Friday, December 28, 2007

Program Comfort: Events that Draw People Out

Welcome to the second in the four-part series on comfort (and its boundaries) in museums, a day late but just as tasty. This week, we tackle educational programs and this question: what program could compel you to dress in carrots and hit the streets?

This fall, I went with friends to see the new Mind exhibition at the Exploratorium. We went on opening weekend and elected to watch a couple of short films related to humor, including one by Mira Nair on the laughing clubs of India. The club members believe in the health benefits of laughter, and they engage socially in several laughter exercises: laughing at each other, laughing with tongues sticking out, laughing while shaking hands, and so on.

The film was long for a museum (35 minutes) and geared towards adults, so the audience had thinned appreciably by the end, when a staff member invited all of us to join her on the floor of the museum for our own laughter club. About twenty of us stood near the main entrance in a circle, laughing loudly, laughing like monkeys, laughing like idiots, and heartily enjoying ourselves. I came out of it truly amazed by the power of the museum—not just to elicit laughter, but also to induce bizarre and voluntary acts of silliness in front of and with strangers. It was the kind of experience I wish I had at lots of museum programs—the staff and the content pulled me out of my comfort zone, engaged me in something unusual, and made me feel great.

How can educational programs at museums push the boundaries of comfort to support these special experiences?

By sending people on missions. The Spy Museum puts on extraordinary educational programs. Their success, I believe, is due to the fact that in most cases, participants are active agents on missions, not just visitors spending a couple hours building a lie detector. At family overnights, kids work in teams to try to catch a mole, while their parents surveil and try to identify suspicious behavior on the part of the young spies. At adult surveillance workshops, visitors hit the streets of D.C. tracking an agent, and inevitably end up interrogating homeless people and perfect strangers—engaging in social behavior they would never consider in “real” life. In the permanent installation Operation Spy, ticket-holders become officers undercover in a foreign country, seeking the truth behind a missing nuclear weapon. Missions turn experiences into stories, into games. And when you play a game, you understand that you have to do unusual things to win.

By giving people roles.
Roles are a natural extension of the mission concept. When you pursue an unusual goal, you may need to take on an atypical persona. This doesn’t have to mean elf or spy. I was struck recently by the description of players in an alternate reality game, SF0, in which people go on cultural “missions” around the Bay Area. The text reads:

What does it mean to create a new character in SFZero? Your character looks exactly the same as you. Your character will have all the same skills and attributes as you, and even the same memories and feelings. "Isn't my character, just, well, /me/?" Good question.

Your character has several important things that you do not have. First, your character has a Score. Its Score is a barometer of its progress.

You may find that your own willingness to interact with the city in new ways varies linearly with relation to your Score.

Second, your character is a member of a group that you may or may not be a member of yourself. When you sign up for SFZero, you must decide which group to join.

Last, and most importantly, your character is able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do. Things like fear, lethargy and the police don't deter your character from achieving his or her goals.

This text elegantly presents the distinction between a person (who can be uncomfortable) and a role/player (who is in the zone, like the carrot man above, an SF0 player).

By making it a social experience.
There is strength in numbers. At the Exploratorium, when the staff member announced the laughing activity, it was clear that not only was she going to lead us in guffaws, she would be laughing (and acting silly) along with us. The NYC-based group Improv Everywhere conducts elaborate and somewhat uncomfortable public “scenes” (such as people streaming onto a subway car with no pants), fueled by volunteers who feel exhilarated by the opportunity to act strange in a socially supported, somewhat safe way. There’s a reason clowns pull up single volunteers to mortify them and entertain the audience. Much better, if you seek participation from your audience, to pull them all up and into the act, so they are laughing at themselves, not each other.

