Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Developing a Participatory, Provocative History Project at a Small Museum in Minnesota: Interview with Mary Warner

Earlier this year, I was fascinated to read the account of a participatory project at the Morrison County Historical Society in Minnesota, in which community members were invited to write essays about “what’s it like” to have various life experiences in the County. One of the invited participants—the one who inspired the project—is a young transgender person. Mary Warner, the Museum Manager at the Historical Society, wrote a series of moving articles for her museum newsletter and later for the AASLH’s Small Museum Online Community about her experiences tackling big issues in a small museum. While the articles focus on the controversy around GLBT representation (which is fascinating), I was curious to learn more about the project itself.

I called Mary to learn more about this brilliant example of a small museum thinking in big and courageous ways about community participation in local history. For context, the Morrison County Historical Society has four paid staff members and engages about 2,000-3,000 visitors per year.

How did this project get started?

Like most of our projects here, it’s a case of organic development based on our mission, which is Morrison County history. We on staff have always had the sense that we want to collect the histories of people who don’t have their histories collected that often – to have a representative sample that’s not just the famous people or the rich people.

For example, we’re interested in GLBT and Jewish histories in our County – how do we get those stories? How do we get the history of the poor? We’re an actively collecting museum, and we’re always thinking about how we can take an inclusive approach with the artifacts and archives we collect.

But how did this specific project get started?

We had a board member who kept asking us to do oral histories. We on staff have so much to do, there are only four of us, and we know oral histories are so labor-intensive. We’ve done a few; I’ll interview someone for a specific reason for an article or to add to a file. But we wanted to do something a little more formal to capture more.

It’s sort of weird how it happened. We have this board member asking for oral histories. And then my son’s friend--I knew he was transgender--and so I wondered, if I do an essay project, would he write one for me? The whole “what’s it like” theme was based on him.

So did you start by approaching your son’s friend to see if he would participate?

When I start a project, I like to first get it into a written form that anybody can follow. That’s a habit for our volunteer projects – we have to figure out how are we going to communicate what we want from participants. So I put all the forms together first. And then I went to my son’s friend and asked him if he would he write an essay, and he did.

Why did you decide to collect essays as opposed to digital media, perhaps video or audio?

I think part of writing for us – we do this all the time – if there’s a web source, we will print it off and add it to the archive. We struggle with how to save digital media. If we do an essay project, it’s the written word, we can print it out and save it and it will be here in a hundred years.

A lot of museums start this kind of project with big intentions, but then they really struggle to get participation. I was impressed by how much success you’ve already had in capturing essays—not an easy thing to do. What did you do to recruit or encourage participation?

Well, our goal is 100 essays, and we’re not there yet. We have about 25 now. But it’s the kind of thing we need to keep pushing, and we haven’t in a while.

We went to the genealogy group, and a whole bunch of them submitted. I think one person may have submitted something directly on the web, but mostly these are solicited. You have to remind people, keep reaching out. It takes constant reaching out, and reminding. Not everyone feels confident about their writing. It would be a great thing to take into a school and do but we haven’t done that yet.

How did you decide to translate the essay project into an exhibition?

Whenever we are creating content, we like to use it in a variety of formats. We have two permanent exhibition galleries and then a long hallway that we use for a special exhibition that lasts about a year. We try to cycle artifacts and really milk all the content we create through exhibitions, our newsletter, on our website, and in programs.

So we decided to do the essay project, and then our curator said, hey this year let’s do our essay project as the exhibit.

So we pulled objects from our collection to connect with the essays. In one case, someone wrote an essay about being a newspaper boy, and he had already donated his newspaper bag.

How did you select which essays to turn into exhibits?

Really, it was about which stories we had good objects for. We didn’t ask people if we could exhibit them, but when we were explaining the essay project, we explained that the essays would be used. Most people know that if they are donating their stuff to the museum, it is going to be used – in the newsletter, on the website.

Where did the interest specifically in GLBT history come from? What kinds of conversations did you have with staff and board members about the potential touchiness of the issue?

