Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fifteen Random Things I've Learned about Design for Participation This Year

We've been offering a host of participatory and interactive experiences at The Museum of Art & History this season. All of them are cheap, mostly simple, and occasionally, dangerous. I loved Jasper Visser's list of 30 "do's" for designing participatory projects earlier this month. I thought I'd add a few of the little things we've learned about visitors (and ourselves) through our monkeying. Please share yours in the comments.

  1. Cut your instructions down to as little text as possible. This is true for any kind of exhibit. If you don't need them, dump 'em. 
  2. In contrast, people will read signs that explain how their work will be/was used, or that the giant sculpture of metal fish they are looking at was made by visitors. They will be impressed. They will want to participate. Accolades are more inspiring than instructions.
  3. If you want people to write and/or draw, encourage them to draw. The timid ones will write anyway, and if you give them the option to write, no one will draw.
  4. Different activities need different levels of materials to appear "open for business." For crafting activities, putting out a small number of materials encourages people to use sparingly and respectfully. But for voting activities with objects in receptacles (in our case, coffee beans), the receptacle has to be pretty full for visitors to comfortably understand that they can use some.
  5. Put out seating for two or more with every activity, unless it's something incredibly personal. People will talk about what they are writing or making.
  6. Artists work incredibly hard to produce their work. Design paired activities to reflect or at least respect the sensibility of their work, and where possible, involve them in the design.
  1. If you put out pencils and paper for an activity on a table that reads like a table, you're fine. If it's a couple of pedestals that you painted and attached to make a table (no wax, matte paint), kids will scribble all over the table. The same is true for paper instructions mounted on the table. Laminated = safe, mounted on foam core = not. Get a good eraser.
  2. Have a game plan for what you'll do with past visitors' contributions as you prune to make room for more. We do different things with different products. I keep visitor comments in my office. For an activity in which visitors write stories on butterflies and pin them to a board, we group older stories into "clumps" of butterflies at the edges of the board to look pretty and make room for new contributions. And the crayon drawings on the fridge door in an exhibition of award-winning local artists? We throw those away.
  3. Prune for diversity and clarity, not quality. The contributions that are the "best" may be a narrow reflection of your own personal preferences.
  4. Don't go overboard in affixing things to the wall or table or surface. Visitor behavior will tell you how much glue or lamination you need. We guessed wrong.
  5. You can put out full cans of coffee beans on a third floor hallway overlooking a stairwell and people will not throw fistfuls of coffee beans down the stairs. They will very conscientiously pick up any beans that drop on the floor. Small kids love this task.
  6. Have extra coffee beans, index cards or whatever you're using on hand at all times. Make sure staff/volunteers know where they are. Schedule volunteers to prep more butterflies.
  1. "Make and share" is more powerful for many people than "make and take." Most people--including kids--want to display their creations, not keep them. 
  2. People of all ages can use sledgehammers with minimal oversight. We had over 400 successful bangers with no injuries. The risk of liability was worth it.
  3. People love pleasant surprises. Our most commented-on change by far is the brightly painted chairs in the elevator. This isn't even participatory. It's just fun. 
  1. Find a way to get back in touch with people to let them know that their fish/butterfly/story/object is on display. We haven't figured out a seamless way to capture emails so we can do this yet.
  2. Encourage gifting. We are trying some activities that invite people to make things for others, or to take something made by a previous visitor. Most people do not take the bait. We need to find a more appealing way to do this.
  3. Figure out what to do with the giant collaboratively-created objects when an exhibition run is over. Right now, we have a lots of vacant space, so visitors are helping us paint murals and make massive mobiles. But we won't want those things forever, or we'll want to create new things for those sites. I'm not sure whether this is the ordinary churn of the museum or if we need a more thoughtful "deaccessioning" plan for collaborative work.
Here's to a 2012 filled with more experiments, dialogue, and surprises.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Open Thread: How Does Your Institution Say Happy New Year?

It's that time of year when inboxes fill up with digital thank you's, happy holidays, and end-of-year solicitations. At the MAH, we had an intern who worked this summer and fall to create a video (her first!) to reflect some of the new activities at the museum. We didn't really have a plan for what we would do with it, but when it was done, I suddenly realized we had a great way to showcase 2011 to our members, donors and friends. (Warning: the song can get stuck in your head, and yes, that is my dad singing.)

And that made me wonder: how do other organizations showcase their work at the end of the year? What do you do to ask, tell, share, and celebrate what's been happening at your institution? This year, I've seen everything from heartfelt solicitations (Young Playwrights Theater) to surreal pop culture singalongs (MCA Denver) to impressively-produced, collaborative, yet poignant pop culture singalongs (Detroit Science Center, which closed one month after this video was released).

Enjoy our video and share your own via the comments. I don't really have any brilliant ideas on what makes a good end-of-year video (except that it should be short). I'd love to hear your thoughts on what works and doesn't. If lots of people share their videos in the comments, I'll write a follow-up post next week based on some of the apparent trends.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yes, Visitors Can Help You. But You Have to Let Them.

Two weeks ago, two of my staff members came to me with a problem. They were planning a wall mural for our classroom. They planned to paint the outline of Santa Cruz County, print out photos of a series of important landmarks or icons throughout the county, and then paint those items onto the map. As part of our monthly First Friday community event, they would invite visitors to draw some of the icons, and then the drawings would be the basis for what would be painted on the mural.

