Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 5: Oldenburg on the LAM

This is the fifth installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog is featuring a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This provocative guest post was co-written by Suzanne Fischer and Eric Johnson. Suzanne Fischer is Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI, and Eric Johnson is a librarian and New Media Specialist at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. You can join the conversation in the blog comments and add your own voice to the debate.

We share an abiding interest in exploring the community-enhancing roles of libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs), especially in terms of the practice of hospitality and service within the institution. From this naturally flows our engagement in the question of "LAM convergence:" how these institutions live out their similar missions of access and preservation in daily practice and how they overlap as spaces for civic engagement. Both of us latched onto the popular notion of "third places," applying it to LAMs, and were surprised to learn how narrowly Ray Oldenburg defined the term in his original work. It is crucial that LAMs be considered public civic spaces, but Oldenburg's model leaves a lot to be desired.

Suzanne: After reading The Great Good Place, I can't see a way that a museum or library could be a third place without sacrificing its mission. The ideal of third places, that attracts we cultural heritage types, is a democratic space where civic life is built collaboratively and at a personal level. But when you read Oldenburg closely, you find that his idea of a third place is vastly more specific.

Eric: He's really focused on the merits of hanging out together with acquaintances in a relationship built up over extended repeated visits, which unfortunately doesn't much describe the way most public interacts with LAMs--though LAM staff may hope otherwise.

Suzanne: That key thing for Oldenburg is that you go to interact with people. Not to interact with artifacts, to find information, to learn something, or to have an interesting experience together with your friends and family.

Eric: Though he'd prefer that your friends--at least your close ones--and family stay away.

Suzanne: The kind of socializing that Oldenburg describes as happening in third places is deeply exclusive.

Eric: Unapologetically so. That's part of what so surprises me since, as you aptly described it, what LAMs really like is the idea of the democratic, civic-minded space.

Suzanne: There's no room for women, first of all, and he acknowledges that the third places he idealizes are male spaces. For Oldenburg, as far as I can tell, third places are for "clubbable" (p 85) types, and not really for quiet people, people who don't drink, queer people, children, old people, people of color, unmarried people, or people with any kind of visible or invisible difference. Oldenburg says that third places are democratic spaces, but his examples belie it.

Eric: His is a very undemocratic, closed-door kind of institution--which is not at all what most LAMs are interested in.


Suzanne: I think that in many ways by NOT having rules Oldenburg-style third places become exclusive. When there are no rules, policies, best practices or missions, you can SAY that your space is for everyone, but you can't enforce it. A clique can take over and drive away people who don't fit. People will not always do the right thing. We need to set up spaces in which doing the right thing--welcoming all kinds of people--is easy, facilitated and enforced. When everybody knows what your institution is for (collecting and interpreting the past of your region, for instance) then we have common ground on which to build social relationships. Nina's research keeps finding that the right kind of constraints work to produce a better participatory museum experience.

Eric: So for multiple reasons, having some rules (and focus) actually creates a better atmosphere for the kinds of social relationships that LAMs have historically desired—and still do. We are more comfortable when the shoreline is in sight. Open ocean is scary.

Suzanne: It’s also unsafe for many of us.

How LAMs Differ from Oldenburg

Eric: Then what’s the main attraction in the idea for LAM institutions?

Suzanne: The idea that our institutions become part of the fabric of visitors' lives. But LAMs want to foster different kinds of social relationships than Oldenburg-style third places do--and that's okay.

Eric: LAMs are attracted to the welcoming and open world supported by his idea of conversation, though for us it’s more the conversation about something(s). In the end, we are about our content. Whereas Oldenburg’s third places are solely about relationships, not content.

Suzanne: We want relationships, too! We want to be platforms for building relationships around a central core. I think that's why Cafe Scientifique kind of models have been successful: expertise in content and in facilitating engagement with content is moved to a more familiar place. Among Progressive Era LAM types, Gratia Countryman wanted library materials to be accessible to everyone, so she built branch libraries in hospitals and factories. And John Cotton Dana's department store model is an interesting one.

Eric: Department stores had some Oldenburgian traits, according to Dana: convenient location, open many hours, open to any who would come. There's a nice overlap to be found here blending the traits of Oldenburg’s third place with the mission of the institution. That's the sort of a "fourth place" model that LAMs want to shoot for. In the 1930s, W.E. Doubleday recommended that libraries offer lectures, dramatic readings, and wireless listening groups--but then display books related to the topics on offer. LAMs are right to want to lower barriers and make their institutions more approachable--gone are the days when the public is willing to passively receive word from the institutional mountaintop.


Eric: So what do you think a good "LAM as fourth place" model might look like?

Suzanne: I like the Storefront Library in Boston. This was a pop-up library on a main street in Boston’s Chinatown that was set up as a community information space, and it was a great success, so much so that they’re planning to reprise it in a larger location for a longer duration this fall. It was a collaborative library/design/art/community-building project. One thing that impressed me was their circulation figures, and how they valued circulation (read: engagement with library materials) as a metric as important as the amount of people who came to programs.

Eric: That’s something we’re confronting with our online visitors especially, but it applies in person as well: how do we rate--how do we draw value from--the quality of their experience with the content and not simply define success as “bodies in the door”? The ideal “fourth place” for me makes the content approachable in an agreeable environment--wherever that environment may be. I'm for any practice that makes the visitor more comfortable bridging the gap between what they don't know and what the institution knows.

Suzanne: In a way, you’re transposing Oldenburg’s idea about quality of conversation onto cultural institutions with more strictly defined, content-based missions. That’s our main difference with Oldenburg. But we need to learn how to measure degree of engagement so we know when we’re doing it right! There are definitely some useful tools in The Great Good Place, but cultural institutions need to think carefully about how we can adapt these ideas to best fit our missions, visitors and communities.

