Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Improving Family Exhibitions by Co-Creating with Children

Every once in a while I come across a project I wish I could have included in The Participatory Museum. Shh... it's a Secret!, an exhibition produced with schoolchildren at the Wallace Collection in London, is a lovely example of co-creation that demonstrates the multiple benefits of inviting audience members to act as partners in arts organizations.

Here are the basics. For one year, a group of twelve schoolchildren age 9-11 were invited to work with staff at the Wallace Collection to develop a family-focused exhibition using the museum's artifacts. With the support of museum staff, children developed the exhibition theme, selected the objects, designed the space, developed interpretative materials (including interactives), managed the budget, raised sponsorship, created press and marketing materials, put on the opening party, led interpretative tours, and trained museum guides. The exhibition was open for 54 days and was visited by 14,000 people. You can read a full report on the exhibition process, including lots of quotes from the young curators, staff, and educators involved, here [pdf]. You can also watch some lovely footage of the children showing off their favorite objects along with staff reflecting on the process here.

Pouring through these materials, I was struck by several key elements of this project that made it work. While the staff who led the project cheerfully commented that they didn't know what they were doing when they started, the process they ended up with bears remarkable similarity to other successful co-creative efforts, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum's community exhibition process or the Oakland Museum's Days of the Dead project.

What made Shh... it's a Secret! a success?
  • It started with a real institutional need. The Learning Staff wanted to develop a family-friendly exhibition, and they couldn't figure out what to focus on. They decided to ask children, and the project was born. The exhibition had a real story and theme determined by the young curators. It wasn't just "here's what kids like at the Wallace Collection"--it was a real exhibition designed by the community it was intended to serve.
  • The process was professional. My favorite part of the report is the clear expectations set out for the students, museum staff, and the school (page 7). While the staff did guide students through the exhibition development process, the students had serious responsibilities and lived up to professional expectations. Even without knowing exactly how the process would go, the museum staff set themselves up for success by treating the young curators as respected partners.
  • Everybody learned something. While the exhibition report disproportionately focuses on the learning value of the experience for the children involved (reasonable considering they developed the exhibition during school hours), the staff at the museum learned quite a lot about designing for and with children. As Learning Director Emma Bryant commented, "The exhibition is much more subtle than I think we would have done if we had done it by ourselves for children."
  • The project wasn't isolated to one department of the museum. Because the children were organized into teams (design, interpretation, finance, marketing), they intersected with many staff members across the museum. This created opportunities for institution-wide learning about working with children and understanding family audiences. A curatorial assistant, Rebecca Wallis, reflected that "their creative imaginations allowed me to see the collections in a new light. From the interesting objects they chose, not the usual well-known pieces, to the way they described them in their own words, not museum speak!" The exhibition report includes both successes and challenges of the project from multiple perspectives--children, staff, parents, teachers.
  • The exhibition reflects the particular interests and abilities of children while maintaining high quality. Judging from the videos, the exhibition was well-designed, well-lit, and generally in keeping with others at the Wallace Collection. This was not a poor man's "community gallery;" it was a real show. From the limited view on the Web, I found the artifacts novel (who doesn't love a desk with secret compartments?) and the interactives that connected to the objects smart and appealing. These young curators really made 18th century design, art, and armory accessible and intriguing. I loved the mannequins you could use to understand the relative positions of people in a complex painting, and the hats you could try on to feel what it was like to wear a hidden metal protective cap under your fashionably floppy chapeau. As a lover of audience participation, I was particularly taken by the "souvenir tree," which invited visitors to emulate a woman in a painting carving a message into a tree by writing their own secrets on postcards and putting them in a box on a graphic tree on the wall.
  • The partnership was a manageable starting point for future collaborations. The museum worked with St. Vincent's school because it was just down the road from the museum, making it easy for the children to meet weekly throughout the year at either site to work on the project. While the museum and the school didn't have a strong history of collaboration, this project seemed reasonable enough to try. The project was carefully designed to achieve related but different goals for each institution--for the museum, to learn more about children and generate an exhibition, and for the school, to support children's educational development through a novel opportunity. The museum and school are now planning future projects together, including a youth advisory board for the museum and some shared professional development opportunities across museum staff and teachers at St. Vincent's.
  • The project was well-documented. The Wallace Collection folks did the little things that matter--shooting photos and video throughout the process--as well as the big things--writing a report that included multiple stakeholders. While the exhibition report could certainly be more rigorous in terms of evaluation, I appreciated the focus not only on the children's experience but that of museum staff, school staff, and parents. To me, the group most lacking from the report is the general audience. While there is some reporting about audience numbers and visitor comments, there isn't a lot of content about how people responded to the exhibition. There is an appendix with the full visitor survey, but it was administered with only a handful of folks.
Rather than write more, I urge to you to read the Wallace Collection report and enjoy the story of an institution thoughtfully engaging with community members as partners for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. Here's to many more such projects!