The problem? It was Friday, a few hours before the drawing activity, and my colleagues were worried that it would be too challenging for people to draw the icons and landmarks selected. They were afraid that visitors would get frustrated or that the quality of their work would not be good enough to translate to the mural. We often avoid drawing as a community art activity because visitors can get really judgmental of their own abilities, and our staff just felt that this might be too hard.  They wanted to drop the activity.

I asked what plan B was if visitors didn't draw the items. They said that they would draw them or translate them from photographs in some way. These are both busy people, and while they are very artistic, neither is a crack drawer.

I encouraged them to go ahead with the community activity as planned. It seemed to me like we had little to lose and a lot to gain if visitors could in fact make some good representations of the icons. I figured this was a classic crowd-sourcing activity; while not everyone can draw well, it seemed a heck of a lot more likely that we'd get some good drawings from a few of the 800+ people at the event than we'd get if we never asked.

Visitors rose to the challenge and made some incredible drawings. It turned into a pretty wild evening in the classroom, filled with, "Whoa! You drew that?!"s, visitors pouring over each other's work, and impossible decisions about which drawings would be used for the final mural. We were all surprised by the quality of the visitors' work. We selected final drawings for the mural based on drawings by young kids, teenagers, and adults. This Friday, a new set of visitors will paint the drawn icons onto the actual mural.

This experience reminded me of how much confidence it takes to say yes to any new activities (this isn't limited to participatory projects) because of unfamiliarity with the process. My colleagues are smart, generous people who love involving visitors in our work. But when the work gets complicated or difficult, it's easy to get nervous about visitors' ability to perform.

A participatory project is one in which visitors/users can actively contribute to make the institution better. That's only possible if we let them try. We're probably all self-censoring opportunities for community members to make significant contributions to our work. How could visitors improve your institution, and what do you need to let go of to help them do it?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Digital Museums Reconsidered: Exploring the Walker Art Center Website Redesign

I have a confession to make: I've never cared much about museums on the Web. I'm focused on the onsite, in-person experience. When smart people talk about digital museums and virtual experiences, I nod and compartmentalize it as someone else's bailiwick. I understand the value of having a web presence that is reflective of institutional brand, makes content available for people to use in a variety of ways, and enables new connections with community members. But I've never really understood what it could mean for a museum to create a website that has a complementary function to the physical institution--an entity in its own right that expands beyond the scope of the physical institution, programs, and collection.

Now, I think I'm starting to get it. Last week, the Walker Art Center launched a major website redesign, which museum geeks are hailing as "a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites," (Seb Chan) and an "earth-shaking game changer" (Museumnerd). Here's what I see: a website as a unique core offering--alongside, but not subservient to, the physical institution. is not about the Walker Art Center. It is the Walker Art Center, in digital form.

The new site resembles an online newspaper, featuring articles written by Walker staff alongside stories from the greater world of art reporting on the web. While there is a tight menu of Walker Art Center offerings at the top (Visit, Exhibitions & Events, Media, Collections, Join), the rest of the website is a digitally-based panoply of content broadly related to the Walker's mission. It is an online experience about contemporary art that goes beyond the Walker's walls.

And it breaks a lot of conventional rules about museum homepages. Such as:
  • It organizes the content primarily by "stories"--a news lexicon that I've never seen used in a museum context.
  • There's lots of content everywhere, including little things you wouldn't usually see on a museum website--like the current weather in Minneapolis, where the Walker resides. 
  • It features many stories ("Art from Elsewhere") that were not produced by the museum and are not about the museum. 
  • The "Art from Elsewhere" stories all link to sites that are not associated with the Walker. No more lock 'em in and keep 'em here--the theory is that the value of the site is in the curation of links across the web.
  • The name "Walker Art Center" is abbreviated to "WALKER" at the top of the homepage. It's not 100% clear that this thing called represents a museum or facility, though there are ample opportunities to discover that.
Is this the future of all museum websites? Probably not. The care and feeding required for a site like this is tremendous. The Walker employs a four-person editorial team (one of whom is completely dedicated to the website), along with a five-person new media initiative group. That's more people than work in my museum total--and a lot more who are dedicated to digital experiences and content than at even the largest museums around the world.

But the biggest reason that the Walker site is so unusual is its clarity of purpose. Not only did the Walker have the resources to create a major online project, they had the institutional coherence and focus to make it their primary website. Many, many museums have created superlative online experiences--from the IMA's ArtBabble to the Exploratorium's educational resources to the V&A's collections site any number of exhibition microsites--but these are all offshoots in the museum website universe. 

What the Walker has done is commit to a unique online approach--not just for one program or microsite, but for their homepage. They took their vision of the institution as an idea hub, looked at comparable sites online that achieve that vision, and adopted and adapted the journalistic approach to their goals. 

An institution of any size with enough mission-coherence and courage could create a website that is comparably unique. It comes down to articulating your mission in a digital space. Not every museum would choose a journalistic approach. Maybe the metaphor for your institution is a restaurant with a simple set of consistent offerings or a music venue with a constantly rotating program of events. Maybe some museum websites would look like online schools, or community bulletin boards, or shopping sites. But I suspect that most of them would continue being a little of this, a little of that, with a brochure for visiting slapped on top. And I think that's ok too if your goal is to have a physical museum with a website that supports it.

But if you want to create a digital museum as a partner to the physical, take note. Thank you, Walker Art Center, for showing me one version of what this can look like.