Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Floor Staff Hit the Blogosphere: Exploratorium Explainers

One of the most popular posts on Museum 2.0 is about different kinds of institutional blogs. The fourth kind I talked about is the "personal voice blog," in which museum staff write honestly and openly about their institution and experiences. At the time, I referenced a blog from the top: the Walters Art Museum Director's blog. Gary Vikan has done a great job writing passionately (and reasonably frequently) about his observations on the museum and art world. If you are a management person, you're probably thinking he's incredibly brave for doing so. If you're lower on the totem pole, you might think it's easy for him to write what he wants--he's the Director. Presumably of all staff, he's the one in the best position to know what's appropriate, and to push that boundary when he thinks it's reasonable to do so.

I recently discovered another fabulous "personal voice blog" of quite a different nature. It's the Exploratorium Explainers' blog. Unlike Gary Vikan's individual blog, this one is written by a group of staff. Floor staff. Their topics range from exhibits they have crushes on to boring events they work to funny interactions with visitors on the floor. They post frequently, include lovely photos and slideshows, and generally do a wonderful job communicating their energy and love of the museum through their writing.

Check it out. And then, ask yourself, would my institution support a blog like this? The messaging is all museum- and science-positive, but the tone is irreverent. Some examples:
(on the "Mr. Fish" exhibit)
Ok, I’ll admit it. I was wrong. I used to doubt the exhibit “Talk to a Fish”. I thought it was super-lame- one of the lamest exhibits on the floor.

(on an evening event)
Kristin won the wittiest comment of the night award for telling me, as I bumped into the pictured summer camp poster, spilling water all over the floor in the process…”It’s a sign” Buh Duh Chchch

(on a DNA training session)
Eventually, Ryan found his groove with a style meshing the down-to-earth flavor of Fred Flintstone with the joie de vivre of Richard Simmons:

Maybe you're smiling. Maybe you're cringing. Maybe you're doing both at the same time and your face looks a little bizarre. But what's the source of fear about this kind of blog? This is a blog that empowers staff and communicates museum mission. I think the most commendable aspect of the blog is how balanced it is in tone--I never get the feeling that someone is going to go "over the top." But what if they do? Is there a marketing person with his finger on the trigger, ready to shut down an unacceptable post? Probably (I hope) not.

Personal voice blogs are the stickiest type for established institutions. There's potential for content that is deemed inappropriate, proprietary, or off-message to get out there, and since the point is to present a unique individual voice, it's hard to justify or even implement monitoring/censoring effectively.

But this is the other side of radical trust. It's not just about trusting our visitors and their contributions. It's also about trusting our own staff and colleagues to act responsibly when given an opportunity to join the museum mouthpiece. And not just the directors. Ironically, floor staff may be the MOST appropriate museum bloggers. They are the voice and face of the museum to visitors on a daily basis. They have the most connection with visitors' interests and therefore potentially the most relevant content to share with readers.

Encouraging staff, especially junior staff, to blog on behalf of the institution is a win-win for the staff and the museum. Giving staff a venue for their thoughts creates a high (museum-level) expectation quality-wise. If staff maintain personal blogs, who knows how kindly or unkindly they will reference their workplace. But if they are blogging under the masthead of the institution, they go from being freelancers to staff reporters. They want to further the institution. They want to know it's okay to do so without fear of being shut down or fired.

Some companies walk this line by offering their staff individual blog space (in which they can write about pretty much whatever they want) and then maintaining an aggregate, more publicized blog that pulls appropriate posts from the personal ones. Others start with internal blogs, keep those going until management feels comfortable, and then go public. And others set basic guidelines and then step away.

I'd love to see more floor staff blogs (and security blogs, and exhibit maintenance blogs, and...). These people are often the least empowered staff authority-wise. Supporting staff blogging is a great way to acknowledge the extent to which they are the ones who make memorable visitors experiences. And the Explainers' blog showcases a group of people who are dedicated to their institution and grateful for the opportunity to be one of its mouthpieces. I can only imagine that the blog is improving staff retention.

Not convinced? I'll leave the final word to the Explainers:
Finally, I want to say how proud it made me feel that the explainers, on our own, had continued the spirit of innovation that defines the special place we work at.
Good for them.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Creation Museum: Dangerous Storytelling

What's the craziest story you know? Is it one where humans and dinosaurs peacefully roam the earth side by side? Is it one where most of the world's fossils are the result of the great flood that Noah arked through? Is it one where the Earth is 6,000 years old?

You've probably heard of the Creation Museum, opening tomorrow near Cincinatti. It's made a big splash with its price tag ($27mil), flashy exhibits, and unapologetic religious message. The Creation Museum is itself a creation of the Answers in Genesis ministry, and has the most unique museum mission statements I've ever seen. Their "main theme" is "The Bible is true from Genesis to Revelation!" Lots has been written about it, including the somewhat perplexed and perplexing New York Times review that appeared last week and is the third most emailed article this week.

Here's what fascinates me about the Creation Museum: it is the perfect example of a museum embracing and presenting a single story. "The Bible is true." That's it. I've written a lot about the power of story in museum experiences to pull people in and emotionally connect them with content. But I've always known in the back of my head that an opportunity like this would come up to talk about the ways that story can detract from reality, can distort the truth with its appeal, can charm, as it were, like a snake in a mythological garden.

The Times article was surprisingly positive (fair and balanced?) about the museum, acknowledging the power of the museum's story:
Whether you are willing to grant the premises of this museum almost becomes irrelevant as you are drawn into its mixture of spectacle and narrative...

But for debates, a visitor goes elsewhere. The Creation Museum offers an alternate world that has its fascinations, even for a skeptic wary of the effect of so many unanswered assertions. He leaves feeling a bit like Adam emerging from Eden, all the world before him, freshly amazed at its strangeness and extravagant peculiarities.
The reviewer makes it sound like a fairy tale: pleasant to explore without concern for reality. Which drives me (and I'm sure many others) nuts.

Last year at ASTC, Randy Olson screened his excellent documentary about the evolution/intelligent design debate, A Flock of Dodos. Olson, a scientist, sought to figure out why so many people in America are turning away from evolution and towards intelligent design. His conclusion? That the ID people tell a great, compelling story about how we came to be. And that the evolutionists don't.

The fact that evolution is a theory, and that the scientific definition of theory is lost on most people, has never helped it thrive. But this is a bigger problem--the reality that a good story can trump facts, and that people would rather listen with their hearts than their heads. We'd rather hear a good story than a true one. Tim O'Brien explored this fabulously in "How to Tell a True War Story," in his book The Things They Carried. A true war story, O'Brien says, isn't moral or uplifting. It's stupid and cruel and inexplicable. But our expectations about how a story is supposed to make us feel make us doubt the true war stories so that, paradoxically, a true war story doesn't feel true.

Does the true story about the history of our universe feel true? Many scientists would be uncomfortable even with the use of the word "story;" they'd say the scientific timeline of the universe isn't a story but a collection of evidence and theories. Scientists aren't the business of storytelling, and for the most part, neither are science educators. Museums, especially science museums, are places that seek to engage the mind, not the heart. Fact-loving people are often suspicious of stories, which can be used to distort and pervert the truth.

But truth isn't as popular as stories these days. The directive to "love truth" no longer resonates the way it used to. And at least from the New York Times' perspective, the Creation Museum tells a good story, tells it so well that the reviewer is willing to sit back and enjoy the "mixture of spectacle and narrative" without entertaining doubts or debate about the content.

