Monday, August 31, 2009

Thriving in the Knowledge Age: Interview with John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, Part 1

In 2006, John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, seasoned museum researchers and practitioners, released a co-authored book entitled Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. This remarkable book mixes business theory, visitor identity research, historical information about the evolution of museums, and predictive recommendations for museums moving forward. While at times wonkish, the book is also energetically adamant that museums need to change in several significant ways to be valuable and relevant to their audiences.

I've split my interview with John and Beverly into two parts for comfortable reading. This first part focuses fairly generally on the question of how to determine museums' value and developing institutional business models. The second part will delve more deeply into two topics: membership and admission pricing. I encourage you to share your own questions and thoughts in the comments, and of course, to read this excellent and challenging book.

This is a pretty powerful and provocative book—you talk about rethinking the whole business of museums. You argue that museums need to abandon the blockbuster and move towards providing personalized, customized learning experiences. In the three years since the book was published, what direction have you seen museums take and why?

Beverly: It’s really a mixed bag. I think to me one of the things that continues to be the most frustrating is the fact that admissions numbers continue to be the core metric of success. But on the other hand, I’ve heard people say, “well it shouldn’t be.” There’s a sense of frustration and awareness that there should be something else but people are having great difficulty sorting out what that should be. It’s indicative of the ways the museum world to me is a very conservative world. Even when there’s desire for change, it’s very difficult to shift practices across the board.

John: There has been receptivity to many of the ideas that we talk about in the book, but that receptivity far exceeds any change. So museum professionals are happy to say “we need to do things differently, and we know there are problems with numbers, blockbusters, etc” but the rhetoric exceeds the reality at this point. But it must be acknowledged that a leap into an unknown future is daunting and nobody knows exactly what that future should look like.

Beverly: And it’s not just the museums that need to make the shift. It is the whole system. When you go to your county for support or fill out a grant application, the question of numbers and things you do is part of their expectations as well.

Late in the book, you introduce Crawford and Mathew’s value matrix of five essential consumer values: access, experience, price, service, and product. You note that their research showed that the most successful businesses seek to dominate in only one area, be distinguished in another, and acceptable in the final three. Museums are very used to trying to be all things to all people. How do you recommend institutions prioritize their focus?

John: I was quite taken by Crawford and Mathew’s notion that to try to be excellent at everything is a recipe for bankruptcy. It rung true, and in some ways, I think the same shoe fits for nonprofits as well. It’s not about saying we’re going to be bad at something or exclude some people. It’s about being honest about what an institution can do that will help make them truly be unique in their community – their specific community. The Smithsonian and a small history museum have very different communities and thus should have very different expectations of what makes them unique. Find the thing that you can uniquely provide to your community and focus on that. Prioritizing does not imply exclusion, but it does acknowledge that you can’t serve all people equally well.

Beverly: I know in a consulting role, everyone says that their audience is “everyone.” It’s nice, but it isn’t true or useful. Finding your niche should be exciting. For example, I talked today to someone from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Juana Guzman, and they have fabulous ideas about connecting to community, saying we must connect in really integral ways with those people whom we serve. Guzman said, “we can talk about the appreciation of art and the aesthetic experience, but we don’t talk about every art form that we could fit in here. We talk about a cultural aesthetic.” It’s about understanding who you are and where your strengths are.

And then a lot of conversations I’ve had have come back to the concept of service. While it's one of the five consumer values Crawford and Mathews identified, it's an essential one for all museums. If you have excellent service, you should pick one other value to focus on as well.

Customer service is a fairly new term to the museum field, and I meet many museum professionals who are somewhat uncomfortable or leery of business terms of this type. Thriving in the Knowledge Age is very much a business book. How can we help museum professionals feel comfortable focusing on the bottom line while also keeping close to institutional missions?

Beverly: I’m somewhat astounded that there is something unsavory in the museum field about business terms. When it comes down to it, museums are businesses. They provide services. They sell things. It may be an implicit business model, but it’s a business model. The important thing is to focus that business model on the things that make the visit valuable to individuals and families. When you do this, it becomes obvious that customer service is about supporting the quality of experience. Aspects like orientation and how you are greeted help put visitors' anxieties aside and allow people to enjoy the experience. If you don't believe me, you should read the book The Museum Experience. Your customers do not differentiate between the cleanliness of the bathroom and the museum experience. It’s the whole deal.

John: The real currency in the 21st century is not about money – it’s about time. The competition is over peoples’ time, need and value of identity. That’s the business that museums are competing in. To pretend we’re not in competition for people’s time and their desire for a heightened experience doesn’t make sense: we’re absolutely competing in the truest business sense of the word “competition” for these values.

Beverly: But I would also put that uneasiness about “business” in the same category we used to think about “marketing.” Over time, museums have grown comfortable with the idea that marketing is a reasonable set of communication functions which let people know what’s going on, how to find and participate in things, how to know they are welcome.

It seems like collections-oriented art and history museums potentially have the hardest time picking a particular community to serve because they serve two—the donors who support them financially and the visitors who walk through the door. This seems like two very different customer bases, and I wonder if it leads to a kind of schizophrenia for institutions trying to serve both.

John: You’re right; art museums and collections institutions that have historically derived most of their funding through donors have been schizophrenic because the donors are their main customer. But then the question becomes, what about the public? Are we here to serve the public or to serve these donors? Are the donors here to serve the public? And that conflict needs to be wrestled with at the highest level; in other words with the board of directors.

