Monday, April 26, 2010

Where's the Mobile Museum Project for Intact Social Groups?

When a technologist calls me to talk about their brilliant idea for a museum-related business, it's always a mobile application. There are lots of wonderful (and probably not very high margin) experiments going on in museums with mobile devices. But the vast majority of these companies and tinkerers make the same mistake: they focus on individual users.

Most visitors to museums attend in social groups. This is true for all types of cultural institutions, from historic houses to zoos to art museums. While some places tend to attract families with children, others draw adults in couples or groups. This isn't just about demographics; it's also about desire. People see museums as places for social experiences, and when surveyed about why they visit museums, "to spend time with my friends/family" always shows up near the top of the list.

But most mobile applications (as well as most audio tours) are made for solo experiences. Recommendation engines and tours are built to encourage you to follow your own individual interests around the galleries, finding and saving and commenting on the things YOU like most. This is fine for individuals, but it doesn't make a ton of sense for social groups. Imagine visiting a museum with your family or a friend. You aren't on a personal quest alongside your companion; you want to be WITH them--sometimes breaking apart, coming back together, discussing and sharing what you've seen and negotiating what to do next. Especially when visiting museums with children, the experience is intensely interpersonal, with social groups repeatedly dipping into lengthy shared explorations, punctuated by more individualized browsing.

Only a small percentage of visitors elect to use audio tours while in museums (mostly singly), and I suspect that most technologists developing new mobile experiences in museums are erroneously focusing on this tiny audience rather than the much larger social group audience. Museum technologists are also influenced by the broader world of mobile apps, which are mostly focused on supporting adult individuals with their own phones. But the largest market for mobile phone apps (young adults) is not reflective of the majority of museum visitors, who tend to be families, school groups, and older adults.

If there's a social component to these apps, it tends to invite visitors to connect to a broad and semi-anonymous society of other museum visitors over time. But what about the visitors with whom you've come to the museum? There's a huge untapped market for mobile applications that engage intact groups and enhance their social experiences in the museum. Especially as mobile penetrates more of the market (and more children have their own phones), there are opportunities to actually improve the social visit by helping people stay in touch, share their experiences, and not feel constant pressure to stick together. Imagine for example...
  • A scavenger hunt application that many phones could "log in" to, so that a family could split up and everyone could look for examples of spooky artifacts, or their favorite stories, or the most boring object and aggregate them together for discussion later in the cafe. You could even make a museum version of the popular Apples to Apples game, in which visitors would find nearby artifacts they think best illustrate a particular word or idea (and then their companions would vote them up or down).
  • A simple application that would help individuals blast out their location or suggest meeting places to stop for a snack. Have you ever watched people on ski mountains texting their buddies to schedule meetups? Imagine a version of this, superimposed over a facility map, to help families and tour groups find each other while onsite. It could help ameliorate the stress some people feel managing the variable amount of time some family members like to spend in particular exhibits (imagine an "I'm waiting in the cafe" button). It could also help family members split up without being nervous about losing each other.
  • A recommendation application that helps groups create relative profiles. When I was a kid, we used to play a game called Yum/Yuck. My dad would say the name of a food (i.e. broccoli) and then my sister and I would immediately each say "yum" or "yuck." It was a silly way to point out the differences in our tastes. These kinds of relative personality tests can help families talk about their unique interests in a social context... and could also provide some fun surprises as the system tries to recommend experiences for everyone.
  • A social tagging activity that uses one phone, shared across several people, for the group to make a story from the memories they shared onsite. Rather than capturing individual favorites, the group would record short audio snips or photos of themselves at the exhibits they liked most--and then the whole thing would be available to them online as a multi-media story later.
None of these ideas is going to revolutionize the mobile museum landscape. But designing technology that fits with how the majority of people already use museums is going to be more successful than trying to force fit individual applications to social experiences. It's time to abandon the single-user audio tour model (or at least stick it in a smaller corner) and seize the opportunity to create something that will serve a much larger number of museum visitors' interests and needs.