In museums, we try to tell good stories about objects, events, and phenomena. But we also try to engage the mind before the heart, to push visitors to question and wonder and debate within themselves the way they feel about those stories. The Creation Museum tells a story with certainty, starting from the heart and then using that base story to develop talking points for the brain. The facts that spin out of belief are suspect at best. The only way I can rationalize the Creation Museum's message is by reading their mission statement and understanding that their message is not sneaky or underhanded. They are unapologetic about their mission to use faith to rewrite science. They don't want to encourage debate or challenge. They want believers, not thinkers.

Science museums need to be equally unapologetic about their mission to encourage thinking, to use science to rewrite and challenge the things people believe about their place in the universe. Do I want the people "on my side" to become storytellers the way the Answers in Genesis folks are? No. I want us to start from facts, not from faith--and then use those facts to create comparably compelling stories. Stories about the fact that we are a small speck in an unfathomable system. That the earth and its inhabitants are affected by our actions. That humans are derived from and related to other creatures. That evidence is complex, contradictory, and cannot always be explained by a single resonant story. We need to present the facts in a way that encourages people to understand and love these principles the way they believe other essential human stories. Thank goodness for people who are willing to rise to the challenge and present compelling stories based in fact. Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything sticks out in my head as a fabulous collection of stories about science--stories that make the facts interesting and resonant with both mind and gut. I hope that museum people can find compelling ways to counter the Creation Museum's story with powerful stories about evolution and the scientific history of the universe. I wish it with all my heart.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Game Friday: Fighting Frustration

Anyone who loves games has had this experience. Staying up until 3am to jump over that last pool of digitized lava. Reading the rules again after each person's roll of the die. Clutching the crossword puzzle through layovers and lost luggage in the desperate hope that the Canadian word for "wadi" will come to you.

Frustration is a reality of gaming. Overcoming frustration is part of the challenge of figuring out what to do and how to succeed. There's an expectation of a learning curve followed by reward, and most people approach games ready and willing to pay the startup costs to learn a new game. Sure, there are some poorly designed games, like novels with too many characters, that are just too convoluted to possibly be worth the pain. But in museums, the exception is often the rule. I rarely see people enjoying the "figure it out" part of the challenge. Instead, I see visitors walking away from interactives. Heck, I'm one of those visitors; there are many interactives in museums (especially computer-based ones) that I drop in frustration.

What makes frustration okay for players in the game world, but not okay for visitors in the museum interactive world?

Games are supposed to be fun; museum interactives are supposed to be... educational?
When you start playing a frustrating game, you know in the back of your head that it's (hopefully) going to be fun once you get the hang of it. There's no such certain expectation in museums. When you start playing with an interactive in a museum, you have to BOTH learn how to play and evaluate whether the experience is fun or not. Granted, not every interactive need be fun, but without a clear understanding of what the user reward will be, the incentive to stick it out diminishes.

Games often are more flexible than museum interactives.
When you are learning a board game, you can go at your own pace, taking breaks for even days at a time to maximize the opportunity to play when you want to play. With video/computer games, there are often opportunities to save your game, start over at will, or skip around in the game environment. But many interactives (and I'm definitely guilty of this design-wise) are fixed-time experiences. You hit GO, and you start playing at the game's pace, not your own. You can't rewind or skip over a boring part. This makes frustrating parts worse, because you can't slow down to really understand and overcome them. Plus, often the reward doesn't come (or isn't apparent) until minutes into the experience, at which point visitors may already have given up. All of these inflexibilities make it clear to the user that they are not driving the game--the game is driving them.

Even when the reward is hard to attain, game mechanisms make it fun just to play.
Remember Mousetrap? It was painstaking to set up, the pieces constantly got lost or broken, but it was a really, really fun game. The reward (trapping the mouse) was not nearly as big a deal as the fun of watching parts of the Rube Goldberg machine go all over the board. There are other games that are frustrating but the failure mode is funny (i.e. killing lemmings). But in museums, either the mechanics are confusing (how DO I get the ball in the air?) or there's no acknowledgement of unsuccessful attempts.

There's persistence in numbers.
When you play a game alone, you have to be motivated by the game mechanics and the rewards available to overcome frustration. But when you're playing with other people, the frustration of figuring out what to do often becomes a fun social adventure. Have you ever played bridge? I cannot imagine that any sane person would choose to learn to play bridge if it were a one-person game. But when learning and playing are perceived as potential bonding experiences, people rise to the challenge. In museums, I find that I am far more likely to stick with an interactive--totally independent of its inherent value--if I'm using it with someone else. If it's great, we have fun using it together and are more likely to experiment. If it's lame, we make fun of it. Either way, I have a good experience because of the social context. Whenever possible, I think designers should rely more on multi-person design, using the encouragement of others to push visitors to battle through to the reward.

There's a blacksmith's puzzle on my desk, a classic, where you have to get a metal ring through two loops of rope. I have fiddled with and stared at the darn thing for months, and have never solved it. Why do I keep trying? Because someday, I'll solve it, and the reward will be ecstasy. Until then, I get to keep pushing and pulling, testing things out, having fun just playing the game.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's Alive! Another Way to Think of Web 2.0

There was an excellent post this month on the O'Reilly Radar, What Would Google Do?, about the ubiquity (and potential) of 2.0-based services. After describing many ways that Google might automate and make seamless various daily tasks, Tim O'Reilly comments:
This is one reason I think that Microsoft's term, "Live Software" is so right on. (I thought of naming this piece "Why Live Software is a better name than Web 2.0.") It's unfortunate that Microsoft has chosen that name for its own products only, because it goes right to the heart of what makes Web 2.0 applications so interesting: they are alive, or as close to it as you can get with a computer. They learn from and interact directly with their users (and more specifically, provide services to individual users that benefit from the aggregate interaction of the system with all of its users.)

There's been a lot of linguistic tongue-twisting about the value, use, and abuse of the term "web 2.0." I like this analogy of "live" technology that responds, grows, and adapts organically (and, hopefully, intelligently). When I look at social network sites, even ones like Twitter that feel somewhat inane, I'm always struck by how much I'm drawn in by the human energy of it, the sense that there are lots of people out there, hands and mouths outstretched. Perhaps this is a good way to get museum people thinking about involving visitor voices--making the museum into a "live" venue as opposed to a static environment. A "live" exhibit responds to you personally based on your previous experience and interests. A "live" exhibit connects you to others who have used the exhibit and their experiences. A "live" exhibit empowers you as an active contributor.

In related news, I've spent the past two years developing a "live" addition to the International Spy Museum, Operation Spy. Through careful design, intense show control, and extensive guide training, we hope to make it an experience that truly engages, incites, and reacts to our visitors. Our press opening is today. You can see me briefly on the news here, looking way too cheerful after months of 16 hour days. They actually woke me up off the exhibit floor to do this spot. Which may explain the dazed look on my face in the fake elevator (much scarier in person than it appears on TV)...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Donors vs. Visitors Deathmatch: Can Collecting Museums be Democratic?

It's late at night at the Museum Curator smackdown. The preliminary bouts on cultural interpretation are over, and the crowds are roaring for blood. TONIGHT ONLY: Curator serves as referee between three worthy contenders: the DONOR, capable of vaulting museums forward with unique and prestigious additions to the collection, the CRITIC, capable of writing favorable reviews (which in turn garner more prestigious donations), and the VISITORS, capable of, well, enjoying and learning from the collection.

