Thursday, June 28, 2007

Game Friday: Bigger is Better

What museum hasn't benefited from a giant blow-up dinosaur on its front lawn? Flying into San Jose yesterday, I laughed out loud when I looked out the window and saw Clifford the Big Red Dog below me, a cheerful addition to the skyline (thanks to the Children's Discovery Museum).

But there are gamers out there doing one better. If a giant blow-up thingy is good, how about a giant blow-up thingy you can interact with?

Enter area/code, an extremely cool NYC-based game company that produces Big Games. According to their manifesto,
Big Games are human-powered software for cities, life-size collaborative hallucinations, and serious fun.
And fun they are. Big Games are technology-rich (using mobile devices, cameras, GPS, etc.) and neighborhood-based. For example, the image above is from a game called BUG (Big Urban Game), developed with the University of Minnesota, in which three teams of players in St. Paul/Minneapolis called in or voted online to determine the movement of large game pieces (see above) each evening throughout the city. Each day, there were newspaper announcements of the pieces' whereabouts, and players could roll giant dice at the site of each piece, accumulating "points" that gave the pieces relative headstarts on each evening's journey. The game allowed for casual drop-in players of all types: on the internet, phone, local media, and on the streets. Like all Big Games, it was highly visual, and served as half-game, half-spectacle.

area/code is perhaps most famous for Pac Manhattan, in which players dress as Pac-Man and the evil Ghosts and run around the Washington Square area of Manhattan. Pac-Man tries to eat dots, and the Ghosts try to tag Pac-Man. All the players in the streets have virtual "control" partners who track their progress via a control panel (which looks much like the real Pac-Man game). The control panel is then broadcast on the internet for anyone not in Manhattan to follow the game.

I love these games because they use web and mobile technology as springboards to facilitate fun in the real world. These games aren't "simulated"--they are physical, visual, of, by, and in the community. By embedding the technology instead of showcasing it, area/code powers unusual in-person experiences. area/code understands that these technologies don't have to exist in opposition to "real world" experiences; they can be used to enhance and expand them.

And thank you Mike Ellis for inspiring this post with a hilarious and highly relevant video of Japanese game show contestants trying (and mostly failing) to play Human Tetris.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

PSA: Is Your Small Museum Doing Something With Web 2.0?

Because AAM wants to know about it. The program chair of the Small Museum Administrators Committee, Tracy Sullivan, is seeking examples of small museums (operating budget under $350,000/year) using Web 2.0. Are you podcasting? Blogging? Maintaining a massive social network? Drop a comment here about it (so we can all bask in wonder) and send a note to Tracy Sullivan at TSullivan (at) entnet (dot) org

On this note, Museum 2.0 will soon be rolling out a separate non-blog section that will list and compile a lot of the content covered here, including museum projects in 2.0, explanations of Web 2.0 applications, reviews of exhibits, etc. There will be (simple) ways to contribute your own projects, challenges, and ideas. If there are specific things/topics you'd like to see in this library of content, please leave a comment here or get in touch with me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Book Club Part 2: Timeliness

Quick. A local fire has devastated 200 local homes. A Russian spy has been poisoned in London. Tuberculosis is traveling business class. Pluto just got demoted. What does your museum have to say about it?

What do visitors expect of museums, and what do museums expect of themselves, when it comes to timeliness? What's more important, timelessness or timeliness? In chapter 6 of Civilizing the Museum, Elaine Gurian, Joy Davis, and Emlyn Koster share the process and conclusions of a three day conversation about timeliness in museums held at the University of Victoria in 2003.

The basic conclusion of the conversation is that timeliness in museums is "societally useful," especially in an era when museums are shifting away from being "refuge[s] of authority and stability" to "resource[s] for the public good." This is partially driven by museums, which want to be seen as "forums" for discourse, but also by the expectations of a media-saturated public. One of the things that most confounds non-museum folks about museums is the glacial pace of exhibit and program development; I've heard many friends (and some museum execs from other fields) ask why we aren't showing something immediately after a news event related to museum content occurs. In a world where everything is available up to the minute, museums' resistance to involvement doesn't communicate thoughtfulness or solidity--it communicates out of dateness. In the public eye, museums aren't compared to timeless entities like the ocean. They're called dinosaurs instead.

Of course, there's a basic tension for museums that feel both "the obligation to be reflective and considerate, and the seeming imperative to react to emergent issues." The good news about timeliness is that when it comes to news, the public doesn't expect fancy exhibitry; they expect recognition, exposition, and flexible interpretation. I'm always amazed to see visitors pouring over "SCIENCE IN THE NEWS" and similar clipping bulletin boards in museums. The authors share several examples of museums responding to current events, such as the National Air and Space Museum, which responded to the 2003 Columbia Shuttle explosion "by bringing a television set on the floor and stationing an expert to interpret the information for the public in real time." There are also other museums, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Holocaust Museum discussed yesterday, that incorporate ongoing advocacy for content-related issues (conservation and genocide prevention, respectively) into their exhibits and programs, connecting the timeless to the right now. In the Aquarium example, staff found that giving visitors an opportunity for advocacy with a specific (and well-displayed) deadline encouraged greater participation than non-time specific advocacy; the chance for visitors to affect something "right now" is appealing.

More interestingly, the authors higlighted several museums that have attempted to work timeliness into their mission and ongoing operations. The Royal British Columbia Museum launched a (now defunct) Quick Response Team (QRT) initiative in which team members created exhibits and programs with the goal of being public-ready within one month of an event of concern. The Boston Museum of Science includes the Current Science and Technology center (CS&T), which puts up modular exhibits and revolving programs on contemporary science issues. As the authors comment,
Perhaps the most significant dilemma that confronts museums seeking to be timely is the capacity and willingness of staff to sustain such a commitment. While many staff embrace the notion that museums must be relevant, and therefore timely, their professional education and training, skill sets, disciplinary specialization, commitment to thorough, well-researched exhibitions and programs, and lengthy work processes all mitigate against rapid responses to emergent concerns.
To be timely, the authors argue, requires an institutional mindset that supports fast decision-making, engagement with controversial issues, exposition of works in progress, and time and training for rapid gathering and dissemination of content. The authors also suggest that maintaining strong relationships with external organizations and community groups as collaborators promotes both the development and successful deployment of such programming.

Perhaps most of all, to respond to contemprary events, museum staff need to be light on their feet, to have interest and ability to work flexibly and quickly. In the Royal British Columbia Museum's case, the QRT program was canceled "due to lack of curatorial resources and issue-related expertise." Many museum blogs have disappeared for the same reason; museum staff were unwilling or unable to create and manage content on an ongoing basis. It doesn't matter how much visitors love it if it's too hard for an institution to sustain based on fundamental priorities and abilities.

There's also a branding issue here. I was a visitor and employee of the Boston Museum of Science for several years without "getting" that CS&T was doing something fundamentally different and more timely than what was going on in the rest of the museum. To me as a visitor, it appeared to be just another area where I could interact with content and programs about science. I didn't differentiate that this was "the place" for fast-breaking news, and sometimes I was confused that the exhibits didn't seem as "developed" as those in other areas. Now that I know more about CS&T and some of the very cool forums and programs they produce, I understand that there's a fundamental difference. But as a visitor, how do you make the connection that your museum is now offering something more timely?

