Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Community-Driven Approach to Program Design

How do you develop programs that are responsive to your community in a meaningful way? How do you find out what's important to different communities, and how do you change your plans based on their needs?

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), we've started experimenting with a "community first" approach to program development. We wanted to create a structure that would allow us to:
  1. internally, clearly articulate our programmatic goals and assess our plans against those goals
  2. externally, invite people with diverse backgrounds and connections throughout the County to help us understand their needs and brainstorm creative approaches to fulfilling them
  3. sensibly balance the responsibilities and time commitment of staff and community members to the development process
In many ways, #3 was most important to us. After several months of planning massively collaborative programs (a typical monthly event might involve 50 partners), we've realized that the people who are best at helping us come up with ideas are not necessarily the people who are best to help us execute them. There are many amazing community representatives from business, arts, education, and social services who connect us to powerful ideas and partners. We don't want to wear them out on standing meetings or ongoing projects that may not draw on their talents.

So we've started a new committee called C3--the Creative Community Committee. C3 is a large, diverse group that meets bi-monthly/quarterly for a highly specific brainstorming session. C3 invites people to cross-pollinate and share ideas--the most promising of which we will follow up on to plan new programs.

The C3 process is highly indebted to two sources:
  • Beck Tench's honeycomb diagram for articulating and assessing program goals (Museum of Life and Science, Durham, NC)
  • Michael John Gorman's "Leonardo group"--a large group of diverse, creative individuals that his institution pulls together on a quarterly basis to brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects (Science Gallery, Dublin, Ireland)
C3 had its first meeting last week. It was an evening meeting with beer and chips. We had about thirty participants ranging from MAH trustees to artists, educators to architects, moms to grandfathers. Here are the slides so you can see what we shared. We used Beck Tench's honeycomb format to present the six main goals for MAH community programs against which we'll assess new ideas (quickly--about the first ten minutes after introductions). 
Six goals for MAH community programs.

Then, we went honeycomb-crazy. We asked the whole group to brainstorm communities/constituencies who they thought could make a stronger connection with art, history, and culture. We picked five of those communities and split into small groups. Each small group spent fifteen minutes brainstorming the needs for that community, and then another fifteen discussing potential projects and collaborators that could help meet those needs. In the end, we came back together to share our most promising ideas. The whole meeting took 90 minutes and the majority of the time was spent really working, not sitting and listening.
Moving from community needs out to possible projects/collaborators. 
Here are a few things that I think helped make this experience valuable:
  • We started from communities' needs, not the museum's. For example, one of our groups was focused on commuters. They spent the first half of their time not even mentioning the museum--just talking about challenges that commuters face, their exhaustion and stress, and the ways that their work separates them from the community. Once that group shifted to talking about project ideas and ways the museum could connect to this constituency, they were in a whole different mindset, and the suggestions they made reflected how we can meet community needs, not just market to a particular audience.
  • We made people write things down constantly. From the very beginning of the session, we told people that we wanted to get as much as we could from them in the time allotted. We gave them a sheet of paper to use to make random notes about ideas they had--and we stopped the meeting a couple times to encourage people to write things down. We also had interns recording during the honeycomb exercise. In the end, we had lots of pieces of paper with ideas tied to specific individuals with whom we can follow up.
  • We invited lots of people who didn't know each other. There's useful energy that arises when you put a teacher, a techie, a mom, and an artist in a group and ask them to work together. I think people appreciated getting to meet new people and stretching laterally. We plan to keep adding to the list of who we invite to these meetings to keep things fresh and varied.
What happens next? The real value of these kinds of meetings is in the followup. We deliberately avoided spending too much time sharing specific suggestions so that we can measure the ideas against our program goals and chase the most promising ones. Now the trick is for us to make sure we spend the time to do that assessing and chasing and make it happen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wandering Down the "Don't Touch" Line

How do you help visitors know what they can and cannot do in your museum? Most museums have this figured out: they have signs, they have guards, they have cases over the objects. But what happens if you take away the "Don't Touch" signs and the uniforms? What if you want to create a more generous atmosphere that presumes the goodwill and propriety of visitors? What if you WANT them to touch certain things?

I used to think these were easy questions to answer. I grew up professionally in the science and children's museum field, where touching is guaranteed and floor staff spend more time helping visitors learn and ensuring their personal safety than they do protecting the objects. I believe in the same idealistic vision that Frank Oppenheimer brought to the Exploratorium: if you respect visitors' intelligence and good sense, they will respect your objects. And this works pretty well in science museums, where designers talk about "hardening" exhibits to withstand the more aggressive touchers among us.

Art, however, does not come to museums pre-hardened. At the museum of art and history where I work, we are grappling with the question of how to help people enjoy themselves while keeping the art and artifacts safe.

