Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Four Unusual Professional Development Events in 2013

Ever wish for a low-cost, energizing professional development experience where you can work intensely with diverse colleagues in a risk-tolerant environment?

I'm involved in four upcoming events that I'd love for you to consider attending. Three of them are being hosted at my museum, and one at a mystery location.
  1. You Can't Do That in Museums Camp - July 10-12, 2013. I've always loved helping run events where participants can really work together on something meaty and challenging... and this one is going to be awesome. In July of 2013, the MAH will host our first You Can't Do That in Museums Camp (or better name to be suggested by you), inviting 80 creative people to collaborate on an experimental exhibition. This camp will be a 2.5 day event at which participants work in teams with pre-selected permanent collection objects to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you've ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. Registration will be $150 and by application only. We will also offer a half-day series of workshops on July 10 for a wider audience for $50. Yes you can sleepover at the museum to heighten the insanity and reduce the cost. No you don't have to be a museum professional to participate. Yes you can apply now. Please do.
  2. The Arts Dinner-vention Project - date TBD. This one was cooked up by Barry Hessenius, former director of the California Arts Council and public art blogger extraordinaire. Barry is asking the universe to send him names of "unheralded arts sector leaders" to be considered for an all-star dinner party in 2013. I'm on the small committee of folks who will be selecting the winners based on your nominations. Barry is accepting nominations through November 20, and anyone who submits names will be entered into a random drawing for a free trip to join in on the fantasy dinner party. Read more about the project and how to participate here
  3. Ze Frank Weekend - Jan 12-13, 2013. We're working with participatory online artist Ze Frank on an exhibition at the MAH this winter that features the missions, creations, and explorations of his current web series, A Show. Because this work is evolving and involves people creating stuff all over the world, we decided it would be good to have a weekend where that wildness can find a home at our museum. I know very little about what will happen on this weekend, but rest assured it will be strange and geeky and very different from a typical museum gathering.
  4. Loyalty Lab workshop - Jan 29, 2013. We have been working for a few months now on a project called Loyalty Lab to deepen our relationships with frequent MAH visitors. On Jan. 29, we'll be holding a workshop in the afternoon to discuss our experiments to date and brainstorm with participants about how we can all find creative, low-tech ways to reward and celebrate our visitors. We would love to share that conversation with anyone in the museum/arts/culture world who has an interest. We will have some whip-smart game designers on hand to push our thinking. We can accommodate about 25 people at the workshop - please email me if you are interested in participating. 
Here's to a new year full of experimenting, learning, and sharing. And by "new year" I mean year six of Museum 2.0. I know; it's crazy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Traveling Couches and other Emergent Surprises Courtesy of an Open Platform

How do community members make your institution better?

I like to ask myself this question periodically, challenging myself to find substantive ways for visitors to contribute to our museum. Yes, we have the standard ways--volunteer programs, board service, and community partnerships--but I strongly believe that if we are doing our jobs right, every visitor who walks through our doors should be able to make a meaningful impact.

To that end, our exhibitions are full of participatory elements. Visitors can comment on how we can improve or what they would like to see. They can contribute their own stories, objects, and creative work to exhibitions. We actively seek participation and develop structured opportunities for visitors to collaborate with us.

That's all fabulous, but it's also all by design. And when I think back on the past year, some of the most magical things that have happened at the museum have NOT been designed by us. Instead, they've been driven by community members who see the museum as a platform for their own creative pursuits.