Eric: As John Cotton Dana said, “The goodness of a museum is not in direct ratio to the cost of its building and the upkeep thereof, or to the rarity, auction-sale or money cost of its collections. A museum is good only in so far as it is of use.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Making Museum Tours Participatory: A Model from the Wing Luke Asian Museum

Last week, I visited the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle. I've long admired this museum for its all-encompassing commitment to community co-creation, and the visit was a kind of pilgrimage to their new site (opened in 2008).

I'm always a bit nervous when I visit a museum I love from afar. What if it isn't what I expected? In the case of the Wing, I shouldn't have worried. The institution is community-funded, staffed, and designed. The new building was designed to meet neighborhood needs--not just in the content covered, but in the inclusion of spaces made for particular kinds of activities sought by locals (i.e. a "wedding worthy" community hall). It incorporates work by local artists, old and new construction, and is completely gorgeous. The exhibits are exciting. And the staff have a dizzying commitment to the neighborhood. They're involved in everything from job creation to sanitation to promoting local musicians and restaurants. I was immediately inspired to make a donation.

But the thing I loved the most shocked me. It was the tour of the historic part of the building. I am not typically a fan of museum tours. I avoid them. They're so frequently one-way drone fests. But I would go on the Wing's tour again in a heartbeat.

What made it so special? The guide, Vi Mar, was an incredible facilitator. She did several things over the course of the tour to make it participatory, and she did so in a natural, delightful way. Here are four things I noted:
  1. She started the tour by having us all sit down and introduce ourselves. There were eleven of us on the tour, all adults, mostly couples. Vi started joking with us about our relationships and hometowns while making sure we all remembered each other's names. She made it clear from the start that we were expected to address each other by name and have fun with each other. This immediately led to cross conversation. One man (Gordon from Kirkland) told us that "Vi is kind of a celebrity" in the Seattle Chinatown community, which made the rest of us more excited about taking a tour from her.
  2. Wherever possible, Vi personalized the tour to individuals in the group. At one point, when talking about the Chinese men who had built the railroads in the Western US, she asked each man in the group how tall he is. 5'11", 6'1", etc. "You're all giants," she said. "The men who built the railroad were only 5'1", 5'3" max." Vi didn't have to do this--she could have just given us the facts about their heights or added in something generic like, "you're all taller than they were." Instead she drew people personally into the stories again and again, asking us to compare our own and our ancestors' experiences to those she described. She frequently directed information towards individuals in the group based on their background, gender, or occupation, which made us feel like she was customizing the experience for us. (Note that there was a research study at Hebrew University published in Curator last year about improving a nature center's tour engagement and content retention through exactly this technique.)
  3. Vi was unapologetically personal about her own relationship to the content on display. Because the Wing is a community-driven museum, Vi (and all the tour guides) are from the community and have strong ties to it. In Vi's case, this was extreme. We walked into her family's historic association hall and a replica of her uncle's dry goods store. She showed us her name on a donor wall in the museum. Again and again, she told personal stories of her interactions with the historic and monumental people and events she described. She was political. She told family stories. It felt like she was letting us into her world in a generous, funny way--and that encouraged us to relate and share as well.
  4. Several times on the tour, Vi said, "I once had someone on a tour who told me..." and then recounted some related fact or history. I found this particularly remarkable. Vi is unquestionably an expert on Seattle's Chinatown and on the building we were touring, but she repeatedly shared information she'd learned from visitors. This brought other voices into the tour, but more importantly, it modeled a potential interaction that we could have. We were encouraged to share what we knew, and she demonstrated that she would listen and potentially carry on our knowledge to others.
Vi didn't exhaust us with content; sometimes I actually wished she'd explain more about the room we were in or the artifacts in it (a feeling I never have on tours). But she left me wanting more, and I'm confident that when I return to the Wing, I can take the tour again and learn something new.

I believe that the points above could be applicable to any tour guide in any museum. But Vi's tour also reminded me how dramatically different a community museum is from a typical institution. Vi is not a typical guide who was trained to interpret a building with which she had little prior connection. She is a pillar of her neighborhood. She has a personal connection to everything we saw on tour. I even met her brother in the lobby--a man who also gives tours at the museum. The first thing Vi talked about after asking our names was the capital campaign that built the new museum. She spoke at length with great pride about the $23 million the community raised to build the museum, punctuating her comments with prompts like, "Don't you think that's pretty good?" and "That's a lot of money, right?" It was clear that Vi isn't just someone who talks about history. She is deeply entwined in the stories, in the place, and in the institutional mission, and that came out powerfully in her tour.

Think about how this impacts staff recruiting and training. Vi is less like a low-paid interpreter and more like a senior curator. She can give a freewheeling, idiosyncratic tour because she has the confidence, the connection to the content, and presumably the institutional support to do so. I know this isn't easy--for every guide who is as engaging as Vi, there's probably a community member who'd drone on about his or her pet content. But participatory facilitation can be taught. Passion, confidence, and personal connections to the content--those are the hard things to teach.

What kind of participatory techniques have you seen work well on tours? Have you ever seen this kind of approach fail because the guide's passion was misaligned with visitor expectations?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 4: Viewing the Internet as a Third Place

This is the fourth installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This guest post was written by Xianhang Zhang, a social designer who blogs on design issues here. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

Even from the beginnings of the Internet, one of the largely unacknowledged uses very much resembled the type of third place interactions Oldenberg talks about in The Great Good Place. While "social" is a buzzword that has become nauseatingly overused today, the internet was social to the core from its very beginning. From early Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) & Usenet, to the more modern blogs, forums & social networks, increasing numbers of people are relying on the internet for the types of third place interactions they're unable to get in real life.

