Thursday, September 09, 2010

Guest Post: One Museum's Experiment with Threaded Comment Stations

Jasper Visser and his colleagues at the not-yet-physically-open National Historisch Museum of the Netherlands have impressed me with their innovative, thoughtful approach to developing a dynamic national museum. In this post, Jasper shares some lessons learned from a recent experiment to design a more social comment station. He will respond to comments here and can also be reached on his blog (where this post first appeared). If you are interested in this topic, you might also like this post about the Advice exhibition which tested a similar principle.

Last weekend my museum presented itself at the Uitmarkt in Amsterdam. The Uitmarkt is an annual festival that opens the new cultural year. Instead of handing out flyers about our upcoming expositions, we decided to ask the visitors to contribute to our ongoing project the National Vending Machine. The National Vending Machine is a travelling exposition that tells the historical and personal story behind everyday objects. All these objects and stories together we call our ‘community of objects’.

I thought it was a perfect chance to put one of the ideas in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum to the test. Her case study about Structured Dialogue in the Signtific Game in chapter 3 describes a project where people engaged in conversation online about wild ideas. For me the beauty of the Signtific Game lies in the way people are guided by a select number of possible responses to a wild idea. This structures dialogue and makes it more productive.We translated this online game to an offline activity around everyday objects. I believe it worked brilliantly. Over the course of the weekend a small team (three people each day) engaged in conversation with hundreds of people, individually or in groups and encouraged them to contribute to our community of objects with personal stories and new objects.

Preparation and tools used for the structured conversation

At the Uitmarkt we were looking for ideas for new objects and personal stories. In exchange for a new idea/story we offered one of our ideas: an object from the existing community of objects.

We printed 3 types of cards for the structured conversation:
  • Idea cards to add a new object to our community of objects. Idea cards had to be filled with the name of the object and the reason for adding it to our community.
  • “Good idea” cards to encourage an existing idea and add a story to support the suggested object.
  • “That makes me think about…” cards to continue upon an idea and for example suggest a better object to represent the same idea. (I turned out people also used these cards to tell personal stories about other ideas).
We explicitly excluded the option to give a negative response. Some people, however, replaced the “good” with “bad” on the “good idea” cards. “Bad idea” cards, no matter the reason given on the card, always stopped the conversation about an idea. Also, we put up a wall into which the cards could be inserted and added some existing objects to give people a point to start from.

Engaging people in the structured conversation

We approached people who walked past our stand. A typical conversation would start with the polite question to help us come up with new ideas for our community of objects and an explanation of the project.

In my experience almost everybody was willing to participate, even without explaining the object they would get in return. This gift, however, especially convinced younger participants. After having explained the project:

  • About half of the people started to think about a new idea to add to the wall immediately. Later at the day, when most obvious ideas had been posted, these people sometimes changed to one of the 2 other groups explained below. The first group mostly posted idea cards, sometimes elaborating upon an earlier idea with a “nice idea” card.
  • About a third of the people went to have a look at the wall with existing ideas and the conversation about them. These people would be most likely to continue upon the conversation with a “good idea” or “that makes me think about…” card.
  • A small percentage of the people started to tell a personal story about one of the existing ideas or simply a personal story. After encouragement, most of these people would add their story to the corresponding idea with a “that makes me thing about…” card. If the story was unrelated to any object, they would post a new idea or think about another story to add to an existing idea.
  • A really small percentage of the people could not come up with anything at all. Quite some of them would return later to post an idea after having thought about it for a while.

After concluding the interaction, some people would encourage others to participate. Also, many participants started personal conversations with us about the other objects and their story.

The outcome of the structured conversation

Over the course of the weekend visitors posted about 250 conversation cards. I didn’t count all of them, but after having looked through them, I guess about 50% were idea cards, about 35% “that makes me think about…” cards and the rest “good idea” cards.

There were some 10 conversations with 3 or more responses to an original idea. The longest conversation started with a cheese slicer (symbol of the economical Dutch), turned into a heated debate about the advantages of a cheese slicer to an ordinary knife, to give the idea to represent our “Dutchness” with an untranslatable object, the “flessenlikker” (bottle-licker) and then into a conversation about how product design in Holland has changed to make the use of this device impossible.

On an average, interaction with an individual or small group lasted from 5 to 10 minutes. Our main challenge now is to translate these wonderful conversations to an online representation that encourages conversation as the paper version did.

Concluding thoughts

Every participant left us with a smile, even though it was raining cats and dogs at times. Quite some wonderful stories were lost as in the lively personal conversations we had with participants, not everything could be captured by pen and paper. The results of the weekend were amazing, both qualitatively and quantitatively, in my opinion.

I think it is quite possible to translate the Signtific Game to a real-life experience. In next editions I would try to focus more on the “good idea” and “that makes me think about…” cards and encouraging people to use these. Also, I would like to try to turn the process around: starting with the personal stories and turning the conversation towards objects. This would give the community of objects its roots in the stories of people, which in my opinion is a strong starting point for even more interesting conversations.
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