How could you see mobile phones enhancing the social experience for intact groups that visit museums?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Send in the Science Clowns: A Frustrated Reaction to a Science Center Demonstration

Last week, I took in the new Galileo science show at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The show was a standard science center demonstration; about fifteen minutes, featuring a classic science experiment (all objects fall at the same rate) and a core message (when scientists are curious about something, they do an experiment to understand it). The presenter was by many measures the best in the business. He wrapped physical comedy, silly jokes, audience participation, and water balloons into a highly entertaining fifteen minutes. I used to perform these kinds of shows at the Capital Children’s Museum, and I was impressed by the whole production.

It also drove me nuts. The show was juvenile. It barely conveyed any science. It made Galileo into a pizza-loving buffoon with a bone to pick with Aristotle. The audience participants weren’t made to feel like scientists or special participants; they were treated like props to be splashed with water balloons. The whole thing felt more like a birthday party for eight year olds than anything else.

I felt highly conflicted watching this show. I understand the value of entertainment (and its positive impact on attentiveness), but the show’s level of silliness made me cringe with embarrassment. Three things in particular frustrated me:

  1. The show’s entertainment factor appeared to be used to apologize for science and turn it into something more "palatable." I felt it insulted my intelligence and my genuine interest in learning something about science. Does making science fun really require turning scientists into clowns? I can’t imagine seeing a show like this in any other cultural context. There’s no history museum doing a send-up of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s no art museum where Picasso is portrayed as a boozy goofball on the make. Entertainment and comedy can be fabulous presentation devices, but I don’t think we need them to mask the fact that science is serious, complicated, often funny business.
  2. The show was geared solely towards children. I saw the show with a large group of adults at an evening event, and it was painfully clear that the content and the form were not made for us. We all knew the outcome of the experiment presented, and yet there was no way for the presenter to break from script and give us a more complex view on Galileo’s experiment. If I was watching the show with my kids or chaperoning a group of students, I would have been pleased that the kids had a good time. But the show would have also confirmed that the science center was for children, not for me. It might also have made me feel that the science center was a place for fun, not so much for learning. Adults typically make up half of science center audiences. Shouldn’t these shows satisfy their interests as well?
  3. The show’s strong personality overwhelmed other more nuanced aspects of the science center. Live demos are just one part of a visit, but shows like this can have a domineering personality that imprints the whole visit. This show presented a version of the science center that was loud, overwhelming, goofy, and one-dimensional. It overwhelmed the more understated tone used in exhibit labels and by docents. Even though I thought some of the exhibits in the Space Odyssey gallery were quite nuanced and good, I left the museum with the show having the biggest impact on my visit.

I’m still grappling with this experience. I know how wonderful it feels as a presenter to captivate your audience and give them a good time. And people are more likely to internalize content messages when they are attentive and eager to follow the narrative of a presentation. Maybe attention is at such a premium that these kinds of measures are worth it to connect kids to science in an enjoyable way. Maybe I'm out of touch and my expectations are inappropriate. But the show felt like candy. People like candy—but that doesn’t mean it’s what you have to give them all the time. Sometimes, it can make them sick.

What do you think?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Make Great Art: Lessons in Co-Creation from the Performing Arts

"How often do we hear colleagues from museums and galleries stating as their fundamental reason for working co-creatively with audiences that they want to make a great piece of museum work, rather than primarily for reasons of social inclusion or democracy?"

Last week, Dr. Louise Govier posed this provocative question in an excellent paper on co-creation in the arts: Leaders in co-creation? Why and how museums could develop their co-creative practice with the public, building on ideas from the performing arts and other non-museum organisations (free to download). In it, Louise argues that museum professionals need to focus more on pursuing audience participation not to promote audience development or provide educational opportunities, but to create superlative visitor experiences. It's an argument I wholeheartedly support. User participation is a design and program strategy, and it should be used to make institutions better overall. If a strategy doesn't improve your ability to deliver high-quality projects, why pursue it?

Louise's paper starts with a useful literature review, but I find the second half (beginning on page 22) most interesting. Louise presents findings from case studies featuring dance, opera, and theater companies that do superlative work with non-professionals and audience members. These are: Dance United, which produces dance performances featuring primarily juvenile offenders, the Birmingham Opera Company, which co-creates innovative productions with Birmingham residents, and the Theater Royal Stratford East, which is planning a community-driven program for their 2012 season.

