Friday, May 29, 2009

Everyone's Smithsonian: Video, Slides, and an Open Strategic Planning Process

Two weeks ago, I conducted a participatory exhibit design workshop with staff at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Between the giant squid brainstorming and experimentation, I gave a talk to the larger Smithsonian Institution about multi-platform museum experiences. I started from curator David Allison's suggestion that the Smithsonian is moving from being "their" Smithsonian to becoming "everyone's" Smithsonian, and examined the conceptual and practical actions required to make this happen. I tried to address the Smithsonian's particular challenges and opportunities while contextualizing it with lots of examples across different museum sizes and types. The talk was webcast and taped, and if you have an hour, please consider checking out the video. The slides are also available for download. Seriously, if you are thinking "should I read more or should I just watch the video?" watch the video. It's better (though it takes a bit of time to load).

In condensed text version, here are my three steps to being a great multi-platform organization:
  1. Listen to and understand what your visitors/users need.
  2. Confidently and clearly state your institutional mission, values, and capabilities.
  3. Develop relationships via any and all useful platforms that allow you to connect 1 to 2.
That's it. It's like an organizational game of madlibs. You have an audience need and an institutional value, and now you just need a verb that connects them.

The most important part of this is that 1 and 2 be as specific as possible, detailing both what is IN and what is OUT. Your mission should be an actionable measuring stick. You should be able to read your mission statement like a chapter of the Torah--exploding out its implications and using it as a kind of legal text for proper action. Every program, old and new, should be evaluated against the mission (and the business model) for soundness.

I used to think of mission statements as fluffy pieces of fakery. Now I feel like they are--or should be--integral to keeping institutions on track. If they are too flabby or meaningless, they don't serve anyone. The Smithsonian's current (and historic) mission has only one actionable statement: "increase and diffuse knowledge." I'm not sure that's enough to go on for such a complex and diverse set of research, education, and civic facilities.

I bring this up in part because the Smithsonian is currently undergoing a massive strategic planning process across many sectors of the institution. I sincerely hope this will lead to some actionable statements about what the Smithsonian is and isn't, which audiences they will prioritize and downgrade. There is no good strategic plan without a clear sense of what will be left out.

Admirably, the Smithsonian has opened up their new media strategic planning via a public wiki. They want your help, but they are also offering up what they are doing for the rest of us to explore. And if you don't have any serious scars from your own strategic planning experiences, it's a fascinating read. In particular, I've enjoyed digging into the workshops that were held on Education, Business Models, Technology and Ops, Curation and Research, and Directors. If you look at any given workshop, you can access the discussion guide (questions the facilitators thought were important for that group) and even more interestingly, a few participants' followup comments in an evaluation offered after the workshops. (Side note: three times as many educators filled out surveys than any of the other groups.) While most of the voices represented are positive about a "Smithsonian 2.0" future, you can also see the passion of different groups that feel underrepresented or unheard in the evaluation comments. I love that the new media team published these evaluations and responded to the individual comments. There's lots of content there that could be used as conversation starters in the next iteration of this process--whether at the Smithsonian or any other museum grappling with issues of how to integrate participation and multi-platform experiences into their institution.

Sure, there's a part of me that is skeptical that all of this may be a lot of meetings and talk for little change. I am an impatient person. I've always preferred working in small museums, where there may not be money but there is eagerness to experiment and the approval line is only one or two people deep. I get impatient with long complicated processes that require buy-in from hundreds of people. But the Smithsonian, as Elaine Gurian once wrote, is an ocean liner. I admire all the people who are trying tirelessly to turn it towards more open, inclusive shores.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mixing Digital and Physical: The Holocaust Museum's Handwritten Pledge Wall

On a recent trip to DC, an old friend showed me around a new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide. It's a small space that features stories of recent and current genocides and encourages visitors to "take action" via an interactive pledge wall. I've seen several museums experimenting with inviting visitors to take action, make promises, and join communities of intentionality (here's a post with examples from 2007), and the USHMM effort is particularly compelling for some specific design choices made in the development of the pledge wall.