Beverly: Many donors to museums also fund social service initiatives, but in those cases, the funders are explicitly supporting the public mission. This goes back to the problem of museums poorly defining their role. If museums are clear about what it is that they do relative to the public, they can find funders who support those goals.

I look forward to seeing your comments, and John and Beverly will check in as time permits to join the conversation as well. (But bear in mind I'm on vacation and won't be able to respond until the weekend.) Tune in on Thursday for the second part of this interview, when we will dive more specifically into John and Beverly's recommendations for new pricing and membership models for 21st century institutions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Designing Talkback Platforms for Different Dialogic Goals

"Where were you last night?"

If someone asked you that question, how would you answer? Answers will differ depending on who's asking, but they are also influenced by the designed environment in which questions are asked. People answer questions differently in harshly lit interrogation rooms than they do in welcoming therapists' offices or in the privacy of their own computer terminals. We have different conversations on the phone than we do in person or in internet chat rooms. The outcome of our conversations is dependent on the diversity of designed environments in which they occur.

If you want to design opportunities for visitors or users to respond to questions or engage in conversation, you need to think not only about what you want to ask visitors but how you will design conditions that are conducive to the types of answers that interest you. I'm not talking about guiding content; I'm talking about guiding form. If someone asks you a question on Twitter, you can only respond with 140 characters. We don't have the same limitations when designing talkback stations and other physical platforms for conversation, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't intentionally design the conversational tools offered. Many institutions do this unintentionally--by providing post-its or comment books, pens or crayons. Each design choice impacts the amount of thought and efforts visitors will put into their responses and the extent to which they will stay on-topic or proactively build on other visitors' arguments.

Here are a few design rules I use to think about what kinds of designed dialogue environments are right for different experience goals. I encourage you to share your own rules and thoughts on this in the comments.

If your goal is to encourage visitors to perceive themselves as partners in the content co-creation experience, make room for their thoughts sooner rather than later.

You don't need an entire gallery to frame a social question, but you do need to think about how the question or questions will be designed into the experience for maximum impact. The most common placement for questions is at the end of content labels and the end of exhibitions, but this location is by no means the most effective. Positioning questions at the end of labels accentuates the perception that they are rhetorical, or worse, afterthoughts. Similarly, making the only space for dialogue at the end of an exhibition ignores the thoughts that visitors brought with them into the experience or had along the way. If you are hoping for visitors to discuss their responses to questions with each other, or to share their answers with the institution, you can't end with the question; you need to provide several opportunities for questions and responses.

If your goal is to encourage visitors to share complex, personal responses to questions, consider offering private booths and progressive questions for visitor responses.

This technique was used in the Slavery in New York exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and continues in the popular StoryCorps project. When you want visitors to spend a long time reflecting and sharing their thoughts, you need to design spaces for response that are comfortable and minimize distractions. In the case of Slavery in New York, the end of the exhibition featured a story-capture station at which visitors could record video responses to a series of four questions about their reactions to the exhibition. The story capture experience averaged ten minutes, with visitors being given four minutes to respond to each personal, relatively imprecise question about how the exhibition affected the them. Richard Rabinowitz, curator of exhibition, noted that the progressive nature of the questions yielded increasingly complex responses, and that "it was typically in response to the third or fourth question that visitors, now warmed up, typically began relating the exhibition to their previous knowledge and experience." A lone "What do you think?" question station is not necessarily enough to elicit the rich personal reactions visitors might have to exhibitions. Rabinowitz commented that "as a 40-year veteran of history museum interpretation, I can say that I never learned so much from and about visitors." It was the lengthy progressive response process that turned what is often a series of brief and banal comments into a rich archive of visitor experience.

If you feel that your audience needs monitoring or social support, position the talkback stations in open settings.

This is the opposite situation of the previous design goal, one typical in science and children's museums. Placing feedback stations in the open lowers the probability of socially inappropriate behavior, and it also allows parents and teachers to help struggling visitors answer the questions at hand. There was a wonderful example at the Ontario Science Center in their Hot Zone area, which features several voting and commenting kiosks popular with teens. There was one kiosk in particular that was drawing several inappropriate comments, until it was moved from a corner into an open space close to the entrance to the women's bathroom. In its new location, under the watchful eyes of moms and other visitors, the inappropriate behavior diminished.

If your goal is to motivate dialogue between visitors and objects, questions and answer stations should be as proximate to the objects of interest as possible.

Visitors can speak more comfortably and richly about objects that they are looking at than objects they saw 30 minutes earlier in the exhibition. In many cases, visitors encounter talkback opportunities so infrequently throughout a visit that they seize on those opportunities to share many off-topic thoughts about their overall experience. This can frustrate museum staff, who wonder why the visitors are straying so far from the question posed. The more frequent explicit talkback opportunities are, and the more tightly and consistently connected to specific exhibits, the more visitors will focus on the experience at hand.

If you want to invite a wide range of visitors to respond to questions, it is best to design them into a context where visitor responses are of comparable aesthetics to the "official" museum content in the exhibition.

If a label is printed beautifully on plexiglass and visitors are expected to write responses in crayon on post-its, visitors may feel that their contributions are not valued or respected, and may respond accordingly. One of the things that makes the visitor stories contributed in the Denver Art Museum's Side Trip exhibition so compelling and on-topic is a design approach that elevates visitors' responses to comparable footing with the predesigned content. The vast majority of the signage in Side Trip was handwritten in pen on ripped cardboard, which meant that visitors' contributions (pen on paper) looked consistent in the context of the exhibition. The image at the top of this post is from one of their simple visitor feedback interactives which was built into a familiar, casual rolodex. By simplifying and personalizing the design technique used for the institutional voice, visitors felt like they were part of a natural conversation with the institution.