Louise mostly focuses on the experiences and commentary of the professionals who run these performing arts organizations, though she did interview a few participants. When asked why these artistic directors were pursuing co-creative processes, "to make great art!" was the most overwhelming answer. Respondents also talked about growing as artists through the process and the incredible things they learned from working with non-professionals. While Louise noted that social inclusion, audience development, and democratization of art were definitely raised, many of the artists cited these as secondary reasons for co-creative practice. Several spoke disparagingly of the idea that co-creation is primarily about empowering participants; as the Artistic Director of Dance United, Tara-Jane Herbert, commented, "if you want to save people, then this is not the company for you."

For Louise, the focus on "making great art" doesn't just demonstrate these artists' commitment to the co-creative process. She also notes that this goal helps performing arts groups produce higher-quality experiences for audiences, participants, and stakeholders alike. As Louise puts it:
If our primary aim in the work we co-create with the public is not to make great art, by which I mean high quality museum spaces which engage a wide range of people and create all sorts of different, interesting meanings, then I fear we will always limit this kind of work. Doubters will never see its potential, because the results may be a bit mediocre, and will therefore carry on being marginalised in community galleries rather than being highlighted in the central museum space. Also, it may not deliver what it might have done for participants: if our primary motivation wasn’t to make something spectacularly good, they may not have been involved in creating something of amazing quality, or have really developed their skills and confidence to be a creative voice to which others listened.
Several of the artists who Louise profiles stated that it was essential to involve non-professionals directly in their artistic work (the development and production of theatrical performances) as opposed to in educational programs. Birmingham Opera Director Graham Vick commented: "I'm not interested in doing education and outreach work - it's not opera!" Graham and others interviewed see their fundamental work as making art, and they don't want to give participants what they perceive as a secondary, tangential, or watered-down experience with art.

In some cases, this driving power of "doing the work" helped staff from across institutions come together to work as a more cohesive unit toward a single goal. In the case of Dance United, a co-creative effort that started in the learning/community outreach department became the core offering of the company, which now promotes "the power of dance to change lives" consistently in how they develop and produce new works and performances. In some museums, there's friction between educational staff who may run radically co-creative projects and others who feel that those projects are secondary to the "serious" work of the institution. When an institution becomes wholly participatory, those distinctions often erode.

Overall, Louise's paper gave me the sense that these art companies are more willing to take a basic, fundamental risk with regard to their audiences than most museums would be. In all cases, the artists put a stake in the ground and said, "We think we can improve our artistic practice and our public-facing performances through participatory techniques." They were unapologetic about their goals as artists, and they used those goals and expectations to design participatory structures they hoped would succeed.

That's not to say these structures came easy. Louise doesn't state it explicitly, but it's clear from her discussion of processes that these performing artists' community work is not necessarily faster or cheaper than that which could be accomplished with professional participants. Co-creation takes a lot of work in the form of skill-building, fostering equitable relationships, and providing appropriate levels of leadership and openness. The museum I know of most like these performing arts companies is the Wing Luke Asian Museum, which has an entirely co-creative approach to exhibition design. The resulting exhibitions are high-quality by museum standards and are well-loved by the community. But as staff noted in their Community-Based Exhibit Model handbook, "The work is labor intensive. The work requires flexibility. We willingly relinquish control.” This kind of co-creative approach isn't just a design strategy. It's a fundamental approach to making the institution work.

Toward that end, it's worth thinking about two basic questions:
  1. What is the work of your institution?
  2. How can you design participatory structures that invite non-professionals to help you do your work better?
Unlike the artists Louise profiles, the work of many museums and museum professionals is not creative production but interpretation, arbitration, investigation, and education. I do strongly believe in co-creative museum projects in which the institution intends to make better exhibits or performances. But there is a place for participatory projects in which visitors help perform research or produce new ways of understanding objects and ideas. Whatever your work is, there is probably a way you can usefully, appropriately involve non-professionals to make it better.

