Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Facebook as Staff Backchannel: A Simple Way to Promote Transparency and Intimacy

A month ago, one of our front-line staff members, Sarah Groh, came to her supervisor and me with a concern. Sarah and some of her colleagues in visitor services feel disconnected from the work that happens "upstairs" in the office and in our creative project development.

This problem is nothing new. Any place with people working different schedules in different parts of the building suffers from it. It can be easy for front-line staff to feel like second-class citizens; they can't make it to regular staff meetings, they work on days when other people are off, and their work, while deeply important to our overall mission, can be repetitive and deeply unsexy.

At our museum, we've gotten better at communication up from the front desk to the office. Visitor services staff write synopses of weekend days, notable visitor interactions, and events that help me and others get a sense of what's going on. But as Sarah pointed out, that communication is one-way: from front-line to office, never from office to the front desk.

And so we decided to try something really simple: a private staff Facebook group. We thought for a minute about more complicated backchannel options but realized that what we really wanted was an easy-to-use, opt-in space where people could share what's going on with their work.

At first, from a managerial perspective, I was unsure. Would people feel pressured to post and follow? Would enough people use it to make it work? Would it help with the basic problem we were trying to solve?

Within just a week of its creation, the "MAH Stories" private Facebook group had proven itself as a ridiculous success. People use it to share surprises in the archives, inspiring meetings with artists, dead birds in the lobby, and free food in the fridge. People post silly photographs from the basement cleanup and cheer on each other's small successes. A colleague who's out on maternity leave posts photos of her baby and makes everyone jealous.

The group organically and immediately put an end to all-staff emails (except for the highly administrative). At the same time, it opened up opportunities to share things that never would have felt "important enough" for an all-staff email - like the fact that three people were wearing purple pants on Tuesday, or a photo of an exhibit in development, or the false alarm on a bomb threat due to an overturned crockpot in the driveway. For several of us who were traveling in May to conferences, the Facebook group became a natural place to get reconnected with the flow of what's happening at home and to share some of what we were learning on the road.

I doubt this would be the perfect solution for every organization, but it really is amazing how quickly it has changed the nature of cross-institution communication at our museum. Here are a few things I'm learning from this experiment:
  • Promoting openness and participation on staff takes just as much work as it does in the community. We're an institution that focuses intentionally on being transparent and collaborative with our community members. It's ironic and a bit surprising that I didn't realize sooner that we need the same level of intentionality to bring this ethos inside the museum as well. Kudos to Sarah for making it happen. 
  • There's a healthy creative tension between transparency and intimacy. Sometimes, I look at the internal Facebook group and I think, "this is what our regular Facebook page should look like. This is the kind of creativity and personality that we want to share with everyone." But then I realize the incredible value of the intimate space behind the closed door, where we can be silly and experimental without fear. It's also the one place we can get away from the constant dialogue with the community. The privacy of the group binds us together as a team, even as it highlights ways we could be more "ourselves" in the public sphere.
  • Connectedness builds staff culture. No one wants to get (or send) an email about a weird work dream. But on Facebook, it becomes a funny thing to comment on and connect with. The Facebook group has allowed us to cheerlead for each other, make jokes, and banter in ways that don't always happen in an intense work environment.
  • Using a tool that everyone already knows is a heck of a lot easier than converting people onto something new. We could have adopted a tool like Yammer that is made specifically for private company conversations. But everyone was on Facebook, knew how to use it, and was using it in the course of daily life already. We didn't have to become "friends" on the site to be in a group together. The adoption was automatic and smooth with zero time spent in trainings or plaintive emails reminding people to use it (a fate I have seen many intranets suffer).
What tools do you use to stay connected behind-the-scenes?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thinking about User Participation in Terms of Negotiated Agency

Early this month, I got the chance to hear legendary game designer Will Wright (Sim City) give a talk. I've followed Wright's work for years because of his unique perspective on the potential for game-players to be game-makers - in other words, to co-create the gaming experience.

In his talk, Wright said one thing that really stood out:
Game players have a negotiated agency that is determined by how the game is designed.
In other words, the more constrained the game environment, the less agency the player has. The more open, the more agency. Think about the difference between Pacman and Grand Theft Auto. Both games have a "gamespace" in which they are played. Both games have rules. But Grand Theft Auto invites the player to determine their own way of using the space and engaging with the rules. The player's agency is not total, but it is significant.

