Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Traveling Couches and other Emergent Surprises Courtesy of an Open Platform

How do community members make your institution better?

I like to ask myself this question periodically, challenging myself to find substantive ways for visitors to contribute to our museum. Yes, we have the standard ways--volunteer programs, board service, and community partnerships--but I strongly believe that if we are doing our jobs right, every visitor who walks through our doors should be able to make a meaningful impact.

To that end, our exhibitions are full of participatory elements. Visitors can comment on how we can improve or what they would like to see. They can contribute their own stories, objects, and creative work to exhibitions. We actively seek participation and develop structured opportunities for visitors to collaborate with us.

That's all fabulous, but it's also all by design. And when I think back on the past year, some of the most magical things that have happened at the museum have NOT been designed by us. Instead, they've been driven by community members who see the museum as a platform for their own creative pursuits.

Here are just four surprises that have invigorated the museum in the past few weeks:
  • Pop Up Tea Ceremony. Last month, a couple came in and asked if they could stage a pop up tea ceremony at the museum. We said yes, and they have now participated in several events, offering a unique mix of traditional tea ceremony, koto music, and bedazzled plastic microphones (see bottom left of photograph).
  • Happening Couch. A local engineer, Greg McPheeters, brought his tandem-bike powered recycled couch to our Trash to Treasure festival last Friday night. Riding the art couch through downtown Santa Cruz with two visitors and a dog while blasting the Jackson 5 was one of the highlights of my year. Here's a picture of it in action.
  • Evergreen Cemetery Board Game. One of our research volunteers, Sangye Hawke, blew me away when she posted a photo on Facebook of the board game she's developing about the restoration work we're doing at historic Evergreen Cemetery. What started as a fun personal project for her will hopefully become part of our permanent history gallery--a space we are trying to make more interactive over the coming years.
  • Connections through Collections. A college student who visited our Santa Cruz Collects exhibition wrote to us after her visit to share that she has a childhood collection of bouncy balls (like Aaron Schumacher, a young collector profiled in the exhibition). The student is now donating her collection to Aaron so his can keep growing.
Of course, for every one of these enchanting surprises, we also have many of more variable quality: people who walk in with their paintings on their back asking about display opportunities, people who send us poorly-produced videos of their bands or projects, and lots of speculative, odd conversations. It's not unusual for me and our public programming staff members to have several short interactions every week with newcomers who walk in the door with idiosyncratic visions for cultural engagement.

I've realized that while I always used to ask that question in the frame of "what are we doing to make it possible for community members to make this institution better?," the most powerful evidence of it happening is when our active role as designers/facilitators becomes invisible. Community members, artists, and organizations increasingly see our museum as a place where they can advance their own goals, and so they approach us. We don't have to convince them that it's their museum. Instead, we just have to be generous and thoughtful about how they can--or cannot--participate with us. We've even started reflexively mumbling, "well, it is your museum," when someone comes dancing in the door or moves a chair or starts reciting poetry.

To me, this is an example of how the aggregation of participatory practices fundamentally changes the role that an organization has in its community. We've created a very consistent message about being an open platform for local creativity--through exhibitions, event design, online, even the conversations we have with the press. And while we are still continually seeking out great partners and cultural combinations, we're not always the instigators of those opportunities. The more we structure in participation, the more people feel empowered to bring their own brilliance to the table, spontaneously and completely beyond our expectations. The magic isn't by design. It happens because people see an opening where there wasn't one before.

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