Friday, November 09, 2007

Goodbye, Game Friday. Hello Open Source Museum.

One of my mentors, Michael Brown, told me, “The only way to get better is to change.” He was talking poetry, but over time I’ve found it to be one of the most useful, challenging ways to approach a range of situations. So now, after almost a year of Game Fridays, it’s time for a change. Not that I won’t still occasionally write about games, but they will no longer have a weekly presence on this blog (though you can always find lots of them by clicking the "game" tag in the topic list to the right).

Why the change? In this case, it has less to do with getting better than choosing a new direction. My interest in gaming in museums was ignited by working on Operation Spy, an immersive, narrative, live-action game experience at the International Spy Museum, and fueled by the CSI:NY virtual experience. But last week, I took a new job with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, working on a very different kind of project involving collaborative distributed exhibit design. So where visions of Flash games used to dance in my head, I’m now starting to fantasize about team-building, inclusion, and, of all things, Second Life.

The Open Source Museum project at The Tech is a grant-funded grand experiment. The concept is practical: cut the time and expense of exhibit development by creating a social space where exhibit developers from many museums—along with scientists, artists, visitors—can collaborate to design concepts for exhibits. These virtual, polyglot teams will devise experiences that are not hindered by the cultural predilections of any single institution, and hopefully, will reflect a more diverse, inclusive voice and design. The Tech (and other museums down the road) will be able to offer up themes for upcoming major exhibitions, and the best of the concepts developed by the collaborative crew will be realized in the physical institution.

So what does this collaborative platform look like? We’re using a combination of a wiki-style website and a Second Life presence to make it happen. On the website, participants can propose exhibit projects, join teams, and maintain presences for themselves and their exhibits in progress. Those exhibits will be prototyped, discussed, and explored by visitors in virtual form in Second Life. All of the project ideas and virtual creations will be shared under a Creative Commons license, so the content truly is open to all.

This is happening very, very quickly. The project will launch in December, and we are planning to have our first exhibits developed by this process on the floor at The Tech in summer of 2008. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re playing it fast and loose. Of course, the good news about all of this haste is that it forces us to be honest to the spirit of the project, which is about openness, sharing, releasing things before their done for feedback and redesign by a cast of thousands.

All of this is sweeping many new questions into my mind. Will exhibit developers really use (and derive any value from) Second Life? How much structure is motivating and how much becomes a chore? What will incentivize different kinds of people to participate? How do we make this a growing social space and not a one-hit wonder? Will this project thrive or fall flat?

Ultimately, the biggest question in my mind is about value propositions. How can we design this project to give value to participants throughout the process? We’re trying to construe this as a professional development opportunity—to work with others, design for different kinds of museums, learn about Second Life and collaboration tools—as much as an exhibit design process.

What are the questions in your mind about team exhibit design? What would you want a project of this nature to include?

I look forward to discussing these and many other questions about this experiment in the months to come. Viva the distributed conversation!

10 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

I'm just curious about the "mutual benefit" of this type of situation.

Clearly The Tech benefits by getting lots of free ideas.

What's the benefit for the participants who aren't part of The Tech?

Nina Simon said...


Great question. Here are some of the potential benefits:
-for outsiders/youngsters, an opportunity to influence the museum and show their work
-for museums, a resource bank of concept ideas that could be developed into exhibits at their institutions
-for newbies curious about Second Life, an opportunity to learn about the platform in a safe, supportive environment
-for SL superstars, to have their work potentially realized in real life
-for anyone, an opportunity to collaborate with people all over the world to build exciting dreams

I'm thinking a lot these days about incentives. What will really encourage people to participate in a sustained way? I've been surprised by the number of people who are excited purely to see if this model can work--if The Tech can pull it off, maybe someone else can do it as well--even better and cheaper. So in some ways, the benefit is being part of an experiment to see what the future could be like.

Do you see any benefit for yourself?

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi again Nina,

I'm definitely in the "this seems like an interesting idea, so let's support it" camp.