Is the fix in? Can the power of the visitor ever overcome that of the donors and critics?

Museum folks often talk about the time decades ago when museums began to shift from places for objects to places for visitors. My background is in science and children's museums, where it's relatively easy to keep visitors in the foreground. There are no donors to accomodate, and critical review rarely enters the doors (which I think is troubling for other reasons). Yes, there are funders for certain exhibits and programs, but the stuff of the museum is the visitor experience. Now I work at a history-focused museum with a similar mentality; as a for-profit insititution, we operate more like other guest service businesses (theme parks, restaurants) than collecting institutions. We generate all our revenue at the ticket counter, and since we can't draw a straight line from adding to the collection to increasing ticket sales, we don't actively seek out new artifacts.

But art museums and other institutions that collect specialized artifacts are judged by their collections more than by the visitor experience they provide. This starts with expectations and is exacerbated by economy. A "world class" art museum is not one with fabulous labels, comfy seating, and art that engages all kinds of visitors; a world class art museum has world class art, as judged by art critics, not visitors. And since the scale of dollars involved to maintain an endowment for a great art collection is so large, art museums can't rely on gate sales (and visitors) to thrive. I was amazed to hear an art museum person once tell me that at one museum where he worked, a review in the New York Times was valued as highly as one million visitors. Why try to make your visitor experience better for thousands when you could make the connoiseur's experience better for those few essential critics and donors? The donors and critics are in cahoots--their efforts impact each others' actions--and the visitors are left out in the cold.

Serving critics may mean pursuing exhibits that are inaccessible to non-art people, thus limiting your potential audience. Serving donors may mean shying away from risky interpretation techniques that might offend their sensibilities. I can see why many art museums are considered "conservative" institutions. They're like banks. They need to demonstrate an ability to manage and protect priceless items.

But I'm sure there are plenty of curators at art museums who don't see themselves as white-gloved keepers of valuables, that there are people who actively WANT to focus on visitors. But how can they do it without hurting relationships with donors and critics? How can collecting museums be democratic?

Find funders willing to invest in interpretation and visitor experiences.
Education programs, web activities, and other visitor-focused initiatives take money to run. The good news is that relative to the cost of a major piece of art, these programs are cheap. But they need to be incorporated into the collection pie. I don't know too much about how art museums work, but I imagine that anytime they take on a new piece, they must calculate the cost of preparing, cleaning, protecting, and displaying that object. Is interpretation factored into that cost? I imagine there are donors out there--as there are to science and childrens' museums--who are more jazzed about sharing their love of art with the world than about its importance in the canon of civilization. Could those funders be energized to support experimental programming and visitor-focused interpretation?

Ignore the big guys and focus on community-based or local art.
One of my favorite local museums, the American Visionary Art Museum, is the most "for the people, by the people" art museum I've ever entered. The art is all "outsider art" made by non-professionals, many in unconventional situations (imprisoned, insane, very young, very old). Since these are not artists in the standard canon, there are no hard and fast rules about how their art has to be displayed and interpreted. Plus, since outsiders are traditionally misunderstood, the museum has a commitment to making the art accessible to visitors. The starting assumption is that the art is inaccessible and needs to be interpreted, not that it is venerable and that visitors need to do work on their own to access it (which is what I see in more traditional art museums). The American Visionary Art Museum displays the art with love and respect for its artists, but also with a focus on making that art available and lovable to visitors.

Give critics something to talk about besides what's hanging on the walls.
Museums are willing to take risks on unusual artists and installations; why not take risks on programming and visitor events as well? It may be hard to find art critics willing to tear their eyes from the museum objects to observe museum visitors, but if the programming is innovative and pushes the envelope of how art is interpreted, it may get notice. Think of the Washington Post Joshua Bell "musician in the metro" experiment or the Tate Modern's reality show based on visitors explaining pieces of contemporary art; press are interested in the question of what art is, what regular people think it is, and how they deal with it. An article about a visitor experiment is just as valuable as one about a new exhibition... and it may bring in new visitors and funding streams focused on visitor experiences.

Be transparent about the provenance of pieces so visitors can understand how the donor cycle works.
Do you ever wonder WHY you are looking at a particular piece in a museum? I remember when I first saw the Insect Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It's excellent, and it's funded by Orcon. How do I know that? It says at the entrance to the exhibit. How I view the Hall is impacted by my knowledge about its funding source--just as the way I view politicians is impacted by their chief backers. In a democracy, you can trace content back to its source. I'm not sure if it improves the visitor experience, but at least it lets the visitors know who the other players in the development of the museum experience are.

I know there are some museums, notably the Brooklyn Museum, that have made novel efforts to connect with and focus on visitors, while still maintaining a high quality of collection (and presumably, good relationships with donors and critics). But I've also heard about other museums being slammed for similar endeavors. How can we keep visitors on the victory mat?

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: http://museumsremixed.blogspot.com/


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.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Don't Talk to Strangers? Safety 2.0

When you think of MySpace, what is the first thing that comes to mind? The irritating design? The bizarre obsession with "adding" friends? The recent flurry of restrictions that has sent teens fleeing? Or is it the stalkers? If your exposure is primarily through news media, your initial reaction may have more to do with child predators than long exchanges about boy bands.

What makes Web 2.0 dangerous? Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, even ExhibitFiles are tools that allows people--strangers and friends--to connect with one another. The tools aren't inherently unsafe. But their basic function--encouraging strangers to talk to each other--is potentially dangerous.

A lot of what interests me about bringing 2.0 into the museum is the potential to encourage more positive in-museum interactions among strangers. I want to see more multi-person exhibits, more prompts for discussion about content, more tools to facilitate connecting wtih other visitors whose interests are similar or in some way useful to your own. I want in-person museum experiences to be more like experiences on social sites like Flickr, where strangers connect and form relationships around content.

But are these potential interactions safe? By the standard set by a culture that judges MySpace as dangerous, perhaps these in-person interactions are even MORE dangerous. On MySpace, you are protected somewhat by the fact that you interact via a virtual rather than real identity. You are not physically exposed to harm by others the way you are when you start chatting in the galleries.

Paradoxically, the anonymity of online interactions both protects and exposes people to harm. On the web, you define your persona, which may make you feel empowered both to be more honest (and therefore potentially offer information you would not give a stranger on the street) and to engage in fantasy. The fact that you engage alone in front of your computer makes you feel in control of the situation. When you create a profile on the web, you don't think about the fact that it will be available to everyone and anyone--that you are doing the online equivalent of wearing a sandwich board around town that lists your favorite films and pet peeves.

I think it's a good thing that people, when given a forum online to individually express themselves, seize the opportunity to make their MySpace pages and post pics of their cats on their blogs. I think it's a good thing that librarything gives me a way to talk to strangers about books that feels safer than approaching the drooling guy at the public library. But I don't think it's good when people engage in these activities unwittingly; that is, when they do so without understanding the full implications of their web presence. Being on the web means being tracked, published, and spread around.

When we think of ways to extend the 2.0 social networking model to the real world, the implications of tracking, publishing, and spreading become obvious. Imagine a town where everyone wears a t-shirt that lists their age, sexual orientation, interests, job, etc. Imagine a music store where each CD lists the names of the last 20 people to pick it up, and what those people ultimately bought. It almost seems quaint to imagine that until very recently, library books listed names of actual people who had actually read the book. These could make for a fabulous world in which people express heightened interest in each other, but the immediate reaction is to assume the worst. While our online world has opened up, the physical world, at least in America, is more suspicious, more private, and more protective of personal space than ever.

