Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Into the Deep End: What's Keeping Museums from Telling Meaty, In-Depth Stories?

I just finished listening to This American Life's incredible two-part series about gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago. It does everything a great documentary story can do: it takes you into another world, introduces you to unforgettable people, defies expectations, and delivers tough realities instead of fairy tales.
I've been consuming a lot of documentary stories recently, primarily through, my new favorite go-to nighttime reading source. Longform curates superlative non-fiction from a variety of sites and magazines. It has introduced me to corrupt university fundraisers, the true history of Tom Dooley, and the world's oldest marathon runner... and that's just in the last week.

All this delightful non-fiction makes me wonder: why aren't museums great at telling these same kinds of deep, intense stories? Why are exhibitions, which have huge potential as immersive, multi-platform narrative devices, so rarely used to that effect?

Yes, I know that every platform is different, and that the captive attention we afford to radio, TV, and written material doesn't map perfectly to a free-choice wander through an exhibition. But exhibitions have the potential to use all those narrative tools PLUS objects, immersive design, and interactive experiences to tell stories.

Strangely, exhibitions have become incredibly successful at creating immersive environments that tell broad conceptual stories--but not so good at telling tight, focused stories. I've experienced many excellent thematic exhibitions that gave me an overall sense of a story, but few that really dove into a particular object or incident. This seems strange given that museums are organized around objects. Think about how common it is to see an exhibition on a time period, an artistic genre, or a broad scientific discipline that uses a variety of objects and narrative devices as guideposts along a diffuse journey, and how rare it is to see an in-depth experience around just one object or set of objects, as in Peter Greenaway's extraordinary (and fictionalized) delving into Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, or Anne Frank's intimate attic hideout.

Too often we pull our punches by using the weakest storytelling techniques--broad generalizations on 50 word labels, an immersive wading pool of narrative bits. We avoid the incredible power that comes from a deep dive into one object, one story, one moment. Social object theory tells us that the most compelling stories exist around individual objects, but we weaken those stories by throwing too much in the same pot. We justify the tradeoff by arguing that we have to tell the broader story, offer more context, integrate more objects.

But tight doesn't have to mean limited. When we experience intense depth, as in the Minnesota History Center's Open House, which explores the stories of residents of one St. Paul home over time, or the Boston Museum of Science's beautiful theater experience about Nikola Tesla, or an incredible single artist show, it stands out. It's unforgettable. The individuals, the nuance, the specificity--the story tattoos itself on your memory in a way that a generalized exhibition cannot. It leads to more interesting conclusions and motivates further exploration. While the story is tighter, the impact is less prescribed, and more powerful.

One of the most surprising versions of this I have ever experienced was in a very small museum in Texas, the Brazos Valley African American Museum. They had a very simple exhibit of single-page laminated stories, transcribed from oral interviews with elders in the community. I was captivated by these first-person accounts because of their clarity and specificity. They led me to places I never would have gone otherwise. The narrative device was almost nil, and yet the content experience was better than I've had in most exhibitions.

Specificity trumps generality when it comes to creating a powerful documentary story. It's easy to imagine a hard-hitting exhibition on teens and gun violence that might tell a "broader story" than that on This American Life--more statistics, more diverse images and voices from throughout the country, more opportunities to reflect and connect. And yet it wouldn't be as powerful as an exhibition on just one story of one high school. It wouldn't be as deep. It wouldn't be as real. And ultimately (and ironically), it wouldn't have the power to expose the bigger issues in the nuanced way that a tight focus can.

When have you experienced this kind of deep dive in an exhibition? What do you think makes it possible, and what do you think makes it so rare?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Guest Post: Radical Collaboration - Tools for Partnering with Community Members

This guest post was written by my incredible colleagues, Stacey Marie Garcia and Emily Hope Dobkin, with minimal input from me. It started as a handout for a session that Stacey and I are doing at the California Association of Museums, and then I realized it was so darn useful that it was worth sharing with all of you. Can't wait to hear what you think.

