Thursday, April 11, 2019

Guest Post by Martin Djupdraet: Let the Decision Makers Do the Audience Research

This guest post is written by Martin Brandt Djupdræt, Head of research and presentation and a member of the management at the Danish open-air museum Den Gamle By (The Old Town). I met Martin last year at the MuseumNext conference. I was impressed by his commitment to putting visitors first - and his technique for inviting more of his colleagues to do so as well. In this post, Martin shares a simple yet effective way to involve staff at all levels in conducting visitor research to drive new perspectives and decisions. Note that Martin uses the word "survey" in a slightly more expansive way than is typical in the United States.

At Den Gamle By we have set ourselves a goal to broaden the perspective of those in responsibility and to ensure the management will take our audience seriously. Den Gamle By (“The Old Town” in Danish) is an open-air museum about urban life and the local museum of the city of Aarhus. It is the second most visited museum in Denmark. What we have done is quite simple, but it works: we require decision makers to do audience research themselves.

Learning experts have pointed out that when people are involved in a subject and actually experiencing it, they are likely to learn more. Interacting with visitors and engaging their emotions is a method used by many museums. But direct involvement with the audience is not necessarily a method used by museum management. Good museums listen to their audiences and the public before they make changes, but my guess is that most museum managers let others do the visitor research. Our experience now is that different lessons are learned when the management participate in collecting the data themselves.

Our new type of research was developed last year though workshops with museum researchers John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking. We wanted to understand the decisions visitors make while visiting and the impact of the visit. There are two elements of the research: tracking and interviewing.

Here’s how it works: a staff member from the museum meets a randomly selected person at the entrance. With the visitor’s consent, we follow and observe them during the entire, noting what parts of the museum they visit and when. The same staff member then interviews the visitor three weeks later.

Visitors are asked:

  • why they chose this museum,
  • what they noticed especially during the visit,
  • whether they interacted with anyone, and
  • whether they had talked to anyone about the museum after the visit, and what about

To make sure this knowledge is put to use in developing the museum, the management and curators are part of the team who carry out the survey. Managers have to leave their desks, and track and interview ordinary people they never would meet in their daily work or at the meetings they normally spend time on.

Before doing the survey, most of the management and curators felt they knew the museum and how visitors use it quite well, but it was an eye opener for us to spend an entire visit with one of the guests and interviewing them some weeks later.

What surprised us? The curators were surprised by how important other parts of the museum besides the historical content were for the visitor. The F&B manager and the head of HR were surprised by how many objects and stories the visitors were absorbed in. This has also given us insights into the work of our colleagues and made us appreciate their work to a larger extent. Now we all have useful and inspiring stories about visitors’ choices and the impact the museum had on them.

Another observation was the importance of food and drink. In our trackings we could see how much time the visitors spent on the museum’s eating places and the great social importance these breaks had. Something we learned about food through the interviews was that the guests consider the food at the museum as part of the museum's storytelling. This insight has encouraged us to focus on food and food history as a priority topic at the museum, and a colleague is going to work particularly with that subject.

This research has also given us confidence in choosing the core stories of the museum. For example, a woman in her 20s said that Aarhus Story, a new permanent exhibition about the city of Aarhus, had made her proud of being a citizen of Aarhus and that she developed a stronger sense of belonging to the city, because the exhibition showed her parts of the history that she could connect with. We were pleased and humbled that such an impact was possible. This observation along with other similar observations has already led to new decisions. They were part of the reason why we chose to skip the easy and light crowd-pleasers in our planning of new elements for 2019, and instead went for activities where the museum had a deeper knowledge, good exhibitions and good stories to tell. Through the research, we gained the courage to go for more difficult and ambitious activities and more profound stories.

Visitors have always been a focus for the management, but the research have personalized our audience and they are discussed differently now. As the head of finance described it: “I normally look at whether a task is well done, financially possible and efficient, but now I also consider more seriously how a visitor would feel and react to the changes we plan.”

