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?

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina,

Thanks for the posting and for coming to the Cultural Connections program on Saturday. I do wish we had been able to keep more time in reserve for discussion, and I think you raise some great points here.

What I admire about the aquarium is that conservation is not just a message their exhibition developers are behind, it's actually in the museum's mission and they walk the talk with their research and public policy centers.

I feel the same way about the Courage project--it's one thing to say "you (the public) should use the museum as a forum for discussion of difficult issues" and another to enable and facilitate the conversation.

I think we should not be shy about telling the public what we're doing that we're proud of. But so many non-profits are wary of tooting their own horns. But if we aren't proud enough to take a stand for something, why would anyone follow our advice?

So what are the challenges? Are we afraid funders will be scared off by "difficult" content? Jonny Fraser of Wildlife Conservation Society says that their efforts are encouraging, not discouraging funders —like Goldman Sachs—to step up and take action (news about the recent transfer of Tierra del Fuegan Islands is on their website:

What concrete steps can we (staff, consultants, managers, or other non-executive positions) take to align our institutions with the values we espouse in our programs and exhibitions? I'd love to hear others' comments about this.