Friday, March 28, 2008

Trust Me, Know Me, Love Me: Trust in the Participatory Age

Here's something to be proud of. Museums (and libraries) are trusted sources of information. In February 2001, AAM commissioned a study about the trustworthiness of museums and found that "Almost 9 out of 10 Americans (87%) find museums to be one of the most trustworthy or a trustworthy source of information among a wide range of choices. Books are a distant second at 61%, and a majority of Americans find print and broadcast media and the Internet to be not trustworthy." Last month, the IMLS published a report on a survey of 1,700 people, with similar findings about trustworthiness of museums and libraries, and some great added information about how use of the internet benefits both museums (with higher in-person visitation) and visitors (with more ways to find information of interest).

But here's the problem. I don't entirely trust these reports. They were both commissioned by organizations whose purpose is to support museums and libraries. Would you trust a survey report about consumer confidence in meat safety commissioned by the beef industry?

And here's the bigger problem. It's great that museums are a trusted source of information. But is that really our mission?
And more practically, is being a trusted source of information a key value proposition? People are not choosing museums over google when they need to find something out, regardless of how trustworthy we are. Trustworthiness is just one factor, alongside availability, quality, and others, that we take into account when we seek out information. And most contemporary museums are not only places for information-seeking. Do we want to be trusted for our ability to provide factual information or our ability to inspire and engage visitors?

Both? No. You can't be equally committed to both. There are trade-offs to each of these. Your friend who tells fascinating, colorful stories may not be the person you turn to for the straight dope. The Presidential candidate with the ironclad principles may not be the one with whom you want to have a beer. We trust different people and institutions in different ways--to be respectful, to keep our secrets, to give us love, to give us information.

And this is where museums' championed trustworthiness starts to hold us back. Being a trusted source of information can be a barrier that keeps us from sharing content with visitors that might be more contemporary, more ambiguous, more contentious--information that may not be trusted. It makes us uncomfortable with opening museum content up to comment, tagging, and alterations by visitors. In short, it limits museums from being places that are trusted as institutions of public engagement and interaction--the places many museums claim they want to be.

How can we transition from people trusting our information to trusting their ability to participate in museums and be respected, safe, and rewarded for doing so?

Museums aren't the only venues facing this question: news outlets, corporate brands, and educators are also grappling with the question of trust in the participatory age.
There are some simple things we can do to be more trustworthy on an engagement level, namely:

Be reachable.
One of the reasons that thousands of people trust Frank Warren (of Postsecret) with their secrets is the fact that he invites them to send postcards to him at home. Frank doesn't give people some office address behind a generic business name--you are writing to a real person at a real house. I'm not suggesting we publish our home addresses on museum websites. I AM suggesting that we publish complete staff directories with phone numbers and email addresses on websites. How many times have you visited a museum site in search of a phone number or email address and woken up two hours later dizzy from the painful and ultimately unsuccessful phone system nightmare? Yes, this means you will get more random solicitations from 5th graders writing book reports on your content. But it also means that when people feel a need to get in touch with you, they have a way to do so. It's just plain courteous, and if we trust our visitors the way we trust clients or friends, we should make this available.

Make content authorship transparent.
When I read the New York Times online, each article's author's name is hotlinked and there is an easy and direct way to contact him/her. Why don't we stand behind our words the way reporters do? When we allow visitors to add their own bits to exhibit labels or react on the web, we often ask them to add their name. Whether on blogs or talk-back walls, people are more conscious about their comments when they know their name will be associated with their work. But this goes both ways. We ask visitors to do us the courtesy of taking responsibility for their words, but we rarely identify ourselves. To paraphrase Elaine Gurian, exhibit messaging can be overt or covert--either way it's still there. I'd like to see exhibits and web content with authorship clearly assigned to a human being who I can contact, so I understand who is the source of the message.

Be honest about mistakes. You may remember the NPR stories in 2007 about changes in the way that doctors acknowledge mistakes and offer apologies. Formerly avoided as a fount for litigation, apologies have now been shown to lead to less litigation and more positive doctor-patient trust relationships. Fortunately, we're not in a life-or-death business, so we should feel even more assured that honesty, not marketing spin, might be the best policy for gaining trust. In the Web 2.0 world, this goes even further with sites launched in beta (before they are finished) and frequent blog updates from the designers about bugs they are fixing and customer complaints they are addressing. Community sites often maintain this back-channel discussion with users after launch, letting them know about scheduled outages and ways they are addressing community concerns (for example, the Second Life blog and community meetings). Of course, this can go too far--if you are always apologizing for mistakes, people might think you have a basic stability problem, which erodes another kind of trust--the kind museums already have locked up.

Find a way to vet non-traditional primary sources.
There are two reasons to pursue this: for better accuracy (trusted source of info) and for more diverse inclusion of voices (trusted source of varied social experience). On the accuracy front, sites like Wikipedia have developed methods of community authoring and editing that make them more voluminous AND more accurate than traditional encyclopedic sources. It gets trickier when you move from the encyclopedia to citizen journalism (check out this interesting article from the New Yorker about the rise of Huffington Post, an online hodge podge news source), but there are plenty of techniques, from staff editorial boards (OhMyNews) to popular voting (Digg) used to maintain a certain trusted level of content.

And then there's the value of primary voices for interestingness. Every fifth grader knows that a good report includes at least three primary sources, and yet museum text often reads in a generic wash of academic-speak with few quotations from the folks actually creating, using, or interacting with the objects on display. Citizen journalism, blogs, and talkback walls aren't just interesting because they offer more volume of content. They reflect individual voices and stories, and the more diverse voices are engaged, the more trustworthy a source is as a true "voice of the people."