Does it take time to do this research? Yes it does. Time which could be spent meeting with important people and dealing with important strategic considerations. But none of these worthy activities is more important that meeting the audience and taking their thoughts and actions seriously. Not one.

Is an individual observed in this way representative for all the guests? No, but the reflection shows that it gives new insight, and it certainly ignites the decision makers’ imaginations. Those who have tracked visitors up to now have spent maximum a whole working day altogether on tracking the visitor, the interview and gathering the information. That single day has been an eye-opener for the curators and other decision makers. In addition, we have made it easier for all of our staff to gain insight by meeting our visitors face-to-face by doing a half-hour shift as a welcoming host at the museum entrance. More than 20 staff member working at the offices tried this new practice last December. Most of them were thrilled about the talks they had with the visitors and back at the desk their experiences were discussed with colleagues. These efforts have taught us all through simple involvement that there are many different ways of understanding and using our museum. We have not just learned it, we have felt it.

Four other Nordic museums are now doing the same type of tracking and interviewing. In the year to come we will compare our observations, and will also be happy to share the result with you and others who might be interested. But we know already, before even looking at the collected data, that the project has been a success in Den Gamle By. It has broadened the decision makers’ perspective and made our audience even more important when new exhibitions and goals are planned.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

From Risk-taker to Spacemaker: Reflections on Leading Change

Fifteen years ago, my boss kicked me under the table. I was a small fry at a big museum, volunteering for a project I had no business taking on. My boss and mentor Anna often encouraged me to stretch the limits. She protected and supported me in leading projects far beyond my job description. We had a push-pull relationship; I’d ask for opportunities, she’d say yes but also help me understand how far I could safely go. And when I went too far over the edge, she’d give me a well-placed kick.

I didn’t have the words at the time to identify what Anna was doing. She was being a spacemaker for me and for other creative risk-takers on her team. I learned this terminology later, from Beck Tench, who studies, mentors, and leads institutional change in public space. As Beck once put it, risk-takers need "space-makers" to provide them with the support, the creative license, and the encouragement to try new things, fail, and get up again.

As a young professional, I identified as a risk-taker. I was proud to be seen as a maverick. Success to me looked like taking bigger and bigger risks, and being recognized as the person who had created the project or made the initiative happen. My ego was tied up with making the thing and forging the path.

It was only later that I started to feel that the greatest impact comes when you stop focusing on what you can create and start imagining the space you can make for others to create. I didn’t want to blunt my activist energy, but I did want to find more effective ways to channel it. I realized my potential—if limited to my own creative abilities—was finite. But if I used my abilities to empower and make space for others, the opportunities were infinite.

It took three things for me to change my perspective on this. First, a deep and growing conviction that community participation is valuable—that every person can make a meaningful contribution to an effort if given a well-constructed space in which to do so. Second, growing confidence in myself—that my achievements would not be belittled nor diminished by the participation of others. And third, recognition of the privileges I enjoy, and the sense that it is my responsibility and joyful opportunity to share those privileges and related power with others.

When I think back on the work I’ve been proudest of over my past eight years leading the MAH, the projects that come to mind are those where I made space for others to lead us to new heights. In some projects, like Abbott Square, I was in the driver’s seat but invited hundreds of community partners, large and small, to take a turn at the wheel. In others, like the Community Issue Exhibition process, I was there as a fundraiser, networker, and sounding board for our brilliant team as they went deeper and further with community than I knew how to go.

In all these projects, I had to take a risk. I had to put my own credibility on the line. I wasn’t leading from behind. I was leading to clear space. As time went on, I felt more and more confident doing that to empower others rather than doing it for myself.

My favorite moments at the MAH are small, immediate surprises. I walk in on a day off and there’s something weird and wonderful happening that I had absolutely nothing to do with. A bonsai festival. A harp concert. An empathy fair. I know these things are happening because of our amazing, generous, risk-taking staff and community partners. And I know I have a small part in it as a spacemaker who carved out room for the idea that it was OK for a museum to be all these things to all these people in our community.