As I read Oldenberg's book, I found the passages that explained the lack of appreciation in the US for the importance of third places to be especially resonant. Despite the 50 year legacy of online community building and an obvious yearning for people to connect in a meaningful way via the Internet, surprisingly few "great good places" exist. The rest succumb to some combination of apathy, spammers, sock puppets, flame wars & clueless idiots. In fact, it often seems that the social tools we use are actively hostile to the type of community-building activities that help support a third place. This is not an accident.

For about 4 years now, I've been working to understand how we can make our social tools better. It started, while searching around for a topic for my PhD thesis, I turned my attention to social software as a result of this excellent article by Clay Shirky entitled Group as User. I highly recommend that all of you read his essay in it's entirety but I want to pull out three quotes which left me dizzy:

"Flame wars are not surprising; they are one of the most reliable features of mailing list practice. If you assume a piece of software is for what it does, rather than what its designer's stated goals were, then mailing list software is, among other things, a tool for creating and sustaining heated argument."

"You couldn't go through the code of the Mailman mailing list tool, say, and find the comment that reads "The next subroutine ensures that misunderstandings between users will be amplified, leading to name-calling and vitriol." Yet the software, when adopted, will frequently produce just that outcome. "

"In thirty years, the principal engineering work on mailing lists has been on the administrative experience -- the Mailman tool now offers a mailing list administrator nearly a hundred configurable options, many with multiple choices. However, the social experience of a mailing list over those three decades has hardly changed at all. "
My training was in Interaction Design and a design training gives you a very specific way of looking at the world. You start to realize that all the human artifacts in the world are designed and, what's more, most of them are designed poorly. Every frustration, every annoyance, every imperfection in the world--you become acutely aware of them and start figuring out how you would fix them if you had designed it.

When I was reading Clay Shirky's essay, the thoughts running through my head were that Mailman was bad, it had problems, I should think about how to fix it. And yet... nothing at all in my training in Interaction Design gave me any insight into how to fix social problems that occur as a result of the software. After a lot of investigation, I found out that, not only did I not know how to fix it, nobody really knew how to fix it. Social software was becoming some of the most important software we were using in our everyday lives at that point and yet nobody really understood what made them good or how to make them better. This was a deeply scary thought for me.

Oldenburg's book is important because it managed to put into words what many people only knew as a gut feeling or intuition. It dissected out this one important aspect of our public spaces and said "look, a pub is not just an economic institution for exchanging alcohol for cash, it also serves a vital social function." What's more, he demonstrated how certain social spaces either helped or hindered this social function and provided a framework to understand why certain pubs are great good places and others, lifeless drecks.

What this allowed, finally, was precise and generalizable conversation and learning. Before this, bartenders and coffee shop owners around the globe may have felt and understood the exact same things, but it could only be passed down in a personal, individualized fashion, via a kind of apprenticeship model. It was by articulating it that Oldenberg allowed a common platform of understanding through which others could develop, debate and refine these concepts.

It is this understanding and perspective which is currently missing from much of the online world. The tools that you use today are still largely built by technologists who come at the problem from a technology perspective. It's like a bar owner who obsesses over installing the latest, most advanced beer storage system rather than focusing on supporting the conversation which is why people really came. Any social elements of the system occur by accident, largely as a side effect.

Even more troubling, one the rare occasions that such tools do manage to get "struck by lightening" and achieve phenomenal success, the lack of understanding often causes the creators to mess around with precisely the factors that were so successful in the first place. Reading Oldenburg's book, I was struck by one particular passage (pg. 125):
Frank Dobie developed an abiding fondness for the clean little Anchor Pub in Cambridge. Reflecting upon the probable fate of such a place at home, he wrote: "If they operated such an establishment in America, they'd make a barrel of money. They'd enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable 'islands of the blest.'"
If this reminds you of a certain controversy that's been happening around a certain very large social network, you're not the only one.

If you accept Oldenburg's thesis, then the lack of appreciation we have in America for the importance of the third place has lead to countless social ills which we are only slowly remedying. Similarly, such pathologies also manifest themselves online and have caused the internet to be a radically worse place for social interaction than it has the potential to be.

The first step to fixing this is awareness that we have a problem. The next step, I believe, is to establish a practice around Social Design which can inform the design of social software in the same way that Interaction Design informs the design of interfaces.

This is the task I've been working on ever since I first read that Clay Shirky essay. Such a task is non-trivial and will require the contribution of thousands of people, approaching the problem from many different perspectives. But if we use Oldenburg's stories as a cautionary tale, it's a task I believe is highly worth doing if we are to preserve that Great Good Placeness and allow it to flourish on the Internet.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Million Giraffes (and small "c" collaboration)

This morning, I gave the keynote address for the Washington Museums Association annual conference. Their theme was “Building Community through Collaboration.” While lots of sessions described formal partnerships between organizations, I chose to focus on informal ways that institutions can partner with community members and visitors on an ongoing basis--collaboration with a small "c."

Collaborations with community members often can't get off the ground because they are seen as too unwieldy to be worthwhile. Again and again, I've been inspired by projects that invite collaboration in informal, ongoing, flexible ways. While all kinds of collaborations can be useful--and long-term, deep collaborations are often the most transformative--informal, low-cost projects can often make community participation possible.

You can download the slides and see my whole presentation here. It features lots of museum-based examples. But in this post, I wanted to highlight a goofy little (non-museum) project that inspires me in its simplicity and openness to mass collaboration. It's called One Million Giraffes.