By training staff and lecturers as listeners. One of the best articles in the Museums and Social Issues journal on civic discourse, The Hard Work of True Listening, is about the need for lecturers and program leaders to be facilitators of dialogue, not just time-keepers and content providers. The author, Margaret Kadoyama, argues that for programs to move into the (positive) realm of engaging, personally meaningful dialogue, we as facilitators have to be patient and really respond to the questions or comments offered. Functionally, we should be the way we wish politicians would be: responsive, interested, intelligent folks who can understand audience desires and reflect them back in meaningful and sometimes challenging ways. The best presenter I’ve seen do this is Frank Warren, instigator of the
PostSecret project. When he speaks (and he does so often), he always conveys his love and respect for PostSecret participants, and that respect often encourages audience members to offer up their own secrets on the spot. What better testament to making the uncomfortable comfortable than people sharing their deepest secrets with total strangers?

By couching the experience within a comfortable environment. I wrote recently about the power of bars as educational program venues. Why not allow people to put their feet up, their drinks down, and enjoy the program the way they enjoy other content experiences? There’s a reason that home entertainment centers are cutting into the movie theater market; it’s nice to watch from your couch, pause the film to get a snack, etc. While we can’t always go that far (though distributing lectures as vodcasts and DVDs is worth considering), we can give people decent seats in which we’ll shake them up. (We’ll talk more about this in two weeks in the final segment in this series.)

When have you seen museum programs take visitors to the next level, pushing their participation, their attitudes, their comfort? When have you seen it work, and when have you seen it fail?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Giving the Gift of Technology

Museum 2.0 is on semi-vacation this week. I’m writing this from Lake Tahoe. Yes, it’s beautiful, and I hope you are all having comparably wonderful experiences with family and friends. And while I’m not someone who's hot and heavy on stuff exchange, I appreciate the value of gifts and want to encourage you to consider giving your loved ones the gift of technology this season.

I’m not talking about plastic fish that sing along with your iPod (HIGHLY annoying), electric knives, or a subscription to the latest web-based social network cum parallel reality. I’m talking about giving people things they can use, that they would like, that inform and support their lives.

When you get someone a gift, you try to find something that fits these criteria. Similarly, when we receive gifts, we evaluate how well they fit into and enhance our lives. The superwarm slippers with slip-proof rubber soles? Priceless. The singing clock? Not so much.

When we receive gifts, we evaluate them. If they pass the internal test, we keep, use, and treasure them. If not, we regift, hide, or lose them.

This evaluative quality is missing from the way most of us approach and absorb new technology. In most cases, the hype that precedes a tool is so overwhelming that its functional value is lost in its charm appeal. Consider the grandfather who points to a computer and asks if it does google, or the college student who downloads killer app after killer app, without wondering (or caring) how the software will affect or support her life. We don't think, "is this X useful for me?" We download with abandon, or, disgusted or afraid based on previous experience, avoid the technology altogether.

When hype is the driver, the essential step of evaluating a given technology for its functional value is lost. And when we stop evaluating technology for its functionality, we stop thinking of it as a tool. And when we stop thinking of it as a tool, we start having strange and unhealthy relationships with it, ranging from suspicion to lust and everywhere in-between.

When we give technology as gifts, we give tools to be used and appreciated. The technology, like other gifts, is evaluated, not hyped or coerced. We put on smiles and thank yous, and then we take the gifts home and try them on. We don't think "gosh! I have to keep this because it was written up on Slashdot!" or "I have to wear this sweater because it has intrinsic hip value that I don't understand!" With gifts, we decide for ourselves.

I first started appreciating this conceptual framing of technology as tool/gift a few weeks ago, when I made applesauce for the first time. Last summer, when we moved off the grid, my mother-in-law began giving us pioneer-era technological gifts I’d never encountered before, including a food mill.

For those as blissfully clueless as I, a food mill looks like a conical colander. It has a wooden pestle-like implement that fits the shape of the cone, so you can mash up food that then comes out, uniformly small, from the colander. For months, this thing sat high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was vaguely offensive to me—a superfluous gadget taking up space and gathering dust. A gift that had not passed muster.

