Friday, January 18, 2008

Observations from The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, Month 1

This week marks one month of live activity for the Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, a collaborative, online platform for exhibit development. I've been working for The Tech on this project since November of 2007, and it has been an intense and exciting three months. A month ago, I invited you to join this project. Now, a month tired-er, I still want to invite you... and to share a few observations and learnings thus far.

First, if you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, please enjoy (and comment on, if you wish), this explanation (requires speakers).

Now, on to the lessons thus far.

First, let's talk process. What's it like to work in a virtual exhibit workshop? For me, it means spending a lot more time facilitating idea generation and communicating with others than being an independent creative agent. I'm functionally managing (and continually growing) an exhibition team of highly diverse volunteers. It's an educational role, a cheerleading role, and because we are both piloting this workshop project and trying to use it simultaneously to develop exhibits in a six-month concept-to-floor timeframe, I am both humble and desperate in my hunt for good ideas. The result is a focus on designing spaces, workshops, and social experiences that facilitate creative sharing. It's easy to say that everyone has a great idea for an exhibit inside them. The challenge is to find the way to pull those ideas out. For me, that has meant going back to days spent on the floor, encouraging and supporting creative thought. Our participants are like visitors--interested, ready to engage, ready to rise to the challenge.

Which leads to the question of people: who is getting involved? In the long term, we're dedicated to this workshop being a place for museums to collaborate with one another, to pool creative resources to develop exhibits that can be implemented uniquely at different institutions. But museum folks, no matter how much we want to collaborate, don't move quickly. I think a lot of museum people are waiting to see the result, how the whole exhibit cycle goes, before signing up to learn a new platform and engage resources in this way.

So in the past month, the people who have jumped in are mostly people who are already familiar with the platforms we're using (the Web and Second Life), primarily those already in Second Life. The Second Life learning curve is steep (though less so than I had feared), so the people who are immediately ready to jump in are those who have already figured out how to dress themselves. Not that that means that we are attracting solely gamers or the bored wanderers of Second Life. Our proto-users are artists, architects, university professors, mathematicians, engineers who have already been experimenting with creating interactive environments and objects within the virtual world.

I've been surprised and elated by the unique expertise and creativity of our participants. While we have plenty of hobbyists engaged, the majority of our contributors are "real" experts--a breed closely related to those museum staff often hand-pick to join exhibition advisory committees. And even better, these are experts who DO something. Since Second Life is such a new technology, most people using it in a professional capacity are knowledgeable about how it works (and are building things themselves) because they have to be--there's no in-house IT guy who's going to do it for them. I spend a good deal of time with university professors who run digital media, architecture, and informal learning departments at their institutions as they show me the experiments they personally have been initiating in the virtual world. These people are smart, creative, and looking for an outlet/experimental client that we are thrilled to offer them.

Which leads, finally, to the experience of designing exhibits in Second Life. I went into this project skeptical about the use of Second Life as a collaborative design platform. The barriers to entry are high. The software crashes (for me about once each day). The landscape is foreign. And yet, I've become a convert to Second Life as a breeding ground for creativity. There was recently a New York Times article on the inverse relationship between expertise and ability to innovate. As the author, Janet Rae-DuPree put it:
This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you've become an expert in a particular subject, it's hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it's time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Second Life presents a whole new set of rules--governing everything from social interactions to the laws of physics--that have jolted me and museum colleagues out of the boxes in which we typically develop exhibits. Yes, we still talk about the primacy of the big idea, the importance of interactivity, the essence of the "aha" moment. But the development process is fundamentally different for several reasons:

It's physical. Many exhibit developers and designers never touch a 2x4 in the exhibit creation process. Since many museums have eliminated fabrication shops, some developers will never get their hands dirty in the exhibit process--the designs leave the museum, and return as fully formed exhibits. Ironically, working in the virtual environment reacquaints you with physical stuff, because the design process is based on manipulating objects rather than calculating wireframes. There's an infinite amount of free materials to start with, an eclectic set of tools to manipulate them, and a bizarre world of user-created objects on which to build. The Ontario Science Center runs fabulous Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) sessions, for which they gather and hoard huge volumes of mysterious junk to spark the creative process. In Second Life, the junk is more mysterious, more voluminous, and cleans up with a few clicks. In the real world, flying aircraft, snowball shooters, and fireworks are not common building blocks. In Second Life, they offer a whole new world of creative possibilities.

It's social. Traditional design packages, like Autocad, are individual affairs. Even networked packages like Google's Sketchup do not allow designers to work with each other real-time. The fact that Second Life is a social environment means that individual designers are no longer siloed in their own private software packages. Instead, we are building things around and with each other. I can talk to an artist about her digital storytelling piece while watching two engineers experiment with a sensor-rich dance floor. Even within The Tech, individual engineers and fabricators are coming together to experiment creatively, across cubicles and machine shops, to work together in a truly collaborative space.