Even I find myself buying into the paranoia. I talked to a museum education director recently about extending the social networking concept into museum spaces and he suggested that museums put a whiteboard in the lobby on which interested visitors could list their cell phone number for live, in-gallery chats about different parts of the museum. I wanted to cheer, but the first thought in my mind was, "Are you crazy? Use the authority of the museum to facilitate exchange of phone numbers between strangers?" I can just imagine the headline: CHILD MOLESTERS CALL ON ART, VICTIMS.

So how can we take the best of social networking and use it to create safe, welcoming spaces for interaction among strangers in the museum?

1. Structure the space with a clear story (and commensurate rules).
Structure means context, and context means norms that people can easily grasp and deal with. "When in Rome" doesn't only apply to traveling--it also can apply to created spaces in a museum in your hometown. Travel is a nice analogy; when people travel abroad, they often strike a different balance of engagement with strangers than they do at home, out of a desire to learn the culture, meet "real" people, etc. The "rules" that define how strangers engage are different everywhere, but consistent in their distinctions. So imagine an exhibit space as a foreign destination. Imagine an exhibition space as a desert island, the visitors its shipwrecked inhabitants. If we can create exhibition spaces with a strong enough internal culture/story/rule set, one that reinforces and supports social, friendly, respectful, positive interactions between strangers, people will buy into those rules, even if they are not typical.

2. Use staff and volunteers as monitors/encouragers/facilitators.
Almost all museums already do this, but floor staff are typically trained to monitor and support the ways visitors interact with the artifacts/objects rather than the ways they interact with each other. Children's museums are the exception; staff are on the watch for unaccompanied adults and kids alike. But this isn't just about policing. Many museums do a fabulous job training staff to engage with visitors, but those explainers are not necessarily trained to encourage visitors to talk with one another. Again, these staff are "safe" people who can facilitate a good experience between strangers, using their authority to create a space and a context that allows strangers to connect with one another. Of course, in the same way that floor staff have to balance the value of the content they deliver with the interest of the visitor they are talking to, staff would have to gauge and deal with the initial reservations people have to working with strangers.

3. Give people a clear way to buy in and identify their social interest (or lack thereof).
This can be as simple (and potentially problematic) as the whiteboard phone example, can involve signing up in some way, or just entering a specially marked space. All that's required is an explicit way to physically signal that you want to be part of the social experience. We do that with staff all the time. I once worked in a children's museum once where all the floor staff wore blue vests. I remember how strange it felt after work to be in the grocery store or any other public place, say hi to strangers, and realize they were looking at me suspiciously. The vest was a magical piece of clothing that allowed me to engage with strangers, to make jokes and show them cool things and compliment and encourage them. Why should the staff have all the fun in this way? We could offer hats or stickers in the lobby that say "talk to me" or "I want to play."

4. Exclusivity helps.
Many social networks that pride themselves on fostering community around specific topics--list-servs, conferences, business sites--are open to anyone. Anyone can go to the birders' conference, but the presumption is that once you're in the door, you're part of an exclusive club of people who want to engage around birding. Is it safer to engage with strangers in this faux-exclusive environment? Maybe not, but it does make people more open to doing so. It's interesting to consider the sliding scale between public spaces (mall, park, library) in which interactions with strangers seem intrusive and atypical, and other, slightly exclusive public spaces (convention, concert) where interactions between strangers are commonplace. What makes it okay to turn to your neighbor at a play to chat about Act 1 but prevents you from doing so at the movies? In most cases, I think museums fall on the side of spaces that do not encourage stranger-to-stranger interactions, even though several of the potential exclusivity gates (specialized content, entry fee) are often in place. How can going to an art museum be more like going to a convention for people who love art?

Social networks are unsafe when they are launched without oversight, facilitation, structure, or community development plans. This is by no means unachievable--museums are already great at providing safe, valuable interactions between people and precious objects. I think we can handle the semi-preciousness--and the potential--of encouraging people to talk to strangers.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Who Created the Exhibitions that Changed Your Life?

Was it a museum professional or an outsider? Was it an individual or a team?

I'm kneedeep in the final run-up to the opening of Operation Spy at the Spy Museum, but in the fleeting moments between disasters and near-disasters, I'm thinking about AAM. One of the most arresting sessions I attended last year was Exhibitions that Changed My Life. The speakers spoke lovingly and intelligently about star moments in unforgettable spaces--both as visitors and as designers.

Two things struck me about these exhibitions: the prominence of story and the individual creator. Several were created or conceived by a single person, often an artist/non-museum professional. In particular, Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society was lauded as a transformative experience--both for visitors and for museum practitioners. And when I think of the exhibitions that have changed my life, most share that characteristic: James Turrell's installation at the Mattress Factory (image above), BodyWorlds, anything David Wilson created at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

What's the deal here? Is this an example of Kathy Sierra's observation that groups of people can only create a watered-down, muddled shadow of what an individual can envision? Is this different from anything else we know about design, that Steve Jobs is, as they say, a tyrant with an extreme and extraordinary eye?

Yes, an individual can bring clarity of vision to any project that might otherwise be sullied by the ups and downs of collaboration and compromise. One of the presenters last year spoke about an exhibition he had created on animal extinction, which displayed each species on its own domino, with the first several tipped (and presumably, tipping the next ones) to evoke their extinction, commented explicitly that he did not think such an exhibition could have been created by committee. But groups can be fabulous creative machines as well. A friend recently described her work (in an Australian political organization) in this way:
"The attitude at GetUp is that when someone thinks of something cool, like an ad concept or a new feature for the website or a way to get members involved offline or a slogan for the electoral program, they blurt it out and then everyone else immediately piles on and tries to thinks of ways to make it cooler."
What Taren is describing is not an individual's vision but an individual story, namely, that coolness and cooler-ness are valued and supported by her organization. When everyone in an organization is led by the same story, the organization's content output reflects that story and a mythic central storyteller. The story can come from an individual leader like Walt Disney, Frank Oppenheimer, or Steve Jobs, or from a shared vision, like the folks at IDEO.

The exhibitions that change our lives share this same oneness of story. The stories they tell may be simple, as in the domino effect metaphor for animal extinction, or complex, as in Fred Wilson or David Wilson's (no relation) explorations of how we perceive the authority of the museum, but whatever the level, the stories are singular and powerful. An exhibition that is made to tell a story promotes and invites anything that enhances the story and rejects anything that distracts from or dilutes it. It doesn't try to add in points to hit certain standards of the eigth grade curriculum. It doesn't avoid emotional or potentially uncomfortable content. It speaks in a distinctive, unapologetic voice--whether that voice reflects a single person or a team. As one presenter at AAM put it last year, these are narrative experiences that value and prioritize the visitor: "based in fact, created in the imagination."

So if a group can tell a story in one voice, why are so many of the exhibitions that change our lives created by individuals? And why by non "museum professionals?"