There’s a history with the GLBT community with people not being out for the good share of our history, and then there’s a recent turning point, but we still have GLBT folks in our history – we know that about them, but how can we write about it now?

We didn’t discuss anything about the possibility of negative reaction, even though we know that the dominant attitude in Morrison County is anti-GLBT. It was just: here’s this essay project we’re going to do, and we have this inclusive attitude, so of course we’re going to collect this history. It’s ok. We’re going to do it.

The only time we had to really deal with it was when we experienced two incidents of blowback. One woman came in on a tour and said, “why are you displaying that?” I told her if we didn’t show that story, we would not be covering our history.

Once I had talked to the lady and told her this was where we were coming from, she thanked me and told me that she and her husband were going to talk about it and think about it. We’re not trying to change minds, but we do want to encourage people to go ahead and think about what you see.

And then there was the anonymous letter. It was pretty clear that this letter came from someone who was not already part of the museum. That letter didn’t come until after we’d talked about it in our local paper. We had published the same article in our newsletter and we didn’t hear a peep.

One of the things that came up in that anonymous letter was the person questioning whether it was “history” to talk about someone’s contemporary experience. Is that something you’ve heard other feedback about with this project?

Actually, we’ve heard it before. A few years ago, we had a music exhibit, and we put a cellphone on exhibit because there are ringtones that go with cellphones. A lot of people were engaged by it, but they also were confused about why it would be in the museum. We are interested in contemporary collecting, so we do it, and we are constantly educating people that current history is history too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Conviction? Check. Money? Check. So What's Keeping the Arts Sector from Embracing Active, Diverse Audience Engagement?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a funder that shocked me. If you asked me a month ago what the biggest barrier was to American arts organizations adopting practices that support active engagement in the arts by diverse participants, I would have said two: money and legitimacy. There are more than enough people in the field who are enthused about active participation, and recent reports like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change have sparked field-wide conversations about how philanthropy might more equitably support institutions that serve marginalized communities. We have the arguments and the energy. So what's missing? The funding and validity that a major foundation can provide. I've always assumed that slow-moving, big, traditional, white- and upper-class-serving arts organizations are buoyed in their practices by funders who tacitly approve of their activities with their donations. Move the money, and the field will move.

Turns out it's not that simple.

I was talking with Ted Russell, a senior program officer from the James Irvine Foundation, one of the biggest arts funders in California. I asked how their new Exploring Engagement Fund (of which my museum was an early grant recipient) was going. He paused. He said they've been somewhat disappointed by the applications they've received and surprised by the mixed response in the field to their new approach to arts grant-making. Some have raised the question of whether the Irvine Foundation is "too far ahead of the field" with a grantmaking strategy that focuses on active arts engagement for all Californians. 

In the fall of 2011, the Irvine Foundation released a high-profile new arts strategy that focuses on the "who, how, and where" of arts engagement, with a focus on reaching nontraditional audiences through active participation in nontraditional venues. This was coupled by a shift in their funding, with all foundation arts funding moving into the Exploring Engagement Fund that requires grantees to address at least two of the "who, how, where" goals in each project.  

I was thrilled when this happened for two reasons. First, and close to home, it meant the possibility that the Irvine Foundation might become a funder of the work we do at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History around active arts participation and social bridging. But secondly, and more importantly, it meant validation for active participation in the arts. It meant dollars for marginalized communities. It meant opportunities for experimental practice. It meant one of the "big guys" was moving in what I see as the right direction towards making arts institutions more relevant to our diverse communities. It felt like a lucky break for the things I care most about.

But Ted made me realize it's not that easy. It is just as hard to be an activist funder as it is to be an activist organization. For the Exploring Engagement Fund to be successful, the Irvine Foundation needs really good applicants who WANT to do the kind of experimental, forward-thinking work that Arts Program Director Josephine Ramirez describes in her vision for the program. I assumed, given the energy around active participation and diversifying audiences that exists in the field, that there were lots of prospective grantees like my organization just waiting for this kind of opportunity to open up. It seems that the Irvine Foundation assumed similarly, and that the results have thus far not lived up to their (or my) hopes.

Why not? 

