Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Please Help Make My Book Incredible

Dear Museum 2.0 readers,

I'm almost done with the first draft of The Participatory Museum: A Practical Guide, a book that explores the theory, practice, and design techniques for involving visitors and community members in the creation and sharing of cultural content. Many of you have offered encouragement and great ideas through the writing process on the development wiki for the book and in the blog posts that are excerpted from the draft. Now I'm reaching out again to all of you to ask for your explicit help.

I am currently writing the first draft of the final chapter of the book, after which I will begin editing and reworking the text. By the end of October, I expect to have a rough edit completed, and that's where you come in. I am looking for assistance with editing, content review, artwork, and formatting. If you are interested in helping in any way, please fill out this form.

Specifically, there are five fun and exciting ways to help with this effort:
  • Want to spend a little time but don't want to make a big commitment? Go to the wiki, read a bit, and add your comments and suggestions for improvement.
  • Want to help substantively with the content of the book? Consider filling out this form and signing up as a technical reviewer (more on this below).
  • Have great illustration or layout skills to share? Doodle on this form and share some of your work.
  • Are you a crack recreational copy-editor? Offer your help and I will sing your well-punctuated praises!
  • Are you not ready to help now, but interested in marketing/evangelizing the book when it is available? Sign up now, and I'll contact you in the new year.
Technical Review? What am I getting myself into?

Technical review is not an easy task. Technical reviewers are folks who commit to read the whole draft in November, add lots of comments, questions, and exclamation points, and generally help me improve the content. I expect this to take about 2.5x the amount of time it would take you to just read the draft (which is about 400 pages if it was a typical paperback size).

I'm looking for people who are current, previous, or aspiring practitioners of audience engagement in museums, libraries, zoos, parks, alternative education facilities, and cultural institutions. I'm interested in reviewers from a diversity of institutional types and sizes, and ideally, a diversity of perspectives on the value and utility of participatory projects. I want skeptics and dreamers, freelance hipsters and company lifers. I will select a small group of technical reviewers based mostly on diversity of backgrounds and approaches. You don't have to be someone I know personally to do this, but you do have to explain who you are and why you want to help.

Technical reviewers will receive a copy of the draft manuscript (digital or physical, your choice) to mark up by November 1. I am not focusing on copy-editing at this time, though I won't complain if you want to litter the text with punctuation red marks. Reviewers will be expected to read and critique the entire draft and return their markup to me by December 15 (the earlier, the better). We may have asynchronous dialogue throughout November if you want to engage with me on a particular point or question. I will integrate your comments, redevelop the content, and generally move forward based on your recommendations.

I know this is a big ask, and you should not feel obligated to sign up. In fact, I hope you will only sign up if you feel you have the genuine interest and time to do a full review (or do whatever it is you are offering). Thank you so much for your continued support.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Exclusivity Paradox: Secret Gardens, Hidden Museums

A few weeks ago, I gathered a group of creative folks in San Francisco and asked them, "what makes a social venue feel welcoming and friendly to you?" To my surprise, secrecy and exclusivity were at the top of the list. One effused about the bar Bourbon and Branch, where you need a secret code word to gain entry. A woman gushed about Wild Side West's hidden backyard garden area, which includes eclectic statues and cozy corners to curl into. And then there's the Berkeley Ace hardware store, which has a basement lair devoted to model trains.

I had specifically asked about places that feel welcoming, and the responses were about exclusive experiences. What's going on here?

Exclusive places reinforce our identities powerfully. Despite the fact that we often think of welcoming places as being designed "for everybody," the places where we actually feel most welcomed and comfortable are often designed not for everyone but instead feel like they are made just for us. When you find a bar with your favorite song on the jukebox, or a museum room that feels like your grandmother's living room, you suddenly feel a strong affinity and are able to see yourself reflected in the space. In his identity work, John Falk determined that people use cultural institutions to reflect their personal self-concept as learners, social leaders, spiritual pilgrims, hobbyists, and experience seekers. The extent to which an institution can fulfill that self-concept is directly related to how specific and personal the visitor experience is. You never say, "this place is so me" when talking about a generic public space. You say and feel that in spaces that are unusual, distinctive, and in their own way, tailored to your preferences.

