Monday, July 13, 2009

Museums that Get Better the More People Use Them

On Wednesday, it's my birthday. Today I got an early present from the San Francisco NPR station, KQED, which aired a piece on Museum 2.0 featuring me (as well as the fabulous Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California).

In the interview, we talk about the idea of Web 2.0 being based on a simple premise: software that gets better the more people use it. Every person who clicks on a Google search result, rates a movie on Netflix, or adds a photo to Flickr improves the overall experience for subsequent users. The extent to which I can learn from Wikipedia or waste time on Youtube is directly proportional to the volume of other users' participation--creators, critics, and spectators alike. This is what Tim O'Reilly refers to as an "architecture of participation"--one in which the rewards of engagement are not felt only by individual users but by the community as a whole.

This concept has spawned a question I like to obsess over: What would a museum look like that got better the more people used it? Not one that got more dirty and broken, or crowded and frustrating, but one for which every subsequent visitor experience was improved by those that had come before?

What might this look like? It might be a recommendation system that helps visitors find things that they'll like or be inspired by based on the preferences of previous visitors. It might be an exhibit that evolves over time, growing richer (but not cluttered) by continued visitor participation and contribution. It might be an educational program that links visitors to each other via their affinities and skills rather than staff providing all of the instruction. It might be a membership program in which the member can grow with the institution not via donor levels but via deeper content experiences with other members.

In the next chunk of the book I'm writing, I'm exploring the ways the network effects of many visitors' actions over time can generate exciting possibilities for subsequent visitors. I'd like to push beyond the most obvious and often-technologically mediated examples to find some clever, elegant, low-tech ways for visitors to enhance each others' experiences. The Haarlem Oost library book drops are one example, but I'm sure you have seen or created others.

And so I have a birthday request for you. Sometime this week, please think about this question and share your response here as a comment.
How could a museum get better the more people use it?
You will make everyone who reads this blog's experience better by sharing your brilliant ideas, and you'll give a great gift to one curly-haired almost-birthday girl. Thanks in advance!

14 comments, add yours!:

Jessica Knott said...

By incorporating user-generated content. Maybe sharing thoughts they had before they came that were changed after viewing the exhibits? Or by having each person leave something uniquely themselves behind? Creating exhibits of the people who view them. That's 2.0.

Happy birthday!

Lauren Frieband said...

The local art and history museum I work at has been expanding their reach into the community by taking on more projects and providing more volunteer and engagement opportunities to suit the range of people's interests in the county. Currently, this outreach has stretched to tours and maintenence of a historic cemetary, a satelite space in the next town, collaborating with the university in an exhibition, and exhibits at the coffee shop next to the museum. The more opporunities and avenues a museum makes to form connections with their individual visitors, the more people will connect with the museum and then connect with eachother to share interests and expose the value and passions that museums can help foster as socially involved spaces.

dgilman said...

Happy Birthday!

Reading Danah Boyd's latest blog post makes me think that what happens when people go to museums is that they have questions. If enough people visit an exhibit, they probably start to have the same questions. So maybe what should happen is you leave your list of questions (pad and paper, text message, kiosk, whatever), and the nice folks at the museum answer them and annotate the exhibit. As the backlog of questions grow, you crowdsource the answers to the great cloud in the sky, and professionals review the answers (or not).

A different, way overly technological idea would be to have people answer surveys when they enter, and then track them by RFID. Now when I come and answer the survey, I can see where people like me visited most. This avoids errors in self-reporting (because I want to appear smart) and avoids tracking by unique identifier, which seems to still scare people. Don't forget to incentivize the initial survey, or no one will bother.

I think #1 is much cooler, while #2 is a better jobs creation program for people like me.


Nina Simon said...

Great ideas! I worked with a museum once where they wanted to spark discussion around their beautiful (and sparsely labeled) natural history dioramas. I recommended long, bumper-sticker sized post-its with question marks at the end and golf pencils. The idea was that people would write their questions and stick them on the diorama cases where they had questions.

Sadly, the curators were overly obsessed with how the post-its would distort peoples' view and a fear that people wouldn't get answers or would get the "wrong" answers from other visitors. The museum was willing to do experiments online, but they were too entrenched to do the cheapest, easiest experiments onsite.

In other words, your job potential is safe.

transitionyourlife said...

Happy Birthday!

Entering guests could be asked to lend a "hand" and write 2 - 5 must see exhibits to new visitors (perhaps by display number). The hand can be designed in a "post it" style format and handed in at the end. At the front end they can be "handed" out to those that want a hand.

