Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Radical, Simple Formula for Pop-Up Museums

Pop-Up Museum [n]:
  1. a short-term institution existing in a temporary space. 
  2. a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.
Over the past few years, there have been several fabulous examples of pop-up museums focusing on visitor-generated content. There was Jaime Kopke's Denver Community Museum, which existed for nine months in a Denver storefront in 2008-9 to celebrate visitors' creations. Maria Mortati runs the wonderful SF Mobile Museum, which roams the Bay Area showing mini-exhibits on evocative themes. The never-quite-opened National History Museum of the Netherlands created an innovative vending machine for historic objects, which traveled to festivals and urban centers for people to add their memories.

And now, Michelle DelCarlo has created a shockingly simple template for pop-up history museums focusing on personal objects of meaning. I strongly recommend you read her whole blog back to the beginning (it's not too onerous) and check out the evolution of her experimental format, which she has deployed in museums, libraries, and classrooms in the US and Australia.

Here's how it works:
  • Michelle partners with an organization, institution, or group. They come up with a theme, a date, and invite people to come.
  • On the prescribed date and time, people show up with personal objects on the theme. There is paper and pens to write labels. The objects and labels are laid out on tables.
  • People walk around, look at objects, and talk about them.
This project is beautiful in its simplicity. Any institution could do this with a few folding tables, pencils and paper, and a little bit of promotion.

There are a few things about this that I find incredibly interesting:
  • The experience is event-based. Michelle noted after early experiments that short timeframes work best for participants. These are museums that last not for a day or weekend or month but for two hours. The experience is the museum, and the objects are exciting because the people are there to share them. There's no forced sense that the objects should remain or be relevant beyond the event.
  • The goal is promoting conversations. Michelle has an explicit mission to "create conversations between people of all ages and walks of life." It's not fundamentally about the theme or the objects but the conversations that happen around them. (She also has an interesting take on the deliberate choice of "conversation" instead of "dialogue" as the goal.)
  • The design is humble--and radical. Look at photos of Michelle's pop-up museums, and you'll see a bunch of plastic tables with objects lined up on them. Because the experience is the key focus (and because of the highly temporary nature of the experience), the design costs are nil. There's no focused lighting or casework or beautiful labels. This is the natural extension of what some innovative exhibit designers--especially Kathleen McLean--have been advocating for: simple, flexible formats that put primacy on ideas and visitor contribution. It tracks almost exactly with Kathleen's Manifesto for the (r)evolution of Museum Exhibitions, all the way down to the snacks. And it looks totally unlike a standard museum. 
  • The format focuses on intimate experiences. Michelle's pop-ups reach twenty or so people each time, and that's ok. Particularly for small museums, which deal in magnitudes of tens instead of thousands, this format can provide the kind of unusual deep experience that can only happen at this scale. Smaller is not worse. It is different. This is a format that works for small.
Kudos to Michelle for her inspiring work. We can't wait to try out the format at our own small place, and in partnership with non-museums in our area.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Hours Should Museums Be Open?

An exhibiting artist approached me recently at an evening event at the museum. "Hey!," he said, "I have some feedback for you. You know, the hours that you're open--they're not very accessible for people who work."

He's right. They aren't. We're open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. And if you work and or have a family, that doesn't exactly make it easy to visit.

This isn't rocket science. But it's a question that many museums seem to address inadequately. We try so hard to make our visitors feel welcome and comfortable once they're inside, ignoring the glaring obstacle that may prevent them from even getting in the door.

It's interesting to me that so many museums debate admission fees but don't get comparably riled up about open hours. Some of the most innovative, community-focused museums I know of are trapped in the 11-5 game, and it's frankly a little bizarre--especially from visitors' perspective.

The obvious outcome of daytime hours is fewer visitors. But it also has a lot of other chicken-egg effects. Imagine if a theater or jazz club was only open during the day, and what conclusions one might draw about audience type and preferences based on that decision. For example, in museums:
  • Retirees and vacationers--two groups with daytime availability--become primary audiences that receive significant attention and subtly influence programming choices. Who would be "core" audiences if our institutions were open from 3-9pm instead of closing at 5? How might programming shift to support them?
  • Evening events provide rare opportunities to experience the museum after work. Are these events popular because of programming, or are they popular because of the hours? Would events be as significant in the experience of young adult audiences if there were more opportunities to experience the exhibitions after work without special programming?

In thinking about whether, why, and how we might rethink hours at my institution, I've come with the following list of pro's and con's for shifting the hours later.