The USHMM pledge wall is notable for its blending of digital and analog technologies. Rather than requiring visitors to key in their pledges via a keyboard, visitors scrawl their promises on special digital paper with pens. The paper is perforated with one section for the promise, which visitors keep, and another section for a signature, which visitors leave at the museum. Once signed, visitors drop the signed paper stubs into clear plexiglass cases that are beautifully lit (see image). The paper "remembers" the location of pen marks on the pledge section, so visitors' handwritten promises are quickly and magically projected on a digital projection wall in front of the pledge kiosks. The digital projection wall displays a dynamic show of recent pledges as well as statistics on how many pledges have been made to date, and the plexi cases provide a powerful physical representation of all the names and promises that have been made. This case full of real people's handwritten signatures is reminscient of the haunting pile of Holocaust prisoners' shoes in the permanent exhibition, providing a hopeful complement to that devastating set of artifacts.

Why require visitors to hand-write their pledges rather than keying them in on a keyboard? It certainly would have been easier for the museum to digitize and project visitors' entries if they were typed in, and it wouldn't have wasted so much (expensive, digital) paper. But it wouldn't have been nearly as powerful.

How do you approach a hard question like, "What will you do to meet the challenge of genocide today?" You can't just jot off a witty remark or quick reply. Requiring visitors to sit and think and then hand write their response forces them to slow down. Signing a pledge in your own handwriting ritualizes the experience. Adding your slip of paper to a physical, growing, highly visible archive makes you part of a larger community. I watched several visitors as they went through this process, which ends with your card being reproduced digitally, letter by letter, on the large projection wall in front of the kiosks. People were captivated by the slow animation of their pledges being added to the wall, and that slowness sealed a deliberate interaction.

I recently visited the Power of Children exhibition at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, which also features a pledge activity at a large installation called the Tree of Promise. In that case, there are two options available - a digital contribution system, in which you type your promise into a computer and watch it digitally "float" onto a screen in a giant artificial tree, and a purely analog system, where you write your promise on leaf-shaped post-it notes. The post-it notes were clearly more popular with the visitors I observed. Part of that popularity stems from the immediacy and accessibility of the activity. But I think it also relates to the personal way we connect to the words we write by hand, which are different from those we type. The digital world doesn't seem "real" in the same way that pen and paper does, and in the context of a physical, built environment like an exhibit, a post-it can often feel more appropriate than a computer screen.

Which brings us back to USHMM. Their pledge wall bridges the best of both worlds, inviting a personal, physical ritualization of your promise mixed with dynamic digital representation and recombination. It's a powerful example of the exciting possibilities that emerge when we really understand as designers which technologies are best for different visitor experiences.

That's not to say it's perfect. The USHMM pledge cards are complicated. The cards don't just allow you to make pledges; they also allow you to save multimedia stories on a touch table in another part of the exhibit. While I saw many visitors intuitively and successfully using the cards to make pledges, the table interaction was confusing. Again, the physical reinforcement at the pledge kiosks--seeing the aggregated stubs of signature cards in the plexi cases--helped visitors understand what to do. The table had no comparable physical analog to help people understand how to connect their cards to the multimedia content.

Visitors can take their cards home and review their pledges (and see others' pledges) on the Take Action website, where you can also make pledges directly via the internet. The system elegantly combines both onsite and online pledges in the digitial display on exhibit and on the web. This makes for a nice combination of printed and handwritten pledges, pledges local to DC and written in foreign languages as well. Because this exhibit is new, the staff don't yet have data on how many people choose to review their content at home. The USHMM team is aware of the confusions and are working to make the interactivity more intuitive for visitors.

On a conceptual level, I'm curious about what kinds of responses people might have to a question as complex and heady as "What will you do to meet the challenge of genocide today?" Is this really a question that visitors can answer? The exhibit doesn't provide answers--it mostly provides devastating stories about the challenges. Lots of people made pledges to talk to friends and family about the content, read the newspaper, learn more, or encourage others to visit the exhibit. Some offered specifics, like voting for candidates who advocate taking action on worldwide genocide or pushing their synangogues to provide support for genocide victims. Some responses were more reflective, like "I will never forget." While I am skeptical about these more aphoristic responses, I respect the fact that different people process information differently. And I do believe that the slow, ritualized, personal design of the USHMM pledge wall contributes to higher effectiveness--whatever your response--than more slapdash talkback opportunities.