Here are just four surprises that have invigorated the museum in the past few weeks:
  • Pop Up Tea Ceremony. Last month, a couple came in and asked if they could stage a pop up tea ceremony at the museum. We said yes, and they have now participated in several events, offering a unique mix of traditional tea ceremony, koto music, and bedazzled plastic microphones (see bottom left of photograph).
  • Happening Couch. A local engineer, Greg McPheeters, brought his tandem-bike powered recycled couch to our Trash to Treasure festival last Friday night. Riding the art couch through downtown Santa Cruz with two visitors and a dog while blasting the Jackson 5 was one of the highlights of my year. Here's a picture of it in action.
  • Evergreen Cemetery Board Game. One of our research volunteers, Sangye Hawke, blew me away when she posted a photo on Facebook of the board game she's developing about the restoration work we're doing at historic Evergreen Cemetery. What started as a fun personal project for her will hopefully become part of our permanent history gallery--a space we are trying to make more interactive over the coming years.
  • Connections through Collections. A college student who visited our Santa Cruz Collects exhibition wrote to us after her visit to share that she has a childhood collection of bouncy balls (like Aaron Schumacher, a young collector profiled in the exhibition). The student is now donating her collection to Aaron so his can keep growing.
Of course, for every one of these enchanting surprises, we also have many of more variable quality: people who walk in with their paintings on their back asking about display opportunities, people who send us poorly-produced videos of their bands or projects, and lots of speculative, odd conversations. It's not unusual for me and our public programming staff members to have several short interactions every week with newcomers who walk in the door with idiosyncratic visions for cultural engagement.

I've realized that while I always used to ask that question in the frame of "what are we doing to make it possible for community members to make this institution better?," the most powerful evidence of it happening is when our active role as designers/facilitators becomes invisible. Community members, artists, and organizations increasingly see our museum as a place where they can advance their own goals, and so they approach us. We don't have to convince them that it's their museum. Instead, we just have to be generous and thoughtful about how they can--or cannot--participate with us. We've even started reflexively mumbling, "well, it is your museum," when someone comes dancing in the door or moves a chair or starts reciting poetry.

To me, this is an example of how the aggregation of participatory practices fundamentally changes the role that an organization has in its community. We've created a very consistent message about being an open platform for local creativity--through exhibitions, event design, online, even the conversations we have with the press. And while we are still continually seeking out great partners and cultural combinations, we're not always the instigators of those opportunities. The more we structure in participation, the more people feel empowered to bring their own brilliance to the table, spontaneously and completely beyond our expectations. The magic isn't by design. It happens because people see an opening where there wasn't one before.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dreaming of Perpetual Beta: Making Museums More Incremental

When I started this blog in 2006, I made a multi-media introduction to the concept of "museum 2.0" based on Tim O'Reilly's four key elements of Web 2.0:
  1. Venue as content platform instead of content provider: the museum becomes a stage on which professionals and amateurs can curate, interpret, and remix artifacts and information.
  2. Architecture of participation with network effects: each person who participates contributes something meaningful and lasting. Visitors' interactions allow them both to personalize their museum experiences and to engage with other visitors through their shared interests. The museum gets better the more people use it.
  3. Perpetual beta: the museum is always in flux, incrementally releasing new versions, refining procedures, and responding to audience desires.
  4. Flexible, modular support for distributed products: inviting people to plug-in their own creations, whether those be DIY audio tours, pop up events, or co-created exhibitions.
From 2006-2011, I focused almost entirely on #1 and #2, playing with ways to invite visitors to actively participate with professionals to co-create powerful experiences around museum objects. 

But in the past year and a half as a museum director, I find myself increasingly interested in #3 and #4. In a lot of ways, our successful turnaround at the MAH has been driven by both embracing incremental change and opening up clear opportunities for community organizations and individuals to "plug" their cultural brilliance into our space. We're using #3 and #4 to achieve #1 and #2 in the Museum 2.0 playbook.

At first, our enthusiasm for incremental change and flexibility was a reaction to a tough financial position. When I started at the MAH last May, we had absolutely no money. We also had a vision to be a thriving, central gathering place for our community. The only way to reconcile our resources with our goals was to start doing whatever we could to start nudging in the direction of our dreams. We scrounged for free couches. We invited local artists and community groups to perform. We designed events and interactive exhibits on ten dollar budgets. We experimented with everything--hours, front desk staffing structure, community programs. We knew we weren't doing everything at the desired quality level. But we got it going anyway.

