Tuesday, May 05, 2009

AAM Recap: Slides, Observations, and Object Fetishism

I just returned from the American Association of Museums (AAM) annual meeting in Philadelphia. I led two sessions, one on visitor co-created museum experiences, and the other on design inspirations from outside museums. This post recaps these sessions and offers my own struggles and thrills of the conference.

Visitor Co-Created Museum Experiences

This session was a dream for me, one that brought together instigators of three participatory exhibit projects: MN150 (Kate Roberts), Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition (Shelley Bernstein), the Tech Virtual Test Zone (me), along with a new participatory research project, Children of the Lodz Ghetto (David Klevan), to talk about our lessons and struggles working with the public to create "museum-quality" exhibitions and research projects. We started with a brief presentation of the basics of each project, and then spent about an hour responding to questions from the audience, using illustrative images and documents to support the discussion.

Some of the key lessons we discussed were:
  • providing crystal-clear criteria and constraints to help participants focus their work. This spanned all the projects. The more you give people clear information about what is needed and positive response when they provide it, the happier and more creative everyone feels.
  • being as transparent as possible about the selection and production process. This was particularly true for Click!, which followed a very strict formula that frustrated some participants who wanted to be treated like artists, not contributors to a data experiment.
  • learning to enter open, personal relationships with participants. This has both positive and negative outcomes. In both MN150 and Tech Virtual, it led to us being more dynamic and flexible in our production of exhibits. But in the case of Tech Virtual, it also caused conflict as I tried to balance being a friendly, caring community manager with being the "boss" of the participatory process.
Some of the most interesting questions included:
  • how do you verify the accuracy and authenticity of visitor-contributed content? This was particularly directed at MN150, which featured visitor-nominated milestones of Minnesota history, and Children of the Lodz Ghetto, which invites users to conduct original research on the path taken by thousands of children during the Holocaust. In the case of MN150, staff historians worked actively to verify and connect with contributors on any contentious topics. In Children of the Lodz Ghetto, every data entry is verified by staff in a three-step process as well as reviewed and commented on by other users. About 2/3 of user-submitted data entries are found to be inaccurate, which is either a good number (these users are amateurs) or lousy (the verification is incredibly time-consuming).
  • what is the value of the exhibition experience to non-participants, that is, regular museum visitors? This is a question I'm really interested in. It's a shame that several of these projects are labeled as "experimental" and don't have formal evaluation built into their cheap, fast processes. Neither Click! nor Tech Virtual had formal evaluation, although both received media attention that elevated the "value" of the exhibitions in the context of their institutions. MN150 will have formal summative evaulation, which is wonderful. If participatory exhibit design is going to progress as a design methodology, it has to produce outputs that are demonstrably equivalent to or better than exhibits created by traditional methods.
  • how do you set clear criteria for participation when the project is experimental and ever-changing? This is a question we grappled with in the Tech Virtual project. In that case, my personal interaction with the users allowed me to honestly and openly share the changes that were affecting all of us. I became "one of them"--pushed around by forces beyond my control. But the overall experience for everyone of uncertainty was challenging to manage. This is where you get into the arena of true co-design, where institutional and non-institutional partners truly work together to formulate the path forward. So far, most participatory museum design projects are heavily guided by the institution. It's easier for us from a control standpoint and easier for users from a clarity standpoint. But the jury is still out as to whether it's "best" to give users more control as co-designers or embed them into a pre-defined contributory platform. More on that in months to come.
Eye on Design: Design Inspiration from Outside the Field

This session is more like a show--ten designers, each with five minutes to share a design inspiration that they neither worked on nor saw in a museum. You can view and download all the slides here. I spoke about my recent obsession with book drops and how libraries are turning their most mundane transactions into the basis for beautiful, useful, sexy interactions with users. My favorite surprising lessons from this session:
  • graffiti projects have become participatory and cross-media. Dottie Miles presented projects like You Are Beautiful and the Bubble Project, which invite people all over the world to embed and document creative works in public space. Their use of the web to connect independent artists all over the world was striking and very surprising. I guess the web has become part of the street too.
  • there's huge untapped potential in irreverence. We already know that museums are afraid to be funny. Anna Slafer shared a simple and brilliant concept for creating "invitations" to visit various artifacts in the permanent collection based on clever, snarky humor. It's somewhat amazing that in the age of someecards and Shrek, museums still haven't been able to comfortably embrace irreverence.
  • you can do a lot with a storefront. Adam Lerner shared the story of Superheroes, a storefront in downtown Denver operated by a web designer who wanted to invite people to use his space to hang out, read magazines, and make things via letterpress. In this age of cheap real estate, it's interesting to imagine what a museum could do with a short-term rental of a public storefront focused on creative weird social experiences.
  • we can always use more poetry and inspiration in our work. Aaron Goldblatt offered a beautiful, poetic treatise on how play, learning, and design are intertwined. Listening to him, I considered how much performance is part of what we do as museum people. At professional conferences, we tend to spend most of our time analyzing. It was great to spend five minutes listening to someone perform and being touched by it.
  • conference audiences are ready to work (and play). At the end of the session, we gave people a few minutes to turn to each other and share a design inspiration from outside museums. The room was suddenly and incredibly buzzing with hundreds of voices, hundreds of people giving each other ideas. We need more conference session formats that emphasize interpersonal exchange. From the stage, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing people actually DO something with what you offer.
But the conference wasn't just about my sessions...

