Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Simple Outcome of Visitor Participation: Delight

It's funny. I've spent years advocating for visitor participation for all kinds of reasons. Visitor contributions help participants feel connected to institutions. It can provide valuable information for the staff to do their jobs better. It helps institutions leverage the skills and creativity of their communities.

Now that I'm on staff at a museum, I've (re)discovered a more pedestrian value of visitor participation: it's delightful. Every day when I walk by our visitor comment board, I feel like I'm getting little gifts from visitors. The AT&T guy doesn't write poems for me. The budget doesn't produce abstract drawings or suggestions for how we can serve our community better.

I think on some level, we've always known that these handwritten notes, drawings, and missives are charming. Some institutions have even banked on that charm to create compelling ad campaigns featuring visitors' comments. As a researcher and activist for participation, I've sometimes downplayed the value of this charm because it seems like arsenal for professionals who claim participatory projects are frivolous. "Be charming and delightful" isn't one of the bottom-line goals of most museums.

But maybe it should be. For me, a professional who is pushing every day to make a struggling museum relevant and sustainable, I find incredible joy in these simple visitor comments. Scanning the comment board is one of the few activities in my workday when I'm confronted with unbridled creativity and optimism about the future of our institution. The comments provide me with some mental uplift, and they inspire me to keep pushing. And yes, they've served our organization in all kinds of tangible ways--introducing us to new interns, volunteers, and program ideas. But I have a new appreciation for the intangible now as well.

When we have to clear more room for new comments, I move the old ones to my office wall. My goal is to eventually be surrounded by the voices of our visitors--funny, sweet, demanding--so they can inspire me all day long. That may sound sappy, but these are tough times for people working in the arts. I figure we need all the delight we can get.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

You Can Be A (fill in the blank)! ...Yeah, Right.

When I was in high school, we had an all-school assembly featuring a guest speaker who did a little thought experiment with all of us:
Speaker: How many of you can draw?
A couple kids raised their hands.
Speaker: How many of you can sing?
A tentative arm raised from a choir kid.
Speaker: How many of you can dance?

Speaker: If you were in kindergarten, you all would have raised your hands each time.
This was an aha moment for me at the time about self-confidence and self-evaluation, and it's one I've carried into my career. I started out working in science centers, where there is a very strong underlying message pushed at visitors again and again: "You can be a scientist!" I've often argued that art and history museums should adopt this approach and encourage visitors to explore their potential as artists or historians, not just audiences for content.

But now I've started to question the value of this message. There are many ridiculous exhibits that prompt you to "be the surgeon!" or "be the authenticator!" You will not actually become an archaeologist based on an exhibit, and the message quickly starts to feel silly and disingenuous.

The goal of the "you be the X" message is limited. It focuses on the mechanics of the roleplay and not the affective experience of what it would really be like to take on a foreign challenge. From my perspective, the most powerful outcome of role-playing is a sense of empathy for someone else's experience. What would it be like to live in a tenement? What does it feel like to take care of dying people? What is it like to discover something and have no one believe your findings?

I'd extend this to the long-standing debate about "You be the curator!" experiences in museums. I don't think it's useful for us to argue about whether people are or are not curators; nor is it useful to assign them job descriptions based on simple interactives. Instead, I'd rather we focus on experiences that say, "you can help us do our curatorial work," or "here's how a curator might look at this--coming from that perspective, what would you choose?"

It may be less sexy to say "you can try on another person's experience" than it is to say "you can be an X." But it's also more realistic (and a little less pushy). It encourages experimentation, discovery, and self-confidence. It embraces amateurism.

In some ways, the "you can be an X" argument precludes amateur involvement--it subtly suggests that the only way to be a scientist/artist/curator is to do so professionally. I still support the vision for museums and cultural institutions to help people discover new career paths and avocations. I'm just as charmed as the next person when someone says, "I became an engineer because of an experience I had at a science center." But those people are one in a million, and for the other 999,999, I'd rather we focus on encouraging exploration on an amateur level. I want to hear a lot more people saying, "I'd love to mess around with this on the weekend," or "I think I'll try to find a meetup group for that," or "I'm going to find my old paint set."

And so now when I remember that day in high school, I don't draw out the message that "you can be an artist/musician/dancer." Instead, I hear: "you can try lots of things, be competent at them, enjoy them, and learn from them. Even if they scare you."

That's a message I'd love to be sharing with visitors. What about you?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Open Thread: How Do You Feel About Music in Museums?

Should museums play music - in public spaces and or in galleries? If so, how should they determine what to play?

I asked this question on Facebook and Twitter, and the responses have been varied and fascinating. So I thought I'd open it up to the Museum 2.0 community, in hopes that we'll get some juicy international perspectives.

I'm conflicted on this issue.

Pros for music:
  • Music helps designers frame the atmosphere for the intended experience at the museum. You can pick music that helps people get into a reflective, active, or social mood--whatever you are trying to achieve.
  • A totally quiet, empty space can feel uncomfortable. Many visitors to our small museum have commented that they wish there was some music playing, and I assume that they believe it would help them have a more enjoyable experience.
  • A low level of sound (music and or speaking) can provide a hum that helps people feel relaxed about talking in the museum. If it's not silent by design, people are more likely to override their "shussh!" expectations and talk.
Cons for music:
  • While silence can be oppressive, music can be distracting.
  • You can't please everyone. One person's favorite song makes another person want to stab themselves in the eye with a pencil. Most museums are trying to please everyone. They're not comfortable tailoring to an audience and saying "we're a jazz kind of place," or "we're a punk kind of place" the way a retail establishment would.
  • Licensing fees. This shouldn't be a show stopper for a small institution that flies under the radar, but it's certainly worth considering.
  • Repetitive music annoys staff. While I'm sensitive to this issue, I do not think it should be a serious factor in making a decision about this.