A year and a half later, we are in a much more stable financial position... and we've tried to internalize a mindset of perpetual beta and modular support for community collaboration. As things got better financially, as we learned more about what worked and didn't, we replaced furniture and enhanced our exhibitions. We upped the budgets and the scale of the projects while maintaining an iterative approach that relies on prototyping and low-tech experiments.

I feel strongly that as long as we have a social mission and a strong desire to fulfill that mission, we should do everything we can every step of the way to attack it, even if that means starting with something simplistic, messy, or uncertain. We make room for interns and artists and people who walk in the door with crazy ideas. There are plenty of times I have silenced the exhibit designer in my brain who wanted everything just so, or the museum director who wanted to make our visitors happy all the time. If we're going to move forward, we have to be able to try things in a risk-tolerant environment.

One of the things that often made me uncomfortable as a consultant was the extent to which museums, and their funding vehicles, often make perpetual beta an impossibility. The exhibit is planned for years and must open perfect on day 1. The grant is for a three-year educational program whose curriculum has to be locked in from the start. If we can't have a perfect couch designed by Frank Gehry, we won't give visitors couches at all.

The result is damaging for museum professionals and visitors alike. For museum professionals, it creates a falsely elevated sense of risk and stress around projects that, let's face it, don't have to be perfect out of the gate. No one is going to die if you change a label a few days after opening. No one will be seriously injured if you invite a dance company in and they do something strange. No one will suffer if you put out a prototype--or two, or ten--before finalizing a design. We need to build experimentation into our work processes if we want our work to evolve over time.

For museum visitors, the damage is even worse. How many brilliant sparks of ideas never get to the public because we falsely assume it will take too many resources to get them off the ground? How can we show people that we truly care about making our institutions welcoming, or challenging, or fun, or creative, if we need two years and eight approvals to put out some couches and paintbrushes?

I'm not suggesting that museum professionals shouldn't strive for excellence. What I've seen--in Web 2.0 and elsewhere--is that real excellence comes from incrementally pushing towards a big audacious goal. If you can get it right on the first try or with the resources you have, then your dreams may not be big enough.

What are you working towards, and how you are iterating and experimenting to get there?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Voting on Art and its Surprising Consequences

What happens when you let visitors vote on art?

Let's look at the statistics from three big participatory projects that wrapped up recently. Each of these invited members of the public to vote on art in a way that had substantive consequences--big cash prizes awarded, prestige granted, exhibitions offered.
  • ArtPrize, the grandaddy of visitor voting, just completed its fourth year in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This citywide festival showcased work by 1,517 artists competing for a $200,000 top cash prize awarded by public vote. An estimated 400,000 people attended the event over two weeks, of which 47,000 cast at least one vote. Voters had to register to vote, but there were no restrictions on how many artworks a voter could "like."
  • The Brooklyn Museum just finished the public stage of GO, a "community-curated open studio project." GO invited people to visit artists' studios throughout Brooklyn over one weekend and to nominate up to three favorites; the top ten will be considered for an upcoming group show at the museum. 1,708 artists participated. An estimated 18,000 people attended, of which 4,929 nominated artists for the show. Note that in this case, people had to register to vote AND check in at at least five studios to be eligible to nominate artists for the show. Full stats here.  
  • The Hammer Museum recently awarded the first annual Mohn Award, a $100,000 prize that will be awarded biannually to an artist in the "Made in LA" biennial exhibition based on public vote. Five artists out of sixty in the show were short-listed by a jury. 50,000 people visited the exhibition, and 2,051 voted for their favorite artist of the five. Fascinating (and long) article about the Mohn Award here.
In each of these examples, the press and public dialogue mostly revolved around the idea of public voting for art. But when it came to the actual experience, the vast majority of participants and attendees did NOT vote. In Grand Rapids, 12% cast a ballot. In Brooklyn, 27% made it through the voting process. In LA, only 4% voted. 