I don't think the problem is the Irvine Foundation's approach, or even their communication around it. The "who, how, where" strategy is clear and well-reasoned. In a lot of ways, the Irvine Foundation's challenge is comparable to that which any organization that changes its strategy faces. Who exactly is the market for this new approach to arts funding? Just as an institution that changes its focus has to either attract a new audience or engage its traditional audience in a change process, the Irvine Foundation has to execute this new strategy in partnership with its grantees.

To be successful, I see three tasks ahead for the Irvine Foundation:
  1. Help traditional arts institutions understand and connect with the new strategy. Ted told me that the Irvine Foundation staff have learned that they have to work on how they communicate about the new strategy and support capacity-building for organizations to be able to be successful in the new paradigm. Longtime grantees have relied on Irvine for years for one kind of support and now see themselves being thrust into a different set of expectations. Even organizations that care about community engagement could be stymied by the creative challenge to hit two of the three "who, how, where"s with a single two-year project. It's not surprising that they push back against the changes. Part of me wonders whether it's worthwhile to invest more money in trying to convince traditional arts institutions to embrace active engagement--but then I realize that that's the work I've been trying to do for a long time. I think a strong way to do this is by reaching out to program staff directly. I know there are people within traditional arts institutions who will be empowered by Irvine's new strategy--people who feel frustrated that their passion for serving low-income families is met with lip service, or people who are pigeonholed into an education zone because of their enthusiasm for active art-making. I'm hopeful that those individuals and departments will go to their development directors, who are spinning their brains around trying to repackage their organizations in the "who, how, where" paradigm, and offer a way forward for funding AND increased priority on Irvine's vision for the arts in California.
  2. Actively recruit new grantees who may now be eligible or appropriate for funding. I have no doubt that there are many incredible artists and organizations that could do wonderful things with funding from the Irvine Foundation. But those individuals and institutions may not be on Irvine's map... and Irvine may not be on theirs. The kinds of organizations that focus on active art-making and social practice are different from those that focus on arts consumption. Organizations that work in nontraditional venues may not label themselves as arts institutions. Organizations that engage marginalized communities and have long been shunned by major funders might not attend to the strategy shifts of those foundations. Just as working with "nontraditional" audiences often requires more intensive forms of engagement, working with nontraditional grantees will require the same.
  3. Have courage. I believe in a few years we will point to Irvine as a catalyst for significant change in the arts sector in California and around the country. But being on the leading edge is scary. It requires confidence that the grantees and the projects ARE out there. It requires turning a deaf ear to complaints from institutions that aren't willing to engage audiences in what Irvine feels are the most effective ways. I have no illusions that the Irvine Foundation (or any foundation) will continue to put forward an approach that works personally for me or my institution. But I sincerely hope that every foundation will continue to be thoughtful and courageous in constructing grantmaking strategies that they feel will do serious good in the community. 
When funders change their ways, it matters. It ruffles the landscape. It lays the groundwork for real change. And sometimes that might mean "being ahead of the field" with a big old carrot that gets some stuck organizations moving forward. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflections on a Weekend with Ze Frank and His Online Community

It's not every day that a visitor buys pizza for everyone in the museum. Or that visitors form a spontaneous "laugh circle" on the floor. Or that we take a group photo together at the end of the day.

Then again, Saturday was hardly normal at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. This past weekend, in conjunction with our exhibition about Ze Frank's current participatory project, A Show, we hosted "Ze Frank Weekend"--a quickie summer camp of workshops, activities, presentations, and lots of hugging. It was an opportunity for people who participate with Ze Frank's projects online to come together in real space and connect with him and with each other.

It was pretty freaking amazing. About 700 people participated over two days, including some who had traveled to Santa Cruz from London, Indonesia, and across the US. The group was mostly young (teens to thirties) and nerd-diverse: a little bit punk, a little bit hacker, a little bit craft grrl. There were two guys with rainbow beards who did not previously know each other. There were some locals who stumbled in unaware, but mostly, this was an insider's event for people who know and love Ze's particular brand of emotional connection mediated through online participation. To get a sense of what it felt like for participants, check out this great video by one visitor from afar about his experience.