Secret places are a pleasure to discover and share. My friends all commented that they love bringing new friends to their favorite secret places; it makes them feel cool and magnaminous at the same time. I know I feel that way about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles; I feel a bit of pride every time I usher a skeptical friend through the non-descript storefront and into a world of strange wonder. Not only do I get to experience the fun of opening the door to something mystical, I get to play porter and grant my friends access as well. Additionally, because I feel like the Museum of Jurassic Technology reflects my self-identity well, I feel like I am letting my friends in on a secret about me as well as a secret gem of Los Angeles. While it sounds paradoxical, I'm more likely to talk about and bring friends to a place I perceive as exclusive than one that is transparent, because I feel like I'm more likely to offer them value by sharing the secret experience.

Secrecy introduces novelty to the visit experience. Entering a secret place has an emotional weight to it that affects the way that visitors approach and use these spaces. Sometimes, as at Bourbon and Branch, the secrecy is ritualized into a simple challenge that allows entering visitors to see themselves as "in the know" and having "earned" entrance into a special place. In other cases, just walking through the dingy, dark hallways that you know lead to your favorite secret spot can give you a feeling of accomplishment, specialness, and anticipation. You earned your private reading tree or library back corner, and each visit continues to confirm your value as a special and clever person.

In a world of over-advertised experiences, understatement can go a long way. Taking pleasure in hidden things increases when you live in an environment where everything is available and highly documented. I'm not surprised that this group, who live in an urban culture where everyone knows the cool new spots, gravitate towards experiences that they perceive as less exposed and perhaps more authentic. Secrecy operates on a scarcity model; if everyone knows about it, it's not as appealing. As knowledge shifts away from a scarcity model and towards one in which information is freely and instantaneously available, experiences are continue to be valued for their exclusivity. In fact, I'd argue that the value of exclusive experiences is increasing and diversifying. While wealthy people have always had access to exclusive experiences (country clubs, art openings), more and more people of other socio-economic classes are clamoring for personalized and exclusive experiences as an alternative to the mass-market, one-size-fits-all model.

Of course, the problem with all of this is that it sounds crazy from a business perspective. It may be great for a natural refuge to remain hidden, but that sounds like a disaster for a restaurant or museum. If your institution has a killer roof garden, why wouldn't you promote it? If there's a fabulous mosaic in a dusty third floor reading room, why would you let it sit there unadmired by the masses? And if you make design choices that intentionally keep your experiences secret, aren't you doing a disservice to institutional goals to serve broad audiences?

I think one answer to these questions (not a business answer), and the final reason we love secret places, is that they are a little crazy. They don't fit our expectations. We're used to things that are packaged, lit, and presented in a certain way, and we don't expect trap doors or weird dingy entrances or secret web pages. In 2007, I interviewed digital artist Jason Nelson about his work creating strange games and he talked at length about the beauty of working with hidden things and creating intentional "weirdness." As he put it, "I also think people connect with my stuff because it flirts with failure. How do you make something that’s messy, that isn't polished, that seems almost kind of broken? A lot of the content on the net is so polished. And I think there’s something ingrained in us that wants error."

It's a pleasure to discover an aberration in the system--a secret garden in the city, a hidden museum by a gas station, a cave in the hillside. Designers call these elements "Easter eggs" because they are little gifts that you have to find hidden in the system. Easter eggs are never practical to design, but they bring pleasure both to their designers and to the small percentage of audience who find and are rewarded by them. I hope that we will all continue to design a little more secrecy and weirdness into our work, both for ourselves and for those who love to discover wander the secret garden.

What Easter eggs have you designed into your own work, and what secret places bring you pleasure? Do you feel like secrecy is a problematic design or business proposition, or is the affinity it breeds is worth the exclusive approach?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Frameworks and Lessons from the Public Participation in Science Research Report

What does the word "participatory" mean to you? This isn't just a rhetorical question. The various definitions of participatory projects can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. A participant who writes her reaction to an object on an index card is very different from one who donates her own personal effects to be part of an institutional collection, and both of these people are different from one who helps develop a new program from scratch. How do we define and talk about these different kinds of participation? Fortunately, science has a (partial) answer.

