I got my copy of the fall issue of Museums and Social Issues this week. The theme is "Civic Dialogue," and the journal includes articles on the historical, cultural, media, and museum practice of getting people talking to each other (including one by me about such endeavors on the web).
The journal includes articles about two thriving adult science programs, one at the Dana Centre at the London Science Museum, the other Cafe Scientifique, at a pub in Denver. Both of these programs provide standard public lecture fare with a twist: shorter presentations, more active crowd participation, and a general attitude of a social night out rather than a learning opportunity. Oh, and one other thing. They both involve (optional) alcohol.
Flash back two weeks ago and I'm talking to a friend who attends monthly spelling bees at a bar in San Francisco. Flash back six months and I'm with friends at a hip bar in Washington DC, losing miserably at a weekly trivia night. Yes, bars have always featured live music, comedy, and spoken word. But now, many bars are also offering participatory experiences around content. Not only are they offering content, they're taking totally geeky endeavors like "trivia" and "spelling bees" and turning them into hot commodities.
Arguably, the basic content of any decent museum lecture or workshop is more compelling than the spelling of the word cilia. And yet these bar games have something that few museum adult programs offer: complete focus on the audience/participants, not the leader/speaker. The experience is entirely about you the speller, you the famous dictator identifier, you the sit back and laugh at your friends-er.
But focus on the participants isn't the only, or even the most important, thing bar experiences like this offer. One of the strange paradoxes of these experiences is that while the content focus is on you the participant, it's entirely permissable to get up and leave halfway through. It's fine to drop in and out of the game. It's reasonable to start a side conversation. It's laudatory to take a break to buy a new round for the table.
Bars offer participation within a larger, fluid social atmosphere. This is important to the success of trivia nights and spelling bees because it allows participants to get as intense as they want and accommodates a broad range of experiences. The bar acknowledges and supports participants' desire to ebb and flow through the evening. They aren't game show participants or a lecture audience; they're a group of people out having a good time.
It's this attitude of flexibility and accommodation that makes bars excellent settings for adult programs. Adult programs--whether workshops or lectures--often feel intensely intellectual. You have to sit in your chair, probably for an hour, while someone talks. Then there's some Q&A, and maybe a cookie or a glass of wine to cap the experience. The experience doesn't feel social, even if it involves social interactions, because it's structured. It doesn't accommodate the mood or level of intensity you bring to the experience. It offers a particular brand of experience and asks you to come up or down to meet it.
At Cafe Scientifique, on the other hand, the social experience of enjoying science in the company of others is primary. The repeat audience is strong, and participants form growing relationships with one another over the events.
And that social spirit is reinforced by the choice of venue. Can a venue be as important than the content packaged inside it? Commenting on the high level of participation at Cafe Scientifique in Denver, John Cohen and Helen MacFarlane write:
Several group members have said that they happily ask questions or voice opinions at the Cafe, but would not do so at a lecture. An office manager told us she never went to the microphone to pose a question at a lecture, because she assumed that everyone else in the room was an expert and she would sound like an idiot. At the Cafe, with questions and answers coming rapid-fire from all directions, it is quickly obvious that no one is an expert and we are all, no matter what our training and background, amateurs in both senses of that word.
It's a testament to more than just the venue that Cafe Scientifique enjoys a rowdy, energetic crowd of 150 coming together a couple times a month to talk science. The short amount of time allotted for "presenting," the support for skepticism and disagreement, and the emphasis by committee members on finding experts who are engaging speakers certainly play a role. But I think that the pub environment creates a social backbone that supports the experience. Everyone is an equal--an amateur--at the bar. Even the physical setup, with small round tables instead of theater-style, supports social mixing and a flexible small group-large group experience. The bar is a relaxed place, a place to have fun and chat and argue. A place, in the spirit of the journal, to be civic (though not necessarily civil). A place many museums are not.
Yes, museums can partner with outside bars to offer programs like these. But why not reap the benefits of having a nightlife associated with the museum? Why not build a space that supports comfortable social experiences? Running a bar and hosting evening events of this nature can usher in the coveted "date" audience, connect participants to one another (potentially form the base of a strong membership program), and bring a community together around museum content. The Dana Centre has continued to experiment with this strategy, branding their space as expressly for adults, a place to "eat, drink, talk science."
These hip 20- and 30-somethings are already out at night matching Impressionists to their masterpieces. Why not do it at the museum?