  • more accessible to working people
  • more symbiotic with times people are recreating downtown (dinner, happy hour, shopping)
  • separates school tours from public visiting hours, which can be helpful in a small building
  • requires changes to staffing and signage
  • can't rent the museum for lucrative evening events as often. If we're open every evening, it cripples this business. If we're open only a few evenings, it may confuse visitors.
What do you think? What questions should I consider in examining this? What have you seen change--or not--when hours change? What institutions are worth looking at to learn more? I'm particularly curious about other cultural and community organizations--libraries, performing art spaces--and how hours impact their use and value.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Inside a Museum Website Redesign

When I started at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) in May, one of my priorities was redesigning our website. I didn't want to do anything fancy--just make the site more functional, lively, easy to update, and reflective of the new institutional vision of being a community hub. You can see the site circa February 2011 here, and the current site here

We got incredibly lucky with a fabulous volunteer web designer, Marty Spellerberg , who saw my request for help on this blog and enthusiastically jumped in. Marty is everything I could have wanted from a designer--he overdelivered on my vague directives and pushed me to think more rigorously about what we were trying to do. And he did it all from afar--I've never met Marty in person and have only corresponded with him by voice a couple of times. Thank you, Marty. I hope everyone who reads this hires you to redesign their websites.

OK, enough promotion. I want to use this post not to talk about the final result but the process--what we thought about as we did this and what we hope will come out of it.

We made two key decisions that I think are somewhat unusual in doing this work:
  1. We tried to create a single message that clearly defines what the museum is about and put that front and center.  
  2. We treated the whole redesign process, and the website work going forward, as wholly iterative and incremental.
Single Message Homepage

Marty and I looked at a lot of websites for inspiration as we started this process. We tried to focus on small organizations--nothing too fancy and unachievable for us given our budget of $0. We saw homepages of two main types: blocks (i.e. MCA Denver) or single rotating image (like JMKAC). 

While both types had strong examples, neither satisfied us. We wanted to be as focused as possible with the prime real estate on the homepage while offering navigation that would be consistent across the whole site. I wanted to be ruthless about homepage creep and avoid the "my program should be on the front!" battles that can lead to incoherence. We are rebranding our museum in the community--not with marketing dollars, but with a singular message about being a thriving gathering place around art and history. I wanted the website to be the front line for that message.

Marty pushed me to look at websites in a whole different sector--online services. Many of these websites, from MailChimp to Kaleidescope to Posterous, have a consistent format:
  • The main ("above the fold") area is one big value proposition. A big image, big headline, large copy.
  • This culminates in a strong call to action, usually with a button.
  • Four or six features are highlighted, with no more than a couple of lines each and an image/icon.
  • Optionally, other relevant information provided to strengthen the pitch (testimonials, blog).
  • At the bottom -- last chance! Repeat the call to action.
While we weren't able to be as laser beam-focused as many of the online services sites are, we did pursue this strategy in the eventual homepage. If you look at the MAH homepage now, you will see:
  • Clear, unchanging value proposition in the middle: "Your Place to Explore Art & History." This message is supported by a slideshow of images, all of which reinforce the message (we have rules like "all images must include people" that help us make sure we're doing this).
  • Two calls to action (and yes, these could look better) to check out upcoming events and join the email list.
  • Four supporting events or experiences in a series of unchanging categories: "Meet, chat, study, make, and dream," "Dive into the past with family and friends," "Be inspired and feed your curiosity," and "Support our community."
  • At the bottom, below the fold, a restatement of the main message and a repeat of the call to action to join the e-newsletter.
We're still working on interpreting statistics on use. We've made so many changes--not just to the website, but to our whole institutional positioning--that it's hard to glean specific insights about the homepage. But there's no question that people are repeating our main messages back to us and commenting on how well the website reflects what they've read, heard, or experienced about how we're trying to shift the museum.

Iterative Redesign

People always talk about iterative redesign, but the truth is that it's really pretty scary. It means launching things that aren't done, shifting your website slowly over several weeks or months, and potentially confusing people along the way. But Marty encouraged us to commit to an iterative process for two reasons:
  1. It allows us to incrementally experience the new changes and to openly discuss what  should shift based on the response to the intermediate steps. This was important both on the back end--i.e. we switch to Wordpress and notice a bunch of little issues that need to be cleaned up before going to the next design step--and the front--i.e. we learn that our users want a tab for exhibitions and are not satisfied by a "what's on" tab that includes all programmatic experiences. We learned that layman's terms like "events" were much more understandable for people than "programs." And so on. We could keep making these changes with our designer rather than Marty already being out the door.
  2. It supports a culture of a constantly improving website. Every shift makes the website better. No shift makes it perfect. Most everyone on our staff and several interns are empowered to edit the website, and we add things as we can--even if they're not complete. We add events before we have an image to go with them. We incrementally improve the information about volunteering and donating. We don't need things to be finished to put them on the public site--we just need to have enough to know we're offering the base of something worthwhile. I think this is a healthy process for us moving forward--especially as a team with no single staff member who is "responsible" for the website. It's not a 0-1 game. It's an evolving site--just as the museum is evolving.
Someday, when we have a non-zero budget, I expect that we'll do a more serious redesign of the website. But for now, we're incredibly happy with what we have--and even more so, with how the redesign made us think about our communication with the outside world and our work processes to support it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Getting in on the Act: New Report on Participatory Arts Engagement

Last month, the Irvine Foundation put out a new report, Getting In On the Act, about participatory arts practice and new frameworks for audience engagement. Authors Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard pack a lot into 40 pages--an argument for the rise of active arts engagement, a framework for thinking about ways to actively involve audiences, and lots of case studies. It is framed as a kind of study guide; pop-outs provide questions that tease out opportunities and tensions in the narrative. This report is not an end-all; it is the opening for a conversation.

