Friday, May 18, 2007

Guest Friday: Jessica Harden's Notes from AAM

Since I'm living at the Spy Museum right now in the run-up to the opening of Operation Spy, I asked Museum 2.0 reader--and now contributor!--Jessica Harden to hunt down all things 2.0 at AAM and give us a report. Enjoy!

Hello All. Jessica Harden here: Museum 2.0’s AAM correspondent. Nina asked that I write a blog entry reporting on related conversations at this year’s conference, and I was happy to comply.

As I explained to Nina, I am a bit new to the idea of web 2.0, so keep this in mind. It’s been just in the last couple of months that I have learned about it or at least heard the term. Most of the things that I know about Wikipedia are from watching The Colbert Report. Blogs are something I read not write, and I have to admit that I only do that occasionally.

But recently, I decided that the world was leaving me behind, and I needed to catch up. So, I got an iPod, subscribed to a number of podcasts, and got a mySpace page at the insistence of a few friends that seemed unable to communicate in any other way. I’m trying. I still have a long way to go, but I am definitely intrigued. When asked to listen and respond to web 2.0 related conversations at AAM, I was excited. Let me tell you, there was no shortage of conversations at this year’s conference.


My web 2.0 conversations began on Monday afternoon when I attended The Museum Group’s discussion on the topic: “Web 2.0: A Philosophical Look at New Technology.” This conversation was interesting in that technology and applications were not discussed. It was a non-issue. Rather, the focus of the conversations was philosophical: What are the consequences of user-generated content? Are we ready for 2.0 in museums? Are we willing to give up complete control and hand over some of the control to visitors or worse to anyone? Do we truly understand the consequences of the democratization of information?

It seemed the consequence of this was that the museum would have to share authority.

There were a few voices that expressed interest in the concept. Most expressed concern, and others were totally against it, concerned for the “institution’s” reputation as an established and respected authority. It was clear that this group of senior museum professionals was not ready for the implications of user-generated content invading the establishments that they had worked so hard to build.

It astounds me that while missions of museums seem to embrace this fundamental democratic notion of being for and about the people, senior professionals are so reluctant to accept visitor voices and embrace or even incorporate visitor generated ideas into the fabric of their institutions. Why is it so hard to digest the concept of allowing exhibition content to be by and for the people?

After I left and had a little time to process this discussion, I asked this question of a friend, “If this conversation, fundamentally about the democratization of ideas in museums is important enough to pose, why was this discussion mostly confined to a small group of elite museum professionals rather than posed to the whole of AAM members?”

The thought that museums must maintain control of content is odd and even a bit funny to me. Do museums really feel as though they have control over content? Sure, we present an authoritative voice through label copy, but it is the conversations and connections that happen in the gallery space that create the rich experience of visiting a museum. These are things that cannot be controlled. As far as I can tell, the fundamental concept of web 2.0 is to allow everyone the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. Furthermore, it creates connections that enrich how people experience the web. In my opinion, it seems to be working.

Didn’t we long ago decide as a museum community that we exist in an experience economy? It is no longer our job to provide a product or even just a service. It is our job to provide an experience. Like it or not, the way our visitors experience their world and therefore our museums is through contributing to conversations and making connections both on the internet and in everyday life.


When on Tuesday morning I found the sessions “Museums Remixed Part One: Creating Visitor-Authored Experiences” and “Museums Remixed Part Two: Can we allow users to become participants?” I was not disappointed. This was a very different group and a very different discussion. The philosophical questions posed by The Museum Group were not a factor in this conversation. In fact, as far as I could tell, the assumption was that this is how the world is now communicating. If museums want to join the world’s conversation, there are many ways in which to do this. After a night’s worth of philosophical commentary going on in my mind, this perspective was refreshing.

The Museum Remixed panelists presented projects and concepts that invited visitors to participate in interpreting collections. They embraced the concept that more voices contribute to more interaction: people want to engage with others, user-generated content is rich, and collaborative, community-based filtering of content works.

Here is a list of websites that were used as examples: (This list includes social tagging projects, visitor-curated exhibitions, copyright options, and more.)

Rather than repeat this conversation, I encourage you to join it through the Museums Remixed blog:


On the last day of sessions, and during the last session of the day I attended “Leaving your Mark: Opportunities for User Generated Content.”

Frank Migliorelli of ESI Design led the discussion with several examples of tools that could be used to collect user-generated content. Then, he presented the St. Paul’s Chapel project. It was a beautiful example of how very low-tech media in this case a scroll of paper and sharpie markers can provide an outlet for visitors’ contributions to the overall experience. In fact, his small presentation of the project made me well up with tears. Perhaps my exhaustion from four days of non-stop conference going had a little to do with it. Maybe, I felt some relief from the fact that this was such a simple solution to what many have been trying to apply such high-tech answers. Mainly, I think that in that time and that space it was an immediate and perfect way to allow visitors to participate in the conversation and the experience.

I knew that my discussion had come full circle when Frank referenced Nina’s Museum 2.0 Post Secret article and encouraged everyone to visit the Museum 2.0 blog.

Closing Comments

The world is embracing web 2.0 culture. If museums want to engage in the discussion, then they need to embrace the idea that visitors are not just people that we are providing a service for or that we feed content to. They are participants in our conversations. They are contributors to our experiences. They are invaluable resources. As stated in one of the Museums Remixed sessions, visitors are not “passive consumers.” They are “active producers.”

1 comments, add yours!:

LyndaK said...

Jessica (and Nina) thanks for this post. I really enjoyed the fact that you felt you were a Web2.0 novice, which makes it even more relevant. My worry (that I've blogged about here) is the low understanding of Web2.0 and what it offers among what I called "operational museum professionals" - those who work at the middle management and delivery areas (such as curators) who should be thinking about the impact of Web2.0 and the ways they will now need to communicate with their audiences and stakeholders.

I was interested that you went to the Museum Group sesson - a bunch of great people, but what worries me is that (I don't think? correct me please if I'm wrong) that many of them actually work in museums - many of them are consultants. The way to facilitate change in organisations is from the inside (and usually ground-up) I believe, and external people exert little influence over how organisations actually work if they aren't embedded in it.

Your point "As far as I can tell, the fundamental concept of web 2.0 is to allow everyone the opportunity to contribute to the conversation" is spot on. From my thirteen years of doing audience research, one of the big messages visitors give me is that they want to feel connected through hearing others' personal stories and be able to make comments about issues and content areas that directly affect them, especially when controversial. At the time I did that research (2002 or thereabouts) Web2.0 wasn't even in our collective head spaces, but now on reflection I think it is Web2.0 that can actually deliver on these wants.

Of course, these aren't new ideas - James Bradburne wrote about them in Curator in 1998 and Gordon Freedman in 2000. These papers are referenced in my online published paper Museums as Sources of Information and Learning: The Decision Making Process