Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Icing on the Cake: Involving Visitors as Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 comments, add yours!:

Mikkel Thelle said...

This is a future potential for museums both in virtual and physical reality, and I guess a lot of museums are already practicing this - but a good idea to keep the idea fresh. The process of developing an interactive outdoors game could be an attraction in itself for visitors, checking out the landscape and gatering information, while paying for it. hm...

rikomatic said...

Really interesting post. For the 10 year anniversary party for the swing dance website I run, we are thinking of having a collaborative display of memorabilia from the swing dance scene that people can contribute to over a weekend. You hit the nail on the head: how do you make "work" part fun?