Friday, February 29, 2008

Game Friday: Welcome to The Asylum

We don't have many Game Fridays at Museum 2.0 anymore, but this one is so good I had to share. The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddly Toys is an extremely strange, somewhat slow, wonderfully wandering narrative game. You are the psychiatrist, complete with German accent. Your patients are stuffed animals that have suffered severe trauma due to owner mistreatment, personal delusion, you name it. In the game, you can choose a variety of treatments (dream analysis, hypnosis, ...) to assist you as you make your final diagnosis.

In a world of museum exhibits geared towards making visitors feel as though they ARE the scientist, historian, etc., this game offers some humorous insights into the possibilities--and limitations--of such simulations. While the game's content is rather unorthodox, it also succeeds at the basic design level of connecting something new and strange (performing psychoanalysis) with something familiar (stuffed animals). There's a 2.0 element as well--a doctor's log at the front desk in which you can write and browse comments (which are charmingly multi-lingual). And it has wonderfully disarming, engrossing content. Whether as a game or a design inspiration, it's a pleasant Friday afternoon on the couch.

And if you fall in love with the characters, they are also available as plush toys (patients for home therapy) in a sneaky little product tie-in. Remember, play nice.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who is the Audience in Your Head?

In high school, my boyfriend's brother, Thomas, was a (young) professional magician. Their back guest room, where I would stay, had a wall plastered with paper plates, each with a drawing of a face on it. Some faces were smiling, some were confused, some were looking another way. Thomas would practice in front of them. His show was wordless. He had no instructions to give or laugh lines to hit. And yet he'd perform his tricks for the faces diligently--and it paid off in 1997, when at the age of 19 he became the youngest person to win the world closeup magic competition.

While not all of us are destined for such greatness, we all design and create for others. In museums, attention to the visitor--her desires, his preferences--has grown over the last few decades. We're up to our ears in curriculum frameworks, ADA recommendations, and target outcomes. But what does that really mean about our design practices? How many of us have Thomas' drive to hang the faces of our visitors on cubicle walls?

Do you imagine a set of "target visitors" when you design--and more importantly, how do you pick that target? Is it a group of leaders in the field whom you hope to impress with your work? A group of disaffected naysayers whom you hope to rattle into engagement? Or a demographic to whom you need to sell more tickets?

Ze Frank recently posed this question to several designers, filmmakers, and artists here, asking:
When you make things with an audience in mind, do you have internal representations of that audience to help guide you in the process?

Here are my favorite gleanings from the responses he received, followed by commentary and a challenge for you to share your own response.