A few things I learned/observed/was impressed by:

A spirit of inclusion, generosity, and welcome permeated the event. We were pretty nervous about the unknowns going into the weekend. Ze had issued an invite to tens of thousands of people online, and we had no idea how many people would attend, and who they are. What we DID know is that the people coming would be connected through work that focuses on sharing intense and not always comfortable emotions online. I was concerned about how we could welcome people into the museum in a way that acknowledged the enormous risk they were taking in showing up in a foreign city and space to connect with people they only sort of knew in an online space. 

Online to onsite migration isn't always easy. I feared that the event would feel cliquey and wouldn't represent the creative, inclusive spirit of Ze's work. But three things made the event a success in this regard:
  1. Ze was amazing. He gently acknowledged the fundamental weirdness of meeting people in real-life, in confronting their "fleshiness," giving voice to anyone else's concerns about over-stimulation in the space. Ze was really hands-on with everyone, giving hugs, taking photos, jumping in to do activities with participants. Even though for many of the participants, Ze is a celebrity of epic proportions, he did everything he could to make the event about them and their engagement and not about him. 
  2. The activities had a really low barrier to entry. We collaborated with Ze to develop activities throughout the weekend that were lightweight, fun, and encouraged low-key social interaction--exactly the kinds of activities that we have found encourage social bridging with strangers. When people walked in, they received a program and a sheet to collect finishing stamps (unique marks created by participants at one activity station) from other participants. The sheet gave people a lightweight tool to use in social interaction, to trade and share stamps. And the program helped people feel like they knew what was going on. Again and again, we tried to balance the wackiness and spontaneity of the event with the surety that people were in the right place, that we could help them, etc.
  3. Our volunteers and staff--and the participants!--rocked. Our regular museum volunteers partnered with new volunteers drawn from Ze Frank's online community, which created a nice bridge between people who knew the museum and people who knew the community and its spirit. Participants who felt more confident modeled generous behavior and engaged others. I was so proud to see how our overall ethos of participation and social bridging was manifest in making the experience really wonderful for everyone.  
The museum itself was well-integrated into the event. In some ways, this event reminded me of the Ontario Science Centre's YouTube Meetup in 2008--a real-time, physical event to support an online community. One of the concerns at the YouTube Meetup was the disconnect between the museum and the participation; for many attendees, the science center just became a venue for a social experience. In this case, because our current exhibition includes a gallery of things made by Ze Frank's community, it was natural for weekend participants to be enthralled by and want to engage with the exhibition itself. Also, our museum-wide approach to participation suited this community well; they really enjoyed exploring other floors and participating in activities that had nothing to do with Ze Frank except in the ways that our philosophy and his are well-aligned. I loved meeting so many people who were surprised and delighted by the participatory approach of our museum--it made it feel like this was a place "for them" instead of a place that was hosting them.

As always, I learned a lot from Ze Frank's unique approach to community participation. One of the regrets of this project for me is that Ze and I have had so little time to really talk about how we think about engaging people in active participation--we've just been busy making it happen. But during the weekend, Ze gave a couple talks that opened up new pathways for me, especially around designing participatory experiences that spread and grow. A couple of key points I got from him:
  1. Make sure to develop prompts or projects that are both interesting to DO and to experience as an audience. This is something I strongly subscribe to--a huge percentage of any audience is more likely to spectate than to contribute. But on the web, it's even more important than in a museum. In a museum, if something is appealing to watch, a person might share it by taking a photo or talking about it with a friend. Online, if something is appealing, a person can share it in a million ways via social media. Ze talked about having a personal filter on project ideas that really focuses on ensuring that the activity AND the resulting content is appealing to share.
  2. To get lots of participation, always celebrate the human quality of the work. Ze pointed out that many participatory projects that operate as contests end up focusing on a narrow set of "best" work that can exclude broad participation. When Ze described his Young Me Now Me project, in which people replicated photos of themselves as children, he explained that he really encouraged people not to focus on getting the props or costume right but instead to focus on getting the expressions right. By focusing on that human element of self-expression, people felt that the activity was open to them regardless of their ability to set up a scene or take a great photograph. This point is a really interesting extension of my focus on personalization and using individual experiences as a starting point for community participation. Broad participation is not the goal of every project, but I found Ze's framing here a useful salve to the frequently espoused and flawed idea that "to get lots of participation, make the activity stupidly easy."
All in all, a beautiful and stimulating weekend. You can see more comments from participants here and here and see a photo set from one participant here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

