Friday, December 28, 2007

Program Comfort: Events that Draw People Out

Welcome to the second in the four-part series on comfort (and its boundaries) in museums, a day late but just as tasty. This week, we tackle educational programs and this question: what program could compel you to dress in carrots and hit the streets?

This fall, I went with friends to see the new Mind exhibition at the Exploratorium. We went on opening weekend and elected to watch a couple of short films related to humor, including one by Mira Nair on the laughing clubs of India. The club members believe in the health benefits of laughter, and they engage socially in several laughter exercises: laughing at each other, laughing with tongues sticking out, laughing while shaking hands, and so on.

The film was long for a museum (35 minutes) and geared towards adults, so the audience had thinned appreciably by the end, when a staff member invited all of us to join her on the floor of the museum for our own laughter club. About twenty of us stood near the main entrance in a circle, laughing loudly, laughing like monkeys, laughing like idiots, and heartily enjoying ourselves. I came out of it truly amazed by the power of the museum—not just to elicit laughter, but also to induce bizarre and voluntary acts of silliness in front of and with strangers. It was the kind of experience I wish I had at lots of museum programs—the staff and the content pulled me out of my comfort zone, engaged me in something unusual, and made me feel great.

How can educational programs at museums push the boundaries of comfort to support these special experiences?

By sending people on missions. The Spy Museum puts on extraordinary educational programs. Their success, I believe, is due to the fact that in most cases, participants are active agents on missions, not just visitors spending a couple hours building a lie detector. At family overnights, kids work in teams to try to catch a mole, while their parents surveil and try to identify suspicious behavior on the part of the young spies. At adult surveillance workshops, visitors hit the streets of D.C. tracking an agent, and inevitably end up interrogating homeless people and perfect strangers—engaging in social behavior they would never consider in “real” life. In the permanent installation Operation Spy, ticket-holders become officers undercover in a foreign country, seeking the truth behind a missing nuclear weapon. Missions turn experiences into stories, into games. And when you play a game, you understand that you have to do unusual things to win.

By giving people roles.
Roles are a natural extension of the mission concept. When you pursue an unusual goal, you may need to take on an atypical persona. This doesn’t have to mean elf or spy. I was struck recently by the description of players in an alternate reality game, SF0, in which people go on cultural “missions” around the Bay Area. The text reads:

What does it mean to create a new character in SFZero? Your character looks exactly the same as you. Your character will have all the same skills and attributes as you, and even the same memories and feelings. "Isn't my character, just, well, /me/?" Good question.

Your character has several important things that you do not have. First, your character has a Score. Its Score is a barometer of its progress.

You may find that your own willingness to interact with the city in new ways varies linearly with relation to your Score.

Second, your character is a member of a group that you may or may not be a member of yourself. When you sign up for SFZero, you must decide which group to join.

Last, and most importantly, your character is able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do. Things like fear, lethargy and the police don't deter your character from achieving his or her goals.

This text elegantly presents the distinction between a person (who can be uncomfortable) and a role/player (who is in the zone, like the carrot man above, an SF0 player).

By making it a social experience.
There is strength in numbers. At the Exploratorium, when the staff member announced the laughing activity, it was clear that not only was she going to lead us in guffaws, she would be laughing (and acting silly) along with us. The NYC-based group Improv Everywhere conducts elaborate and somewhat uncomfortable public “scenes” (such as people streaming onto a subway car with no pants), fueled by volunteers who feel exhilarated by the opportunity to act strange in a socially supported, somewhat safe way. There’s a reason clowns pull up single volunteers to mortify them and entertain the audience. Much better, if you seek participation from your audience, to pull them all up and into the act, so they are laughing at themselves, not each other.

By training staff and lecturers as listeners. One of the best articles in the Museums and Social Issues journal on civic discourse, The Hard Work of True Listening, is about the need for lecturers and program leaders to be facilitators of dialogue, not just time-keepers and content providers. The author, Margaret Kadoyama, argues that for programs to move into the (positive) realm of engaging, personally meaningful dialogue, we as facilitators have to be patient and really respond to the questions or comments offered. Functionally, we should be the way we wish politicians would be: responsive, interested, intelligent folks who can understand audience desires and reflect them back in meaningful and sometimes challenging ways. The best presenter I’ve seen do this is Frank Warren, instigator of the
PostSecret project. When he speaks (and he does so often), he always conveys his love and respect for PostSecret participants, and that respect often encourages audience members to offer up their own secrets on the spot. What better testament to making the uncomfortable comfortable than people sharing their deepest secrets with total strangers?

By couching the experience within a comfortable environment. I wrote recently about the power of bars as educational program venues. Why not allow people to put their feet up, their drinks down, and enjoy the program the way they enjoy other content experiences? There’s a reason that home entertainment centers are cutting into the movie theater market; it’s nice to watch from your couch, pause the film to get a snack, etc. While we can’t always go that far (though distributing lectures as vodcasts and DVDs is worth considering), we can give people decent seats in which we’ll shake them up. (We’ll talk more about this in two weeks in the final segment in this series.)

When have you seen museum programs take visitors to the next level, pushing their participation, their attitudes, their comfort? When have you seen it work, and when have you seen it fail?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Giving the Gift of Technology

Museum 2.0 is on semi-vacation this week. I’m writing this from Lake Tahoe. Yes, it’s beautiful, and I hope you are all having comparably wonderful experiences with family and friends. And while I’m not someone who's hot and heavy on stuff exchange, I appreciate the value of gifts and want to encourage you to consider giving your loved ones the gift of technology this season.

I’m not talking about plastic fish that sing along with your iPod (HIGHLY annoying), electric knives, or a subscription to the latest web-based social network cum parallel reality. I’m talking about giving people things they can use, that they would like, that inform and support their lives.

When you get someone a gift, you try to find something that fits these criteria. Similarly, when we receive gifts, we evaluate how well they fit into and enhance our lives. The superwarm slippers with slip-proof rubber soles? Priceless. The singing clock? Not so much.

When we receive gifts, we evaluate them. If they pass the internal test, we keep, use, and treasure them. If not, we regift, hide, or lose them.

This evaluative quality is missing from the way most of us approach and absorb new technology. In most cases, the hype that precedes a tool is so overwhelming that its functional value is lost in its charm appeal. Consider the grandfather who points to a computer and asks if it does google, or the college student who downloads killer app after killer app, without wondering (or caring) how the software will affect or support her life. We don't think, "is this X useful for me?" We download with abandon, or, disgusted or afraid based on previous experience, avoid the technology altogether.

When hype is the driver, the essential step of evaluating a given technology for its functional value is lost. And when we stop evaluating technology for its functionality, we stop thinking of it as a tool. And when we stop thinking of it as a tool, we start having strange and unhealthy relationships with it, ranging from suspicion to lust and everywhere in-between.

When we give technology as gifts, we give tools to be used and appreciated. The technology, like other gifts, is evaluated, not hyped or coerced. We put on smiles and thank yous, and then we take the gifts home and try them on. We don't think "gosh! I have to keep this because it was written up on Slashdot!" or "I have to wear this sweater because it has intrinsic hip value that I don't understand!" With gifts, we decide for ourselves.

I first started appreciating this conceptual framing of technology as tool/gift a few weeks ago, when I made applesauce for the first time. Last summer, when we moved off the grid, my mother-in-law began giving us pioneer-era technological gifts I’d never encountered before, including a food mill.

For those as blissfully clueless as I, a food mill looks like a conical colander. It has a wooden pestle-like implement that fits the shape of the cone, so you can mash up food that then comes out, uniformly small, from the colander. For months, this thing sat high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was vaguely offensive to me—a superfluous gadget taking up space and gathering dust. A gift that had not passed muster.