Pete Newcurator said...

Nate said...

They use this in some networking algorithms: ants find the shortest path between food and home by smelling where other ants have been. The shortest path ends up smelling strongest because ants traveling this path can make more trips, and it ends up highly optimized even around obstacles.

Using David's RFID idea, what if we were able to make the museum into a giant "state machine" where we could track what a patron "did next", including "idle" (linger)? This would let us find not only the most popular pieces but also the order they were taken in. Did people spend more time in X if they had previously been at Y? Does everybody skip Z?

How does this make the museum better? We'd get a perfect highlights path - the states with the most traffic, and the order to take them in. Didn't do your homework on the exhibits? Want to see the best of the best on view? Follow the path.

... or maybe that doesn't make it better, but I still want to build it and see that data. :)

Anonymous said...

More visitors make our museum better because they spread the word about our small institution, which in turn motivates more people to visit. The best marketing we have is word-of-mouth.

MSLD said...

What if the visitors were the docents? As the visitors leave, they would be asked to design a guide for other visitors. They could make a guide for people with children, or people who love abstract paintings. A list of what to see, and what to skip, with their comments about the exhibits. (And in an ideal world, links to other museums whose exhibits compliment the exhibits you are seeing)
The guide would become a host and co-owner of the museum. Like facebook, the best 'guides' would filter to the top.

MSLD said...

Following the RFID tags comment. If everyone had an audio tour (or similar), it would be easy to track what exhibits people had seen, and how long they had listened to the narration, and (in the EMP) what they tagged for further investigation. Not a truly participatory experience, but good for data mining.

Sarah Scaife said...

We are inviting small groups to write comments straight into our collections database, when it goes online later this summer. At the moment most of the content is generated by curators.

I'll be running a two year long themed outreach project to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to take part. We hope to accumulate and store more and more fresh points of view about the collections.

Everyone who adds something will be helping to create a repository of community knowledge and understanding, which other people can share. It will just get richer and richer the more people get involved.

The most exciting thing for me is that the collections database is somehow the pump that drives the rest of museum. Eventually all these people's contributions to collections understanding will start to spill out. They'll fertilise so much else that's going on here at RAMM.

A neat idea, but we can't claim is as our own. We're using 'Revisiting Collections' methodology, developed in the UK by the Collection Trust:

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, UK

Unknown said...

I have been passionat eabout trying new ideas for ever since entering museums this decade. When the podcast project by a NYC college of their recordings of thoghts at MoMA went public it made me want to do it in every museum I have ever worked in. None have let me.
We know visits are done in social groups and people talk, so why not ask them to record these talks. Then when similar groups come by they will have a new/many new views and ideas of what they see.
e.g. the young person viewing Warhol will make more contemporary references than the over50 looking.
Additional information on what people are looking at and seeing can then be gleaned by the museum, and could eb very interesting for front of house staff to manage when they are in downtime for less visited attractions.
It might take a while for people to become confident to share their thoughts and emotions, but you are effectively making physical what this blog has just done. We all read your thoughts, then thought, then shared ours with everyone. Democratisation and sharing really can be physical one day.

Eric Siegel said...

Happy belated b'day...

oooh, oooh, oooh, I know what would make a museum better the more people use it! Each person brings a leaves it behind.

Also, museums *are* better the more people come, up to a point, like restaurants. I don't go to museums to be alone, but to be in that lovely state of "alone in a crowd" (I'm sure there is a german word for that). By just being there, and making comments to each other that I can hear snippets of, and looking good, or silly, or well-dressed, or foreign, everybody who comes to a museum is a major major part of the spectacle. I am always amazed at how people ignore piazza-strolling aspect of see and be seen, to comment on clothing, just the normal stuff of people in large groups.

So I was trying to thing of what people could intentionally bring besides their knowledge, like canned goods for a museum soup kitchen, a covered plate for a museum potluck, a used book for a museum "put one take one" lending library, used clothes for a museum thrift store, fabric swatches for a museum quilting bee, how about an mp3 track for the museum soundtrack?

How about a picture of themselves busting their best dance moves for an online museum photo mosaic? Like at this site:

Or, I guess you could do a rating system...if you liked this piece, you will like that one, using amazon-y mystery algorithms.

Like the Museum 2.0 comment section...more input generates more response. Thanks as always for creating this little cafe.

Tim K. said...

The best example of a user-generated attraction (not quite a museum) is the Adventure Playground in Berkeley. This park gives kids hammers and nails, and lets them build their own playground. Liability nightmare? Absolutely. But one of the most intriguing places I've ever been.