The majority of our public programs at the Santa Cruz Museumof Art & History are created and produced through community collaborations. Each month we work with 50-100 individuals to co-produce our community programs.  It’s not unusual for us to meet with an environmental activist, a balloon artist, a farmer, and the Mayor of Santa Cruz all in one day. Every time we collaborate, we learn new ways to improve our process, organization and communication.

We never received a “how-to-guide” for collaborating with community members here at the MAH, but over time, we have acquired some basic tools that have shaped our approach. We realize collaboration differs greatly for each individual and organization. We offer these tools in the spirit of sharing and look forward to learning about the techniques you use in your own community.

Start with and continuously identify your communities.

  • Who are they?
  • What are their needs?
  • What are their assets?
  • Who is represented in your museum? Who isn’t?
One way we do this is through C3 (Creative Community Committee) meetings. C3 is a group of diverse community members that meets to creatively brainstorm new forms of collaboration with community members. C3 topics have ranged from exhibition development, community needs, outreach programs, our Loyalty Lab project, and family programs.

Reach out to and continuously seek diverse collaborators--not just the usual suspects.

We look for partners who have:
  • An understanding of and desire to help meet your community’s needs.
  • Incredible assets, skills and resources to offer to your community but they are in need of more awareness, promotion, visibility and representation.
  • A genuine enthusiasm for sharing their skills, building knowledge and developing relationships in the community even if they haven’t done it before. For example, a few months ago we had a couple approach us to propose a Pop-Up Tea Ceremony.  Their enthusiasm and commitment charmed us and aligned with our social bridging goals. We invited them to set up the day after we met them and they’ve been Friday regulars ever since.
  • Experience working with a wide variety of age groups or teaching in general. 
  • Good communication skills and are kind and friendly.
  • Large and small (or no) followings. When planning programs or events, we involve a combination of these groups to share and bridge audiences, bringing big, diverse crowds to new artists and ideas.

Openly invite collaboration by establishing and maintaining transparency about your partnerships with the public and fellow staff members.

  • On your website: share your programing goals, solicit collaborations in general and for specific events, provide easily accessible staff contact information, clearly state how your collaborations function, give thanks and acknowledgement to your collaborators through your website and on Facebook page.
  • At your museum: have your front desk staff aware of upcoming events and collaboration possibilities, always have business cards available for visitors interested in collaborating so they can easily contact staff members.  Be available to talk with people at your events and hand out your contact information to anyone who has an idea they’d like to talk with you about or is interested in helping. Follow up with them later.
  • Don’t pass judgment or make assumptions. Always be open to discussing collaborative possibilities with anyone and everyone and then decide if it’s a good fit.  
  • Mine your colleagues; ask for ideas and suggestions from staff members for resources. You never know who might have connections to some place or another. For our Art That Moves event, our Membership and Development Director suggested the incredibly popular Tarp Surfing activity.

Always meet your collaborators in person. We can’t overstate how important this is to getting everyone moving in the same direction.

  • Clearly explain how your organization collaborates with others before you meet.
  • Meet them at your museum so they begin to become more familiar and comfortable with the space and understand how they will fit into the event or program.
  • Ask them about their goals for this collaboration and share your goals.
  • Find a way, together, to achieve both.
  • Brainstorm together your wildest ideas and then scale back. For our 3rd Friday series, we like to have an initial meeting with all of our collaborators and together go over the community program goals tied to the theme of the event. Incredible projects can arise when you have a poet, a librarian, a printmaker, a bookbinder and a teacher all throwing out ideas together. (Radical Craft Night and Poetry & Book Arts)
  • Allow time to pass for further individual reflection, for them to share their ideas with other members of their organization and for you to give it further thought.
  • Confirm final details with them over phone, email or go to their location this time.

Collaboration is based upon communication. Get ready to talk.

  • Be prepared to spend an enormous amount of time communicating with each individual through email, over the phone and in person.
  • Make time for them. When you give collaborators more of your time, they will feel more confident about their role in the event, their project/workshop/demonstration will inevitably be stronger and your visitors will be happier.
  • When you produce a large event with many individuals, make sure they are all connected through email. This establishes communication across the entire group, collective teamwork, the opportunity to share resources and the possibility of future relationships and connections to develop amongst your collaborators.  Recently, we hosted a PechaKucha night at the MAH, which featured a wide range of community members presenting on eight different topics. These eight people didn't know each other at all before the event. In a pre-event email exchange, one presenter offered up a useful link to help practice giving this kind of talk. That email sparked several messages of appreciation and excitement, creating a sense of comradery.