To some extent, timeliness is in the eye of the beholder. As the authors put it,
museum staff who are interested in the choice of relevant and timely topics need to ask: 'Relevant to whom?' For some participants, this very question of timeliness and relevance had to do with shared authority among partners, creating a standing relationship with members of the community, and breaking the traditional relationship between staff as authority and visitors as recipients.
Sound familiar? Ultimately, from the visitor perspective, timeliness and personal relevance may be intrinsically linked. Perhaps the best way to create an experience that visitors perceive as timely is to ask them for their ideas. Global warming is nothing new, but it's hot right now--so people perceive related exhibits and programs as timely. Similarly, content that expresses contemporary visitors' perspectives and reactions can breathe "now" into "then."

One of the striking things about Web 2.0 is the way that the connections feel immediate, evolving, and energized--even when the content is the same recycled junk about relationships or politics. In many cases, it's not the content but the attitudes with which content is presented that marks whether you are riding the crest of a new wave or adding to the fossil record. What do you think of as "now" experiences? Where's the "now" in your museum? Where do you want to see it, and where doesn't it belong?

Next week, Chapter 5, Choosing Among the Options: an opinion about museum definitions. Hopefully a timely choice considering the recent discussion on the ASTC listserv about the differences (semantic? real?) between science museums and science centers.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Move On Model: Inciting Visitor Social Action

I spent Saturday in beautiful Monterey, ocean pounding outside the window of a conference room, where about 40 museum folks were pondering a question more elusive than the origin of the waves: can museums change the world?

The session, presented by Cultural Connections, focused on museums, exhibits, and programs specifically developed to inspire visitors to take action in their own lives to create social change. Sometimes, the desired visitor actions were hazy, represented by a general principle like “diversity;” other times, the actions were specific extensions of advocacy or policy espoused by the institution. Let’s start with some examples (many of which were also presented at AAM):
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains an Ocean Action group that visitors can join to get involved in advocacy for marine life and conservation. In 2006, the Aquarium sponsored a letter-writing campaign in the museum, giving visitors an opportunity to send postcards to the governor expressing support for the establishment of marine protected areas on California's central coast. In two months, 10,000 visitors sent postcards (and fortuitiously, the government acted in favor of protection). The museum display included information about the issue, a countdown clock to the government's decision, and a running tally of postcards submitted to date.
  • The Congo Gorilla Forest, is a special exhibition produced by the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. The exhibition is a fairly standard zoo introduction to the Congo, its inhabitants, and conservation efforst, with a twist: at the end of the Congo experience, in the Conservation Choices area, visitors are able to select, via a touchscreen, which animals/areas/projects they want their $3 entry fee to fund.
  • The US Holocaust Memorial Museum includes a Committee on Conscience, which advocates and educates about acts of genocide around the world. Their website includes a clear, concise "What Can I Do?" section about the genocide in Darfur, which includes information about direct action, as well as connection to a variety of social networks, blogs, and content about the situation.
  • The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC, has presented a series of exhibitions, beginning with COURAGE, that marry provocative historical and cultural content with programmatic opportunities for community development. The museum presented tour/programs for corporate and community groups around race (Courage), gender (Purses, Platforms, and Power), and religion (Families of Abraham), enlisting professional facilitators to lead discussions around the issues raised in the exhibitions. In the example of Courage, funding was provided for 50 corporate groups, but over 100 groups participated, and response was overwhelmingly positive.

There's a huge range of projects designed to encourage visitors to "jump in," "stand up," "take action," and other declarative verbs. But I'm highly suspicious of most of these. Because museums are often afraid, unwilling, or unable to take clear positions on issues, they settle for empowering visitors to "get involved." This amounts to messageless activism, which doesn't help anyone. It's ironic that we think both too little of our visitors--that they are unable to take action without our encouragement--and too much--that they will be able to translate inspirational museum exhibits into personal action.

People don't need empowerment to make a difference; they need vehicles for action. This is what has made MoveOn so successful, and a powerful model for museum exhibit/program designers who want to inspire action. Every email I get from MoveOn has the same basic format:
  1. Provocative presentation of a breaking news item or political opportunity.
  2. Clear way for me to quickly affect the situation (sign petition, give money, host an event, volunteer at a phone bank) right now.
  3. More factual information about the situation.
  4. Another opportunity for me to take action.
  5. Information/news sources for this content.
MoveOn makes no bones about their political position on the topics they discuss, but more importantly than that, they give me a clear, simple, immediate way to affect the situation. They don't give me a bunch of options or other organizations to investigate. They balance the rhetoric with the opportunity.

Of course, MoveOn is a PAC, not a museum. But there are lots of PACs that have not enjoyed the same success as MoveOn. One of the participants on Saturday commented, "the crux of this is that we want to create exhibits that make visitors believe that one person--one visitor--can make a difference." MoveOn has done that for political action, giving people who care but are overwhelmed by the issues simple, individual ways to make a difference, one signature or dollar at a time.

The projects highlighted above strike me as particularly successful (and, luckily, simple) because they follow this model. In the Aquarium, Holocaust Museum, and Bronx Zoo examples, people have a clear vehicle to take action. The zoo/aquarium exhibits make people care about conservation, and then present a way to act on that (possibly newfound) interest. The Bronx Zoo model strikes me as particularly brilliant; a fee that you thought you were paying for an attraction transforms into an opportunity for you to take action. Perhaps this reenvisioning of the charity donation will also affect the way some people perceive museum admission and what it supports.

The Levine Museum model comes closer to the more nebulous "get engaged" empowerment goal of some museums, but does so by providing a practical tool for engagement. Rather than simply hoping the exhibits will motivate deep discussion about cultural issues, the museum provided both a venue and a facilitator for that discussion. They literally "forced the conversation," giving both reluctant and enthusiastic visitors a way to move beyond the exhibition. Similarly, by providing a range of online forums for engagement, the Holocaust Museum seeds conversation about genocide within visitors' own social networks and environments.

But for what actions can museums advocate? One of the questions that came up at the session was about safety--which issues and positions are safe for the museum to explore and or hold. Zoos and aquariums are in a special position; many rebranded themselves as champions of conservation and animal protection in reaction to their own issue--being accused of animal cruelty. Being at the center of an issue forced these institutions to take a stand in a way most museums have not. It isn't about the "safety" of the issue; it's about the survival of the institution.

Do museums present clear messages that can be translated into action? It depends. The message to visitors at lots of museums is: "here's a lot of stuff to see and interact with." When that stuff is inspiring, challenging, and educational, the message may change to "here's some stuff that may give you new ideas about how the world works." And if/when those intended new ideas are distinct and overt, there are probably actions to go along.

Interestingly, the most overt messaging I've seen in museums has been about institutional practice with regard to energy use. I've been in many museums with informational labels about the ways they are conserving water, electricity, building sustainably, etc. Why not add another sentence to those labels with a tip for visitors--on how to add a brick to your toilet, where to buy CFLs, etc.? The changes I have made in my life with regard to energy consumption have not been based on their value; they've been based on their availability and ease of implementation. Museums can lead by example, but more will happen when you lead with direct information about how to achieve these examples.