The handwritten pledge is an intelligent starting point for creating merged digital/analog participatory experiences. What physical rituals do you find useful when you are sharing a story or expressing an idea? Which physical actions do you wish you could merge with digital story-sharing to create more powerful content experiences?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wanted: Your Advice (Guest Post)

This guest post was written by Nicole Robert, a graduate student in the course I’m teaching at the University of Washington on social technology. Nicole and her classmates are building a rapid-fire, user-generated online and physical exhibit which will be open June 6-8 in Seattle. This post shares some of the development story, and most importantly, issues a call to action to add your two cents to the exhibit.

Designing an exhibit, the first questions are usually: “what is this about? What’s the content? What’s the message?” As a graduate student in a museum studies program, I have learned how to develop an exhibit based on a collection of objects or a specific story. Now, I and thirteen other students are creating an exhibit designed not around content goals but social action goals. Instead of asking, “What is this exhibit about?” we are asking, “What do we want visitors to do in our exhibit?”

The University of Washington Museology Graduate Program invited Nina up to Seattle to teach a course on using social technologies in museums. Nina challenged us to create an exhibit in 6 weeks that would get strangers to talk to each other. So, instead of figuring out what collection to feature, we brainstormed themes that would guide interactions. We knew that the exhibit would run in the UW student center during the week leading up to graduation, so we wanted to develop something that would be relevant to students at the end of the year without being cheesy. The result is an exhibit about advice. Our “big idea” is:
Advice: give it, get it, flip it, fuck it.
The idea around advice is that we all experience it—some people like to give it, some get it, others pass it on and we all have occasionally gotten advice that we chose to forget. Advice necessarily involves a transfer of knowledge from one person to another—an interpersonal interaction—so both the format and the ubiquity of advice make it a great structuring concept for our goals.

In this design experiment, we are inviting individuals far and wide to give us advice. Visit our website to find out how you can contribute video, photos, voice recordings or written advice. We're taking a multi-platform approach: you can call in advice from your phone, add advice images to our Flickr pool, email advice to us, or even send advice via Twitter. And tell your friends! Your advice will literally shape the physical exhibit, which will be displayed on the University of Washington campus in the Husky Union Building from Sat. June 6 to Mon. June 8, 9 am to 6 pm.

In addition to the content collected online, the physical installation will feature an advice-giving booth where “expert” advice-givers will volunteer to share their knowledge. You might be able to ask a single mom or a physicist for a gem of advice. Then take what they tell you and pass it on in other interactives, or leave your own contribution on the “Questions of the Ages” board. Good or bad, your advice—and the interactions that advice creates—takes center stage in this exhibit.

Other interactive exhibit components include:
  • ADVICE-LIBS: Visitors will create advice Mad-Lib style, by vetting requested sentence components (noun, verb, adjective) and then having these placing these into well-known adages (i.e. "always ______ before you _______" or "a ________ in the hand is worth two in the _________.") These wacky 'remixed' adages would then be pressed into buttons for visitors to wear/take home.
  • THE BATHROOM WALL: Visitors will write advice to the masses onto either a real or contrived "bathroom wall." They will be encouraged by signage to share great/horrible advice and to cross-off, comment upon and remix others statements-- just about what people do on normal bathroom walls.
  • QUESTIONS OF THE AGES: Visitors will write advice on glass cases in which we have posted pre-selected questions that would be relevant to a wide population including: "What should you do for a broken heart?" "How do you break the ice when talking to a stranger?" "How do you tell a friend something that might hurt their feelings?" etc.
  • GIVE ME SOMETHING TO GO ON: Visitors will be able to post questions that they want responses to in available free spaces on glass cases and other visitors will be able to cluster responses around these questions. Exhibit attendants will be the only ones allowed to remove/delete questions, and this should happen once room to respond runs out. Attendants will also photo-capture images of these displays for the website. Signage should encourage people to leave questions in the free spaces and respond.
During the three-day installation, we will observe and evaluate the success (or failure) of our designs. We plan to modify interactives that are not working and see if we can get better results. The whole experiment will provide all of us with valuable information about how museum exhibits can become a foundation of social interactions. At the end, we will publish our evaluation report and our development wiki (where we’ve been designing the exhibit) will be open for you to peruse.