One Million Giraffes is pretty much what it sounds like--a project to collect artistic renderings of one million giraffes. It's run by a young Norwegian man named Ola Helland who made a fateful bet with a friend named Jorgen last year. As Ola explains:

We were discussing the internet and how amazing it is, when I said: "There really are no limits anymore. Anything is possible! I could easily collect one million giraffes if I wanted to." I wasn't really thinking about what I was saying and Jørgen wouldn't let that sentence go. He refused to believe it was possible to collect that many giraffes, so we made a bet. The wager is, as it always is with our silly bets, a case of beer.
The One Million Giraffes project has very simple rules: make a giraffe (not using a computer). Upload an image of it to the site along with your name, age, and location. That's it. The constraints are clear and arbitrary. The language is personal, enthusiastic, and inclusive. Ola presents the giraffes in several ways--as individual images, statistically, on a map, even via a goofy game where you can view giraffes and guess the age of the people who made them. His explanation about the project acknowledges both the insignificance of the project and its power to demonstrate the collaborative potential of the Web. As he puts it:
It doesn't matter if I make to a million. I really, really want to, and I'm still working hard towards that goal, but at this point it's just fun to see people all over the world turning off their TVs, putting their computers away and sitting down to creating giraffes. Old school style. People spend too much time being digital. They should try be analog, being human and creating something real for a change. Most people love it when they try it. I get emails from people all over the world saying that they've rediscovered drawing! Families are sitting down in the living room and acting like families. I have hundred of emails from mums and dads saying that they sat down with their kids and had a blast drawing giraffes. People are actually having giraffe parties! Do you realize how cool that is? Please join in on the fun.

One Million Giraffes is charming and delightful and exciting because it demonstrates the power of collaborative platforms to bring communities together--even around silly things like drawing giraffes. To some people, this project may be indicative of the vapidity of the web, but I don't see it that way. When Ola talks about "how amazing the internet is," he's talking about its ability to support mass collaboration. And while his project doesn't have a lot of depth in terms of content or meaning, it's a signal for what else is possible.

When museums invite participation as generously and enthusiastically as One Million Giraffes does, they situate themselves as places that are open to all the emergent benefits of collaboration. I see this happening in the overflowing visitor comments on the walls of the Oakland Museum of California, the lines snaking through the Minneapolis Institute of Art to submit to Foot in the Door--so many places. I can't wait until there's a young Ola somewhere else in the world starting a project of this kind in a cultural institution with the tagline, "let's show everyone how amazing museums are."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 3: Pockets of Third Places

This is the third installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This guest post was written by Kimberlee Kiehl, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy & Operations Officer for the COSI science center in Columbus, OH. (note: I've written about innovation at COSI before here.) You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

When I was in Italy several years ago I was struck by the fact that every evening, outside of my small hotel window, what seemed like the entire town gathered in the square, the piazza, to just hang out. Conversation flowed, laughter floated up to my window, people strolled and ate or drank (or both), and when I went down to the square myself people included me in all of this without hesitation. As COSI began recreating ourselves a few years ago we consciously included the idea that we would become a sort of a piazza for our community, an effort that has proven to be challenging. I was excited to read The Great Good Place and see how we could do more of this.

At first I found myself thinking and agreeing with much of what Nina stated in her first post--that there are characteristics that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to be this kind of place. Then, as I read further, I realized that we might have some of this third place stuff already going on. I became confused. I left my office and went and walked around our building and saw that, in fact, we do have these behaviors happening in various places. And that made me start thinking all over again.

COSI has moved from being an isolated science center to being a partnership-based “center of science.” We now share our building with 6 other groups, each of them bringing science to the public in a different way. We want to be a place where the public feels like they can come together, not only to learn, but just to be… to relax, to communicate, to share. If you ask me if this effort to be a third place for people in Columbus has been successful I will tell you yes… and no. The bottom line is that PARTS of our building are very much third places. Other parts are absolutely not and our entire building is definitely not. Let me start by describing a couple of the spaces that are.

Our space for families with children under first grade, little kidspace, is the space in our building that seems to pretty consistently be a third place. Adults come with their children so regularly that we know many of them by name. Parents and caregivers spend time with people they know and strangers who they don’t know. Seating options were deliberately chosen so adults can pick them up and move them to small chat circles and converse comfortably. We don’t have any expectations that adults will interact with their children while they are in the space; instead we are perfectly comfortable with giving them a space where they know their child is safe while they interact with each other. True, some parents come, plop themselves down and read a book, but many more of them make a friend, meet the same people every week, and come to talk and drink coffee.

Some of our spaces are third places sometimes. The spot in our building that houses the studios of the local PBS station, WOSU, often is transformed into a third place. People from all walks of life come and hang out in the space, having conversations about whatever the topic for the evening or afternoon happens to be. The WOSU space is often open after the rest of the center closes and this space brings in a variety of citizens together to engage in a variety of conversations.

Some of our spaces become third places as part of certain occasions. The center of our building, the atrium, becomes one of these places every time we host a Camp-In event. Kids and adults gather in this space in the same way I saw them gather in the town squares of Italy. By the end of the evening everyone is there and we end the night with dancing in this communal space. This space definitely looked like a third place this past Wednesday night when we hosted an overnight teen event designed to help teens see how they can make a difference in the world. As I left the building I was met with over a hundred teens hanging out, laughing and talking in this space. But perhaps the best example of this is seen on Family Friday nights when people from all income levels, all walks of life, and all parts of town come together and hang out in this space with people they not only don’t know but that they would most likely never interact with in the their life outside this space.