All of this changed when we picked the apples off the tree and spent an afternoon making applesauce. The food mill is AWESOME at making applesauce. It’s more ergonomic, fun, and speedy than a Cuisinart (which we can’t power anyway)—and much easier to clean. After the applesauce was made, the food mill went back up on the same shelf, but with a new status: that of a useful tool.

This story is not meant as a quaint homily about the value of arcane kitchen gadgets. It’s an example of how technology, when given lovingly and wisely, can be a functional, fabulous gift. Kay knew that the food mill was a useful tool for our lifestyle. She introduced us to a technology I wasn’t aware of, and now we have a tool that enhances our lives.

Think over the last year or two—what are the most useful technological tools you have integrated into your life? Who else could benefit from them?

Yesterday, I helped my stepfather, a doctor, reconfigure his cell phone so that loved ones calls come in with a distinctive ring—so when he’s on vacation he knows which calls to answer and which are from griping patients. Last month, I helped my husband get started on Facebook, and now he’s constantly exclaiming about the old friends it has brought back into his life. These things don’t have to be complicated. They should be useful tools specific to the intended recipient, gifts that they will use and enjoy.

My short list of technologies I would give as gifts:
  • Google homepages for people who use the same websites frequently but aren’t ready for RSS readers and other personalization tools
  • Skype (plus a headset) for anyone making a lot of international calls
  • an IM client (I like Adium) for any business unit suffering from constant noisy interruptions of employees asking each other quick questions
  • for anyone with out-of-control web bookmarks
  • suggestions for blogs, podcasts, and other content of specific interest to the intended
  • iGo power adaptors for anyone working off the grid or powering laptops in the car
What’s your favorite tech tool gift? What’s the item that has brought the most utility or value to your life? What’s the tool someone you love needs?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Content Comfort: Bodyworlds and Other Exhibits with Guts

Exhibitions that point out subconscious bias. Exhibitions that peer into personal lives and predilections. Exhibitions that shock, incite, and disturb. I'm not talking contemporary art--these kinds of experiences are popping up everywhere. What do we do with content that is controversional and, potentially, uncomfortable?

First, what makes something uncomfortable? The Tech is currently hosting Bodyworlds 2. Like other museums that have hosted Bodyworlds and its sequels, the exhibit has doubled overall museum attendance for 2007--and it's only been here for three months. Memberships are up several hundred percent. We're surpassing revenue projections. Science centers that have never worried about lines are suddenly managing huge queues, putting up sold out signs for the first time. According to Wikipedia, 20 million people have viewed a Bodyworlds exhibition.

In 2007, Bodyworlds most quickly brings to mind one word: blockbuster. But it used to be more strongly aligned with another word: controversy. There were ethical questions about the provenance of the bodies, decency concerns about the display of naked bodies and fetuses to mixed-age audiences, and aesthetic concerns about the artistic, potentially disrespectful presentation of the bodies (one man, for example, is shown carrying his skin in his hands).

Each of these concerns can and has been dealt with rationally through messaging and related programs. But in the beginning, these concerns seemed insurmountable, coupled by an assumption that the exhibit would be unsuccessful because people would be grossed out by seeing dead, cut open people.

How wrong we were. Turns out people LOVE seeing dead, cut open people, love it enough to wait on lines and pay big ticket fees.

Bodyworlds is fascinating as a case study in content comfort. Bodyworlds fuses highly uncomfortable content--death and dismemberment--with highly comfortable content--our bodies, ourselves--to create an experience that is at once challenging and familiar. The extraordinary uniqueness of the artifacts and their presentation, along with their essential significance to each of us as fellow humans, transcends the ick factor to such a degree that most people, after seeing the exhibit, can't even fathom or recall previous ick reactions.

How do you make the uncomfortable comfortable? Or, to be more precise, how do you exhibit uncomfortable content in a way that supports visitor engagement and response?