Even if you can’t financially compensate your collaborators, show your collaborators how much you value them.

Many times, we cannot pay our collaborators. For some MAH events, we collaborate with 120 individuals across the spectrum from amateurs to professionals, all of whom have very different expectations about compensation. How do we pay a group of ukulele players, a teenage rock band and a world-renowned musician fairly and on a very limited budget?

Here are some other ways we compensate our collaborators:
  • Give them as much press as possible. Suggest them to press for a feature in the local paper.
  • Acknowledge them on your website and always link to their website.
  • Pay for all their materials.
  • Offer food and drinks for them at the event.
  • Give them a guest pass.
  • Thank them and credit them for their work and volunteered time.
  • Refer them if someone asks you for a recommendation.
  • Help them learn from the experience. We recently had a group of students creating balloon art during our Winterpalooza Family Festival. New to the art form and the museum, we gave them a gift certificate to reflect over milkshakes at a local burger joint after the event.
  • Encourage them to promote themselves/their organization and offer ways for visitors to learn more about their events at your event. It’s a reciprocal appreciation: we are able to showcase and share the amazing talent in our community, and they’re able to share their work with a larger audience, make new connections in the community and learn from their experiences interacting with the public

Your partners are doing a lot of work. Make it as easy for them as possible.

  • Share your resources and connections that can help make their activity/collaboration stronger. A friendly sheet metal company in Santa Cruz provided scrap metal for our Experience Metal festival last summer; we thanked them by donating back the giant robot visitors partly made from the scrap.
  • Buy, gather, and prep all the materials you can. This might mean cutting thousands of papers various sizes, wheeling hundreds of library books through downtown, dumpster diving for cardboard boxes and driving up to the mountains to move a 200lb letterpress to the MAH.
  • Set up their tables and materials for them before they arrive.
  • Have volunteers ready to assist them with set up and break down, as well as coverage during breaks.
  • Clearly communicate with them throughout the process, show them exactly where they will be and where everyone else will be, let them know the schedule, where to check in, how and where to find help and assistance and what is expected of them before, during and after the event.

Get collaborators' feedback and give them credit for their contributions.

  • Survey your collaborators extensively to find out: ways to improve for next time, what they appreciated, how or if they benefited from the collaboration, and what changes they’d like to see made. Here's a sample collaborator survey from our recent Poetry and Book Arts event.
  • Read the surveys and make active and immediate changes based upon their feedback.
  • Document the event: Share photographs of the event on social media outlets and always have fully downloadable photographs available for their use.
  • Keep in contact with them. These people are now one of your best and most reliable resources and you can be theirs as well. Stay up to date with them about future collaborations or other potential collaborators they may know. Be helpful to them and they will be helpful to you. 
How do you collaborate with your community? What tools and methods have you found beneficial?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Diversity Question in the Arts Blogosphere

Every once in a while, I'll get a boring email inviting me to be part of some kind of blog salon on a particular topic, the idea being that all the bloggers who are contacted will write about that topic during the assigned month. This never seems like a good idea.

But this month, it's as if there was a subliminal email sent to a crew of bloggers in the arts suggesting a salon about audience diversity, and how/why to move in that direction. The posts are meaty and the commenting is robust. So this week, I want to honor this conversation with links to a few of the great posts and a couple other sources that inform the way I think about diversity and engagement.