Nina has asked our class to create a project that “will help move forward museum research on developing exhibitions that serve as platforms for social engagement.” An exciting challenge! But in order to meet it, we need your help. We want your advice. Advice you love, advice you hate, the strangest advice that you ever heard—whatever you choose, tell us about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Self-Identification and Status Updates: Personal Entrypoints to Museum Experiences

I've become convinced that successful paths to participation in museums start with self-identification. If you want visitors to share stories or personal expression in your institution, you need to respect them as individuals who have something of value to contribute. The easiest way to do that is to acknowledge their uniqueness and validate their ability to connect with the museum on their own terms. What am I talking about? I'm talking about personal profiles.

Who is the "me" in the museum experience? Museums are surprisingly poor at allowing visitors--even members--to self-identify and relating to them based on their unique identities. Asserting personal identity with respect to an institution is something we do daily in other environments. When I walk into my climbing gym, the staff member at the desk greets me by name. When he looks me up in the computer, he sees how often I come, what classes I’ve taken, and any major safety infractions on record. In short, he knows me by my actions relative to the gym, and he can offer me custom information based on my past behavior. I have a relationship with the institution, mediated by a computer and a smiling face.

Not so at museums. Even places where I'm a member, I rarely am tracked as anything but another body through the door. This lack of personalization at the front door sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual in this museum. I am just a faceless visitor.

To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness via personalization is a question of guest service. Danny Meyer, restauranteur and hospitality guru, encourages his staff across several restaurants to keep "customer notes" that can easily be shared between reservationists, maitre-d's, wait staff, and managers. When a couple calls to make a reservation for their anniversary, the reservationist notes it, and when the couple arrives at the restaurant, their special occasion is acknowledged and celebrated by the staff. While this can be facilitated digitally, it doesn't take complicated tools to create an environment in which guests are treated personally based on their preferences and interests.

It feels magical when a florist remembers your name or a waiter brings you your coffee just the way you like it. But personalization can go much further than creating positive guest experiences. At its best, personalization creates an opportunity for visitors to enter museums on their own terms and to experience the institution based on their own learning styles, interests, and affinities. This doesn't mean that the museum needs to know and be responsive to every detail of each visitor's personal identity. Instead, each museum needs to develop a framework for what the "visitor profile" should be relative to the institution.

Consider, for example, the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in New York City. The Lab is a hands-on science center focused on creative use of digital technologies. When you enter, you start the visit by "logging in" at a kiosk that records your name, your voice, your photo, and your favorite color and music genre. Then, that profile is saved onto an RFID card that you use to access all of the interactive exhibits in the Lab. Each exhibit greets you by name at the beginning of the experience. When you augment an image, you distort your own face. When you make an audio mashup, your voice is part of the mix. This may sound gimmicky, but it's incredibly emotionally powerful. It draws you into every exhibit via your own narcissism. What could be more personally relevant--and compelling--than your own image and voice? At the Lab, your profile is a simple cache of personal data you can draw on as collaborator, co-creating the exhibit content.

For the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, the visitor's personal profile is a set of visitor-contributed content that can be inserted into the exhibit infrastructure. This makes sense in the context of a hands-on museum full of interactive exhibits in which you are modifying digital assets. But what's the right visitor profile for a history museum or an art museum? How should visitors self-identify relative to a research institution or a natural history museum?

There is no "right" answer for what a visitor profile should be. Instead, consider the framework of what will go into the visitor profile. Institutions and websites that use profiles set different constraints to support particular kinds of profiles to fit the overall context of their services. Some allow you to write your life story. Others restrict you to picking an image and a word that represents you. At the Brooklyn Museum, you are invited to pick a digital avatar (image) from their collection to represent you. The Signtific game encourages you to pick a single word to describe yourself (I chose "museumer"). These restrictions help frame and focus who the "me" can be relative to the content experience at hand.

Let's delve into one kind of restricted text-based profile: the status update. Status updates are short messages that users of many online services use to self-define their current state. Status updates may be messages like, "I'm going out to lunch with my mom," or "Just found this amazing resource for calculus teachers!" They constitute a kind of mini-profile, frequently updated, which reflects the author's self-expression over time.