So what’s my point here? My point is that maybe we are being too hard on ourselves as museums by trying to figure out how to convert our entire building into a third place. Maybe we should think carefully about which spaces best lend themselves because of population, event or opportunity and then spend our time and energy figuring out how to maximize these spaces and the attributes that make them third places. Maybe it is enough that parts of our building serve this purpose at certain times or for certain occasions. Maybe I should spend time and energy thinking about how to make little kidspace even more comfortable for families to be together. Maybe I need to think about how to draw people into the atrium during events so they can mingle and chat. Maybe I should more deliberately use the WOSU space. Maybe we should stop trying to make ourselves into a singular third place and think more clearly about the third places within our space.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Foot in the Door: A Powerful Participatory Exhibit

I spent last week working with staff at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) on ways to make this encyclopedic art museum more open to visitor participation across programs, exhibitions, and events. While there, I was lucky to get to experience a highly participatory exhibition that the MIA mounts once a decade: Foot in the Door.

Foot in the Door is a straightforward contributory project. The rules are clear: anyone who lives in Minnesota and considers her/himself an artist can contribute one piece. The artworks must fit within a 1 foot cube (a box identified as the "curator" of the exhibition). Artworks may not include living or hazardous materials. All artworks delivered to the museum during the submission period will be accepted and presented; no one is turned away. This year, the MIA also accepted audio/video submissions of up to 80 seconds, which are displayed on a Vimeo site.

Foot in the Door has morphed since its first show in 1980, growing from 300 to 4,800 submissions. Some artists and art-lovers bemoan the fact that Foot in the Door has grown beyond professionals to include hobbyists and casual art-makers, but for many contributors, the exhibition is an opportunity to revel in the diversity of art-making (for example, see this contributor's reflection). Thousands of people showed up for the opening and other events, and every time I was in the galleries, I observed highly engaged visitors who looked closely, shared impressions naturally with friends and strangers, and generally seemed captivated by the experience.

What makes Foot in the Door a success?
  • The design constraint is simple to understand, specific enough to be interesting, and doesn't prescribe the output. By limiting artworks by size alone, Foot in the Door is open to a huge range of content and media. The size constraint makes it easy to show lots of work and reinforces the egalitarian vibe of the project. It also makes the whole show more digestible; like Twitter, it's easy for spectators to scan and encourages contributors to focus their presentation. Some more savvy contributors even thought about how their work would read in a very busy gallery stuffed with art--another kind of design constraint that can spur creativity.
  • The exhibition design suggests both democracy and intimacy. The galleries are packed tightly, floor to ceiling, and you feel both that you can see everything and that you might find secret diamonds in the rough. I watched many visitors hunt down favorites or pieces with which they had personal connections to share, like little private gifts, with others. This promoted lots of social object behavior, including lots of pointing at art.
  • The design promotes dialogue among and about artworks. Packing in the art in so closely in huge grids meant that it was easy to experience the works relationally, to find things that went together or spoke to each other. While the gallery design did not improve the individual viewing of each work (especially those that were placed up high or low), it did more easily support people talking about how works related--an important and interesting concept in art education. I particularly enjoyed a few pieces that were clearly coordinated among contributors, such as four boxes labeled YES, NO, MAYBE, and POSSIBLY with red buttons on them so visitors could make their selections.
  • The diversity of content promotes comfortable dialogue about preferences. In a traditional curated gallery, many visitors don't feel comfortable saying that they like or dislike particular works. They know that an expert has selected them, and that tends to overshadow personal inclination. In Foot in the Door, the content is so wide-ranging that it was easy for people to talk about favorites. In fact, I think there is an expectation that some works will be great and others crap--and visitors revel in the opportunity to arbitrate the difference themselves. Again, this is a valuable learning experience that may not be supported in traditional art exhibitions which are lorded over by invisible experts.
  • Lots of visitors have a personal connection to the exhibition. I met several visitors who came to see their own artworks or those made by family or friends. This promoted all kinds of positive outcomes: a sense of public recognition for participants, personal relevance of the institution for contributors and friends, and an easy entry point to conversations with strangers. I also heard several adults say to kids, "In ten years, you could be in the next one!" While this may make some art aficionados cringe, I was thrilled by the implicit message that the art museum could be useful to your life in the future, that you could be part of it, that it is open to you and your creative expression. It's rare for an art exhibition to encourage not just art appreciation but art-making as well.
  • The staff did a wonderful job documenting the project. I've loved checking out the videos and photos that staff took to support Foot in the Door 4. My favorites are the YouTube videos--of contributors introducing themselves and their work (the best!), visitors discussing the show at the opening, time-lapse of installation, and a 10-min run-though of every single piece in the show. The only thing I really wish existed were more personal stories from the artists--I would have loved to see statements and photos of them alongside their works. I also think it would be useful for the MIA to aggregate blog posts, Flickr photos, etc. created by visitors and contributors so we can access "in my words" content all in one place.
The most challenging part of Foot in the Door--or any nontraditional project--is figuring out what it means for the institution overall. I started this list saying that the exhibition is a "success"--which I believe it is. But at the MIA, as at any museum, measuring success is not always cut and dry. Yes, Foot in the Door draws lots of diverse people--both contributors and visitors. Yes, people get highly energized in the space and have great conversations about art and art-making. But the project also takes a ton of work, especially during intake and installation. And it's quite a departure from the way the rest of the galleries in the museum curate and present art, which makes it hard to figure out where it "fits" with the institution and whether and how it could be expanded.

Foot in the Door can't be judged as a success or a failure without an institution- or industry-wide understanding of what success looks like. And we need this discussion to happen if we want to promote innovation. So many institutions focus on maintaining their programs rather than figuring out what programs will help them achieve their desired outcomes. This makes it harder for new modes of visitor engagement or content presentation to gain traction, as projects are judged by their institutional culture fit rather than their ability to yield great visitor outcomes.