But conserving energy use is a relatively safe position, and one most museums are happy to be overt about. The problem arises when the position is covert, when museum designers and educators have a secret set of "new ideas" they want visitors to attain, but are unwilling or unable to present the actions that accompany those ideas. Frequently, motivational exhibits feature profiles of great leaders, often with a concluding provocation for the visitor to "follow their example." How? If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is profiled as a hero, is it reasonable to provide visitors ways to follow his example by protesting war and multi-national corporations? Or by pursuing religious education? Perhaps it's more appropriate to stick to the educational, allow people their own opinions, and skip the motivational sauce. Do a reality check: how often do your "What can I do?" labels feature clear, specific actions? How often are they rhetorical?

Like a lot of people, I want to see museums encouraging visitors to take social action, but I want to see it happen because museums are doing it too.
We shouldn't expect visitors to take actions the museum is not ready to take. I think museums should pick specific issues or positions they feel comfortable with and be leaders, not encouragers, of action. What, if any, positions does your museum support as an institution? What actions does/could your institution take based on those positions? How can visitors get involved?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Game Friday: Where are the Museum Jams?

Last month, the second annual TOJam (Toronto Indie Game Development Jam) was held. Over three days, 60 programmers/artists/composers/pranksters worked all hours to create finished computer-based games from scratch. The results range from funny to surprising to genuinely bizarre (Space Goat?). The organizers explain their event as follows:
It's NOT a competition, or a conference, or a learning seminar. It's about taking what you already know, combining it with your keen focus and ability to program for HOURS, and ending up with a finished project. No more half-architected, partially-coded snippets of games that you've rewritten 4 times. This is the real deal, people... bring it all to the table, and walk away with something done!

There's a healthy community of gamers, courses, and events focused specifically on this concept: to put out a finished game in a very limited amount of time. These people realize that sometimes putting creativity on a rapid cycle means you don't have time to get stale, don't have time to get bogged down in what ifs, don't even have time for your wild and wonderful idea to get filtered into something dull and "sellable."

Maybe it has something to do with a propensity to pull all-nighters. Maybe it belies a paucity of family commitments. Or maybe it's just because game developers actually think of their work as fun. Whatever it is, museum program and exhibit designers, take note: I want a museum jam.

There are some museums doing projects like this; Ontario Science Centre's RIG (rapid idea generation) sessions, in which they develop and put on the floor exhibits/programs in about 4 hours, are a great example. But no matter how many times your supervisor says, "No idea is a dumb idea," there are some people for whom your own institution may not be the safest--or most appropriate--place for the biggest gorillas in your imagination. Plus, many museums are not set up resource-wise for this kind of invention; Ontario Science Centre has the luxury of some space and a large exhibits shop to support their innovation operations.

So why not hold a Jam, get a bunch of people from different institutions together, create some wild exhibits and programs, and then make the finished product available to small museums and centers that are often looking for small, cheap, flexible offerings? Or find a space to hold a public show of the products, a sort of museum carnival? It could happen as precursor to a conference, or locally, as in the Toronto model, to bring together creatives and promote innovation at area museums. There are so many of us who spend years to put out a finished product--why not spend a week on a different cycle?

Maybe I'm too excited about this. Please, give me some good reasons I shouldn't start looking for sponsors...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Club Part 1: Free at Last

Welcome to the first installment of the Museum 2.0 virtual book club. While every post at Museum 2.0 solicits (directly or indirectly) your comments and response, this one is special. I hope these book club posts can serve as invitations for lively discussion in the comment section. I’m going to try to write less and spend more of my energy reading and reacting to your thoughts. Elaine Gurian, author of this summer’s book, Civilizing the Museum, will also be popping into the conversation as her time and interest permits. And if you're planning ahead, next week we'll look at chapter 6, Timeliness: A discussion for museums.

Today we’re looking at Free at Last, chapter 13 of Elaine’s book, an essay originally published in 2005 in AAM’s Museum News (issue 84). Elaine doesn’t waste time mincing words about free admission. The essay starts as follows:

I have reluctantly, but unequivocally, come to the conclusion that general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums fully accessible.
And ends:
The major and undeniable problem with charging is that it is a means test. In the current situation only those who can afford the cost, and think the experience is valuable enough to pay for, can have access to the patrimony that belongs to us all. We cannot continue to discuss inclusion if we continue to charge for general admission.

Most arguments for free admission center around the idea that the cultural artifacts collected by museums should be available for free use by all. (See, for example, this timely article about museum admission in the UK.) Elaine starts there, arguing that “[museums] cannot argue that they are a resource for those impelled to learn something if the learner must first determine if they can afford to learn.” But she acknowledges that removing admissions fees doesn’t mean instant inclusion; transitioning to free admission has been shown to result in higher attendance, but most of the new visitors fit the traditional museum-going profile.

Instead, Elaine goes to a more interesting place, arguing that charging admission fundamentally affects the nature of the museum experience. She argues that charging admission promotes treatment of the museum visit as an occasional, special event rather than “an easily repeatable one.” The cost of the experience means people want to “urgently cover as much ground as possible” instead of dropping in, doing a bit, and coming back again (as they do in libraries). This special event requires visit planning (How much does it cost? When can my family get a reduced entrance? Where are there passes available? How long will I be there? Do I need to bring food?).

Even if a person does approach a museum on a whim, he or she cannot browse through the museum before making an assessment as to its value. As Elaine puts it, “One cannot enter a museum unobtrusively.” Locating the admission desk “at the door” forces visitors to make an immediate decision about whether the experience they are about to receive—and cannot sample—is worth the asking price. Given peoples’ (including museum professionals!) hazy ideas about “value” of a museum visit, this entry experience can be bewildering and off-putting. Not convinced? I remember visiting the excellent Muhammed Ali Center last year in Louisville during the ASTC conference. As a huge Ali fan, there was no question that I would pay whatever they asked to enter. But I saw other museum people who heard the price ($9), scanned the lobby, and walked out. Even for these professionals, who believe in the value of museums and had taken the time to walk over to the place, the value assessment at entry was not convincing enough to overcome the admission barrier. Perhaps if they had, as Elaine considers, moved the admissions desk later in the experience, they might have hooked more paying guests.

But Elaine’s interest goes beyond more guests, beyond making museum resources available to all potential users. She is promoting fundamentally different patterns of museum use, ones that more closely mirror the ways other civic spaces, like libraries, malls, and parks, are used. As long as admission is in place, she contends, museums cannot be treated as amenities to be used for different purposes at different times by different people. They will be treated as attractions with specific purposes, and “will never become the forum, the meeting ground, the crossroads, the town square that we are all fond of talking about.”


From my perspective, there are two basic arguments concerning museum admission:
  1. Museums should be free. Museums provide access to content and experiences that should be available to all regardless of ability to pay.
  2. Museums should charge admission. Museums provide leisure activities and experiences and should be valued/priced commensurate with the “experience” market. When museums are free, visitors are encouraged to undervalue the experience offered. When museums are priced “at market rate,” people judge the experience relative to others and make their decisions accordingly.
There are many museum people who believe in the principles of both #1 and #2, who cheered when MOMA went to $20 but still want to sneak over to the Smithsonian for a free moment. The problem often lies in the question of what to do about visitors who can pay but prefer not to. Do they grumble about admission fees because they undervalue the museum experience? Or because they want to treat museums as a free resource but are being forced to change their patterns of use to adapt to the new system? I doubt there are many people who would consciously consider the latter. And yet, people who value museum experiences enough to buy memberships are opting to buy a new pattern of use—one that makes them a more comfortable part of the museum.