Be personal. I'm reading a book of essays about how to teach written by teens. It's amazing how much emphasis the students put on reciprocity: you respect me, I'll respect you. It's very relational. They don't talk much about trusting their teacher's information; instead, they focus on teachers' willingness to engage and support them as learners. Many of the teens write, "learn with us. Then we will trust that you care about us learning too." These teens are asking a lot of their teachers emotionally. But gaining visitors' trust doesn't have to require spilling your guts. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium mounted an exhibition about population growth and its implications, they included staff comments on the talk-back wall--not as authorities, but as fellow humans struggling with the issues of overpopulation. These personal voices made the Aquarium staff more trustworthy as engaged participants themselves.

What can you do to gain visitors' trust?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Guest Blogger for Museums and the Web 2008?

Are you going to Museums and the Web in Montreal in April? You lucky person! I won't see you there. Fortunately/unfortunately, I'm speaking at both Creating Exhibitions the first weekend of April and AAM the last weekend of April, so I couldn't swing a third conference in the middle of the month.

But! I'm hoping that you're out there, you eloquent writer you, yearning to share your experiences from MW08 with the Museum 2.0 stratosphere (and me). I'll be doing an interview with the talented Jennifer Trant after the conference is over, but would also love to have you share some "on the ground" perspectives from or directly after the conference. You do not have to have any particular expertise beyond ability to write and interest in the content (and perhaps, a healthy skepticism to go with it)!

Please send me a note at if you are interested in this opportunity. And check out Jessica Harden's excellent report from AAM last year if you want some inspiration that yes, you can do this too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tattoo Parlors and Art Museums: Comparative Comfort

Which is more inclusive: the place where staff curse constantly or the place where they ignore you? Which has more social impact: the place frequented by educated art lovers or the one populated by blue collar joes? Which has more aesthetic value: the famous one-of-a-kind masterpieces or the images people love enough to put permanently on their bodies?

Over the last several weekends, my husband and I have been visiting a different kind of art institution: a tattoo parlor. For years, we'd discussed getting tattoos instead of rings to memorialize a marriage commitment, and last week, wedding over, design concept in hand, fears somewhat in check, we finally put ink to skin and made it official.

I had always thought about getting tattooed as an outcome-oriented event. I love having a permanent piece of symbolic art on my arm. I love carrying a social object with me that opens up casual conversation with strangers on the street. I've written before about the power of dogs as social objects to which we can deflect our attention--thereby making peer-to-peer interaction between strangers more socially comfortable. Tattoos are like dogs, but they don't need food or walks. People ask questions. People tell stories. It's like I've joined a club of disparate individuals who are bound together by art. I'd love to see a museum offer temporary tattoos instead of stickers at entry... but that's for another post.

The real surprise was in the tattooing experience itself--the pre-outcome affair. I expected it to be
both physically and culturally uncomfortable, something like going to a dentist in a Harley garage. I was wrong; while the experience had its negatives, it was one of the best content-related social experiences of my life in an art establishment like no other.

I spent about 5 hours in a busy tattoo studio (interesting how they are rebranding away from "parlor"), both times on Sundays, and my highly uninformed impression is that most of the people who walked in the door are not museum-goers. They are the kind of people we can't even get to the museum door, let alone through it. And yet here they were streaming into a place where they would spend hundreds of dollars on art, pore intently over books of images and talk earnestly with the artists about their vision. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable. The music was loud and angry. It was clean, well-lit, and comfortable... and there were needles, gloves, and lots of skin. People were spending time with art and in dialog with artists. They were telling offensive jokes and cursing. People were having complicated emotional experiences about loved ones they were memorializing and designs that came from deep intention. They were making haphazard selections of reductive, faddish icons. It was both high- and low-brow, but everyone was engaged and energized with both the art and each other.

In art museums, I try to force myself into the art in all kinds of ways--by imagining things from the artist's perspective, scouring the labels for clues, looking cross-eyed at the piece like one of those 3D optical illusions. With tattoos, getting into the art takes less effort. The story behind it is available, and in most cases, the canvas wants to tell its secrets.

And that, to me, is the basis for a great social art experience. After our time in the tattoo parlor, my husband and I debated the relative comfort and merits of tattoo parlor vs. art gallery/museum. He argued that the auto-erotic asphyxiation jokes were just as off-putting, if not more so, than guards who eye you warily or gallery staff who studiously ignore you. I'm not so sure. Maybe it's just the other side of the pendulum swing. If there were more museums where staff were loud, offensive, funny--in other words, free to act like real people--they might draw a different clientele. Not necessarily more inclusive but fundamentally different.

And thus this gets back to museum comfort in a more global sense. We often talk about opening our doors to more visitors, but the underlying caveat to that desire is a reluctance to change the core experience we're offering. We don't want to alienate our current visitors--no matter how few or homogeneous they are--to court future visitors who may never materialize. Any future group could be offensive to current visitors, whether it's little kids or burly tattooed guys, but some seem more threatening than others. Being in the tattoo parlor revealed how wide the gap is between the culture of what determines comfort in a museum and in this other thriving art environment. People who will confidently walk into a tattoo parlor may not confidently enter a museum, and vice versa. But if you can get over the threshold fear, check it out. It's worth the cultural trip.

The artist who did my tattoo has an MFA, but when I asked him about the art establishment / tattoo divide, he smiled and said, "overall, we're glad they're not interested." Well, I'm not. Tattoo parlors may not need museums. But we need them and their audiences if our interest in inclusivity, in engaging people with interest in art (or any content), is going to go more than skin deep.

And yes, my mother hates it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Observations from The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, Month 3

It's been awhile since I've shared the progress of The Tech Virtual, the web and Second Life-based virtual exhibit workshop that The Tech Museum of Innovation opened in December of 2007. (You can read other posts about this project by clicking Tech Virtual in the "Past Posts By Topic" sidebar on the right.)

