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?
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