Elaine’s argument shifts this debate by adding a third option to this list:
Museums (should) provide services that are broad and applicable to everyday life, whose value is variable, and to which entrance (though not necessarily all services) should be free.

Note the should. Current museum structure and design rarely supports the kinds of museum experience for which Elaine advocates. Blockbuster exhibitions, omnipresent audio and light effects, and many of the other recent museum innovations that have created more compelling alternatives in the attraction market also make museums less open to flexible, self-directed, browserly visits. As Elaine puts it, “Museums, if they remain oriented toward their paying customers, will not, I contend, organize themselves as the more general resource they can become.”

Consider this: I’m writing this post from a public library right now. Next to me, there’s a guy painting with watercolors. There’s a woman reading a magazine. There are other people using the internet. There are people sleeping. How many of these functions could be served at the average museum? I remember visiting the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where I was delighted to discover both a museum and a library. But how strange it must be for some kids to realize they can go into the library whenever they want and play around, but they need to have money or a membership card to enter the museum.

So, what’s a museum to do? A lot of this has to do with mission. When I was at the Spy Museum, a for-profit institution, there was no hair-pulling over this. SPY is a museum that operates like an attraction. It charges what the market will bear. The marketing (both formal and word-of-mouth) supports the price value and keeps people coming in the door. Some people are turned off by the high price and choose not to come, but that is considered a marketing problem, not an inclusion problem.

So that’s one option: to embrace and organize as a full member of the attraction market. But that supports the “special occasion” view of the museum, and it won’t get us any closer to creating spaces for discourse and variable use. If you buy into Elaine’s vision of museums as places for all kinds of interactions, what should happen to admission fees? Should we reorganize our institutions to offer both free, flexible spaces and market rate attractions (IMAX, blockbusters, simulators)? Do we need to change the kinds of exhibitions and programs offered to create a more sustainable model? Is it reasonable to think of museums as providing flexible civic services, or do those services belong in other institutions—like libraries—that already support variable patterns of use?

I’ve written far too much. Please, overtake me and discuss.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What's the True Cost of Live Facilitation?

In honor of tomorrow’s book club post on Elaine Gurian’s essay, Free at Last, a preliminary post on the ecomonics of high quality interactive experiences.

I now reside next door to the most popular attraction in Santa Cruz County: the Mystery Spot. Spend enough time driving on the west coast, and you’ll see more of their yellow bumper stickers than I BRAKE FOR VEGANS. Every day, there are hundreds of cars waiting for the privilege to park in the Mystery Spot parking lot, filled with tourists waiting to experience its strange wonders.

What makes the Mystery Spot wondrous? For the unanointed, the Mystery Spot is one in a string of roadside “gravity holes” and “vortexes” that claim to turn Newtonian physics on its head. Balls roll uphill, tall people become short, and GPS navigation systems go out of whack. How is this “mystery” demonstrated and explained? It’s not high-tech. Most of the mystery resides in the simplest of items—a hill, a compass, a carpenter’s level. And yet the experience is enthralling, memorable, and strangely educational. Why? Because of the guides. The guides pull you, teach you, challenge you, and entertain you. They are magicians who turn simple illusions into truly engaging mysteries.

Live facilitation has a varied role in museums. In children’s and science museums, explainers are everywhere. In special immersion exhibits like
Dialogue in the Dark, in which visitors are led through a pitch black experience by a blind guide, or live action games like Operation Spy, facilitators are a necessary part of the experience. From a financial and management perspective, however, many museums try to minimize live facilitation as much as possible. Exhibit designers think of their products as needing no introduction—especially not from some high school volunteer in a blue jacket. Hiring, training, and scheduling floor staff is expensive. Operating officers want to keep the bottom line down. Development costs are one-time; operation lasts forever.

And yet. There are some great bottom line reasons to invest in floor staff. One is about guest attraction and retention. Many peoples’ most memorable museum experiences come from interactions with staff. In the hospitality world, positive interactions with staff are the single greatest factor in establishing guest loyalty and increasing word of mouth advertising. Likewise, in museums, these interactions turn first-time visitors into repeat visitors, and repeat visitors into members.

And it’s worth doing a little cost-benefit analysis on different forms of interactive content distribution. Interactive exhibits are expensive to develop and maintain. A good interactive might cost $80,000 to take from concept to the floor, and twenty of them might keep a $60,000 per year IT/maintenance person busy. Add in-house developer/designer time and you have roughly $2M over three years of development to get interactives live on the floor of the museum. Amortized over those same three years of operation, and assuming a (sadly) generous $12/hour for live facilitators, museums could take half of that exhibition development budget and hire ten full-time facilitators who could be on the floor within 3 months, delivering content. Which investment will provide better return in terms of education and guest engagement?

I’m not suggesting that live facilitators replace interactive exhibit development entirely, but I think we’ve been closing our ears to visitor voices about their value for too long. Imagine your average science museum explainer, who unlocks the secrets of cool exhibits, who answers your questions, who approaches you as you gaze at some pretty phenomenon and challenges you to think about what’s really going on. Why aren’t there such staff members in art or history museums? Yes, I could take the 2pm tour, but what if I’m wandering through, disaffected, not yet engaged enough to even consider taking the tour? Who’s going to help me get there?

A few years ago at ASTC, Eddie Goldstein from the Denver Museum of Natural Science spoke about a very simple, highly effective element they added to their in-gallery offerings; a roving staff person with a laptop computer connected to the internet. The staff person was available to answer questions, but also to help visitors find websites of interest related to the content (which were then emailed to the visitor at his/her request). Why did the DMNS choose to make this a facilitated experience instead of just plopping down a computer at the end of the exhibition? This simple facilitation exercise turns the exhibit experience, in which the museum pushes content at the visitor, into an interactive, personal one, in which the staff member helps the visitor pull out the parts that are of most interest to them. It's hard to make that leap as a visitor on your own from a passive recipient to an active researcher. The staff member is an informed partner in that transition, and hopefully an enabler of more active engagement by the visitor.

This desire relates to another benefit of live facilitators which connects directly to ideas out there about "Museum 2.0." 2.0 design means prioritizing users and social connections among them, and it means flexibility to be responsive to their interests and needs. The more money we sink into exhibit development, the more locked museums are in static content distribution and interpretation. Staff are the ultimate flexible, modular content distributors. Investing in staff can create museum spaces that are more adaptable to current events and visitor interests.
Implementing 2.0 experiments via staff rather than through new exhibition models and web/database development can be relatively cheap and quick to develop, and can adapt or be terminated easily (plus, there's the added employee benefit of involving floor staff in exciting new projects). Of course, this requires a new respect and reliance on floor staff as valuable members of the content creation team. Some museums are already struggling with this in the question of who is allowed to blog on behalf of the museum; similarly, museums might ask themselves who is allowed to educate, to design, and in what ways.

Floor staff may also be the most efficient vehicle for transforming museums into social spaces. Web 2.0 succeeds by focusing on the personal interests of users and connecting users to each other via their interests. If we truly want museums to become places for social engagement among visitors, w
hy not re-envision floor staff, who are trained to interpret the collection, as community organizers, trained to encourage and support interactions among visitors?