When I was a teenager, I was enthralled by interactive fiction. I loved the idea of the web as an infinite landscape, with stories and poems spiraling out in nonlinear directions.

Fifteen years later, the web has evolved tremendously... but hypertext-based interactive art and fiction is  still a nerdy sideline at best. A cult of linearity has dominated content on the web, with implications about how we think about effective storytelling both online and in museums.

One of the loveliest recent examples of linear multimedia storytelling is the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek story produced by the New York Times. Spend a bit of time exploring it, and you'll notice:
  • Incredible pacing brings you into and out of media components to the story just when you want them. The photos, videos, and maps are not distractions; they are embedded wisely in terms of size, frequency, and length.
  • It's a linear story, told top to bottom, with pagination for "chapters" of the story. You scroll down, you read, you watch, you continue on.
There are real positives to linearity in storytelling, even in an online environment freed from the page. Consider this lovely little story about past and present colliding in a Portland basement. It's a simple linear progression of text and images. The back and forth between the images and text creates a kind of dramatic tension that builds suspense and encourages a slower, more contemplative read. Slight introductions of movement, as in this Pitchfork feature on Natasha Khan, help you connect the words on the screen with the ideas they intend to animate.

And yet it surprises me that we have come this far, and linear storytelling - mostly top-to-bottom, occasionally left-to-right - is the still the best option for most content. It would have been so easy--and appealing--to read the Tunnel Creek story laid out on a giant map of the mountain, with different pockets of the story emerging in the different areas where things happened. 

The cult of linearity online isn't limited to storytelling. Continuous scroll is now a dominant design pattern across the web. Whether you are browsing through Facebook posts or Pinterest pins, you scroll from top to bottom through a never-ending march of content. Why wouldn't it be preferable to see pins in clusters based on similarity? Or to see Facebook posts grouped by geography, or proximity to me on the social graph, instead of in a long, chronological list?

My reluctant conclusion is that for now, simplicity trumps possibility when it comes to online navigation. It would take time and energy to familiarize users with new modes of navigation, and that could cause people to opt out. Ergo, Jorge Luis Borges and I will have to wait for the garden of forking paths to become a reality.

This makes me wonder: does this preference for linearity impact people when visiting museums? Are people overwhelmed or confused by the "infinite paths" that we offer through galleries, collections, and exhibitions? 

I used to work at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, a "fixed march" museum that sends all visitors on the same linear path through the permanent exhibition. This format became increasingly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in history museums, where you could reasonably dictate the "right" path through chronological content. In some museums, like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the fixed march itself serves as a symbol of the content, whereas in others, it's a convenient way to manage visitor flow.

I grew to disdain the fixed march approach to exhibitions as too controlling and directed, leading to less interesting arrangements of objects than are possible in a more varied, free-choice approach. But maybe my disdain is based on the diverse and long experience I've had in museums. Maybe it is actually more comforting for visitors, more grounding, to experience most museums as linear stories. That's not to say you can't skip certain bits or linger in others--just that some expert is subtly telling you that you are on the right path, progressing through the story as it was intended to be shared. Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format. 

I'd love to see research on how open and closed exhibition layouts impact visitor dwell time, satisfaction, and engagement. What have you observed? 

Perhaps open floor plan museums are my dream opportunity to nerd out on forking pathways. Are museums pioneering renegades for their free-choice approach to visitor navigation and exploration of content? Or are we fools to ignore the preponderance of linearity in other forms of media?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

How I Learned to Think about Marketing/PR Differently, and a Job Opportunity

We just posted a part-time position at my museum for a Community Engagement/Marketing Associate. This is a big step for us, not because we haven't had a dedicated marketing person for a long time, but more because I wasn't sure we would ever want or need one. But several experiences and smart people have changed my perspective on this, and that's what this post is about.