If you want visitors to answer questions collaboratively, whether in real-time or in a distributed manner, make sure your question and answer structure clearly supports visitors building on each other's ideas.

Unfortunately, most talk back walls don't support the grouping of visitor contributions or attempt to encourage conversational threads to develop. The Signtific game does this virtually by encouraging players to respond to each other by "following up" on other players' entries. But you could easily imagine doing something similar in physical space, either by using different color paper or pens for different types of questions and responses, or by explicitly encouraging visitors to comment on each other's responses or group their thoughts with like-minded (or opposing) visitor contributions.

If you want visitors to consume and enter in dialogue each other's responses, make sure that the visitors' answers are displayed in locations that makes them most useful to others.

A colleague recently called me to discuss an idea for a low-tech recommendation engine in which visitors could mark places on paper museum maps that might be of interest to other visitors like them. We talked about the fact that while visitors were most likely to be able to generate their maps of recommended spots as they walked through the institution, the completed maps would be of most value to subsequent visitors on their way into the museum rather than the way out. In this case, we talked about placing a large physical map of recommendations in the lobby rather than at the "end" of the experience, where visitor feedback often lives. This may sound obvious, but I think we often think about the creators and consumers of visitors' content as being the same people, whereas they are often visitors at different stages of their experiences with different needs.

What design techniques do you use to create successful visitor dialogue experiences? What have you seen work well, and what have you seen fail?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Museum Photo Policies Should Be as Open as Possible

I'm working on a section of my book about sharing social objects and am writing about the most common way that visitors share their object experiences in museums: through photographs. While doing research, I found myself digging back into old arguments on museum listservs about photo policies and I want to add my two (very opinionated) cents on this.

While the majority of experience-based museums like children's and science museums have unrestricted noncommercial photography policies, many collections-based art and history museums continue to maintain highly restrictive photo policies. As I understand it, there are five main arguments for restrictive policies:
  1. Intellectual Property: Museums must respect diverse intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders, and in institutions where some objects are photographable and others not, it's often easier to use the most restrictive agreements as the basis for institutional policies.
  2. Conservation: Objects may be damaged by flash photography. Some conservators argue that if non-flash photography is permitted, light levels in the galleries may be increased to accommodate visitors' cameras, which indirectly damage artifacts.
  3. Revenue Streams: Museums want to maintain control of sales of "officially sanctioned" images of objects via catalogues and postcards. If people can take their own photos, they won't buy them in the gift shop.
  4. Aesthetics of Experience: Photo-taking is distracting for other visitors. Looking at artwork through a lens means you are having a less rich experience. Visitors may make inappropriate gestures in photos with museum content, thus distorting institutional values and intent.
  5. Security: Photographers might take photos with intent to do harm; for example, with plans to rob the museum or stalk another visitor.
I respect the first and second arguments. I understand the third, though I think it is misguided. And I think the fourth and fifth are bizarre and ungenerous to visitors.

To me, an open photo policy is a cornerstone of any institution that sees itself as a visitor-centered platform for participatory engagement. Here are five reasons I think museums should have totally open photo policies:
  1. As long as it does not promote unsafe conditions for artifacts or people or illegal behavior, museums should prioritize providing opportunities for visitors to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them. Yes, some people (especially vocal museum staff!) hate the sight of people taking photos in museums. But what about visitors? If your argument is based on visitor comfort and distraction, it should be backed up by visitor research, not personal impressions. Would staff members who hate photography be comparably disturbed by visitors sketching in the galleries? Sketching takes up more space and is more distracting than photo-taking (and pencils could be used to damage objects!), and yet many museum professionals look benevolently upon that activity as a positive meaning-making visitor experience. This is prejudicial treatment. I know that many people are uncomfortable with the growing culture of self-documentation, but no one should let their own aesthetic preferences dictate others' behavior without good reason.
  2. Restrictive policies erode staff/visitor relations and overall museum mission statements around inclusion. The majority of cellphones now have cameras embedded in them, which means that many visitors are walking through your doors with camera in hand. Visitors get upset when they are told to put their cameras away, and it is becoming increasingly hard for guards (and, down the road, marketing staff) to control the taking of photographs and their spread on the Web. Telling visitors that they can't take photos in museums reinforces the sense that the museum is an external authority that owns and controls its objects rather than a shared public resource. How can visitors be "co-owners" of museums if they can't own an image from their experience?
  3. Photo-taking allows visitors to memorialize and make meaning from museum experiences. There have been several studies that show that creating a personal record of an experience and reviewing it later increases learning and retention of content. When visitors flip through photos from their trip, they are more likely to recall their interest in a given artifact or exhibit than without visual aids. And it's not just about recall. There are thriving groups of Flickr users who share photos of themselves imitating art. When my mom, sister and I visited the de Young sculpture garden, we spent about an hour posing alongside the sculptures, which forced us to spend a lot of time carefully observing the art and directing each other into position (see above photo). We spent significantly more time with the art to create these photos than we would have had we just been strolling through.
  4. Visitors use personal photos differently from store-bought ones. The majority of visitors use their cameras to casually record their personal and social experiences, not to take authoritative images of artifacts. A visitor who wants a picture of "mom with the giant penis statue" wants something that the museum is not selling. Visitors who want "the best shot ever of the penis statue" are still likely to buy in the store. And even if visitors do take authoritative (noncommercial) shots, they are unlikely to reduce sales. A great shot of your institution, shared on Flickr, serves as a free piece of marketing that may generate ticket sales. How do you measure the potential lost income from a photographer not buying a postcard against the online impressions his photo makes on others? In the related world of online image licensing, some museums have done studies of the affect of open digital photo distribution on their revenue from image licensing and have seen flat or positive effects from the actions, not negative ones (see this in-depth paper from the Powerhouse Museum).
  5. When people share their photos of your museum, they promote and spread your content to new audiences in authentic ways. In 2008, a team led by MIT media researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled, "If it Doesn't Spread, It's Dead," which argues that media artifacts have greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt, and remix them. There are two parts to this. First, every time a photo is shared, it extends the reach of your objects and exhibit stories. But perhaps more importantly, Jenkins argues that the creative adaptation of cultural objects through photos and other spreading tools supports communities' "processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them."
At the conclusion of Jenkins' paper, the team claims:
"So what is spreadable media good for?
  • To generate active commitment from the audience,
  • To empower them and make them an integral part of your product's success,
  • To benefit from online word-of-mouth
  • To reach niche, highly interconnected audiences,
  • but most of all, to communicate with audiences where they already are, and in a way that they value.