What might that mean for you and your institution? Please share your comments below. Louise will keep an eye on this post, and she has generously provided her email address - louise.govier @ - if you would like to contact her directly.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Quick Hit: Nina on the Road

Hi folks. I've been enjoying a few blissful weeks at home but am now hitting the road for a series of conferences and work trips, and I wanted to let you know where I'll be if you want to meet up or come to an event. Many of the talks are related to The Participatory Museum and I will have books for sale on all of these forays.

Here's the list for the next two months:
  • April 14-17 - Denver for Museums and the Web conference. I'm giving a workshop on design techniques for encouraging user participation (sorry, it's full). And then throughout the rest of the conference I'll be throwing frisbees, trying craft beer, and selling books out of my back pocket. Oh, and learning something--hopefully from you.
  • April 22/23 - Washington DC. I'm giving a free talk at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on the evening of the 22nd, and then a free workshop on the 23rd at the National Postal Museum on designing better mechanisms for visitor feedback and response. The workshop requires an RSVP, the talk does not. Both are open to the public.
  • April 29 - I'm heading to the Oakland Museum for the preview of its reopening. I'm psyched to see what their innovative team has done to make this community-focused institution better than ever. Note that they are having a free, public 31-hour reopening celebration on May 1-2.
  • May 6 - Berkeley, CA. I'm giving a free talk about visitor participation in the evening at JFKU in association with the museum studies program and Cultural Connections. Cultural Connections members will get a $5 discount if you buy the book at the event.
  • May 17 - NYC. I'll be part of the keynote panel at the NYC Museum Educator's Roundtable conference, and then doing a public talk that evening at the Whitney Museum about The Participatory Museum with Shelley Bernstein and Josh Greenberg ($5 entrance fee, details coming soon).
  • May 23-27 - Los Angeles for the American Association of Museums conference. I'm chairing two sessions at AAM, one on design for participation (May 24) and the other on mission-driven approaches to technology development (May 26). I will also be doing a book signing at the AAM bookstore on the afternoon of the 24th.
  • June 1-4 - I'll be working in Minneapolis and am scheduling a public talk at a local museum (likely the Walker Art Center or the Science Museum of Minnesota) during that week, details coming soon.
  • June 9 - I'm doing a webinar with Stephanie Weaver of Experiencology fame. This is not free, but it will be awesome, and no one has to travel to attend. It's $35 and limited to 50 people.
  • June 17 - I'm keynoting the Washington Museums Association conference in Gig Harbor, WA.
I hope to see you there... wherever "there" is for you!

Building a Better Suggestion Box

Does your institution have a comment book or suggestion box in the lobby where visitors can leave their feedback on their experiences? Do you get scintillating insights and stories from people through these mechanisms? Probably not.

In my experience, lobby feedback systems generate three kinds of responses:
  • Effusive, generic platitudes: "Great Museum!" "Nice art!"
  • Wedding registry-style signatures: "Dina and Arthur Feldman, Lincoln, Nebraska"
  • Specific complaints: "The bathrooms were dirty." "Better food in the cafeteria, please."
Each of these kinds of responses has value--but the value is limited. The positive comments induce warm fuzzies, and the registries let you know where people come from (though zip code requests do that more consistently).

As for the complaints, the common lack of feedback--when visitors are not told whether or how their complaints will be addressed--minimizes their impact on the visitor experience and likely reduces their incidence. A survey of a survey of UK health patients who used the National Health Services complaints system found that people don't want money or revenge when something bad happens--they just want to know that they are being taken seriously and that changes will be made to ensure won't happen again. An unresponsive system can't do that. The same survey found that 20% of complainers found the process "pointless" and almost a further 30% had found it "totally pointless." These are likely people who will take their complaints elsewhere (or leave them unresolved) in the future.

Even when the comments are good, museum staff processes are rarely set up to learn from them and adapt programming accordingly. I've worked at several museums where we gave educational program attendees surveys to fill out at the end of a workshop or lecture. We dutifully tallied their responses, but only for the internal bragging rights to the board that "92% of this year's participants rated our programs as 'very good' or 'excellent.'" We explained away the occasional complaints. The surveys were not a learning tool; they were a reporting tool.

Building a better feedback mechanism for all comments--good and bad--requires two things:
  1. Staff who are eager to learn from visitors (and have processes in place to support change).
  2. Designed systems in which visitors can see where their comments go and how they have impact.
Here are two examples, one big, one small.