Does a Small Museum Really Need a Marketing Person?

For a long time, I was super skeptical about marketing and public relations professionals. At their worst, they seem like self-deluded cheerleaders for their organization/cause/event, wielding exclamation points instead of analytical rigor. I've had bad direct experiences with high-priced PR firms that are slaves to antiquated promotion calendars. I love Trevor Donnell's brilliant book and blog, Marketing the Arts to Death, in which he documents the disasters caused by our inability to be audience- and data-driven in our marketing efforts.

So I assumed we didn't want a marketing person, or at least, not THAT kind of marketing person. At our museum, we distribute marketing tasks--some with our membership director, our programs staff, and our visitor services staff. The people who produce the programming or who have the relationships produce the messaging, so the conversations are authentic and personal. Curators and front desk staff blog about their interactions with objects and visitors. Program staff invent guerrilla marketing techniques, run the photobooths and program evaluations, and send out the follow-up emails.  As director, I post, tweet, and talk with visitors along with the rest of my team.

For a long time, I thought this was the best approach. It allows us all to be involved in promoting and documenting experiences at the museum. It cuts out the middleman--when someone from the press wanted to know more about an event, they talk to that event producer. It invites spontaneity and diversity of voice on a range of social media outlets, from Facebook to Twitter to Pinterest to Instagram. And it cultivates authentic relationships between staff members and the awesome community members who can make our museum better.

But then, a few things happened. We started...
  • to see the limits of our distributed approach to marketing. We sometimes lose track of the big goals that should underline all of our promotion, and we don't spend the time to develop and refine those goals based on research. Our programs staff are overtaxed and spending a lot of time putting together materials to promote their events. We rarely get the chance to go deeper or follow up when creative opportunities arise. No one has time to analyze the results of our approaches when it comes to what is and isn't working. In other words, we're getting tasks done, and we're doing it creatively, but no one is steering the bus... and thus, we're not learning and adapting as much as we could. 
  • imagining possibilities that no one "owns" currently. Our programming and exhibitions staff work with visitors to co-create a huge amount of stuff--from giant yarn-bomb sculptures to funny breakup stories. We don't "do" much with this content currently. We'll post a few stories on Facebook, share photos, and of course, let visitors take things home with them. But we started imagining a person who could focus a bit on these collaborations and say--hey, let's turn those stories into a funny little book, or let's make sure the local radio station knows we're capturing people's bird sounds and get them in on it. Recently, Alpo hosted a block party in Santa Cruz inspired by a guy who came to our Wearable Art Ball in a costume made from dog food bags... but we didn't have anyone to get the museum involved in the followup. We produce a lot of "wasted" media here with our visitors, and with a bit of tweaking, it could become something really amazing and shareable.
  • realizing that there are community-based organizations that do marketing really, really well. Only they don't call it marketing. They call it advocacy. I got so many emails over the past year from political and cause-based groups that are super-smart about how they build movements and inspire participation. They do constant A/B testing to understand what is and isn't working. And they are driven by a passion not just to advance their cause but to do so by increasing the engagement and involvement of collaborators and supporters. That sounds a lot more like what we want to focus on at our museum than selling tickets.
  • meeting people in arts marketing who changed my perspective. My favorite new conference  in 2012 was the National Arts Marketing Project in November. I went into it pretty nervous--how would a group of marketers respond to my talk about active audience participation, inclusion, and social change? Turns out they were the MOST engaged, the most thoughtful... and in their other sessions, having really interesting conversations about experimental projects, diversifying constituents, the neuroscience of choice, and the ethics of pricing. It made me think that this kind of person could help our organization if we could articulate the position properly. And smart people I met there, like Clay Lord, helped me think that through.
And so we came up with a job for a person who is part marketing/PR task-master, part journalist/media-maker, part community organizer. We made research and creative collaboration key parts of the job description. I'm excited to see what comes of it, and if this sounds like you, by all means, please apply.