Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empowering Staff to Take Creative Risks

What kind of support do you need to be confident about taking a risk in your work? What are you willing to risk to pursue your professional dreams?

Last week, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums in Houston, I was honored to chair a fabulous panel on empowering museum staff to take creative risks (slides here). This is a topic of particular fascination for me as someone who has worked as an external consultant/provocateur/risk-encourager and is now in the director's seat for the first time.

I was joined by Lori Fogarty (ED of the Oakland Museum of California), Adam Lerner (ED and Chief Animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver), and Beck Tench (Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science).

I learned three big things from this panel:
  1. Risk-takers need space-makers.
  2. Risk-takers and space-makers are different kinds of leaders.
  3. Risk-takers often don't see their choices as risky.
Here's a bit more on each of these.

Risk-takers need "space-makers" to provide them with the support, the creative license, and the encouragement to try new things, fail, and get up again.

Beck beautifully described her entry into museum work. She was told from day one that her director would be disappointed in her if she "didn't fall flat on her face." At first, she was excited, but it took time and trust for her to really believe her supervisors and start to pursue challenging goals. Over time, she transitioned from being a risk-taker to also being a space-maker for others in her organization, holding their hands and cheerleading them through the beginning of a process that would eventually end with a hand-off in which the new risk-takers would take total ownership of their new projects.

This concept of space-making resonated with the rest of us, and it also got me thinking about healthy and unhealthy ways to do it. I've talked with many directors who say, "I tell my staff to take risks, but they don't." I suspect those directors are not following up their words with actions that demonstrate their trust and willingness to make space for experimentation and failure.

It's not easy to get this right. When I worked at The Tech Museum, I employed an less-evolved mode of space-making: the "blame me" approach. Whenever my team got worried that we were taking a risk and might get in trouble, I'd always say, "blame me." Yes, my willingness to take the heat helped us execute a risky project during tough times, but it didn't necessarily empower people to take risks on their own. Beck's approach, in which staff empower each other, is much better for an organization overall. It's one of the things that impresses me most about the Ruru Revolution project at Puke Ariki in New Zealand--it's a fabulous example of staff members making space for each other to take risks together.

It's also something I've seen work well in a workshop setting. When an external trainer gives everyone specific instructions to be silly or try something odd, everyone gets to go through the stress, excitement, and positive outcome that comes with healthy risk-taking. Over my time as a consultant, I shifted from planning risky projects with clients to spending much more time just experimenting with them, getting everyone to play and model what it would be like to make a larger risk possible.

Some directors are highly effective at empowering risk-taking by being supreme space-makers, whereas others lead by example as supreme creative risk-takers themselves. The outcome is very different.

At one point, Adam Lerner commented that Lori is the ultimate space-maker, supporting creative risk-takers throughout her organization, whereas Adam is more like the art director of a design firm, a risk-taker whose creative vision steers the boat. Both models work; the Oakland Museum of California (where Lori works) is an incredible example of a large, bureaucratic organization undergoing a radical, whole institution redesign, whereas the MCA Denver (Adam's museum) is a small, focused fount of creative expression and ingenuity.

Which kind of leader do you want to be? Which one can you be? Lori is a master of complex leadership, with an incredible strategic vision for how to support a diverse staff of risk-takers, fence-sitters, and in-betweeners. Adam is a creative genius who attracts and cultivates a risk-taking team that develops truly original programming with a consistent voice.

Both of these models are prone to dangers; space-makers like Lori can fall short in creating the right structure for risk-taking, and risk-takers like Adam can overly constrict the creative direction of an institution. If Lori is too gentle, her staff might not go far enough out of their comfort zones. If Adam is too wild, his staff could spend all their time being zany and not enough getting their jobs done.

I'm still figuring out who I want to be as a leader in my own organization. I've been seen for a long time as a creative risk-taker, but I honestly get the most value out of hearing from people who have run with ideas I've shared and done mind-blowing projects based on them. I think it's easy to undervalue the Loris and overvalue the Adams in this world. I know from where I sit, I feel like I have a lot more to learn about space-making for my staff, volunteers, and participants.