Those who have the most to lose are those companies which:

  • have well established brand messages
  • have messages that are predictably delivered through broadcast channels
  • who are concerned about a loss of control over their intellectual property
  • who have reason to fear backlash from their consumers.

Even here, remaining outside of the spreadable model altogether may cut them off from younger and more digitally connected consumers who spend less time consuming traditional broadcast content or who are increasingly suspicious of top-down advertising campaigns."

Of course, museums shouldn't let marketing desires, popular opinion, or cultural forces drive all decisions. The intellectual property arguments in particular are very complex and should be taken seriously. But visitors and visitor research deserve voices in the discussion about whether photo policies are open or closed. The cultural and educational value of spreadability deserves weight in decision-making. From my perspective, this value is so high that I'd recommend museums think twice about taking on temporary exhibitions or loans that would endanger the ability to allow visitors to take photos across the institution.

And one final thought on this topic: I've been surprised to learn that some museums have restrictive photo policies and aren't sure why. I've heard stories of museum staff at two large institutions trying to figure out who "owns" the policy--conservation, marketing, curatorial, etc.--so that it might be revised. If you don't know why you restrict photography in your institution, please think about both the benefits AND the drawbacks of allowing photography before you perpetuate the policy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Learning Together, Playing Together: Where Do You Form Social Bonds?

Let's say you want to create a program that will result in strangers forming new relationships and making deep connections with each other. Maybe it's a learning program for people who want further content knowledge, or perhaps an activity-based program where people make music together or blow glass or build robots. Would you develop a program for experts--people who already have a strong shared affinity and ability--or for novices--people who are new to the topic or activity at hand?

I used to think that experts were the obvious choice here--that people who are already personally invested in an activity are the most likely ones to want to seek out new friends and activity partners who share their interests. But this summer, I had a novice experience that has changed my personal understanding of the differences between relationships formed in new and known situations.

Exactly two months ago, I took a beginner's volleyball class. The class went for five weeks, 2 hours a week. We were all new to the sport, and on the first day, the teacher, Phil, gave a long speech about how great volleyball is and how obsessed we would become. Several of us looked on skeptically-we already had booked schedules and were eking out 2 hours on Tuesday to make this happen. But Phil was right. This past weekend, I spent about 7 hours playing beach volleyball, with another 5 hours spent at a barbecue with my new volleyball friends. That's 1/4 of a weekend spent on a new activity with new friends.

I spend a lot of my free time playing sports with other adults, but I've never bonded so quickly with other players as I have this summer through volleyball. For several years, I've played ultimate frisbee both casually and on organized teams, and I've never been one to socialize immediately with other players. I'm focused on self-improvement and enjoying the game. We get together, we play hard, and then everyone goes back to their lives. I'm friendly with lots of ultimate folks, but it takes me years, not weeks, to connect with them off the field. Similarly with rock climbing, a sport that forces you to play with a partner at all times, I've made fabulous friends... after months or years of one-on-one interactions on the rock and in the gym.

What makes volleyball different? The group of us learned together. We were brand new to the sport together and now we struggle together to improve. We show each other more vulnerability and uncertainty than I do in situations when I'm confident of my ability. We feel bonded to each other in our shared inability--and our beginner status also makes us more comfortable playing with each other than trying to step up and play with the "big kids."

And our instructor primed the social connections intentionally. On the first day of class, Phil said, "You're all a little nervous today. You don't know anyone else, you don't know how to play. It's ok. By the time you leave you will have lots of friends to play volleyball with." He required us to play with lots of different people throughout the class. He set up an email list and encouraged us to set up another evening a week during the class to practice together. About 20% of us went for it and started playing on our own, and now, we have a group of about 10 people out of the original 50 who play together frequently. We went from being led by a strong instructor to being a self-organized group who follow the values we were taught and are starting to connect with each socially in a more substantive way. In other words, what started as a pretty standard programmatic experience was an entrypoint to a much more self-directed, social one.

The barbecue on Saturday night included five of us from the class plus families and significant others. Around the table, everyone remarked on how they felt nervous on the first day of class, how they couldn't believe that it was true that we'd made friends and learned to love a new activity. It was a really special experience, and it has made me much more interested in how we can provide visitor and user experiences that bond novices together as co-learners on a shared journey, rather than just accommodating individual learning goals or focusing on those who are already immersed in an activity.