You may be thinking, "most visitors don't come to museums for a social experience." And it's true that many current museum-goers may be turned off by the interjection of staff into contemplative, personal experiences with content. But the whole point of this 2.0 stuff is to envision and create new kinds of museum experiences that will excite and connect the great unwashed for whom, right now, museums do not provide a valuable experience. No matter how fabulous your exhibit or interactive is, disaffected visitors may pass it by as "just another museum thing." A live person, engaging you personally and connecting you to the content, is much harder to ignore.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Game Friday: When Barriers Become Benefits

This week, a cute, deceptively simple activity called Just Letters. Just Letters is an online version of refrigerator magnets in which you use your cursor to move around letters to make words. There's no particular goal. No score to shoot for. Instead, what makes Just Letters special is the fact that you aren't playing alone. Just Letters is a multiplayer activity; log on, and you are shifting around letters with 20 or 30 strangers. Sometimes it's collaborative, but more frequently, you'll find yourself exclaiming the game's tag line: "Someone keeps stealing my letters..."

And that's what makes it unpredictable, lively, and fun. The online interface enables strangers to do something that would be considered rather rude in person--to steal and swap without asking. If you encountered a similar experience in a museum--a giant magnetic poetry wall, perhaps--it's likely that people would interact with the wall singly or in their pre-determined groups, reading and creating their own poems. But I doubt that visitors would often interact real-time with other users of the wall--even to ask nicely if they could borrow a word. The social barriers to interaction among strangers are too high.

Thus, Just Letters is great example of the ways that technology (web or otherwise) can be used to promote, rather than discourage, communication among users. The fact that individual users engage from the safe dominion of their own computers empowers them to play games together, debate each other on discussion boards, and connect on social networking sites. Plus, the anonymity of the web decreases the chances for social stigma and judgment. Of course, there's a downside to these technology-based interactions; the same disassociation that makes users comfortable enough to share with one another makes them comfortable enough to "flame" each other with cruel remarks that would never pass muster in the real world. However, when the context is respectful and/or the interaction limited, most experiences are positive. (Check out the collaborative jigsaw puzzles and drawing boards
offered by the same design team as Just Letters for more examples.)

It's interesting to think about how the same trick that makes Just Letters work could be employed in museums to help people overcome discomfort in interactions with strangers. There are many interactives in which multiple inputs from different visitors can affect the output; however, it's rare that the input of strangers is construed positively. Usually, you're just staring frustratedly at that kid who's "screwing it all up" by interacting in a way that doesn't support your vision or goal.

But there are some examples that work, and they usually work by encouraging visitors to interact with one another through the lens of technology. Consider, for example, robots. If you put a bunch of visitors in a pen and asked them to try to grab the most balls, few would aggressively steal balls from others. But give those same visitors remote controls for robots in a pen, and all bets are off. The robot, like the online persona, serves as an "extender" that imparts your energy and motivation without making you or other visitors uncomfortable.

I'd love to see more interactive design that focuses on promoting social behavior, whether collaborative or competitive. Imagine a real world version of Just Letters where there are two magnetic walls, back to back. They look disconnected, but as soon as you move a word on one side, a word on the other side moves too. Suddenly, you start peeking around the wall, wondering what the heck that other person is doing. The literal barrier between you creates a social environment for play, a bridge for stranger-to-stranger interaction.

How simple can the technology be and still create enough emotional distance for people to be comfortable playing with strangers? And once people start playing with the aid of the technology, what happens when the technology is removed?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mall Science: Lessons in Consumer Appeal

A museum experience I’ll always remember: In 2002, I worked at the Boston Museum of Science with a program in which high school students from a nearby charter school spent half their school time at the museum. They took regular classes, museum-specific classes, and had internship-style museum jobs. One day when we didn’t have the students, I was walking the floor with another staff member. We ran into two of the kids, sitting on a bench outside an exhibit, talking. “What are you doing here?” my coworker admonished. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”

They shrugged, sheepish. And it dawned on us: these kids were cutting school to come to the museum. It was the best and worst of problems. The museum had achieved something I thought only possible in malls and skate parks: it had become cool.

Okay, I admit it. I haven’t been in a mall in years, mostly because I dislike and am overwhelmed by them. But I grew up in L.A. I’m a valley girl. And like most kids, I spent a lot of time at the mall. We ice skated. We ate in the food court. We tried on clothes, listened to new music, and threw pennies in the fountain. We brought our roller blades and zipped through the cool, dark parking lots until security threw us out.

Why do Americans love malls? Part of it is about consuming, but that’s not the whole story. People don’t hang out at Target the way they flock to malls. Malls are safe, stimulating public spaces for casual social interactions. They are open to everyone. There’s no minimum purchase requirement. Malls feature lots of seating in open, bright spaces. They provide entry points to a collection of discrete, varied content experiences. And the mall experience is entirely user-oriented. You choose which of those experiences/stores to dip into. You choose how long you stay and what you do. In most stores, you can “try” the content in some way without making a purchase. Part of the mall experience is aspirational, but it’s also deeply personal—the stores are there to sell to you, to (supposedly) improve and support you and your interests.

Plus, malls are cool. It’s ironic, when you think about the great pains that museums and libraries go to to create spaces that are “teen-positive,” that malls attract kids effortlessly with fluorescent lights and lousy music.

I don’t think that museums need a full mall facelift, but there are some good lessons from their successes. Malls are places where visitors are repeat users who feel ownership over their experiences. They have successfully cracked a number of obstacles that hinder most museums from becoming true user spaces. For example…

Malls are open to all sorts of experiences.
Above, I mentioned the lack of barriers to entry in a mall. Malls, more than retail stores, are open to anyone—whether you have cash in your pocket or not. Malls support browsing. They support eating. They support pointing at things and laughing. You can’t get violent or egregiously offensive in a mall, but beyond that, it’s a space that you can use as you wish. I’d love to imagine that museums are the same way, but they aren’t. Museums both implicitly and explicitly set expectations about what kinds of behaviors and interactions are appropriate in the galleries. (Many) museums put an admissions desk at the door and charge you for the experience before you even get to wander in and see what you are buying. With the possible exception of children’s museums, there are few museums in which you enter the door and feel as if the world inside is entirely yours to explore in your own way. There are things you “ought” to see and do. There’s no such feeling at the mall.

Malls put the customer first. The basic question consumers ask when they enter a store is: “What does this place have for me?” If the answer is, “nothing,” there’s no hope for a sale. How clearly and compellingly can museums answer this basic question? There’s a lot of debate about museum branding and advertising that can promote strong value propositions for museums. I think museums would do well to think of each visitor/consumer and their “me” desires. What does each exhibit in your museum have to entice visitors? Does the collection of experiences constitute a place that has something for all kinds of people? It’s not just a question of whether museums have something good to sell; it has to be something that visitors want to buy.

Mall content connects strongly to people’s lives.
The mall has the stuff that you need to be a hip, attractive, up-to-the-moment person. Even if you don’t have interest in some of the content, it’s there “for you,” and the retail structure is focused on providing for your needs. Staff will go out of their way to help you find things that particularly interest you, rather than rattling off the day’s specials or providing a predefined cart demo or exhibit presentation. Museums are about “push” communication; retail is about pulling out that which will most excite the consumer.