The stories that individuals are willing to tell are more risky than those a group can tell. When an individual assumes the onus of responsibility, suddenly they are empowered to do things that would be "can't" out of committee. "Based in fact, created in the imagination" sounds lovely, but it also implies exaggeration, selective storytelling, and other risks museums are not often willing to take overtly. In last year's session, I saw one exhibition that didn't resonate with me; an immersive, highly themed historic town, late at night. The speaker was clearly rapt in the mystery and beauty of this undiscovered world; to me, it looked like a big dollhouse (and not in a "let's rock out with the easy bake oven" kind of way). I saw that there was a strong unifying story to that exhibition, but not one that resonated with me. Similarly, the domino exhibition on animal extinction is based on a singular metaphor. I found it powerful, but what if it didn't work for me? There aren't other stories on the same topic or other ways to get into the content in that exhibition. The story has to hit to succeed, which means its creator has to feel confident, totally wild for the story they've created. It's easier to do that when you don't have a team of designers to raise doubts.

When your voice is the only one out there, you have to acknowledge and develop it. In her essay "The Museum as a Socially Responsible Institution" (1988), Elaine Gurian asks museum people to consider:
"In the area of exhibitions... are the topics intended to be overt propaganda, covert propaganda, or a personal point of view?"
I love this quotation because it forces the reader to presume that exhibitions ALWAYS reflect an intentional perspective. When you design as a team, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are presenting an objective, well-balanced, measured story and voice. But when you are the only one developing the content, that delusion quickly goes out the window. Of course the exhibit reflects your point of view--you're the only storyteller in the room! Dealing with that reality may lead individuals to embrace their own voice more fully and comfortably than might designers working in a team, striving to present something less overtly pointed.

Non-museum professionals tell their own stories; museum professionals tell stories they are given. Exhibit designers' jobs are to develop exhibitions on topics. This is rather different than the job of other content creators--say, composers or artists--whose jobs are to create within their medium on topics of their own choosing. Artists who create to preassigned topics are not the ones we admire most; they are the hacks who write the Babysitters' Club, who paint the Hallmark puppies, who make the wedding videos. And yet exhibit designers are often brought to the table to breathe life into a topic. We all learned in fifth grade that the stories we are forced to write, the "how I spent my summer vacations," are not the most compelling stories we can tell, nor do we tell them as well as the ones we want to tell.

So much of what exhibit designers do is hunt for the story within a topic, trying to tease out the life in an artifact or a scientific process or a historical event. But story-mining is tricky business. At its best, we become evangelical preachers of the topics, infused by the story and desperate to tell it in a way people will best receive it. But when the designer doesn't find that magic story, fall in love with it, and feel compelled to share it, the exhibition falls flat. It becomes a recitation written on college-ruled paper in a chalk-filled classroom on a September afternoon.

The exhibitions that have changed my life were stories told to me by the people who created them, wrapped and packaged by museums that loved them. One of my favorite things about the Mattress Factory, an installation art museum in Pittsburgh, is the way they give over the whole museum, structural configuration and all, to one artist at a time. The exhibition that has most changed my life was Into the Light, which was mounted there in 2002 and 2003. When I saw James Turrell's extraordinary art there, art made of light, the entire museum served as a series of wondrous invitations into these transcendent and unusual scientific and artistic stories. To enter each exhibit, you passed through a totally pitch black curtained area, then emerged into the light space. I was there with my best friend on a quiet January morning. We entered every black curtain holding hands, apprehensive and fumbling towards the punchline that was waiting around the corner. Each black tunnel whispered "once upon a time;" each installation took us into a new world, a new and extraordinary ending. Turrell and the museum had taken the strange stories Turrrell had created with light and made them special by teasing them out in a drama-filled design. The experience was emotional. The more we tried to understand the pieces the more we wondered about how they were made. We never looked at a label while in the exhibition, but afterwards, poured over material on Turrell. We were totally enthralled by the stories that were being told to us with black curtains and glowing light.

Why are we letting outsiders take the risks and reap the rewards of provocative stories passionately told? What's keeping us from doing so ourselves? If you are an exhibit designer, no doubt you have worked on projects that captivated you, where you bought into the story you were given and told it beautifully and powerfully to visitors. But we don't have to just be story transferrers, making DNA understandable and old coins loveable. What are the stories you most want to tell, from yourself? Which is the one that will change my life?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Game Friday: Conference Connections

It's May 10, and the AAM (Association of American Museums) annual conference is starting this weekend. So, in honor of the conference (at which I was supposed to-but cannot-speak about games in museums), some discussion about games for conferences.

There's an essential problem with conferences; it's hard to find meaningful ways to connect with new people. The first time I attended a museum conference, I attended as the sole delegate from my institution. I went to sessions and events. I chatted people up in the convention hall. But in almost all situations, I saw gangs of people, eating, talking, having what I perceived to be Deeply Important conversations--and I didn't know how to break into that.

A few years later, I'm still on the fence about how that works. There are articles out there on how to "make the most out of conferences," but if you're not there as a salesperson hawking yourself or your product, how do you get the content you care about? How do you ask someone what really matters, instead of just asking them to pass the cheese platter?

One way to solve the problem, especially for conferences that throw lots of strangers together, is through games. Gamelab, an innovative game design company out of NYC, has created "massively multiplayer games" for the last three GDC (Game Developer Conferences). My favorite of these was Bite Me, a simple game in which players passed along cards like viruses, "biting" new players into the action. Why is that my favorite? It's not as complex or technologically enhanced as their most recent offerings, but it focuses on person-to-person interactions. It doesn't have a fabulous story or even very interesting game play. But it gives people who don't know each other an excuse to start talking about the thing that's most important to them: games.

I've seen this work on a smaller scale at a yearly MLK weekend 3-day event my friends and I have hosted for the past 8 years in Washington. Each year, the guest list gets bigger and more diverse, and in the past couple years, we've tried to address that by hosting a massive game on the first night of the weekend. Two years ago, it was a murder mystery in which all the guests worked in teams to solve the puzzle presented by the hosts. Last year, we had "MLK-ingo"--bingo in which you needed to get people's signatures in boxes who fit certain criteria ("Someone from your hometown," "Someone with a beautiful smile," "Someone who will do a jig with you"). These games have been a huge positive in terms of breaking the ice, and breaking open the tightly knit circles of "already-friends" who tend to congregate at these things.

Because this is the secret I've learned about conferences. All those groups of people chatting? Most of them already know each other, work together, and are DYING for someone new to join in. When you're in a huge crowd, you stick to the people you know, unless you have a reason and motivation--like a game--to seek out someone new.

I'd love to develop museum-focused games for AAM, ASTC, and other museum conferences. I could imagine games that encourage people to share their favorite exhibitions, to put together puzzles that map out institutions, to hold versions of Rock, Paper, Scissors with funny designations for Exhibits, Education, Development (then again, who beats development?).

And if there isn't a big game going on at the conference you're attending, come up with your own personal game. Try to meet three people who have your same job. Tell someone about a problem you have and challenge them to get to the answer before the big bad monster eats up your options. Make goals. Give yourself gold stars when you take risks and succeed. Play tag with the people you dream of meeting, and hide and seek from the sketchy ones you wish you never met.