Phil's technique wasn't complex. He did two important things: he set up expectations that our experience in the program would be social, and he encouraged us to find ways to continue meeting up beyond the course. This is a very simple way of creating a "platform" for us to connect with each other rather than relying on him as the authority who delivers the experience. It helps that he hosts monthly tournaments, which are connection points that help motivate some members of the classes, but I think we'll keep playing together, tournaments or no. And I believe Phil's techniques could be applied to designing volunteer training programs, new member programs, or general content activity programs and experiences.

Is my observation a personal quirk or a familiar story? Do you bond better with others in novice or expert situations? Do you design programs to encourage novices to work and learn together (and make friends)? Have you been part of a novice group that became a tight-knit group of friends? How would you alter the way you deliver programs to novices to encourage them to make friends and continue exploring their new passion together outside of class?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"It Is What It Is," and the Challenges of Dialogue-Focused Exhibits

I sat down this morning to write a negative review of an exhibit. Now, two hours of YouTube exploration later, I'm not sure what I think.

Earlier this year, the New Museum and Creative Time commissioned a traveling piece by artist Jeremy Deller called "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq." The piece features two guests, an Iraqi translator and a US Army reservists, who hang out in a conversational space, flanked by maps of the US and Iraq and a powerful artifact--a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad. The goal is to support "messy, open-ended discussion," and the draw is the idea that you can go to the museum and talk about Iraq with someone who has actually been there during the war. It Is What It Is was first shown in NYC at the New Museum and has traveled across the country, stopping at various public sites on its way to a longer engagement at the Hammer Museum in LA.

I saw It Is What It Is twice at the Hammer Museum. Both times, the central square in which it was situated was well-trafficked with people enjoying art, hanging out with friends, and working. I saw many people check out the car, but I never saw anyone engage in dialogue with the program participants. Even with a couple of comfortable couches, a provocative object, and a sign that said, "Talk to Esam from 3-5," the barriers to participation were high. Even for me, the barriers were too high. Why would I want to talk about Iraq on a visit to an art museum? Why would I want to talk about it with a stranger? Why would I want to sit on a couch and engage in an open-ended, messy conversation with a stranger?

It Is What It Is
highlights how difficult it is to invite people into dialogue--not just on tough topics like the Iraq War, but any topic. From my perspective, It Is What It Is was not designed with sufficient structure to robustly and consistently support dialogue. It doesn't clearly welcome people in or bridge the social barriers that keep us from naturally talking to strangers. It doesn't set expectations for what will happen (which was intentional) and that makes people wary and also less interested, since they can't look forward to a "successful" outcome.

I know it may sound like I'm asking for something overly structured, but compare It Is What It Is with another dialogue project, the Living Library. In the Living Library, there is a concrete entrypoint to challenging discussions. Visitors check out "books," which are people who embody certain stereotypes, for forty-minute one-on-one conversations. The Living Library has guest experts (the books), but it also has facilitators in the form of the "librarians" who help you sign up for a library card, browse the catalog, and select a book for discussion. I'm not suggesting that the Living Library is the only way to have dialogue about tough issues (far from it!) but that it is a much more structured platform than that provided by It Is What It Is. Living Library events consistently draw visitors and are packed with people having intense, messy conversations about culture, politics, and human relations.

Deller says the "conversation is the most important part" of It Is What It Is but I believe he over-estimated the ability of simple objects and live "guest experts" to get people talking. It Is What It Is and other unstructured platforms just plunk down the people and hope for dialogue. Occasionally, some really interesting and surprising things may happen. But they are a lot less likely than in designed settings like the Living Library.

A volunteer manager at a major US history museum once told me about a failed dialogue program in which older volunteers would sit in rocking chairs on an exhibit component themed to look like a front porch. The idea was that visitors would come up and hang out on the front porch, listening to the elders' stories of the past. This is a nice conceptual structure that had some visual reinforcement in the physical space, but it failed miserably. No one approached the volunteers. They had stories to tell and were happy to talk, but the social barriers to participation were too great to make it happen.

Unlike the front porch program, which was silently discontinued,
It Is What It Is received a lot of press as a revolutionary art piece indicative of artists moving towards focusing on social experiences rather than objects. But I haven't found any press or blogs from people who actually went to the exhibit and had a discussion; the press seems to focus on the interestingness of the idea rather than the impact of its implementation. If you experienced the exhibit (or find someone who did) and engaged in dialogue, please share your story--I don't want to unfairly castigate this exhibit based on two personal experiences.

And there's another reason I don't want to criticize it. When I dug deeper into the exhibit's website, I found a series of lovely, short videos recorded along the exhibit's across the country. Watch this amazing video of an older Sioux man reacting to the blown-out car and recalling Vietnam. Or this one of the team touring a farm in Tennessee and discussing the differences between American and Iraqi burial rituals. I got lost in these videos, and I started to question my expectations about what makes an exhibit like this successful. Is it about the number of conversations had or the quality of those discussions? Is it about drawing people in who may not have walked up with an interest in the topic, or is it about engaging those who have a deep and immediate desire to talk without prompting? Is it about what happens in the museums or on the streets in-between?

Considering these questions, I come to three uncertain conclusions.