And by the way, I learned about this project through a blog comment by Maria Gilbert. If you know about great projects we should be discussing, please share!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Six Museum-Related Blogs You Might Not Know About That Are Really Good

Need some new inspiration in your feed reader? Here are six little-known blogs I've enjoyed reading this year. I believe that the museum blogosphere is still underdeveloped and there's lots of room for people to share their inspiration, experience, and ideas. I hope next year at this time, all six on this list will still be going strong and accompanied by a chorus of new voices.
  1. Asking Audiences. For a year now, Peter Linett and his friends at Slover-Linett Strategies have been blogging thoughtfully about connecting with arts audiences in new ways. While this blog started by focusing on audience research, topics include subjectivity, participation, innovation, and culture shifts. Peter is a fabulous writer, and this blog has become one of my favorites. It's a pleasure to read and it always gives me something to think about.
  2. Jumper. This is a new blog written by Diane Ragsdale as part of the Arts Journal suite. Diane is still getting her "blog legs" and the posts are a bit haphazard, but she's one of the most brilliant minds in arts innovation, and I can't wait to see where this blog goes. If you need a good reason to read her blog, sit down for an afternoon with this incredible talk she gave in 2008 at an arts marketing summit and prepare to be blown away.
  3. Useum. Want something a little geekier? When anyone asks me who's doing great work blending online and onsite experiences in museums, I send them to Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science. When anyone asks me who's being thoughtful and analytical about social media in museums, I send them to Beck Tench. When any wants to learn how to draw great stick figures... you get the idea. The Useum blog is more of an idea-dump than a public exposition, so it can be a bit confusing to read. But it's worth it for the opportunity to get inside the brain of a phenomenally creative person.
  4. The Museum of the Future. Across the Atlantic in the Netherlands, Jasper Visser has been chronicling some of the truly exciting experiments he and his colleagues have been doing as they develop the national history museum for their country. The posts are infrequent, but where else are you going to learn about history vending machines?
  5. Thinking about Exhibits. A new blog from an experienced developer, Ed Rodley at the Boston Museum of Science. There have only been a few posts thus far, but his humorous writing style, knowledge of the craft, and far-reaching influences will appeal to anyone interested in the exhibit development process.
  6. Poesy-Praxis. One last new blog, this time from Jaime Kopke, the smart cookie behind the Denver Community Museum. Jaime's been pointing to intriguing design projects in museums and on the Web with short, informative posts. I hope she keeps it up--I know I'll keep coming back for a dose of the unusual.

What blogs would you recommend? I'm especially interested in those that might be under-the-radar or a bit out of the mainstream.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Parents Talking with Parents: A Simple, Successful Discussion Board at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

On a recent trip to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, I noted a discussion board in the "Nursery" gallery. The design is nothing special: a question printed on construction paper with a bunch of post-its and pens for visitors to respond. But the board is excellent, and I could see that instantly from a quick read.

What makes this discussion board stand out?
  • The questions are specific, personal, and written to elicit responses that will be useful to other parents and caregivers.
  • People take the questions seriously and write interesting, descriptive, diverse responses.
  • People feel compelled to comment on each other's comments, writing things like "ditto" or "Get over it!" with arrows pointing to other comments.
The questions fuel the high-quality visitor response. The questions are written for parents and caregivers to share tips, ideas, and stories with each other. The question this month is "What are your tips for traveling with an infant or toddler?" Looking at the board, I saw several specific, unique suggestions like:
Use Google Maps to find a park(s) along the way. A short break to run/swing/etc. is good for all. Look for elementary schools just off highway.
Drive @ night: -go during their longest sleep time -split driving w/ someone and take turns napping -You'll be tired the next day but getting there faster is worth it!
This post-it had another one next to it with an arrow and a "Yes!" written on it.