Start with a familiar reference, then push. This is what Bodyworlds does, starting with the human body (familiar) and pushing into art, illumination of parts, and death. But it's also what a good "issues" exhibit does--gives you an entry point you can identify with from which to delve into the stickier questions. And the universal entry point is the visitor. Everyone is familiar with and fascinated by themselves. You recycle--that's great. But do you compost? When it comes to advocacy in museums, working from "natural extensions" can both give people a pat on the back and challenge them at the same time.

Be careful how you tell the story. There's a reason I used the word "push," not "slide," in the above statement. While narrative is a compelling part in the exhibit design toolkit, it can lead to uncomfortable situations if the storyteller proves untrustworthy from the visitor's perspective. Consider the Creation Museum. For some visitors, the story their exhibits tell is highly compelling (and comfortable). For me, it would be uncomfortable, not so much because I'm uncomfortable with the content as I am with the way the content is presented. Similarly, some people have told me how much they loved the Spy Museum... until they got to the Cold War part, which they perceived as overly pro-American. One woman described it as getting sucked into a dream that turned into a nightmare. When the story is emotionally evocative and all-encompassing, a wrong turn can feel suffocating.

Put visitors' voices front and center. The book Visitor Voices features several museum professionals who argued that making talk-backs a focus of exhibitions allowed them to take on topics that were otherwise perceived as too controversial for the museum. When there's acknowledgment, via opportunities to write, speak, or show opinions, for a variety of views, people's desire and willingness to explore uncomfortable topics increases.

Accommodate basic needs. People can handle a lot of discomfort intellectually if they are physically taken care of. I'd be much more willing to sit through a weird video on a nice couch than standing up. So frequently, physical comfort is the biggest barrier to success in museums--with content at any level of comfort!--and when it comes to more obtuse or challenging things, a friendly seat, good light, maybe even some chips? goes a long way.

What experiences have you had with comfort or discomfort when it comes to exhibit content? Rik brought up the Holocaust Museum last week, which accommodates the above points by connecting you with individuals (familiarity hook), telling the story honestly and openly with many voices, and providing physical space that is evocative, but not overbearing.

Pull up a comfy chair and share your story!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Icing on the Cake: Involving Visitors as Workers

Have you ever been apple picking? All over the country, there are farms where you can pick apples, berries, pumpkins--you name it--and pay for the privilege (more than you'd pay in a grocery store or farmer's market for the same product). To my husband, Sibley, who grew up in orcharding country, apple picking as a fee-based recreational activity is ludicrous. His family made their living getting paid to pick apples--not the other way around. But no matter how assiduously Sibley rails against the activity, every year thousands of people flock to the hayrides, the baskets, and the fields to enjoy one of the greatest marketing ploys of contemporary America.

What do the U-PICK farms have that makes people line up to pay to do their work for them? They have identified the fun part of a complicated, repetitive, and onerous business, and packaged it as a single product. You don't have to grow the trees. You don't have to prune them. You don't even have to pick the apples in a uniform, speedy way. All you have to do is... whatever you want to do. It's the luxury that makes it a recreational activity.

And it's the realness that makes it legit. I had comparable experiences as a kid "volunteering" at the Rose Parade for the floats--and in this case I put volunteering in quotes because let's face it, an eight year old doesn't contribute much to a construction site. We paid to attend, view the floats in near-completion, and glue a few petals on. We didn't contribute substantively, but we felt like contributors--part of the float creation experience.

These examples lead me to discussion of how we can involve visitors in museum work and content generation. It's not as easy as just opening the process to them, to engage either as a full member of the team, or in the elements where we actually could use their help. While we will always (hopefully) find volunteers willing to do data entry, the majority of visitors will not be so compelled. Yes, they want and appreciate the authentic experience, but get too authentic and they won't participate. The trick is to find the icing on the work, the most fun slice, and then, selflessly, offer it up to visitors.