It's playful.
Second Life is not a professional-level design or simulation package. This has two obvious effects: first, it makes building and expressing oneself in 3D open to a wider range of people, and second, it limits the potential for what you can "do" with the 3D simulated result. We realized quickly that we were not going to use Second Life to simulate an exhibit gear for gear or in exact dimensions. But the stripped down capabilities of Second Life allow you to focus on the core idea of an exhibit--the interaction, the content, the fun--without getting distracted by the minutae. Second Life may be a better creative brainstorming tool--a place to get inspired--than a design package. And good creative brainstorming tools are hard to come by, especially ones that you can log into any time from anywhere. It doesn't take a special set of objects, like Ontario has, or a scheduled meeting, or a round-up of creative staff.

Second Life is a door to more noodling with exhibit ideas. Some institutions are afraid of this, that their staff will "waste time", as some Tech engineers have, making giant walls of eyeballs that focus on you, or doors that open when you knock them in the right sequence. But these folks are getting something that is hard to plan and is increasingly streamlined out of the exhibit design experience: no-stakes experimentation. They're having fun, playing, acting like visitors, working as and with the audience. We argue that "play" is not a dirty word when it comes to visitors. Why not apply the same attitude to our own staff?

Of course, there are many ongoing challenges with this project. We haven't figured out the best practices for developing exhibits with people rather than simply from their ideas. We're working on how to incentivize and reward all the different folks who get involved for very different reasons. We're trying to conceive a viable alternative to Second Life for those who can't get in. We're hoping to bring our visitors on the floor into the design cycle. And we don't know yet whether the exhibits that will result (the first set in physical form in June 2008) will reflect the unusual energy and populism of the process.

But we do know that we are moving forward in a creative space, legitimately drawing from and working with people outside the museum world. I hope that many of you, perhaps those who feel yourselves stuck in "curse of knowledge" box, will come play, and learn, with us.

Sarah Cole, museum graduate student and Manager of Traveling and Special Exhibits at the Indianapolis Children's Museum, is our awesome and capable intern. She is blogging about her experiences as a museum newbie in Second Life here, and she (and I) are available to help you dive into this playful creative environment.

As always, please share your questions, comments, and skeptical jeers. I believe in the goals of this project, and we need all of your insight and critique to get there.

6 comments, add yours!:

Paolo Amoroso said...

I have subscribed to the Atom feed of Sarah's blog with Google Reader. Formatting in blog posts looks broken with Google Reader: I see the HTML tags rather than the intended formatting.

Nina Simon said...


Thanks, we are looking into this. You can also access Sarah's blog at

That may be more reliable...

Paolo Amoroso said...

The Atom feed of the Blogger-based blog works fine, thanks.

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

Hi Nina,

Regarding your "Physical" comments:
Computer-based design tools are great, but exhibit realization requires real materials, tools, and skills. How can a museum that's serious about creating and maintaining interactive exhibits exist without an on-site workhop?

I think the museum biz needs MORE exhibit workshop spaces inside their buildings (with 2X4s!) not more virtual exhibit creating experiences. As far as I'm concerned, a museum without a workshop containing tools and materials to make exhibits inherently cedes too much creative and content control to outsiders, no matter how skilled.

I've run into too many exhibit designers and design firms who create pretty renderings that have little, if any, relationship to how visitors use (and misuse) things in the "real" world.

Real materials and tools make exhibits. Virtual materials and tools suggest ideas for exhibits.

Nina Simon said...


You are absolutely right when you say "Real materials and tools make exhibits. Virtual materials and tools suggest ideas for exhibits."

We need more ideas, more stuff, more tools. I feel like most museum design studios and departments have gone the way of elementary schools, dropping recess and art to focus on "standards." We need more of all of it.

Anonymous said...

"Real materials and tools make exhibits. Virtual materials and tools suggest ideas for exhibits."

That seems true in this example where virtual design is intended to inform the construction of physical spaces, but SL isn't just a "design tool." I would amend the statement to read:

"Physical materials and tools make physical exhibits, virtual materials and tools make virtual exhibits. Both create "real" interactions between a museum and visitors if designed well."

I am interested to see how you translate SL's spacial metaphor into physical spaces. I guess I share Paul's skepticism that there's a direct correlation between my embodied self and my physical self, something alot of the SL hype seems to muddle. Especially when it comes to actually navigating spaces (I really hope I don't start walking into walls that much in RL).

If we want to treat virtual exhibits as legitimate in and of themselves, can we ask Paul's question in a different way? Who will be keeping the tools sharp in the virtual workshop after the exhibit opens?