Patient Opinion

In the UK, an independent non-profit website, Patient Opinion, has developed a public way for patients to share stories about their health care and for hospitals and the National Health Service to respond. People share both positive and negative experiences (and in many cases, a story will feature a mixture of comments, thanks, suggestions, and concerns), and NHS representatives frequently respond directly. The public nature of the discourse helps subsequent users feel that the system is working and is worthwhile.

Does it matter that Patient Opinion is independent from the NHS? As a public strategy blogger notes, Amazon and other online services maintain their own high-functioning feedback systems. But if people think the NHS feedback system is broken, going outside can help. People see Patient Opinion as serving a different purpose than the NHS complaint system--more about civic dialogue and improvement than sparking a punitive outcome. The Patient Opinion blog noted:
Sometimes a hospital will contact us about a critical posting on our site. "Can you remove it?" they say, "and ask the patient to make a complaint instead?" We don't remove it (of course), but we will email the patient in confidence to ask if they would like to make a complaint. And in every case to date, the patient has replied: "No, I don't want to make a complaint. I'm not trying to get anyone into trouble. I just want the problem fixed so it doesn't happen to anyone else."
Could you reframe your feedback system to invite visitors to tell you a story about the experience they had while onsite? I could imagine very successful "museum opinion" or "museum stories" websites in which visitors reflect on their experiences and connect with staff about their favorite bits and frustrations. Perhaps instead of sending people an e-newsletter if they give you their email address, you should start by asking for their story.

Staff of Life

For a much smaller, no-tech example, consider my grocery store, Staff of Life. This local store has a simple comment box at the front where patrons can submit requests for everything from shredded coconut to more handicapped parking. This is a standard suggestion box with a twist--staff members write responses directly onto the comments and post them on a board, so everyone can see both the request and its response. The fact that every comment receives a response sets a precedent that the board is a place for a conversation between staff and users, not a black hole for users' suggestions.

When I first saw this board, I wondered: could a museum swap out its lobby suggestion box for a board like this? Do museum visitors really have comments as specific as "please stock large nutritional yeast flakes?"

Talking to front-line staff members reveals that yes, visitors have lots of things they want to say and discuss--whether in a rant, a series of questions, or extended reverie. I've talked to many admissions desk staff members who constantly hear from visitors about their favorites and their grievances. For the most part, if staff members offer those same visitors comment cards, the visitors shrug it off. They wanted a conversation, not a one-way communication device.

The problem with the current state of things is that those comments rarely gets to the people who can actually use them. If a visitor feels that an exhibit label needs to be changed, or is frustrated by the lack of seating, the front desk staff can only go so far to get that communicated up to the curator or facilities manager in question. And by spending their time not quite satisfying visitors' desires to talk about their experiences, front-line staff can get pulled away from the work that their managers care about.

That's what's brilliant about the grocery store comment board at Staff of Life. It allows a conversation between patrons and high-level staff members. When I'm shopping, the staff members with whom I interact are stockers, checkers, and baggers. These are not the people who can order a new product or make decisions about the width of the aisles. The comment board sends visitors' comments to the staff members who can use them to improve the store. And by responding to the comments publicly, those high-level staff members demonstrate their commitment to responsiveness and visitors' needs.

Of course, people visit grocery stores much more frequently than they do museums. An asynchronous paper-based response mechanism might need to be supplemented by something online to help visitors see the responses to their own queries. But the simple presence of an open, public dialogue between visitors and staff changes the dynamic of the store for everyone. Whether I make a comment or not, I know that my grocery store is listening to me and people like me, and that we are trying together to make it a better place.

Isn't that the way you want visitors to feel about your institution?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Plants! Natural Materials! Review of Explora!, a Peaceful, Delightful Science Center

Note: This post was also published as a review on ExhibitFiles here.

I love science centers. My first jobs were in science and children's museums. Where other adults cringe at the noise and insanity of your average whizzing, banging, zooming center, I (usually) revel in it.

But science centers also frustrate me. They are so frequently populated by the same exhibits in the same primary colors. They have junky materials and broken exhibits. And even if the phenomena on display are complex and unknowable even for advanced scientists, the whole experience is typically geared toward children and stripped of its mystery and potential power.