First, it appears from the project documentation that It Is What It Is was more powerful when dropped into everyday street scenes and college campuses than when situated in contemporary art museums. Maybe there was less pretension, maybe the space felt more owned by the individuals approaching (and therefore, maybe the visitors felt more comfortable engaging). I say "maybe" because I'm only seeing curated clips, and for all I know there were just as many wild interactions in the New Museum and the Hammer as there were on the streets of New Mexico. But if this observation is valid, then it speaks to the additional social barriers museums introduce that we have to be aware of when designing for dialogue.

Second, because this was an art project, I doubt that Jeremy had explicit goals for how many people would engage and in what ways. He said as much in his introduction, commenting that he "hopes" there will be dialogue but he really isn't sure what will happen. When working on dialogue projects, I try to get beyond guessing and hoping and really consider--who do we want to engage with this? How will we design the experience to encourage participation by those people? What are the evaluative measures by which we will consider the dialogue experience successful? I'm not sure It Is What It Is had such measures, and members of their team shared their tension about this issue. Along the drive west, It Is What It Is team member Nato Thompson commented in the road diary:

What can be gained by ephemeral interactions in public space that briefly exist in YouTube videos and on a blog? With such an ambivalent, open-ended tone, what prevents people from leaving these conversations without a single view challenged or sense of self altered?
There are good questions, and in an art project, it's often acceptable to use the piece as a vehicle to expose and explore the questions rather than answer them. But museum staff rarely have this luxury. They are always accountable for the impact of their work, and it's important (and doable!) to design dialogue platforms to specific impact goals just as you would a didactic content experience.

And so finally, with regard to impact, I believe It Is What It Is is more valuable to a broad audience as a cultural multimedia story than as an exhibit. Seeing the exhibit, I was ready to cast this off with a joke about two guys and a car walking into a museum. It was not made "for me," a visitor who didn't know what to expect. It wasn't designed to bring mass audiences into an uncomfortable experience, or if it was, it failed to do so. Jeremy Deller admitted in his artist statement that this piece was motivated by his own very personal interest in Iraq. As he put it:

In a sense I am selfishly doing this for my own benefit simply to plug the many gaps that exist in my knowledge and to satisfy the arguments that have been going on in my head for the best part of this century.
So in a sense, this piece is a performance in which Jeremy spends time with his guests, learning and traveling together. And it was the representation of this performance, not the opportunity for dialogue, that captivated me. I both enjoyed and learned from the road videos, the diaries, and the interactions among the travelers.

Watching the videos, I reconceived the exhibit as a transparent "making of" for an unstructured documentary rather than an end into itself. And this challenges my long-held passion for involving visitors in the behind-the-scenes and the process. Visiting It Is What It Is, the exhibit, was dull and off-putting. I had a bad experience. But I loved watching the curated cultural products of the exhibit. Does this mean that I didn't want to see the process and only the product? Or am I just frustrated that they sold the exhibit as a dialogue product, an experience unto itself, when the real product was a performance?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pointing at Exhibits, Part 2: No-Tech Social Networks

I've spent the last two weeks working on the third chapter of my book about network effects of social participation. This can be an incredibly technical topic, as it focuses on the ways that platforms (online, exhibits, museums) can harness the individual activities of many visitors and create meaningful experiential outputs that connect people to each other. And it's brought me back to a blog post I wrote a year ago about the Science Museum of Minnesota's Race: Are We So Different? exhibition.

Race is a remarkably social exhibit; visitors spend a lot of time pointing things out to each other and talking about them. Paul Martin, VP of Exhibits at SMM, took several photos of people in the exhibition over its run, and he noted something strange: there was an incredibly high percentage of photos in which someone was pointing at an exhibit label, artifact, or component. In many cases people were pointing at things that were simple in design and form--quotes, statistics, facts and figures. But the content was so remarkable that visitors felt the need to just to consume it but to point it out to others.

When I wrote about this in 2008, I focused on the question of how to design exhibits to be optimized for "pointiness." But now, I'm looking at the story of visitors pointing in Race in a different way: as a low-tech example of a socially networked platform.

The Complexities of Socially Networked Museum Platforms

How do you design physical infrastructure that ties individuals together in meaningful ways? Designing exhibitions, or whole institutions, that operate on socially networked principles is incredibly difficult. It requires that each individual have a personalized profile that evolves with her growing relationship with the institution. It requires that the profiles of each visitor be networked in some common system with rules for how different profile items interrelate. And then it requires an output mechanism that helps visitors physically connect to the people and experiences with which they have network affinity. Throw in the real-time nature of a museum visit, visitors' reticence to participate socially in the museum, and archaic data systems, and this may sound downright impossible.

But designing an entire museum that functions this way probably isn't your goal. The goal is more likely to promote social learning, participation by visitors, and interpersonal exchange around museum content. And with these goals in mind, there are low-tech ways to perform or simulate every component of a socially networked platform, many of which are more effective than their high-tech counterparts.

Consider the example of people being able to save their favorite exhibits and share them with others. We can all imagine complex ways to do this with mobile devices (and many museums and private companies are experimenting with such systems). A visitor could register her phone with the museum, so that her number is uniquely associated with her personal profile. As she moves through the museum, she uses a web-based application to tag her favorite exhibits, or perhaps she texts a rating for each exhibit to SMS short codes posted at the bottom of each label. She can choose to "send" her favorites to individuals, or to broadcast them to the whole network of people using the system. As a higher-tech alternative, you could imagine a system in which visitors' motions are tracked, and standing in front of an exhibit for an abnormally long period of time would trigger an entry marking that exhibit as "compelling" whereas exhibits that occupy just a few seconds might be marked "dull" or "skipped." Again, the technology today may be unsavory or clunky, but these possibilities are on the horizon and there are some institutions experimenting in this domain.