Malls offer changing, contemporary content.
If you want to keep up with movies or fashion in a physical space, you go to the mall. Malls offer consistently branded experiences, but the seasonal cycle of fashion means that you have to keep coming back to see what’s new and stay on track. Museum exhibits don’t have that same pressing connection to our personal lives such that we care whether the Blue Hall has changed or the Impressionists got a facelift.

Mall architecture supports users. There are open central spaces with ample seating. There are private dressing rooms. There are big windows in each store so you can see out onto the main area. Whereas museums often send you down twisting pathways behind walls, malls keep everything close to the main thoroughfares out of respect for consumers’ desires to get into and out of stores as quickly as they like. I’m surprised that more malls don’t put their food courts right in the middle of the action so people can sit and enjoy the beehive of action around them.

Malls offer competitive content. Every store in the mall advertises their content in the window, trying to draw people in. Museum exhibits, on the other hand, are not designed to compete with each other, so visitors don’t get a lot of information at the outset as to whether an exhibit will be of interest to them. They have to buy first, then browse, rather than the other way (the mall way) around.

The good news is that none of these things that make malls user-centered are particularly complicated to enact or achieve. “What does this place have for me?” Let’s focus on finding exciting, easy ways to answer the most basic consumer questions, and perhaps the museum can become as relevant, as personal, and as social a place as the local galleria.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Summer Book Club: Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum

Over the last two months, I've been slowly poking through Elaine Gurian's collected works, Civilizing the Museum. From inclusion to admission, from objects to exhibit design, Elaine's essays cut to the core of many museum design issues. While the pieces were collected over her last thirty years of work, it's not a dusty museum piece: there's a ton of potent content worth considering and batting around in the context of the future of museums. Many of the pieces end with a call for a new generation to take up the battles and debates. So, heck. Let's get started.

Beginning next Tuesday, I'll be adding a weekly segment over the next couple months, writing a commentary on a chosen essay from the book. I invite you to
pick up the book (cheaper here if you are an AAM member) and join the conversation.

Next week, I'll be writing about
Free at Last, Elaine's essay on the use, abuse, and overall impact of admissions fees on museums. Page 127. Enjoy.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Voluntary Apprentice

You've taken the classes. You've done the internships. But all those AVISO ads hang heavy with the same paradox: they all want years of experience for entry-level positions. How are you supposed to get experience when the jobs that should give it to you require it?

Whatever your degree (or your
opinion about museum graduate programs), the thing that continues to be highly valued (and sought after by employers) is experience. Which is why I speak today on behalf of the apprenticeship—hands-on professional education—which has, sadly, fallen by the wayside.

I’m not talking about internships, which are as plentiful in museums as label copy. As anyone who has ever managed an intern knows, internships are not exactly mutually beneficial arrangements. They are often short-term, unpaid, and explicitly branded as “learning experiences.” The museum person can’t hold the intern to the same level of responsibility as an employee, and the intern often finds him or herself either doing crap work or an isolated project, neither of which necessarily connect the intern to the institution or to better understanding of the field itself. Sure, some things get done, but there’s an expectation that the intern is there for a fixed amount of time, and therefore, little effort put into developing that person as a member of the team.

Apprenticeships offer more powerful learning and professional development experience than internships. Why? Because an apprentice is a person who is invested in as a future employee. Apprentices are not people who are “checking out the field.” They are people (as I assume many graduate students are) who express a serious intent to contribute to the museum field professionally. And when that intent is realized and supported by the institution, the museum provides mentoring and education. Apprentices are perceived as people with current and future value to the institution and are treated as such.

Of course, with these benefits comes responsibility. Whereas interns may do a focused project, apprentices are expected to shadow, assist, and jump into a variety of efforts, whether of interest to them or not. Apprentices have to be humble, to offer themselves up and say, “I see what you are doing here is good. I want to be part of that good.” As an intern, you are tapping into the institution’s services; as an apprentice, you are a contributor—which means both dirty work and deeper learning.

Maybe you’re nodding and thinking, “Sure, sounds great. But I’ve never seen a museum advertising for apprentices. How the heck can I make this happen?”

And that’s the trick. YOU have to make it happen. Apprenticeships are no longer in our professional lexicon. But if you approach a museum with a proposal for an apprenticeship—one in which you will commit yourself to the institution and work reliably and responsibly in exchange for mentoring and development—I imagine you’ll raise some eyebrows and get some people taking a second look at your resume.

And it can be that simple. Here's my "getting started in museums" story:

When I decided I wanted to work in a science museum, I went to two in my area--one giant, one tiny. I didn't look to see if either was hiring. I didn't even consider what my dream job would be. I found departments/people that were interesting, and made the same speech to each: I want to volunteer for you, part-time, for three months. I have X, Y, Z qualifications, but no direct museum experience. At the end of three months, I want us to sit down and assess whether you will hire me for pay or not.

That's it. In both cases, my offer was accepted. And within three months, I was getting paid (though not much) for real work. Both experiences were educational, experience-building, and got me "in the door" for future opportunities.

When I tell this story, the most common reaction I get is, "Wow. That was bold." But it doesn't have to be. One of the things that distresses me about graduate school--and about school in general--is the way it sets up the expectation that you, the young person/student, are a consumer of experiences offered to you by teachers and employers. You are allowed to express yourself, but only in trying to excel by the terms given by the institution. And then, when you do excel, there’s a secondary problem—that you leave school impatient to get THE great job, rather than ready to connect yourself to an institution in which you can learn and grow. The story is that teachers know what’s best—and they’ll help you get there.

But in my case, I felt that the internships, graduate programs, and entry-level positions being offered to me were not best. I thought I could create an educational strategy that would be more useful both to me and to my employers. So I asked for it. I asked for mentoring. I asked for review. I asked to be taken seriously as a potential contributor. I asked for responsibility.

Over the last few years, I’ve continued to seek out opportunities to apprentice myself to others, to find mentors from whom I can learn and under whom I can go in new directions. It doesn’t matter if it’s welding or game design; I learn best and go farthest when I get to partner with my mentor and can become an asset to them. I’d love to see museums and museum professionals adopt a culture of lifelong apprenticeships, encouraging mutually beneficial relationships between learners of all kinds.

But don’t wait for museums to do the work. What do you want to learn? How can you become an apprentice, or how can you support one?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Game Friday: Can Your Museum Afford to Play?

This is a big day for me--my last one in DC. Yesterday, I turned in my keys and said goodbye to the Spy Museum and to Operation Spy, the narrative, immersive game experience I've been developing/building over the last two years. There are many aspects of Operation Spy I look forward to sharing with you (and please let me know if there are particular elements of interest to you). But today I started thinking about some of our design influences, and how we got into this thing in the first place.

There are two attractions/experiences that heavily influenced our early thinking: Tomb (Boston), and Adventure (COSI Columbus). Tomb is an interactive Indiana Jones-style 45 minute team experience in which small groups, led by a guide, confront a series of puzzles and sensory challenges as they try to escape from a pharoah's cursed tomb. (Disclosure: Tomb was created by 5W!ts Productions, whose CEO, Matt DuPlessie, has been part of the leadership team for Operation Spy.) The experience is dramatic and the games are responsive to guest abilities, but the requirement to work together with a team of potential strangers can lead to some unpleasant team dynamics.