I say selflessly because to be successful, we have to share the best part of our job, the icing, not the hard stuff. Sometimes, you can make icing out of something unpleasant; I've known plenty of kids who have jumped at opportunities to scrape hardened glue off tables, or smash down boxes. But in most cases you have to find the apple to be picked, the fruit of your labor, and offer than final experience to visitors.

What part of your design cycle is the most fun? Is it testing new exhibit pieces? Trying out new toys you might integrate into educational programs? Shooting the foam snot out the giant nose to see how far it goes? If we give up or at least share in these fun parts, visitors will have a more positive view of museum work in general and may become curious about how they might get involved with other projects, like tagging content, submitting comments, etc. Rather than starting from where we need help, we should be starting from the aspect of the work that will be most compelling, and hook them from there.

Who knows? Soon enough, people might pay for the experience of testing our prototypes, cleaning the rat cage, stamping member cards. Until then, think apple picking and give folks a tasty, simple, fun way to help.

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Kids See Technology: The Laptop Club

Thanks to Sibley for sending me this fascinating article about "the laptop club"--a group of second and third graders in an afterschool program who designed their own (non-functional) laptops using construction paper, pencils, and a lot of imagination.

The article includes a gallery of images of these imagined computers, which have keys for things like "Harry Potter," "games," and "friends." It also features extracts from interviews with some of these kids, who at age 8 already have some clear opinions about how to be famous on the web, what they are better at than their parents, and which parts of the computer are most "valuable."

The debate over how young and how often kids should interact with computers has raged since the 1980s. One of the things that interests me about these images is the extent to which they demonstrate how computers have gone from tools used by adults to accomplish mostly professional tasks to tools that can be used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. The classic mental image of a kid banging away at a keyboard, trying to be "like mom" has changed. These kids see computers as tools for gaming, music, shopping, creating, and are imagining interfaces that suit their own interests and devices. They can't type well, but who needs QWERTY if you have your button that links you directly to your friend Emma?

Jeff Han, one of the innovators of multi-touch interfaces such as that of the iPhone, has questioned the value of the $100 laptops being produced for children in third world countries, arguing that the kids who receive them will be using input interfaces--keyboards and mice--that will soon be out-of-date. Who will design the user interface for the computers of the future? Will we see greater diversity in what kinds of things are accessible from the click of a button? Will the explosion of plug-ins and widgets reach out of the screen and into our input devices?

All fun things to think about--and in this case, the thinking is inspired by designs created by children. I think it would be marvelous for museums, particularly childrens' and science museums, to offer open discussions about the future of technology incorporating kids' dreams in the debate in a legitimate and active way. I'm too used to my keyboard to imagine its future. The eight year old banging on my exhibits isn't.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Straddling the Comfort Zone

Here's a simple game. Look at the circles above. Draw your own lines to define your "comfort zone." Which of these experiences would you include, and which would you put outside the realm of comfortability?

I finished reading the Museums and Social Issues journal on Civic Discourse, and it's brought up a groundswell of internal debate for me about museums and comfort. The crux of many of the articles in the journal is the difference between civic and civil dialogue, and the pursuit of energized, multi-voiced civic engagement that also feels safe and welcoming. How civil does the environment have to be to encourage civic participation? When does civil devolve into P.C. and stamp out civic possibility?

The hinge of this question is comfort. Yes, museums should be safe. But should they be comfortable? Should they feel familiar, or should they push you? How much safety do visitors need to feel comfortable participating, and how much squashes any interest in participation? It's the same question as the civic/civil. How do we balance comfort with challenge to create a great experience?

Four examples worth considering:
  1. Content comfort. An exhibit interprets a well-known and loved object or image as rooted in hate. Is that provocative in an insightful way, or overly confrontational?
  2. Interaction comfort. Visitors play a game that reveals their level of latent sexism. Is the experience revelatory or accusatory?
  3. Programmatic comfort. Floor staff pull visitors into an improvisational show. Do visitors feel like they have been swept into stardom or overexposed and humiliated?
  4. Creature comfort. Museums provide sparse seating and strict rules about food in the galleries. Does the furniture and rules promote "positive" museum behavior, or does it make visitors feel like they are in an unfriendly place?