What's going on here? Why are hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Grand Rapids for ArtPrize but not choosing to vote? Why did the Hammer Museum have record summer attendance if people weren't coming for the thing that was being flaunted--the opportunity to vote?

There are surely some people who didn't want to go through the hassle of registering and learning the rules of voting. There are others who may not have felt "qualified" to select winners and losers. But my sense is that the biggest reason people didn't vote is that for most visitors, voting wasn't the point. The point was to be part of an exciting, dynamic, surprising new way to engage with art.

Or at least, that's what I experienced when I went to ArtPrize in 2010. I was blown away by the social experience provoked by the unorthodox format. Voting on individual artworks turned each one into a social object worthy of lengthy conversation. Talking with Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, it sounds like GO comparably sparked a huge number of community conversations in artists' studios around Brooklyn. When the public is invited to decide, they may not take on that power and responsibility... but they may show up in droves to see what the fuss is about.

This leads me to two conflicting perspectives on voting in exhibitions:
  1. Voting on substantive outcomes (money, exhibitions) is good because it provokes engagement with objects, artists, and fellow visitors. Whether you tick the ballot or not, the opportunity to do so opens up a conversation about what's good, what's bad, and what's art.  
  2. Voting on substantive outcomes is dangerous because not enough people participate to make serious decisions in good faith. The Hammer is reconsidering the public vote component of the Mohn Award after only 2,051 people determined who would win $100,000. And in Brooklyn, Shelley Bernstein noted that the data generated during GO was insufficient to generate statistical significance in a "wisdom of the crowds decision-making" format. In the case of ArtPrize, founder Rick DeVos has explicitly said that the event is a creative act designed to engage people in "conversation" about art. And yet they have added juried prizes alongside the public ones to diversify that conversation.
How do you weigh the positive engagement that comes with community dialogue against the ethics of voting for outcomes that matter deeply to the artists involved?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Khan Academy and the Revolution in Online Free Choice Learning

Last week, I became completely intoxicated with the online videos of Vi Hart, self-described mathemusician. Her nerdy, entertaining videos about math evoke the power of free choice learning while poking gentle fun at the drudgery of how math is often taught in school. She's brilliant and funny and pushes people to get excited about higher math and the big ideas behind it. She would be the best science center educator ever.

But Vi doesn't work in a science museum. She was a free agent for a long time, until the beginning of 2012, when she joined the teaching staff of Khan Academy.

Khan Academy, the free, nonprofit online source for educational instructional videos, is a young powerhouse in the online learning space. Its multilingual videos have reached almost 200 million viewers since it launched in 2006. Its funding has skyrocketed as major foundations and technology companies have made multi-million dollar grants and investments in its growth. Founder Salman Khan started by sharing his own videos with a math and science focus, and in the last year, he has added new "faculty" including Vi Hart as well as Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, who are well known in museums for their excellent Smarthistory website and podcasts.

Khan Academy is interesting in itself as an online learning space. But the participation of partners like Vi, Beth, and Steven puts it in a new category for me. Salman Khan's videos give people access to good instructional content on standard (and often confusing or poorly taught) educational topics. How to solve a quadratic equation. How to titrate an acid. Test prep for the SAT. This is all fine, but it exists very much in the K12 and college framework.

Vi Hart's videos, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic, explorative, and a bit subversive. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker's content about art history is social and dialogue-based in format. These instructors aren't teaching you the equivalent of a high school course in math or art history. They are connecting you with knowledge and inspiration in more creative ways... the way the best museums do. It's no coincidence that Beth Harris' last job was as Director of Digital Learning at MoMA.

Does this mean Khan Academy is competitive with museums? Maybe. More importantly, it means that we should be looking to their model to push ourselves in how we think about delivering the most engaging, powerful content possible. We often talk about museums as leaders in providing substantive, essential alternatives to formal schooling. But museums are rarely seen as pursuing this promise in the innovative, aggressive, and highly publicized way that Khan Academy is.