We've taken down the don't touch signs and created a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. We've increased attendance among people who are new to museum experiences. The level of touching, especially of art, has increased. While it's great that people feel comfortable here, it's not great that they are (presumably unwittingly) endangering the art. This challenge is exacerbated by several factors including:

  • Inconsistent level of touching allowed. We are increasing the number of interactive elements in the galleries, and we haven't found a clear way to say to people, "touch this but don't touch that." In the history gallery, we have some blended props and artifacts, and it's rarely clear what is and is not ok to touch. I sometimes talk to parents who are stressed out trying to figure out what their kids can and can't do.
  • Many objects not in vitrines. We love showing objects outside the confines of a case. But it makes it less clear that they are not for touching. Putting objects on pedestals helps, but not always. 
  • Focus on family audiences. As we make the museum more family-friendly in a number of ways (activities, casual spaces, interactive bits), we have a lot more kids in the galleries. They love to run up and grab things. Their parents are not always able or willing to stop them. Many don't have "museum experience" and don't know what we expect.
  • Low level of staffing and security. We intentionally do not have much security at the museum. We don't have signs that say Don't Touch. We don't have guards. We do have friendly gallery hosts, but not every hour of the day. 
  • Engagement with local artists. One of the things we love about exhibiting local artists is that they are often here to talk with visitors about their work. It's not unusual to see an artist showing a visitor how she constructed something or created an effect. It's also not unusual to see an artist touching their own work as they show it to visitors. Especially during our woodworking show, we had a flurry of fabulous woodworkers opening their cabinets and drawers. This was amazing. It also made visitors feel like they could do it too. 
This is only going to become a bigger issue for us as we invite in new audiences and incorporate more participatory experiences throughout the museum. I am unwilling to adopt standard strategies of security guards and cases everywhere--both of which I believe introduce an inhospitable environment to engaging with artworks and with other people. I want to provide a higher standard of care for the objects while also pushing forward a friendly, generous standard of care for visitors. 

How will we deal with this? Here are a few solutions I've seen and options we could consider:
  • The Denver Art Museum does a terrific job indicating where there are family activities in galleries with a consistent visual look and feel that is repeated throughout the museum. We've talked about doing a "family guide" to our museum that helps people find these "do touch" spaces. However, in Denver, this approach is supported by the fact that there are guards in other spaces. The Oakland Museum, which tried a similar approach with their "touch me" stickers throughout the galleries (as shown above in the photo), has reported an overall increase in touching... all over the place.
  • Labels that explain the reasons behind the "don't touch" rule. We had a "please don't lick the art" sign for woodworking that talked about the oils impacting the wood. I've enjoyed seeing labels that explain these things, but I wonder if it's a museum-wonk approach that doesn't work for general audiences.
  • The Milwaukee Art Museum has a video explaining do's and don'ts of the museum for children. This video rubs me the wrong way because it reinforces the basic "nos" of museums in a cutesy way. Keep your arms behind your back. Avoid the guards who wag their fingers at you (until the part at the end where it suggests that guards are people too). In some ways, I feel like this is just a "don't touch" rule dressed up in a Reading Rainbow costume. But I appreciate the concept of a family-friendly introduction to the museum and I understand that this is not geared to me as a viewer.
  • At the MAH, we've tried proactively "helping" visitors touch in certain exhibitions. For example, in the woodworking show referenced above, we ended up giving our gallery hosts white gloves so they could open drawers and doors for visitors. It's not the same as getting to stroke the wood (which everyone wanted to do), but it addresses some of their desires.
  • Lots more trained staff or volunteers--not guards, but people who can welcome visitors to the museum and help them be comfortable and clear about the experience available. 
  • More hardening (without casework). Maybe it's not possible to be as friendly as we want to be without a certain number of kids zooming up to grab a sculpture or people mistakenly thinking they can stroke a cabinet. Maybe there are design solutions that introduce barriers in less stark ways than casework. I'm kind of dubious of this, but it's possible.
What do you think? If you want to create a friendly, welcoming environment AND protect objects, what do you do? What's the "yes and" solution to this? I'd particularly love to hear from people who are non-museum professionals on this one.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Weekend Reading: 2012 Trends and Young Adult Programs