There were also funny ideas, like "Grandma in the back seat," as well as a healthy debate about the merits of DVD players. I didn't see a single off-topic comment, and while the board wasn't overflowing, it was certainly well-used.

Yvonne Atkinson, the Early Childhood Specialist who runs the Nursery discussion board, shared with me a few favorite questions from the many years she's been running the board:
"What was the best conversation you've ever had with your child?"
"How do you feel about your child playing with toy guns or combative toys like swords and knives?"
"What have you found out about yourself from being a parent?"
"What's the oddest food combination you've ever seen your child try?"
Yvonne told me that some questions fall flat--those that are too involved and require a complex response, as well as some that just receive generic answers. She's found great questions from her training in early childhood development, parenting magazines, and the occasional visitor comment that can be translated into a new question. Yvonne has been collecting the questions and some of the best answers for the past eight years, and she keeps refining and adding new ones as time goes on.

I firmly believe that questions work best when they have a real "listener" on the other end. While I'm sure a board with a question like "What's your favorite thing about being a parent?" would receive some heart-warming responses, it wouldn't be as useful as this board is. I always ask staff members who are writing questions, "Who cares about the answer to this question?" In some cases, it might be the institution or staff. For the Nursery discussion board, it's other adult visitors to the Children's Museum. You get the sense reading the question that someone needs your advice, and if you've figured something out that works for you and your child, you want to share.

Every adults who takes a child to a Children's Museum cares about his or her identity as a caregiver. They want to do a good job of it; it's part of the reason they came. To me, this simple by-parents-for-parents board is a great way to serve an important constituency of the Children's Museum--adults.

This is a participatory comment board in a true sense. The institution facilitates the space and tools to allow visitors to provide information to each other. The information is as diverse as the adults who visit the museum, and different answers are useful for different readers. The museum doesn't have to have all the answers. It just has to host the space for the conversation.

What's the next step? The Nursery is changing, and Yvonne is using questions like "What's your favorite book on parenting?" to figure out what resources to stock in the Nursery's library in its next iteration. The staff members are also considering expanding the project in two ways: inviting visitors to share their own questions on a second, nearby board, and documenting some of these questions and answers online. They have eight years of archived content from this discussion board. I can't think of a more perfect starting point for a children's museum interested in encouraging conversation among its visitors online.

Note: for more on designing good questions for visitors response, check out these posts.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Participation Starts with Staff: The Ruru Revolution

Let's say you've gotten excited about some innovative ideas for your institution. You want to get some projects going, but you're not in any particular position of power. Where do you start?

Ruth Harvey has a brilliant solution to this problem. Ruth is a curator of pictorial collections for Puke Ariki, a museum/library/visitor center in the small city of New Plymouth, New Zealand. Last year, Ruth received a Churchill fellowship that allowed her to visit U.S. institutions that were doing innovative work in audience engagement. (We met when I sent her a list of offbeat places to check out.) She came back inspired and eager to get moving on some experimental projects at Puke Ariki.

But Ruth was really smart. After a meeting with staff members from across the institution, she realized this was an opportunity not just to engage with visitors in new ways but also to energize and connect staff from across Puke Ariki. Puke Ariki has about 70 full-time staff members, of whom 10 work for the museum, and the institution is pretty siloed. As Ruth put it, "There was the feeling that staff often stick just to their teams and didn’t see themselves as a part of a bigger Puke Ariki – people tend to refer to themselves as “library”, “museum” or “i-Site” staff rather than seeing themselves as a part of the whole."

So Ruth decided to start with a simple project in which she'd invite staff from across Puke Ariki to write first-person labels about favorite objects. It was a project anyone could participate in that would hopefully create a shared sense of purpose and excitement among staff.

But she didn't just ask people to write labels. With a few cohorts, Ruth started a group called "Ruru" (which means owl in Maori) and a blog called Ruru Revolution. Ruru Revolution is a staff blog (which, luckily for us, is also public) in which Ruth and her colleagues cheer each other on for participating in the personalized label project. Every time someone writes a label, he or she gets a badge (a pin featuring the Ruru mascot owl), a photo taken, and an energetic writeup on the blog. This entire first phase of the project is set up to encourage staff to participate and reward them for doing so. Even the way the labels are being rolled out--first for staff in a January scavenger hunt, and then later for visitors--promotes a sense of fun, buy-in, and a special experience.

