MuseumNext had four main sections:
- Interactive activities, including an opening workshop with a group of designers associated with an extremely wonderful exhibition called Doing it for the Kids featuring sustainable toy designs. Participants sewed sock aliens, injection-molded army men, constructed robots, and drew animals. We also ended the entire event with one of my favorite exercises, the Exquisite Corpse game, in which participants co-created comics of their craziest museum dreams.
- "Wild idea" sessions, featuring six dream projects, some already in motion, others firmly ensconsed in their creators' heads. Folks from the Utah Museum of Natural History, Worcester City Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Centre for Life, Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Knowledge Media Research Center (Germany) brought projects they wanted to make happen, and each worked with a group of about 10 other participants for about four hours over the course of the two days to work out plans and ideas to move the projects along. The projects ranged from activating a dead collection to developing a mystery game around a strange artifact to developing a hackerspace to planning for massive changes to institutions new and old. Click any link above to see the video from the initial pitch and final report from each group.
- Unconference sessions, featuring topics as diverse as "playing an ARG" (with real labyrinth adventures), "engaging visitors who were dragged to the museum," and "measuring and defining success in participatory projects." We only did two rounds of these, but they were very active and I think a lot of people were surprised to find them so useful even though they were organized on the spot.
- Facilitator bits. I gave an hour-long talk about participatory design practices (video here), and Jim gave a small tour of an exhibition he had organized nearby. We also had quite an extensive reporting-out session at the end with the Wild Idea session leaders sharing what they had learned and where they would go next. I was thrilled to frequently hear, "I started out thinking X, but my group convinced me Y."
That said, the phrase "structured opportunity" is where MuseumNext suffered most. While Jim and I explained clearly to Wild Idea proposers what they needed to do to submit their project for consideration before MuseumNext, we didn't give them enough support in actually facilitating their group brainstorming at the event. The groupwork was not easy; few participants knew each other or the institutions in question before showing up the first night. I realized too late that brainstorming with strangers is something I'm used to, but it's not inherent in the job descriptions of most museum collections managers, educators, and researchers who were leading the groups. Everyone worked hard and did do a fabulous job, but we had the typical problems with unbalanced participation, people getting confused or frustrated, and overall project time management.
And so I would like to offer a public apology for this, and to share with you some of the lessons of facilitating brainstorming that I have learned over many years of successful and not so successful workshops. I tried to help workshop leaders work some of these in on the fly, but that put unreasonable stress on them. I'm sorry. You did great.
To remedy this error, here are four things I've learned about facilitating brainstorming sessions. They sound obvious, but several took me years to figure out.
- Vary the activities. I like to incorporate talking, writing, and doing/making into workshops. This both breaks up the time and supports participants who feel most comfortable expressing themselves in different ways. By varying activities, you can involve everyone without putting quieter participants on the spot--instead, you find the activity where they shine. This started for me when I worked with a group that included some very vocal and very quiet folks - we used worksheets to balance out the skills and avoid always favoring the big talkers. And I'm a really active person, itchy if sitting too long, so I like to add in some physical exercises to get people moving (and, where reasonable, engaging with visitors). If you need a source for good activities, there's a world of training methodologies on the web.
- Give a schedule and list of target goals, even if you don't entirely stick to it. People like to feel that they are making progress, and if you can "check things off the list" as a group, it helps everyone stay focused and motivated.
- If you are working for several hours, slot it over two days. In my experience, one-day brainstorming sessions for new projects leave some people a bit uneasy because it moves so quickly. They feel like things are getting "decided" before they can really think things through. Sleeping on it often brings people back on day two focused, confident, and ready to work. At MuseumNext, we used this model, and while many people left on the first night in some form of despair, they were amazed at how everything came together on day two. I've seen this bear out in many kick-off meetings for projects, and that's why if you call me about a one-day workshop, I'll probably ask for two.
- Always start and end with something creative. This may reflect my bias towards doing, but I find that if you get people doing something a bit silly, they get out of normal patterns and hangups and are more willing to think broadly. Also, how people feel at the beginning and end of a workshop significantly impacts how they feel about the overall event. At MuseumNext, these creative bits were the design workshop and the Exquisite Corpse activity, but I've done everything from social games to zombie yoga (seriously).