Monday, February 09, 2009

What is a Wikimuseum? And More Thoughts on Metaphorical Design

Recently, I've been thinking and working with the concept of metaphorical design, that is, designing things by modeling them after other things. This interest stems back to the very beginning of the Museum 2.0 blog. In October of 2006, I went to the Association of Science and Technology Centers conference and attended a "hot topics in exhibit design" roundtable where I first heard the question, "What would a wikimuseum be like?" The person asking the question is an extremely experienced, brilliant exhibit developer. She didn't really know what a wiki was, but she liked the idea of it. And that's where the opportunity--and the problem--begins.

Since 2006, I've heard terms like "wikimuseum" and "YouTube museum" spring from the mouths of many well-meaning, interested museum directors and leaders, but I haven't seen enough concerted work to define what these metaphors really mean and how they can be used. There are two things that worry me about this:
  1. Museum executives are often fascinated by the social/cultural outcomes of social media but may not understand the specific characteristics of the platforms (and are too busy to spend their time learning them).
  2. Museum technology professionals, who are capable of detailing the characteristics of platforms, are not good at or able to communicate with museum directors about what social media translations to the real world might actually entail.
In other words, we're talking past each other in mixed metaphors. For example, when I think of the term "wikimuseum," I think of several potential characteristics. A wikimuseum
could be one that anyone can add to, one that anyone can edit, one that automatically archives all changes to date, or any combination of these things. The characteristics I imagine are based on my definition of a wiki as a website that anyone can edit. But that is not everyone's definition. In 2008, I worked with one museum director for whom the word "wiki" is synonymous with "Wikipedia." When he talked about a "wikimuseum," he meant a phenomenally popular, encyclopedic institution powered by researchers all over the world. We were using the same word, but we had to break it down into an explicit discussion to really understand each other.

Until we do the hard work of deconstructing these metaphors to understand them and make them actionable, they are like soft porn: pretty and lifeless. I'm a big fan of George Lakoff, a linguist and philosopher who has written prolifically about the use of metaphor in meaning-making across all aspects of our lives. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and his co-author, Mark Johnson, argue that metaphor is literally embedded in our neurological structures from birth and affects how we think and use language. Not only do people use metaphors to understand complicated concepts (i.e. "war is hell" or "close to my goal"), these metaphors affect the way we categorize and understand the world. For example, the concept that "time is money" is a culturally-specific metaphor. If you feel like time is a limited resource and your co-worker feels like time is an infinite garden of forking paths, you might get a little frustrated.

And this is where the linguistics hits the museum. If the metaphor you are using as a basis for a design project is fundamentally different from a colleague's metaphor, you have a problem. There is no one answer to the question "what is a wikimuseum?" There are lots of potential answers. But you need to pick one that works for you and all of your coworkers if you want to move forward with a metaphorical design strategy.

If a word like "wiki" is too much of a linguistic landmine, pick a word or metaphor that is more widely understood. For example, if your concept of a wikimuseum is one which anyone can contribute to, maybe you should talk about a "potluck museum" instead. Then you can deal with the thorny questions ("What happens if everyone brings bean salad?") and have productive working sessions to work out what the metaphor really means for your institution and your project. And if the director wants to revert to using "wiki" when talking about it in the media for the buzz, that's fine. Just as long as everyone knows to think of the potluck (or whatever your straightforward, functional metaphor is) when they're working things out.

This may sound silly--I'm basically suggesting you substitute one metaphor for another. But we've all had experiences where a word or phrase is "loaded" in a way that causes confusion or argument. In those situations, we find other words and try again.

There are some great creative exercises out there to help you reveal new, useful metaphors that connect to your design concepts. Check out Place Storming, a technique developed by Ken Anderson and Jane McGonigal. Give your team a physical object that is loosely evocative of the design concept. If the concept is around tagging, you might give out stickers. If the concept is around social connections, you might give out string. These objects become physical metaphors for the idea. Assign a metaphorical verb to the object (i.e. “the tagger,” or “the connector”) and then tell the team to go use the object in the museum. As one Intel engineer in Anderson and McGonigal's test group commented: “Having to ‘live with’ it [the metaphorical object] made me think differently about new ideas — It wasn’t about coming up with something clever but something to fit into life.” Similarly, hopefully, museum-based metaphorical design should be not about coming up with a good buzzword but coming up with something to "fit into" the museum experience.

I don't think terms like "wikimuseum" are pure hype. I think they have potential. We just have to make them accessible and meaningful in everybody's native tongue. That's the only way to give them power. Words have power? It's a metaphor I believe in.

What metaphors do you use in your work? Which have you found to be useful in connecting technology concepts to experience design? Any spectacular failures?

9 comments, add yours!:

Richard McCoy said...

Interesting thoughts on metaphors. I would add to the things that worry me: that fact that "New Media" is often too fascinated with New Media (witness the MW 2009 nepatistic web awards).

It's wiki-wiki for the sake of wiki.

One of things I'd like to see happen in 2009 is the social medians take on the preservation of art by finding ways that information (images, words, ideas) can be useful for the preservation of cultural property.

Not much of a metaphor there, though. Just work.

Thomas Söderqvist said...

Hi Nina, thanks for a thoughtful post. I wrote about the possibility of a wikimuseum back in 2006 in this post:, basically saying that a wikimuseum should be understood as a physically distributed repository of collections. Will be back with further thoughts on this.

Nina Simon said...

I absolutely agree with you and maybe I should have taken a step back to say that my personal and explicit interest is in metaphors that can enhance the visitor experience. You are a conservator; I'm an exhibit designer. We're both greedy to apply new ideas and models to the things about which we are most passionate.

Thomas, thanks for sharing the link! I'm very curious to imagine how the physical spaces of museums and their collections could be "linked" in a meaningful way onsite.

Richard McCoy said...

Greedy? Ha, ha.

Anonymous said...

Thats an interesting article, I would like to think about it more and write a more detailed response but I've just accidentally knocked myself over the head and may pass out in a minute.

Before I do, I'd like to note a little linguistic difficulty with the metaphor of "pot luck" coming from the UK I had never heard that term relating to "bringing food for a collective meal" we would use the term picnic or maybe something else, instead I would think potluck would simply mean "you never know what you're going to get". It would usually be taken to mean a potentially negative situation could occur.

In other words I think this might be another case of a problematic metaphor.

Anonymous said...

In my experience all development projects with an IT-component are 80% communication and 20% programming. By communication I mean talking, workshoping, specitifying to the point where customer (e.g. a museum) and developer have shed their pre-conceptions and truly reached a common and undertsood goal. Or perhaps a commonly understood metaphor.

In my work I often liken myself to an interpreter between "museum nerds" and "computer geeks" as most of my time is spent trying to make those two groups understand each other.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Like you (and Lakoff) I have long been interested in the power of metaphors -- and the unintended consequences of selecting the "almost right" metaphor. (For example, using wiki to describe a kind of visitor-generated experience that is not subject to constant revision, collective oversight, and archiving, which is my sense of a wiki.)

This also raises the question of whether longstanding metaphors in the museum field -- "encyclopedic" museums or museums as "community" -- need to be subject to the same probing you give wikimuseums.

Anonymous said...

Nina- I am interested in the Place Storming article you have linked - but even a free membership/ login to ACM portal would not let me see the pdf- can you wave a magic wand and make it available? Many thanks, Rebekah

Nina Simon said...

I apologize! I have changed the link, and here it is--a totally open PDF, courtesy of Jane McGonigal.