The goals of The Tech Virtual are:
  • to create an online space for museum professionals and creative folks of all kinds to collaborate on exhibit development and design
  • to codevelop the best of these virtual designs as real exhibits at The Tech Museum (and to offer that opportunity to other museums as well)
Since opening in December, 166 members have initiated 70 exhibit projects on The Tech Virtual website, and about half of those projects have been built as 3D models within the virtual world of Second Life. More excitingly (to me), in the last month we have selected 6 virtual exhibits for codevelopment at The Tech as real exhibits, and we plan to put 8 "virtual to real" exhibits on the floor in June for an exhibition to coincide with the Zero1 festival. We got a lovely bit of press on the first four exhibit selections, and I'm thrilled by the diversity of participants and novel creations that have been submitted thus far. We'll be "closing shop" on the June exhibit submissions at the end of March, but we then plan to open up to the virtual community a much broader set of exhibition themes--both from The Tech and other museums--for experimentation and creative exhibit development.

In January, I wrote about the challenges and opportunities of using Second Life as a design space. This time, I want to talk about the codevelopment process--how we are taking these virtual exhibits and transforming them into floor-ready interactive experiences. Over th
e last month, my job has shifted from cultivating a creative community to serving as the liaison between that community and The Tech's exhibit engineers and fabricators. Functionally, I'm now project managing a very rapid exhibition production process... with a few significant differences.

First, there's the question of creative control. The exhibits that have been selected were created by members of our virtual community. Some of these people are professional artists or exhibit designers, but most are just talented folks with an interest in museums. They aren't commissioned to create exhibits; they're invited to take part in a contest. The winners do receive prizes from The Tech, but all of their work is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that any museum/institution/inspired person could take a virtual exhibit and run with it as long as they credit the original creator(s) by name.

All of this means that the codevelopment process by which the exhibits are translated from virtual to real is rather fluid and different for each exhibit. We told our community from the outset that the viability of exhibits in real life largely depends on Tech staff's confidence in our ability to design/build the exhibits based on pre-existing Tech expertise. Removing the burden of knowing "how" to make your exhibit in real life opens up involvement in the
virtual process, but it also means that for the most part the exhibit conceptualizers/creators have little say in the final real life result. We did have a community member who left the community in January because she felt that the real life version of her exhibit being discussed did not appropriately reflect her vision; since then, we've tried to set clearer expectations of how translation to real exhibits might happen for each exhibit and talk people through what changes might need to happen on an individual level. Frankly, most people are just excited to imagine their vision coming to life. It will be interesting to see if that "life" accomodates their vision when they come to the exhibition opening in June.

That relates to a more general question: How do virtual exhibits translate to real exhibits? Consider the Wikisonic, a beautiful collaborative instrument initiated by Jon Brouchoud, an architect from Wisconsin. In Second Life, this instrument is a cylinder of nearly invisible spheres floating in the air. People can touch individual spheres, each of which represents a musical note, to activate them, and the spheres create a song that evolves as spheres are activated and deactivated.

It's lovely. It's mu
ltiuser. It also ignores the laws of physics, and, more subjectively, is a little more precious than Tech visitors may appreciate. In this case, we discussed potential real world implementations on the project wiki for Wikisonic. Jon was able to express what was most important to him (the instrument being accessible to multiple people at once) and that has helped drive the real exhibit design, even as we have let go of other elements of the original virtual design. What in Second Life was a cylinder of floating spheres will be a wall of buttons in real life--retaining the spirit, if not the 3D shape, of Jon's virtual creation.

This is how exhibits often happen in museums--an exhibit developer comes up with a core idea, and then designers twist it into something usable. When the developer and designer are both on staff, the conversations and evolution of the exhibit can be fluid and shared, but as more of us work with contract design/build firms, more of us find ourselves in the same position as The Tech Virtual's community: forced to communicate virtually to ensure that the exhibit is being created as desired/intended. In the case of The Tech Virtual, the fact that The Tech Museum is the ultimate client lessens this tension, as we are both the designers and the client (working with external developers/conceptualizers).

Working with contractors or communities across the country--or world--isn't easy. Holding virtual meetings and prototyping things in Second Life can be a useful alternative to endless conference calls and drawings that mean different things to different people. But that's just a start. Going virtual means we've been able to include international participants, but the not-so-surprising reality is that we have the best working relationships with the exhibit winners who happen to be local (like Richard, shown here with our exhibits team, who conceptualized a panoramic photo exhibit). In those cases, we can bring the exhibit initiators to The Tech to sit down with our engineers and brainstorm real implementations that reflect the initiators' vision and museum needs. We can do face-to-face, which becomes pretty darn useful when you are drawing squiggly lines on whiteboards and jumping up and down to demonstrate how visitors will use an exhibit.

A necessary next step for this project is to evolve our exhibit production process so that we are more clearly and openly documenting our work so geography doesn't limit these virtual exhibit designers' ongoing participation in the process. Theoretically, participants anywhere in the world could come to meetings, transfer content and software to us, and really be a part of the real world creation of their exhibit. We've already seen the value (and created the infrastructure) to develop exhibit ideas in this open way. Now we've got to keep virtualizing so we can keep sharing throughout the whole, and do it without slowing up the other pieces of the exhibit creation process.

Ultimately this is about opening up the exhibition design process, and it's useful whether to improve communication with contractors, visitors, or other museum professionals. Many people complain that it's too much work, that it's bad marketing to air our missteps and debates, or that it will erode visitor confidence in our authority. As a member of this field, I am enlightened and improved every time a museum shares its processes. Yes, I can read reviews of "what we should have done" on ExhibitFiles, but the lessons learned during a project are always more concrete than those expressed after completion. It doesn't have to be a blow-by-blow on your poor decisions; I love seeing how giant paintings get moved into museums (SAAM), early concept drawings for new exhibits (COSI), even how floor staff and visitors perceive exhibits (Exploratorium). When we're honest (and positive) about our work, we look good, whether we're struggling to get a giant totem pole in the loading dock doors or debating what the best user interface for an exhibit will be.

