This morning, I gave the keynote address for the Washington Museums Association annual conference. Their theme was “Building Community through Collaboration.” While lots of sessions described formal partnerships between organizations, I chose to focus on informal ways that institutions can partner with community members and visitors on an ongoing basis--collaboration with a small "c."
Collaborations with community members often can't get off the ground because they are seen as too unwieldy to be worthwhile. Again and again, I've been inspired by projects that invite collaboration in informal, ongoing, flexible ways. While all kinds of collaborations can be useful--and long-term, deep collaborations are often the most transformative--informal, low-cost projects can often make community participation possible.
You can download the slides and see my whole presentation here. It features lots of museum-based examples. But in this post, I wanted to highlight a goofy little (non-museum) project that inspires me in its simplicity and openness to mass collaboration. It's called One Million Giraffes.
One Million Giraffes is pretty much what it sounds like--a project to collect artistic renderings of one million giraffes. It's run by a young Norwegian man named Ola Helland who made a fateful bet with a friend named Jorgen last year. As Ola explains:
We were discussing the internet and how amazing it is, when I said: "There really are no limits anymore. Anything is possible! I could easily collect one million giraffes if I wanted to." I wasn't really thinking about what I was saying and Jørgen wouldn't let that sentence go. He refused to believe it was possible to collect that many giraffes, so we made a bet. The wager is, as it always is with our silly bets, a case of beer.The One Million Giraffes project has very simple rules: make a giraffe (not using a computer). Upload an image of it to the site along with your name, age, and location. That's it. The constraints are clear and arbitrary. The language is personal, enthusiastic, and inclusive. Ola presents the giraffes in several ways--as individual images, statistically, on a map, even via a goofy game where you can view giraffes and guess the age of the people who made them. His explanation about the project acknowledges both the insignificance of the project and its power to demonstrate the collaborative potential of the Web. As he puts it:
It doesn't matter if I make to a million. I really, really want to, and I'm still working hard towards that goal, but at this point it's just fun to see people all over the world turning off their TVs, putting their computers away and sitting down to creating giraffes. Old school style. People spend too much time being digital. They should try be analog, being human and creating something real for a change. Most people love it when they try it. I get emails from people all over the world saying that they've rediscovered drawing! Families are sitting down in the living room and acting like families. I have hundred of emails from mums and dads saying that they sat down with their kids and had a blast drawing giraffes. People are actually having giraffe parties! Do you realize how cool that is? Please join in on the fun.
One Million Giraffes is charming and delightful and exciting because it demonstrates the power of collaborative platforms to bring communities together--even around silly things like drawing giraffes. To some people, this project may be indicative of the vapidity of the web, but I don't see it that way. When Ola talks about "how amazing the internet is," he's talking about its ability to support mass collaboration. And while his project doesn't have a lot of depth in terms of content or meaning, it's a signal for what else is possible.
When museums invite participation as generously and enthusiastically as One Million Giraffes does, they situate themselves as places that are open to all the emergent benefits of collaboration. I see this happening in the overflowing visitor comments on the walls of the Oakland Museum of California, the lines snaking through the Minneapolis Institute of Art to submit to Foot in the Door--so many places. I can't wait until there's a young Ola somewhere else in the world starting a project of this kind in a cultural institution with the tagline, "let's show everyone how amazing museums are."