I asked Beth Harris and Steven Zucker about their experience working at Khan Academy after years in academia and museums. When I asked them what's in it for Smarthistory to be a part of Khan Academy, they highlighted the extent to which Khan Academy represents a revolution in education and high quality online learning experiences. Here are some of the comments on the "why" behind their involvement:
[Khan Academy has] a hugely generous vision and commitment to rethinking education—our mission is “a world-class education, for anyone, anywhere”—not to mention brilliant programmers and staff. This is an epic moment in the history of education, who wouldn’t want to be part of it? We are finally leaving behind the 18th century model of education where groups of students are expected to learn at a standard pace. Every day we read about ways that teaching, learning and accreditation are being unbundled. New institutions and new, more personal modes of teaching and learning are being investigated. And we will soon know much more about learning, thanks to analytics, than we ever have before. 
They commented on the power of the learning community around the online videos (for example, check out this conversation about Leonardo's Last Supper):
Khan Academy is much more than a huge library of high quality videos, there are learning analytics, self-paced exercises, and perhaps most importantly, a committed learning community—even for art history! We have a great community of learners that ask and answer questions and our videos are being translated by volunteers all over the world. We are reminded of how much fun learning can be. 
They advocated for the power of online research and learning:
There is a huge appetite for knowledge about art that is not being met. We both come from higher education and it’s always seemed remarkable to us how little museums work together to support the study of art. Students around the world want to understand the history of art, not necessarily the history of a particular collection. We also wish that museums and universities worked together more closely not just for research, but for learning. Learning is increasingly global and fluid and the fact that cross-institutional initiatives such as the Google Art Project and Europeana are rare, points to how much work still needs to be done. We wrote about that in a recent blog post, Why the Google Art Project is Important.

Many museums produce superb lesson plans, curator interviews and artist interviews for the web. But there are other content models we can explore. Conversation has been key to Smarthistory’s success, and we’ve worked with several museums to facilitate the creation of conversation-based content. We’ve also done short technology workshops to enable content experts to create their own videos. In the era of YouTube, we don’t always need Final Cut Pro and expensive videographers.
And they talked about the difference between working for a museum and working for a startup nonprofit:
We both loved working for MoMA in different capacities. But as everyone knows, museums are not the easiest ships to turn. This is a period of intense change when nimbleness is a real asset; working for a start-up has allowed us to produce a lot of high-quality academic content. For the Google Art Project, the two of us recorded, edited and produced 90 videos in four months (with only a small amount of editing assistance). Obviously, museums produce fantastic content, but we wonder if their limited resources should remain focused on traditional print publishing. The principles of digital publishing—which is iterative, personal, prolific, and collaborative, could unleash museums as active centers of learning and engagement.

One of the things that baffles us about museums is that while they support scholars with deep expertise, they produce relatively little content for public consumption on the web. The focus remains on the high status, expensive and little-read exhibition catalogue, instead of developing web-based content that will draw more visitors, and help create a loyal web-community. An educator at the Met recently told us of a group of visitors from Japan that joined a gallery tour and promptly asked to see the works of art featured on Smarthistory. 
If we want museums to be pioneers in free choice learning, seen and funded as "hugely generous" and committed visionaries who are rethinking education, we need to push ourselves. Beth and Steven ended their email to me by quoting Salman Khan's new book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, in which he writes:
What’s needed, in my view, is a perspective that allows us a fresh look at our most basic assumptions about teaching and learning, a perspective that takes nothing for granted and focuses on the simple but crucial questions of what works, what doesn’t work, and why. 
What would that "fresh look" mean for museums?

Thank you to Beth and Steven for contributing to this post. They wanted me to tell you that Smarthistory invites art historians and curators to contribute in the their areas of expertise. If you would like to contribute, please contact them at: and