My inclination in most situations is to challenge, confront, and yank people around--in the spirit of welcoming participation. So few experiences (museum or otherwise) encourage social, civic engagement. But I also appreciate the fact that inclusion in museums isn't just about participation--it's about safety as well. Some places, like the St. Louis City Museum, are able to offer a high level of comfort with a low level of safety. But the City Museum experience is more physical than emotional or intellectual. Maybe museums shouldn't offer cultural, civic thrills of the City Museum variety if the tradeoff is visitors feeling so uncomfortable that they avoid the institution.

Over the next four weeks, I'm going to dedicate a post to each of the four kinds of comfort mentioned above. There's often such a fine line with these things. The "Fear" exhibition currently at the California Science Center asks you to confront your fear of tarantulas, loud noises, and falling. Is that in the comfort zone? What about an exhibit that asks you to confront your fear of people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds? Would that go too far? How can we explore challenging content and encourage civic dialogue within a safe and positive--if not always comfortable--environment? Ultimately do some kinds of comfort (soft chairs? Supportive facilitators?) overcome the lack of others?

This is a post of questions. Hopefully we'll answer some over the next several weeks.

In October, I took a crew of ASTC attendees to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. The MJT provides a dark, confusing, unclear, beautiful experience. Some members of our group revelled in it; others were repelled. Every turn at the MJT is surprising, from encounters with fictitious x-ray bats to real dogs in the tea room. The first time I visited as a teenager, I was entirely uncomfortable, but conquering that discomfort turned it into a magical place unlike any other in my museum experience. It is the most emotionally evocative, soothing, challenging museum I frequent. And I believe it couldn't do that without being dark, labyrinthine, obtuse, and generally uncomfortable.

When have you had a (positive or negative) experience with comfort in a museum? With an exhibit? A program? A staff member? Another visitor? A chair?

Please share your stories, and I look forward to exploring this further with you over the coming Thursdays.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop launches today!

This is not an analytical post (primarily); it's an announcement and invitation to join the new project I've been working on with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.

The Tech Virtual is a project that allows people to conceptualize and prototype exhibits online. The online platform has two parts: a website, where all projects originate, and a Second Life presence ("The Tech" in Second Life), where participants can communicate in real-time, share ideas, and build virtual prototypes. All participation is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that all ideas are available for use by anyone with no financial obligation--only an obligation to credit the originators of said ideas.

For The Tech, this is a new way to conceptualize exhibits. We don't have traditional designer/developers on staff; instead, we have a team facilitating this process and liaising between project participants and fabrication staff to develop these virtual ideas into physical reality. To that end, there's an added incentive for this pilot stage (through June 2008): $5000 to any exhibit concept deemed spectacular enough to develop into a real exhibit here at The Tech. To be eligible for the prize, your exhibit must be on the theme of "Art, Film, Music & Technology."

But this is not just for The Tech; our grant mandates that this project be a service to the museum community at large. Towards that end, we encourage you to use virtual workshop for your own devices, whether to vet exhibit ideas, create, steal, and share exhibit concepts with others, or to learn more about Second Life.

We know there are lots of people out there who have been "peeking in" on Second Life for awhile now, reading the articles, seeing the videos, maybe even creating an avatar. I know that Second Life can be a clunky, frustrating experience. But it's also a new online communication tool, one that significantly improves the real-time chat experience across time zones.

I don't see Second Life as the meat of this project. The meat is people coming together to design exhibits. Second Life is just one tool we're using as a community space for museum folks to discuss and share mockups with each other. I'm planning a full slate of programming, from museum tours to build classes to design reviews with the pros. Yes, Second Life can be a useful prototyping space. But for those who don't want to go through the trouble to learn how to build, it is much more accessible as a programming space, and we hope to offer many interactive talks, workshops, and more.