So imagine my delight to visit Explora in Albuquerque. The overwhelming experience I had while touring it wasn't excitement or craziness or childishness - it was contented wonder. I never knew a science center could be so peaceful. There were plenty of screaming kids, but the design of the whole place absorbed and tempered their noise rather than frothing it up.

What are the distinctive hallmarks of this extraordinary place? First, the exhibits are designed for focused, prolonged engagement. Each exhibit is in its own little nook, surrounded at least partially by temporary walls, painted in soothing desert colors. The director of exhibitions, Betsy Adamson, explained to me that they'd done research and found that the walls, which give the sense of an adobe hedge maze, slowed people down and helped them focus in on single exhibits for longer periods of time. The nooks are somewhat open to each other, so parents and kids can stay connected across five or so exhibits without being dumped all in one big mixing bowl. The nooks also provide kids with some protection from each others' enthusiasms, so a girl hard at work for twenty minutes at the gear table is unlikely to have her project messed up by a glancing blow from a kid cruising past.

The exhibits themselves are almost entirely custom-built by Explora staff. There are few instructions, and the experience seemed to be genuinely about exploring as opposed to learning information. While sometimes I found the experiences overwhelmingly open-ended, I prefer that to the "explain it all away" approach that is more common.

All the exhibit materials are natural and understated. The color palette has a soft New Mexico feel. Where the Exploratorium has a DIY garage look, Explora has more of a DIY backyard look. Everything looks deliciously, quietly touchable. Some of my favorite exhibits were the bench where you could "feel" the vibrations of notes you played on a keyboard and a series of gorgeous, simple water flow exhibits that allowed you to disrupt a waterfall and watch a stream move across a surface.

Many of the exhibits are facilitated (there are 11 paid floor staff plus volunteers in the museum at most times). I particularly enjoyed watching people engage at the airplay area, where volunteers, staff, and visitors worked together to make and explore simple paper helicopters. I also appreciated the many places where visitors could show off or store their creations for creative reuse or inspiration by others. Betsy explained that one of Explora's design goals is to make exhibits "transactional" - open to visitors' improvements and additions, never requiring a hard reset. There's also a large element of trust in visitors. Material cabinets and craft storage areas are open to visitors, whether staffed or not.

While the exhibits were lovely, it was the overall feel of Explora that impressed me most. The atmosphere of Explora is highly designed and distinct from other science centers. There are large fabric sheets stretched above the first floor, providing visual breaks and absorbing some of the excited sound from below. There are plants everywhere. Why doesn't every museum have plants everywhere? There were also beautiful art/science posters on most walls around the science center. There are the kinds of posters I'm used to seeing in staff areas of science museums--not so much on the museum floor. All of these small touches, as well as a gorgeous central laminar flow fountain, made me feel relaxed and kept me from getting overstimulated. I left after two hours energized and not at all frazzled by the experience.

This review is, of course, not entirely from a "visitor's eye." I was welcomed and toured by staff members for half of my time at Explora. I spent only a small amount of that time with Paul Tatter, Explora's founder. While I was wandering on the second floor, he pointed out to me his favorite spot from which he likes to observe families interacting on the floor below. We stood there for a long minute, not talking, watching groups break up and reform, kids deep in solo experimentation, people helping each other play. It was the kind of moment that seemed more possible at Explora than at other science centers. It was the kind of place you could get your arms around, have the space to think about what's happening and the energy and calm to make it happen.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Participatory Museum Process Part 4: Adventures in Self-Publishing

This is the final segment in a four-part series about writing The Participatory Museum. Check out the other parts here.

This posts explains why and how I self-published The Participatory Museum. While some aspects are quite technical and specific, it should be useful for anyone considering writing a book for a niche audience.

Why Self-Publish?