There were a couple of great comments about the tension between focus on the audience and opportunity to create something truly great.
Designer Alan Chochinov talked about when to use the audience and when to forget them:
your "imagined audience" can often come into conflict with the imaginings of the designer, and where your question of conjuring (or vanquishing) an imagined user becomes a central one: Lead or follow? Serve or direct? Comfort or subvert? Placate or persuade? My personal feeling is that a good designer is able to keep the imagined (and hopefully researched) audience front of mind at certain stages in the design process, but then be able to turn them off at other stages, allowing the designer's vision, passion, and muse to take center stage. All cliches, those, but you'd be surprised how often they get back-burnered by a short-sighted client or set of focus-group data. Alas, for designers then, "the imagined audience" is both blessing and curse.
And filmmaker Emily Ziff talked about the difference between authentic and overly marketed audience engagement:
I realize that when I am clearly able to identify the target audience for a piece of work as something outside of myself (even if the demo I'm referencing describes me), when I read or see something and think immediately 'this was made for women over 30', it is generally because somehow the work has failed for me. In those instances I am reacting to the work as a piece of business. The construct is suddenly made transparent, the foreign sales estimates go whizzing through my head, followed by an image of some agents in their offices thinking they've got a winner (maybe they're high-fiving??), and then a quick calculation of whether I think they do--all that in the moment when I am struck by who the piece was made for. When I do not have that ah-ha moment, it is generally because the piece is succeeding, because all I'm feeling is that the piece was made, not for "me" the demo, but "me" the complicated human struggling to make sense of the world, the universal "me" insofar as there can be one, and I feel satisfied.
Karen Koolhaus, a theater director, and Jakob Trollback, a designer, talked about designing for both the choir and the great unwashed. Karen offered the following gem channeling her friend Brian Parsons (a London theater director):
I try to please 4 people when I make theater. 1) A blind person - the language must be taken advantage of by the actors in a way that illuminates the story for the audience just by listening to it. 2). A deaf person - the staging must tell the story clearly on a visual level and all design choices must be beautiful/effective to look at. 3) A person who does not speak the language - that person must "hear" and understand the moments and emotions between the actors without knowing what they are saying. 4) My mother, who hates most theater. If she likes it, I know I've done it right.
And Jakob writes about the difference between a skeptical audience (useful) and a hostile one (time sink):
I learned a lot about the importance of reading your audience when I was a DJ. Itís hard to imagine a shorter feedback loop. For more remote work, I switch between thinking of an appreciate audience that will understand my expressions, and a clueless, if not hostile one. In my head, the appreciative audience is challenging me to evolve further, to find new ways to tell a story, while the skeptical audience is forcing me to find different contexts in a hope to break through. I have wasted much time in the past refusing to comprehend the opinions of adversaries. Failing to understand why people think and act the way they do and that there may even be some kind of strange logic to it makes it almost impossible to influence anybody.
Filmmaker David Kaplan talks not about his audience but his professional associates with whom he shares drafts of his work:
One curious thing that happens when I give out a draft of a screenplay to one of these people to read is that they don't necessarily have to say anything at all in order for me to read it in a more critical way. Simply the fact that I know they are reading it makes me see it differently, less indulgently. It's the same with screening early cuts of films. No one has to say a word; you can feel how the film is working as you sit through it with them in a dark room.
And Paul Budnitz, clothing and toy designer, drops people out of the equation entirely and writes about how his work measures up to products he admires:
What I do is I look at the thing that I'm working on at this moment, and I think of all of the similar things out there in the world that I think are awesome, and I say to myself, "is this thing that I made at least that awesome?

Reading all of the responses, I was surprised to see that the vast majority (not reflected here) threw their audience out the window as a perceived obstacle to truly innovative design thinking. This may be legitimate in some cases, but it also reflects narcissism (I know what's best) and a lack of interest in the value that audience can bring to designing a great product. I love the "blind, deaf, non-native language, mother" metric that Brian Parsons uses, because it acknowledges not just the variability but the deficiencies of audiences--and our responsibility as designers to accommodate and tackle those deficiencies. Yes, many of the designers profiled who "design just for themselves" are successful--but they were hand-picked to answer this question. I wonder how many young artists, poets, designers have the same Ayn Rand-ian attitude and will never make it far enough to be asked about their process by others.

My feeling as an exhibit designer is that I need to work somewhere between artist and product designer. With art, the audience is generally considered to get in the way of greatness (though that also leads to a highly insular art world that may not attract the unanointed). But products are successful when they are useful and used. Museum exhibit designers are somewhere in the middle here--trying to create exhibits that are both highly usable and also challenging content-wise. Usable art. And I think that works well when we acknowledge the negatives of either the "art" or "product" approach--avoiding slipping into narcissism or audience profiling. Ultimately, as Emily Ziff points out, we're successful when we create something human, something that can snatch people from all walks of life and give them a spark of something wild and surprising--something we all secretly wish to have and be a part of. For me at least, it's this interest and trust in other humans, in their desires and abilities, that drives my work.

