Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Project Development Blogs: Could You? Should You?

Recently, I’ve been grappling with the question of whether or not it is useful to create project-specific blogs for big museum initiatives during the development phase. For two years, I’ve been working on the same project at the Spy Museum. Now, on Monday, after all the creative build-up, we’re actually taking sledgehammer to sheet rock and getting things rolling.

The blog idea started with something simpler: taking a photo each day during fabrication to be able to string together a time-lapse “making of” animation in the future. But why stop there? Why not create a blog with weekly (or so) informal posts about the growth of the project?

The immediate positive is practical: project documentation is often something that takes place before and after implementation, but not during. Any document I create at the end of this installation, no matter how attractively cross-referenced, will not reflect the reality of the challenges and surprises along the way. It will tell the story of a finished thing rather than the story of the process. If I (and the lead fabricator, and and and) put up quick posts every few days about progress, at the end we would have a document that more accurately captures the organic nature of the process, and, I think, would be more useful as a reference for future projects. It could also serve as a touchpoint for staff across the museum to be able to easily connect with what’s going on at any point in the project.

What I’ve described above could easily be implemented as an internal blog (or just good progress reports). So why make it public? Let’s start with the reservations against doing so: it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the museum brand. It lets other people in on our trade secrets. It will take all the magic out of the final product. It invites random folks to influence the creation of the product in an “American Idol” fashion (think Snakes on a Plane). And who would want to read this thing, anyway?

To me, these reservations reflect 1.0 thinking. If museums remain black-box content deliverers—showing only the final product—then of course there’s no reason to open up the process. But if we want to go 2.0, there are plenty of potential benefits. A blog like this could energize the visitor base who already love your museum and are hungry for behind-the-scenes opportunities. It helps them establish deeper relationships with the content as they understand what went into the exhibit design. And maybe they’ll care more about the museum as a whole if they think their comments are being considered by the curators.

A blog like this would also be a great professional development tool across the museum field. I’m looking forward to seeing what the folks at ASTC do with the soon-launching exhibitfiles project, but I think it will be a mistake if “files” are only available, or createable, for finished exhibits (and ironic, considering that they are blogging the progress of exhibitfiles itself!). Imagine the difference between learning about exhibit development by following a project’s progress and by reading a final report. You don’t learn how to bake by eating cakes. Also, when it comes to critiques, I would feel more comfortable critiquing, and being critiqued by, other professionals along the way rather than after the money’s spent and the ribbon is cut. Then, those critiquers become useful contributors rather than threatening reviewers.

Of course, there are real questions here about control of content and consistent museum messaging. In the end, I doubt that the Spy Museum will let me blog the fabrication of this project. What about at your institution? Could you create progress blogs for new exhibits, programs, marketing initiatives? Would you?

1 comments, add yours!:

Eric Siegel said...

Hey, Nina: I think it is a great idea. In developing Connections, the Nature of Networks, we created a forum for people to contribute ideas for specific challenges we were facing. We had about 25 participants, and gave prizes for the most active contributors (Ian Russell won...). We tried to think of it as "open source" exhibition development. Though in the event, there was too much that was specific to our project for it to be very broadly usable. Wayne LaBar has been working on this in some of his new exhibitions. I'm not sure where he is with that.

I think documentation is less interesting than exchanges in solving problems, so I have a bias for the forum format, where there is not so much a blogger as a moderator. Forums have a flatter hierarchy of participation which I personally think is more 2.0 than blogging.

I also don't think that there is much of a public audience for this kind of activity. But I do think it could be useful for the museum professional audience. Informal science institution people have been very reluctant to share their evaluations of projects because the reports might show the degree to which we don't meet the goals we've set ourselves. So there is a natural, though regrettable, reluctance to share our failures or our ambiguous outcomes.

Keep on Bloggin.

E