Ultimately, risk-takers are people for whom there is no other option. They take risks because they are driven to accomplish their dreams above all else.

When preparing this panel discussion, we spent some time wrangling as a group about the difference between "being creative" and "taking risks." None of us, especially Beck, Adam, and I, who all identify as creative risk-takers, could really parse out what was and wasn't a risk.

This became obvious when Adam told the story of how he ended up leaving the Denver Art Museum to start The Lab at Belmar (which merged two years ago with MCA Denver when he became director). Adam told us he would make these crazy powerpoint presentations with ideas for art events that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he would present these to his bosses at the Denver Art Museum. His supervisors kept saying no, nicely, and he kept making his powerpoints. Eventually, when a donor came to the Museum managers looking for someone to help him start an experimental art center in the Belmar shopping center, they introduced him to Adam.

What drove Adam to keep making these presentations? What drove me to volunteer for new tasks at the Spy Museum despite my boss kicking me under the table to try to dissuade me? What drives anyone who applies for a job they aren't qualified for or asks someone they've just met out on a date? I suspect none of these people would say they are taking a risk. They would say they are doing what they have to do to pursue their dreams.

When people tell me they work at an institution where the management doesn't provide the support to take risks, I ask why they stay. I know there are a hundred reasons why people do jobs that aren't entirely fulfilling, but for me personally, that issue is a deal-breaker. I've always been willing to risk my job to do what I thought was right/exciting/necessary, and I never felt like it was a risk. I felt like it was a reasonable tradeoff to do what I needed to do.

This leads to the funny problem of answering the questions at the top of this post. Risk-takers might be the worst at understanding what kind of space-making is necessary to help others feel confident and able to take risks themselves. What are you willing to risk to pursue your dreams? What advice would you give someone like me who doesn't wholly understand what is and isn't necessary to make risk-taking possible?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Post: Lessons Learned Designing a Mobile Game for Balboa Park

Today, a guest post from one of the people who inspires me: Ken Eklund. Ken is a game designer and writer who develops narrative, collaborative augmented reality experiences about serious issues. When I worked briefly with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative to conceptualize a mobile phone-based game to connect visitors to the park to its cultural institutions and history, I knew Ken would be the perfect person to make it happen. Now, that game, GISKIN ANOMALY, is live. In this post, Ken shares some surprising lessons learned so far.

What’s the opposite of Voicemail Hell? Giskin Anomaly

Right around Thanksgiving 2010 a strange story began to unfold in Balboa Park, San Diego. An official-looking decal for the “GISKIN ANOMALY SURVEY PROJECT” appeared on a window in the park. It has a 800-number on it (877-737-3132) and a three-digit ID number (131). But “official” it is not. When San Diego visitors dial the 800-number and then the ID number, they get past the smoke screen and hear a character named Pandora, who tracks down "anomalies", leave messages for someone named Drake, who then decodes them. The “anomalies” are ghost thoughts from the past left by people who were in Balboa Park during World War Two, and still somehow tethered to the landscape.

As I said, a strange story. Mysterious! Intriguing! And of course, not exactly true. GISKIN ANOMALY is a “historical fiction” game I created for Rich Cherry and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. They asked for an experience that could transform how you perceived the Park – whether you were new or had lived in San Diego all your life. And widely accessible. Play any time, as much as you like, and play with any cellphone. The goal was to design an audio tour for people who never do audio tours.

GISKIN ANOMALY is now pretty much complete, getting good numbers, and winner of the silver MUSE award at AAM in the Games/Augmented Reality category. What are the lessons learned?

Lessons Learned 1: Build it, and they will come
We thought GISKIN was cool and different, but was it cool and different enough to actually attract people to the Park? Was it too weird? We had a hard time describing it (still do) and worried about this.

We shouldn’t have. We got over 1,000 calls our first day. Lesson: Have faith in your community. If you think something’s cool, chances are they will too.

Lessons Learned 2: Learn as you go
GISKIN has 7 episodes, and it would have been normal, I suppose, to get them all ready, then launch. But as it happened, I got the first episode completely ready (to completely test out the concept and the voicemail system) and then launched it. Then I wrote the second episode, produced it, launched it, and so on. This had an expected benefit – we got something in front of people quicker. And an unexpected one – everyone on the team could learn as we went along what worked and what didn’t, and we could dial in more of what worked.