All of that said, I've learned a lot setting up the Second Life component of this project. A contractor, Involve Inc., built the virtual Tech to spec, so that eventually virtual exhibits could be tested in real dimensionality relative to the building. But the museum is mostly empty right now, since the goal is to fill it with user-created exhibits. I've spent the last month building some sample exhibits, as well as a tutorial on interactive exhibit design. This little building experience was an eye-opener for me. We started with a rather long document on what makes a good interactive exhibit, intended primarily for the non-museum folks who participate in this project. But no one was going to read all that text. Casting it as a walk-through tutorial, with a bit of interaction thrown in, will hopefully turn arduous "instructions" into a fun and informative experience. While I have a good deal of Second Life experience, this was my first time building something from scratch, and I can verify that it was much easier (and somewhat intoxicating) than I expected--and definitely the simplest way I can imagine creating an online "exhibit" quickly.

It's also been a fun team development experience for staff here. This picture was taken at the end of a building class in our virtual sandbox. We were building spheres, trying out the physics engine, when someone decided to sit on one of the spheres. Then everyone piled on, someone set it rolling, and... we had moved from building to experimenting to wacky fun. The Ontario Science Centre has a wonderful brainstorming system, the RIG (rapid idea generation) that relies on building real stuff from all kinds of junk very quickly. I hope we can soon be offering similar sessions in Second Life, where we are neither limited by a lack of stuff nor space nor ways to make things interact. Being in a virtual environment lowers some barriers to social, unorthodox interactions. Hopefully, by learning together in a playful way, we can all jump to new insights and become more brilliant, fulfilled, well-endowed designers.

I hope that you can have similar learning experiences that are directly relevant to your own professional interests and goals via this project. For creative folks still dreaming of a big break, here's a chance to shine. For old pros looking for new ways to design, here's a free platform to exploit for your own exhibits. For executives considering Second Life or distributed design strategies, please learn from and with us.

All of this is a work in progress. Part of the point of this project is that it's a community space--both on the web and in Second Life--and we hope most of the suggestions and improvements that take us to the next step will come with and from you.

So come on in! You can browse, create, and participate in projects on the website. If you don't have a full-fledged exhibit concept, you can browse and submit to the idea lab, a place for one-sentence flights of fancy that might someday become brilliant exhibits.

And the Second Life grid is down at this moment for maintenance, but starting at 2pm PST today you can join us in the virtual world. We are offering museum tours every day at 11am (today at 3pm), and build and script classes each day (starting Thursday) at noon. My name in SL is Avi Marquez. I'll see you at The Tech!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Why Your Museum Needs a Bar

Trivia Night @ P&H
Originally uploaded by Sean Davis
Yes, these people are filling out worksheets. At a bar. It's fun. Trust me.

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?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Children's Museums and Web 2.0

Last week, I received an inquiry from Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand, a magazine put out by the Association of Children's Museums, about Museum 2.0. Why, Mary asked, were there no posts about children's museums on this site? I did a quick mental scan, and she's right; with the exception of a few mentions of the Exploratorium and the City Museum (both of which are much more than children's museums), Museum 2.0 has focused on "interactive" and "collecting" museums, with much attention paid to the ways adults engage therein. So today, we start righting the wrongs and welcome the kids to the table.

Why aren't children's museums represented on Museum 2.0? One (positive) reason is that children's museums already do so much 2.0 stuff naturally. At children's museums, visitors ARE participants. It's hard to fool yourself into thinking you define the museum experience when your visitors are jumping on, chewing, and giggling at your content. Children don't have the same social hang-ups as adults and are likely to share their experience with strangers while in the museum. Visitors use the exhibits as owners and come back to reuse again and again. Finally, children's museums are the original home of user-generated content, from face-paintings to puppet shows to take-home projects.