All of this changed when we picked the apples off the tree and spent an afternoon making applesauce. The food mill is AWESOME at making applesauce. It’s more ergonomic, fun, and speedy than a Cuisinart (which we can’t power anyway)—and much easier to clean. After the applesauce was made, the food mill went back up on the same shelf, but with a new status: that of a useful tool.

This story is not meant as a quaint homily about the value of arcane kitchen gadgets. It’s an example of how technology, when given lovingly and wisely, can be a functional, fabulous gift. Kay knew that the food mill was a useful tool for our lifestyle. She introduced us to a technology I wasn’t aware of, and now we have a tool that enhances our lives.

Think over the last year or two—what are the most useful technological tools you have integrated into your life? Who else could benefit from them?

Yesterday, I helped my stepfather, a doctor, reconfigure his cell phone so that loved ones calls come in with a distinctive ring—so when he’s on vacation he knows which calls to answer and which are from griping patients. Last month, I helped my husband get started on Facebook, and now he’s constantly exclaiming about the old friends it has brought back into his life. These things don’t have to be complicated. They should be useful tools specific to the intended recipient, gifts that they will use and enjoy.

My short list of technologies I would give as gifts:
  • Google homepages for people who use the same websites frequently but aren’t ready for RSS readers and other personalization tools
  • Skype (plus a headset) for anyone making a lot of international calls
  • an IM client (I like Adium) for any business unit suffering from constant noisy interruptions of employees asking each other quick questions
  • for anyone with out-of-control web bookmarks
  • suggestions for blogs, podcasts, and other content of specific interest to the intended
  • iGo power adaptors for anyone working off the grid or powering laptops in the car
What’s your favorite tech tool gift? What’s the item that has brought the most utility or value to your life? What’s the tool someone you love needs?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Content Comfort: Bodyworlds and Other Exhibits with Guts

Exhibitions that point out subconscious bias. Exhibitions that peer into personal lives and predilections. Exhibitions that shock, incite, and disturb. I'm not talking contemporary art--these kinds of experiences are popping up everywhere. What do we do with content that is controversional and, potentially, uncomfortable?

First, what makes something uncomfortable? The Tech is currently hosting Bodyworlds 2. Like other museums that have hosted Bodyworlds and its sequels, the exhibit has doubled overall museum attendance for 2007--and it's only been here for three months. Memberships are up several hundred percent. We're surpassing revenue projections. Science centers that have never worried about lines are suddenly managing huge queues, putting up sold out signs for the first time. According to Wikipedia, 20 million people have viewed a Bodyworlds exhibition.

In 2007, Bodyworlds most quickly brings to mind one word: blockbuster. But it used to be more strongly aligned with another word: controversy. There were ethical questions about the provenance of the bodies, decency concerns about the display of naked bodies and fetuses to mixed-age audiences, and aesthetic concerns about the artistic, potentially disrespectful presentation of the bodies (one man, for example, is shown carrying his skin in his hands).

Each of these concerns can and has been dealt with rationally through messaging and related programs. But in the beginning, these concerns seemed insurmountable, coupled by an assumption that the exhibit would be unsuccessful because people would be grossed out by seeing dead, cut open people.

How wrong we were. Turns out people LOVE seeing dead, cut open people, love it enough to wait on lines and pay big ticket fees.

Bodyworlds is fascinating as a case study in content comfort. Bodyworlds fuses highly uncomfortable content--death and dismemberment--with highly comfortable content--our bodies, ourselves--to create an experience that is at once challenging and familiar. The extraordinary uniqueness of the artifacts and their presentation, along with their essential significance to each of us as fellow humans, transcends the ick factor to such a degree that most people, after seeing the exhibit, can't even fathom or recall previous ick reactions.

How do you make the uncomfortable comfortable? Or, to be more precise, how do you exhibit uncomfortable content in a way that supports visitor engagement and response?

Start with a familiar reference, then push. This is what Bodyworlds does, starting with the human body (familiar) and pushing into art, illumination of parts, and death. But it's also what a good "issues" exhibit does--gives you an entry point you can identify with from which to delve into the stickier questions. And the universal entry point is the visitor. Everyone is familiar with and fascinated by themselves. You recycle--that's great. But do you compost? When it comes to advocacy in museums, working from "natural extensions" can both give people a pat on the back and challenge them at the same time.

Be careful how you tell the story. There's a reason I used the word "push," not "slide," in the above statement. While narrative is a compelling part in the exhibit design toolkit, it can lead to uncomfortable situations if the storyteller proves untrustworthy from the visitor's perspective. Consider the Creation Museum. For some visitors, the story their exhibits tell is highly compelling (and comfortable). For me, it would be uncomfortable, not so much because I'm uncomfortable with the content as I am with the way the content is presented. Similarly, some people have told me how much they loved the Spy Museum... until they got to the Cold War part, which they perceived as overly pro-American. One woman described it as getting sucked into a dream that turned into a nightmare. When the story is emotionally evocative and all-encompassing, a wrong turn can feel suffocating.

Put visitors' voices front and center. The book Visitor Voices features several museum professionals who argued that making talk-backs a focus of exhibitions allowed them to take on topics that were otherwise perceived as too controversial for the museum. When there's acknowledgment, via opportunities to write, speak, or show opinions, for a variety of views, people's desire and willingness to explore uncomfortable topics increases.

Accommodate basic needs. People can handle a lot of discomfort intellectually if they are physically taken care of. I'd be much more willing to sit through a weird video on a nice couch than standing up. So frequently, physical comfort is the biggest barrier to success in museums--with content at any level of comfort!--and when it comes to more obtuse or challenging things, a friendly seat, good light, maybe even some chips? goes a long way.

What experiences have you had with comfort or discomfort when it comes to exhibit content? Rik brought up the Holocaust Museum last week, which accommodates the above points by connecting you with individuals (familiarity hook), telling the story honestly and openly with many voices, and providing physical space that is evocative, but not overbearing.

Pull up a comfy chair and share your story!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Icing on the Cake: Involving Visitors as Workers

Have you ever been apple picking? All over the country, there are farms where you can pick apples, berries, pumpkins--you name it--and pay for the privilege (more than you'd pay in a grocery store or farmer's market for the same product). To my husband, Sibley, who grew up in orcharding country, apple picking as a fee-based recreational activity is ludicrous. His family made their living getting paid to pick apples--not the other way around. But no matter how assiduously Sibley rails against the activity, every year thousands of people flock to the hayrides, the baskets, and the fields to enjoy one of the greatest marketing ploys of contemporary America.

What do the U-PICK farms have that makes people line up to pay to do their work for them? They have identified the fun part of a complicated, repetitive, and onerous business, and packaged it as a single product. You don't have to grow the trees. You don't have to prune them. You don't even have to pick the apples in a uniform, speedy way. All you have to do is... whatever you want to do. It's the luxury that makes it a recreational activity.

And it's the realness that makes it legit. I had comparable experiences as a kid "volunteering" at the Rose Parade for the floats--and in this case I put volunteering in quotes because let's face it, an eight year old doesn't contribute much to a construction site. We paid to attend, view the floats in near-completion, and glue a few petals on. We didn't contribute substantively, but we felt like contributors--part of the float creation experience.