Here is how four different online services solicit status updates:

  • On Twitter, an open short-messaging site, asks, "What are you doing?"
  • Facebook, a social network for friends, asks, "What's on your mind?"
  • Yammer, a private short-messaging service for corporations, asks, "What are you working on?"
  • Creative Spaces, a social space for collections of museum objects, asks, "What inspired you today?"

Each of these questions reflects the unique structure, usage, and content of each service. Because Twitter is designed as a broadcasting service, the focus is on action--things you do, links you discover. Since Facebook is focused towards private groups of friends, the solicitation is more personal, inviting people to share their feelings. Yammer is used by colleagues who care how your 2pm client meeting went, not how your cat is doing. And Creative Spaces wants to support people exploring and being creatively energized by ideas and objects, so they ask people to define themselves via personal inspiration.

To construct the right profile question, you need to consider the profile or status experience both for the contributor and the spectator. Of course, in most cases, contributors are spectators and vice versa; the audience is blended. But it's important to consider how people will perceive the question both when they are asked to answer it and when they are reading the answers. For contributors, the question must be friendly and simple enough that people feel they can confidently answer the question. Even if some people choose to write embarrassing or unprofessional things about themselves on their profiles, the status update systems are not set up intentionally to embarrass or trick the contributors. They are set up to support the contributors sharing what they feel comfortable offering. In some cases, like Creative Spaces, the question asked is unusual enough to shift the perceptual frame of the whole experience with the site. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what inspires you, you are primed for an inspirational experience. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what challenges you, you are primed for competition.

From the spectator perspective, the questions should generate responses that constitute a body of content that is relevant to the structure of the overall site or institution. Yammer asks, "What are you working on?" and the result is a content stream of professional notes on the ebb and flow of employees' actions. Facebook asks, "What's on your mind?" and the result is a stream of personal thoughts and feelings. The aggregate experience of the content affects spectators' understanding of the overall site and its value to them.

Imagine you have just one question to ask visitors that can be used to contextualize their experience relative to your museum. What would you ask them? How do you see visitors defining themselves in the museum? How do they wish to self-identify in the museum, and what can you do with those profiles?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Multi-Platform Museum: Coming Live to You on May 18

You know how Ira Glass recently broadcast his radio show This American Life live to movie theaters across North America? Next week, I'm doing something way less cool and way more convenient. I'm doing a workshop with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History which includes a public lecture on "the multi-platform museum" on May 18 at 3pm ET (GMT -5). Because the Smithsonian is a public institution, the lecture will be free and open to anyone, both physically at the Baird Auditorium and digitally via a live webcast (here's the link, and no it doesn't work yet but don't worry, it will).

What is a multi-platform museum? It's a place that engages with visitors through many distribution mechanisms, including exhibits, programs, and the web. Most museums already are multi-platform places, but many consider each platform to be its own discrete silo rather than part of a strategic composite. I'll be talking about museums bridging online and onsite experiences to develop relationships with visitors that are not limited to prescriptive "pre-visit," "visit," and "post-visit" events or transactions. We'll talk about how to extrapolate your museum's mission into a roadmap for engaging with visitors in new ways, and we'll discuss how to analyze and evaluate what content experiences are right for different platforms. I'll share examples around personalization, behind-the-scenes connections, visitor participation on the floor, and of course, giant squid. The focus will be on the Smithsonian, which has a unique position as a national institution with over 20 venues, but many examples and design strategies are applicable to a broad range of museums.

I've been working with these ideas and museums for a long time, but this will be the first time I'm working with a place as big, complex, and bureaucratic as the Smithsonian. I usually try to push myself to think about social engagement from the perspective of the smallest museum with the most limited budget. But this is an opportunity to think big. What do you think the Smithsonian should be doing to engage more deeply and broadly with the public? What does the mission to "increase and diffuse knowledge" mean to you in this multi-platform world?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments and I will try to integrate them into my talk. I hope you'll be able to join me on March 18, digitally or physically. If you'd like more information about the event and whether large pom-poms are allowed in the auditorium, please contact Michael Mason at masonm (at) si (dot) edu.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Coin-Operated Content: Is Pay to Play Really Such a Bad Idea?

Recently, I've become obsessed with the work of Tim Hunkin, an eccentric British inventor/exhibit designer/wacky science art guy who runs a "mad arcade" of coin-operated installations in Suffolk.