In the best situations, projects like Foot in the Door force staff to really examine what they perceive to be "successful" visitor outcomes and then find ways to measure those across all projects and use them in planning future endeavors. This is what happened at the Oakland Museum of California, which used its very successful co-creative Days of the Dead project as a kind of template for participatory redesign. When staff can demonstrate how participatory projects achieve specific visitor outcomes of universal institutional interest, it's a foot in the door for more experimentation and engagement overall.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 2: Small Rural Museums as Third Places

This is the second installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This guest post was written by Rebecca Lawrence, Museum Educator, Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsylvania. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

As I was reading The Great Good Place I identified with Oldenburg’s description of Main Street USA, small town America, and rural life. The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center (SLHC) is a small museum located in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Our museum is in small town America. Mom and pop stores, a few chain stores, one long main street, pizza shops, and local restaurants are surrounded by a picturesque farmscape.

The SLHC is a museum that tells the story of the Schwenkfelders, a small German protestant sect who emigrated from Europe in the 1700s and settled in Montgomery County. Our visitors range from local church families, Schwenkfelder descendants, homeschoolers, charter and private school students, local historians, special interest groups such as the Questers, lifelong learning groups, and more.

Reading The Great Good Place provides an opportunity as museum professionals to identify third places in our community, reflect upon our relationship to them, and consider the ways our museum could be a third place for members in the community.

How can a local history museum connect with third places in the community?

Identify the third places in your community, learn more about the lives of the people that go to them, and have a basic understanding of the history of third places in the area. Historically, for Schwenkfelders and other Pennsylvania German sects, social gatherings take place in churches rather than taverns, pubs, or beer gardens as one may assume would be a typical third place for German American communities. Certain attitudes towards public drinking amongst some local church members still remain today, as the SLHC, unlike some urban museums, does not serve alcohol at exhibit receptions and events. It’s always been a topic for debate.

Integrate into the third places in your community and talk with owners, employees, and patrons that go to them. Talk with museum patrons, staff, and volunteers to learn about their favorite spots in the community. In general, local women’s clubs, hunting lodges/clubs, diners, fire halls, churches, coffee shops, and large stores like Walmart in function as third places to our local residents. In our small town, I run into SLHC volunteers and regular visitors at the local Strawberry House restaurant, Powderbourne (the local gun club and restaurant), and even at the local Ladies Grundsow Lodge. In a small town, you’re always going to know someone at a third place. Integrating into the third places in your community demonstrates to your patrons, volunteers, and members of the community that you take an active interest in community events that are important to them and can assist you in developing ideas on how your institution can connect to those places. In a small rural town this is simple to do.

As museum professionals we want visitors to feel akin to our institution and want them to refer to the SLHC as “their place”. Lectures take place every second Wednesday of the month as part of our Brown Bag Lecture series. Our attendance hovers around 20-25 visitors, mostly retirees. We’re on a first name basis with each attendee. I say hi, shake their hand or give a hearty wave, and let them know we’re glad to have them here. Last month, a retiree greeted me by saying “Hi Kiddo!,” gave me a knuckle bump, and we shared a short conversation about technology, the SLHC, and his personal schedule for the week.

We want visitors to feel that our collections and ideas are accessible to them and we want visitors to see our institution as a place where they visit often. We encourage individual thought and self-expression so that visitors identify with us in their own way. One of my favorite examples comes from a sister and brother who attended four separate SLHC programs. These young students submitted illustrated storybooks to a student art exhibit at the SLHC last year. Their books were constructed during a family workshop on bookbinding, the images were hand colored illustrations supplemented by block prints made during a family workshop on printing, and their books were on display as part of our student art exhibit. One book was about farm life and the other about a knight and his dragon. Their family and extended family came to the exhibit opening to celebrate their work.

Our collection is made accessible to visitors through our exhibits and programming. During the last family workshop program on portraiture, students spent time in our gallery responding to a 16th century portrait in our gallery and to supplement the lesson our archivist pulled out a book of portraits printed from 1587 just for our small group of students. Our archivist, curator, and associate director of research will not hesitate to find supplemental material to correspond to a works in the gallery to use in education programs. We regularly feature artwork by local residents, whether they are students or professional artists/craftsman. Earlier in the year we had an exhibit featuring work by contemporary hooked rug artisans alongside Pennsylvania German folk art from our collection. Each hooked rug was designed and created by local artists who were inspired by Pennsylvania German motifs found in our collection.

We want visitors to see our place as a space where people can come together in different ways for many different reasons and we offer a wide variety of programs for various audiences. We have regular programs in a series to encourage regular visits and we’re on a first name basis and have a casual relationship with many patrons. These concepts are indifferent to the atmosphere and services third places provide.

What are some ways we can connect with a third place in the community?

Our local coffee shop shows artwork from local artists and there’s an open mic night and poetry readings. Employees at main street businesses go to the coffee shop over lunch and for an afternoon coffee. It’s a third place three blocks away from our museum. We can bring our collection to them. We can enlarge early 20th century photographs of the Main Street community and place them on the walls of the local coffee shop as part of their rotating art displays. It’s not indifferent to the culture that already exists there. It is a relaxing, informal opportunity to encourage members of the community to reminisce about the history of the community while sipping coffee, enjoying lunch and chatting with friends.