"Negotiated agency" strikes me as a really useful framework in which to talk about visitor/audience participation in the arts. "Negotiation" implies a respectful relationship between institution (or artist) and user. The institution initiates the negotiation with a set of opportunities and constraints. But users play a role via their own agency--both in how they engage and when they break the rules.

Sometimes the negotiation works beautifully. You offer visitors markers and tape and a wall, and they agree tacitly only to write on the tape and not on the wall itself.

Sometimes the negotiation is contested. You tell people they can't take photographs in the gallery or the performance, but the phones sneak out, covertly or defiantly, to reassert personal control of the experience. Patrons clap between movements. Visitors talk over the tour guide.

Sometimes the negotiation can be exploited for artistic means. The theater is dark and the artist breaks the fourth wall and asks for conversation. The symphony conductor asks everyone to raise their phones and join the orchestra. The museum invites art-making in the elevator. This is a kind of negotiation jui-jitsu that can create art through creative tension.

In my experience, this negotiation works best if we acknowledge people's agency and seek ways to create something surprising and high-value through it.

And so I humbly submit two questions to ask yourself when thinking about user participation:
  1. What is our negotiating stance in developing this relationship with participants? How can we make it a win-win?
  2. How will participants seek to assert their agency in the experience? Will we encourage these activities, denounce them, or divert them?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

AAM 2013: Let's Talk in Baltimore

I'm heading to the American Alliance of Museums' annual conference this weekend, and I'm psyched to reconnect with friends and mentors and meet new people who can inspire and stimulate fresh ideas.

This year, I'm involved in two sessions:

Tuesday, May 21, 10:15AM in Room 309 - Success: What Does it Look Like?
This session wil feature varied perspectives on what it means for a museum to be successful from a longtime museum planning consultant (John Jacobsen of White Oak), a director whose museum pushes for environmental stewardship (Stephanie Ratcliffe of the Wild Center), a director whose museum is a beacon of community activism and creativity (Jane Werner of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum), and me. It will be hosted by Eric Siegel, chief content officer at the New York Hall of Science and consummate rabble-rouser. Rapid-fire presentations followed by honest conversation. Join us.

Wednesday, May 22, 10:15AM in Room 322 - On the Edge: A Talk Show about Risk and Reward
Kathleen McLean and I are back again to host a freewheeling talk show in which we chat with unusual guests and terrific audience members--this year, on the topic of risk-taking and its attendant rewards and perils. This year's guests include Ian David Moss of Createquity fame along with museum folks who have thrived and suffered because of the risks they've taken. This session has been so rowdy in the past that this year they dropped my name from the program in hopes it would calm the crowds. No, really. I'll be there, even though the printed program doesn't say so. And we'll be just as loud as usual.

I'm also hoping while in Baltimore to have conversations to explore a few of these topics:
  • Social bridging: how to design for it, how to assess it, who it works for, who it doesn't.
  • Hybridizing programs and exhibitions. How can we look at "experiences" across space and time instead of separating place- and event-based projects?
  • Developing transparent formats for exhibition proposals from outside. How can we invite in new ideas and link them clearly with our institutional goals?
  • Small-scale evaluation for non-professionals. How can small museums with limited resources do some meaningful research with our staff and volunteers?
  • Supporting staff in a time of growth. Growth feels exciting and fabulous, but it's also tiring. We have a strong innovative team right now, and there are some particular issues that come up because of the high energy, creativity, and drive in the office.
  • Creating spaces in the museum for open exploration of the behind-the-scenes. Permanent prototyping, museum inside out, working in public spaces.
If you're interested in exploring any of these topics next week in Baltimore, let's do it. I don't care what type of institution you are from or what your experience is, or even if you are attending the conference. I just care about having good conversations and learning from each other. Monday afternoon is looking particularly open for some meaty chats. Let me know.

And FYI, we will soon be opening a full-time Education Associate job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. If you want to talk briefly about job/internship opportunities at AAM, I'm up for that too.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Using Social Bridging to Be "For Everyone" in a New Way

Like a lot of organizations, my museum struggles with two conflicting goals:
  1. The museum should be for everyone in our community.
  2. It's impossible for any organization or business to do a great job being for everyone. We're more successful when we target particular communities or audiences and design experiences for them.
How do you reconcile the desire to be inclusive with the practical imperative to target? In the past, I've subscribed to the theory that an organization should target many different groups and types of people to serve a constellation of specific audiences across diverse affinities, needs, and interests. 

