Friday, December 05, 2008

Case Study: A Participatory Road Trip takes the SJMA on a Wild Ride

Reason #258 I'm glad to live in California: Cultural Connections. Cultural Connections is a group of museum professionals who meet up a few times a year and host excellent programs on a variety of topics. This week, they hosted "Let Them Be Heard: Visitor Participation in the Museum Experience," featuring four presentations on incorporating visitors' content into museums.

I was captivated by Chris Alexander's story about participatory online/onsite efforts at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA). Their recent experiments with the exhibition Road Trip provides a useful case study of a mid-sized institution, a simple project, and some surprising results. Here are his slides, or if you prefer a text rendition, continue reading.

Here's what they did. Chris and Lucy Larson, the SJMA manager of interpretation, wanted to create something that would be both a marketing tool for the Road Trip exhibition and add an interactive element to the physical exhibition. So, they decided to solicit postcards from real people's road trips, to be displayed in the exhibition. They created a quirky video promoting the postcard project, put it on YouTube (the video shown at top), and waited for the postcards to roll in. The marketing team promoted the project with outreach to several road trip and roadside attraction-related websites and blogs, but the creative control of the project belonged to Chris and Lucy.

What happened? For the first couple of months, not a lot. There were about 1,000 views of the YouTube video and 20 postcards submitted by August 15, at which point, something strange happened. Chris left work that Friday afternoon having noticed the YouTube viewcount on the video suddenly rising. By the time he got home, 10,000 new people had seen the video. After some puzzling, he realized that the video had been featured on the homepage of YouTube. The mysterious unseen gods of YouTube had anointed the Road Trip video with top billing, which shot the views way up (over 80,000 to date) and sent comments and video responses pouring in. The comments, which were previously unmoderated, suddenly were overloaded with opportunists who wanted their voice to be heard on the YouTube homepage. Chris spent an exhausting (but rewarding) weekend moderating comments and taking control of the video's newfound fame.

The attention from being featured on the homepage of YouTube motivated an energized burst of postcards from around the world. Overall, the museum received about 250 postcards. Chris had expected more, but the contributory ask was fairly high--go to an attraction, buy a postcard, write something clever, mail it in. I'm impressed he got 250 in such a short time frame--these projects often take months to build. Many of the postcards are gems that provide powerful connections to strange people and places. They are featured in the exhibition in a little sitting area along with the video and will be kept in the museum's interpretative archive at the end of the project.

This was a relatively quick, easy project that generated a lot of positive publicity and participation for the museum. But there are some places where it falls short. The SJMA team could not afford to scan or transcribe the postcards, so they are only viewable in the museum, not online. This was a one-shot approach--put out the video, collect the postcards. The people who sent in postcards don't have a way to see their content as part of the collection (unless they visit in person), and they aren't recognized for their contribution in a place online where they could both spread the word and enjoy a little fame. This is not a project that will take on a life of its own beyond this exhibition (probably). It doesn't launch new relationships.

Of course, the beauty of this project is its manageability. It is small and focused and highly repeatable (Chris and Lucy are producing a new YouTube series for the new exhibition on The Art of Cardboard). It reflects the overall mission of the institution in its creative implementation, raises awareness of the institution, and brings visitors' experiences into the galleries.

Was the Road Trip experiment successful? Certainly. But some of that success is contingent on the freak event of being featured on the YouTube homepage. At the end of Chris' presentation, one woman asked, "Why WOULDN'T a museum want to do this? It's so cheap compared to other kinds of marketing!" But her enthusiasm might have been different if the project had concluded with 2,000 views and 40 postcards.

Would my enthusiasm have been different? I've struggled thinking about the answer to that question. I think this is an excellent project that can be a model for small museums and limited budgets, a not-so-scary way to wade into online/onsite connections and visitor participation. Ultimately, those features of this project are the ones that are most important to me. But its allure comes from the high visibility and success. And so I guess the point is this: there can be a fine line between success and not-success in these experiments, and that line is often driven by luck or circumstance, not design. Not all viruses go viral. As long as the experiment is a reasonable approach to the challenge at hand, it's probably worth trying. It's no different from trying a new kind of educational program format or a new approach to an interactive exhibit. And in the same way that we struggle to define success metrics other than visitation for a variety of museum activities, we need to think about what "success" and "value" mean in this context. It's not appropriate to force everything into a numbers game. After all, as naysayers of participatory design often remind me, the museum is not a popularity contest.

If you have questions about this project, leave a comment and Chris will respond, or you can reach him directly via his website.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina,

Thanks for the posting about our Road Trip Video. We are flattered to be on your blog.

Just wanted to elaborate on a few things that I didn't mention during my talk due to time constraints.

We did initially consider posting the cards somehow on the internet. Obviously this is a laborious task and we are already stretched pretty thin. We also looked at possible digital solutions where people could send us a digital postcard, but the services we found were fairly labor intensive and not very easy to implement. Additionally you do not have those great quirky postcards from locations around the world to hold in your hands. We also threw around the idea of posting a featured postcard every week. We unfortunately do not have a good web platform with our current site to handle this in an elegant way.

Also to clarify, the postcards sent in are not going to be accessioned into the collection. They will be held in the institutional interpretive archive, however.

To address the numbers game. You asked me at the presentation if we would now be happy with numbers in the low thousands. I mentioned that we still are excited to see when a video reaches a milestone like a 1000. If you think that maybe 10% of those are people that have never heard of our museum, 100 new people hearing about our institution is pretty good! Also we tend to put out videos in groups. Our recent Robots show had 13 videos with an overall view count of over 35,000. That's still a pretty good reach. Not everyone goes through and watches every video so we are under the assumption that a lot of those views are unique hits.

I think if you leverage other areas of the internet to help boost your views, i.e. blogs especially, you stand to gain a lot of value for your efforts. One video that we created for artist Il Lee was featured on a blog called and shot the view count up by 15,000.

Thanks again for your write up!

Chris Alexander

Anonymous said...

i get rediciously excited about community curated content. as someone who dose not stand by the stigma of museum driven cultural curation i'm stoaked to hear about such successes.

its also an exciting venture due to its promotional potential for other museums and small businesses. perhaps postcard partnering and network support could help this work for other museums.

as someone who grew up in california, driving everywhere as a kid, i have noticed a significant decrease in the number of bizarre roadside attractions. perhaps less folks are road tripping these days or maybe these places have just fallen from my mind.

either way, i think people have gotten too busy and self involved to notice the quirky cultural geography of their auto adventures.
i would love to see how it turned out, but going to SJMA would be quite the road trip itself, from seattle.