This is really unusual and totally brilliant. I've known people who start new experiments by writing high-concept proposals about the reasons behind the ideas. I know people who organize small meetings and try to push things forward. But this is a direct cheerleader approach. The Ruru Revolution blog documents a group of people getting excited about doing something new. And it looks like it's working.

Perhaps the most notable and potentially silly part of the Ruru approach is the badges staff get for participating. Why on earth would people want to participate to get a pin? But the badges are a brilliant stroke that really fit staff culture at Puke Ariki. Ruth explained that staff at Puke Ariki wear badges of all kinds on their key fobs and see them as a kind of unofficial currency, so it was a natural choice for this project.

Ruth explained the Ruru approach this way:
We see ourselves (currently) as an underground group that is working to affect institutional change at Puke Ariki – we want to encourage different and better ways of working and of providing satisfying experiences for visitors. So the badge, in my view, is about identifying other ‘revolutionaries’ – it’s a talking point. It helps to keep the project fresh in people’s minds and gets people chatting about what people have done to deserve their badge. However, that said, bribery really DOES work! People have been excited to get a badge and I imagine it has been, at least to a degree, a motivating factor in getting their labels written.
But that reward has been coupled with a lot of energy spent encouraging people, keeping them informed and praising them for their participation. The blog has been a great way of keeping people informed and I have certainly spent lots of time asking people about what they plan to write about in informal settings (and I imagine the other Ruru group members have too). The badge, though, has been a good way to get to praise people who have contributed labels in person – when they email their label to me I take them a badge in person and tell them what I loved about what they’d written. I think that has really helped with making them feel integral to the whole project instead of on the periphery. I’ve also intentionally described the staff as “experts” throughout the project and I actually think that – when the individual’s talents are often overlooked in a big organisation and its hierarchies – being given the chance to prove what they have to offer is very empowering.
Read the blog, get inspired, and find a way to bring the Ruru Revolution spirit home in a way that fits your institutional culture!

And by the way, I learned about all of this because of a cold email from Ruth. If you're doing something special and participatory, for goodness sakes, let me know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Next Book Club: Sustaining Innovation in Nonprofits and Government Organizations

There were so many fabulous recommendations for the next Museum 2.0 book club, in which we'll focus on a business book about innovation and organizational learning. After much perusing, I've selected Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally by Paul C. Light.

This book, suggested by Susan Wageman, looks like a fabulous, off-beat, and highly pertinent read for librarians, museum folk, and cultural professionals of all sorts. The author, then-director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, studied 26 Minnesotan non-profits and government organizations in writing this book. It appears to blend high-level recommendations with specific case studies. Including one on Wile E. Coyote.

More importantly, this book appears to confront questions I've been hearing frequently this year: Now that we've tried a couple new things, how do we institutionalize innovation? How do we move from one-off experiments to something more sustainable?

It's time to figure out some answers to these questions so we can keep moving forward. Enter Sustaining Innovation.

This book club will work like the last one. Starting in January, on Tuesdays, the blog will features a mixture of my thoughts along with guest posts from you reflecting on how the book is useful in your own work. If you'd like to participate...
  1. Get your hands on a copy of the book in the next couple of weeks.
  2. Read it (or a large chunk of it).
  3. If you are so motivated, fill out this two-question form to let me know you want to write a guest post or participate in a group discussion about the book. I'll be looking for guest posters who represent different types of institutions, countries, and approaches to the material. You don't need to be a museum or library professional to be eligible--just a good writer with an interesting perspective to share. In this case I'm particularly interested in people who are in institutions that are trying to "sustain innovation" in some way.
  4. For four weeks starting in January, each Tuesday there will be a Museum 2.0 post with a response to the book. I'd like to write one or two of these at the most. The goal is to make the blog a community space for different viewpoints.
Happy reading!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Can You Make A/B Testing Part of Your Practice?

One of the things that fascinates me about comment boards is the extent to which design impacts visitor contributions. Each of us (and every visitor) has within us the capacity to be both profound and banal, and our choice at any moment depends not just on how we feel intrinsically but also what external prompts, tools, and motivations are provided.

It's not surprising that design impacts behavior, but many people want proof that visitors are capable of more than writing "I was here" in a comment book. How do I know that design impacts visitor participation? I've seen it in project after project. I've seen how a typewriter can silently encourage people to write letters. I've seen how a "bathroom wall" can garner graffiti.