We're already at the point where documenting projects after the fact, via conferences, papers, and sites like ExhibitFiles, is par for the professional development course. As new technologies and approaches lead us to be more open with visitors, we should also consider how these can help us be more open with each other as well. I used to think that only other museum professionals (or contractors) would be interested in watching video from exhibit meetings or checking out other institutions' shop drawings. Now, I'm working with an outside visitor community, and that emphasis on open participation highlights our own closed doors. They want in on the whole process. The Tech Virtual is breaking down a barn door in the exhibit conceptualization and development process. But there are more doors to unlock before we can truly call ourselves an open museum. It's as practical as it is philosophical. And I don't know about you, but I prefer open spaces.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quickie Links: Surveys, Transcripts, and a Strange Bedfellow

I was going to wrap a nice story and post around each of these but decided to just get the information out there.

First! Ideum, the company that brought you ExhibitFiles (with ASTC), is conducting a survey on museums' needs in support of an NSF grant proposal (Open Exhibits) to build open source templates for simple interactive exhibits (timelines, digital collections, news kiosks). What does that mean in simple terms? Ideum wants to make a tool so that you can create your own simple, attractive computer-based exhibits without multimedia staff or contractors. Given what a great job they did making ExhibitFiles easy to use, I expect that Open Exhibits will be truly accessible to non-code monkeys. Please help them help you and take the survey...

Relatedly, if you are super computer-savvy and impatient for a web version of this sort of thing, check out Omeka, a free open source platform for creating digital collections and exhibitions. Omeka is a project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and is primarily intended for use by institutions looking to create simple online exhibitions. It's technically over my head, but if you are someone for whom "plugin" isn't something you do with your toaster, it's worth checking out.

Also, Susan Spero has transcribed ALL of the scribbles we put on the wall at the Museums and Civic Discourse colloquium at JFKU on March 8. No, it ain't pretty, but this Herculean effort includes several gems, especially the references to particular projects (in and outside museums) worth pursuing. Check them out here.

Finally, a friend wrote today to congratulate me on my "new and extremely strange website." Sadly, I do not have a new and extremely strange website. But it turns out that someone else is doing something much more interactive with the Museum 2.0 name... have fun with it and don't get too anxious. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

826 Valencia: Education! Humor! Pirates!

In the museum world, we often talk about lowering barriers to entry, helping people get through the door. Those barriers are as psychological as they are physical--to enter the museum, visitors must overcome unclear directions, inflexible hours, uninviting design, inability or unwillingness to pay, and above all, fear or expectation that the museum will not offer them a great experience.

And so today we look at an educational facility (not a museum) that swabs the deck with these barriers. It makes them walk the plank. By doing so, it doesn't just widen the audience for a specific educational experience--it also offers a new model for how we might design and deliver interactive, varied content experiences.

826 Valencia is a tutoring center. Along with its six sister venues across the country, 826 provides students with one-on-one tutoring, workshops with professional authors and playwrights, field trips, outreach programs, and the opportunity to publish and perform their original work. Their website looks pretty standard with smiling kids, friendly tutors, and earnest mission statements, as reflected by this homepage banner:

But the visitor experience at 826 Valencia is anything but standard, and its clientele stretches way beyond those who will ever use or volunteer to offer tutoring services. Instead of classrooms or mission statements, first time visitors enter 826 Valencia through the storefront Pirate Supply Store. Part store, part theater, part interactive experience, the Pirate Supply Store sells nothing as powerfully as it sells a vibe, one that promotes zaniness, good humor, keen observation, and imaginative play. It's not a shlock gift shop. There are mysterious objects in drawers with evocative names like "illumination" (candles). There is a vat of lard you can put your hands into, alongside a sign with helpful suggestions for uses of lard. There is a trapdoor in the ceiling that staff can open to drop a mop head on unsuspecting browsers. There is a wonderful little "fish theater" in which about 5 people can crowd into a tiny dark space to watch fish swim in a tank. In about 300 square feet, the Pirate Supply Store offers both silly and sublime in spades. Their labels are so good that they have an online gallery of signs so people like me who took lousy cellphone photos in the store can peruse the signage in better resolution at home. Whoever heard of visitors loving labels enough to put them on the website? It was, in short, the best interactive exhibit I've experienced in a long time.

But that's not why I bring it up here. If it were just an amazing pirate store, 826 Valencia would be a nice design inspiration. But 826 Valencia is a writing center for kids (remember?). And that's where it gets really interesting. Why would a tutoring center have a pirate storefront?

Because it's in a commercially-zoned area.
This reason may sound like a technicality, but it has some interesting implications. If you want to offer an educational service in a high-traffic neighborhood, why not put it between the coffee shop and the bookstore? Why not theme the front to fit into the pattern of passers-by, so that they might see it as part of their shopping experience and pop in? No group of folks strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon is going to casually walk into a tutoring center. But they might walk into a pirate store. This is a great example of locating the service "where the people are" and designing the entrance to fit in with their patterns of use in that neighborhood.

Because it brings in new audiences and funders. Put it in their neighborhood, pattern it after its neighbors, and people will come. But what good is it for people who are not actually taking part in tutoring to come to a tutoring center? Isn't that distracting from their real work? No! Think of the variety of people drawn to the pirate store:
  • kids of all kinds who might be future clients of the tutoring center
  • families with parents who might never have known or considered the available services of a tutoring center
  • hipster adults without kids who may be potential volunteers for the center
  • tourists who may then seek out 826 venues in their own cities
  • would-be pirates who buy pirate swag that helps fund the tutoring center
So often we talk protectively about our core audience--people who are already using our services. But 826 Valencia appreciates that if you call yourself a tutoring center you will only attract people who are already using the center. A tutoring center is even more stereotyped than a museum in terms of the public's expectation about who it is "for." But 826 Valencia is for all kinds of people--especially those who have never felt that a tutoring center was "for" them before! And since "pirate store" doesn't come with a preconceived notion of an audience, it's for everyone. The traffic through the store isn't a diversion; it's an opportunity to sell people on their services. Some of their most promising students and energized volunteers may be folks who first walked in for an eye patch.