These examples lead me to discussion of how we can involve visitors in museum work and content generation. It's not as easy as just opening the process to them, to engage either as a full member of the team, or in the elements where we actually could use their help. While we will always (hopefully) find volunteers willing to do data entry, the majority of visitors will not be so compelled. Yes, they want and appreciate the authentic experience, but get too authentic and they won't participate. The trick is to find the icing on the work, the most fun slice, and then, selflessly, offer it up to visitors.

I say selflessly because to be successful, we have to share the best part of our job, the icing, not the hard stuff. Sometimes, you can make icing out of something unpleasant; I've known plenty of kids who have jumped at opportunities to scrape hardened glue off tables, or smash down boxes. But in most cases you have to find the apple to be picked, the fruit of your labor, and offer than final experience to visitors.

What part of your design cycle is the most fun? Is it testing new exhibit pieces? Trying out new toys you might integrate into educational programs? Shooting the foam snot out the giant nose to see how far it goes? If we give up or at least share in these fun parts, visitors will have a more positive view of museum work in general and may become curious about how they might get involved with other projects, like tagging content, submitting comments, etc. Rather than starting from where we need help, we should be starting from the aspect of the work that will be most compelling, and hook them from there.

Who knows? Soon enough, people might pay for the experience of testing our prototypes, cleaning the rat cage, stamping member cards. Until then, think apple picking and give folks a tasty, simple, fun way to help.

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Kids See Technology: The Laptop Club

Thanks to Sibley for sending me this fascinating article about "the laptop club"--a group of second and third graders in an afterschool program who designed their own (non-functional) laptops using construction paper, pencils, and a lot of imagination.

The article includes a gallery of images of these imagined computers, which have keys for things like "Harry Potter," "games," and "friends." It also features extracts from interviews with some of these kids, who at age 8 already have some clear opinions about how to be famous on the web, what they are better at than their parents, and which parts of the computer are most "valuable."

The debate over how young and how often kids should interact with computers has raged since the 1980s. One of the things that interests me about these images is the extent to which they demonstrate how computers have gone from tools used by adults to accomplish mostly professional tasks to tools that can be used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. The classic mental image of a kid banging away at a keyboard, trying to be "like mom" has changed. These kids see computers as tools for gaming, music, shopping, creating, and are imagining interfaces that suit their own interests and devices. They can't type well, but who needs QWERTY if you have your button that links you directly to your friend Emma?

Jeff Han, one of the innovators of multi-touch interfaces such as that of the iPhone, has questioned the value of the $100 laptops being produced for children in third world countries, arguing that the kids who receive them will be using input interfaces--keyboards and mice--that will soon be out-of-date. Who will design the user interface for the computers of the future? Will we see greater diversity in what kinds of things are accessible from the click of a button? Will the explosion of plug-ins and widgets reach out of the screen and into our input devices?

All fun things to think about--and in this case, the thinking is inspired by designs created by children. I think it would be marvelous for museums, particularly childrens' and science museums, to offer open discussions about the future of technology incorporating kids' dreams in the debate in a legitimate and active way. I'm too used to my keyboard to imagine its future. The eight year old banging on my exhibits isn't.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Straddling the Comfort Zone

Here's a simple game. Look at the circles above. Draw your own lines to define your "comfort zone." Which of these experiences would you include, and which would you put outside the realm of comfortability?

I finished reading the Museums and Social Issues journal on Civic Discourse, and it's brought up a groundswell of internal debate for me about museums and comfort. The crux of many of the articles in the journal is the difference between civic and civil dialogue, and the pursuit of energized, multi-voiced civic engagement that also feels safe and welcoming. How civil does the environment have to be to encourage civic participation? When does civil devolve into P.C. and stamp out civic possibility?

The hinge of this question is comfort. Yes, museums should be safe. But should they be comfortable? Should they feel familiar, or should they push you? How much safety do visitors need to feel comfortable participating, and how much squashes any interest in participation? It's the same question as the civic/civil. How do we balance comfort with challenge to create a great experience?

Four examples worth considering:
  1. Content comfort. An exhibit interprets a well-known and loved object or image as rooted in hate. Is that provocative in an insightful way, or overly confrontational?
  2. Interaction comfort. Visitors play a game that reveals their level of latent sexism. Is the experience revelatory or accusatory?
  3. Programmatic comfort. Floor staff pull visitors into an improvisational show. Do visitors feel like they have been swept into stardom or overexposed and humiliated?
  4. Creature comfort. Museums provide sparse seating and strict rules about food in the galleries. Does the furniture and rules promote "positive" museum behavior, or does it make visitors feel like they are in an unfriendly place?

My inclination in most situations is to challenge, confront, and yank people around--in the spirit of welcoming participation. So few experiences (museum or otherwise) encourage social, civic engagement. But I also appreciate the fact that inclusion in museums isn't just about participation--it's about safety as well. Some places, like the St. Louis City Museum, are able to offer a high level of comfort with a low level of safety. But the City Museum experience is more physical than emotional or intellectual. Maybe museums shouldn't offer cultural, civic thrills of the City Museum variety if the tradeoff is visitors feeling so uncomfortable that they avoid the institution.

Over the next four weeks, I'm going to dedicate a post to each of the four kinds of comfort mentioned above. There's often such a fine line with these things. The "Fear" exhibition currently at the California Science Center asks you to confront your fear of tarantulas, loud noises, and falling. Is that in the comfort zone? What about an exhibit that asks you to confront your fear of people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds? Would that go too far? How can we explore challenging content and encourage civic dialogue within a safe and positive--if not always comfortable--environment? Ultimately do some kinds of comfort (soft chairs? Supportive facilitators?) overcome the lack of others?

This is a post of questions. Hopefully we'll answer some over the next several weeks.

In October, I took a crew of ASTC attendees to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. The MJT provides a dark, confusing, unclear, beautiful experience. Some members of our group revelled in it; others were repelled. Every turn at the MJT is surprising, from encounters with fictitious x-ray bats to real dogs in the tea room. The first time I visited as a teenager, I was entirely uncomfortable, but conquering that discomfort turned it into a magical place unlike any other in my museum experience. It is the most emotionally evocative, soothing, challenging museum I frequent. And I believe it couldn't do that without being dark, labyrinthine, obtuse, and generally uncomfortable.

When have you had a (positive or negative) experience with comfort in a museum? With an exhibit? A program? A staff member? Another visitor? A chair?

Please share your stories, and I look forward to exploring this further with you over the coming Thursdays.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop launches today!

This is not an analytical post (primarily); it's an announcement and invitation to join the new project I've been working on with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.

The Tech Virtual is a project that allows people to conceptualize and prototype exhibits online. The online platform has two parts: a website, where all projects originate, and a Second Life presence ("The Tech" in Second Life), where participants can communicate in real-time, share ideas, and build virtual prototypes. All participation is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that all ideas are available for use by anyone with no financial obligation--only an obligation to credit the originators of said ideas.

For The Tech, this is a new way to conceptualize exhibits. We don't have traditional designer/developers on staff; instead, we have a team facilitating this process and liaising between project participants and fabrication staff to develop these virtual ideas into physical reality. To that end, there's an added incentive for this pilot stage (through June 2008): $5000 to any exhibit concept deemed spectacular enough to develop into a real exhibit here at The Tech. To be eligible for the prize, your exhibit must be on the theme of "Art, Film, Music & Technology."

But this is not just for The Tech; our grant mandates that this project be a service to the museum community at large. Towards that end, we encourage you to use virtual workshop for your own devices, whether to vet exhibit ideas, create, steal, and share exhibit concepts with others, or to learn more about Second Life.