I’ve come to think of spacemaking as a form of allyship we can all practice with anyone whose growth and creativity we want to support. We make space when we ask, “Maria, what do you think?” We make space when we say, “I‘ll back you up on this no matter how it turns out.” We make space when we find the money and the materials and the partners to make someone’s big dreams real. We make space when we define its limits, with a helpful redirect here or a kick under the table there. And we make space when we hold the hands of risk-takers, take a deep breath, and step over the line alongside them.

Generative leadership isn’t about the person in charge generating all the ideas. It’s about the leader creating the conditions for new ideas and projects to keep bubbling up from many voices and perspectives. When we make space for others, we make space for possibilities beyond our imagining.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Sharing Power, Holding Expertise: The Future of Authority Revisited

This week, I've had multiple conversations with colleagues in the arts, symphonies, and urban planning about the fear professionals have about "losing control" when opening up new opportunities for people to participate. Their questions made me think about a blog post I wrote in 2008, The Future of Authority.

I want to reshare this post with you today for two reasons:
  • We are still grappling with fears of losing control as we open up organizations to new participants and new communities. This post provides some useful perspective if you have these fears or are grappling with those who are fearful.
  • While I originally wrote this post to advocate for more participatory practice (i.e. letting museum visitors contribute and collaborate in museums), I now see this as a crucial issue also for more democratic and inclusive practice (i.e. welcoming people with more diverse perspectives and backgrounds to participate meaningfully). Around the world, we see that participation is a meaningful entrypoint for new communities. New communities don't just want to consume. They want to help shape organizations to more fully represent and embrace their realities. Inviting participation, letting go of control, holding expertise, and sharing power is critical to inclusive practice.
  • Our collective understanding and savviness about the power online platforms wield--for good and ill--has greatly increased since 2008. As I reread this post, I think about the incredible opportunities (and risks) for cultural and civic organizations - rather than publicly-traded tech companies - to create and manage platforms on which people connect, share knowledge, and participate in civic life.  
With no further ado, enjoy this post.

The Future of Authority: Platform Power 

(first published October 2008) 


I have a lot of conversations with people that go like this:
Other person: "So, you think that museums should let visitors control the museum experience?"
Me: "Sort of."
Other person: "But doesn't that erode museums' authority?"
Me: "No."
One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we've owned the content and the message. While we may grudgingly acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, we don't consciously empower visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages. So when people like me start advocating for the creation of tools and opportunities by which visitors can share their stories, reaggregate the artifacts, even rate and review each others' creations, museum professionals of all stripes get concerned. If the museum isn't in control, how can it thrive?

We have to change the framing of this conversation. There is a difference between control and expertise. In these conversations, people often say, "don't expert voices matter?" and my emphatic response is YES. Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn't.

Museums should feel protective of the expertise reflected in their staff, exhibits, programs, and collections. In most museums, the professional experience of the staff--to preserve objects, to design exhibits, to deliver programs--is not based on content control. It's based on creation and delivery of experiences. And in a world where visitors want to create, remix, and interpret content messages on their own, museums can assume a new role of authority as "platforms" for those creations and recombinations.

The problem arises when expertise creates a feeling of entitlement to control the entire visitor experience. Power is attractive. Being in control is pleasant. It lets you be the only expert with a voice. But if our expertise is real, then we don't need to rule content messages with an iron fist. As Ian Rogers has said, "losers wish for scarcity. Winners leverage scale."

Single voices represented on single labels is not scalable. I believe we need to develop museum "platforms" that allow us to harness, prioritize, and present the diversity of voices around a given object, exhibit, or idea. This does not mean we are giving all the power to visitors. We will grant them a few opportunities--to create their own messages, to prioritize the messages that resonate best for them personally--in the context of a larger overall platform. The platform is what's important. It's a framework that museums can (and should) control, and there's power in platform management.

