Thursday, July 17, 2008

State Fairs and Visitor Co-Creation: An Interview about MN150

Traditional exhibition design, in which the museum has a specific story or message to tell, doesn't easily accommodate visitor co-creation. What can visitors add if you already know what you want to say?

But there are other times when the message isn't simple, and in those cases, visitor voices can help strategically shape multi-dimensional exhibitions. It can be uncomfortable or downright limiting to declare yourself and your single voice the authority on a complex or multi-faceted topic. This realization--that a single museum voice was not the best way to tell a particular story--formed the basis for MN150, the exhibition explored in this post.

MN150 is a newish permanent exhibition (opened in Oct 2007) at the Minnesota History Center that marks the sesquicentennial of Minnesota with 150 of “the most influential forces in the state’s history.” All 150 topics covered were visitor-nominated, and the resulting exhibition features their passionate stories alongside representative artifacts and additional content. On the web, via the MN150 wiki, you can view the winning (and non-winning) nominations and additional historical content provided by the museum. This is a lovely example of a museum using its expertise to support and extend visitor interests, rather than lecturing or completely ceding control to visitors.

I sat down with Kate Roberts, lead exhibit developer on MN150, to learn about the particulars of this visitor-driven exhibition, which used a website, a state fair, and over 2700 slips of paper to apply a new process to a standard historical exhibition topic. Thanks to Kate and the team at Minnesota Historical Society for the fabulous photos from the project, which are sprinkled liberally through this interview.

How did this project get started?

Well, we knew we wanted to do an exhibit to mark the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary of the birth of the state of Minnesota). At first we thought we’d cover 50 topics, then 150. And we had to decide: should we pick the topics ourselves? Present one per year for 150 years? None of that made sense. What made sense was to put out the public call and find out: what does everyone think is interesting and important?

We know from research that our audience is very interested in taking the next step with us, like to draw their own conclusions and express their own opinions. We had success with another exhibit with an unusual format called open house in which the visitor experience is pretty open-ended. We don’t draw conclusions and spoonfeed people. So when it came to MN150, we wanted to do more of this and asked ourselves: how else can we do that?

How did you solicit visitor nominations?

We put a public call on the Web first and sent a notice to our membership and some local and regional historical societies, preaching to the choir, starting that way. We went out and talked to community groups that we didn’t think would use the Web—different ethnic populations, on the reservations. And then this opportunity came up to be at the state fair. The Minnesota state fair is a huge event—it’s the biggest state fair in the country. Everyone comes out. We got to set up some space in a historic house at the fair that the state fair foundation uses for its offices. You tromp around all day and eat food—so having this air conditioned spot was a big deal!

In the house, we had computers set up with the website. You could also talk to one of us or write it out. There were six of us milling around at any time, shilling outside, talking to people. We had our forms printed on fans—for the heat--and they could take it away, fill it out right there, and if we lured them into the house we could show them what we were doing. We had books of sample nominations, and sometimes we’d prompt them—“oh, I see you’re wearing a Wellstone tshirt. Do you think he’s worth nominating?...”

As an exhibit developer I don’t get to engage directly with visitors that often. It was really fun! It was an interesting combination of talking it up, talking to real people, with the web as backup.

What kind of staff were on the team at the fair?

The six of us always included one or two from curatorial/design, one from education, sometimes a costumed interpreter, and then tech support—either onsite or remote.

How did you explain what you were looking for?

We tried to say very loud and clear: you have to make an argument. Argue that this topic really promoted historical change. It’s not enough to say someone’s famous, that you like spam. You have to really say how did it change things. That made the vetting process easier down the road.

Were you ever worried that no one would respond, that it wouldn’t work?

We had a backup plan in place—I was working on shadow research, creating a backup list. Much of the research helped serve down the road when we were weeding through the nominations. If we didn’t get thoughtful comments, we were just going to do it ourselves. But we didn’t have to do that. It really worked.

When did you know it was really working?

It was at the fair. We saw it was really sinking with people—people were getting it. We also got some good marketing money, were able to place some ads about it. Local media was also interested; they were looking for content about the sesquicentennial.

Prior to fair, the website had generated 200-300 responses. We received about 2700 total, including plenty of repeat nominations for the same person. Overall, about 40% of the nominations came from the fair, but we think it also generated a lot more interest and traffic to the website.

Were there any surprises for you in the content of the nominations?

I was surprised by the variety—while we got a lot of the usual suspects, we also got a lot of individualistic ones—in my family, in my town. I was really surprised by the range and just how much people know about history.

We had to do research on some, but not as many as you might think. We didn’t go beyond the internet to do our checks. We also talked to historians on staff. One surprise I remember: a person who wrote about a key battle that he/she said was a turning point in American Indian relations. That’s a big topic for Minnesotans, and I got really excited about this and went right to an expert. And according to the historian, it didn’t pan out—it was a minor battle. We contacted the person to find out more about the reasoning behind the nomination but we never heard back.

Did you maintain contact with many of the people who nominated things? How did you reach them?

In an ideal world they gave us an email address so we could get back to them. A few people gave us phone numbers only. But we had contact information for everyone. We got back to everybody, not just the winners. We sent folks an email as soon as we could to thank them for the nomination. We didn’t give them a set decision date, just an opening the following Oct 07.

Once you received them all, what did you do with the nominations?

We weren’t exactly sure how best to do this, so we killed a lot of trees. We printed out every web nomination. Then we spread them out in piles—web and written—all the Bob Dylans, all the Princes, and then most were sorted into twelve or thirteen topical categories. Then we sat there for a while and thought—now what?

Then we started going through the piles and taking out the ones that really did seem like they would never make it. And then we’re still left with hundreds and hundreds.