Earlier this year, a group of informal science researchers, led by Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, published an extremely useful report on public participation in science research (PPSR). In this report, the authors describe three specific models for public participation: contribution, collaboration, and co-creation. They provide detailed case studies of projects in each area, including project descriptions, informal science education goals, participant training techniques, and evaluation outcomes. While the evaluation component of the report is focused on the extent to which these various projects promote science learning and behavior change among participants, the rubric of participatory models introduces a language that can be useful to many kinds of institutions and projects.

Models for Participation

Here are the three PPSR models (plus one more I've added):
  • In the contributory model, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally-controlled process.
  • In the collaborative model, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of an institutional project which is originated and ultimately controlled by the institution.
  • In the co-creation model, visitors and the institution work together from the beginning to define the project's goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests.
  • I would add a fourth model, tentatively called co-option. In the co-option model, the institution turns over a portion of its facilities and resources to support programs developed and implemented by external public groups.

Participation in science research is a good basis on which to develop a framework for participatory models because it is based on a consistent scientific process with many steps. Scientists state a problem, make a hypothesis, develop a test regimen to test the hypothesis, gather data, analyze the results, and make conclusions, which may include stating new problems or hypotheses. This table from the report shows how the different models correlate with participation in different steps of the process.

In citizen science projects, the public is invited to participate in "real science" by working with scientists on projects that benefit from mass participation around the world. But most citizen science projects are contributory; participants collect data based on specifications determined by scientists, to help answer questions posed by scientists. The scientists control the process, steer the data collection, and analyze the results. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that these kinds of citizen science projects are enormously successful at engaging the public with science but are not successful at exposing participants to the entire scientific process.

For this reason, some citizen science projects are now moving towards collaborative and co-creative models. As in the contributory model, in the collaborative model of citizen science, the scientists still determine the research question and the overall data collection and analysis methodology. However, the public is actively involved in multiple steps of the research process, including collecting data, analyzing results, and drawing conclusions. The scientists and the public participants become partners in the implementation and dissemination of the scientific research, though the research is still led by the scientists.

In the co-creative model for citizen science, the public comes up with a question or issue and then works with scientists to answer the question and suggest solutions. These projects include equal partnership between scientists and participants in all stages of the scientific process, including developing new research questions and regimens for data collection and analysis. In many cases, these projects are initiated based on some community concern, such as issues around local sources of pollution, invasive species, or unsafe consumer products. The community-stated need drives the development, implementation, and dissemination of research activities.

I've added a fourth model to this citizen science typology, one may be more appropriate to facilities like museums than to scientific organizations: co-option. In this model, the public uses institutional facilities or resources to develop and manage projects of their own devising. In some cases, the use of institutional content or facilities is known to the institution; for example, when a museum allows a community group to hold meetings on the premises or develop their own exhibits. But in other cases, people may use institutional resources without the institution's knowledge. For example, programmers may use museum collection database information as the basis for their own software, or game enthusiasts may use the grounds of an institution as a giant playing board for imaginative play. Visitors co-opt institutional facilities every day for their own agendas, whether to impress a date, bond with family, or work on their photography skills. But there are policies that museums control--from open hours to photography rules to digital access--that significantly impact the kinds of co-option that are possible or institutionally supported.

Contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and co-option. In the scientific sphere, these models are progressive since they are based on the number of steps of the scientific process in which participants are involved. Because most PPSR projects are currently contributory, the authors encourage more project leaders to integrate collaborative and co-creative components to increase overall scientific process learning and impact for participants. Wisely, they recommend adding higher-intensity components to existing projects rather than initiating new entirely collaborative or co-creative projects. They point to successful hybrid models of "peripheral participation," in which there is a core group of highly involved participants who work collaboratively with staff to develop new research questions and methodologies and a secondary group of participants who contribute on a more basic level.

In the case of The Tech Virtual, as in some collaborative and co-creative science research projects, the core group of super-participants was self-defined based on personal inclination, which made them more effective than a group pre-selected by staff may have been. However, in at least one collaborative science research project related to forest harvesting, the scientists explicitly recruited a group of non-inclined core participants (harvesters) so that they could connect to a largely inaccessible community of interest. The project had fundamentally different outcomes for these participants, for whom impact ranged from science learning to increased social capital. When projects effectively address pressing community needs, scientists can work effectively with new audiences who may not previously have seen themselves as participants in science.