Lesson: when your project, like GISKIN, really depends on the end experience, there’s no better way to evaluate it than to produce a bit of it and experience it complete and in situ.

Lessons Learned 3: This is not a museum talking (what a relief!)
Being a museum must be exhausting – you have to know so much and speak so carefully. What a relief it was to not have to worry about that. In GISKIN, Pandora and Drake aren’t museum people: they have no special knowledge; they ask the same questions the audience is asking and don’t always get answers. They leave LOTS of room for the audience to ask their own questions and fill in their own answers.

Lesson: An answer is like the proverbial fish: it only feeds someone for a day. The freedom to ask questions, however, will feed someone for a lifetime.

Lessons Learned 4: The stakes are high stakes
GISKIN players follow Pandora’s directions to find markers that show Drake exactly where the anomaly is located. We use simple plastic surveyor’s stakes. To get permission to place stakes like these in a city park is not a trivial matter (it can be hell, in fact), but it’s absolutely essential for the gameplay. Finding the stake is a simple moment of pure joy for the player.

Lesson: don’t compromise on the gameplay.

Lessons Learned 5: Something for everyone
I happened to see a family playing GISKIN, and I asked the young boy (maybe 12 yrs old) what the game was all about. “It’s the coolest ever,” he said. “You find one of the markers and then you call the number and there’s blah blah blah, but then they tell you where to find the next marker.”

Lesson: one person’s carefully crafted, incredibly nuanced narrative is another person’s blah blah blah. Embrace this truth. And then make your game rich enough that it is still “the coolest ever.”

Lessons Learned 6: The storyteller’s ego
In GISKIN, Drake and Pandora are following the thoughts left behind by a small group of people during WW2. The first episode are thoughts from 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the last episode is 1945, shortly before the end of the war. It’s a great storytelling arc, but... it takes you a couple hours to experience it all. Most people can’t or won’t (certainly, they don’t) take that much time.

The lesson here is a really important one for today, and it’s this: the storytelling ego that’s so important in non-participatory media can be a liability in participatory media. I probably should have considered a series of standalone mini-stories. Watch out for that moment when your desire to tell a story your way begins to undermine your player experience.

Lessons Learned 7: Use your mythic power
GISKIN works well because, at heart, it taps into something mythic: we wish places really could talk and tell us about events that happened there and the people who were there before us. It’s hard to explain this well in words, but it’s dead obvious when you’re in Balboa Park and listening to a spooky-sounding voice out of World War 2: you wish this were really real.

Lesson: what myths are working for you in your game or participatory project? If none, why the heck not?

Ken will be checking in to answer your questions on the blog all week. You can find out more about GISKIN ANOMALY at http://giskin.org. To experience it remotely, try the Online Walkthrough.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why is "World Class" so Classist?

This weekend, I heard a story on NPR that really rankled me. Jason Beaubien was reporting on the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, the gleaming new art museum built as a "gift to Mexico" by the world's richest man, Carlos Slim. The museum is free to all-comers and showcases pieces from Slim's extensive collection of European and Mexican art, including pieces by major international artists whose work is not easy to find in Latin America.

The news report, strangely, focused on the question of whether the Soumaya Museum is a rich man's indulgence or a truly "worthy" cultural institution. Slim's son-in-law designed the building. It's in a commercial district. And Slim's biggest offense? He could have bought better art. The news report heavily featured an art historian from Wellesley College, James Oles, who griped that the Museum shows art just because Slim owns it, not because it's any good. At one point, Oles said,
You know, he's one of the only people in the world who could actually afford great, great art at the cost of great art. I will tell you there are many works of art hanging in the Soumaya Museum that I could afford on my professorial salary.
At this point, I was ready to throw the radio across the room. Instead, I listened patiently until the infuriating final sentence:
While the Soumaya Museum has drawn criticism from some in the art world, it's been extremely popular with ordinary Mexicans. Admission is free, and tens of thousands of people have flowed through the museum's doors in the weeks since it opened.
From my perspective, the radio piece pointed the finger in the wrong direction. Why slam Carlos Slim for putting up a monument to his dead wife that also provides Mexican people the opportunity to experience a diversity of world art for free? Why not, instead, indict the "art world" that slams an institution for failing to live up to its parsimonious standards?