What about you? Who's in your head, and what are they saying?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Library of Congress Rocks Flickr

About a month ago, the Library of Congress put two sets of photographs (about 3000 images total) up on Flickr. Flickr is a photo-sharing site (learn more here). They didn't put them up the way you or I put up photos of the family hoe-down; they worked with Flickr for about six months as part of Flickr Commons, a hopefully growing initiative to connect public image collections with this hugely popular photo-sharing and tagging site.

have blogged about the initiative, but what I'm most interested in are the results, and what it means for the way we share collections with visitors both online and onsite.

Consider the difference between these two listings of the same image:
  1. from the LOC official collection (ugh, no permanent link... so you have to search by the name of the photo on this site)
  2. from Flickr

The LOC collection listing has title, metadata, and some links to other photos in the related subjects. Flickr has that content (and makes the photo easier to find)... but the gold is in the user contributions, in the form of tags (keywords to describe the photo), notes (comments inserted directly on the image), and comments (presented like blog comments, spanning down the page in time order).

In the case of this image, there are 44 user-supplied tags, 5 user-supplied notes, and 8 user-supplied comments. I know that for collections folks, it's the tags that are drool-worthy (because they form a web of cross-ref
erences that can then link this photo with others via subjects like "overalls" which the LOC might never include in their own keywords). But from an interpretative perspective, the comments and notes are where it's at.

One note highlights the fact that the black men in the photo are standing separately from the white men, saying: "Looks like 'quitting time' was as segregated as the rest of life."
And here are some comments:
These folks aren't just saying, "nice pic" (except for one)... They're answering each other's questions about the content, sharing personal stories, making socio-political commentaries. They're doing things that don't happen when visiting the real collection, don't happen when visiting the official website... and it's arguably creating a more engaging, more educational experience with the content.

I'm not a photo or history buff, but I got really hooked on some of the emotional stories,
feminist debates, and composition observations by users while checking out the photos. The LOC website has very little stickiness, few things to compel my continued attention. Because ultimately, it's not the photos that drive my interest. It's the people.

So maybe this isn't "LOC Rocks Flickr." Maybe it's "Flickr users rock." A nice Friday example of visitors making our content a better place.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Data Visualization Part 2: What's in a Name?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the power of data visualization as an addition to the exhibit design toolkit. Paul Orselli made a thoughtful and challenging comment, saying:
...many data visualization art pieces, albeit elegant, seem to be inherently "push" technologies. That is to say, they parse selected bits of data for the viewer.

So how does finding patterns in streams of algorithmically-derived data move beyond the enjoyable exercise of discovering "shapes" in the clouds?

I couldn't come up with a satisfying response until a week later, when another colleague/reader (Matt DuPlessie) reminded me about one of the early, massively popular visualizations on the web: Name Voyager. Name Voyager touts itself as a "ba
by name wizard," allowing you to view the frequency of use of names for American babies per year, using data from the Social Security Administration. But it's not a list of names and numbers. Instead, it's a beautiful, quite intoxicating Java applet that shows you the relative frequency of names dynamically as you type--so that typing MO will show you how Mohammed matches up to Molly and Morgan, but when you get to MOR you just see the difference in frequency between Morgan (for boys) and Morgan (for girls).

Try it. It's another gorgeous time sink with data behind it.

And yet. The reason I bring up Name Voyager is because of a new element of their website: a link to a service called Nymbler, which invites you to type in names of interest so it can generate lists of related names you might like. It's sort of like Netflix for baby names: you rate names, it makes recommendations.

Checking it out last night, I was struck by the paradox that Nymbler gave me more useful information than Name Voyager, and yet I like Name Voyager more. I would use Name Voyager longer. Why would I prefer the less useful site?

Because I'm not having a baby. Name Voyager is a site that allows people to explore names through American history in an interesting way, whereas Nymbler provides an outcome-driven service. Perhaps if the Nymbler interface allowed me to see the algorithms behind their selections in a visually interesting way--as a shifting web of related names--I could get more deeply into exploration of what defines the set of names which appeal to me.