It's also a way to generate a bit of revenue. I spontaneously donated $20 because I was impressed by the experience I had and the professionalism of their tutoring services. I don't generally spontaneously walk into tutoring centers to donate money. I rarely do it while visiting museums, either, partially because the educational services museums offer (class programs, outreach, etc.) are not as clearly exhibited to me the visitor as they were at 826.

Because it gives their core audience something to share.
Imagine you're a kid. Asking a fellow teenager, "Want to see my tutoring center?" is probably one of the better ways to get beaten up. But I can easily imagine kids bringing each other to the pirate store with pride to show off the books for sale that they have contributed to and to generally share the zany wonderfulness of this place of which they are a part. Yes, this happens in museums--kids who have great experiences on class field trips bring family members back to tour the exhibits. But there are also plenty of museums with image problems, where even ardent members have a hard time convincing their friends and family to attend. Being a positive place for new audiences doesn't just encourage walk-ins; it also helps your core audience become a better marketing street team.

Because it reflects their values. 826 Valencia is a really fun tutoring center. But no matter how many smiling kids they show on their brochures or how goofy their copy is, they can't evoke the energy with which they carry out their mission as well as they can when they invoke fantastical characters like pirates. Ironically, the pirate store allows 826 Valencia to be MORE sincere and direct about their tutoring offerings, because the spirit of fun is conveyed through the pirate stuff and doesn't have to be woven into the workshop announcements and materials. Kids (and adults) know when we are applying a fake veneer of fun on exhibit or program text. The pirate store allows 826 Valencia to avoid that trap by being authentically serious about their programs and authentically silly about pirates.

So what's the downside? Doing this successfully requires the ability to delicately balance the attractor/value-imparting experience (pirates) with the core mission (tutoring). It might be tempting to let the pirates take over, or to discard them as a diversion. Ultimately, it's bigger than the pirates (but don't tell them that). The 826 project is a creative way to answer a universal question: How do we marry our mission with our values and our audience goals? In 826's case, the answer didn't lie in fancying up the mission; instead, they created a partner institution that helped express the elements of their work that are commonly misrepresented in the public eye.

What parts of your mission are not easily represented by your institution's content, design, or public perception? What experiences could you add to the "storefront" of your institution to address those challenges?

I leave you with these questions. Be forewarned; failure to respond in a timely fashion could result in scurvy

Friday, March 14, 2008

FInding the Right Questions (For Visitor Dialogue)

These days, it's fashionable to use label-writing to ask visitors questions. How will your actions affect global warming? When have you experienced racism? What do you think?

But asking a question, even providing a talk-back location for visitors to answer the question, does not guarantee an engaging social experience. In reality, most of our questions are too earnest, too leading, too obvious, to spark interest, let alone engagement. As one designer commented to me after last week's colloquium on museums and civic discourse, it feels fake, even condescending, like we're handing out little "talk back opportunities" just to give visitors something to do.

Have you ever had someone ask you a question and not care to hear the answer? I'm TERRIBLE about this. My husband will frequently call me on it. I'll ask him a question, and then literally walk out of the room. It's disrespectful. It's rude. And more than that, it begs the question: why did I ask him in the first place?

Why do we ask visitors questions in exhibitions? It shouldn't be a half-hearted gesture, questions tossed out without any listening to follow. Is it just an exercise in giving visitors a fake voice? I certainly hope not, and I believe that most of us genuinely want these questions to present an opportunity for real visitor expression. And so I am becoming increasingly obsessed with this question:

What are the right questions, and what are the right ways to ask them?

First, questions must be asked with a genuine interest in hearing the answer. This is really hard, and it's necessary, no matter the context. When it comes to an exhibition, this gets more challenging: if I'm sometimes disingenuous about hearing my loved ones' response to a question, how much harder is it to have true interest in the response of a random stranger? This is one of the things that makes the PostSecret project so successful--the fact that Frank Warren (and millions of others) REALLY care about random folks' answer to the question: what is a secret you have never told anyone? I don't think that Frank Warren has a lock on the question business. But he is just about the best question-asker I know in terms of expressing love and interest in all of his respondents.

Relatedly, we should ask q
uestions that induce grappling. Thank you to Saturday's participants for bringing this wonderful word back into my vocabulary. "Grappling questions" are not merely interesting or even provocative, but one where the adversaries exist as much in our own hearts as in the voices of those on the opposite side of the aisle. Of course, the danger here is that we shift to "stumpers" (like the question for which you want anyone's answer) which may dampen participation. I'd argue, however, that it's more important to ask a grappling question and use other vehicles to increase participation than to dumb down the question in hopes of getting more response to something "easier."

It may help us cut to the grappling if we ask
questions that are more human/personal than abstract/ideological. The program RadioLab does this so well, featuring two scientist hosts who frequently ask each other: do you really think that X does Y in your brain? and answer based on their personal feeling. It feels human to hear a scientist say, "do you really believe that?" It doesn't dumb down the science to switch from asking "how do you feel about genetically modified foods" to "what are your priorities when you are buying food?" It just requires different linkages.

Of course, the corollary to the personal is to try to ask
questions that are universal and do not leave anyone out because of cultural bias etc. Hard to do, important to consider. What are you assuming about your visitors, and what do your questions imply? A leading voice in declarative labels can hide. In questions, it comes out loud and clear.