And if you want to help me develop a game for ASTC this year, you can tag me at ninaksimon (at) gmail (dot) com.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Metaverse Museum? Guest Post on Second Life and Museums by Sibley Verbeck

Today, a guest post by the wise and attractive Sibley Verbeck, CEO/founder of the Electric Sheep Company. In January, I interviewed Sibley about the potential use of virtual worlds and Second Life by museums, but in the four months since then, the virtual world platform--and the hype around it--has exploded. People used to clip articles for us about Second Life every couple of weeks--now, it seems that hardly a day goes by without news about the use and abuse of Second Life. It seems that Second Life is both the closest and farthest thing from many museum professionals' minds. I hear everything from "I don't get it," to "I don't believe it," to "Well, how the heck would we do it if we get it and believe it?" Sibley's company has developed virtual world projects for CBS, AOL, the NBA, Reuters, and many others. Here's his take from the thousand foot level. -------------------------

Strictly speaking, Second Life isn’t Web 2.0. In fact, at this point it isn’t even on the Web at all. But it represents technology that has the potential to be a bigger part of Museum 2.0 than anything – maybe even than reality itself.

But that’s already sounding like the grandiose hype you read about Second Life or virtual worlds. And if you’ve ever logged into this brutally confusing new technology, you’ve probably been literally confronted the sense that your avatar, let alone the emperor, has no clothes.

So what does it all mean, and where’s the reality within the virtual reality hype?

Fundamentally, virtual worlds are a new communication medium. Just as with the telephone, television, the Web, mobile phones, e-mail, etc., this new medium doesn’t replace all that came before it, but allows humans to connect in new ways.

  1. Eliminating Geographic Separation. Most importantly, virtual worlds are the first technology that really make people who are anywhere feel like they are in a place together. With a visual representation of people around you, voice communication (coming soon to SL, already present in some other virtual worlds), and most importantly a fully navigable and interactive 3D environment, everyone – whether gamer or not, technophile or phobe - has the clear feeling that they are in a place with other people.

  1. Collaborative Experience. The primary value of virtual worlds is not only being in a place but acting freely within that space in social collaboration with other people. Hmm, interacting with other people you may or may not know within an interactive environment – that’s starting to sound very Museum 2.0…

  1. Design. The environment of Second Life is the canvass on which it is 10 times more efficient than any other to (collaboratively) design interactive 3D experiences and share them with other people who can explore together in real-time. The wysiwyg tools in Second Life for making interactive content, while crude by the standards of the video game, animation, or industrial design industries, allow for a much more efficient and social design process.

So what does this mean for museums?

  1. The Globally Accessible Museum. While the Web allows for information and communication about museums and exhibits, the virtual world could actually contain museums themselves. Very different ones than would exist in the real world, with different value propositions. This will never come close to replacing “bricks and mortar” museums, but is a first scalable opportunity to extend the museum itself – not just its literature or materials - into the home, classroom, or office. People will come back to the virtual museum more frequently than they will transport themselves to the physical one, and in turn make the museum more a part of their regular lives.

  1. Events. One of the best uses of Second Life today is virtual events that reach people around the world. “Mixed reality events” can allow different people to attend the same event in-person and virtually. This suddenly makes museum-hosted events have the potential reach of a television broadcast while maintaining more of the intimacy and interactivity.

  1. Museum 2.0. While you may hesitate to fully allow visitors to be the curators of your museum, why not let them curate your virtual museum? Or one copy thereof? The virtual can be more experimental, more user generated, more 2.0 in a way that can be used both within the real museum and at home – both synchronously and asynchronously. Undoubtedly this will lead to innovation that you extend into your physical space

“Sure, that all sounds great, but I can’t get my avatar off of orientation island!”

The fact is that we are in an early stage of development with virtual worlds. Most of the content you see in Second Life is poorly made, and the software was created for content creators, not a broader user base. Most of the commentary you read about Second Life ranges from shallow to completely incorrect.

Just because most of what you see on this radical new platform is not compelling or even understandable doesn’t mean that the platform isn’t ready to add a lot of value to your museum. For example, if you go into Second Life via a portal for Showtime’s TV show, The L-Word (here for US, here for international), you’ll see a better introductory experience for starting to use the virtual world. Still not ideal, but getting closer to usable by mainstream audiences.

New interface elements can be created today to make the Second Life software customized for a certain audience or application.

So if done correctly, a virtual world presence today can be user friendly, social, and highly entertaining and/or educational. A well done virtual world project today could not only make a museum more 2.0, but increase its geographic reach, and over time increase visitorship and revenue. But landing on the “right” project is not simple on a new technology with many limitations and few experts who know it well. While the answer would be different for each institution, here are some general tips:

  1. Target Audience. Design the experience not for the current user base of Second Life, but for the target audience of your museum who is not yet in the virtual world. It’s the people interested in your content who will be interested in your virtual content. There may be some of those in the virtual world already, but the bigger potential lies with bringing your potential visitors in. They may not care about the virtual world, but they are interested in your content, so design the experience with that in mind.
  2. It’s not about the “build”. Remember, Second Life is not first about 3D rendering, but rather about social interaction. You will likely want to create a place in Second Life, but more important than that place is the effort you put into building a community there. The people are more than half the content, so the experience you design should be fundamentally 2.0.
  3. Marketing Plan. Just like opening a real-world location, you need to have a plan for how to get people there. People won’t just stumble onto it. Driving in people from your Web site, marketing within Second Life, viral promotions, focusing on scheduled events are all useful components.
  4. Staffing. Just like a real museum, a virtual one takes staffing. Perhaps not as much or as costly, but just as in the real world, it is not most effective to just create a museum and leave it standing there unguided, unmanaged.
  5. Effort. As the points above clearly illustrate, a virtual museum is not a matter of just putting up a Web page. It takes a lot of effort to achieve its potentially large reward.
  6. Goals. The first step is certainly to understand what you hope to achieve. It is not worth a foray into the virtual world just to be cool. This new medium has the potential for ROI in revenue, visitorship, increase in brand awareness, and achieving an educational mission statement. But whatever goals are most important, they should fundamentally drive the experience design process.

Whether you dive into a virtual museum project soon or wait for this technology to develop, it is certainly the case that this medium is not going away. Whether Second Life or something that replaces it, the world will be using a Metaverse that allows us, in many ways, to go places and meet people while in our living rooms.

As with any major new medium there are opportunities to move in early and be a part of the re-alignment of how people communicate, are entertained, and are educated. If museums want to achieve a greater role in our social structure, whatever that role is, beginning to play that role early in the development of a major new medium is the best opportunity to succeed.

Monday, May 07, 2007

ExhibitFiles: Interviews with Initiators Jim Spadaccini and Wendy Pollock

What happens to an exhibit when it closes? The artifacts are reaccessioned, the labels (hopefully) recycled, but what happens to the knowledge? What happens to the surprises designers encountered, the interactive that visitors loved, the bits that never seemed to work quite right?

If we were scientists, we'd have documentation of each experiment, each publishable result, each improved-upon discovery. If we were musicians, we'd have the recordings and the sheet music. But exhibit design is transient and its documentation spotty. We live in a cyclical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Design. That may be fine for people who want the exercise of reinventing the wheel, but it's a disaster if our goal is to grow and improve what we offer to visitors.

As a poet, I know how a wide range of poets over a few hundred years have influenced my work. I know where to go when I want more data from a particular style or poet. I know that it's not acceptable for me to recreate something that's already been done; I have to do something new. But as an exhibit designer, I'm in the dark. Even if I WANT to learn from the exhibits that have come before and are coming up around the world, there's no obvious place to start studying.

Enter ExhibitFiles. ExhibitFiles is a community-based site launched last month to encourage the documentation, sharing, and exploration of exhibits and the exhibit design process. Last week, I spoke with Jim Spadaccini (Ideum) and Wendy Pollock (ASTC) about their experiences creating this site. I spoke to them on different days, so I've taken some liberty with structure here, but their words are maintained intact.