I decided to self-publish The Participatory Museum for four reasons:
  • OPENNESS: I wanted the flexibility to license and distribute the book using an open structure to promote sharing. Few publishers was open to Creative Commons licensing and to giving away the content for free online.
  • SPEED: I wanted to get the book out as quickly as possible. I didn't want to write a manuscript and then wait several months for it to be released.
  • COST: Museum books tend to be expensive - because they are printed in small runs, the price for a 400-page paperback can be as high as $40. I figured I could give readers a more reasonable price ($25) if there wasn't a publisher to take a cut.
  • VALUE: There are just a few small publishers who serve museum professionals. Because of the blog and the speaking I do, I felt I had the ability on my own to get the word out within the museum community about the book. For that reason, I was only really interested in a publisher who could expose the book to broader audiences beyond museums, and or a publisher with a significant marketing presence. I pursued one (O'Reilly) somewhat aggressively, but I was not a good fit for their market (technologists). I didn't feel that a small museum publisher could provide much for me that I wasn't willing to do myself.

Why Make it Open?

From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to license The Participatory Museum using Creative Commons and give away the content for free online. My primary goal is to get the ideas out there, not to make money, so if someone wants to read the book online for free, that's great.

Also, my whole career is predicated on a structure where I give away ideas on the blog and then people hire me for money. I figured the same system would work for the book, and so far, it seems to be bearing fruit. Few people want to read a 388-page book online, and I've received several notes from people who checked out the online version and then decided to buy a physical or ebook copy. People are also more likely to promote the book to their friends and colleagues when they can point to the content online. Several people referenced in the book saw their name mentioned in a Google Alert and then tweeted or shared the link with their colleagues and friends. I'm looking forward to examining the economics of this choice more in the future, but for now, I'm just thrilled that people are reading the book--at any cost.

The second part of the open structure is the Creative Commons license. There are four tiers of restriction possible with Creative Commons licenses: attribution (must credit author), noncommercial (can't make $$ off of reuse), no derivatives (can't cut, remix, adapt), and share alike (must redistribute with same license). I chose the Attribution Noncommercial license. I want everyone to be able to use the content and make derivative works. I didn't choose Share Alike because I know that many museums, universities, and organizations are not able to use CC licenses (and thus would not be able to redistribute the content). But I did choose Noncommercial because I don't want a publisher to snap up the book or a chapter, credit me as author, and sell the content.

The CC license is for the book text, not the images. Many of the images were provided under more restrictive licenses (and are marked as such in both the printed book and the online version). This means, however, that I couldn't release the book on Google Books with a CC license unless I stripped out most of the images. I also had to explain the license to the image contributors so they could decide whether to request a more restrictive credit for their work.

How Did I Do It?

Once I decided to self-publish, I set out to find the best option to do so. I needed two things:
  1. software to help me produce a beautiful set of files for printing
  2. a print-on-demand service that would make the books real and sell them
Software for Book-Making

I used the following tools to write and produce the book:
  • Scrivener, a Mac-based software that makes it easy to organize and write long manuscripts
  • the book wiki, where I posted drafts for review and comment by others
  • Adobe InDesign, to format the manuscript as a book and ebook
  • Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, to format the images and diagrams in the book
I used all the Adobe products on free trials, and Scrivener cost me $39. I also paid a fabulous illustrator, Jennifer Rae Atkins, to design the covers and a few of the interior images. In other words, this was a cheap project.

But it was also incredibly exhausting. I've never used Adobe products seriously, and I had to learn a lot about how to format text and images as well as how to design a book overall. I would take good books off my shelf and measure their margins, scrutinize the heading fonts, and generally muddle my way through. Did you know that most non-fiction books have the page numbers at the top? Do you know what the numbers on the copyright page mean? I felt like I was preparing for a wedding, learning arcane information I would only use for a brief, intense window of time.

The good news is that the final book really looks like a book. I always suspected that a self-published book would give itself away, and I was ready for the result to look somewhat amateurish. But I think (and you're the real judge here) that it holds up. And that shocked me.

