Monday, June 04, 2007

Tools for 2.0: User-Generated Exhibits Made Simple

It’s a sad irony that Web 2.0—whose applications are designed to be simple enough for anyone to use—is a term that mostly confuses and overwhelms people. The point shouldn’t be that this is something that has to be learned by reading exhaustive manuals. You should be able to grab a mic and start podcasting, hit the keyboard and start blogging, snap some shots and start Flickring.

Creating the backbone for a robust 2.0 application is not so easy. Many in-museum 2.0-style projects are major initiatives require a somewhat complicated blend of physical exhibit and digital capabilities. If you want people to be able to tag artifacts with keywords, comments, or ratings, you need a unique identifier for each artifact, a way for visitor submissions to populate a database, and automated programs for aggregation and display of visitor data. If you want exhibits to respond personally to each user, you need a way to for visitors to uniquely self-identify and to track their actions throughout the galleries.

But 2.0 doesn’t have to be complex; the architecture doesn’t have to be for keeps. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the hefty challenge of creating your own social networking world, there are ways to jump into 2.0 that are simple, low-tech, and immediate.

Consider the lowly post-it. It’s easy to use. It doesn’t scream, “write your dissertation here;” its message is more a friendly note, reminder, or tip. It’s easy to aggregate lots of them into a larger collection. It’s easy to reaggregate, layer, and move them around. You can attach them to almost anything without fear of harm.

Many museums have created short-term mapping or timeline projects that are post-it based. Slap up a map of the city and let people write memories on post-its and locate them at the site of their old apartment, school, or favorite tree. Paste up a timeline of the last hundred years and let visitors attach their own highlight moments. Post-its could be used for wiki label-rewriting projects (where visitors could add to the information provided by curators), rudimentary tagging projects (clouds of related pastel keywords?), and visitor talk back. If someone adds something inappropriate, you don’t need a webmaster to remove the comment; you just peel and toss. If you love it, you keep it. If not, repurpose the notes as lint removers and chalk up the experiment to experience.

The Swedish Västernorrlands Läns Museum mounted a show last year, The Post-it Project, in which visitors were solicited to write down comments—about anything in the museum—and post them wherever they wanted. That’s it. There are many legitimate criticisms of this kind of project. It's messy. There’s no focus nor overarching goal nor certain meaning to be gleaned. But that open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Startup costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time. Ideally, the project would run for several weeks or months so that network effects could be realized and organic growth could occur. But if staff get cold feet, risks are easy to mitigate. The technology is maximally flexible and allows staff to learn and respond on their own terms.

Similarly, designing exhibitions to include visitor-contributed content doesn’t have to be a headache. In November 2006, the London Science Museum opened Playing with Science, an exhibition about the role of toys in learning. Five cases held curated content, and seven were open for visitors’ additions. Visitors were invited to bring their own toys to add to the collection. Each visitor handwrote a label explaining the value of their toy, was photographed with their toy, and received a printed certificate with the photograph. Contributors filled out permission forms/releases, and the photos with labels were put online for perusal. The images and accompanying labels ("Bunny was made for me by my sister when I was born and has been well loved over the years." "I like making girls do boy parts because I am a tomboy.") are evocative and endearing. And simple.

Most of the time, the analogies I’m drawing to Web 2.0 have to do with the social aspect of the applications. But from a design standpoint, the simplicity of Web 2.0 is equally important. There’s a reason that the protocol for web feeds, RSS, stands for Really Simple Syndication. Web 2.0 means stepping away from fancy flash-based applications that lock content behind programmed doors and towards clear, text-based, multi-access content. It may not be gorgeous, but it’s easy to create, manipulate, and access for techies and newbies alike. The low barrier to entry makes it easy for users to transition from consumers to participants—whether in wikis, blogs, or on social networking sites.

Whenever possible, visitor-focused exhibition design should follow this lead. Most exhibition design is the antithesis of 2.0—by the time the exhibition opens, there’s not a lot of flexibility designed in, and making changes after ribbon-cutting is a painful challenge at best. But 2.0 is about organic growth, about users determining what the service/product/exhibition truly is about and what its value is. In user-generated exhibits, visitors should be able to only to contribute but to steer the final presentation of their content. If that can’t happen, then visitor elements pile up as a whole lot of square pegs trying to fit into the circles the museum has provided.

What’s the simplest way you can imagine experimenting with user-generated content in the museum? When will that experiment start?

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