When you think of a platform for user-generated content, you may not think of that platform as having power. But the companies that run YouTube, Flickr, and other major Web 2.0 sites have lots of power. There are four main powers that platforms have:
  1. the power to set the rules of behavior
  2. the power to preserve and exploit user-generated content
  3. the power to promote and feature preferred content
  4. the power to define the types of interaction available to users
These powers constitute a set of controls which constitutes a real and valuable authority. Let's take a look at each one and how it might be applied in museums.


1. The power to set the rules of behavior.User-generated content sites control user and community behavior, both implicitly through the tools that are and aren't offered, and explicitly through community management. Every Web 2.0 site has rules about acceptable content and ways that users can engage with each other--consider this article about the complicated and often highly subjective (read: powerful) Flickr community guidelines. These rules are not uniform, and their differences often influence the makeup of users who feel welcome and choose to engage.

When it comes to museums, comparable rules can guarantee that the museum remains a safe, welcoming place for visitors of all kinds. There are some "rules" already in place--like the rule that you have to pay to enter--that may have great effect on the types of users who engage in museums and the behavior they display within. Museums should consider, as Web 2.0 community managers do, what behaviors and visitors they want to support and which rules will make those people feel most at home in the institution.


2. The power to use and exploit user-generated content.
Platforms also have the power to set rules related to preservation and ownership of the content on them--often with quite strict IP statutes that favor the platform over users. Every time you post a photo on Flickr, you give its owner, Yahoo!, the right to use that photo however they see fit. The same is true on YouTube, and on sites like Facebook, which are "walled gardens," you can't even easily export your user-generated content (friends, events, updates) outside of Facebook itself.

Again, these rules reflect platform control, and when the control is too heavy-handed, users get annoyed and stay away. Museums will always need to retain some powers to manage the preservation of objects, to wield IP controls properly, and to manage the digital reproduction and dissemination of content. There are many models as well for what we do with user-generated content in the museum. There are some emerging case studies for this. The Smithsonian American Art Museum's current Ghosts of a Chance game is accessioning player-generated objects into a temporary part of their collection database, with clear rules about what happens to the objects at the end of the game (they are the responsibility of a sub-contractor). In the same way that Web 2.0 sites display a range of respect for user-retained intellectual property, museums can navigate and create their own rules--and related powers--for content developed by visitors on site.


3. The power to promote and feature preferred content.

When you go onto a user-generated content site like YouTube, you don't just see a jumble of videos. One of the greatest powers retained by these platforms is the power to feature content that reflects the values of the platform. These values may skew towards promoting content with the most popularity/views, the newest content, or content that is unique in some way. The choice of what to display on the front page is not just about design. There have been huge user-protests of both YouTube and Digg for perceived bias in the "featured content" algorithms that vault some content to the top. And while some sites strive for transparency, most find ways to feature the kind of content and behavior that they want to see modeled for other users.

This may be the most important platform power when it comes to museums because it is the one that allows the platform to present its values and model preferred behavior. And many museums are far from assuming this power. Most museum projects that allow visitors to create content only allow for the most basic of prioritization. Consider video kiosks where visitors can create their own short clips (a pet peeve of mine). Many museum video kiosks will feature clips from famous people but do nothing to prioritize and prominently display high-quality visitor submissions. The kiosks are organized by recency, not content value--and so new visitors walking up are not given a model for the kind of content the museum would most like to receive.

When museums do assume this power, it is often in a zero-transparency way that doesn't model behavior for users. When I spoke with Kate Roberts about MN150, the Minnesota History Center exhibition based on visitor-generated nominations, she explained that after the nomination period was over, they entirely shut down visitor engagement in the selection process. It just felt too messy to do anything but lock the staff in a room and sort through the nominations. When the exhibition opened a year later, visitors could see which nominations were valued and featured, but they couldn't get this information in an early feedback loop that would have allowed them to improve their nominations during the submission process.


