Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Month at the Museum, Part 1: A Video Contest that Delivers

On October 20, a young woman named Kate will move into Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and live there for a month. Kate was selected from over 1500 applicants based on a one-minute video, an essay, and an application form.

This post is not about the Month at the Museum concept or implementation. That will come later. Instead, this post focuses on a fascinating aspect of Month at the Museum: the video applications.

Why the Video Contest Worked

Video contests are one of the most challenging kinds of participatory projects to pull off. It's hard to make a video, and even big, popular museums have struggled to entice visitors to make their own videos related to exhibition and visit experiences.

Not so for the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). The response to the Month at the Museum was incredible--over 1500 videos submitted in under a month. MSI did three things that most organizations don't or can't do when they set up a video contest:
  1. They got a TON of local, national, and international press.
  2. They offered clear and compelling rewards: the chance to live in the museum and a $10,000 prize. Month at the Museum also tapped into some powerful internal desires--for fame, for adventure, for excitement. This wasn't a situation where you make a video and maybe you'll win the chance for it to be on the website or playing in the lobby. You make a video for MSI, and maybe you'll have a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  3. They asked people to make videos about themselves. It is much easier for people to talk about themselves than about an externality like an exhibit or a science concept.

What the Videos Reveal

I'm hooked on these videos, but I feel mixed about the content. I've watched a couple hundred. In some ways, the videos make me incredibly heartened about the love and enthusiasm people have for museums and science. Nothing warms my heart like seeing outtakes of a guy trying to scale the walls of MSI, or a man spinning a yarn about his family's long history sleeping in museums.

But many videos reinforced common stereotypes about science museums, full of bouncy evangelists in lab coats pressing the "science is fun!" mantra. Only a couple actually addressed what the applicants would like to do in the museum or get out of the experience beyond basics like "engage with people about science" or "sleep in the submarine." I was disappointed that I didn't see any videos that played with data visualization or really pushed the idea of experimentation in the context of this opportunity. It's great that you'll blog for the museum and have fun learning with kids. But what will you offer that museum staff don't?

Whether good or bad, these videos are addictive for the insights they provide into how people perceive museums and science, and also how they represent themselves in this kind of contest situation. I wish I had time to watch all the videos and code them for their content and style, but I don't (graduate research project, anyone?).

The finalists were interesting, but not inspiring. Here are the videos that intrigued me most in several categories, so you can waste minutes, not hours, exploring. I hope you'll weigh in with your own favorites and observations in the comments.
  • Overall favorite. I loved this video by Tracie Farrell. She approached the question "why should I be picked" in a way that was smart, thoughtful, creative, and lovely. I'm biased, because she's demonstrating a participatory project, but she was able to "show, not tell" her interest in engaging with people. Her thoughtful video was a salve for me after too many bad jokes from people in lab goggles. In general, I liked videos made by artists, but some got overly poetic. I could watch this woman hula hoop between jump ropes all day, but I could drop the rest of her video.
  • "I know science" vs. "I don't know science." There were good videos on both sides of the aisle, both from bonafide scientists and people who reveled in their non-science knowledge (this included Kate, the winner, as well as one of my snarky favorites). I appreciated this engineer's experience and this student's experiment, but many of the scientist/educator videos were painfully pedantic, goofy, or even a little creepy (and yes, women can be creepy too).
  • Music videos. So many songs written about living in the museum. My favorite song was used by MSI as the background to the video at the top of this post. But I also loved the chorus of sharks, the Radio Disney MC's impressive rap, and the woman who somehow included the musical stylings of both They Might Be Giants and Ke$ha.
  • Personal overshare. There's the guy who proposes to his girlfriend. The girl who shows off ALL her gymnastics trophies. The guy who needs to get away from his belligerent roommate (this video also features my favorite take on the Coke and Mentos experiment). The guy who's in it for the chicks. A girl who loves aviation. The guy who's "a bit older than he looks." There were also many self-aggrandizing, "I've traveled the world" videos. Maybe their life experience qualifies them as interesting exhibits, but the best exhibits tend to be a little more visitor-focused than self-involved.
  • Museum staffers. Turns out lots of people who work in museums would like to live in one. There's this would-be astronaut from the Art Institute of Chicago, an educator/artistfrom the Science Museum of Minnesota, an educator from LA's natural history museum, a technologist from Sci-Port, even a Texan librarian. I'd love to hear more about what these people think they could do with a month at MSI that they can't do at work every day.
  • Old Spice parodies. Two very different ones from Davin and Kerry.
Do you have a favorite? What do these videos tell you about how people perceive museums?
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