In 2007, Tim wrote an article called "In Praise of Coin-Operated Machines" in which he argues that coin-operated devices are a superior way to present exhibit-like content. He points out that coin operation:
  • encourages visitors to make an "investment" in their selections and incentivizes them to really pay attention to the experience so they can "get their money's worth."
  • lowers the number of users who just bang on the things, thus reducing maintenance costs and enabling more risky interactive design.
  • helps facility managers maintain and track the usage and popularity of different exhibits.
  • allows artists and inventors to supply their work directly to users rather than going through time-consuming and copyright-swallowing middlemen.
  • changes the perception of who "owns" art. Pop in your quarter, and you become the short-term owner of the experience.
I've wondered for a long time about the potential for museums (especially interactive science centers) to operate on a "pay to play" model where visitors choose specific content of interest to invest their time and money into. This already happens in the case of standalone shows, theaters, and programmatic experiences, but I don't know of any museums that apply atomized fee structures to physical exhibits. It makes sense to me that in a large museum with way more stuff than you could possibly consume in one visit, you might want to pay for certain experiences but not for the whole shebang. In addition to Tim's arguments, there is the growing cultural expectation that people can purchase atomized content--the single song or application or article of interest. In the world of micro-transactions and on-demand content, the coin-operated model becomes even more relevant to the way visitors want to consume experiences.

So why haven't we seen museums that operate like arcades? The basic argument against the coin-operated admissions model is that "pay to play" induces a crass means test that makes the museum more accessible to those with more money, and that museums should not be putting parents under pressure to keep spending unlimited amounts of money to satisfy their childrens' interests. Also, the idea of visitors only selecting and accessing only a few exhibits is unsatisfactory given the attitude that the entire museum offers value and should be accessible to every visitor.

I'm skeptical of these arguments. Museums already have a means test--it happens in the lobby when you buy your ticket. Elaine Gurian has written convincingly about the threshold fear that would-be visitors encounter when they enter museums, and the often cloudy and stressful calculus families do to decide whether the museum experience will be "worth" the admission rate. I'm not sure what the difference is between a means test that happens continually throughout the institution and one that just happens at the gate. On the one hand, a person or family could choose to cheaply use just a bit of the museum. On the other, they may feel publicly discriminated against each time an exhibit asks for another token.

My feeling is that for people who already visit museums, for whom the means test of an admission ticket is well-understood, a pay to play model would be a convenient way to support visits of variable length and motivation. If the institution were free to enter but using various exhibits cost money, museums might become more accessible overall to a wider audience of people who like being in the space but choose not to or are not able to pay to play. Teenagers who can't afford to buy anything substantial hang out in the mall all the time. Why not in a museum? Why not spend that extra dollar to have a bit of science or art instead of a gumball?

The nice thing about coin-operated arcades is that it's not as if the experiences are entirely inaccessible to people who don't pay. The venue is not gated, and the experience is open to browsers and hangers-on. There's a heavy social spectator experience that is immersive and multi-sensory. You can walk in, get a feel for the place, watch how the different games work and see what kinds of experiences they offer their users, and then decide--judiciously one day, extravagantly the next--where to put your money.

I'm mostly convinced that museums should be free. But I also love Tim's argument about coin-operation and attention. If I have to vote with my wallet, I really get invested. I can imagine walking into a gallery in an art museum that looks like a peep show, looking at a brochure of digital images and having to decide which curtain I want to pay to remove for a minute. I imagine caring a lot more about how I choose that piece of art, how I enter that art experience. I imagine owning that experience. I imagine my minute being up and having to decide whether I want to insert another dollar to continue gazing or move on. I imagine all of these thought processes as being rich, engaged ways that I might connect more deeply with exhibit content.

But I also imagine stopping at some point, probably before I've seen as much as I typically do when I visit a museum. Maybe that would be a good thing because I'd have a more focused museum experience. Or maybe I wouldn't make the right decisions, seduced by attractive fluff, and would be disappointed by the overall experience.

What do you think? Are coin-operated exhibits a bad idea?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

AAM Recap: Slides, Observations, and Object Fetishism

I just returned from the American Association of Museums (AAM) annual meeting in Philadelphia. I led two sessions, one on visitor co-created museum experiences, and the other on design inspirations from outside museums. This post recaps these sessions and offers my own struggles and thrills of the conference.