Stories like these give the art world (and the museum world, by extension) a bad name. They unnecessarily pit "ordinary people" against experts. They reinforce a fallacy that "world class" institutions are those deemed to be so by a narrow, mostly monolithic group of critics. And worst of all, they might make some "ordinary people" feel inferior about enjoying art in a non-world class setting.

Whenever someone tells me he wants his museum to be seen as world class, I get nervous. In museumland, "world class" has come to mean that an institution is part of a very specific club with its own criteria and rules, most of which are entirely divorced from the needs of the local community. It's ironic that the term "world class"--which should embody an international panoply of forms of expression, presentation, and exploration of museum content--is instead used to hew to a singular vision of excellence.

I want to reclaim "world class" as a term that can celebrate the diverse ways that superlative cultural institutions serve their communities. The Ontario Science Centre is "world class" for its approach to welcoming visitors. The Wing Luke Museum is "world class" for its ability to be a meaningful meeting place for community issues. The Columbus Museum of Art is "world class" for its commitment to inviting visitors to engage with art with all their senses. And so on.

Let's not let art historians and aesthetes give our world class institutions a bad name. What makes a "world class" museum in your book?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psst. Want an Internship?

It's my second week as the Executive Director at The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, CA, and boy is my everything tired. Board committee meetings. Film festival openings. Historical landmark ceremonies. And that's just the fun stuff. I'm also making the 2011-2012 budget, getting to know our terrific staff and volunteers, and starting up a few small participatory projects to launch us into being a more community-driven institution.

And despite the fact that I've enjoyed being at the museum for 12 hours plus for ten days in a row, I'm quickly realizing that if I want to really get some fun participatory projects going, I need some help. There's just too much involved in the first few months of taking over a struggling museum to realistically imagine that I can also make enough fun stuff happen to keep me satisfied. Our staff is fabulous, but they are stretched thin with a slate of summer programs, exhibits, and fundraising efforts, so I'm looking for a few extra hands.

I know, I know. All the diligent boys and girls have already lined up incredible internships, summer jobs, and contracts with the circus. But if YOU are sitting there thinking, "gee, what I really want to do this summer is transform a sterile volunteer desk into a creativity lounge," or "I've always wanted to develop a late night game show where people answer local history trivia and make art at the same time," I have the opportunity for you.

Let me be frank. We have no money. We cannot pay you in dollars. Yes, I feel that museum workers should be paid and paid well for their efforts. But our museum is very small, and we rely heavily on volunteers to do all kinds of things from serving food to documenting collections.

And! Unlike people with paid positions, you will have the opportunity to focus entirely on creating a killer project. I will give you some direction and wander down longingly to see how things are going, but mostly, you'll have the run of the place. If you want to also volunteer some hours at the desk, awesome, but if not, that's ok too. I even have a couple ideas that you could work on without being here in Santa Cruz.