The questions I've become most interested in recently are
speculative questions, like those posed by the alternate reality game World Without Oil, which presupposes an oil shock that leaves people seeking new energy options. Or, consider this clip in which Anna Quindlen asked pro-life folks: What should the punishment be for a woman who has an abortion (assuming abortion were illegal)? Speculative questions get us away from our hard and fast polemics and into an imaginative space where we can brainstorm with people who are different from us. I might never engage in useful discourse on the question of whether people should drive SUVs but I might have a great engagement with others on the question of how our lives would change if cars were not available. One of the things that excites me about gaming is the opportunity to engage in problem-solving in this way--to grapple with others on both personal and global levels in a safe imaginative space. In some ways, I wonder if this isn't the next age of imaginative play in museums--moving from letting people construct fantasies based on objects and interactions to those based on speculative questions. Finally, in a museum context, we need questions where the initial answer (and a composite gallery of such answers) provides a compelling enough single visit experience, and you don't need to be able to return again and again or stage real-time discourse at the point of the initial question to have a good experience. That way, the exhibit of questions and answers can serve as the starting point for discourse, rather than a dislocated moment in the life of a question.

What questions do you genuinely grapple with, lovingly want to know others' responses to, and speculatively want to pursue with others? A tall order, I know. But at least I really want to hear your response. All of you. I promise, I won't leave the room.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Your Favorite Books about Museums and Exhibit Design?

One of the surprise benefits of Saturday's Museums and Civic Discourse session was the chance to sit down with Mitch Allen of Left Coast Press (formerly AltaMira press), publisher of the Museums and Social Discourse journal among many, many other museum publications.

After a long day and a glass of wine, I asked Mitch who buys museum books. To his credit, Mitch didn't take offense. He told me that lots of museum practitioners buy these books--that the number of readers compared to the number of writers is high, and that there are many lonely museum folks out there with only books to guide their practice.

I was surprised to hear this. As an exhibit developer who didn't get a graduate degree in museum studies, I always assumed that when I first showed up on the job, someone would thrust a book into my hands and say, "this is the bible! you must read this!" And yet, while I've spent plenty of time thumbing the pages of the Exploratorium Cookbooks and the ADA handbook Everybody's Welcome, that was about the extent of my exhibit design education.

Many seasoned museum professionals bemoan the reinvention of the wheel when it comes to everything from design processes to talkback stations. And yet
it wasn't apparent to me--until quite recently--that there are tomes which serve as benchmarks for exhibit design, books that help us see where we've been and hint at where we can go.

Then I read Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum, which changed my thinking. I read Visitor Voices, which clarified some options. Seems like this museu
m reading thing is a good idea... a nice addition to the self-educator's library, whether your primary field is museums, interaction design, gaming, community engagement, or something else entirely.

So thanks to Marjorie Schwarzer of JFKU for sharing with me the following book list for my education. She suggested:
What books would you add to this list? Which are from the museum world, and which books inspire your design that have absolutely nothing to do with museums? The image produced at top relates to my favorite book on design, Understanding Comics, which is a rigorous, entertaining, and illustrative explanation of how comics "work." I find lots of useful suggestions and inspirations there related to how people "read" graphics and labels, how visitors port themselves into a narrative experience, how timing, character development, and tension can come in the simplest forms of lines and bubbles. (And, by the way, the image was created with the awesome and addicting application BitStrips... try it!)

Please add your book recommendations in the comments so we can start reading like crazy. If a few titles bubble to the top, we can do a book discussion on them in the near future. Happy reading!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Why Museums Should Become Sites for Civic Discourse

Thank you to Susan Spero and all the folks at JFKU and Left Coast Press for starting a highly stimulating conversation this weekend at the colloquium on Museums and Civic Discourse. It was a special day, not just because a group of 65 smart people buzzed energetically around an interesting topic, but because there were a series of insights and flashes that felt new. There were, as we say in the museum business, some good aha moments.

There were also plenty of unresolved questions. What role should museums play in promoting discourse? What services or opportunities should we offer to staff and to visitors to engage in civic grappling? How will it impact the other services and roles museums represent in contemporary society? Over the next several weeks, I will be dedicating posts to these questions, and most specifically, to some of the HOWs of making museums sites of civic discourse. But today, I want to talk about one of the other big questions raised on Saturday: Why?

As Kathy McLean observed, speakers presented several examples of places that are promoting civic discourse successfully--public radio, science cafes, Web 2.0. Why do museums need to get in on the act? Some argued that it's a question of survival--that museums will sink further in irrelevance if we don't take up the cause. Others reacted hotly: do we really need to get into public debate to survive?

I partly agree with the survival argument, but I also recognize that it is based on fear--an opposing but related fear to that held by those who reject civic discourse as too divergent from (and dangerous to) institutional missions. I think there's another, more positive, argument for why museums need to get in on the act: because our tools for civic discourse are inadequate and our opportunities and venues for it are often haphazard. As centers of informal learning, museums have an opportunity to be leaders in this arena and to provide a mainstream venue for visitors of all kinds to confront each other and themselves.

Because the reality is in that room of 65 people, only a handful had participated in one of the high-functioning models of civic discourse presented--calling in to a radio forum, bridging political differences through internet chat. But all of us have experienced more informal, less well-facilitated forms of discourse. Sue Allen spoke of an uncomfortable discussion in an airport with a man on the opposite side of the Iraqi war from her, a conversation in which she and the man careened towards and away from each other, conflicted yet drawn to the debate. I instantly thought of the argument two friends had at a picnic last month: she, a lawyer for a pharmaceutical, he, a friend who couldn't understand why she didn't have ethical issues with her work. It ended with both parties pissed off, no closer to understanding or respecting each other. Another woman at Saturday's colloquium spoke of a confusing experience at a museum program on global warming, saying without any trace of irony: "I came to listen to the facts that I believe in."

