Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Selling a Product vs. Building a Movement

Do you consider yourself an "activist" for your organization, avocation, or art form? I've been increasingly turning to that word as a descriptor for the mixture of advocacy, passion, and action that I try to bring to my work. For me, it's a more comfortable term than something like "evangelist," which just feels like boosterism. I feel like I'm on a mission, and I know a lot of colleagues feel the same way.

I've always thought of this activist stance as a behind-the-scenes thing, something that might be useful in talking with professionals in the field, but not necessarily with visitors. Sure, I admire cultural organizations that have a strong mission to change education or diversify access or transform the role of art in everyday life, but I'm an insider. It seems wonky and possibly confusing to talk strategy with visitors. It's a distraction from their experience at our venue. Visitors care about us because we provide enjoyable, enriching, creative opportunities for them. Who's really going to read the fine print to find out why?

The election season, as well as a recent research study on museum membership, has change my perspective on this. A national election is the ultimate participatory project. Everyone of a certain age is in on it, and for the most part, the folks putting on the show want everyone to be engaged. There are multiple potential levels of involvement available. Advocacy groups of all stripes fall over themselves to give you opportunities to get involved, fight the good fight, fund the need, defeat the bill.

When you are part of a cause you believe in, you get incredibly invested. When you hit a personal goal that helps a larger effort, you feel like a real contributor. As Jane McGonigal has written, "the chance to be part of something bigger" than yourself is one of the four things that make people feel happy and fulfilled. With the exception of work and sports fandom, opportunities to be part of something bigger is in short supply. Election season stirs it up and makes us all remember how energizing it can be.

This is especially true for young adults today ("millenials"), who exhibit many of the same attributes of the World War II "greatest" generation--increased civic engagement, optimism, sense of communal purpose and responsibility, and conformity to group norms. Consider this recent study about the perceived benefits of membership in an aquariuam, referred to as a "visitor serving organization" in the chart below. As Colleen Dilenscheider reported, young people were MUCH more "cause-oriented" in their reasons for membership than their older counterparts:

This research and the post-election buzz is making me think differently about how we invite people to be involved with our organizations. Why AREN'T we asking visitors to join the fight for arts education? Why WOULDN'T a science museum engage members in the crusade to draw clear lines between science and pseudoscience? Why not build a grassroots movement to define the most effective ways we can make our communities stronger?

I realize as I write this list that we do invite certain people to participate in these conversations, but not our onsite audience. I talk a lot about the "why" behind our work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History when I'm with donors, at conferences, or presenting at Rotary Clubs. I know that these folks care a lot about building strong communities and that it's intriguing and exciting to discuss how that might be driven by a cultural institution. These conversations are the basis for institutional partnerships and much of our funding. But they don't happen on enough levels with enough people to be accessible for broad involvement and shared activist energy.

For some reason, when it comes to talking and engaging with the people who are already in the door, we clam up about core messages and focus on selling them tickets to the next event or exhibition. This has two negative effects:
  1. It blocks our most engaged participants from getting involved in the most important work of the organization. If what we really are working on is building social capital, why are we hiding that? Why not give visitors ways to advocate and act to help advance our goals? Why not restructure our marketing and community engagement efforts to more closely model successful campaigns and activist movements?
  2. It creates a disconnect between the "why" and the "what" that may weaken institutional progress. Imagine a theater company where the leadership talks publicly about diversity and access but there is little evidence of it on site. Is the organization really doing what they talk about, or is it just lip service? If we create "reasons" for the work we do that are different in different contexts, we're losing energy and diluting our ability to get the most important work done.
Granted, I know that people still want the great experiences that our organizations provide. They don't want to go to the aquarium solely to learn how to save fish. But when we invite them to get involved in the work that drives us, about which we are most passionate, we create incredibly powerful advocates and partners in our cause. That's what's sexy and exciting about what we do. We need more tools to open it up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What a Difference a Prompt Makes... Simple Analysis of a Participatory Exhibit Element

I am fascinated by the incredible differences in what people contribute based on format and phrasing of the invitation to participate. This week at my museum, as we are wrapping up our current set of exhibitions on collecting, I noticed a simple, subtle example of this that I thought might interest you.