Here's specifically what I'm looking for:
  1. Website redesign. Ever wanted to build a museum website from scratch? A simple one, maybe using Wordpress or Drupal? I know, lots of people get paid lots of money for this, but lots of people do it as volunteers, too. And I can promise you won't be dealing with a bunch of department heads who all want real estate on the homepage or an exec who wants a sparkly unicorn of goofy features. Please help us. Our website is navigationally challenged. And if this sounds too big, we have lots of more specific technology projects (point of sale, interactive staircase) you could get involved with. You don't have to be in Santa Cruz for this one.
  2. Creativity Lounges. Right now, we have landings on our second and third floors that feature a volunteer sitting behind a desk. That volunteer is usually bored, somewhat uncomfortable, and way more interesting than the desk implies. I want to get some used furniture and create "lounges" on these landings where volunteers can do crafts or history research with visitors in a comfortable setting. Like couches? This is the internship for you.
  3. Makers in the Lobby. We have a big, beautiful lobby. When we have events, it's fabulous, but other times it can feel a bit cavernous and dead. I want to invite local artists, crafters, and people who practice historical folkways to come and demo/make/perform in the lobby on a regular basis. I'm looking for an intern who loves to coordinate with artists and feels just as comfortable sweet-talking a ukelele band into giving a demonstration as he does cleaning up from a surfboard shaping afternoon.
  4. Late night programming. This one is wide open. I'd like to start a late night program series focused on working adults, and I'm really open as to what that looks like. It could be a game show. It could be a tag-team art/history lecture series. It could be an exhibit jam. It could be an urban history scavenger hunt. It could be whatever you are thinking about right now.
  5. Family days. Right now, we have monthly family art activities. They're good, but we could do better. We have an amazing plaza right outside the lobby and I'd love to find someone who wants to create incredible programming out there--chalk art murals, making music with unusual items, fort-building...
If you are interested in one or more of these opportunities, please fill out this form and I will get back to you soon. I'm not expecting to make all of these things happen this summer, but I'd love it if we could get a few exciting things off the ground.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

How Do You Capture Compelling Visitor Stories? Interview with Christina Olsen

Lots of museums these days have video comment booths to invite visitors to tell their stories, but how many of those booths really deliver high-impact content? Last week, I talked with Tina Olsen, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, about their extraordinary Object Stories project. They designed a participatory project that delivers a compelling end product for onsite and online visitors… and they made some unexpected decisions along the way.

How and why did Object Stories come to be?

The project arose from a grant announcement from MetLife Foundation around community engagement and outreach. I knew I didn’t want to do something temporary—a program that would last a year or two and then go away. And I also knew we wanted to connect with the Northwest Film Center, which is situated in the museum. There hasn’t been a history of collaboration between the museum and the film center and we wanted the chance to partner more deeply, and build a platform where we could continue to do so.

In the education department, we have some key values around slowing down, conversation and participation around art, and deep looking. And so this concept of asking visitors to spend some focused time thinking about their relationships with objects and artworks really made sense to me.

Also, on a personal level, I had this really powerful experience with my mother in a Storycorps booth in Grand Central years ago that had a profound impact on me. She had revealed things I’d never known, and I kept coming back to it. There was something in there that I wanted to play with in a museum concept.

What did you end up with and how did you get there?

Our first notion was all about something mobile, something that would go out to the community. We imagined an cart at the farmer’s markets where people could record stories. But we couldn’t figure out how we were going to sustain that with our staff.

We ended up with a gallery in the museum instead. It’s in a good location, but it’s also kind of a pass-through space to other galleries. It has a recording booth that you sign up in advance to use, and you go in and tell a story about an object that is meaningful to you. The other parts of the gallery are for experiencing the stories, and for connecting with the Museum collection. We have cases with museum objects that people told stories about, with large images of those storytellers adjacent to the object, and in the middle of the gallery is a long rectangular table with touchscreens where people can access all the stories that have been recorded.

Your recording booth asks participants for audio stories plus photos of themselves with their objects. Why did you choose this format instead of video?

We had planned on having it be video. The proposal to Metlife was all video. Then we started working with our local design and technology firms—Ziba Design and Fashionbuddha—and in the prototyping, it became clear we had to go another way.

We partnered with the Film Center to conduct workshops with community organizations around personal object storytelling. These really informed the project, and helped get the word out about the gallery. We rigged up a video recording booth in Fashionbuddha’s studios. We found people would go in, do their story, come out, say it was so powerful and cathartic, but then the videos would be really bad—boring, too long, unstructured. They were often visually uncomfortable to watch. And some participants were turned off by the video recording—they found it too scary, and being on camera distracted them from telling their story – especially older people.

We had this moment where we were going to sign off on design and move to fabrication, and I was really worried. We had participants who loved the experience, but the watchers were really lukewarm about the results. And we realized of course that the majority audience would be watchers, not storytellers. We invited a cross-section of artists, filmmakers, and advertisers to join us for a think tank. We all sat down and looked at the content and we said, “this is not good enough, this is not watchable enough.”