Adventure is also an interactive Indiana Jones-style experience; however, instead of sending visitors on timed missions, the Adventure environment and challenges are more free-form, offering a flexible visitor experience. Instead of guides leading groups, there are actor/facilitators who interact with visitors throughout their experience. There's a "basic" level to the game that takes about 40 minutes to conclude, and there's a deeper level which can take tens of hours (and therefore, repeat visits) to master.

But the biggest difference between these two experiences isn't whether we're talking Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Doom. It's about economics. Tomb is a stand-alone, successful for-profit venture. Adventure is a slice of a large museum, and it's been closed to the public for the last few years (only available to be rented for special events).

What keeps Tomb kicking while the lights are out in Adventure? Both offer unique, highly themed environments. Both incorporate interesting challenges into a narrative. But Tomb does something that Adventure does not: prioritizes a successful business plan to create a guest experience that is both positive and sustainable.

Live action games are expensive. They combine all the high-ticket items: heavy scenic theming, highly interactive elements, controlled AV, and live facilitation. Each of these items alone can bump up per square foot construction costs by a hundred dollars, and the addition of live guides, actors, or facilitators means operating costs are higher than average as well. Plus, most game experiences are intended for individuals or small groups (so the visitors feel like active agents rather than passive viewers) which means throughput is limited.

So how can a museum sustain a live action game?

Brand and sell the game separately from the rest of the museum.
The first time I went through Adventure, I was amazed by the intricacy of the experience, the other-worldliness they successfully evoked in the space. I imagined that if I were local to the area, I might come back again and again to try to solve every single puzzle in there. So I was surprised to learn that Adventure, during the time it was operating, was not an upsell or separate ticket experience. It felt as special as a King Tut or a Titanic, but for some reason it wasn't valued at that same price point.

All museums have challenges pushing "separate tickets" for specials or traveling exhibits, and there are good arguments in many situations for putting the whole museum experience under one umbrella. But when the special is a game or narrative experience, it's not the same as an exhibition you may or may not float into on your visit. It's a focused experience, one that requires a chunk of time, a dedicated space, and specific interest/attention from the guest. Just like the Exploratorium's Tactile Dome, planetarium or IMAX shows, or simulator experiences, live action games should be treated as stand-alone, special experiences and priced accordingly.

Think very, very carefully about throughput.
When designing Operation Spy, we knew that we wanted to provide guests with an intimate hands-on experience. We never wanted a guest to walk out and say, "I just watched." And we knew that that meant limiting group size and designing interactive elements such that there was a role for everyone. So we focused on designing for maximum throughput with small groups. We couldn't find a model that would support a free-form guest experience without severely compromising the number of guests we could accomodate, so, instead, we give guests a structured experience that feels responsive. There are no opportunities to leisurely explore Operation Spy; however, guests don't feel pushed or led--they are driving the mission experience. We carefully balanced the amount of time each group spends in each room so that rooms are never vacant for more than a couple minutes. We kept rooms as small as was comfortable and reasonable for a quality experience.

Keep staffing needs minimal.
Development costs are a one-time hit; operating costs last forever. There are some game experiences, like mystery dinner theater, that support large staff--but do so by limiting the individual agency of each guest. When you are designing for truly interactive experiences, you need to support small group sizes, and therefore, a higher staff-to-guest ratio. Live staff can often make the experience--by sustaining the story of the game, encouraging reluctant guests to play--so the important thing is to maximize their time so that they are never "facilitating" an empty room. I'd love to see a hybrid model in which every group doesn't need their own guide and yet staff are occupied and useful within the game space.

Is it possible to design unstaffed experiences? Video games do it--at a several million dollar price tag--and they don't even have the challenge of dealing with guests interacting with physical environments (which they can deface or get injured by). Right now (as far as I know), there are no entirely unstaffed live action games (the exception being D&D-style games, where the players themselves create and facilitate their experience). Someday, someone will crack the code on needing live staff to facilitate guest experiences--probably through highly responsive video and AI-style interactions. Until then, start with the bare minimum staffing-wise, and build in additional roles as operating demonstrates feasibility.

Spend your money selectively, space by space, game by game, effect by effect.
In Operation Spy, more money was spent on theming the entrance/queuing area than any other area of the experience. Why? Because during that time, all you can do is look (and wait). It's the best time to sell the story and the environment, when guests are not distracted by the challenges, the discussions, or the narrative. When you are waiting in a foreign marketplace, props, scents, and sounds are essential. When you are escaping from a hostile installation, not so much. In each space, we tried to design to highlight the most impactful part of that room--whether that be a game, a dramatic effect, a video, etc.

One of the challenges I saw at Adventure was its sheer scope--10,000 square feet of lovingly themed, open space. Because of their open design, every space is available to guests, and needs to be themed to the same level of intricacy. Sometimes, segmenting into intimate spaces can allow more design flexibility both in terms of look and price per room.

I think there is huge potential for museums to move into the live action game space. There's very little available in that arena (laser tag? paintball?), and growing demand as evidenced by the newfound popularity of bowling alleys and upscale arcades. People are willing to pay for game experiences--more, perhaps, than they will pay for museum experiences. Museum educators and exhibit designers are uniquely capable of creating evocative narratives and challenges around a wide range of content. And finally, I believe that the level of immersion captured in games and narrative spaces creates a powerful model for learning that is rare in both schools and museums.

And yet. Museums also need to be ready to think of live action games as more than just another exhibit or program. The development costs, operating costs, and sales models are different, and you can only be successful if you design for that difference. Adding a live action game to a museum is like adding an IMAX--it's a major investment in a new but related market, with potentially large gains both in terms of expanding the institutional mission and capturing new market share. Can museums afford to play? You bet. They just need to figure out which games they can win.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Google Homepage: Really, Really Simple Syndication

There are many web-based optimizers that just give you more reasons to screw around. Google Homepage is a rare exception. Not only is it the single most useful 2.0 application I employ, it's also a powerful and graceful example of the potential of disaggregated content.

So what is it? Google Homepage is a personalized landing page for the content that is most useful to you. It's a true home page in that it is a place for everything you need on a daily basis on the web. Here's how to make it happen:
  1. Go to and sign into Google (or create an account).
  2. Click "Add Stuff" to add items to your personal homepage, like local weather, top news stories, to do lists, email feeds, and specialized content. Feeds from blogs are a bit tricky; if it's not a major blog, you will have to click "Add by URL" and add the feed address, which usually ends in .xml. For example, to add Museum 2.0 to your Google homepage, you would add "" (or you could just click on the handy "Add to Google" toolbar on the upper right of this page).
  3. Reset your homepage to the personalized Google page and enjoy the magic.

And magic it is. For example, here's a snapshot of my Google homepage.

On the left, you can see personal content: my Gmail inbox, the Google documents I'm working on, and my links.

In the middle, I have standard content: top news stories, weather in my current and soon-to-be-current home, quote of the day, etc.

On the right, I have direct wikipedia search and feeds from several blogs.

If you look closely at the top left, you'll also see an additional tab, labeled "Search." I added this tab so that I have a separate page that just hosts a series of specialized search engines (eBay, Amazon, Flickr) as well as my Google search history.