But ultimately, that's still targeting. It's still grouping. And while it may be effective when it comes to marketing, it's limiting if your mission is to reach and engage with a wide range of people. It can lead to parallel programming: bike night for hipsters, bee night for hippies, family night for kiddies. And rarely the twain shall meet.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we're approaching this challenge through a different lens: social bridging. One of our core programming goals is to build social capital by forging unexpected connections between diverse collaborators and audience members. We intentionally develop events and exhibitions that matchmake unlikely partners--opera and ukelele, Cindy Sherman and amateur photographers, welding and knitting. Our goal in doing this work is to bring people together across difference and build a more cohesive community.  

We have been explicitly focusing on social bridging for more than a year now. What started as a series of experiments and happy accidents is now embedded in how we develop and evaluate projects. We've seen surprising and powerful results--visitors from different backgrounds getting to know each other, homeless people and museum volunteers working together, artists from different worlds building new collaborative projects. Visitors now spontaneously volunteer that "meeting new people" and "being part of a bigger community" are two of the things they love most about the museum experience.

This has led to a surprising outcome: we are now de-targeting many programs. This isn't just a philosophical shift--it's also being driven by visitors' behavior. "Family Art Workshops" suffer from anemic participation whereas multi-generational festivals are overrun with families. Single-speaker lectures languish while lightning talks featuring teen photographers, phD anthropologists, and professional dancers are packed. Programs that emphasize bringing diverse people together are more popular than those that serve intact groups. Why fight it?

And so, while we continue to acknowledge that specific communities have particular assets and needs, we spend more time thinking about how to connect them than how to serve each on its own. We're comfortable being deliberately unhip if it means that a seven year old, a seventeen year old, and a seventy year old all feel "at home" at the museum. This approach allows us to sidestep the question of parallel versus pipeline programming and instead create a new pipeline that is about unexpected connections and social experiences.

Focusing on social bridging also leads to tricky questions as to how we develop new programming, especially when it comes to outreach. When we offer programs at a school or neighborhood festival or community center, we do it to work with the group who live or learn there. Ironically and somewhat depressingly, our partnerships with marginalized communities often involve more segregated work because of our desire to engage in their space, on their terms. There are some groups who we work with terrifically in their own space but who we rarely engage in ours. This leads to good bonding, but very little bridging.

I don't have the answer to how we can incorporate bridging across the various ways we work with intact and blended communities. When it comes to school programs, we are now actively exploring how our approach might shift to emphasize bridging--among students in the same school, among students from different schools, among students across their school and home life. When it comes to working with intact cultural and ethnic communities, one of the resources that is helping me think through these questions is a 2004 paper by Dr. Pia Moriarty on Immigrant Participatory Arts in Silicon Valley. In the paper, Dr. Moriarty puts forward a paradigm of "bonded-bridging" to describe the way that ethnically-identified programs and organizations contribute to bridging in a majority-immigrant community. It's a thoughtful and intriguing paper, and I encourage you to read it.

I'm still chewing on the idea of "bonded-bridging" and the limitations and possibilities of a bridging strategy in a diverse community. But for now, I'm happy that we've been able to address some of our hand-wringing over targeted programs and inclusion with an approach that serves both our visitors and our core goals.

Does social bridging make sense for your institution? How do you reconcile inclusion and targeting in program design?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Open Thread: Your Stories of Risk and Reward

What's the biggest professional risk you've taken? What happened after you took the risk? 

In three weeks, Kathleen McLean and I are co-hosting a freewheeling talk show at the American Alliance of Museums conference. The theme is "risk and reward," and we plan to explore both individual and institutional relationships to risk-taking. 

Kathy and I have each spent a lot of time advocating for experimental practice and risk-taking in museums, both as consultants and on staff. We've seen the mixed results--lots of excitement, lots of push back, some progress. For me personally, risk-taking has led to incredible professional opportunities, for which I feel lucky and grateful. I'm particularly indebted to Anna Slafer, my amazing boss at the Spy Museum in the mid-2000s. Anna would kick me under the table when I shared ideas out of turn, yet she also fiercely defended me (and our whole team) so we could do creative, risky work.

But many organizations don't have an Anna. Many people struggle with fears of punishment or marginalization for taking risks. It's hard for me to evaluate the extent to which these fears are well-founded, and whether the climate for risk is changing in the arts sector broadly. 

So I'm curious: what is your experience? Did you or your institution take a risk that got rewarded? Punished? Ignored? 

Please share your story in the comments. 

And if you're coming to Baltimore, please join us on Wednesday May 22 at 10:15 for a lively conversation informed by your stories.