So what did you do next?

We came up with a system that was much more structured and is based on audio, not video. In the current setup, you walk into the booth, all soundproofed and carpeted, and then you sit down on a cozy bench. You can come alone or with up to three people. You face a screen, and the screen is close enough to reach out and touch without getting up. The screen prompts you, with audio and with words, and it’s in both English and Spanish, because we really wanted to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community in Portland.

First, the screen asks if you want to watch an example story. If not, it says “let’s get started.”

There are five prompts that follow, and for each, you get 45 seconds to record a response. Each of the prompts was really carefully written and tested to scaffold people to tell a great story. People don’t necessarily walk in the booth knowing how to do that. For example, the first prompt, which is about discovery, asks, “When and how did you first receive, discover, or encounter your object? What was your first feeling or impression of it? Who was there?” This prompt really gets people sharing specifics, sharing details—the things that make a story successful.

Another good example is the final question: “If you had to give it to someone, who would it be and what would you say to them?” This question really makes people focus on the meat of what’s important about their object, and it’s a natural summarizer… but in an interesting, personal way.

After you record your audio, you get to take the photos and give your story a six-word title. We experimented with when in the process to take the photos, and it’s nice at the end—it’s a kind of reward. The recording is often very intense—people cry, it takes something out of them. Photos are fun. We prompt participants to hold the object in different ways: close to camera, pose with the object in your lap, hold your object as close to your face as possible, hold it in profile.

How do you edit the stories?

Fashionbuddha built a backend content management system where you can choose audio segments, reorder them, and choose photos. This is made to be sustainable with current staffing– while we have the ability to edit within a 45 second chunk, 99% of the time we don’t do it—we just pick the segments and photos we want to use and put them in order.

The gallery also features objects from the museum’s collection with people’s stories about them. Who are the people who record stories about museum objects?

That is more curated. The first testing we did there was very much the same as Object Stories – anyone could sign up and get involved, pick an object in the museum and tell a story about it. Those stories were, frankly, often very banal. There was an imbalance between stories with people’s own objects, with which they have profound relationships, versus museum objects that they might come see once or twice and like, but not really have a deep connection with.

So we realized we had to have an equivalence–the museum stories had to be profound too. And it couldn’t all be curators, but these storytellers had to be people who had profound relationships with museum objects. We have four stories up now: from a guard, a curator, a longtime museum lover, and an artist. In the future, I’m thinking of really mining our membership, putting out a call to them, building some programs that might help us seed and support the museum stories.

The website for the stories is beautiful. You also got some prime physical real estate for this project. How did you get the gallery?

That was really hard-won. At first, it was going to be a little booth tucked away somewhere. As the project progressed, our prototyping showed us we didn’t want a shallow experience--a photo booth where you could just drop in and do it. We wanted something where people could spend the time and focus deeply on the experience at hand. That required more space.

And it was really important to the director and to me that Object Stories connected to our mission and to our collection. That led me to feel strongly that we needed to have museum objects in the space. It couldn’t be an educational space with no works of art in it. I wanted to integrate this experience into what you do in the rest of the museum. We ended up with a very multi-departmental team, and that helped too.

The big goal is to activate your connection with objects in the rest of the museum, that Object Stories models the idea of having deep relationships with objects for any visitor who comes in.

What do you know so far about the non-participating visitors to the gallery?

I only know anecdotally. People are really entranced with the stories, browsing them on the touchscreens, and with the museum objects as well. They even spend a long time looking at this big case we put up that just features 8x10 cards with photos of people with their objects.

I was surprised at how long many visitors will spend at this case. It’s just graphics. Why would people look at that? I think it may be because people are visually included in the space, and that’s rare in an art museum. They’re very interested and maybe even moved by it.

You can browse stories online and sign up to record one at objectstories.pam.org. Object Stories is funded by the Metlife Foundation, the Kress Foundation, the Lehman Foundation, the Oregon Arts Commission, and the PGE Foundation.

Thanks to Tina for sharing the story of this fascinating project. Tina will be monitoring the blog and responding to your comments over the coming week.