Lots of people online have weighed in with their "love it"s and "hate it"s. What I'd love to hear more of are reflections based on research and also clever ideas for HOW to use music if at all. Some of my favorite ideas that people have mentioned:
  • having a sound curator and commissioning soundscapes for exhibitions (the City Museum in Arhus does this)
  • inviting visitors to curate the tracklist
  • sound installations in unusual places, like the elevator
  • an experiment on how "incongruous" music might impact a viewing experience - i.e. techno in the art museum. I could imagine the same piece with a wildly varied soundtrack and asking people to talk about their response based on the song played.
  • and of course, who could forget Machine Project's charming "personal audio tour" in which a visitor plugs his/her headphones into a guy with an electric guitar who follows the visitor around?
How have you seen music used effectively or disastrously in museums? What experiments or ideas would you like to try?

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Event-Driven Museum?

This is the casual attendance data from my first full month as the Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. It doesn't include school groups or facility rentals, but it does include everyone else who walks through our doors during open hours. This graph is making me change the way I think about what our museum is for and how we should market it. Simply, I'm shifting my perspective from an exhibit-driven model to an event-driven one.

Let me explain. Right now, as is obvious from the graph, our attendance at a single "Free First Friday" exceeds casual attendance for the rest of the month. On First Fridays we are open late, for free, with a band, food, and beverages for sale, as well as a few programmatic add-ons. First Friday is not just a Museum event; it happens all over Santa Cruz and has grown tremendously over the past few years. People turn out all over the city for art, and the Museum (along with lots of other galleries, retail stores, and restaurants) benefits.

First Fridays are raucous and fabulous events. It's not just a party; it's arguably the day of the month when we come the closest to achieving our vision of being a thriving, central gathering place for our community around art, history, ideas and culture. The audience is diverse and attentive; the experience is content-rich and on-mission. In May, we packed the auditorium at 5:30pm for a lecture on the future of the Museum, followed by an artist talk and tour. This past Friday, in addition to a small exhibit opening, we hosted a community art-making project where people could make quilt squares related to their most valued memories of home. People danced, pored over the exhibits, drank wine, did arts and crafts, and had a great time.

While part of our attendance spike on First Fridays is certainly due to the fact that the Museum is free, that's not as significant a factor as the fact that First Friday is an exciting event with a lot of community support and publicity. While we do have higher daytime attendance on First Friday than other weekdays (which could be attributed to the free admission), the throngs come from 6-8:30pm: hours we aren't usually open, when we offer a loud, social experience we don't usually provide.

Over the past several months, as I've been thinking about what makes the arts habit-forming, I come back again and again to the primacy of events as the driver that bring people in the door. Events have an urgency to them. They have a specific, focused narrative to them, and often a specific audience as well. They're social. They're often offered at special times that are more conducive to recreation than standard open hours. They provide amenities, like food and drink, that we don't usually offer. They are made for people to enjoy.

At a large museum, events and casual attendance are often thought of as separate parts of the operation, with an understanding that both offer valuable experiences in their own right. My suspicion is that even in organizations with a comparable attendance pattern to ours, the dominant mindset is "we are a museum of exhibits and educational programs that also provides events" as opposed "we are a museum that produces events and also has exhibits and educational programs." I know that's the paradigm I've always employed, despite seeing the huge spikes that museums of all sizes experience for specific events--heritage days, late nights, Dia de los Muertos, art festivals, Chinese boat races.

Why do we see these events as secondary if they are primary for a majority of our audience? From where I sit now, seeing the difference between days when five people visit and First Fridays where the museum is overflowing with people, I start to question why First Friday only happens once a month. For the majority of people who step through our doors, we are an event venue. More people come to the event who don't casually visit the museum than the other way around. And frankly, our casual visitation is so low that it can feel strange to be in the museum when there is no one else there.

And so as I look at this museum and what we have to do to increase participation, I'm starting with an event-based model. It's easier, cheaper, and faster for my team to develop high-quality programs with partners who already reach audiences of interest than it is for us to go directly to those audiences and convince them to casually visit our exhibits. Some of these events are big productions that will go on the calendar, but others are small--an artist demonstration, a game night, a makers' meetup. Even these simple events create a sense that "something is happening" at the museum in a way that exhibitions can't.

I know there are limitations to this model. It would be challenging (and exhausting) to produce events every day of the week, and not every visitor wants to experience museums in a social setting. But by offering events with a variety of types, sizes, intensity levels, and audiences, we can start to demonstrate that the museum is a dynamic, buzz-worthy place.

At the same time, we're working on making the museum a more welcoming physical space. My goal is to activate the museum with events at the same time as we soften some of the colder parts of the building that make a casual visit a little uncomfortable for many people. Again, this has little to do with exhibits--it has to do with being convivial and helping people who come for an event imagine that they might also like to come for a more self-driven experience.

If this all works out, a year from now the Museum of Art & History should both be a go-to program space (based on our events) and an appealing place to hang out (based on our welcoming efforts). I think we need both of those perceptions firmly in place before we can tackle the challenge of increasing casual daytime visitation.

I'm not sure if this strategy is a means to an end or a new model for how we'll operate all the time. What do you think? What would change if your institution was event-driven (or is it already)?