Admittedly, many of these posts exist in a bubble of inter-referencing (which I am only exacerbating with this post):
  • Clay Lord weighs in on the data about audience representation in Bay Area theater, and the ways that a majority culture can oppress its own value systems on others. A rare blog post that combines personal narrative with statistical charts. 
  • Diane Ragsdale responds with some thoughts on how funders could influence these issues, whether they should, and how organizations might respond. She references my recent post about the Irvine Foundation's new approach to arts funding (which includes, but does not solely focus on diversifying audience engagement).
  • Barry Hessenius follows up with more thoughts on "coercive philanthropy" and how and whether funders make change possible in the field.
  • And then Ian David Moss pulls it together with an interesting question about whether we're too focused on how to support and shift institutions instead of how to engage and empower individual people/audience members.
In some ways, what's more interesting is the world beyond this bubble. Some events:
  • Aaron Dworkin, a pretty amazing individual in many ways, is putting together SphinxCon, a conference happening this weekend in Detroit with a focus on "empowering ideas for diversity in the arts." You should go and tell us all about it.
  • I truly wish I could have attended Facing Race, which sounded like a completely awesome and transformative event this past fall in Baltimore. My sister attended, and I kicked myself about 87 times for not knowing about it or getting out there.
  • And Carlton Turner runs Alternate Roots, another incredible artists' organization with a focus on social change that runs an annual conference/camp/experience which I have heard is mind-blowing in North Carolina.
And a couple museum-specific sites and resources:
  • I've become intrigued by the Incluseum blog, which is run by a group of museum folk in Seattle with a mission to encourage social inclusion in museums. Their interests run the gamut from issues of socio-economic inclusion to race, gender, and physical and mental abilities.
  • I recently met Jada Wright-Green, a museum professional who runs a site called Heritage Salon that looks at issues and possibilities in the African-American museum community. Jada is passionate about supporting the future of African-American heritage institutions and working to diversify the museum field as a whole.
  • The Center for the Future of Museums maintains a good list of top ten resources on demographic change as related to museums. While few are prescriptive in offering suggestions on how museums might meet the challenge of a changing population, they provide good research fodder for starting points.
  • And my favorite, unsurprisingly, is Elaine Heumann Gurian, who has written powerfully about the architecture of inclusion and exclusion in museums. Even amidst a sea of new books about museums and social change, I find myself reaching for Elaine's classics above all others.
Where do you fall in this conversation, and what resources have pushed your thinking about diversity?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Challenges, Rules, and Epic Wins: Using Game Design to Build Visitor Loyalty

Think of the last time you overcame a huge obstacle. When you mastered arcane rules to achieve your goal. When you felt that sense of "fiero!"--an epic, fist-pumping win.

Was it while playing a game?

Last week, as part of my museum's year-long Loyalty Lab project, we hosted a workshop for Bay Area museum professionals with special guests Ian Kizu-Blair and Sam Lavigne of the game design firm Situate. Ian and Sam design real-world games that encourage people to engage in ordinary environments in extraordinary ways. They are the geniuses behind SF0, Ghosts of a Chance, and Journey to the End of the Night--games that encourage people to see their city or a museum in a new way through a series of unusual rules and challenges.

I've been interested in applying game design concepts to museums for a long time (there are over sixty posts on this blog on the topic). While the phrase "gamification" has been overexposed and can lead to inane design choices, the underlying elements that make games powerful--narrative, a sense of purpose, opportunity to attain mastery--are universal. Particularly when it comes to a project like Loyalty Lab, whose goal is to encourage repeat and meaningful participation, game design techniques can help visitors feel a sense of measurable purpose and mastery as they deepen their engagement with the museum.

Ian and Sam asked us to design three seemingly-simple things: a challenge to overcome, rules to master, and a win condition to celebrate. I encourage any team to try this. It's not easy. Here's what we learned from each of these activities.

A Challenge to Overcome

Every game has a central challenge or mission. Save the princess. Get four of a kind. Capture the flag. How could we design a simple, understandable challenge that visitors could accomplish in the course of a series of visits to the museum?

We've actually been experimenting quite a lot with this here at the MAH with a simple project called the Five Friday card. At the end of October, we started handing visitors business cards with all the Fridays through the end of 2012 listed on it. The "Five Friday Challenge" was simple: come on five Fridays before the end of the year, get your card punched, and earn a museum membership in 2013. Our goal was to help people see the museum as a Friday night habit. This experiment was surprisingly successful; despite the busy holiday season, we had 18 people complete the challenge (out of 500 cards distributed). The challenge was simple, understandable, and for the right person, pretty fun.