Yes, there may be sites for discourse in our lives, but they are not well-facilitated and are more often seen as undesirable disturbances--the kinds of incidences to lead us to look away from strangers on the street. We all have plenty of prejudices, but I was taken aback at the number of people at the session who said, in one way or another, "I don't want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs." I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; I've been there. I remember walking out of the Spy Museum during a workday to stand in the middle of the street facing thousands of pro-life marchers parading on the anniversary of Roe V. Wade. I would stand there, my face screwed into the hardest angles possible, and I wasn't looking for discourse. I couldn't even imagine discourse. I was a ball of confused, unfulfilled hate.

We live in an increasingly polarized society. We are encouraged to define ourselves by what we are and aren't for, and we're lousy at respecting people on the other side of the aisle. When I think of the times I have experienced civic discourse in a positive way, it was because of a personal relationship built through a common interest. For me, that's often sports. I pride myself on the friendships I have with Exxon Mobil engineers, evangelicals, people who I'd classify as OTHER if not for our common love of rock climbing and a desire to protect each other in challenging physical situations.

A lot of this has to do with creating more venues for people from different backgrounds to interact safely--and that's a place museums can start. But it also requires those venues to be places where people initiate and cultivate relationships with the strangers who are there, places where the prescribed interaction is civil and implies a fundamental respect for and interest in others. In the climbing gym, people naturally raise their arms to spot each other on tough moves and call out words of support without knowing each other's names. But the climbing gym is not in the business of encouraging discourse, so the gym facilitators don't take advantage of the common respect therein to take the social experience to the next civic level. Museums could be in that business. It's a unique value proposition for museums, one that might be useful at a time when our other value propositions are being challenged by a growing experience economy.

And this gets back to the survival argument. Yes, museums need to keep looking for new reasons and ways to be relevant, even, hopefully, essential, in our world. And to me, this is one of the most hopeful and interesting survival paths we can take--one that isn't about rivaling theme parks or movie theaters but opening up our ability to talk to one another. I'm increasingly interested in the museum as a place that becomes both more social and more personal. As Kris Morrisey (University of Washington) commented in the opening session, there has been a shift in museums, especially science museums, from focusing on "public understanding of" to "public engagement with" museum content. Perhaps it's time for us to go a step further, to become places for public engagement with each other.

More on what that could mean and how it can happen in the weeks ahead...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

MuseTech Central: A New Resource for Museum Technology Projects

Who's doing audio tours on iPods? Which museums have experience creating collection tagging systems? Who tried GPS Twitter craziness and failed? To find the answers to these questions, you used to have to send emails out into the void, hoping you might hit someone who can help you find your way. I know; I send and receive plenty such emails.

But fear no longer! The Museum Computer Network and Museum Software Foundation have teamed up to bring you MuseTech Central, a site where you can share your own technical projects and search through a growing resource list of others. They make it very simple to add your own project (takes about 5 minutes), and the best part is that each entry is linked to a person--a human being who you can contact to find out more about the project. I sat down with Susan Chun, cultural heritage consultant and member of the all-volunteer team who developed this resource, to learn more.

How did this project come into being?

It was a volunteer effort. We thought it would be a good idea, no one had all the resources to do it, but we figured we can all chip in and get stuff done. The Museum Computer Network (MCN) is hosting the site, but all the work was done by volunteers.

That's really impressive, especially considering that other similar projects like ExhibitFiles, which are not volunteer-based.

I think there's a real value to volunteer projects. We opened MuseTech Central, then got blogged by our friends at the Walker the next day. Nate (the blogger) asked for a bookmarking feature, and then I responded by asking him to contribute to the programming of the site. When the project is all-volunteer, you can reach back out to the community with requests for help. It helps sidestep any sense of entitlement of what MCN ought to do for people.

What are your goals for the site?

I hope the registry will help us understand the trends in technology use. The person who is most served by the registry is the one who is planning a project, considering a project, or seeking funding for a project. It's fairly shocking that we don’t have any resources that can do that in a comprehensive and ongoing way.

Also, as the site grows, the aggregated knowledge can help us share resources, reduce redundancy, and come together as a museum community. Finally, I see this as a way to connect museums to the growing community of people studying museology. We need to bridge the gap between academics and museum professionals by being more open with our processes, so that their research is informed by us, instead of living in its own realm.

How do you see it growing? One of the challenges I've perceived with ExhibitFiles is the overwhelming percentage of members who are lurkers, not contributors.

Yes, that's a huge issue. I see us as having an uphill battle to convince people that as part of their normal project management practice, they need to put things into the registry. Technology professionals don’t really understand that they need to contribute to the information economy. There are so many who have registered or browsed but have not contributed a record. I don't really understand what the value is of being a member of something like this and not contributing.

What are some of the changes you'd like to see that might help encourage contributions?

We’d like to beef up the person side of this. Adding a way for people to contact each other, to have discussion threads, is another wish list item. We also want to make it easier to enter a new project; I want it to be a 3 minute process.

I found it quite a quick process, and even though the project descriptions are short, having the contact person listed makes a huge difference. Do you see this evolving more into a social networking site, or a reference that people use as a resource when needed?

I see this as a reference tool in which the user and the contributor are identical as a community.
I'd like to see our field evolve such that as a matter of habit, we record our projects into this repository. I'd like to see simple projects, like updating the phone system, in there as well as the sexy ones. We update our records when the projects change. You’re a good citizen if you are contributing, and if not, you’re not.


I came out of this discussion thinking about Susan's comments about how museum professionals should treat references like this. As someone managing a technology project at a museum, my immediate impulse upon hearing about MuseTech Central was to go there and add my project--it's free advertising for what we're doing, and a great way to hook in with others who might be doing related projects or have questions about museums and virtual worlds. It's great to aggregate this kind of content in one place, so you don't have to scramble from the bowels of one museum website to another looking for information on that crazy membership database you heard about. But I can understand the basic issue: why spend extra time publishing your work on an external site?

The answer is the same as the answer to why people post videos to YouTube, write papers for conferences, heck, it's why I blog. You do it to be famous. To give back to the community. To learn more and be part of something.