Applying the Models to Cultural Institutions

When we move to participation with cultural institutions from science research, these four participatory models can no longer be seen as progressive towards a model of "maximal participation." Consider, for example, the difference between a project in which a museum sources exhibit material from visitors (contributory) and one in which the museum works with a small group of outsiders to develop an exhibit (collaborative). If the first project results in an exhibit made entirely of visitors' creations and voices, and the second results in an exhibit that looks more like a "typical" exhibit, which project is more participatory? There are many contributory projects, such as the World Beach Project, that produce entirely user-determined outputs, and some professionals might consider this kind of project to be "more" participatory than a collaborative program like The Tech Virtual, in which users' roles were broader but the outputs more institutionally-defined. And when it comes to co-option, the connection to the institution can often be so light that it is hard to determine whether the participants are engaging "with" the institution at all. For example, in the case of the YouTube meetup at the Ontario Science Centre in 2008, Kevin Von Appen commented that "I'm still wrestling with how the interactions of participants - mainly drinking, dancing, gossiping and shooting video of same squares up with our mission to engage people directly with science and technology..."

What's more participatory, making art or doing research? Developing exhibits or using them to make new media products? Working with the museum or using the museum as a platform to do your own thing? There is no "best" level of participation for museums and cultural institutions overall. Instead, I'm interested in the question of how to understand the diversity of options and determine which models and levels of engagement will be most valuable for different projects, at different institutions, at different times. The PPSR rubric is a great starting point for this conversation.

One last thought on evaluation. The PPSR report is focused on the participant experience and the extent to which participating in science research changes people's understanding of and attitudes towards science. From a museum perspective, I'm more interested in evaluations of the audience experience of participation. I think we are all fairly comfortable with the idea that direct participation enhances participants' connection to institutions, content, and builds skills. The real question is how participatory projects' outcomes impact the broader visitor/consumer experience of the content. In the scientific world, the coherence and quality of participatory outcomes is essential, since most of these projects are based on the premise that participants can contribute data or work of a quality that can be included in professional scientific projects and publications. But in museums, we have no such standard for participatory outcomes, whether for professionals or for wider audiences.

We often get overly focused on the experience of participants, but these people represent a tiny minority of the people whom participatory projects impact. If you work with a community group to co-create an exhibit, that exhibit will be experienced by all of your visitors, not just those who were part of the co-design process. It is not enough to design robust structures to support participants; you must also ensure that the outcome of participation is enjoyable and useful for your greater community as well. I hope we will soon see more institutions evaluating the extent to which participatory projects create outcomes that are valuable, educational, and possibly, differentiable, to broad audiences of visitors.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The World Beach Project: A Creative Contributory Project that Shines

There are lots of museums (and organizations of all kinds) looking for ways to inspire users and visitors to produce their own content and share it with the institution online. Today, a look at one of the projects I believe does this best--the World Beach Project.

The World Beach Project is managed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with artist-in-residence Sue Lawty. It launched in October of 2007 with a very simple and understandable idea: to produce a global map of pieces of art made with stones on beaches. The World Beach Project does not exist in the V&A Museum. It doesn't involve visitors coming to the museum at all. It's a project that requires people to do four things that are both simple and complex: go to the beach (anywhere in the world), make a piece of art using stones, photograph it, and then send the photos to the museum via the Web.

The World Beach Project is one of very few online museum projects that has truly "gone viral," enjoying press attention and growing participation from people all over the world. In the first two years of its existence (Oct 2007 - now), the World Beach Project received more than 700 contributions, including submissions from every continent except Antarctica, and submissions continue to come in each day. Run a quick search, and you'll find references to the project in over 1,400 blog posts, mostly from individuals around the world who love art, or beaches, and who share their discovery and delight in the project with their small networks of friends.

What makes the World Beach Project so successful? It's not marketing hype. The project has not had any heavy marketing campaigns or contests associated with it. The artist, Sue Lawty, maintains a blog with her reflections on the project and occasionally celebrates particular contributions, but this blog is fairly contained within the project website and is not a major source of web links. The beach artworks are not on display in the physical V&A galleries, nor will their creators receive prizes. Visitors to the website can't even comment on the photos or mark them as favorites. These are not shareable objects beyond the beachcombers who tread the same shores and the people who light upon this part of the V&A's website. The act of making art, and the recognition on a simple website, are the only rewards.