Two great museumy reports to brighten your weekend:
  • TrendsWatch 2012. The folks at the AAM Center for the Future of Museums have been experimenting with sharing ideas in several ways over the past couple of years--through their blog, their weekly newsletter, and a series of research reports. This TrendsWatch report, which I hope they intend to make an annual affair, is the most effective piece I think they've put out. It's tight, clear writing on seven big ideas on their radar: crowdsourcing, shifting non-profit tax status, pop up museums, online fundraising, creative aging, augmented reality, and education reform. Each article includes museum examples along with a broader look at the trend. The content is pretty US-specific (especially regarding tax status and education) but the blend of issues makes it more broadly relevant than other reports that focus solely on demographics or technology. Such a diverse group of topics in one report got my mind moving laterally and imagining other trends I might want to follow.
  • Creativity, Community, and a Dash of the Unexpected: Adventures in Engaging Young Adult Audiences. I have a personal connection to this report, which was produced by the Denver Art Museum after a multi-year project developing meaningful connections with young adults. Three years ago today I was in Denver working with this terrific group of educators, technologists, and marketing folks to help them imagine new community-driven approaches to programming. It's amazing to see how far they've gone and how thoughtfully they've engaged in this work. While I'm clearly biased based on my involvement, I think this report is a bit deeper than some others I've been seeing lately that mostly focus on the branding/marketing side of working with younger audiences. It mostly focuses on program design, not marketing or evaluation, and some of the program design insights and framings are really valuable. I found myself frequently thinking: we should do that at our museum. The report starts with the statement: "We originally thought of this audience as an age group but later realized that style, not age, was a better way to categorize the target audience." Amen. Enjoy this quick read on rethinking engagement with new audiences.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Open Thread: The Hardest Risks are the Ones You Don't Have to Take

Recently, I was talking with one of my colleagues about some ideas to alter a longstanding annual fundraiser at our museum. "I believe in these changes," she said. "But it's also hard to feel comfortable taking a risk on this, because I know the traditional model works."

The changes that are easiest to make are the ones that smack you in the face. Something isn't working. Visitors hate a policy. People stop coming, or donating, or caring. When an institution is in crisis, there are huge opportunities to transform the system, take risks, and try something new. How much worse could things get?

But when things are going well--maybe not great, but perfectly fine, thank you--change gets much more stressful. Not everyone has a compelling reason to change. I'm interested in the question of how you take risks when you don't have to--how you conceive them, and how you make them worth trying. I'm not talking about new opportunities or challenges, but genuine risks that might screw things up or take you into uncharted territory.

When have you taken a risk like this? What made you do it? Do you ever feel like the "good enough"ness of your organization is hindering your ability to take risks that could vault you forward?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

How Do You Document Your Creative Process?

Recently, my colleagues have gone wild for Pinterest. Pinterest is an online sharing tool that allows you to construct virtual bulletin boards to collect and display images from across the web. While some museums are using the tool in clever public-facing ways, that's not what's happening here at the MAH. At our museum, our programs team is using Pinterest to develop ideas for upcoming community events. As staff members and interns discover intriguing activities, products, or artwork on the web, individuals can "pin" items of interest to the boards for specific events (i.e. Fire Festival) or program types (Family Programs). This is particularly effective for us since interns and volunteers are significant contributors to our programmatic team and everyone is on different schedules. We can collaborate on Pinterest boards asynchronously, comment on what others add to the boards, and plan events based on the aggregated information. We're starting to use it for the early stages of exhibition planning as well.

We're not using Pinterest to do something cool on the Web. We're using it to solve a basic internal communication problem. I used to constantly email links to individual staff members with a message like "we should try this." Pinterest replaces those emails by sharing that content a more broadly usable, indexable way. It aggregates design inspiration in a central place we all can share.

And that central place happens to be public. Pinterest allows us--requires us, really--to document a part of our creative process openly on the web. As social web tools become more mainstream and privacy concerns lessen (somewhat), I'm seeing more and more organizations use them in informal ways. Project coordination on wikis. Loosely formatted blogs to document progress. There's no extra effort involved to upload or create something special for public consumption. It's just part of the work itself.

What that means, potentially, is a lot more capacity to share the HOW behind our work, not just the end result. It's hard to learn from colleagues when everything is completed and spit-polished into a case study or conference session. I learn a lot more from the messy center of projects--when you know enough to have some goals and direction, but you're still muddling with what the final result will be. At least for me, that's when the juiciest part of the creative process happens.

At first, it felt a little odd to have people outside our own organization "follow" some of the Pinterest boards we thought we were using for internal purposes only. But then I realized we were functionally granting the world access to our brainstorming. I suspect as a professional I can learn a lot more from my colleagues if I can tap into and observe these kinds of internal conversations as projects are proceeding. And for students who mostly experience completed projects through packaged case studies, this kind of access may increase understanding about how the sausage is made.

I'm curious how other organizations are publicly documenting and sharing creative process. I think of this as fundamentally different from creating something packaged to share on the Web for comment. What tools are you using that naturally invite others to follow along? What messy creative bits are you sharing--intentionally or unintentionally?