Inside our walls, we could be a third place for self-supporting learning groups. As knitting clubs and book clubs flock to coffee shops, bookstores, and cafes, we can open our spaces to them. As a local history museum we could offer an opportunities for self-supporting groups, such as rug hookers, weavers, genealogists, and PA German craftsman guilds or informal groups to meet regularly in our exhibition spaces or classroom spaces to continue to cultivate their interests or teach others their art­. Beginning this fall the SLHC is going to offer our facility as an opportunity for members of the PA German community to enjoy coffee, traditional PA German foods, and chat in the dialect about various subjects.

The Museums, Libraries, & Archives Council in the UK has an Opening Up Spaces campaign published in May 2010. It is based upon the government’s The Learning Revolution. Opening Up Spaces calls museums, libraries, and archives to offer their sites to special interest groups. Their research has shown that self-supporting learning groups are essential to the health and well being of the community. Their campaign provides resources, websites, and strategies for encouraging self-supporting learning groups to come to your institution. (www.mla.gov.uk) It may be a source of ideas.

Reading Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place is a starting point to begin to think about your community’s third places and their relationships to your museum. Identify third places in your community by speaking to community members and find out what is unique about the environment of their third places, and brainstorm ideas on how to connect your institution’s mission to them. Your site may be a perfect venue to host self supporting learning groups or you may consider developing outreach programs to reach out to third places.

Thanks to Rebecca for this post! Tune in next week for a reflection on the book from another perspective.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

AAM 2010 Recap: Slides, Surprises, and a Banjo

This year, the American Association of Museums annual conference was in Los Angeles (my hometown). It featured mariachis, an extraordinarily odd panorama, and a fabulous beer hall with superb french fries. I hosted two sessions, one on design for participation and the other on mission-driven museum technology development. This post recaps those sessions and other personal highlights of the conference.

Is there any better ingredient for a successful conference session than a banjo? Kathleen McLean (Independent Exhibitions), Dan Spock (Minnesota History Center), and Kris Morrissey (University of Washington) all shared thought-provoking and useful insights on visitor participation in museums, but Mark Allen and Emily Lacy brought down the house with their bluegrass rendering of the Machine Project and its engaging, quirky work. This session was participatory in several ways, including interactive music-making machines in the audience and half the time reserved for Q&A. You can view and download all the slides here.

A few things I learned from the presentations and discussion:
  • Dan shared a useful 4-step mental model for the progression of how institutions move towards participatory engagement. He started with museums as a "place to go"--to see things, consume experiences. Then, he moved to museums as a "thing to do"--to touch things, play with interactives. Third, museums as a "place to be heard"--to share your voice, your stories, your interpretation. Finally, museums as "facilitators" of visitors' own experiences and interests.
  • Kathleen showed lots of participatory elements in the redesigned Oakland Museum of California. It's only been open for a few weeks, and they already have lots of visitors sharing stories, making and sharing art, and adding their voice to the exhibitions. I'm particularly impressed by the bravery with which a big museum chose to take a more understated approach to many aspects of the design. The lowkey, unfinished look makes the museum feel open to visitors' improvements.
  • Kris talked about brain research related to the potential cognitive and social impacts of participation. One of the resources she shared is a book called Brain Rules, which presents studies about the power of "cognitive force environment"--the idea that we need to be able to actually change an environment to learn from it. It's not enough to just receive information. You need to be in an environment where you can alter things based on what you think. This is highly related to what I talked about--the fact that participation works best when the institution is responsive to what visitors make. I talked about using the design question: "How can visitors make this project better?" to find ways that professionals can develop responsive feedback loops where there's an actual demand driving the visitor participation--and a result that changes based on what they do.
  • Q&A is greatly improved with a little bit of preconditioning. I did an experiment in my wording with the session introduction. I told the crowd that we were going to save half the time for discussion, and that we looked to them as participants and partners in making a great session. I asked them to think about how they could ask questions or share ideas in ways that would be as useful as possible to everyone in the room. It may have been a fluke, but no one monopolized the mic, and I felt in general that the discussion was incredibly interesting, useful, and fast-paced.

What can you expect from a conference session that happens during the last time slot on the last day? In this case, a heck of a lot. This session brought together Bruce Wyman (Second Story), Shelley Bernstein (Brooklyn Museum), Beck Tench (Museum of Life and Science), and myself to talk about our unique approaches to technology development in museums. Again, we did short presentations followed by lots of active discussion. You can view and download the slides here.

A few things that stood out:
  • Beck Tench continues to blow me away with her thoughtful, clever, and powerful approach to her work (and her slide presentations). Beck talked about her role as the only tech person at a mid-sized science museum as one of capacity-building. She has functionally branded herself in the institution as the person who is helping other staff members learn about innovative technologies, try new experiments, and measure their attempts. She runs a "Beck and Ted's Excellent Lunch Hour" in which people watch a Ted talk and then discuss it. She keeps a failure portfolio. She really thinks about how she is evolving as a scientific thinker while trying to promote science for staff and visitors. She's become one of my heroes. You should follow her sporadic blog.
  • This session worked because everyone was willing to speak incredibly honestly about the challenges they face in their work. We got some really tough questions--how to deal with grants that were written with specific technologies in mind, how to deal with board members who want shiny objects, what role technology should play relative to curatorial, education, and marketing in the institutional hierarchy. The conversation worked and the questions kept coming because the answers were thoughtful and open. It was a breath of fresh air in what can often be a stilted environment.