We as a team then winnowed based on our criteria--geographic distribution, diversity of experience, topical distribution, chronological distribution, evidence of sparking real change, origination in MN, exhibit readiness, and quality of nomination.

We did it with a lot of talking. I was just locked in this room with the others and the nominations. We were lucky in a way because so many people had really put their hearts and souls in this—so we were able to pull those out, along with the ones that seemed intriguing, and we would contact them to learn more. We were working on this full time for 2-3 weeks—myself, a full-time assistant, and then a part-time educator and designer.

Were there any nominations cut because the designer felt they couldn’t be exhibited?

Yes, some topics were cut because they were not exhibitable. You can’t take on a huge topic like the freeway that was cut through the Twin Cities—which wiped out neighborhoods, relocated people—it’s still a source of conflict and people bemoaned their lost homes. Great topic, but I don’t think we can do it any kind of justice in an exhibit like this. Since exhibit readiness was in the criteria from the start, we thought this was appropriate to do.

So we got down to roughly 400. Then we generated a list of the nominations and topics in their categories, and we identified about 40-50 historians and MN history experts, generalists and specifics, journalists, representatives of ethnic groups. We put together packets and sent them out to everybody. We gave them a ratings sheet for each category. So we got back written comments and ratings 1-10.

Were any of the decisions contentious?

Looking back it’s just amazing to me how off-track we got, how often we said, “this topic has to be there—even if it’s not there, I don’t care. It has to be there.” We had this moment—we had one day where we were sitting in the room doing our conversation, and someone said that something had to be there even if there was no nomination, that we would manufacture a nomination. We broke for lunch that day, and our education person went to lunch, and one of her staff members asked her what she was doing up in this room all the time—and when she explained, he said, “you better not include X! If you include X and not Y, that’s just wrong!” She came back after lunch and said we have to be really careful to stick to what we said we were doing. We can’t be going out soliciting nominations—we have to have a justification for every one of these. No more personal preference.

It helped a little bit in that the folks making the decisions were informed but not expert on MN history. We had our little hobby horses certainly, but nobody was so entrenched.

And it was just painful. My topic that I submitted didn’t make it—I kept trying to convince folks and that didn’t work. Our designer got really worked up about public radio for awhile--it's very politically charged here in Minnesota. He did submit a nomination that was successful. Some of the political figures were hard. People have their favorite politicians. Since we have a history as a Democratic state, we had to be careful to look at the Republicans as well. Jesse Ventura was very hard for some of us—he made it because the nominator made a very interesting argument how he changed the image of Minnesota.

Once you got down to the 150, did you go into a standard design process?

Pretty much. The only thing that wasn’t standard is that the 150 were picked by February 07, we had until October, and we didn’t know what we had in the collection for each topic. We contacted the nominators to scramble for stuff for the exhibit. Our designer ended up designing a modular system that could really accommodate just about anything. My favorite moment was—he had ordered one long case for the 1980 Olympic hockey team that stunned the world—and we just had our hearts set on getting a puck and hockey stick from those guys. Instead what happened was the coach’s daughter donated a framed photo of the whole team. And then we had another topic on a fishing company, so we ended up using that long case for a fishing rod. Our designer did a great job making guesses in layout as the stuff kept coming in.

The winners must have loved the fact that you asked them for artifacts. I was always surprised with The Tech project at how much they wanted to be involved and enjoyed feeling needed.

It was so rewarding. I think so positively about these people. We love our winners, we call them our MN150 peeps. Now we’re using that group as a focus group for a new web survey. They were hard to let go of when the exhibition opened.

For the opening, we had the best night ever. We invited them as special guests, and then before the exhibit actually opened, we all gathered in the auditorium and had a really nice presentation. Our director talked, I talked about the process, the conservator talked about the challenges of getting god knows what through the door. He had very funny stories about people’s rubber ducks and these kinds of things. When they walked in, we gave them each a book of the exhibition and we all signed it. And then through the course of the night, it was like yearbooks in high school: they were all asking to sign each other’s books. Then once the exhibit started we had photographers to get people with their exhibits.

How are you evaluating the exhibition? What do visitors and staff think of this?

Our plan is to have the summative evaluation done by the end of this year. This is considered a permanent exhibit. There were a lot of naysayers on staff along the way, but the institution was pretty solidly behind the whole exhibit. Our anecdotal evidence is that visitors tend to like it. They get it.

For the first several months, there was no intro panel. I don’t really think people read them, and if we did one, I wanted to know what kinds of questions people were asking and fit a panel to that. A few months ago we did put up an intro panel about the process, that it was community-based and so on. And we ask: “What would you add?” The interpreters do say that that conversation is happening.

Having completed MN150, are you back to business as usual? Or are you looking for new ways to experiment?

There’s a new one we want to launch—a traveling exhibition on 1968—we’ve proposed doing it in partnership with 3 other institutions in the country (Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta). It would travel to all of them and others as well. What we’ve been talking about lately is that we really want the exhibit to be shaped by the people who lived it. How can we get a website—a new kind of website that would invite people to really talk, to go along with us in the creation of the exhibit. What more could it be? How could it really be the nexus of the exhibit?

One of the ideas I’m hot on these days is embedding your conversations with visitors into their world rather than forcing them to come to your website. So for something like 1968, I’d recommend going somewhere like—a social networking site targeted at boomers—and connecting with them and their stories in that context. But that's for another conversation...

Thank you to Kate and all the courageous Minnesotans who took on this project! What questions did I miss--what do you want to know about MN150? What ideas do you have for the “next experiments” in the world of visitor co-created exhibitions?

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