Our current exhibition is about why people collect things. We are featuring several diverse collectors from our area--from a couple who collects priceless American flags to a woman who collects dryer lint.

One of the collections on display is a set of "found lists" collected by a local farmer, Danny Lazzarini. We decided to show a selection of Danny's lists in a hallway surrounded by a participatory element where we invite visitors to contribute to new lists on evocative themes ("Things we forget," "The best feelings in the world," etc.) that we selected during prototyping. This activity has been incredibly popular, and about every three weeks we replace one of the lists with a fresh copy so there is always space for some new contributors.

Last week, we made a mistake. The show was two weeks away from closing, and we needed to replace a "The best feelings in the world" list, but we had accidentally prepped a "Things we forget" list. To add another wrinkle, the volunteer had accidentally written "Things I forget" instead of "Things we forget" as the prompt on the new list.

We decided to go with it, and for the final two weeks of the show, we have both a "Things we forget" and a "Things I forget" list on the wall. Here's a closeup of each:

While the lists look the same on the surface (and bear in mind that the one on the left has been on display for 3 weeks longer than the one on the right), the content is subtly different. Both these lists are interesting, but the "we" list invites spectators into the experience a bit more than the "I" list. The prompt "Things we forget" tends to invite more communal or broad responses, i.e. "everything," "to be grateful," "that Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, MN" whereas "Things I forget" yields more personal responses, i.e. "zip up my pants," "my glasses," "who I picked for Birthday Club!"

A reference to dental hygiene shows up on both lists, but on "Things we forget," the response is "brush the teefres" whereas on "Things I forget," the response is "brush my teeth."

This is not earth-shattering, and there is definitely overlap on the two lists. But it's a good reminder that:
  • different prompts DO yield different actions on the part of visitors
  • careful writing and design decisions on the programmer's side DO impact on the overall result
  • sometimes, exhibit research is as simple as taking a couple photographs 

So think about your prompts, happy Thanksgiving, and keep those teefres clean.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Opening Up Museums: My TEDxSantaCruz Talk

I'm just home from a whirlwind of speaking engagements--Oslo, Denver, Charlotte, Roanoke. So it seems fitting to share my TEDx talk this week, one that was filmed here in Santa Cruz and which I have since taken around the world. The theme of TEDxSantaCruz was "Open." It gave me a chance to really think about how we have been opening up our museum and what it means for our community. Doing this talk was an incredible experience, both because of the warm and energized response I received at the event and because the format forced me to hone in on what's most important to me these days and share it in a succinct way.

It's only 15 minutes, so I encourage you to watch it, but here are the crib notes for the video-adverse without the hilarious stories and charming photographs.

Museums can be incredible catalysts for social change. But they're not there yet. Right now, they're often seen as elitist organizations serving an diminishing percentage of our population. We can change that by embracing participatory culture and opening up to the active, social ways that people engage with art, history, science, and ideas today. We're doing it in Santa Cruz and it has absolutely transformed our museum into a thriving community institution.

The first way we open up is by inviting active participation. We see every visitor who walks in the door as a contributor who can make our museum better. We seek and encourage collaboration with diverse groups and individuals in our community, and we develop ways for people to contribute in both immediate and long-term ways.

I know that not all public participation is substantive. I believe that everyone has the ability to contribute something powerful, and everyone also has the ability to be an idiot. The difference in what we contribute is in the design of the invitation conferred onto us. At the MAH, we carefully design invitations to participate to convey a high level of respect and value for what visitors bring to the table. They sense that respect and respond by bringing their best selves forward, sharing powerful creative work and personal stories. The result makes our museum more vibrant and multi-vocal, and it creates a powerful sense of ownership in our community.