We know there are lots of people out there who have been "peeking in" on Second Life for awhile now, reading the articles, seeing the videos, maybe even creating an avatar. I know that Second Life can be a clunky, frustrating experience. But it's also a new online communication tool, one that significantly improves the real-time chat experience across time zones.

I don't see Second Life as the meat of this project. The meat is people coming together to design exhibits. Second Life is just one tool we're using as a community space for museum folks to discuss and share mockups with each other. I'm planning a full slate of programming, from museum tours to build classes to design reviews with the pros. Yes, Second Life can be a useful prototyping space. But for those who don't want to go through the trouble to learn how to build, it is much more accessible as a programming space, and we hope to offer many interactive talks, workshops, and more.

All of that said, I've learned a lot setting up the Second Life component of this project. A contractor, Involve Inc., built the virtual Tech to spec, so that eventually virtual exhibits could be tested in real dimensionality relative to the building. But the museum is mostly empty right now, since the goal is to fill it with user-created exhibits. I've spent the last month building some sample exhibits, as well as a tutorial on interactive exhibit design. This little building experience was an eye-opener for me. We started with a rather long document on what makes a good interactive exhibit, intended primarily for the non-museum folks who participate in this project. But no one was going to read all that text. Casting it as a walk-through tutorial, with a bit of interaction thrown in, will hopefully turn arduous "instructions" into a fun and informative experience. While I have a good deal of Second Life experience, this was my first time building something from scratch, and I can verify that it was much easier (and somewhat intoxicating) than I expected--and definitely the simplest way I can imagine creating an online "exhibit" quickly.

It's also been a fun team development experience for staff here. This picture was taken at the end of a building class in our virtual sandbox. We were building spheres, trying out the physics engine, when someone decided to sit on one of the spheres. Then everyone piled on, someone set it rolling, and... we had moved from building to experimenting to wacky fun. The Ontario Science Centre has a wonderful brainstorming system, the RIG (rapid idea generation) that relies on building real stuff from all kinds of junk very quickly. I hope we can soon be offering similar sessions in Second Life, where we are neither limited by a lack of stuff nor space nor ways to make things interact. Being in a virtual environment lowers some barriers to social, unorthodox interactions. Hopefully, by learning together in a playful way, we can all jump to new insights and become more brilliant, fulfilled, well-endowed designers.

I hope that you can have similar learning experiences that are directly relevant to your own professional interests and goals via this project. For creative folks still dreaming of a big break, here's a chance to shine. For old pros looking for new ways to design, here's a free platform to exploit for your own exhibits. For executives considering Second Life or distributed design strategies, please learn from and with us.

All of this is a work in progress. Part of the point of this project is that it's a community space--both on the web and in Second Life--and we hope most of the suggestions and improvements that take us to the next step will come with and from you.

So come on in! You can browse, create, and participate in projects on the website. If you don't have a full-fledged exhibit concept, you can browse and submit to the idea lab, a place for one-sentence flights of fancy that might someday become brilliant exhibits.

And the Second Life grid is down at this moment for maintenance, but starting at 2pm PST today you can join us in the virtual world. We are offering museum tours every day at 11am (today at 3pm), and build and script classes each day (starting Thursday) at noon. My name in SL is Avi Marquez. I'll see you at The Tech!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Why Your Museum Needs a Bar

Trivia Night @ P&H
Originally uploaded by Sean Davis
Yes, these people are filling out worksheets. At a bar. It's fun. Trust me.

I got my copy of the fall issue of Museums and Social Issues this week. The theme is "Civic Dialogue," and the journal includes articles on the historical, cultural, media, and museum practice of getting people talking to each other (including one by me about such endeavors on the web).

The journal includes articles about two thriving adult science programs, one at the Dana Centre at the London Science Museum, the other Cafe Scientifique, at a pub in Denver. Both of these programs provide standard public lecture fare with a twist: shorter presentations, more active crowd participation, and a general attitude of a social night out rather than a learning opportunity. Oh, and one other thing. They both involve (optional) alcohol.

Flash back two weeks ago and I'm talking to a friend who attends monthly spelling bees at a bar in San Francisco. Flash back six months and I'm with friends at a hip bar in Washington DC, losing miserably at a weekly trivia night. Yes, bars have always featured live music, comedy, and spoken word. But now, many bars are also offering participatory experiences around content. Not only are they offering content, they're taking totally geeky endeavors like "trivia" and "spelling bees" and turning them into hot commodities.

Arguably, the basic content of any decent museum lecture or workshop is more compelling than the spelling of the word cilia. And yet these bar games have something that few museum adult programs offer: complete focus on the audience/participants, not the leader/speaker. The experience is entirely about you the speller, you the famous dictator identifier, you the sit back and laugh at your friends-er.

But focus on the participants isn't the only, or even the most important, thing bar experiences like this offer. One of the strange paradoxes of these experiences is that while the content focus is on you the participant, it's entirely permissable to get up and leave halfway through. It's fine to drop in and out of the game. It's reasonable to start a side conversation. It's laudatory to take a break to buy a new round for the table.

Bars offer participation within a larger, fluid social atmosphere. This is important to the success of trivia nights and spelling bees because it allows participants to get as intense as they want and accommodates a broad range of experiences. The bar acknowledges and supports participants' desire to ebb and flow through the evening. They aren't game show participants or a lecture audience; they're a group of people out having a good time.

It's this attitude of flexibility and accommodation that makes bars excellent settings for adult programs. Adult programs--whether workshops or lectures--often feel intensely intellectual. You have to sit in your chair, probably for an hour, while someone talks. Then there's some Q&A, and maybe a cookie or a glass of wine to cap the experience. The experience doesn't feel social, even if it involves social interactions, because it's structured. It doesn't accommodate the mood or level of intensity you bring to the experience. It offers a particular brand of experience and asks you to come up or down to meet it.

At Cafe Scientifique, on the other hand, the social experience of enjoying science in the company of others is primary. The repeat audience is strong, and participants form growing relationships with one another over the events.

And that social spirit is reinforced by the choice of venue. Can a venue be as important than the content packaged inside it? Commenting on the high level of participation at Cafe Scientifique in Denver, John Cohen and Helen MacFarlane write:
Several group members have said that they happily ask questions or voice opinions at the Cafe, but would not do so at a lecture. An office manager told us she never went to the microphone to pose a question at a lecture, because she assumed that everyone else in the room was an expert and she would sound like an idiot. At the Cafe, with questions and answers coming rapid-fire from all directions, it is quickly obvious that no one is an expert and we are all, no matter what our training and background, amateurs in both senses of that word.

It's a testament to more than just the venue that Cafe Scientifique enjoys a rowdy, energetic crowd of 150 coming together a couple times a month to talk science. The short amount of time allotted for "presenting," the support for skepticism and disagreement, and the emphasis by committee members on finding experts who are engaging speakers certainly play a role. But I think that the pub environment creates a social backbone that supports the experience. Everyone is an equal--an amateur--at the bar. Even the physical setup, with small round tables instead of theater-style, supports social mixing and a flexible small group-large group experience. The bar is a relaxed place, a place to have fun and chat and argue. A place, in the spirit of the journal, to be civic (though not necessarily civil). A place many museums are not.

Yes, museums can partner with outside bars to offer programs like these. But why not reap the benefits of having a nightlife associated with the museum? Why not build a space that supports comfortable social experiences? Running a bar and hosting evening events of this nature can usher in the coveted "date" audience, connect participants to one another (potentially form the base of a strong membership program), and bring a community together around museum content. The Dana Centre has continued to experiment with this strategy, branding their space as expressly for adults, a place to "eat, drink, talk science."