Each time you click to add something, you can drag and drop it wherever you want on your homepage. If you click the X in the top right corner, that item disappears from your homepage. This isn't something that requires startup time and then is set in stone. It's flexible and easy to change as your web habits and needs change.

What makes this so great?
  1. It increases your productivity by putting everything you need in one place. No more opening Wikipedia in a new tab. No more opening your calendar or keeping a todo list in a hard to remember folder. It's all accessible from one page, and that one page is accessible no matter what computer you are using.
  2. It allows you to keep tabs on interesting content without wasting your time wading through full format. For blogs or content streams that are updated frequently, having a "top stories" or "titles only" view of the content is a good way to get right to the articles of specific interest to you.
  3. No more guessing when feeds are updated. Most of the blogs I keep on my Google homepage are NOT the ones I look at on a regular basis; they're the ones I find valuable that only feature posts every few days (or less frequently). By having a view of the blog post titles, I can see when something new has been added, and can go to the site at that point. I don't lose track of blogs, even if there's a long gap between posts.
  4. It meets you at your 2.0 complexity level. If you are a basic user, the content provided by the "Add Stuff" button is more than ample, and the drag and drop easy to use. If you are advanced, you can create your own gadgets using the Google API to add to your own page (and share with the world, if you choose). But there's value at every level.

Months ago, I wrote about the potential power of disaggregation for museums, referring to the concept of the "ultimate mix tape" of greatest hits and personal favorites. There are people (I'm one of them) who aren't ready to play RSS flute concertos on Yahoo Pipes or traipse through Google map hacks. Heck, I'm not even advanced enough for an RSS reader to aggregate blogs to which I subscribe. But the Google homepage is easy to use and offers a big bang for your mash-up buck. Plus, it creates a home for you on the web, one where the mail is sorted, the conversations archived, your dictionary and favorite games and diversions all in their place. Isn't it time you stopped renting and got a place of your own?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Tools for 2.0: User-Generated Exhibits Made Simple

It’s a sad irony that Web 2.0—whose applications are designed to be simple enough for anyone to use—is a term that mostly confuses and overwhelms people. The point shouldn’t be that this is something that has to be learned by reading exhaustive manuals. You should be able to grab a mic and start podcasting, hit the keyboard and start blogging, snap some shots and start Flickring.

Creating the backbone for a robust 2.0 application is not so easy. Many in-museum 2.0-style projects are major initiatives require a somewhat complicated blend of physical exhibit and digital capabilities. If you want people to be able to tag artifacts with keywords, comments, or ratings, you need a unique identifier for each artifact, a way for visitor submissions to populate a database, and automated programs for aggregation and display of visitor data. If you want exhibits to respond personally to each user, you need a way to for visitors to uniquely self-identify and to track their actions throughout the galleries.

But 2.0 doesn’t have to be complex; the architecture doesn’t have to be for keeps. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the hefty challenge of creating your own social networking world, there are ways to jump into 2.0 that are simple, low-tech, and immediate.

Consider the lowly post-it. It’s easy to use. It doesn’t scream, “write your dissertation here;” its message is more a friendly note, reminder, or tip. It’s easy to aggregate lots of them into a larger collection. It’s easy to reaggregate, layer, and move them around. You can attach them to almost anything without fear of harm.

Many museums have created short-term mapping or timeline projects that are post-it based. Slap up a map of the city and let people write memories on post-its and locate them at the site of their old apartment, school, or favorite tree. Paste up a timeline of the last hundred years and let visitors attach their own highlight moments. Post-its could be used for wiki label-rewriting projects (where visitors could add to the information provided by curators), rudimentary tagging projects (clouds of related pastel keywords?), and visitor talk back. If someone adds something inappropriate, you don’t need a webmaster to remove the comment; you just peel and toss. If you love it, you keep it. If not, repurpose the notes as lint removers and chalk up the experiment to experience.

The Swedish Västernorrlands Läns Museum mounted a show last year, The Post-it Project, in which visitors were solicited to write down comments—about anything in the museum—and post them wherever they wanted. That’s it. There are many legitimate criticisms of this kind of project. It's messy. There’s no focus nor overarching goal nor certain meaning to be gleaned. But that open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Startup costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time. Ideally, the project would run for several weeks or months so that network effects could be realized and organic growth could occur. But if staff get cold feet, risks are easy to mitigate. The technology is maximally flexible and allows staff to learn and respond on their own terms.

Similarly, designing exhibitions to include visitor-contributed content doesn’t have to be a headache. In November 2006, the London Science Museum opened Playing with Science, an exhibition about the role of toys in learning. Five cases held curated content, and seven were open for visitors’ additions. Visitors were invited to bring their own toys to add to the collection. Each visitor handwrote a label explaining the value of their toy, was photographed with their toy, and received a printed certificate with the photograph. Contributors filled out permission forms/releases, and the photos with labels were put online for perusal. The images and accompanying labels ("Bunny was made for me by my sister when I was born and has been well loved over the years." "I like making girls do boy parts because I am a tomboy.") are evocative and endearing. And simple.

Most of the time, the analogies I’m drawing to Web 2.0 have to do with the social aspect of the applications. But from a design standpoint, the simplicity of Web 2.0 is equally important. There’s a reason that the protocol for web feeds, RSS, stands for Really Simple Syndication. Web 2.0 means stepping away from fancy flash-based applications that lock content behind programmed doors and towards clear, text-based, multi-access content. It may not be gorgeous, but it’s easy to create, manipulate, and access for techies and newbies alike. The low barrier to entry makes it easy for users to transition from consumers to participants—whether in wikis, blogs, or on social networking sites.

Whenever possible, visitor-focused exhibition design should follow this lead. Most exhibition design is the antithesis of 2.0—by the time the exhibition opens, there’s not a lot of flexibility designed in, and making changes after ribbon-cutting is a painful challenge at best. But 2.0 is about organic growth, about users determining what the service/product/exhibition truly is about and what its value is. In user-generated exhibits, visitors should be able to only to contribute but to steer the final presentation of their content. If that can’t happen, then visitor elements pile up as a whole lot of square pegs trying to fit into the circles the museum has provided.

What’s the simplest way you can imagine experimenting with user-generated content in the museum? When will that experiment start?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Game Friday: Dirty Pretty Things

Thanks to Paul Orselli for the link to this week's game, "game, game, game, and again game" by Jason Nelson, self-described new media artist and poet.

The game is an odd collection of chicken-scratch drawings, Mario-esque navigation, surprising flurries of poetry and sound, and strange home videos. Distinctively, it eschews the "clean, dull, lifelessness" of standard web art and design for a messier look.

I'm a sucker for rough edges and low-tech. When does a unpolished look become a design positive? When it can invite people in without compromising quality of experience. There's a basic tension here: an unfinished, folksy design may encourage visitor contribution, or it may make visitors feel that their contributions are not worthy of "real" labels and presentation. But over-design is the norm. Often the soul of a prototype gets lost when plexi and printers replace cardboard and markers, and fancy design elements cloud over a lack of truly fabulous content.

So enjoy an opportunity to get lost in a game that's rich in content, mixed on theme, and down and dirty on style. And then check out Nelson's other work with online hypertext art. There's some pretty wild stuff shooting out of his screen.