And yet this reward, mixed with an intelligent project design, are enough to make this project attractive to people all over the world. The ask is clear, the activity is compelling, and the display of contributions is simple and inspires greater participation. Let's look at how each of these aspects--the ask, the activity, and the display--contribute to the overall success of the project.

The ask is clear.

The World Beach Project doesn't have a flashy website or fancy animations. It features three parts: very clear instructions on how to participate, a map of all of the contributions to date, and photos of the contributions. The simple statement "I want to add my beach project to the map" is always accessible and obvious in the upper corner of the map, allowing inspired consumers to quickly transition into participants.

While contribution may take many steps, the website instructions are written to make contribution as simple and painless as possible, using phrases like "it is really easy to join in" to convey in everyday language welcome and support for would-be participants. The World Beach Project also uses the classic format of encouraging visitors to the site to browse the content before participating, which encourages people to view model content and further understand how they might be able to contribute. Beach art is democratic, and while Lawty, a professional artist, modeled the activity by making beach sculptures of her own, the artistic endeavor required to be successful is attainable by anyone, and participants didn't need encouragements or instructions to know how to make beach sculptures.

Each contributor is required to submit her name, the location of the beach, the year of the creation, a photo of the finished artwork, and a brief statement about how the work was made. Contributors can also optionally upload two additional photos: one of the beach and one of the work in process. The process is well-designed to remind participants what will be asked of them and how to meet the criteria, and the V&A provides participants with legal terms and conditions explaining that you are granting the museum a non-exclusive license to your contributed content. While the terms are written in legalese and may not be understandable to all participants, I appreciate the V&A's placement of the terms out in the open (rather than asking you to agree to something you have not read). Many museums do not provide participants with clear terms surrounding their submissions, and for savvy people (especially artists!) such statements are a must not only from a legal standpoint, but to promote mutual trust and understanding between participants and institutions.

The activity is compelling.

Contributing to the World Beach Project is not easy, and yet, the Victoria and Albert Museum has received many more submissions than other museums receive for much simpler photo- or video-based online contributory projects. I have browsed hundreds of contributions that are beautiful, thoughtful, and on-topic. What makes the World Beach Project so successful? This is a project in which participants immediately and self-evidently perceive the personal benefits of participation. You aren't trying to win anything; you're just going to make a piece of art on a beach and share it with others. Sue Lawty, the artist who initiated the project, is a textile artist, and she wrote about the World Beach Project being "a global drawing project; a stone drawing project that would speak about time, place, geology and the base instinct of touch." Through her own personal take on the project, Lawty encouraged participants to think of themselves as part of something greater--part of a community of artists and a geologically-connected ecosystem.

In their personal statements, beach artists wrote about profound connections to nature. They celebrated structures that disappeared after ten minutes but were "worth it." People shared stories of coming back to visit their creations again and again, seeing how the ocean and other people had altered their designs. The World Beach Project is, in its own small way, important. It isn't about collecting photos for a marketing campaign, or making a quick-e-card to send home. It's about making art, connecting to the earth, and being part of something greater.

By asking people to do something that is complicated, Lawty and the V&A express their respect for participants' competence and artistic ability. Yes, many contributory projects succeed by asking people to do something quick and easy - to register an opinion or share a small personal expression. But these are only as successful as the ask is genuine. Visitors, like all people, want the opportunity to show the world (and themselves) that they are interesting, capable, and worthy. Too often, we look at dismal rates of participation in basic contributory projects and assume, "this is too complicated for visitors." But in many cases, visitors may simply choose not to submit a photo for a contest or a thought into a comment box because the request seems insincere, demeaning, or silly. No one likes to have their time wasted.

In her research on happiness and gaming, Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger. The World Beach Project accommodates all of these goals for participants. In other words, it's a contributory project that is optimized to make participants happy. And that sets it apart.

The display is easy to navigate and inspires participation.

As noted above, the display of the beach artwork is blended well with the ask, so visitors can easily transition from spectator to participant. That said, the World Beach folks recognize that this is a fairly hefty ask--not everyone can get to the beach--and I assume that many people come to the site, like myself, to enjoy the artwork without making their own contribution. The content does not live behind click after click; instead, you can access every submission from the world map. It is easy to move around and zoom in on the map and access contributions directly in the form of photos and text statements. These contributions don't send you to another page; instead, they pop up over the map, encouraging you to surf quickly from one to another. If you want to dig deeper into a particular submission, you can click to see other photos and longer statements from the artists on dedicated collections pages.

