Is there any better ingredient for a successful conference session than a banjo? Kathleen McLean (Independent Exhibitions), Dan Spock (Minnesota History Center), and Kris Morrissey (University of Washington) all shared thought-provoking and useful insights on visitor participation in museums, but Mark Allen and Emily Lacy brought down the house with their bluegrass rendering of the Machine Project and its engaging, quirky work. This session was participatory in several ways, including interactive music-making machines in the audience and half the time reserved for Q&A. You can view and download all the slides here.
A few things I learned from the presentations and discussion:
- Dan shared a useful 4-step mental model for the progression of how institutions move towards participatory engagement. He started with museums as a "place to go"--to see things, consume experiences. Then, he moved to museums as a "thing to do"--to touch things, play with interactives. Third, museums as a "place to be heard"--to share your voice, your stories, your interpretation. Finally, museums as "facilitators" of visitors' own experiences and interests.
- Kathleen showed lots of participatory elements in the redesigned Oakland Museum of California. It's only been open for a few weeks, and they already have lots of visitors sharing stories, making and sharing art, and adding their voice to the exhibitions. I'm particularly impressed by the bravery with which a big museum chose to take a more understated approach to many aspects of the design. The lowkey, unfinished look makes the museum feel open to visitors' improvements.
- Kris talked about brain research related to the potential cognitive and social impacts of participation. One of the resources she shared is a book called Brain Rules, which presents studies about the power of "cognitive force environment"--the idea that we need to be able to actually change an environment to learn from it. It's not enough to just receive information. You need to be in an environment where you can alter things based on what you think. This is highly related to what I talked about--the fact that participation works best when the institution is responsive to what visitors make. I talked about using the design question: "How can visitors make this project better?" to find ways that professionals can develop responsive feedback loops where there's an actual demand driving the visitor participation--and a result that changes based on what they do.
- Q&A is greatly improved with a little bit of preconditioning. I did an experiment in my wording with the session introduction. I told the crowd that we were going to save half the time for discussion, and that we looked to them as participants and partners in making a great session. I asked them to think about how they could ask questions or share ideas in ways that would be as useful as possible to everyone in the room. It may have been a fluke, but no one monopolized the mic, and I felt in general that the discussion was incredibly interesting, useful, and fast-paced.
What can you expect from a conference session that happens during the last time slot on the last day? In this case, a heck of a lot. This session brought together Bruce Wyman (Second Story), Shelley Bernstein (Brooklyn Museum), Beck Tench (Museum of Life and Science), and myself to talk about our unique approaches to technology development in museums. Again, we did short presentations followed by lots of active discussion. You can view and download the slides here.
A few things that stood out:
- Beck Tench continues to blow me away with her thoughtful, clever, and powerful approach to her work (and her slide presentations). Beck talked about her role as the only tech person at a mid-sized science museum as one of capacity-building. She has functionally branded herself in the institution as the person who is helping other staff members learn about innovative technologies, try new experiments, and measure their attempts. She runs a "Beck and Ted's Excellent Lunch Hour" in which people watch a Ted talk and then discuss it. She keeps a failure portfolio. She really thinks about how she is evolving as a scientific thinker while trying to promote science for staff and visitors. She's become one of my heroes. You should follow her sporadic blog.
- This session worked because everyone was willing to speak incredibly honestly about the challenges they face in their work. We got some really tough questions--how to deal with grants that were written with specific technologies in mind, how to deal with board members who want shiny objects, what role technology should play relative to curatorial, education, and marketing in the institutional hierarchy. The conversation worked and the questions kept coming because the answers were thoughtful and open. It was a breath of fresh air in what can often be a stilted environment.
There were several other sessions and meetings that inspired and challenged me at the conference. A few highlights:
- Cecelia Garibay talked about audience development at the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum. She described a project to increase Latino audiences that succeeded, and then another to increase Vietnamese visitation that failed. She spent the majority of the time talking about what went wrong, and she introduced an organizational learning theory called "double-loop learning" that resonated with me. Basically, the idea is that most organizations learn in a single loop that connects programs to results. You do a program, measure the results, and then change or develop new programs based on the lessons from the results. The problem with this mode is that you can end up in a cycle where you try lots of programs that don't work and you can't figure out why or how to break out of the cycle. In double-loop learning, you back up to the beliefs that shape the way you develop programs and interpret results. Now, when you look at results, you see if you need to change not just the program but the beliefs behind them. In the case of the Children's Discovery Museum, for example, one of the disconnects with the Vietnamese community came from a fundamental difference in how the staff and Vietnamese parents saw competition. Competition is a big part of childrens' lives in Vietnamese culture, but it was seen by museum staff as antithetical to their approach to programming. Confronting this mismatch in beliefs helped the staff see where their (noncompetitive) program offerings were falling short for Vietnamese families.
- Fred Dust from IDEO gave a great talk about the IDEO design process, which includes a high level of community codesign and participation. I've been a big fan of IDEO's work for a long time, and I enjoyed Fred's copious stories. The part I found most interesting was his discussion of the difference between surveys and ethnographic study. IDEO does lots of customer research, but not via surveys and focus groups. Instead, they send out staff (mostly anthropologists and social scientists) to spend time with customers, hanging out in their homes, shopping with them, etc. He commented that when surveyed, people tell you what they think you want to hear or make up stories about themselves, often unwittingly. You get away from stereotypes and learn deeper insights if you really observe how they live. He noted that when IDEO comes up with what they consider to be solid customer groupings or profiles, they almost never are restricted to particular gender/age/ethnicity/class groupings. They cut across all kinds of people, because they are about the ways personality impacts behavior. This is powerful; it suggests that we should be looking less at attracting "21-45 year olds" and more at things like John Falk's visitor identity profiles.
- Personally, I had lots of meetings with mentors and people I respect to discuss the project I'm trying to get started--a Belgian beer and fries cafe / design incubator focused on visitor participation. I feel grateful to have so many mentors in the museum field who give me their honest thoughts. It's a bit nerve-wracking to be planning what looks like a radical departure from the museum field. To me, the project is highly connected to the future of cultural institutions, but I have to keep learning and thinking about how an odd institution outside the norm can really have valuable impact on the wider field.
What did you get out of AAM? What was most valuable for you?