The difference between Name Voyager and Nymbler is instructive for exhibit designers. Too often, we go for the Nymbler model, both in terms of how we deal with content and the kind of interactions we provide. Content-wise, we are so interested in connecting the dots that we don't allow the kind of open-ended exploration that Name Voyager provides. Consider, for example, exhibits on global warming. Many such exhibits (and related websites) allow you to calculate your carbon footprint, step-by-step. Few allow you to do it in a way that dynamically reacts to each selection such that you can easily alter your choices to see the corresponding carbon drain. You select your vehicle, your eating habits, your power usage, linearly, and you have to go through the whole process again if you want to change a parameter. The design thinking behind this is that people are output-driven and want to see how their selections form a composite picture. But that precludes people from having a more flexible experience, one that is less focused on "my carbon footprint" and more on "contributors to carbon emissions." The general wisdom is that people will be more invested if it's "about me." But that's about me as an object of the exhibit, not I as the subject, I who am empowered to tinker with the parameters and my responses.

Bottom line, this comparison has made me realize that the thing that excites me about data visualizations is this empowerment. I am able, erroneously or not, to draw my own conclusions and perform my own simple experiments with the data. Intelligence officers get nervous about giving the president "the raw intelligence" for exactly that reason--it can be misinterpreted by non-professionals. But visitors aren't making national policy; they're learning. And at least in science centers, we profess to want to encourage visitors to think like scientists, like data-interpreters. With data visualizations, the visitors are no longer the object of the exercise. They are the subjects, and that's powerful, intoxicating, and hopefully, educational.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Admissions Desk

Today, we take a page from Wallace Stevens and look at some alternative ways to structure museum admissions and pricing. Like poetry, they aren't all entirely practical, but hopefully some will illuminate and tease out useful gleanings.

1. Get rid of the admissions desk.
In November of 2005, Apple started experimenting with Motorola handheld POS (point of sale) technology to alleviate long lines at the registers, and now, the experiment is over and the verdict is in: no more cash registers. Enter an Apple store today (except in Manhattan), and you will make your purchase standing in front of the product of interest, with the help of a staff member. The browsing and selecting part of shopping is no longer separate from the purchasing--which means a better overall retail experience and less chance for Apple to lose you as a customer out of exasperation at the long lines. What if visitors could stream into the museum, with the expectation that at some point they would encounter a staff member who could facilitate the purchase of admission? Visitor services staff would no longer be segmented between register or floor--it's all floor, and managing payment becomes just another aspect of visitor interaction.

2. Consider the season pass. At theme parks and ski resorts, you don't buy memberships. You buy a season pass, whose sole benefit is free admission for the year. Many museum memberships functionally are season passes, but there's a false perception that something "more" comes out of the membership. There's no shame in season passes, and if that's truly what you offer, the change in language might help confused visitors for whom the term "member" has become somewhat meaningless.

3. Price membership according to usage. When I looked into season passes, I was surprised to see that for theme parks, you can often buy a season pass online for 1.5 to 2 times the price of single admission, but at ski resorts, a season pass costs almost 20 times the price of one-day admission. Museum standard for membership is 2 to 3 times single admission, but the reality is that some institutions (like children's museums) see much higher usage by members, which might justify a higher member rate. If visitors will balk at a price that is actually commensurate with use, perhaps the membership duration should be adjusted--some parents might appreciate the value of a summer membership and would pay the same amount for that as for a year-long one.

4. Offer discounts to people who buy online.
There are two reasons entertainment venues charge less when visitors buy in advance: they are happy to lock in your dollars, and advance ticket processing requires fewer expensive humans at phones or cash registers. Whether you run an airline, a concert hall, or a parking lot, there's both economic and strategic value in advance sales. If you sell out for Easter weekend ten days before Friday hits, you can redeploy staff away from registers and into the queues and on the floor, where they can more effectively serve the guaranteed volume.