It is a bit strange that the World Beach Project is housed within the Collection subsection of the V&A website. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, it's a pain to have to find the project hidden beneath the textiles category of Collections (who would think to go there?). And the project might be more attractively displayed on its own site, outside the fairly staid templates of the V&A's overall site design. On the other hand, placing the project within Collections reinforces the idea that these beach artworks are accessioned into the museum's collection, and that the project exists within a larger context of dialogue about what textile art is and can be. The World Beach Project is a gem hiding in a vast space populated by other objects and experiences. Maybe that's where all great museum experiences live.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What's Your Leisure Identity? Does it Bring You Into Museums?

I spent last week on vacation in the High Sierras rock climbing. Between high-altitude hijinks, run-ins with wildlife, and very long days of hiking, I finished John Falk's new book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. In it, John provides a model for the museum visitor experience based on one fundamental idea: people visit and make meaning from museum experiences based on their ability to fulfill identity-related goals and interests. In other words, if you are a curious person, you will go to museums to learn new things. If you are someone seeking spiritual refreshment, you will go to museums to relax and recharge. Different people in the same museum on the same day can have very different experiences--and memories of their experiences--based on the personal context in which they enter.

John details five identity needs that are well-served by museums: explorer, experience seeker, recharger, professional/hobbyist, and facilitator. The explorer is a curious person who loves to dig into things. The experience seeker wants to see the icon, the superlative item or experience. The recharger wants a mental break in a relaxing setting. The professional/hobbyist has a very specific, directed goal for her visit related to her work or a focused hobby. And the facilitator wants his friends and family to have a good time. We all embody these identities at different times, but we may not perceive all museums as equally able to accomodate their associated needs. I might not go to a children's museum for a recharge, nor would I necessarily see myself as a good facilitator if I dragged my friends through a crowded mega-museum. John argues that the way for museums to succeed--in marketing, in programming, and in providing value to visitors--is for them to enhance and support accomodation for different identity needs.

John contextualizes this argument within a larger discussion about leisure and American life. He cites many studies showing that as people move up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we have transitioned from focusing on work (a means of survival) to leisure (a means of personal fulfillment). Also, as more people do work that is not physically taxing, the desire to "veg out" has faded and the desire to use leisure to improve our bodies, minds, and creative abilities has increased. The more we see our leisure activities as tied to our self-identity, the more consciously we choose what to do with our free time.

And this brings me back to the mountains. I've always felt slightly guilty that I don't choose to use my vacation time, or really any significant amount of my leisure time, to visit museums. I enjoy them when I visit, but they aren't the first thing that springs to mind on a Sunday afternoon. Reading John's book, I realized that while there are times when I want to explore, seek experiences, facilitate social endeavors, pursue hobbies, and recharge myself spiritually, I rarely see museums as places to do any of that. Additionally, I have other more central leisure identity needs--to be physically active, to take risks, to be outside, to make things--that are rarely accommodated by museums. I saw every part of our vacation through the lens of the book, and my climbing partner (a highly active and artistic guy) and I spent a lot of time analyzing the choices we did and didn't make and how they reflected our expressions of identity. We both love carrying all necessary belongings on our own backs, producing our own food and shelter, and using our physical abilities to propel ourselves into new, gorgeous situations.

We did stop at two museum-like places on our drive home: a photography gallery featuring images taken by a climber, where we pored over his photos and personal effects and compared his gear to our own, and a place that attracted us with a giant sign that read, "COME AND SEE HOW CHEESE IS MADE." In both cases, our identity needs were met. At the gallery, we were curious rechargers, connecting our own personal experience to some incredible art and stories. At the cheese place, we were experience seekers, and though the production values on the "exhibit" were lousy, we still enjoyed ourselves. But these two stops were each a blip on a much longer trip spent pushing ourselves physically and mentally in a remote and astoundingly beautiful place.

