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.
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