The second way we open up is by treating our artifacts as social objects that can mediate interactions among people from different backgrounds. We've all seen how a pet dog can connect two strangers despite the social barriers that abound. How can we make museum objects more like dogs? How can we use our artifacts to activate important conversations about the future of our communities? At the MAH, we do this by designing thoughtful opportunities for interaction around artifacts, so that visitors see them less as holy objects and more as starting points for dialogue. And when we do it right, this approach brings people together across social division towards something approaching understanding and mutual respect.

This combination--inviting active participation, treating museum objects as locuses of important conversations--makes our museum a more relevant, essential community space. This isn't just happening in Santa Cruz. There are museums all over the world that are reinventing themselves as spaces for making and sharing, and in doing so, are fulfilling their public missions.

For me, the mission that is most compelling is the goal to build social cohesion by bringing people together across differences. We live in such a divided world. It is increasingly difficult to find opportunities to engage with people who are truly different from us in a positive way. If museums can build those social bridges, then we're not just doing great work for our institutions. We're doing great work for our communities, too.

Thanks to everyone who I met in the past weeks who has inspired and challenged me based on this talk. And thanks especially to the folks at TEDxSantaCruz who got it going and made this fabulous video. On that note, if you're interested in open data, I highly recommend Martha Mendoza's talk from that same event on FOIA requests and journalism--very powerful stuff.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Guest Post: Using Participation to Solve a Design Problem at the Carnegie Museum of Art

I'm on the road this week, with speaking gigs in Oslo, Denver, Charlotte, and Roanoke (join the NAMP livestream on Sunday at 9:25am PT here). I'm thrilled to share this brilliant guest post by Marilyn Russell, Curator of Education at the Carnegie Museum of Art. In a straightforward way, Marilyn explains how her team developed a participatory project to improve engagement in a gallery with an awkward entry. This is a perfect example of a museum using participation as a design solution. This post appears here in excerpted form; you can read the whole story here.


Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky challenged us to find a way to overcome a major practical problem with our Forum Gallery space: how to get visitors to enter a gallery that is often obscured by a large wall that blocks the light from the large lobby windows nearby. We also wanted to:
  • Inspire visitors to engage in active looking: notice, reflect, react, and respond to the works of art and to the interdisciplinary quality of the exhibition.
  • Reassert the "forum" aspect of the Forum Gallery by motivating visitors to share their own ideas and interpretations of the artwork with other visitors in physical and virtual formats. This coincides with the identification of 20- and 30-year-olds as an audience targeted for growth in attendance.
What could we put in the lobby just outside the gallery to:
  • Capture the attention of visitors and alert them to the exhibition behind the wall?
  • Offer something fun and appealing to do that required entering the exhibition?
  • Inspire visitors to look, think, and respond actively to the works on view?


We wondered how to bring their reactions of the artworks from the gallery to the activity space in the lobby, and offer visitors some control over their interactions with the artworks. We decided to select 12 individual works of art from the exhibition, reproduce them as 2.5 x 2.5-inch post-it notes, and attach a stack of the small reproductions on the wall next to each related original work. (Who doesn't like a mini version of something?)

The post-its would be used as the source material for visitors' creative responses, allowing them to get their hands on the images--manipulating and modifying the works into something new. The activity was facilitated by the activity station set up in the lobby just outside the gallery. There, visitors encountered a large table with a long horizontal display board featuring a call to action at the top to PERUSE and PARTICIPATE.

A friendly museum educator stood near the table to greet curious visitors; offer them one of five prompt sheets, a clip board, and colored pencils; and invite them into the gallery to begin their exploration. In the gallery, visitors enjoyed the art and selected one or more post-it reproductions and "curated" their arrangement on their prompt sheets adding captions, drawings, narrative--whatever the works of art inspired. We tested five versions of the prompt sheets--some with instructions focused to the subject of the exhibition (artists' takes on nature), others with more open-ended instructions designed to encourage a broader range of responses.