However, the sustainability issue you raise is critical it seems to me. I believe you told me that 50% (or more?) of blogs just have one posting.

Kooz said...

I think our museum system will die a slow death if we hold onto 20th Century business practices and out of date concepts of intellectual property. I hate it when people talk about their idea being stolen or another museum copying another's intellectual property. This needs to go away and be replaced by open standards/source. Much like science is the open discussion/exploration of evidence and data, science museums need to look beyond their own walls and realize that anything created within its walls will benefit other museums.
So forgive me if I slightly scoff at your statement "Clearly The Tech benefits by getting lots of free ideas." What benefits The Tech will benefit everyone else if we adopt open standards/source. As a first step, I do think all museums need to adopt Creative Commons (or something similar, GPL?), and beyond that, what Nina is working is also a "next step." Good work Nina!

Anonymous said...

The creative capital of an artist is the idea. While nobody expects a plumber (or museum worker) to declare themselves "open source" and give away their worth, there is a mistaken impression that artists and other creative people should do so cheerfully.

Interesting how many people (usually not artists) don't understand how deeply unethical and short sighted it is to suggest that the production of original ideas should not be compensated fairly.

Museums of the 21st century will be strengthened by acknowledging creator rights and assigning proper value to ideas (not to things), and by creating good models of respecting the production of people who make it their business to come up with original thinking.

Museums might be better served to abandon brick and mortar (these things benefit developers and a whole slew of decidedly for-profit enterprises) in favor or embracing a network dissemination culture, and put the money into compensating people for their good ideas and not for corrupt, outdated and expensive physical sites. It is not the "selfish" idea people who contribute to the demise of museums, it is poor priorities and an unrealistic viewpoint about what things hold real value to the user and why.

Tech Museum of Innovation is all about ideas. None of these ideas were free, none. In fact The Tech would not exist at all if this was the case. It is absolutely, institutionally hypocritical to ignore this. So before you speak trendy rhetoric about "out of date concepts like intellectual property", I suggest you lead the way by forfeiting you salary.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Scoff at me all you like, kooz.

During my 26 years (so far!)
in the museum world, I have always championed sharing ideas.
(Please download some of my exhibit articles or exhibit resources from my website or blog!)

However, I'll re-emphasize the notion of reciprocity as it relates to the notion of "open source" museums. Ideas that you or I or anyone else "give" to The Tech, have value, including potential commercial value.

As long as The Tech collects and shares the ideas gathered in a public domain (or similar) format, that's great. However, there is an unfortunate (in my opinion) precedent of museums gathering ideas from public forums or even paid charettes and then "locking up" those same ideas and making them proprietary.

In the "perfect world" (grad school?) I agree that every museum would freely share their ideas. In the existing world, for a variety of reasons, some museums share and some do not. (The signs on the entrance doors to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia are a classic of non-collegiality!) Even the current form of Creative Commons licensing comes in a range of restrictive, or less restrictive, variations.

I will happily support (and hopefully be able to participate in) The Tech's experiment.

I am as hopeful as you seem to be that it will provide encouragement to the broader museum field to move towards becoming truly "open source."

Anonymous said...

The raw materials for ideas are already open source in some respects. Libraries are an example, but universities and private content collections (and most museums) are not even close. It is a mixed bag out there, but what remains clear is that operable ideas that provide value, have exchange value in terms of the necessary commerce of life.

As our culture continues to transition from the industrial model to the information model one's labor becomes less and less a way to provide material support for our practical needs. In fact trading your labor (as most of us do) for economic means is less empowering and enriching than trading a product you produce yourself. In the former, the product of your labor is negotiated by a third party (meta manager) who reaps the benefit of the differential between cost and resale of your labor in the form of product. In the later you keep the benefit of your own production.