The Simplicity of Pointing

And this brings us back to Race. As Paul commented, "you don't point at things when you're alone." Pointing is a no-tech version of the favoriting system. When you point at something, you are effectively suggesting to the people around you, "look at that." Visitors see things that intrigue them, point at them, and other visitor look. The Race exhibit served as a facilitation of potential dialogue based on a very simple finger-based exchange.

Pointing is a social behavior that works best in physically proximate, real-time situations. Past incidences of pointing in Race or any exhibit are not saved and networked for future use; you can't look at the exhibit label and see that "57 people pointed at this in the last week." Nor would that information necessarily be compelling to most visitors. The thing that makes pointing compelling is the fact that it is an interpersonal interaction. If you are a stranger, and you point something out to me, you are taking a risk. You are effectively saying, "this thing I am pointing at is so important, so cool or special or surprising, that despite the fact that I know next to nothing about you, I think you should see it." It makes the pointee feel special to be singled out (even if only selected for physical proximity to the pointer), and both people enjoy the intimacy of a shared experience.

This intimacy and specialness is lost if you move to a more generalized "57 people pointed at this" networked system. That statement has very little meaning to most people because it is entirely decontextualized. What do I care what 57 random visitors thought? I only care what a stranger points at if they are pointing it out to me. It's the personal, immediate nature of the experience that makes it compelling.

Of course, the riskiness of the exchange also makes stranger-to-stranger pointing quite rare. You are more likely to point something out to a friend or companion. The better you know someone, the more you can tailor the things you point out to them in a variety of settings. When talking about the social network of people whose profiles are known to us, we are able to meaningfully abstract the pointing experience. That's where it becomes useful to send certain tidbits of information to particular people, or groups of people. The news I want to share with my rock-climbing friends is different from that I want to share with my museum friends. When I'm with them, I point out different things.

Online, people have been pushing the boundaries of both the personal and urgent nature of the pointing experience. I comfortably "point things out" to different people remotely by clipping articles, sending links, and flagging online content. I also point things out to a mass audience when I post ideas to Twitter or Facebook. While these situations appear to erode the personal, urgent requirements discussed above, the most effectively "pointed" content online is still personal and urgent. You are more likely to look at a link I send directly to you, or to a small group of people with a shared affinity including you, than one I send out to my entire network. From the urgency perspective, on Twitter (which is a kind of virtual museum we are all slowly walking through), you only have a few minutes from the time that you post something for it to be noticed before your comment is lost in the sea of others. The more the agency to act on a shared link is placed on the pointee rather than the pointer, the less likely he or she is to follow through. When you make a direct, personal, immediate appeal, you can get anyone--even a stranger's--attention.

Design Implications

The "pointiness" of an exhibit is a metric that reflects the extent to which the content motivates visitors to share things with strangers and friends alike. What affects how likely a visitor is to point things out in an exhibit? The content certainly matters but so does the extent to which visitors feel that they are pointing things out to friends or associates rather than strangers. The better individuals can express their unique interests and orientations, the more easily they can form affinity networks with other visitors, and the more likely they are to perceive those people as less strange. To me, this exploration boils down to two design questions:
  1. How do we let people personalize their identity in the museum such that they feel less like strangers and more like potential associates?
  2. How do we design spaces that support sharing and intimacy among associated visitors?

These questions take us away from the design of nonsensical "pointing data networks" and towards something more essential: supporting interpersonal connections. If we think about network effects not in terms of data collection but in terms of a useful outcome for visitors and institutions, we can design platforms that reflect our participatory values. For some institutions or exhibits, promoting dialogue may be a value, in which case the "pointiness" of an exhibit is a useful goal to work into the design process. In other cases, other values, like creativity, authentic sharing, group collaboration, or reflection on others' experiences might be primary, in which case different platforms (and related metrics and mechanisms) would be more appropriate.

What "no-tech" visitor actions or interrelations reflect your participatory goals? How can you identify metrics for success that are not based on how many people have bought a ticket or left a comment? Design for participation in museums still struggles on the evaluative side--we don't have well-documented ways to measure how many people connect with a stranger or learn something from another visitor. "Pointiness" may be the first of many new metrics we use to understand how visitors relate to each other through museum content. What others should we consider?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Eight Other Ways to "Connect with Community"

Last month, the Christian Science Monitor published an article entitled, "Museums' new mantra: Connect with community." It took me a couple weeks (and various museum blog responses) to realize what bugs me about this article--it treats "connecting with community" as a marketing ploy, a "mantra" rather than a mission. While there is much talk about supporting participation and making museum content relevant, the word "community" hangs like a poorly-defined carrot on a shtick. The article ends with this unfortunate quote from marketing consultant Roger Sametz:
"It's all about making personal, meaningful connections with a community, now."
It sounds as if Mr. Sametz is frantically casing city streets with a heat-seeking metal detector, on the hunt for a miscellaneous batch of confused folks whom he can stun into "connection."

Who is this mysterious and desirable community with whom museums wish to connect? The general public is not a community. Nor is "everyone who doesn't currently visit here." The article suggests that museums have previously served one community--"traditional" museum patrons who are white and elderly--and must now be relevant to several other communities that are diverse in cultural, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds. This seems a little ungenerous to museums; while institutions may bestow more love upon wealthy, elderly donors than the general visiting public, museums have actively courted mass audiences for years. The problem--one which is not addressed in the article--is that museums have not been willing to cater to new target audiences to the exclusion of their traditional patrons. We're always happy for more bodies in the door, but if supporting teens means alienating seniors, there's a problem.