You can view the various prompt sheets and the kinds of responses we received on our Facebook page. We posted completed prompt sheets on the display board with magnets and eventually provided stars and thumbs-up magnets for visitors who preferred responding to the work of other visitors to doing one themselves. We continually posted new completed sheets on our Facebook page and encouraged visitors to post them on their personal social media pages. In addition to the display board of recently completed sheets, we collected older sheets in two large binders for visitors to flip through, and placed one in the gallery and another at the table.

Our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History were eager collaborators. Together we identified locations in their galleries that resonated with the 12 focus works in the Forum exhibition. The scientific staff wrote and installed label texts in their galleries about the works of art from their perspectives. We provided a guide to these locations for visitors at the activity table.


Over the weeks of the exhibition, visitors jotted down comments in a notebook at the activity table. Here are some samples:

"Awesome idea, super interactive, engaging!"

"It is great to feel more of a part of the museum!"

"All the artworks should have stickies."

"This was transformational! Thank you so much! I hope more museums do things like this. How wonderful to be able to respond to art, to peruse and then participate instead of just keeping it all inside!!" --An English teacher

"It is a very great way for kids to connect art & nature...however it was a bit difficult for a 6-year-old to understand. (She did it anyway.) How about break it down for younger children?"

"What a wonderful resource for classes." --A University of Pittsburgh professor

"People who did the responses are older than I expected." --A college student

"I really like the post-its. I'm surprised I haven't seen something like this in other museums."

"I like that the art response of an 8 y.o. and the response of a 38 y.o. are so similar." --A college student

"We loved the post-it sticker idea, that way we can still share the artwork at home." --A mom & 2 small kids

"Great notes are great for children to participate and remember."


  1. The post-it activity achieved our goals of getting visitors past the wall and into the gallery in huge numbers.
  2. Visitors really looked at and responded to the art. The completed sheets reveal incredible thoughtfulness, humor, and creative invention from visitors of all ages. We had very few "throw away" results.
  3. The variety of creative responses we received reflect the myriad perspectives of visitors to our interdisciplinary institution.
  4. We needed more display space for visitors' finished sheets and space to group completed sheets to better facilitate rating and commenting by other visitors. Although visitors of all ages participated, a special "kids' corner" on the display board would have communicated more easily that both adults and kids were welcome to participate.
  5. Some of the prompts were more successful than others, and some people used the sheets in completely independent ways, ignoring the prompt entirely. A few didn't even incorporate the post-its (not that this is a bad thing). The "On the Edge" activity, which encouraged visitors to extend the images on the post-its beyond the frame was by far the most popular prompt. Many attracted to this prompt even connected separate works into a single composition. Also, a couple of the prompts were too similar, as visitors generally used them in the same way.
  6. Overwhelmingly visitors wanted a post-it reproduction of every work in the exhibition.
  7. Going forward we need better technology solutions on-site to help visitors and staff share responses as they are happening. We collected, scanned, and posted completed sheets to the museum website and Facebook page, and knowing that the sheets would be posted online was a motivator especially for 20- to 30-year-olds. We needed a way for visitors to share their work immediately on their own social media sites. Smartphone images didn't read well given the limitations of screen size and the legibility of the artists' writings and drawings.
  8. It would be good to have a way to gather metrics or track how (and if) visitors are sharing their creations on their own social media channels.
  9. Having the completed sheets attached to the specific artworks that motivated the visitors provides a clear context for the various interpretations and insights that will survive long after the exhibition is gone.


Overall we are happy with the results of this experiment, and we are busy thinking about some of the issues and opportunities related to this activity going forward, but we'd also love to hear from you. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please comment here or send a note to
  • We're curious about the sustainability of the post-its. How important is the novelty of the concept, or could we repeat this activity?
  • Would it work without full-time staff support? If we changed the public display part could we make this an activity visitors can understand on their own? Was the chance to talk with the staff member a crucial visitor engagement connection?
  • What questions or suggestions occur to you?