Simply said, if you sell your labor, whoever buys it benefits from your work, if you sell a product you produce, you get that benefit. (this is Marx)

Why wax into Marx? Because in an information society, one's product is ideas. A literal means of support. And why run the risk of going against the grain of the current trend of 2.0ism? (and it is a risk to be misinterpreted as some kind of free market freak which I am not)

Because presently the onus of so called "open source" content is falling squarely on the shoulders of the wrong people. The small guy who already benefits so little from their cultural production is being asked to bear the brunt of an experiment that has the net result of dis-empowering content creators and further empowering meta managers of content.

Why not ask Corbis images, or Getty to "open source" their image collection? Why not talk to Rupert Murdock or Bill Gates about open sourcing their content instead of expecting the little guy to make all the sacrifices? Would Michael Jackson "open source" the Beatles catalog?

So don't get me wrong, I support open source for tools and delivery mechanisms to empower people to garner support from their information society production. The means of production should be open source, but the result of this effort (content) should benefit the creator and the consumer and not the meta-manager of this production (publishers).

In the broader sense, who really benefits from the free content give to YouTube and MySpace etc.? Follow the money. It is clear from recent market consolidations that the owners of these networks benefit greatly (or they would not be in the business) from what people mistake for altruism.

If the Tech wants to be serious about reciprocity in terms of engagement with content creators it would make sense to publish that intent in a legal policy statement declaring the terms. Thoughtful policy and terms might set a wider precedent among museums, and make allies of content producers while a nebulous article of faith assumption is not likely to have that effect. Without a legal agreement the museum could easily later simply change its collective mind (new managers etc.) and claim ownership of something given freely in the spirit of open source.

Kooz said...

Great responses...
I'll be the first to admit that the "out of date concepts of intellectual property" was worded poorly. I don't think that the concept of intellectual property is out of date, it's that it needs to evolve into something more akin to Creative Commons where reserved rights are more flexible.
I just think we're looking to much at our own bottom lines (as institutions) than on the benefit we provide our visitors. But when you said, "Clearly The Tech benefits by getting lots of free ideas," it just got my goat because it evoked the institutional jealously that seems to predominate in our industry. But I think we all agree that the ideas behind an exhibit or museum program should be freely available to any other science center. Now, the person that has the creative mojo to turn those exhibit ideas into something our visitors can use, then yes, they should be fairly compensated for it. But it's a waste of our resources if the Tech, MSI, and Saint Louis Science Center are working on the same content project. If each can devote their resources to a certain topic then share, then for the same man hours, we could have three great exhibits instead of three exhibits about the same damn thing. By opening and sharing, we are distributing our value, but we're also raising it at a faster rate. Any institution that doesn't reciprocate (as was mentioned) gets ostracized professionally, but I'm reluctant to take that out on their institution's visitors. Well, I gotta get back on the floor and dazzle our visitors...keep up the discussion...

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for all the great comments and controversy. Clearly there's a lot of energy around these questions of IP. I come at it from a perspective that good ideas are a dime a dozen and that the challenge is determining which ideas are REALLY good in implementation as exhibits. But I understand that there are artists for whom the concept, not the implementation, is the valued (and protected) element.

I used to get paid to design exhibits. Now I'm getting paid to shepherd others through the exhibit design process. It feels like an educator position. And if we solicit good ideas from people who are not usually asked--visitors, volunteers, staff who aren't anointed as designers--is that exploitative? I hope that we can be more motivators, supporters, energizers than leeches.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

This notion of sharing exhibit development "horsepower" amongst museums came up during the most recent ASTC conference.

For example, if many museums have, or have an interest in, Health exhibitions, what is the way to build up an accessible idea "data base" that people can tap into?

I personally think the "cost of admission" to such a database is that you yourself contributed at least one usable idea to the collected group of ideas, plans, etc.

I will speaking with the ASTC ExhibitFiles developers next week and would love to get input on possible ways to use part of the ExhibitFiles structure to build up such a categorized assembly of exhibit ideas.

Maybe there's a way to overlap some of the Tech's efforts with ExhibitFiles?