And so I came down from the mountains wondering what identity needs are not well-met by museums. Clearly the desire to be outside and take physical risks is rarely accommodated, especially for adults. Another thing museums lack is the ability to improve at a chosen vocation. Every time I go climbing or run, I have the opportunity to push myself and increase my skill level. I know there are some people who use museums as an opportunity to increase their knowledge, but there aren't many explicit measures by which a more goal-oriented person like me can perceive successive mastery. Finally, as a person who spends lots of my leisure time working on home projects and building whimsical things like ziplines, I note that museums are rarely places where (adult) visitors can make things, especially things that take time and matter to them.

My three priority leisure goals are to be outside, increase my physical abilities (usually in a social setting), and create fun and beautiful things to use. That's how I spend my out-of-work time. At the end of his book, John suggests that the way to bring in new visitors who are unfamiliar with museums is to demonstrate to them how the institutions can meet their explorer, experience seeker, recharger, professional/hobbyist, and facilitator needs. While I agree that we all have these needs, there are many people like me for whom these needs are not primary in their personal leisure profile. Yes, I use rock climbing as a way to seek new experiences, pursue a hobby, and mentally recharge. But those goals are secondary to the primary focus on physical challenge and achievement. And for good or ill, I see other activities, like reading and playing games, as a better way to satisfy my explorer and facilitator sides.

For me, a museum would have to be significantly different--outdoors, involving challenges, inviting me to spend my time working on something of value--for it to be my first choice during leisure time. In some ways this sounds impossible, but there are several small gestures that could get me in the door more frequently. Roof gardens and sculpture patios pull me into comfortable recharging spaces. A hackerspace or co-creation project would bring me in to work socially and actively on creating something for myself or for the community. Outdoor biking tours, games, or exhibits like the New York Hall of Science's mini golf course could attract my active outdoor side.

Museums are already successful at addressing the five identity needs that John describes. Is this enough? Should museums focus on supporting these five and hope that new experience seekers and explorers and rechargers will start to see the museum as a good place to accommodate their goals? Is it ok that that means that people like me still won't see museums as a priority leisure destination? Or are there other leisure goals that museums should consider accommodating? Would it diffuse museums' core competencies to provide experiences for people like me, or would it enhance their ability to serve the public?

How do you spend your leisure time? How does it reflect your personal identity? And where do museums fit in?

And one more thing: I have an extra copy of Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience to give away. If you think it would be useful to you, please leave a thoughtful comment with some kind of contact info and I'll randomly select a recipient to receive it by midnight, September 13.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Interview with John Falk and Beverly Sheppard Part 2: Rethinking Membership and Admissions

This is the second part of a two-part interview with John Falk and Beverly Sheppard on their book Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. This post focuses on my favorite part of the book, in which Beverly and John argue that museums need to rethink their financial and programmatic relationship with their best customers--their members. I've written before about the problems with value membership (and innovations like 1stfans), and I was intrigued and challenged by John and Beverly's alternatives.

One of the more provocative ideas in the book is the concept that members should not get free admission, but should instead get a set of elite perks that give them special status and opportunities at the institution. You talk about comparable programs like elite flyer programs. I love this idea, but I often find that museum staff are really nervous about making any changes that might alienate current members/donors. How would you recommend that museums transition in this direction? What will it take to make this happen?

John: I think you sort of have to phase it in. Beverly did some interesting things when she directed Old Sturbridge Village to offer pricing schemes around opportunities for members only that were fee-based. The phasing in is beginning to communicate that being a member comes with privileges, but those privileges are not necessarily free. That said, at some point you do have to draw a line in the sand and say we’re going to move in this direction and start doing it.

Beverly: What became so clear at Sturbridge was that our membership was really tuned in and loyal. Members are a group of people who have already bought in – they already like you. You’re spending a lot of money to serve them and not getting any more dollars after their initial payment to show for it. The first time we tried this, we offered an exclusive tour to members for $25 and it sold out immediately. Members told us they wanted more behind the scenes exclusive programs. We kept raising the price and they kept coming. We had families start clamoring to become members to gain access to special programs of this type. And it wasn’t just about money--we used every opportunity to deepen the relationship. Our intent was to give members a say in things, talking to them personally, what next, and they began to drive that program more.

