museum personal trainers”. Whether you’re an art history buff, a professional athlete, or don’t think you even like museums, sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.

How do you advertise Museum Hack? If you want to get people who are not already interested in museums, how would they even know to look for you? 

Social media and word of mouth. It started with word of mouth, and then it got much, much bigger. Now a ton of our business comes from TripAdvisor reviews and Zerve - a ticketing website. We’re one of the top-rated destination tours to do in NYC. The reviews are so positive. And then during the tours themselves, we’re hashtagging, tweeting - that is promotional too.

When we became more known on these trip planning websites, it shifted our audience. It used to be mostly young New Yorkers. Now we have a larger and more diverse audience, including a lot of tourists who are thinking of going on tours anyway.

Are there differences between the Museum Hack experience at the Met and AMNH? I imagine that there are a lot more presumed barriers to break down at an art museum than a science museum. Dinosaurs seem pretty accessible. 

There’s a certain level of assumed stuffiness or pretention at the Met. We do a good job of breaking down those boundaries--and maybe those tours involve a little more swearing and silliness. As far as AMNH goes, there’s a little bit of that, but we focus more on offering a more personal experience, finding ways to engage with things in the space and make them personally relevant to you. One of the big ones is that we bring the people behind the artifacts to life. I don’t think on a normal tour they talk so much about the badass character and life experience of the explorers and revolutionaries behind the specimens.

How do you start a Museum Hack tour in a way that signals the different experience ahead? How do you manage the diverse people on the tour who may want different things from it? 

We have a specific opening activity to bring the group together. We huddle up, share what you should expect from the tour, and introduce everyone. Everyone puts their hands in the middle--like a sports team--and does a cheer. From the start, you are face to face with strangers. We use language throughout the tour to encourage the interpersonal, e.g. “make eye contact with two new museum friends.”

It also helps that we generally sell out at 8 people, and the guide always has a co-host if the group gets that big. Having two guides means we can do split stops at some places, giving some people one experience and some another. It allows a little more freedom, and it also gives people many voices and personalities to engage with.

It seems like there are two ways to look at Museum Hack. One is that you have completely reimagined what a museum tour can be, and for whom. The other is that you have produced the most excellent version of a museum tour—more engaging, more personalized, more entertaining. Which description do you think is more accurate? 

That’s a tough question. I think that for the two museums in which we work, it might be A. But for museums in general, it's B. There are definitely elements of what we do in use at other institutions and in other contexts, and this leads me to believe that B is a more accurate description. But as far as The Met and AMNH go, I think we've totally reimagined the tour experience (A).

How has Museum Hack informed your day job as a museum educator? 

It has made me a better educator and added tremendous value for the audiences with which I work, both at NYSCI and on Museum Hack tours. Ultimately, it hinges on coming back—time after time—to the same five questions:
  1. Why should my audience care about [insert content]? 
  2. How does [insert content] relate to their lives and their interests?
  3. What are the tangible points of relevancy that will engage my learners on a personal level? 
  4. Am I giving people the tools necessary to curate their own museum experience during repeat visits? 
  5. What is my “ask” of my audience? What are their “next steps”? 

Museum Hack let me step outside the routine context of my normal scope of work to really explore the core concepts of interactivity, engagement and relevancy. It’s made the museum experiences I facilitate more enjoyable, longer-lasting, and much more meaningful.

But you don’t have to take my word for it: next time you’re in New York, shoot me an e-mail. We’d love to give you a first-hand taste of the Museum Hack special sauce, and prove to you why we truly believe that Museums Are F***ing Awesome.

You can share your questions and comments directly with Dustin here in the comments section or by emailing him at dustin@museumhack.com