But Mary is also interested (legitimately) in the media side. As she puts it:
With an audience of mostly young children and families in primarily non-collecting hands-on museums, most of them small, what are the best web strategies?
In her wanderings, some children's museum folks have objected to heavy investment in the web, citing both the power of the in-person visit (how could it possibly be extended?) and American Pediatric Association guidelines to push kids away from computer screens and out into the world. After all, we want kids to come to our museums specifically to have the multi-sensory experiences not available on the web. Why try to extend that to the web?

The answer is the same for children's museums as it is for any other museums: kids are on the web anyway, and we might as well use that fact as an opportunity to connect with them in their homes. When it comes to "extending the visitor experience," I think children's museums are ideally positioned for web activities. The tendency to visit as a family can extend the positive of the in-museum experience (quality time) to shared experiences at home. I know lots of parents who spend quality time with their kids surfing YouTube, giggling at the dancing cats. Why shouldn't a children's museum website be a place for fun, safe content that family members can explore together?

In particular, I think children's museums could benefit from some of the "record yourself" experiences that other museums, primarily interactive science centers, offer. For example, when you visit the Ontario Science Centre, you can record your own stop motion animation, which you can then access on the web at home. Similarly, here at The Tech, you can take thermocamera pictures of yourself, perform DNA experiments, and other activities--all of which populate a personal website for you to visit again from home. These personalized websites are not heavily trafficked; 10% viewership is considered pretty darn good. But in a children's museum context, I could see these websites getting much more use. Parents want cute pictures of their kids (and if you search "children's museum" on Flickr, you'll find over 20,000 images). Kids want recordings of themselves performing. Everyone wants these to be shown and shared in a safe environment. And since many children's museum visitors return again and again, the vision of these personal websites evolving into a more meaningful documentation of your experiences at the children's museum becomes viable.

Take it to the next level, and museums could network these personal sites to create an internal, safe visitor social space where kids could view each other's work. Teachers or grandparents could maintain bookmarks of their students or grandchildren's updates with each visit. It may not be safe or appropriate to broadcast all of this content out to third party sites, like YouTube or Facebook, but you could effectively imagine a museum creating their own micro-Facebook for visitors to the museum, with updates when new exhibits were used, new photos recorded, new stories written.

For the adult museum audience, creating a parallel Facebook or similar makes little sense. Why compete with a social network giant that can do everything bigger and better than you? But children's museums are another story. There is no safe, family-friendly social networking site for young children, teachers, and parents. Very few people have attempted to create web spaces that are easily navigable by children who don't read well. Children's museums could carve out a niche, and provide a real service, by creating these kinds of web platforms, which encourage use of the real museum and support discovery and exploration based on museum experiences.

Children's museums deal in experiences, not collections or text-oriented content. It's tricky and often expensive to create web-based museum-like experiences... How do you convey making giant bubbles on the web? How do you create a blog around the excitement of sitting on a giant concrete dinosaur? While there are certainly some neat web-based children's museum experiences out there (Pittsburgh's inspired
chicken-based navigation comes to mind), creating web "experiences" is often more expensive and complicated than creating a record of and sharing in-museum experiences.

Beyond recording, I'd suggest that children's museums start blogs geared towards different audiences--parents, teachers, kids--and use those to share museum-endorsed links, upcoming programs, and ask questions of the audience. Every kid likes to be polled, and plenty want to share their personal experiences--check out the Club Penguin blogs for confirmation of that. Another interesting site to check out is imbee, a new social networking site for kids ages 8-14.

But children's museums serve a younger set of kids, and they are in position to likewise serve their audience on the web in unique ways. Ultimately, the web experience should complement the museum experience, not offer a screen-based carbon copy. The starting question should be: how do we want to grow? Which growth areas could be best served by web media?

Social networks of personal webpages populated from museum experiences is one option. But there are others as well. Children's museum folks out there: what do you imagine your web presence could be? What are your challenges, and where do you want to grow?