Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dreaming of Perpetual Beta: Making Museums More Incremental

When I started this blog in 2006, I made a multi-media introduction to the concept of "museum 2.0" based on Tim O'Reilly's four key elements of Web 2.0:
  1. Venue as content platform instead of content provider: the museum becomes a stage on which professionals and amateurs can curate, interpret, and remix artifacts and information.
  2. Architecture of participation with network effects: each person who participates contributes something meaningful and lasting. Visitors' interactions allow them both to personalize their museum experiences and to engage with other visitors through their shared interests. The museum gets better the more people use it.
  3. Perpetual beta: the museum is always in flux, incrementally releasing new versions, refining procedures, and responding to audience desires.
  4. Flexible, modular support for distributed products: inviting people to plug-in their own creations, whether those be DIY audio tours, pop up events, or co-created exhibitions.
From 2006-2011, I focused almost entirely on #1 and #2, playing with ways to invite visitors to actively participate with professionals to co-create powerful experiences around museum objects. 

But in the past year and a half as a museum director, I find myself increasingly interested in #3 and #4. In a lot of ways, our successful turnaround at the MAH has been driven by both embracing incremental change and opening up clear opportunities for community organizations and individuals to "plug" their cultural brilliance into our space. We're using #3 and #4 to achieve #1 and #2 in the Museum 2.0 playbook.

At first, our enthusiasm for incremental change and flexibility was a reaction to a tough financial position. When I started at the MAH last May, we had absolutely no money. We also had a vision to be a thriving, central gathering place for our community. The only way to reconcile our resources with our goals was to start doing whatever we could to start nudging in the direction of our dreams. We scrounged for free couches. We invited local artists and community groups to perform. We designed events and interactive exhibits on ten dollar budgets. We experimented with everything--hours, front desk staffing structure, community programs. We knew we weren't doing everything at the desired quality level. But we got it going anyway.

A year and a half later, we are in a much more stable financial position... and we've tried to internalize a mindset of perpetual beta and modular support for community collaboration. As things got better financially, as we learned more about what worked and didn't, we replaced furniture and enhanced our exhibitions. We upped the budgets and the scale of the projects while maintaining an iterative approach that relies on prototyping and low-tech experiments.

I feel strongly that as long as we have a social mission and a strong desire to fulfill that mission, we should do everything we can every step of the way to attack it, even if that means starting with something simplistic, messy, or uncertain. We make room for interns and artists and people who walk in the door with crazy ideas. There are plenty of times I have silenced the exhibit designer in my brain who wanted everything just so, or the museum director who wanted to make our visitors happy all the time. If we're going to move forward, we have to be able to try things in a risk-tolerant environment.

One of the things that often made me uncomfortable as a consultant was the extent to which museums, and their funding vehicles, often make perpetual beta an impossibility. The exhibit is planned for years and must open perfect on day 1. The grant is for a three-year educational program whose curriculum has to be locked in from the start. If we can't have a perfect couch designed by Frank Gehry, we won't give visitors couches at all.

The result is damaging for museum professionals and visitors alike. For museum professionals, it creates a falsely elevated sense of risk and stress around projects that, let's face it, don't have to be perfect out of the gate. No one is going to die if you change a label a few days after opening. No one will be seriously injured if you invite a dance company in and they do something strange. No one will suffer if you put out a prototype--or two, or ten--before finalizing a design. We need to build experimentation into our work processes if we want our work to evolve over time.

For museum visitors, the damage is even worse. How many brilliant sparks of ideas never get to the public because we falsely assume it will take too many resources to get them off the ground? How can we show people that we truly care about making our institutions welcoming, or challenging, or fun, or creative, if we need two years and eight approvals to put out some couches and paintbrushes?

I'm not suggesting that museum professionals shouldn't strive for excellence. What I've seen--in Web 2.0 and elsewhere--is that real excellence comes from incrementally pushing towards a big audacious goal. If you can get it right on the first try or with the resources you have, then your dreams may not be big enough.

What are you working towards, and how you are iterating and experimenting to get there?

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