Visitor Co-Created Museum Experiences

This session was a dream for me, one that brought together instigators of three participatory exhibit projects: MN150 (Kate Roberts), Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition (Shelley Bernstein), the Tech Virtual Test Zone (me), along with a new participatory research project, Children of the Lodz Ghetto (David Klevan), to talk about our lessons and struggles working with the public to create "museum-quality" exhibitions and research projects. We started with a brief presentation of the basics of each project, and then spent about an hour responding to questions from the audience, using illustrative images and documents to support the discussion.

Some of the key lessons we discussed were:
  • providing crystal-clear criteria and constraints to help participants focus their work. This spanned all the projects. The more you give people clear information about what is needed and positive response when they provide it, the happier and more creative everyone feels.
  • being as transparent as possible about the selection and production process. This was particularly true for Click!, which followed a very strict formula that frustrated some participants who wanted to be treated like artists, not contributors to a data experiment.
  • learning to enter open, personal relationships with participants. This has both positive and negative outcomes. In both MN150 and Tech Virtual, it led to us being more dynamic and flexible in our production of exhibits. But in the case of Tech Virtual, it also caused conflict as I tried to balance being a friendly, caring community manager with being the "boss" of the participatory process.
Some of the most interesting questions included:
  • how do you verify the accuracy and authenticity of visitor-contributed content? This was particularly directed at MN150, which featured visitor-nominated milestones of Minnesota history, and Children of the Lodz Ghetto, which invites users to conduct original research on the path taken by thousands of children during the Holocaust. In the case of MN150, staff historians worked actively to verify and connect with contributors on any contentious topics. In Children of the Lodz Ghetto, every data entry is verified by staff in a three-step process as well as reviewed and commented on by other users. About 2/3 of user-submitted data entries are found to be inaccurate, which is either a good number (these users are amateurs) or lousy (the verification is incredibly time-consuming).
  • what is the value of the exhibition experience to non-participants, that is, regular museum visitors? This is a question I'm really interested in. It's a shame that several of these projects are labeled as "experimental" and don't have formal evaluation built into their cheap, fast processes. Neither Click! nor Tech Virtual had formal evaluation, although both received media attention that elevated the "value" of the exhibitions in the context of their institutions. MN150 will have formal summative evaulation, which is wonderful. If participatory exhibit design is going to progress as a design methodology, it has to produce outputs that are demonstrably equivalent to or better than exhibits created by traditional methods.
  • how do you set clear criteria for participation when the project is experimental and ever-changing? This is a question we grappled with in the Tech Virtual project. In that case, my personal interaction with the users allowed me to honestly and openly share the changes that were affecting all of us. I became "one of them"--pushed around by forces beyond my control. But the overall experience for everyone of uncertainty was challenging to manage. This is where you get into the arena of true co-design, where institutional and non-institutional partners truly work together to formulate the path forward. So far, most participatory museum design projects are heavily guided by the institution. It's easier for us from a control standpoint and easier for users from a clarity standpoint. But the jury is still out as to whether it's "best" to give users more control as co-designers or embed them into a pre-defined contributory platform. More on that in months to come.
Eye on Design: Design Inspiration from Outside the Field

This session is more like a show--ten designers, each with five minutes to share a design inspiration that they neither worked on nor saw in a museum. You can view and download all the slides here. I spoke about my recent obsession with book drops and how libraries are turning their most mundane transactions into the basis for beautiful, useful, sexy interactions with users. My favorite surprising lessons from this session:
  • graffiti projects have become participatory and cross-media. Dottie Miles presented projects like You Are Beautiful and the Bubble Project, which invite people all over the world to embed and document creative works in public space. Their use of the web to connect independent artists all over the world was striking and very surprising. I guess the web has become part of the street too.
  • there's huge untapped potential in irreverence. We already know that museums are afraid to be funny. Anna Slafer shared a simple and brilliant concept for creating "invitations" to visit various artifacts in the permanent collection based on clever, snarky humor. It's somewhat amazing that in the age of someecards and Shrek, museums still haven't been able to comfortably embrace irreverence.
  • you can do a lot with a storefront. Adam Lerner shared the story of Superheroes, a storefront in downtown Denver operated by a web designer who wanted to invite people to use his space to hang out, read magazines, and make things via letterpress. In this age of cheap real estate, it's interesting to imagine what a museum could do with a short-term rental of a public storefront focused on creative weird social experiences.
  • we can always use more poetry and inspiration in our work. Aaron Goldblatt offered a beautiful, poetic treatise on how play, learning, and design are intertwined. Listening to him, I considered how much performance is part of what we do as museum people. At professional conferences, we tend to spend most of our time analyzing. It was great to spend five minutes listening to someone perform and being touched by it.
  • conference audiences are ready to work (and play). At the end of the session, we gave people a few minutes to turn to each other and share a design inspiration from outside museums. The room was suddenly and incredibly buzzing with hundreds of voices, hundreds of people giving each other ideas. We need more conference session formats that emphasize interpersonal exchange. From the stage, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing people actually DO something with what you offer.
But the conference wasn't just about my sessions...