5. The more you go, the less you pay. My dad went to a play in L.A. last year in a big old mansion. It was one of those walk-through experiences, where you have to pick individual characters to follow as they roam around the grounds, putting on several parallel plays that overlap and intersect. The play cost $75, but when it was over, each audience member received a coupon to come back (and see more that you had missed) at a ticket price of $50. The ticket price dropped over repeat visits until the sixth experience, which was free. This model is interesting to those of us with large institutions where you may be able to market "you couldn't see it all this time, so come back next time for less" pricing.

6. The more you go, the more you pay. The opposite concept, made for institutions that have a strong "membership" vibe to them (churches fall in here). There's a poetry venue in Washington D.C. where the first three visits are free, and then you have to either become a yearly member or pay per visit. This may work for museums that have trouble initially getting people in the door, but then are able to reel people into repeat experiences.

7. Pay it forward. The Tech's director recently proposed a novel way to re-frame admissions (and membership in particular): you aren't paying for yourself, you're paying for a visitor who can't afford it. Or, more specifically at The Tech, you're paying for a student (all school kids visit The Tech free). This transforms admissions conceptually towards a gift economy, and also helps people who visit or become members understand that they are part of the donor constituency for the museum.

8. Smart packages. There are some successful geographically-based admissions packages, where one "pass" gets you into several museums in a metropolitan area. I love these because they don't just support museum-going, they help reinforce the concept that if you like one museum, you might like another. But museums aren't the only things we can include in packages. In downtown DC, there's a burrito place right across the street from a movie theater that offers a package deal--$12 for a movie ticket and a burrito. That's a $2 burrito or a $5 movie--a steal any way you slice it. The burrito place recognized that there was a built-in local audience for movies who might also be enticed into burritos. Similarly, museums could package discount admission with meals at local restaurants, purchases at certain related stores--anything that might connect museum-going with other nearby activities and venues.

9. Referral rewards. When I get another person to sign up for a membership at my gym, I get a $25 gift certificate to REI. Hostesses at my favorite restaurants are nicer to me each time I bring new guests. In a more 2.0 way, consider the communities that are courted and feted by video game and software designers, pegged as "influencers" who can bring others to the game or product. Perhaps we need a special form of gift membership for identified influencers, or at least a way to thank them with discounted admission and other perks.

10. Premium features. I'm a free member of Flickr, LinkedIn, and a variety of other websites. But if I want more storage space, greater access to other members, or an ad-free experience, I have to pay to upgrade. This can get into nasty pay-to-play zones, but it can also be a way to have users fund the more expensive secondary experiences which--let's face it--a minority of visitors access anyway. Put this together with the pay it forward concept and certain inclined individuals could fund access to premium features for those who can't afford it. Which leads to...

Micro-financing. Could a museum function in which admission is free but there are small "Click to donate" opportunities throughout for programs and exhibits? Again, it might start feeling like a gross pay-to-play environment, or it could fit into people's contemporary desires to get just the bits they want--the iTunes approach where you buy the song, not the album. It could also support the validity of having a specific, focused, deep museum experience with one element of content--putting all your chips in one content basket rather than paying to see it all. And for free museums, this can be a way for donors to put their money where they choose (an idea that is sometimes more inconvenient than appealing).

12. Free for locals, costs for out-of-towners. This idea, which Elaine Gurian advocates, is one that relies on geographic profiling. It engineers an intentional opportunity for locals to become part of the museum on an ongoing basis without losing the attraction market from tourists from distant lands. Of course, these audiences have different needs and desires, and once you start creating great services for the free local visitors, you may see the outside market dry up. Or the museum becomes more flexible, many things to many people.

13. Free. As a bird. What more is there to say? More seriously, I think this is an impossibility as long as we maintain giant buildings with related operations and development costs. One reason Apple removed the cash registers was to free up more space for visitors. If we want to move towards more flexible payment models, we need to be similarly burdened with high volume in small space.