Two pieces of advice if you are thinking about making a book on your own:
  1. There are lots of tutorials--books, videos, etc.--available for free at your library and on the web. By the end of the process, I was ready to send flowers to the guy who made these videocasts about InDesign--they were a lifesaver.
  2. Writing an index is one of the most painful experiences I've ever had. I'm sure I did a lousy job. Be forewarned, and consider hiring someone else to do it.
Self-Publishing with Print-On-Demand

"Print on demand" systems allow you to upload book files (usually PDFs), which are then used to print books to order. I don't have a huge basement full of books to sell; the print-on-demand system sells all the books automatically as they are purchased online. I wanted a print-on-demand system that would allow me to:
  • sell books online, both on my own site and via major booksellers like Amazon (without me having to send anything out in the mail or manage transactions)
  • buy large quantities in bulk to sell at events
  • not in any way restrict my ability to use other printers or services to sell this book in both paperback and electronic versions
  • make a reasonable return on books sold through all venues
After a lot of research, I settled on a service called CreateSpace. If you are serious about selling books through channels beyond your own website, there are really only two options--CreateSpace (owned by Amazon) and Lightening Source (owned by Ingram). Because I expected to sell more books through Amazon than through Ingram's traditional publishing channels, I chose CreateSpace. I also didn't need anything fancy in terms of formatting, size, or color, so CreateSpace's focus on trade paperbacks worked for me.

Why does it matter that CreateSpace is owned by Amazon? This relationship translates to two benefits: faster availability on Amazon and a better cut on each sale. If I were to publish this book on (a popular print-on-demand service), it would have taken 6-8 weeks for the book to hit Amazon, instead of three days for CreateSpace. But this relationship is even more important in the long term when it comes to dollars and cents. Here's the cost comparison for my book (388-page black and white trade paperback, $25 retail) on CreateSpace vs. Lulu:

These numbers got even better when I purchased a "Pro Plan" from CreateSpace for $39 per year, which increased my cut of CreateSpace and Amazon sales to $14.50 and $9.50 respectively.

In hindsight this choice was obvious, but it took awhile to figure out. Every print-on-demand services uses a different pricing structure and it isn't easy to root out all the numbers... be prepared to unleash your sixth grade math skills regarding percentages as well as your deep internet search capabilities if you embark on such a comparison.

Beyond selecting CreateSpace, I did the following:
  • bought my own ISBN number ($125), so that "Museum 2.0" could be listed as the publisher of the book instead of CreateSpace. I paid for the ISBN but made my own barcode for free.
  • designed epub and Kindle versions of the book on my own (using Adobe InDesign) so I could sell ebooks directly instead of going through CreateSpace's costly digital books portal.
  • set up the website for the book and uploaded all the content for people to read in HTML format (translating the formatting was a slog).
  • bought a Wordpress estore plugin ($35) so I could sell the ebook directly through my website using PayPal. Interestingly, I've had several digital sales on my site, but no Kindle sales via Amazon so far.
  • established a relationship with a local printer who I use to do bulk orders so I don't have to pay for shipping when buying books to sell at conferences and events.
My experience with all of this was generally good. I had some challenges with CreateSpace near the end of the file review process, but after a week of frustrating phone calls with customer service we smoothed things out. In the end, my book went on sale just a few hours after I hit "approve the proof." The feeling was indescribable. I ate a whole angel food cake to celebrate.

What's Next?

Getting the book out the door was just the start of the publishing process. I was cheerfully negligent about marketing, tours, etc. before the release. I was completely overwhelmed by the experience of just completing the book and getting everything ready for sale.

Now, I'm just starting to think seriously about how to market and distribute the book, and I'd love your thoughts and help. It's selling well so far, but I'd like to find ways to do three things:
  • open up dialogue and new relationships with readers
  • help non-museum folks in related fields find and use the book
  • support creative reuse of the content
I've started doing a little of this--by making the online version of the book open to comment, giving talks in new venues, and generally being open and enthusiastic about sharing the content. But I'd love to hear what you think I can and should do to make this book as useful and accessible to as many people as possible.

I'm also hoping to find good ways to really hear from readers. I spent a year living with this book and a tight community of collaborators. It's a little surreal to imagine that there are hundreds (and soon hopefully thousands) of people purchasing and reading it. I'd like to know who you are, what you think, what you disagree with, what you're trying. Even just a simple "this made me think about X" helps me feel like all those thousands of hours at my kitchen table were worth it. You can write a review, comment on a chapter, or send me a note anytime with your thoughts.

Publishing The Participatory Museum is an ongoing process that will continue as long as the book is sold. I'd love your ideas on how to make that process as interesting and useful as possible--for everyone.