Connecting with communities means making conscious decisions that invite in particular people. It means making some conscious choices that push your institution towards being more of a "third place." The article references connecting with young people via social media, at-risk youth via exhibit co-creation, and urban creatives via public art installations. But it skips some of the fundamental design and operational choices that separate community centers from the rest of the civic and cultural landscape.

And so I'd like to suggest a few other ways to "connect with community." In most cases, they are less flashy than those covered in the CS Monitor, but that doesn't diminish their utility (or the challenges inherent in making them happen).
  1. Pick a specific community (or two). Don't say that your institution will be a "town square for the community." Which community? The Filipino community? The student community? The homeless community? Pick a group of people to whom you would like to be relevant, and work with them to deliver programs that meet their needs. When their needs conflict with other pre-existing communities' needs, make a choice. Prioritizing a community demonstrates that you care about them and are willing to defend their needs. The Brooklyn Museum allows skateboarders to use their public outdoor space, much to the chagrin of some locals. But they stick by the skateboarders as a community of value.
  2. Be free, nearly free, often free, or free for locals. Community centers don't ask you to cough up a $20 every time you come to hang out. While free admission has not been shown to shift the overall demographics of museum visitors on its own, it sets an expectation that this is a place you can use whenever you like, for as long as you like. It's not a recreational destination you visit once a year. It's a place you can use.
  3. Be open at times that your "community" is likely to come. I was at San Diego's Balboa Park two weeks ago for a workshop and spent a glorious evening wandering the gardens, outdoor concert halls, and sports fields. There were thousands of people in the park for plays, free music, and beautiful scenery. And none of the museums in the park was open. Extending museum hours makes it easier for people to integrate museum-going into their evening recreational time and diminishes the prepare-to-visit-destination behavior.
  4. Open your doors really wide. Lots of museums look like fortresses against the streetscape. They are protected by expansive parking lots or metal gates. The more museums can be porous to the outdoor environment and continuous with other neighborhood venues and businesses, the more easily people can flow into them as part of their day.
  5. Make time for staff to hang out with visitors. There are many museums that require all staff to spend an hour a week working the floor or the front desk of the museum. These programs are usually used to help staff have a better sense of front-line needs and challenges, but they're also an obvious way to help all staff literally "connect" with visitors. Recently, I've been talking with one art center about turning their "floor hour" into an "art hour" where staff can do whatever creative activity appeals to them and might help them relate to visitors. Not all staff want to actively lead tours or programs, but if "connecting with community" is a core part of your mission, then all staff should have some aspect of their performance evaluation tied to making nice.
  6. Appreciate regulars. Is a big corporation like Starbucks really better at promoting a sense of community than museums? If a barista can remember your double soy latte, why can't museums give special treatment to members and frequent visitors? I've been writing a lot about regulars and loyalty recently. There's no way we can serve a "community" if we act like amnesiacs every time they come back through the door. Museums need to develop ways to track frequency of use, whether with technology or otherwise As David Gilman commented, "How can we be friends if I not only keep forgetting things about you, but never learn them to begin with?"
  7. Make food and drink and comfy chairs available. In Ray Oldenberg's list of hallmarks of a "third place," food and drink ranks as not essential but very important. Museums are fatiguing. People like to sit down and drink a cup of coffee or a beer. Even better is the opportunity to drink a beer while checking out an exhibit--most museums separate food and comfort from the exhibit experience, creating a false dichotomy between the place where you hang out and the place where you engage with museum content. The ideal situation is one like that at El Rio, a bar in San Francisco that lets you bring your own food and also offers free barbecues and oysters every week. Nothing says community like free bbq on the patio.
  8. Consider operating a storefront in the community. If you want to reach out to a community that is not within walking distance of your institution, why not open a satellite in their neighborhood? One of the reasons that 826 Valencia is so successful as a tutoring center is its location right in the middle of a busy mixed-use urban neighborhood. The "community" doesn't have to leave their block to get there. Commercial real estate is cheap right now (and getting cheaper). The Denver Community Museum was an entire institution in a little storefront. Imagine what a big museum could do with a little space.

I'd like to close with a few words from the "About Us" section of El Rio's website. This bar ("El Rio: Your Dive") may be humble, but it "connects with community" with flying colors. Their About Us section is mostly not about them, but about the ways they want to connect with you, their potential community.

Check out the way that they welcome in different particular communities...
We are a mixed bar- all sexualities, colors, ages(21+) are encouraged and very welcome.
We are a bar so you must be 21+ to enter. We id folks we don't know.
We welcome people with disabilities. Our entrance and most of the club are wheelchair accessible, including the back deck but not the yard. Our bathrooms are not wheelchair accessible and do not have grab bars (and would not be accessible without assistance). We do not have a parking lot. For more information, please call 415.282.3325 We will do our best to accommodate you!
We have no dress code but a strong preference for tutu's and wigs.
Or how they communicate their values...
We love nice people.
We love kids but can't allow them because of foolish laws.
We love people who clean up after themselves, a lot.
We love this place, it's our home.
We have a pool table, shuffle board, juke box and have been known to have very loud dice games.
We are a work in progress and open to hearing opinions so speak up. See the link to the left.

And a final statement...
And lastly, we are not for everyone but for those of you who feel welcome and at home, we are very, very happy you found us.