What was the basis for this project?

Jim: It came out of a book that Kathy Maclean did with Wendy's help, Are We There Yet?, which was a series of case studies about the exhibit design process. There was a need recognized and that need was that exhibits and exhibitions were being redesigned over and over again without that sense of history. The whole process of developing an exhibition tends to get stuck behind a museum's doors. There's no sharing of that information. Well, if we can come up with an open structure where anyone who works at any level of the process could share that process-that would be very unique and add very high value. A community site in its truest sense, where anyone can post a review or case study.

How did this come to be an ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) project?

Wendy: Part of the thinking was that NSF supported the book Are We There Yet?, and they are concerned that they are supporting the development of exhibitions, and once the exhibits travel, the knowledge really disappears. Where do you found out about these things? NSF requires grant applicants to build on prior knowledge--where do you get it?

ASTC's mission is really to help raise the level of the field as a whole. We've published and done professional development in the area of exhibits from the very beginning. And with NSF's support, some of the very first things we did were around people developing traveling exhibits. Everything we've done in the arena of traveling exhibitions has professional development as a key component. I've found that our motivation has always involved improving the field.

So if NSF is funding it, is it only for science exhibitions?

Wendy: Of course, NSF is supporting this, and science exhibitions are the core of what we do, but even before ExhibitFiles, ASTC published in the area of exhibitions generally. Why is that? In the past two decades, science centers have been in the lead in the exhibits arena, and we think we have a lot to share--and learn--with other museums. Then there was the additional realization: if we're going to build a true community on ExhibitFiles, we need to have a critical mass, so we need to open this up to all museum exhibit designers. We see this as part of the network of sites that NSF is funding for informal science education.

We did promise NSF very specifically 40 case studies of exhibitions, and we listed a number of NSF-funded exhibitions that people who are part of our core community group will hopefully write about. By then, I hope we have enough good models and people who want to be a part of this that it will have a life of its own. The way real people work online is much broader. NSF seems to be perfectly happy with that.

I'm very impressed with the design of the site. It's clean, easy to use, and gives feedback quickly. What are the key design elements in your mind?

Jim: It started with the idea of case studies, because that's what the book was about-very detailed, fairly formal case studies. But the chances that you'd go through the book and find an exhibit on the same subject matter you're working on is very rare. But ideally on the site, if it takes off, people could find things in the areas they're interested in. Reviews followed closely after. There are people who have a lot to say about museums around the world--to have some outlet there seemed useful.

The profiles were the last thing added, when we were getting into the nature of the site itself. I'm a big advocate of the profile part, and want to see it used in other ways for members to contact each other.

Wendy: Time is the big barrier for learning. Our design is very consciously deliberate to make it seem easy and quick. So I hope that means people will at least say something.

One of the biggest questions in my mind is about honesty. I love that you include "Lessons learned" and "Mistakes we made" in the case study forms, but I'm not sure if I believe that people will really communicate openly about these things.

Jim: We're hoping that we'll get different points of view on the same projects. We're not under the illusion that some fields like "what went wrong" and "lessons learned" will be places where we get 100% honesty. We know that that's a difficult thing to share. Though to a certain extent, we don't expect all of the conversations to take place here. If I'm developing an exhibition, I may start at ExhibitFiles and then contact the person directly.

There were many discussions about whether this should be an open or a closed community-should we allow the whole world to see what's here, or lock down the whole site? We decided that the openness was more of a benefit than a detriment. People might have felt more comfortable in a closed community, but that privacy is sort of an illusion when you're talking about hundreds of people in your same field.

Authenticity of authorship and ownership is really important. We considered a multi-authoring platform, but in the end we ditched that, thinking that individual authorship, multiple perspectives are better and more sustainable.

Wendy: Part of the basis of trust is the fact that your name and your face is associated with your words. But we have functions so you can send a draft on to others. These forms are very accommodating. It's quite amazing the different perceptions once something is over; everyone's memories are different. It will be really interesting to see how the human side evolves--when you see something you question, do you write a comment, call up the person, or...?

There's an example up there right now about Wild Music, which I posted, and there have been a lot of people involved with this project, and the designers are at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I talked to them about it, and realized that I hadn't updated the case study to reflect everyone involved. So I keep updating it.

I like the idea that this can be a place both for people who are collaborating and know each other well and for new relationships to form. It would be great to see the co-PIs' names hyperlinked to their own case studies and reviews so everything can connect via the people.

Wendy: I'm not sure whether the system is going to automatically make those connections, but the plan is to link all of this up.

Jim: We are really trying to make this into a strong social site. We looked at LinkedIn as a model. I think a cool thing is that we took a fair amount of push on the personal profiles. Originally we had the ability to go in and add favorites and they get listed on the page; now, you can also go in and add contacts in a del.ici.ous sense. You can also click from people's profiles to send them an email.

The other thing we found early on is that the profiles pop up very high on a google search for a person's name. That's all very deliberate. The pretty URLs we added in the last week should allow the site to do really well.

To a certain extent we don't want to lose sight of the fact that this is primarily about the exhibits and the exhibitions, but we know that the people are important.

Wendy: We were also very concious about not wanting ExhibitFiles to interfere the ASTC/ISEN listserv. The listerv has been out there for over 13 years and it has a certain kind of energy, and it gets its energy partly from its size. And I can already tell that the nature of the discussion has changed in recent times because people are going to other places, other web sources. We don't want to overload by offering duplicate services on ExhibitFiles.

I talked with Kathy Kraft, a fairly frequent participant in the listserv, and she is anticipating that when things come up on the listserv, being able to say, "well, look here on the ExhibitFiles," so it can be complementary.

I'm really excited about the idea that this information will now be captured and available. I'm constantly trying to figure out where the resources are out there to learn from.

Jim: Part of the motivation is that at least in the science center world, you have a generation that were developing exhibits in the 70s and 80s who are retiring. And since that was pre-web, there isn't a home for that information. Going through the old exhibit files at ASTC, the file folders, the idea that those might make their way into here is really exciting.

Wendy: The legacy aspect of it is huge. I do know people--Gretchen Jennings just retired--I think it's very very important that their knowledge doesn't die. We need an archive for exhibitions. And I am personally going out and recruiting people I know who are in that state of their lives. It was only 15 years ago we at ASTC did a global warming exhibition. And younger people have no clue. And frankly we have a responsibility to the funders too to make sure we're not going over the same ground over and over again, that we are learning something.

Ready to learn something? Sign up, browse, and contribute. Still wondering how useful it can be? I challenge you to model the kind of content you'd like to see. Write something honest, something surprising, and share some information that otherwise will be lost to the exhibit design ether.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Game Friday: Lessons in Environmental Storytelling from an Imagineer

There's a game design source I used extensively at the beginning of development for Operation Spy: Gamasutra. If anyone out there is considering creating an industry catch-all site for museum-related content, I highly recommend Gamasutra as a model. It combines a job bank with news about developments in the gaming world and, my favorite, an impressive collection of feature articles on the art, business, and production of games.

Two of the articles that most influenced me were written by Don Carson, Disney imagineer turned video game designer, about "environmental storytelling." (You may need to create a free Gamasutra account to read part 1 and part 2.) The first one opens with these comments:

If I have an all encompassing desire for any computer game I play or themed attraction I visit, it is this:

Take me to a place that:

  • Lets me go somewhere I could never go.
  • Lets me be someone I could never be.
  • Lets me do things I could never do!