This is functionally another form of the scavenger hunt, where the goal is checkins over time instead of checkins at discrete locations. At their best, these kinds of challenges encourage people to explore the venue and feel comfortable coming back again and again. At their worst, it's just about getting the stamp and not about having the experience.

Based on the Loyalty Lab workshop, we're now talking about experimenting with a "bring a friend" challenge. We find that word of mouth is the most powerful way that people come to the museum, but once people become regulars, they may not be in the mindset of bringing others with them. We have families who are incredibly loyal to our programs, but they think of the museum as their family thing. Maybe a challenge that focuses on sharing that experience could give a nudge in a more social direction.

The hardest part of this element was thinking of challenges or missions that we felt were meaningful AND simple to convey. Abstract goals around learning or engagement don't boil down well to a short phrase. But it's worth realizing that for most visitors, they have some kind of simple goal in mind when they visit, whether it's "get inspired" or "survive until lunch." If we can offer understandable alternative goals that they haven't considered, we might be able to powerfully reframe the experience.

Rules to Follow

Ian and Sam noted that most games are based on the fact that there are rules that serve as obstacles to achieving the goal at hand. They asked us to devise rules that would make it "extra-challenging" to experience the museum.

This was met with confusion and some resistance. We're all working so hard to reduce barriers to engagement, to make the museum experience less challenging, not more. There are secret rules everywhere in a museum that challenge people as they navigate our spaces.

But when we started reframing this in terms of idiosyncratic rituals, we got further. For example, at our museum, we've been giving out free small cups of hot chocolate at winter events in a little booth made from a couch box. We offer a variety of marshmallow types, and the "price" for different types of marshmallows is paid in high fives (see photo). This silly rule--pay for hot chocolate with high fives--creates a kind of ritual that is representative of our overall approach to whimsical engagement at family programs.

And I don't want to write off rules entirely. Recently, I was talking with a colleague about the American Repertory Theater's Donkey Show, a play that breaks a lot of conventional rules of theater in its club-style venue, vibe, and marketing. Artistic Director Diane Paulus has spoken powerfully about her desire to transform Oberon, the Donkey Show's venue, into an atypical theater space by stripping away all A.R.T. branding, blacking out the windows, and generally making it feel like an underground venue. Hearing her speak about this, I was torn. I was drawn to Diane's vision--who doesn't love the magic of discovery?--while at the same time struggling with the extent to which this approach creates a kind of exclusivity that is just as limiting as the "rules" of a normal theater.

Our rules define us. Whether your rules are about the things people can't do in your space or how they have to pay for things, it changes the overall feel and engagement with the institution. For me, the most powerful outcome of this exercise was how it got me thinking about our overt and covert rules, and how we might wholly "own" them to sculpt desired experiences.

If you are interested in rules, please check out this interview with Nikki Pugh about the Ministry of Rules, a really wonderful project in which children rewrote the rules for a museum.

Celebrating the Win

Most games have a big finish. Whether it's the screen that pops up with pixelated fireworks or your own personal board game victory dance, games have clear endings, clear winners, and a bevy of special effects to celebrate.

How can we create celebratory endings to visitors' experiences in museums? This challenge elicited the most creative responses in our workshop, from take-home gifts to shared rituals. One of my favorite examples of a museum that does this beautifully is the Indianapolis Children's Museum, where they end each day with a parade that goes from their top floor to the bottom, collecting families along the way. Ending the experience can be particularly painful for children, who may have to be dragged from the museum sobbing. In Indianapolis, a shared song, some flags to wave, and a collective snowball of people rolling down to the exit replaces the tears with a celebratory event.

I'd love to hear what thoughts this brings up at your institution, and how you might use understandable challenges, tricky rules, or celebratory win conditions to build deeper relationships with your visitors and members. I know it's a challenge in itself to write a blog comment. You have to find something to say, battle the complicated comment system, and suffer an abstract payoff. But think of it as a game. Every comment that comes in earns you a celebratory cheer from Santa Cruz and all the readers around the world who benefit from your ideas. That's worth trying to win, right?