These hip 20- and 30-somethings are already out at night matching Impressionists to their masterpieces. Why not do it at the museum?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Children's Museums and Web 2.0

Last week, I received an inquiry from Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand, a magazine put out by the Association of Children's Museums, about Museum 2.0. Why, Mary asked, were there no posts about children's museums on this site? I did a quick mental scan, and she's right; with the exception of a few mentions of the Exploratorium and the City Museum (both of which are much more than children's museums), Museum 2.0 has focused on "interactive" and "collecting" museums, with much attention paid to the ways adults engage therein. So today, we start righting the wrongs and welcome the kids to the table.

Why aren't children's museums represented on Museum 2.0? One (positive) reason is that children's museums already do so much 2.0 stuff naturally. At children's museums, visitors ARE participants. It's hard to fool yourself into thinking you define the museum experience when your visitors are jumping on, chewing, and giggling at your content. Children don't have the same social hang-ups as adults and are likely to share their experience with strangers while in the museum. Visitors use the exhibits as owners and come back to reuse again and again. Finally, children's museums are the original home of user-generated content, from face-paintings to puppet shows to take-home projects.

But Mary is also interested (legitimately) in the media side. As she puts it:
With an audience of mostly young children and families in primarily non-collecting hands-on museums, most of them small, what are the best web strategies?
In her wanderings, some children's museum folks have objected to heavy investment in the web, citing both the power of the in-person visit (how could it possibly be extended?) and American Pediatric Association guidelines to push kids away from computer screens and out into the world. After all, we want kids to come to our museums specifically to have the multi-sensory experiences not available on the web. Why try to extend that to the web?

The answer is the same for children's museums as it is for any other museums: kids are on the web anyway, and we might as well use that fact as an opportunity to connect with them in their homes. When it comes to "extending the visitor experience," I think children's museums are ideally positioned for web activities. The tendency to visit as a family can extend the positive of the in-museum experience (quality time) to shared experiences at home. I know lots of parents who spend quality time with their kids surfing YouTube, giggling at the dancing cats. Why shouldn't a children's museum website be a place for fun, safe content that family members can explore together?

In particular, I think children's museums could benefit from some of the "record yourself" experiences that other museums, primarily interactive science centers, offer. For example, when you visit the Ontario Science Centre, you can record your own stop motion animation, which you can then access on the web at home. Similarly, here at The Tech, you can take thermocamera pictures of yourself, perform DNA experiments, and other activities--all of which populate a personal website for you to visit again from home. These personalized websites are not heavily trafficked; 10% viewership is considered pretty darn good. But in a children's museum context, I could see these websites getting much more use. Parents want cute pictures of their kids (and if you search "children's museum" on Flickr, you'll find over 20,000 images). Kids want recordings of themselves performing. Everyone wants these to be shown and shared in a safe environment. And since many children's museum visitors return again and again, the vision of these personal websites evolving into a more meaningful documentation of your experiences at the children's museum becomes viable.

Take it to the next level, and museums could network these personal sites to create an internal, safe visitor social space where kids could view each other's work. Teachers or grandparents could maintain bookmarks of their students or grandchildren's updates with each visit. It may not be safe or appropriate to broadcast all of this content out to third party sites, like YouTube or Facebook, but you could effectively imagine a museum creating their own micro-Facebook for visitors to the museum, with updates when new exhibits were used, new photos recorded, new stories written.

For the adult museum audience, creating a parallel Facebook or similar makes little sense. Why compete with a social network giant that can do everything bigger and better than you? But children's museums are another story. There is no safe, family-friendly social networking site for young children, teachers, and parents. Very few people have attempted to create web spaces that are easily navigable by children who don't read well. Children's museums could carve out a niche, and provide a real service, by creating these kinds of web platforms, which encourage use of the real museum and support discovery and exploration based on museum experiences.

Children's museums deal in experiences, not collections or text-oriented content. It's tricky and often expensive to create web-based museum-like experiences... How do you convey making giant bubbles on the web? How do you create a blog around the excitement of sitting on a giant concrete dinosaur? While there are certainly some neat web-based children's museum experiences out there (Pittsburgh's inspired
chicken-based navigation comes to mind), creating web "experiences" is often more expensive and complicated than creating a record of and sharing in-museum experiences.

Beyond recording, I'd suggest that children's museums start blogs geared towards different audiences--parents, teachers, kids--and use those to share museum-endorsed links, upcoming programs, and ask questions of the audience. Every kid likes to be polled, and plenty want to share their personal experiences--check out the Club Penguin blogs for confirmation of that. Another interesting site to check out is imbee, a new social networking site for kids ages 8-14.

But children's museums serve a younger set of kids, and they are in position to likewise serve their audience on the web in unique ways. Ultimately, the web experience should complement the museum experience, not offer a screen-based carbon copy. The starting question should be: how do we want to grow? Which growth areas could be best served by web media?

Social networks of personal webpages populated from museum experiences is one option. But there are others as well. Children's museum folks out there: what do you imagine your web presence could be? What are your challenges, and where do you want to grow?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Pick of the Week: WNYC's RadioLab

This week, I was surprised to look at my podcast list on iTunes and see a new episode of RadioLab. Turns out it isn't a true episode, but an excerpt from a talk that the cohosts gave earlier this year on the making of RadioLab. It's a worthwhile 30 minutes of discussion about the use of sound to provide an emotional context for stories--specifically, stories about science. It also has some interesting lessons about collaboration in design; there's a lot of acknowledgment and discussion about the positives and negatives of bringing new technologies (digital audio manipulation) into a classic venue (radio).

For those who haven't heard of it, RadioLab is a newish (since 2005) NPR show that comes out of WNYC, and it is hands-down my favorite NPR show. It's This American Life meets Science Friday with a whole slew of strange audio tweaks thrown in. I realized, after listening to the "making of" piece, that one of the things I love most about it is its ability to merge the tried and true with the cutting edge. RadioLab is a superlative model of how we can think of new ideas and new technology as an "and" instead of an "instead".

Here are some other things to love about RadioLab:
  • The two hosts, Robert Krulwich (seasoned science journalist) and Jad Abumrad (young techy) are a wonderful team. Sure, they're each good on their own, but the magic happens in their exchanges. They have arguments about consciousness without sounding pretentious. They each do interviews with outsiders separately, and then they set up those interviews on air by "explaining" them to each other. They ask each other the dumb questions a listener wonders. They complete each other's sentences and make talking about science seem like a reasonable and fascinating thing to do at the dinner table. They make radio a discussion, not a tutorial. And that makes it feel much more participatory.
  • They also are an instructive model of the fusion of the old and the new, a gentle voiceprint of a world where new and traditional technologies come together without posturing or fear. Jad is the newcomer, Robert the established one, and those roles are openly acknowledged. They discuss, on air, their feelings about how stories should be represented, discussed, and spiced up. They are a pair of designers working it out.
  • They take big complex ideas, like emergence, and examine them in concrete and fantastical ways. Heck, they take simple ideas, like zoos, and do the same thing.
  • They are storytellers, not fact sharers. I feel strongly about this. So many people only report on science, as if science were too objective to have emotional content worth exposing. They use tried-and-true radio formats like interviews and profiles, and then sequence in unusual audio effects to create an emotional landscape to the stories.
Listen to the piece, listen to the show. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Looking for Your Input: What Might Bring You to Second Life?

Dear Museum 2.0ers,

As many of you know, I'm now working for The Tech Museum of Innovation on a new project in which exhibit designers, fabricators, curators, and visitors from all over the world can hook up to develop exhibit concepts and virtual prototypes in Second Life. We're launching very soon (mid-Dec), and I hope you'll all be a part of it.