What other crazy admissions models are out there? What do you think museums should be considering? Bonus points if you frame your comment in haiku :)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Upcoming Bay Area Event on Museums and Civic Discourse

Next month, JFKU will be hosting a day-long session on Museums and Civic Discourse in Berkeley, CA (see flyer above).

The event is organized around the recent issue of the journal Museums and Social Issues on the same topic, and will feature both formal lectures and small group discussions. I’ll be speaking briefly about the role of civic discourse in Web 2.0, and several other authors from the journal will be speaking as well.

I’m getting more interested in this topic in a practical way as my current day job includes a hefty dose of online community management and support for discourse and creative engagement with museums by random folks. I have a lot to learn about how to be a good listener, a good cheerleader, and how to provide meaningful platforms for engagement. Hopefully March 8 will answer a few of the questions I’m struggling with, as well as yours.

There are still some open spots if you would like to attend (see flyer for info on registration). This should be a lively and provocative day—the subject matter necessitates a certain level of, well, discourse.

On a different note, I will be totally offline until Feb. 14 rock-climbing in Joshua Tree. So don’t feel that I’m unwilling to engage in discourse if I don’t respond to your comments before then… have a great week!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Data Visualization: Honest, Powerful Interpretative Design

I have seen the future of interpretative design, and that future is data visualization. I'm talking tables of figures. Huge swaths of words. Volumes of dry-as-dirt content.

On the face of it, data visualization is just about the least sexy thing imaginable. Entertain the idea of an exhibit based on Gantt charts and spreadsheets, and your head might just explode. And yet, over the last few years, as the web has unlocked piles of information, a quiet group of math-minded designers are figuring out how to interpret the vast impersonalness of data and make it both beautiful and meaningful.

I met one of these data artists last year while visiting a friend/journalist at the New York Times. His name is Mark Hansen, a UCLA statistician, and he was working on the finishing touches of the installation of Moveable Type in the lobby of the new Times building (shown above).

Moveable Type, like its predecessor, Listening Post (now touring international art and science museums), is an exercise in harnessing and repackaging data as art. And while the installation is digital (560 fluorescent displays backed by individual tiny speakers), the effect, when multiplied across a large space, is intensely physical. Talking to Mark, I was amazed by he and his partner Ben Rubin's dogmatic insistence on capturing the energy and life inside the millions of words cranked out by reporters in the building, echoing the energy and life of the outside world about which they write.

Sure, a lot of artists can express those kinds of intentions. But in Hansen and Rubin's case, it actually gets across. Moveable Type is one of the most accessible pieces of art I've ever experienced, and I think its honesty and power come from the fact that it is a distillation, not an interpretation, of the New
York Times. It doesn't launch from a news story and then go gestural. Every element, from the obituaries that blow across the screens like wind through grass to the wedding announcements, which tick by interchangeable as train schedules, tries to get at the core meaning of the data involved. And that leads ultimately to a presentation of content which is both evocative and deeply connected to the core information.

And herein lies the power of data visualization: no matter how artistic it gets, it remains truthful to the core content. It has to, because that content is the basis for the work itself. Whether you are modeling the brain, tracking the incidence of emotional statements on the Web, or conveying a chair as a sound wave, the resultant art is a deep reflection, not just an interpretation, of the data involved.

And thus data visualization tackles one of the core problems with interpretative design. Traditionally, there's a battle between veracity and interpretation--the more you interpret, the more the purists cry foul. There's an ongoing debate in the museum field about whether interpretation enhances or distorts visitors' understanding of content, and what kind of interpretation distorts in what ways.

We have well-developed design skills for interpreting and presenting stories and objects. But when it comes to presenting data, most museum folks believe that over-interpretation is necessary. It would be deadly dull, they reason, to show the meat of what scientists produce--endless tables of numbers--so we have to find another way to interpret and translate their work. We throw a rug over it and call it a story. But data visualizers, instead of looking for another way beyond or outside the data, pore into the numbers and try to create an interpretation centered, and endlessly circling back on, the data itself.