When I read this list, my mind leaps to fantasy. The “imagined world” Carson talks about can be highly themed (as at Disneyland) or abstract and minimal (as in board games). In both cases, there is a strong unifying theme that orients and surrounds the user. But it’s not just the immersion that makes the experience entertaining and compelling to users; it’s the roles and actions the users get to take.

When you play a good game, you don’t think of yourself as a player manipulating objects. You aren’t moving Pacman around; you are Pacman. You aren’t telling Link where to go; you are Link. You aren’t on a rollercoaster that is themed to look like a Wild West train ride; you are on a Wild West train ride that happens to be implemented as a rollercoaster.

Can museums afford to indulge in this kind of fantasy? The Spy Museum has been both lauded and criticized for “Disneyfying” the museum experience by designing in a hefty dose of narrative, themed immersion. The unifying story is espionage, and the game-like question: “Do you have what it takes to be a spy?” is explicitly posed to the guests at the beginning of the experience. One of the things I think guests enjoy about the Spy Museum is this invitation to play spy, to get a taste of seeing/being/doing something fantastical.

Getting people to play scientist or art historian may be a tougher sell than getting them to play James Bond. But incorporating good environmental storytelling techniques from the game world doesn't mean you have to put on mouse ears (or a trenchcoat). What makes a great immersive experience? Here are some lessons I've learned from Carson...

Orient People to the Unifying Story or Theme. Hanging a sign that says JUNGLE LAND is not enough to sell people on the idea that they are entering a jungle. Carson argues that environments have to answer two user questions immediately: “Where am I?” and “What is my relationship to this place?” If a person can confidently answer both these questions, he or she is ready and open to experience the environment without constantly wondering how they are supposed to feel or what they are supposed to do.

The answers to these two questions define what Carson calls the "story" of the experience. This story doesn't have to be a narrative he said she said; it can be as simple as "we are monkeys swinging through the jungle" or "I am Pacman. I eat dots and avoid monsters." Little kids are excellent at coming up with these kinds of open-ended, non-linear story spaces ("I'm the teacher, you're the student," "we're in the circus," etc.) that combine strict rules with a wide range of possible actions.

It drives me nuts when I’m in a museum that has made a half-hearted attempt to thematically connected galleries or exhibits. If a museum makes a choice (as many science and some art museums have) to disaggregate and somewhat randomly (from a guest perspective) distribute exhibits, okay. When I’m in MOMA, at least I know that as I go from room to room of the main collection, I’m not “missing” any particular era, genre, or artist. In my head, I say, “I am in a museum. My job is to float around and experience things.”

But when a museum exhibition makes a weak or partial attempt at aggregation, I start to get confused. Where am I? Am I in the red wing or the blue wing? The Human Cell or The Beginning of Life? Did I miss a period in history by skipping a room or did the exhibition just gloss over that decade?

Similarly, exhibitions that are unclear about my relationship to the space are confusing. Am I supposed to look respectfully or explore exuberantly? Can I touch? Am I supposed to do something? Confusion over the “rules” of visitor relationship to museum content has led me to have many humorous experiences with museum guards. In most situations, I didn’t willfully “cross the line” of museum acceptability; I just had no idea where that line was. I want a little kid's designation: this is a bunch of art you can touch. This is a human heart you can explore like a little red blood cell. Which leads to the second requirement...

Reinforce and Uphold the Story and "Rules" of the Environment.
Obviously it’s much easier to answer these questions about place and role when you are playing within the “rules” of a game or ride. When you are strapped into a roller coaster car, you are fairly confident of your role and relationship to the space. When you play chess, you have a good idea about what’s acceptable and what’s possible.

We usually think of rules as confining the realm of possibility, but Carson argues that strong structure and adherence to rules enhances guest comfort to "play" within the imagined environment. As he puts it:
Most important of all is once you have created this story, or the rules by which your imagined universe exists, you do not break them! These rules can be broad, but if they are broken your visitors will feel cheated. They will be slapped in the face with the contradiction and never again allow themselves to be as lost in your world as they might have been at the onset.
Many exhibit designers are already familiar with situations in which rules work in our favor. Keeping exhibit labels consistent throughout a gallery supports visitor expectations about the type of information to be found on those labels. Consistent light levels, spacing of artifacts or exhibits, size of exhibitions, can all contribute to visitor comfort and familiarity.

But games don't try to make you comfortable in a baseline situation; they try to make you comfortable in a typically uncomfortable situation. Dance Dance Revolution is a fabulous example of this. Would you dance in front of strangers in a public space? Couching that experience within the rules and construct of a game system turns wallflowers toward boogie fever.

Some of my favorite museums and museum exhibitions take serious risks with their basic story but do a fabulous job of reinforcing that story and using it to encourage visitors to test out new, potentially uncomfortable experiences. The Museum of Jurassic Technology combines puzzling content, low light levels, winding passageways, and mysterious labels to create an environment of ambiguity that supports curiousity tinged with apprehension. The City Museum of St. Louis throws open every nook and cranny to be crawled through and explored. The Holocaust Museum immerses you in a dangerous history and uses the design to reinforce the threat and horror of the situation.

When experimenting with these kinds of immersive stories, it's important to think about the limitations and opportunities of different presententation media. For that reason, it's worth remembering to...

Design for believable interactions within the context of the story.
In his second article, Carson comments on the paradoxical fact that we will accept a wide range of "leaps"--of plot, location, and time--in stories when we passively receive them (books, film, plays) but not when we experience them as active agents. He gives the example of the problem of reoccuring characters. In a movie or play, we expect to see the same character again and again, in different locations, at different ages. But if there's a Rocky the Raccoon graphic that welcomes you to the tree exhibit, and other graphics throughout the exhibit feature Rocky, you don't think it's the same character moving through the exhibit with you. You think there are lots of copies of that same graphic.

In museums, more broadly, there's a problem with the way we often characterize visitor roles when we invite people to "play." There are many interactives of the "YOU BE THE X" type, in which visitors are invited to play art critic, historian, or scientist. But often these feel contrived. From a museum perspective, the general consensus is that they seem contrived because they are not the "real" thing. But from a game design perspective, they aren't contrived because we can't perfectly simulate reality; they are contrived because we don't couch them in the context of a strong, structured story or rule set. The rule set doesn't have to be complex. When you play the board game Operation, you feel like a surgeon--in the context of the rules for being a surgeon (i.e. don't touch the borders) the game creates.

In support of making it "as real as possible," museums often have a tough time setting up legitimate rule sets and accompanying stories. When designing Operation Spy, we constantly slammed up against this problem: how do you let an untrained visitor feel what it's like to be an expert at something? If cracking a safe, unearthing a fossil, or tracing genealogy is incredibly complicated, how do we let people try it without them feeling like what they are doing is fake?

I'd like to see more museum exhibitions that satisfy Carson's three desires to go, be, and do things that are outside the realm of normal or even physically possible experiences. Museum exhibits allow you to explore the inside of human cells, the extremes of space, the deep past and the possible future. But there's a big difference between experiencing these wild and unusual things through fantasy games and through exhibited reportage. I believe that experiencing content as an active agent, as a player, makes the experience clearer, more personally connective, entertaining, and, dare I say, educational.