But that's not what this post is about. I appreciate that Second Life is complex, frustrating, and has a very steep learning curve (but it makes great snapshots :)). Toward that end, I'm developing a set of classes and programs to welcome collaborators into Second Life and work with you from the perspective of museum/design work. I'd like to know...
  • What's the biggest barrier keeping you from getting into Second Life?
  • What might entice you to enter?
  • Would you be interested in single events (i.e. a one-hour how to build session) or a multi-session program?
  • Would you want events scheduled during the workday or after? On your time or on a fixed schedule?
  • What kind of support would be most useful to you? Documents, people, videos?
In particular, I'm imagining creating a multi-session program that would take you from a first time experience in Second Life to a place where you would feel reasonably comfortable building, prototyping, and working with others in that environment. I do believe there's a professional development incentive here (especially if you can be "in class" with other awesome museum folk), but I also understand that everyone is busy and the desire to learn has to be balanced against the need to finish tasks.

My plan is to offer a smattering of classes and times in December, and then start more formal programs in January. So let me know what you think, and I'll integrate it into the planning! And if you want to be a test bunny for any of this, please get in touch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cross-Platform Experiences: Searching for Symbiosis

I had a surprisingly good label-reading experience at the de Young museum recently. I was looking at a large sculpture in the Africa section. I glanced at the sculpture, then looked to the label. The first sentence said, "This figure, which has two bodies and seven heads..." and I looked back up to confirm. "A bird on the top of the head," and again, I looked up. I was having one of those rare experiences where literally every sentence of the label sent me back to the object, to examine and explore further.

I bring up this story as a window into the field of cross-platform experience design. As the name suggests, cross-platform experiences provide a variety of playing fields for engagement.

At the simplest level, cross-platform can mean a single action in one environment inducing action in another. For example, some TV shows like American Idol allow you to vote on the performers (and thus affect the "game") via a dial-in phone number or text message. A computer kiosk in a museum might allow you to send a link home to yourself related to a physical exhibit experienced at the museum.

The intent is for these cross-platform experiences to engage you more persistently and completely with the content; the TV show is not only occupying your viewing experience with your television, but also engaging your communication experience via the phone. Instead of associating content, for example, museum exhibition content, with one location (the museum) alone, you take the content with you and engage with it in other parts of your life.

Most cross-platform experimentation, however, is too simple and infrequent to truly generate pervasive engagement. There's a quick feedback loop--watch this clip, dial this number, keep watching the show--and you're done. Most examples are stunts that don't create an environment of cross-platform play. People don't watch shows clutching their phones in hand, and few people ever access the "personal" websites generated in museum experiences.

Great cross-platform experiences, on the other hand, are like the label at the de Young. The platforms complement each other, and the player ping pongs from one to the other and back again.

One of the best examples of a complex, multi-faceted cross-platform game was I Love Bees, a creation of Jane McGonigal and 42 Entertainment. I Love Bees was created as part of the marketing campaign for Halo 2, a video game released in 2004. Technically an ARG (alternate reality game), I Love Bees combined online and real-world activities to reveal the Halo 2 narrative. The game ran for three months, counting down to the release of Halo 2. The core idea was brilliant: a list of GPS coordinates throughout the US and western Europe was released on the web, along with dates and times. Those GPS coordinates pointed to real-world payphones. When people went to the right payphone at the right time with the right puzzle message, they received a call from an actor portraying one of the fictitious characters in the game. Players banded together to get to the pay phones at the right time with the right messages, and they shared their findings online afterwards. The play was intense and the players described themselves as hardcore. You can read more about the game on Wikipedia, and some commentary on it from Wired.

Of course, the same thing that made I Love Bees intense and wonderful for some made it inaccessible to others. I Love Bees was described as "elaborate and convoluted," and even its basic tools--dedicated websites and payphones--are outside the sphere of most people's day to day actions. I Love Bees raises some interesting questions about what makes a cross-platform experience successful. It's not just about meeting people "where they are"--by putting applications on Facebook, videos on YouTube, etc. That's a good start, It's about creating a surprising and necessary relationship between one platform and another.

What unexpected platforms have symbiotic relationships with one another? What are the metaphors and connections that can be exploited to push people in new directions? My experience at the de Young stood out because frequently these two basic platforms--text labels and art--are not well-connected. How can we do a better job connecting the dots both inside and beyond museum walls?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rethinking Membership: What Does it Mean to Belong to a Museum?

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving, and my mother-in-law had an important meeting to attend. She's only been a member for a few months, and we're visiting from a thousand miles away, but there are about 40 other members expecting her. When she has to travel, she finds a group of members in that other town and meets up with them. If things keep going well, soon she'll "graduate" to a lifetime membership (free), and she's considering getting training to become a leader for a group in her own town. As a member, she enjoys a weekly interactive, social experience that supports her personal goals.

What kind of membership inspires such loyalty and participation? Weight Watchers. It's social, it's supportive, and the membership is sustaining. They have an innovative model: pay when you start, then attend for free once you have reached your weight goal. Slip, and you're back to a paying membership. The leaders, who are paid, are all former members who reached their goal.

Museum membership is not nearly as healthy as that of Weight Watchers. Museum members aren't ideological, like members of a political party or a movement. They aren't social, like members of a church or team. They aren't motivated by support for a perceived community service, like members of NPR or the Sierra Club. Today's museum members are mostly "value" members, people who join based on a calculation of savings in admissions fees over a number of yearly visits.

What's wrong with value members? Consider the largest vendor of value memberships: fitness centers. Gym memberships, like museum memberships, are often bought based on future intentions rather than current activities. If you are not someone who works out, you assume that buying a gym membership will motivate you to attend. But the gym experience, like the museum experience, doesn't welcome you into a social, supportive environment that rewards your membership. It just offers services and equipment, to be used or ignored. And the reality is that 9 out of 10 gym memberships are abandoned. The financial incentive to use the services of the gym are not great enough to overcome personal obstacles to use.

The same argument may be made of value members at museums. Museum memberships are bought based on a calculated intention to return, not a realistic assessment of museum use. Membership does not a frequent visitor make. Most membership purchases are made before entry (at point of sale) rather than after a visit. This means that people assess the "value" of membership based on the cost of admission, not the quality of the visit. I'd offer an uninformed guess that people who join a museum on their first visit are much less likely to renew than those who join after one or more visits. It's the difference between buying a subsidized perk for something already in your life and something you intend to, but do not currently, do.

So the first problem with value members is churn rate; like delinquent gym members, museum members who find at the end of the year to have under-visited do not renew. But the other problem with value members is that they are hard to cultivate into higher-level donors. They didn't join to support the institution and are unlikely to respond to calls to do so. The membership is a personal purchase, not an investment in their organization.

How did value membership rise to prominence? Over the last twenty years, the museum industry has moved towards greater reliance on gate sales, due to rising commercialism and diminishing government support. And the result, in part, is the invention of a new, successful product: the membership as discount. Membership effectively packages the museum experience--in some cities, a group of local museum experiences--into something repeatable at low cost.

But value membership is an impersonal commodity, one among many in the experience economy. It doesn't inspire the same kind of volunteerism, social engagement, or support as other membership models. How can museums move towards more successful models for membership, while retaining the expected perk of free admission?