Other Stuff

There were several other sessions and meetings that inspired and challenged me at the conference. A few highlights:
  • Cecelia Garibay talked about audience development at the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum. She described a project to increase Latino audiences that succeeded, and then another to increase Vietnamese visitation that failed. She spent the majority of the time talking about what went wrong, and she introduced an organizational learning theory called "double-loop learning" that resonated with me. Basically, the idea is that most organizations learn in a single loop that connects programs to results. You do a program, measure the results, and then change or develop new programs based on the lessons from the results. The problem with this mode is that you can end up in a cycle where you try lots of programs that don't work and you can't figure out why or how to break out of the cycle. In double-loop learning, you back up to the beliefs that shape the way you develop programs and interpret results. Now, when you look at results, you see if you need to change not just the program but the beliefs behind them. In the case of the Children's Discovery Museum, for example, one of the disconnects with the Vietnamese community came from a fundamental difference in how the staff and Vietnamese parents saw competition. Competition is a big part of childrens' lives in Vietnamese culture, but it was seen by museum staff as antithetical to their approach to programming. Confronting this mismatch in beliefs helped the staff see where their (noncompetitive) program offerings were falling short for Vietnamese families.
  • Fred Dust from IDEO gave a great talk about the IDEO design process, which includes a high level of community codesign and participation. I've been a big fan of IDEO's work for a long time, and I enjoyed Fred's copious stories. The part I found most interesting was his discussion of the difference between surveys and ethnographic study. IDEO does lots of customer research, but not via surveys and focus groups. Instead, they send out staff (mostly anthropologists and social scientists) to spend time with customers, hanging out in their homes, shopping with them, etc. He commented that when surveyed, people tell you what they think you want to hear or make up stories about themselves, often unwittingly. You get away from stereotypes and learn deeper insights if you really observe how they live. He noted that when IDEO comes up with what they consider to be solid customer groupings or profiles, they almost never are restricted to particular gender/age/ethnicity/class groupings. They cut across all kinds of people, because they are about the ways personality impacts behavior. This is powerful; it suggests that we should be looking less at attracting "21-45 year olds" and more at things like John Falk's visitor identity profiles.
  • Personally, I had lots of meetings with mentors and people I respect to discuss the project I'm trying to get started--a Belgian beer and fries cafe / design incubator focused on visitor participation. I feel grateful to have so many mentors in the museum field who give me their honest thoughts. It's a bit nerve-wracking to be planning what looks like a radical departure from the museum field. To me, the project is highly connected to the future of cultural institutions, but I have to keep learning and thinking about how an odd institution outside the norm can really have valuable impact on the wider field.
What did you get out of AAM? What was most valuable for you?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 1: Can Cultural Institutions Be Third Places?

This is the first installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This is the only post written by me, Nina Simon. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

Like many museum and library professionals, I am enamored of the idea of cultural institutions as “third places” – public venues for informal, peaceable, social engagement outside of home or work. But now, after a careful read of Ray Oldenburg’s book in which he defines and describes third places, I am uncertain of whether it is possible for museums and libraries to be such venues.

The Great Good Place is a book that challenged many of my preconceptions about third places—what defines them, what makes them work, and how they function. Here are four surprising things Oldenburg describes about third places—characteristics I think would be quite difficult for cultural institutions to assume:

  1. The primary attraction of a third place is the patrons, not the décor, the hosts, or the activities provided by management. A good third place is one that you can walk into and be swept into lively conversation or unstructured revelry. The places themselves may be shabby; in fact; shabbiness encourages ease of participation. In contrast, museums are almost entirely focused encouraging visitors to observe and consume institutional presentations and performances. Most cultural institutions do little to promote direct engagement among visitors, except perhaps at late night parties, which are often seen as off-mission.
  2. The primary activity in third places is conversation among patrons. The talk is “more spirited, less inhibited, and more eagerly pursued” than in other settings. People make fun of each other and laugh loudly. While the talk may encompass serious topics, the attitude is light and the conversation is not structured or overly guided. In contrast, cultural institutions often implicitly discourage conversation, particularly loud and boisterous talk, and when conversation is encouraged it is often highly structured around a particular topic or program.
  3. The stewards of third places are regular patrons, not staff. Regulars play an essential function in managing the social life of third places. Unlike museum members, third place regulars are not focused solely on their own individual use of the institution, but rather see the venue as a starting point for social engagement with others. Regulars teach newcomers how to behave and reward other regulars with close friendship. Rather than the standard “bring your own friends” arrangement of most bars and clubs (and social museum experiences), third places invite individuals and strangers to engage. Strangers, not intact groups, form the tightest bonds in third places.
  4. Third places are defined by their accessibility. They are open long hours, and they are located within a short walk of home or the office (or preferably, both). Regulars may drop in multiple times a day. Visiting a third place does not require special dress, a particular goal, prearrangement with friends, or an extra outing. Third places rarely if ever present scheduled events. The ubiquitous “plan a visit” section of a museum website would be ridiculous and unnecessary for the sociable corner store or pub that patrons visit with little forethought.

I closed this book wondering: are cultural institutions really interested in being third places? I used to think museums and libraries should be third places, but this book opened my eyes to how far they are from being so. Museums are explicitly about something, and third places are about nothing in particular. Third places facilitate engagement among patrons, whereas museums and libraries deliver services to patrons.

The cultural service model is antithetical to the third place. Third places are more participatory and offer fewer basic amenities than most cultural institutions provide. By being humble, third places make people feel more comfortable as performers, jokesters, and coconspirators. There is no chance their play will be overshadowed by more attractive objects, more well-conceived speeches, or more literate docents.

On the other hand... it’s certainly possible for people to use museums or libraries as casually as they do taverns, playing around with the art or the exhibits or magazines instead of with pints. Making this happen requires some fundamental changes to cultural institutions. More informality. Longer hours. More seating. More acceptance and encouragement of noise. More cultivation of regulars not just as docents but as social directors. Less judgment of how people use their time. Less prettification of content. Less presentation of a point of view. Cultural institutions would both gain and lose by becoming true third places.

Are these tradeoffs desirable or worthwhile? What do you think?