I also heard about an incredible experience like this from the Newark Performing Arts Hall. They started a new music program by targeting small groups of members with special shows and building up, to the point that now their audience for new music is huge. I think sometimes we focus too much on the creative things we are making--the programs or the exhibits--and we forget that the recipients of these programs want a personal, special experience. Members really want a special relationship--that's why they join.

John: There are sort of three key ideas behind this. The first is going back to first principles. We have historically been in this industrial one-size-fits-all mode, not just for exhibitions and programs but for membership as well. Very few institutions take the time to appreciate that people become members for different reasons and have different needs. Second, a lot of people become members because of a sense of personal need and identity and a relationship with the institution. And yet there are very few institutions where if you took staff out on the floor, they could successfully point out which visitors were members and which were not. If these folks are your best customers and you can’t identify them, then you aren’t meeting their needs to be special because you don’t recognize them as special. And the third idea is around money. If you could treat people not as a number, and meet their needs, they would pay you for that! That’s what people want. By using a standard membership as a discount device, the institution commodifies the museum and communicates that the primary value of a museum is its price. This sells the institution short as well as the members. People are willing to pay if they feel they are getting something worthwhile. If you are just offering something cheap, you aren’t offering value.

Beverly: If you start to do the numbers on what it costs to retain members and provide for them, you end up very often on the short end of it. Many families join on their first visit because it looks cheaper, but in fact all they got was a bargain to begin with and then it costs the institution to make all the repeated contact via newsletters, etc.

One of the most challenging concepts in the book for me came under the issue of admission pricing. Following on Crawford and Mathew’s work on consumer values, you state that if the experience is superlative and truly satisfies visitors’ needs, people will not perceive price as a barrier. And yet you also talk about institutions that focus on providing free or low-cost learning experiences to visitors. Where do you feel museums fall in the experience economy, and how should they determine their pricing?

John: The short answer is: With great difficulty. It would seem to me – and I have never been the ultimate decision maker when it comes to pricing – that it begins by working back to value. If value is this mutli-dimensional piece, you have to have clarity on what is the value you are giving to people. Museums are not things that anybody needs - museum experiences are not necessities like food, shelter, clothing. So then what is a museum’s value? How can we ensure that it is as great a value as possible? And what would it cost to have a comparable value any place else in a comparable way? So start there and reverse engineer what the price of the value is and you will arrive at a fair cost. I’d recommend this approach instead of doing a marketing survey and asking people what they’d be willing to pay. The place to start is to determine what you are and what you provide, and then the economic value should fall out of that as well (of course you also have to then deliver on that value to justify the price you’ve set).

Beverly: Why do people buy $100 sneakers? Why do people spend all that money at Whole Foods? Part of what people do is seek out things that reflect something about themselves, and consequently that value added piece is something people are willing to pay for when it reflects something about their identity. It’s not only about meeting members’ needs but finding ways to support individual experiences for everyone, so that every visitor can say, “something was done for me.”

Much of this book is focused on high level analysis and discussion. But many museum professionals are not in the position to rethink their entire institutions. What do you recommend as starting points for museum staff who are not ultimate decision-makers?

Beverly: There are probably lots of entry points. If I were someone whose responsibility has to do with orientation or front desk, I would get to know people coming in and ask them what people were coming in for. At Sturbridge there was one whole set of visitors coming in and asking “what can we do in an hour?” With this knowledge, we could put together floor staff and educators together to develop something for those visitors. Visitor service staff can also provide a personal greeting and recognition that there is interest from the institution in visitors’ needs.

In education, it’s relatively simple to look through a gallery, observe people, figure out where do people gather, what reflects different visitors’ interests – and educators too could take on some of that role to customize the experience.

I think designers can think about how we can individualize and design different types of exhibits that reflect the ways people learn, in groups and as individuals, at different stages with different needs.

And so you can gather a lot of information and that can be a starting point. I also think everyone in the institution should be required to spend time on the floor.

John: And if you want to ratchet it up to the next step, organize a discussion group and encourage conversations across the institution to talk about these ideas and debate them, and see whether they make sense in your institution. Try to engage administration in these conversations, and challenge them to be part of it. The book actually provides discussion questions at the end of each chapter expressly for this purpose.

Beverly: The more we talk about these things and not get our feet stuck in the sand, the further we can go.

Thanks to John and Beverly, and here's to keeping the conversation going!