This is not to say there aren't bad incidences of data visualization, pieces that distort or confound data in ways that may be particularly harmful (since they retain the semblance of being based on hard numbers). And there are plenty of gestural data pieces that go a little too far off the interpretative end to be meaningful (origami representation of web use, anyone?). But when it works, the result is deeply intoxicating, rich with content, and the meaning seems to emerge artistically from the data itself. You feel that you are closer to the true experience of conducting science, the tedious rigor of collection matched with the rush of putting it all together. Data visualization helps us be intelligent interpreters on our own, instead of asking someone else to design an interpreted experience for us.

And that makes you feel like a tiny god, to stand in a lobby and feel that you have the pulse of a newspaper, a corporation, a world, in your grasp.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New Models for Children's Museums: Wired Classrooms?

Do you talk to people sitting next to you on planes? I don't. I'm like an airborne clam, hoarding my book, my space, my ears. But last year, over Thanksgiving, I sat next to a man who was working on his laptop (not an activity that invites conversation), creating a presentation on elementary education and technology. I kept sneaking glances at his screen, watching it fill with words like “Web 2.0,” “virtual worlds,” and pictures of kids tuning out teachers and tuning in their cellphones. Curiosity got the better of me, and that’s how I met Bob Whicker, a K-12 Education Development Executive for Apple. Bob’s job is to set up and support “wired” schools and school districts. A former superintendent of such a district, he explained the basic premise to me: each student, from kindergarten on, has a personal laptop. The schools have open wireless internet, so each student has continual access to the Web. Apple calls this program “one to one” learning, meaning not one instructor but one computer per child.

I was fascinated by our discussion, and Bob came to mind last month, when I was asked to write an article for the Association of Children's Museums quarterly journal, Hand to Hand, about children's museums and Web 2.0. There’s a thriving debate about the role computers should play in children’s museums, with many professionals sounding the alarm about the negative impact of exchanging screen time for tactile environments. To many of these folks, Bob's wired classrooms seem threatening. But the more I learned, the more I wondered where the real threat is, and why children's museums have been so resistant to change.

To understand more, I turned to Elaine Gurian's article The Molting of Children's Museums?
in her book, Civilizing the Museum. Elaine starts, as always, with a bang, writing:
Children's museums may be facing a dilemma. It can be argued that they have exhausted the potential bequeathed them by the experimentation of the 1970s without developing fresh approaches for the new millennium.
Elaine argues that historically children's museums have been on the leading edge of progressive educational and developmental theory. Institutions like the Boston Children's Museum (which she helped lead in the 1970s) drew heavily from and worked in partnership with the "open classroom" movement to develop informal educational models that are interactive, open-ended, and individualized. They were ahead of the museum curve, using language like "participatory learning environment" (Brooklyn Children's Museum, 1977) that is still thick in the mouths of contemporary museum directors in other fields.
Since the 1970s, children's museums of this experiential, open-ended type have exploded, out-pacing other types of museums in new construction projects and venues. And while they were once ahead of the curve, the lack of change in recent years is becoming more noticeable. As other museums have entered the "participatory learning" conversation, children's museums have not moved on to a new generation of audience and principles.

Consider other family-oriented products: toys, media, schools. All of these have gone through a series of movements in the last 30 years reflecting cultural shifts and expectations. Shrek is an unimaginable construct in the world of 1970s family cinema. And yet in 2004, I listened to an exhibit manager vent about the challenge of creating an early childhood development exhibition in his science center. He wanted something new, but "everyone shows me a goddamned giant plastic tree. I don't want a plastic tree. All the designers will only give me plastic trees."

Why the uniformity? Why haven't children's museums pushed past the 1970s model? This conundrum, partnered with the recent growth of children's museums, brings to mind a Yom Kippur sermon I heard in which the rabbi argued that "Jews have gone from people who do good to people who do well." Are children's museums in the same boat--less willing to change, to lead the charge for new progressive models of education, because they don't want to leave the comfort borne by the 1970s model?