Here are some of the other things that stood out for me this year. First of all, this renegade act of delightfulness. But more substantively:
  • there was less focus on web 2.0 technology and more focus on engaging with communities. I was thrilled by all of the sessions on community partnerships, engaging visitors as active participants, and considering online experiences in the context of new relationships. I was particularly thrilled by danah boyd's excellent talk about the politics of how teens use social media and how the social web reinforces societal inequity and self-segregation. She made the clear point that teens use social networks to connect with people they already know, not to meet strangers. So how can museums create social structures embedded with values that support bridging experiences across social groups? How can we help break down some of that inequity with the "safe spaces" we've already created?
  • Sherry Turkle made me squirm. Sherry Turkle is a psychologist who focuses on evocative objects, that is, things that induce both cognitive and emotional reactions that are deep a complex. One the one hand, I loved her arguments for visitors to make personal memoirs of how they connect to objects and for museums to expose more transparently the deep emotional connections that curators and collectors have with artifacts. But I was also struck by the incredibly conservative object fetishism that underlined her approach. Only a small population of people walk into a museum and "feel" the power of the objects without assistance. I felt frustrated that she was advocating from a position of privileged object worship and that she didn't seem interested in the rest of us, the people who need help making dumb objects sing. I bought her book, Evocative Objects, and we're likely to have a Museum 2.0 book club around it later this spring to tease out this problem further.
  • some museums are experimenting with interesting participatory learning programs in the name of research. I loved the session presented by Josh Gutwill (Exploratorium), Julie Charles (SFMOMA), and Tsivia Cohen (Chicago Children's Museum) on research-based mediation techniques. This session was a direct challenge to the blog post I wrote last week about designing questions for visitor participation, in which I stated that above all, you must offer questions for which you actually care about the answer. In the cases of these research programs, visitors were presented with "games" that involved them asking questions to each other in a highly decontextualized way. For example, at the Exploratorium, participants in the GIVE program learn how to ask "juicy questions" about scientific phenomena and then use the interactive exhibits to make observations that help them answer the questions. Participants have been shown to learn scientific concepts this way, and they self-report that they like playing the game, but it has not yet been tested on the floor outside a controlled research environment. While the institutions validate visitors questions and contributions (for example, in the experience of the VTS approach to art interpretation), the games and visitor responses are meaningless in the broader scheme of things. They are meant to teach ways of learning and processing information, not to solicit specific content. I'm really curious about user motivations behind these kinds of interactions and look forward to exploring this topic further.
  • the September 11th Memorial and Museum is a very tricky beast. I was invited to a lunch at which the staff showed some of their collection and described the challenges they are facing developing this content for what is anticipated to be a large, diverse audience (the museum will open on the WTC site in 2011). How do you tell the story of an event via individuals' objects without reducing the individuals to props? How do you interpret individuals' extreme loss in the context of a larger event? How do you prevent visitors from feeling blind rage at the perpetrators? How do you tell an unfinished story of the aftermath? How do you connect visitors to each other positively through the experience instead of leaving them feeling disconnected and in grief? We had a room full of people grappling together on these problems and I felt both the best of our field--using what we've learned, working together--and the most challenging--all the questions for which we still don't have a good answer.
And hopefully, that's why we get together every year at all of these conferences. To work together, learn something new, and shake our fist at the questions that keep us going.

What do you get out of professional conferences or AAM in particular?

2 comments, add yours!:

Valerie said...

I also found that some of my more memorable take-aways from this year's AAM sessions came from spurts of surprise elements, like in Eye On Design II (as you mentioned in your post, giving participants an opportunity to share ideas with one another) and also in Identity Related Visit Motivations with Jim Covel of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA, shaking things up and having session participants participate in the session experience (role-playing as museum visitors). I find that just as we seek creative opportunities to engage audiences, we too are an audience seeking active and creative engagement in professional development opportunities.

Another example that comes to mind: last month I attended the Upstate History Alliance Conference with Elizabeth Lynn, founder of the Project on Civil Reflection, who included an engaging activity (reading a poem, discussing the material with colleagues and sharing aloud) as part of her keynote.

I look forward to continuing this conversation of how we can creatively engage our peers and colleagues in conference and other professional development opportunities.

tatiana said...

Ah AAM, such good times. It was a great experience for me and your session on Visitor Co-Created Museum Experiences was a huge part of that. I was the young woman in brightly colored tights who later assaulted you as you were going to lunch to let you know that it was my favorite session so far.

In any case, since then, I've been thinking a lot about visitor involvement in the creative process and the use of Web 2.0 to connect to audiences. I spoke with CFM on the topic and wrote about it on my own museum blog- http://museyum.blogspot.com

For me, attending AAM has given me food for thought long past the four fun days in Philly.