Hook members as donors by giving them some control of their funds.
Value members think about how the membership affects their wallets, not how it (positively) impacts the museum. Museums can make the relationship between members and donors clearer by giving members an option to elect (partially) what their membership fee supports, the way alumni associations allow people to flag their donation for athletics, scholarships, arts, etc. The Bronx Zoo's Gorilla Sanctuary transformed the "value" of admission from one of experience cost into an exercise in donation. Why not do the same with members, and allow them to flag dollars for camps, exhibits, or other programs? This has the added value of generating data about new members' interests, which can then be cultivated with targeted marketing of programs and giving campaigns.

Provide a peer-to-peer social environment for members.
Why is Weight Watchers so much more successful at retention than the average gym? The motivation to join is comparable, but the membership investment is in people, not equipment. The number one reason people return to specific museums is positive interaction with others (usually staff). If we want members to become active, true members of the museum community, we need to provide a social space for them to get involved. This may be as volunteers, or, more usefully, as partners and friends to one another. This is the church model of participation. Yes, church members support the core functions of the facility, but more importantly, they create youth groups, book circles, and activity teams to spend time with each other. The more socially engaged you are with other members, the more positively you feel about your membership and the institution in general. I don't think we need to provide fancy members-only programs. Instead, we should seek out and encourage alpha members to form groups and clubs that use the museum--home school groups, retired groups, date nights for singles. Providing the basics--snacks, a space, and enthusiastic support--could be enough to get members motivating each other so we don't have to do it for them.

Create a slate of member benefits that support the kinds of members you want to have. Look at your list of member benefits. Are they all financial? If you are primarily offering discounts, you're going to attract a value member base. Imagine your ideal member. Is it someone who comes to the museum frequently? Someone who comes to programs? Someone who offers money or time? Someone who loves the content? Someone who wants to learn more? Some members might be best served by opportunities to serve as test rats for exhibit evalation. Others want something to do. Others want a cool set of people to connect with. Museums could be offering entirely different sets of benefits: an email address at the museum, a lending library to take artifacts home for a bit, a happy hour. Weight Watchers did this very successfully, transitioning from a business where the emphasis was on discounted food to one where the emphasis is on group support. Few people pay for their special food anymore. What they pay for is the social, educational programs.

If you find it challenging to imagine what these benefits could be in a museum context, start with a similar business and extrapolate. What makes Curves such a successful fitness franchise? Each attendee has a personal interaction with a trainer--and other members--every time. What differentiates local food coops from big member stores like Costco? Food coops don't just offer discounts, they also require some level of participation by members as volunteers. Sometimes, the "benefit" of membership appears onerous from the outside, but in the food coop case, the "pitch in" spirit of volunteer work contributes to the communal ideology to which members subscribe.

Move the point of sale for membership away from the admissions desk. This relates to the previous point. Selling memberships at the admissions desk reinforces the concept that it is a ticket discount rather than a more global program. If the membership is about repeat museum visits, sell memberships on the way out the door rather than the way in. If it's about supporting the museum financially, put the member desk near the donor thank you wall so that your nice staff member can explain how important financial support is to the museum. If it's about encouraging participation in programs, include it with your program announcements, and make sure you are giving members advance notice about such programs.

Answer the question: what does it mean to be a member? Honor the idea of membership, make it meaningful, and make it valuable. Membership can be as simple as the click of a Facebook link or as convoluted as a secret society. But being a member should make you feel proud, connected, and energized about the group or institution to which you belong. Right now, few museums offer a membership that truly connotes belonging. Make members part of your family, and they will reward you. They might even pay to show up the night before Thanksgiving.

What great membership mentalities or programs have you encountered, in museums or otherwise?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club Part 4: Starting to Listen

This is the final installment of Museum 2.0’s book club on Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, a collection of essays edited by Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean. Over the past three weeks, we’ve looked at the energetic conversation embodied by talk-backs, the intimate gift of personal experience, and the collaborative effort of co-expression and co-creation. Today, commentary on the book’s final section, Starting to Listen.

What does it mean to truly listen to visitors? On the most basic level, it means closing our mouths and giving visitors trust and attention. The best visitor voices projects don’t come out of marketing blitzes or grudging concessions to visitors. They come from a desire to listen to and learn from visitors.

Ultimately, the arguments against including visitor voices come down to a lack of respect for visitors as meaning-makers in museums. They don’t have anything interesting to say. They don’t have a nuanced perspective. They’ll just use it to screw around. All of these arguments drive fear and resistance to visitor inclusion, and most are borne out of an essential distrust for visitors. It seems so basic. Who wants a teacher—for themselves or their children—who ignores or despises students? Who wants an exhibit designer who does the same? While it may seem New Age-y, approaching visitors with love and interest is the core perspective that should guide the development and implementation of these (and dare I say all) museum projects.

But love is just a starting point, not a road map to success. Some of these essays in this section offer some much-needed perspective on that road map, a perspective lacking in some of the more specific case studies. Liza Pryor, from the Science Museum of Minnesota, offers a list of arguments why museums should be engaging with social technologies—worth co-opting for any tough chats with marketing or executives about the value of blogging, public comment-sharing, and the like. Richard Toon, reflecting on a series of talk-backs at the Arizona Science Center, starts promisingly by acknowledging an unsuccessful talk-back (he blames the low value of materials provided), but applies less rigor to analysis of follow-up talk-backs.

The lack of analysis across projects frustrated me throughout this book. I understand that Visitor Voices is primarily a reference for individual projects and case studies—many of which I found fascinating and inspiring—but I’d also hoped to get some analysis, guidelines, and benchmarks for what makes visitor content successful in exhibitions and programs. Most of the case studies in the book are expository, not analytical, and it was sometimes hard to evaluate how one kind of outcome (e.g. high quality visitor content) related to others (e.g. low percentage of on-topic content). Very few of the case studies deconstructed what made one initiative or project component more successful than another; was it the materials, the medium, the questions posed, the location of the feedback station, or…?

Clearly all of these are important. One of my favorite stories (not from this book) about designing for visitor voices was shared by Devon Hamilton of the Ontario Science Centre, who told me about a kiosk in their Innovation Centre on which visitors can type messages that are then broadcast in real-time to a huge screen in the Centre. They were getting more obscene and off-topic responses on this kiosk than on others and couldn’t figure out what was going on. They decided to relocate the kiosk—which had been in a corner—to a public area close to the women’s restroom. Physical context thus altered, the issues with content dissolved immediately.

There’s a potential essay in that story about placement of visitor content components in an exhibition. Do you want to convey an intimate privacy? Perhaps Wendy Clarke’s set-up for the Love Tapes, in which visitors enter a private room, is best. Do you want to discourage obscenity? Take a page from Ontario and install it in a public, high-traffic area. I think a lot of these authors have specific lessons to impart, but I found few of them here. While this book offers examples from which one might infer answers to these kinds of questions—where to put it, what to use—it doesn’t tackle these questions comprehensively. I think that does a disservice to readers who want to actually apply these ideas in new projects at their own institutions.

But maybe that’s the sequel—moving from Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions to Designing for Visitor Voices in Museums. Visitor Voices is a great resource as a compendium of projects all over the map. I can imagine museum professionals using it to great effect to understand the landscape of such projects. My imagined sequel would be a workbook that addresses more specifically the design elements of creating an exhibition or program piece that incorporates visitor voices, walking people through the options, questions, and possibilities to help them craft a coherent project.

Wendy Pollock closes the book with a list of provocative questions about visitor voices. She asks about the ways design might be impact, wonders if post-its and comment books really constitute substantive dialogue about museum content, and inquires about how museums will respond to these voices we so lovingly receive. All of these questions are worth analyzing. I don’t think we can address them with case studies alone.

To close, a quote that Wendy cited by Thomas Zeldin, who wrote Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives: "
Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving messages."