How else can we incentivize good information economy citizenship? I think that game mechanics, like those employed by Ebay (your star changes color the more you buy and sell), Paperback Swap (for each book you offer, you get a credit for a book), or Nike+ (you can "race" people in remote locations) would help. But until MuseTech finds the right volunteer to implement them (you?), I'll offer up my own Nike+ style challenge:

Go check out MuseTech Central. But don't just look. Add something. It doesn't have to be fancy. Write about your ticketing system, your podcast, your interactive kiosk. Then, come back here and post a comment. I'll publish a full list of the new projects you add in a post next week.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Repeat After Me: Modeling Multiple Visitation

Why don't people come back to museums? We've all heard the excuses: "I've already seen it all," says the family that visited half the exhibits. "You don't change things often enough," says the person who conveniently deletes monthly emails with info on new exhibits and programs. Under all of these excuses is one not-so-informative reason: "I don't want to."

Why not? To grapple with this question, I started considering other content and venues in our lives that we do and do not choose to have repeat experiences with. Why do we go to the same restaurants again and again, but not the same movies? Why do we hit replay on the game console but don't flip back to reread the novel? What defines the experiences that we like to repeat?

Things I repeat: poems, games, recipes, restaurants, outdoor spaces, songs, some museums
Things I don't: novels, movies, plays, some museums

Many of the factors that we typically use to define quality museums--strong narrative, unique content, large variety--don't play a strong part in how I decide whether or not to repeat an experience. Consider, for example, narrative.
Except in cases where the content is deeply loved, most people don't repeat experiences with the same story. You pick up the novel, and even if you've forgotten the bulk of the tale, you realize you've read it before and put it down. Been there, done that. When I worked at the Spy Museum, many visitors expressed a lack of desire to return not because the experience was dissatisfying, but because they'd experienced the whole story. Repetition, they felt, wouldn't bring new insights.

Similarly, collections alone do not repeat visitors make. We already know that there is an identity problem in museums where visitors perceive that they have "seen it all" even when they have seen a small bit. What they really mean is that they've seen enough. Assuming that our content is good, and the exhibits well-designed, what factors could we consider that might motivate more visitors to want more?

REPEAT it if you love it. This is a cross-genre, cross-venue reality. Yes, I will reread Borges' Ficciones until the pages fall out, and my husband will watch The Lord of the Rings (extended version) almost as many times. We all have our pet movies, books, bars, beaches, and these predilections, while powerful, are so idiosyncratic that they aren't very useful unless you are a universally loved place. Lesson 1: Be adored? That's a tall order.

REPEAT if it provides a strong and desirable atmosphere. This is probably the most likely reason that you return to a venue or even a story you've seen before. If the feelings that the experience provokes are powerful, then the experience is worth repeating just to enjoy that sense again. This is the reason that people who sit through two screenings of the same movie often cite; the movie put them in an emotional state that was unique and desirable, and revisiting the feeling was worth retreading the narrative. This is why teenagers listen to the same song over and over, to tattoo the anger or love or whatever emotion the sound provokes into their ears. This is also (part) of what brings people back to the same bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. It's not just the guarantee of good content. It's the guarantee of a good time. Lesson 2: Be a nice place to hang out.

REPEAT if it puts you in the driver's seat. Narratives become infinitely repeatable when couched within games. The story of Mario saving the princess is neither a compelling nor atmosphere-inducing one. But we play the story again and again because we are in it, and we can change the outcome. This is another weird thing that separates songs from books; you can sing along with the song, which makes it enjoyably repeatable. You can grow by learning the words, singing it better. Whether improving your Tetris score, fine-tuning a recipe, or rocking out, you are the master and pupil of the experience. Lesson 3: Make room for people to grow within the experience.

REPEAT if it's dynamic and about you.
This may seem identical to the above concept, but this is a more passive expression of narcissism. We repeat activities that give us more information about ourselves, or that change in relation to us (without us taking active roles as players or drivers). I was recently asked what websites I frequent most often. I was embarrassed to realize how high Facebook has climbed on that list in recent months. Why do I revisit Facebook? Because it is a website that is constantly being updated with new content just for me. Really just for me, about me and my friends. It doesn't send me generic emails about new features; it sends me emails about my friends' weddings and campaigns. This is what so many Web 2.0 sites do so well, and it's the reason Seb Chan calls Facebook "crackbook." And while we can't do this with everything in museums, there are certainly ways to personalize the membership newsletter and the email blasts (topics for other posts). Lesson 4: Make content changes personally relevant to the visitor.

REPEAT if it's bite-sized. Can't eat just one? I love to reread poems. Some people watch the same YouTube videos again and again. This may have to do with attention spans, or it may be related to the above lesson about user control. When the experience is both good and small, you can own it, and the idea of repeating it seems less daunting than, say, rereading War and Peace. This is another thing that brings people back to Facebook, where you get incremental news tidbits about your friends and associates. They don't bombard you with "everything you ever could imagine about everyone you know." Instead, the messages dribble out like little offerings, reeling you in and conditioning you to check back, stay tuned. Lesson 5: Portion the experience so that visitors can grasp individual elements and revisit them.

REPEAT if it's rewarded.
A "buy ten get one free" card is a simple thing, something that coffee shops and burrito guys have going but few museums offer. When you let the visitor know on the first visit that there is a potential reward to be had after several visits, you prime the irrational part of the visitor's brain that thinks, "aha! This is a potential Good Deal." Some stores even go further and post a wall of fame for regulars and their punch cards. Lesson 6: Let visitors know you appreciate their repeat business.

Put all of these together, and you get some of the most addicting experiences in our culture. Casual flash games. Pop songs. Twitter. Cupcakes. And ultimately, repeatability comes down to a kind of addiction. You HAVE to make the giant bubble, see your favorite painting, or hear that same old song. We need visitors to need us a bit more, and then, once again, they'll come around.