Here are some of the other things that stood out for me this year. First of all, this renegade act of delightfulness. But more substantively:
  • there was less focus on web 2.0 technology and more focus on engaging with communities. I was thrilled by all of the sessions on community partnerships, engaging visitors as active participants, and considering online experiences in the context of new relationships. I was particularly thrilled by danah boyd's excellent talk about the politics of how teens use social media and how the social web reinforces societal inequity and self-segregation. She made the clear point that teens use social networks to connect with people they already know, not to meet strangers. So how can museums create social structures embedded with values that support bridging experiences across social groups? How can we help break down some of that inequity with the "safe spaces" we've already created?
  • Sherry Turkle made me squirm. Sherry Turkle is a psychologist who focuses on evocative objects, that is, things that induce both cognitive and emotional reactions that are deep a complex. One the one hand, I loved her arguments for visitors to make personal memoirs of how they connect to objects and for museums to expose more transparently the deep emotional connections that curators and collectors have with artifacts. But I was also struck by the incredibly conservative object fetishism that underlined her approach. Only a small population of people walk into a museum and "feel" the power of the objects without assistance. I felt frustrated that she was advocating from a position of privileged object worship and that she didn't seem interested in the rest of us, the people who need help making dumb objects sing. I bought her book, Evocative Objects, and we're likely to have a Museum 2.0 book club around it later this spring to tease out this problem further.
  • some museums are experimenting with interesting participatory learning programs in the name of research. I loved the session presented by Josh Gutwill (Exploratorium), Julie Charles (SFMOMA), and Tsivia Cohen (Chicago Children's Museum) on research-based mediation techniques. This session was a direct challenge to the blog post I wrote last week about designing questions for visitor participation, in which I stated that above all, you must offer questions for which you actually care about the answer. In the cases of these research programs, visitors were presented with "games" that involved them asking questions to each other in a highly decontextualized way. For example, at the Exploratorium, participants in the GIVE program learn how to ask "juicy questions" about scientific phenomena and then use the interactive exhibits to make observations that help them answer the questions. Participants have been shown to learn scientific concepts this way, and they self-report that they like playing the game, but it has not yet been tested on the floor outside a controlled research environment. While the institutions validate visitors questions and contributions (for example, in the experience of the VTS approach to art interpretation), the games and visitor responses are meaningless in the broader scheme of things. They are meant to teach ways of learning and processing information, not to solicit specific content. I'm really curious about user motivations behind these kinds of interactions and look forward to exploring this topic further.
  • the September 11th Memorial and Museum is a very tricky beast. I was invited to a lunch at which the staff showed some of their collection and described the challenges they are facing developing this content for what is anticipated to be a large, diverse audience (the museum will open on the WTC site in 2011). How do you tell the story of an event via individuals' objects without reducing the individuals to props? How do you interpret individuals' extreme loss in the context of a larger event? How do you prevent visitors from feeling blind rage at the perpetrators? How do you tell an unfinished story of the aftermath? How do you connect visitors to each other positively through the experience instead of leaving them feeling disconnected and in grief? We had a room full of people grappling together on these problems and I felt both the best of our field--using what we've learned, working together--and the most challenging--all the questions for which we still don't have a good answer.
And hopefully, that's why we get together every year at all of these conferences. To work together, learn something new, and shake our fist at the questions that keep us going.

What do you get out of professional conferences or AAM in particular?