How can we design visitor experiences that catch fire? Sounds like a great start for part two.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Wildness in the Corner: A Discussion with Jason Nelson

Okay, I lied. Last week I announced the end of Game Friday. But this week, I got the opportunity to interview Jason Nelson, creator of digital art and avant garde game wonder game, game, game, and again game and how could I resist?

Jason Nelson is a lecturer in cyberstudies/digital art/digital creative writing at Griffith University in Queensland, AU. He started out as a poet, started messing around on the internet with digital media, and launched into a series of highly unusual interactive projects.

These include:
  • this is how you will die, a slot machine style game that generates unique deaths as a series of sequential clauses (see example image above)
  • Speech/Media_To_Text_Translation, in which an imperfect speech-to-text translator is applied to generate poetry from sound effects, natural disasters, and media events
  • Dispersed Fiction, in which a story is doled out via the content-submission forms on a variety of public websites
Jason kindly stayed up until 3am to talk with me about art, poetry, and the challenges of engaging users in something really weird. The interview includes stories about some of his projects, and a delving into questions about what makes viral content compelling, how to draw people into an uncomfortable environment, and ways that art--or museum content--can become more pervasive by being hidden in the corners of life.

What do you think has made you successful?

At first, it was a surprise. game, game, has had about 5 million hits. I released it in a decentralized way—which means I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d find a blog and say you might be interested by this—and then it spread out. I’m really fascinated by the viral web.
I grew up in Oklahoma. No one knows about it, no one wants to live there. But there’s a lot of unexpected beauty in Oklahoma—weird folk art with plastic deer, a beautiful house. And I think that’s kind of what happened with some of my work—people didn’t really expect it. So it felt like something they found, an experience they owned, and they wanted to share it.

I find it fascinating how on Youtube, something will get 2 million hits really quickly, and then it dies off. People don’t want to share it anymore once it’s huge.
game, game, and... just won an Italian art award. As an artist and a lecturer at the university, I'm expected to put my work up in competitions as art. But then these kids blogging it on car mod sites—they’re finding it without realizing it’s an art work. That lack of expectation is kind of a wonderful thing. For institutions, which brand themselves with a consistent experience, it’s really hard to translate an unexpected find.

You're bringing up a great point--that the things that become successful on the viral web do so because they feel personal, like you found a secret to share with someone else. How could we embed these secrets, these hidden discoveries, into museums?

I think you could easily go into a physical space and hide things. Everyone else, make your exhibitions. And then we’re going to hide something underneath the exhibit about eggs. Or about gravity. And then it becomes this great thing that people discover—the surprise. That’s what I think a lot of physical spaces are lacking.

This is what I'm trying to do with dispersed fiction: to hide it all over the web. It’s this idea of taking your fiction or poetry and dispersing it out on the web in places where people can enter things—like into an Amazon book review. You make up a unique keyword and use that in all the entries. So then someone can search google and find everything out on the web via that searchable term.

It’s kind of like—let’s put our exhibitions in the corner of a grocery store, in a gas station. And I think museums would like to do that, but they don’t really have controls over what happens with the material in those public places. So when you deal with Second Life, for example, it seems like an ideal place to do that, because you don't have to worry so much about the physical materials, so you could actually go in and put bits of an exhibition in lots of different places. So as people wander around, they could find these things.

There’s a Smithsonian fellowship from Australia where you can research at the Smithsonian for 6 months. My idea is to explore the museums, find those hidden objects, and make small digital art projects based on these objects that don’t fit. Then people find those digital pieces on the web and find their way back to the institution

I also think people connect with my stuff because it flirts with failure. How do you make something that’s messy, that isn't polished, that seems almost kind of broken? A lot of the content on the net is so polished. And I think there’s something engrained in us that wants error.

The messiness of your work is definitely something that makes it really distinctive. But when we talk about hiddenness, there's this problem. Does this kind of stuff have to exist as a reaction to and on the edges of something more polished? Or do you think it can hold up on its own? How much messiness could people handle?

When I lived in Bowling Green, the museums in Ohio used to bother me with exhibitions like The Art of Star Wars. I understand why they're doing it, but it's no anti-failure that it becomes dull. And really it’s just designed to meet the centerpoint. Here in Queensland they have an Andy Warhol exhibit coming up, and it’s just plastered everywhere. And I think these shows really injure institutions by not sharing the diversity and range of work out there, by focusing on these standard things.

The blockbusters. They're safe. So where does that leave risk and messiness?

I think people want it, and they're willing to tolerate a lot of weirdness if it reaches them in some way. Uncontrollable semantics was this project I did that had a hidden page in it that I'd forgotten about. I kept getting these email messages that said "Cease Me Cease You." I thought it was spam. But then I started getting hundreds of these emails, and finally someone sent me an email address that referenced a file name. And I found this hidden page again, where you have to wait for two minutes, and then it says, “Email me at this address with the words Cease Me Cease You."

And I think people wanting to come to these sites would really be open to these kinds of things. If you’re in academia, or art, or museums, you sort of focus on the boundaries, wanting to learn where they are. And I think we could leap way outside the boundaries and people would be really accepting of it.
In the case of my work, people are reacting to something highly unusual in the field, but they don't see it that way--they don't know where the boundaries are.

What they do need is some kind of foothold or entry point, something that makes them comfortable saying, "I have no idea what it means but I really enjoy it." Is that entry point a game interface? A sound? Anything that can draw them in and then the rest gets really wild and crazy. As long as you give them small rewards along the way and congratulate them when they reach some goal.

Doing something weird always comes back to comfort with failure.

How do you identify failure when you're working in an extremely strange space? Is it about numbers? Or about how you personally feel about the piece? Can you give me an example?

The most recent example would be the zombie game. When I finished it, I hated it. I was glad it was over. I think it has a lot of nuances in it, but it’s also really difficult to get through. It’s a little annoying. And I usually love art that's annoying—but it wasn’t accessible enough. But it was also a failure because I tried to reach an audience rather than approaching it from my own voice, and the result was that that audience--game people--felt that maybe I was mocking them.

One thing I think is important is making exhibitions that don’t require a lot of prefacing. I find conceptually-based art very problematic. I want to jump right into the middle of it. Maybe the experience won’t be totally obvious or opaque, but it will be enjoyable.

There's a contradiction here. You're talking about avoiding targeting a particular audience, but then also giving users an access point. In museums, we often start by thinking about the access point--how can we draw visitors in and connect with them. How do you reconcile the personal desire for wildness with a desire to support an audience?

You just need one access point. You can have eight facets of a project that are wild and one that connects to people to be accessible.

For example, I’m modifying a digital midi theremin as an alternative mouse device. It's a normal theremin with a midi output. I’m using the data sets from the midi to drive the mouse motion. It’s just an interface device, a part of a larger artwork. The theremin interface is the carrot, a performative way to interact. The idea is to draw them in that way.

Are there any other projects you are working on that you're really excited about?

I'm working with speech to text software to filter outside sound and create poems. I’ll play a movie or political speech, run it through the speech to text program, and it will spit out this crazy, very poetic stuff. I started doing it because I was playing with the program one evening and I accidentally left it on during a thunderstorm. And when I woke up the screen was full of text. At first I was afraid that someone had broken in—and then I realized the software was getting the sounds from the storm and turning them into words.


This conversation with Jason really inspired me to hunt out strange phenomena and find ways to slide them in under the rug in museums. But I'm left with the same question we batted about during the talk: how much of this can museums handle? Does it have to be on the periphery to be appreciated? What do you think?