I didn't think this was an issue until I met Bob. Who cares if children's museums don't change as long as the content and the experience is good? The audience recycles every few years, and every kid loves making giant bubbles.
But Bob helped me see that there are intelligent ways to go further, to advance the same goals of self-directed, experiential learning with tools that speak directly to kids' interests and aspirations.

Bob argues that giving kids laptops enables more participatory, engaged learning. New questions are raised as classes can rapidly access information relevant to lessons, and students no longer look to the teacher to have every answer. They look to their own tools, and by extension, to their own abilities to learn.

The wired classroom is not a free-for-all nor an entirely screen-based experience. Teachers and administrators have remote desktop applications that allow them to view any kid’s screen at any moment. Bob told me stories about principals instant messaging students to ask them to remove objectionable content from their machines, and students instant messaging principals to ask for more variety in school lunches. He explained lessons where the teacher successively displays different students’ work with a projector for full-class discussion, and group projects where kids work together across different schools and grade levels using collaborative software. Teachers still steer the boat, but students have much more freedom and opportunity with the controls.

In short, Bob told me about a new model for progressive education, one that offers flexibility, personalization, and respect for students’ self-determination. The “wired classroom” model accepts and integrates technology instead of avoiding or denying it. As Bob explained, in wired classrooms, there is no longer a continual cat-and-mouse game between teachers and students about the use of approved devices. Teachers don’t have to pretend that Wikipedia, YouTube, and other online tools don’t exist, or aren’t used by their students. Instead, teachers and administrators work creatively to educate with these tools, thus giving their students relevant experiences with the tools that are becoming the hallmark of the adult world.

I'm not suggesting that we need to replace all the plastic trees with laptops. But children's museums should get back on the leading edge, working alongside folks like Bob to define and model informal educational experiences in today's world. The "wired museum," like the wired classroom, like the open classroom, like the open museum, is a place that privileges free-choice learning.
It is a place that reflects and grows with a society increasingly organized around digital tools. It is a place where individual experiences are tracked and personalized so that visitors can establish and develop unique identities. It is a place that encourages social interaction and collaboration among past, present, and future visitors. It is a place that includes visitors in content creation and distribution. It is a place that continually changes and adapts based on the contributions of the museum community.

Who is going to create and lead this place? And if not this place, where else might children's museums go? Now that the "participatory learning environment" has begun to take hold in more staid, adult institutions, where will children's museums smear the finger paint next?
What changes are you already making in your own institutions to move into the future?

Note: Portions of this post excerpted from "Beyond Hands On: Web 2.0 and New Models for Engagement," In Hand to Hand, Winter 2007, Volume 21, Number 4. Reprinted with permission from the Association of Children's Museums, Washington, DC.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Quickie Excitement: Internet and Museum

I have two brief pieces of news to share:

1. My post on naming conventions in museums was adapted into a piece for the Jan/Feb issue of Museum (formerly Museum News). Please add comments on the original post or on the AAM site to continue the discussion.

2. We now have high-speed internet at my home. As of tonight, I am no longer a slave to dial-up. For those of you who grouse about how kids today don't know where their food comes from, I strongly recommend you consider and appreciate where your internet comes from. Mine came from several muddy days spent digging trenches to lay cable. Yes, you really can shovel your way to the future.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Podcast Interview with Stephanie Weaver's Experienceology

This week, I did an interview for Stephanie Weaver's Experienceology podcast. In 43 minutes, we discuss what Web 2.0 means, ways museums are and can use Web 2.0 and 2.0-style design, The Tech Virtual open exhibit design project, and the challenges museums face as they try to grow into--or against--future technologies.

You can listen here using the player below, or head over to Stephanie's blog to learn more about designing for visitors to museums, stores, bathrooms... no experience is too small for Stephanie to add her thoughtful analysis.

Enjoy! Your comments welcome!

Powered by