Friday, December 28, 2007

Program Comfort: Events that Draw People Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

On comfort zones, I have two tales to tell:

On a recent skiing trip, I rode in a car with satellite radio. This was my first experience with "unsanitized" radio, and it was a blast. My college roommate and I drove back down from the Catskills on a Sunday afternoon listening to the Extreme Sports Channel and their football show that features a bunch of professional gamblers sitting in a bar watching all the games simultaneously. When teams don't cover the spread, or when coaches make stupid decisions, the show's personalities don't bottle up their feelings. I've never laughed so hard at such obvious rage: "FUCK YOU [Indianapolis coach] TONY DUNGY!" almost made me pee my pants. Now, I don't think profanity necessarily makes for good radio, but what I did appreciate was the passion, the emotion, the unadulterated opinion. You just don't get that in the mainstream media anymore (if you ever did?). It was refreshing and entertaining. Now that I'm back to listening to drivetime NPR, I'm wishing that once in a while we'd hear some honest commentary like "Cheney is a cold motherfucker" or "George Bush does not care about black people."

On that note, #2: the wife and I recently watched Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke" Katrina documentary and found it breathtaking. We couldn't stop watching it, and one of the major reasons why, we decided, was that Spike chose to include interviews from ANGRY, MISERABLE, and HOPELESS victims of the hurricane (and the lousy govt response). We found, in this documentary, the untold story. Sure, we knew WHAT had happened in New Orleans, but not the scale of what happened, in terms of how it actually affected REAL people. In its coverage of disasters, natural and man-made, the mainstream media filters out the passion, the emotion, the frustration, and the seditious. We're being kept in our comfort zones, even in a nation supposedly committed to free speech.

This is not revelatory news, but it is, I think, on topic (for once). To get out of my comfort zone, I need experiences that do something the lavish, high-budget, polished presentations I'm used to do not do: express passion and individuality, those two forces supposedly so integral to "the American dream."