Here's what I think is really strong about the report:
  • Coordinated, succinct research findings supporting the rise of active arts engagement. Pages 9 and 10 pull together data from the NEA, the Irvine Foundation, Dance/USA, RAND, and the Knight Foundation to tell a tight, compelling story about the demographic shift from consumptive to active participation and the extent to which traditional arts audiences are also participating in art-making outside of traditional arenas.
  • Excellent case studies, especially from the performing arts sector. I've often been asked about examples of participatory practice in theater, dance, and classical music, and this report is a great starting point. I was particularly inspired by the case studies related to art and civic action (like Paint the Street) and intrigued by the "implications" pop-outs asking questions about how the case studies might impact your own organization's practice.
  • Useful differentiation in their Audience Involvement Spectrum (see image at top) between programs that provide "enhanced engagement" and those that invite audience members to make contributions that impact and alter the end result. It can be easy to conflate engaging activities with participatory opportunities, and I'm glad they were explicit about the difference.
  • Useful definitions of participatory activities as "curatorial, interpretative, and inventive"--this is a reframing of the Forrester research framework for online participation which is probably more appropriate to the arts context.
  • Useful designations of four broad goals for active participation (page 14):

    1. Participation in Service of a Community Need or Societal Goal
    2. Participation in Support of, or as a Complement to, Artistic Vision
    3. Participation in Service of an Artistic Process or Product
    4. Participation as the Fundamental Goal

What's challenging about the report is how many different frameworks it presents. I counted at least five different schemes in the six-page section on "Participatory Arts in Practice," and none of these were explicitly referenced in the subsequent case studies. I found many of the frameworks useful, but the lack of context and detail was frustrating. How did the authors come up with the intriguing blend of curatorial, interpretative, and inventive opportunities shown in the Audience Involvement Spectrum's Venn diagrams? Why is a photography contest an example of "crowd sourcing" wheres a community drawing contest is an example of "audience-as-artist"? What's the relationship between the goals of participation and the techniques employed?

I admire and wholly appreciate the brevity of this report, but I fear it's too short to be genuinely useful for organizations that want to act on it. The authors present complex ideas about active arts participation, and it's clear that a lot of research and thought went into their work. I'd love an extended version with more explanation about how these frameworks might work in practice, how they map to the case studies provided, and how organizations with particular participatory goals might best achieve them. If the goal is for organizations to adopt these frameworks as their own, I think we need a lot more supporting material--and maybe fewer different taxonomies.

What do you get out of the report? What next steps do you think we need to make it as useful as possible--and how can we, as active participants--take the lead?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Spring Internship Opportunities - and Thoughts about Internships

It's November, and that means we start looking around nervously at our fabulous fall semester interns and worrying about all the light that will go out of the world when they head back to school, home countries, etc. If you're interested in interning with me and my crew at the MAH in the coming months, please check out our offerings. We're seeking great folks for public programs, participatory exhibit design, online marketing, 3D design, and whatever else you might have to offer.

And while we're advertising positions, we've also learned to advertise something else: the experience of what it's like to be an intern at the MAH. And that's what this post is about--how we advertise the culture at our organizations (or not) when we offer new positions.

I had a bit of a wakeup call about internships last month at an "emerging leaders" lunch event at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The topic of the lunch was internships, and the tables paired students with established professionals to talk about opportunities, issues, and possibilities. I was dismayed to discover that by the standards of many of these grad students, I'm a lousy intern manager. At our museum, we don't provide a lot of structured mentorship for interns. We don't have job-like feedback systems or crystal clear criteria for success. What we have is a lot of opportunities to contribute substantively, and a community of energetic colleagues (mostly other interns) to support the work.

Talking with the students at MAAM, I realized I tend to run internships in accordance with my personal values and a recollection of what I wanted as a newbie in the field. I wanted freedom and responsibility. I wanted the ability to do projects that would end up on the floor. I wanted to be able to work out my own ideas with smart mentors and then produce them--despite my inexperience--for visitors.

I often feel like I spend every day relearning that people think differently from each other. Not everyone wants a super-unstructured internship. What looks like opportunity to me looks like chaos to others. And if I think honestly about the interns we've had over the past six months, their success or failure had a lot more to do with personality and expectation fit than their projects or work areas.

At this time, we're not ready to offer people highly structured internships. We might never get there. But we are ready to be much more upfront about what the internship experience is like at our museum. Our Jobs and Internships page now explicitly says that our internships are good for self-directed, energetic folks who revel in ambiguity. We need interns who work onsite so they can get into the swing of things. And we're best for people who crave unfettered opportunity to make and do.

When you advertise jobs or internships, do you focus on the activities to be performed or the culture of the institution? My lunch experience at MAAM is leading me to focus a heck of a lot more on the second and less on the first. I'm curious to learn more about how other institutions are handling this. I think it's especially necessary in a time when we're focusing more and more on 21st century skills in the workplace--skills like collaboration and innovation--that suggest work formats and approaches that are increasingly different from formal education settings.