But the simplest evidence I have for the statement that design impacts visitor contributions comes from a formative evaluation performed at LACMALab for their nano exhibition in 2004. In the report, evaluator Marianna Adams described a simple experiment in visitor response. LACMALab took one question--"What connections do you see between art and science?"--and created two ways for visitors to respond. In March, visitors were offered white 4"x6" notecards and golf pencils. In April, these were replaced with blue hexagonal cards and full-size pencils.

What did they find? From the report:
The percentage of "unrelated" responses for this question decreased from 58% (with the white cards) to 40% (with the blue cards), and "specific" responses nearly doubled, increasing from 28% (with the white cards) to 50% (with the blue cards). These findings strongly support Hayes (2003) research that while the question itself has an important effect on the quality of visitor responses, the physical design of the response areas plays a prominent role in eliciting richer responses and decreasing unrelated ones.
Does this mean that visitor response stations should always use hexagonal blue cards and full-size pencils? Of course not. This finding suggests that giving people unusual or special tools can increase their dedication and focus on the task at hand. Other studies comparing regular pens and silver pens have had similar results.

This kind of experiment is called an A/B test. The museum compared visitor behavior in setup A to that in setup B.

Most museum prototyping does not follow an A/B model. We test one thing, learn from how visitors respond, and (hopefully) reiterate for the next round. This may make sense if you are trying to see how someone explores a space or approaches an activity, but it's not nearly as useful as A/B testing if you're trying to figure out how to write a great label or design a good question for visitor response.

I use A/B testing all the time to write questions for visitor comment. I've been amazed to learn that "what's the best job you've ever had?" is a lousy question but "what's the worst job you've ever had?" is a fabulous one. I'll frequently test up to ten different questions around a single exhibit. It's easy to quickly determine that some questions really are better than others in terms of prompting desired visitor response.

Here are three reasons I want to encourage you to consider A/B testing in your next experiment:
  1. It forces you to set priorities for what makes a "successful" project or visitor experience. When you compare different behaviors, you will naturally express preferences for one outcome over another, and these preferences can help you understand what you value and consider to be a "good" project.
  2. It helps you communicate about what you've learned with others. When you mount an exhibition and study it, the typical report is a matter of degrees--how much did people like it, how long did they stay, etc. Unless your institution has clear marks of success (i.e. more time with the object is always better), it's hard to figure out where these projects fit against benchmarks. A/B testing lets you say: "X helped us accomplish our goals more than Y." This is good internally for talking with board and staff, but it's also great externally for helping advance the field.
  3. It helps you make decisions that you can apply to future projects. A/B tests reveal theories that can help you make more informed design decisions, whether in ongoing development or for your next project. Instead of saying "people learned from this exhibit," you can say, "people learned more when we did X." Websites use A/B testing all the time to see how users respond to different visual styles and prompts and introduce redesigns that will be more effective at communicating desired content or prompting desired behavior. Designers put up multiple ads on Google AdWords or show users different versions of the same site and make decisions based on what's most effective.
I know there are a few museums playing with A/B testing (most notably, the Exploratorium). But I'd love to see a whole lot more, and I'd like to see museums doing it with everything from membership drives to exhibitions. These tests don't require fancy evaluative practices or expensive equipment. To my mind, we learn best as a field from A/B tests, because they allow us to compare the incomparable and glean new insights about visitor experience.

So how about it? How can you integrate A/B testing into your work?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Next Book Club: Your Recommendations?

Hi folks,

Seems like it's time for another Museum 2.0 book club, where we pick a book, read it, and then I and guest bloggers write about aspects of the book that intrigue and stimulate us. In the past, we've read about:
  • museum theory in Civilizing the Museum by Elaine Heumann Gurian (eight posts)
  • social media in Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernhoff (five posts)
  • participatory projects in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions edited by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock (four posts)
  • third places in The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (six posts)
This time, I'd like to find a great book about organizational change, learning organizations, and or promoting a culture of innovation at work. The more I talk with cultural professionals about promoting experimental practice in community engagement, the more I hear that the obstacles are internal. If the problem is us, let's start 2011 with some ideas on how to change.

I've read a couple pop business books that haven't thrilled me, and I'm hoping you might have some ideas of where we might find something really worthwhile to learn from and discuss. Please share your suggestions and ideas in the comments and we'll start reading soon.