4. The power to define available interactions.

This power is so basic that it is often forgotten. On YouTube, you can share videos. On Craigslist, you can buy and sell stuff. On LibraryThing, you can tag and talk about books. Each Web 2.0 platform has a limited feature set and focuses on one or two basic actions that users can take. Museums don't need to offer every kind of interaction under the sun--we just have to pick the few interactions that most support the kind of behavior and content creation that we value. Again, there's a lot of power in the decision of whether visitors will be allowed to contact each other, rate artifacts, or make their own exhibits. As long as you create a platform that is consistent in its values and the interactions provided, you will be able to control the experience as you open up content authority.


There are real opportunities here for museums to retain authority related to values, experiences, and community behavior. The power of the platform may not let you dictate every message that floats through your doors. But with good, thoughtful design, it can ensure that those messages enhance the overall museum experience.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

What's Stopping us from Building More Inclusive Nonprofits?

Every day, I’m amazed by the range of efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the cultural sector. There are funding initiatives. Grassroots activism. Academic research. Conferences and white papers and toolkits and blogs.

And yet, very little seems to change. The enthusiasm is high. The voices are in the room. Even people in power seem to care. So why aren’t more organizations changing?

There are many reasons. Many organizations have decades invested in operating in oppressive power systems. Some people in power resist change. But I’d like to posit another reason: we don’t talk enough about HOW to do it.

In my experience, the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion has focused primarily on the WHY and WHAT. The arguments for WHY cultural organizations should diversify are stronger than ever. The vision for WHAT cultural equity looks like is increasingly powerful and compelling. But HOW do we get there?

In the excellent book Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard, authors Dan and Chip Heath describe three critical parts of an effective change journey. You must have a rationale for the journey. You must feel emotional drive to move. And the path to your destination must be clear. Chip and Dan suggest that most unsuccessful attempts at change suffer from a lack of one of these three: the head isn’t convinced, the heart isn’t swayed, or the path isn’t clear.

When it comes to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in nonprofits, I believe we have a path problem. Researchers and funders have done a great job making the argument (head). Activists--both within and outside organizations--are passionately advocating for change (heart). But the path is obscured. The path to the desired outcome is dark and riddled with 400-page toolkits. The result? People spend their limited time shoring up their head and heart, because those are the resources that are easy to find. They don't act, because they don't know how to get started or where to go.

Let me give you an example: diversifying nonprofit boards. Many organizational leaders have become convinced that recruiting more diverse trustees is critical. Funders, activists, even mainstream media have waved the flag of dismal current statistics. But HOW does a motivated director lead change in this area? How should they rewrite board member descriptions? How should they change nominating criteria and processes? What is the path to the outcome they seek?

The HOW is the work. It's the meat of the actual change we create. But we don't often focus on it. It sounds too prescriptive, tactical, or boring. I know I'm guilty of this. When I share our work--especially at conferences--I find myself focusing on the what and the why. I tell a story of pivoting to deep community involvement, and people get inspired. But they're often mystified about how we did it. In the best case, they take our story as motivation to go try something themselves - to forge their own path. But many draw another conclusion: that we're anomalous. That it couldn't work for them. It's like I'm waving from a destination to which there is no clear road nor map. By celebrating the destination, I'm ignoring the path that brought us there.

I've come to believe that if we can clear the path, we can accelerate change. That's what we’re building with OF/BY/FOR ALL. We're sourcing and sharing specific, step-by-step strategies for everything from a first meeting with a community partner to a full-on rewrite of your board nominating process. Our goal is to make it easy to understand how to move forward in becoming representative of your community and co-created by them.

We know doing the work is not easy. But it's even harder when you don't know how to do it or how to get started. If we can clear the path, hopefully it can help more organizations make change with confidence. And - if the path is clear - it will also reduce the number of reasonable excuses for not taking action.

I honor and appreciate compatriots around the world who are focusing on the WHAT and WHY of these issues. This is a growing ecosystem with many actors and many goals. I’m thrilled that every day, more people are convinced that change is necessary. But once heads and hearts are aligned, they need somewhere to go. They need a clear path so they can charge ahead. That's what I'm trying to create.