Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Post: Oh Snap! Experimenting with Open Authority in the Gallery

Visitor-contributed photos surround a collection piece
in Carnegie Museum of Art's Oh Snap! project.
It can be incredibly difficult to design a participatory project that involves online and onsite visitor engagement... so I was intrigued when I heard about a recent success from Jeffrey Inscho, Web and Digital Media Manager at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. In this guest post, Jeffrey shares the story behind their big hit with a visitor co-created exhibition.

Several months ago, a cross-departmental group of staffers at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh got together to explore ways the museum could become more flexible, nimble and interactive with respect to way we engage audiences, both on-site and online. The result of those meetings and brainstorming sessions recently manifested itself in our Forum Gallery as an experimental photography project called Oh Snap! Your Take on Our Photographs.

Project Background

I don't want to get lost in the weeds with respect to the mechanics and back-end details, but I think it's important to include some context about the project so we can effectively explore what's working and what's not. At its core, Oh Snap! is a project that lets real-world and virtual visitors share their work in our gallery. The museum selected and is featuring 13 works recently added to our photography collection. Each work was specifically chosen for its potential to inspire creative responses. We then invited people to submit their own photographic responses (via the web) inspired by one of the 13 works from the project.

Each day, the museum prints out new submitted photographs and hangs them alongside their inspirations in the gallery. When a participant's work is selected, we let them know via email when it will be on view, and send out a free admission pass so they can visit their submission in the museum.
It's a bit complicated to explain in writing, but this video does a good job of summarizing the project.

We're seeing tons of excitement around this project and a huge level of participation, especially for a museum just dipping its toe in the waters of open authority. Since the project launch on February 21, we've received 685 submissions from participants across the United States, Europe and South America.

Here are some reasons why I think Oh Snap! is killing it:

We See Participants as Partners

The thesis of Oh Snap! hinges on the ideas experimentation, uncertainty and partnership. We opened the gallery with empty walls (save the 13 collection works) and it could have very well stayed that way until the project closes in April. We took a HUGE risk when we trusted our audience to help us create something cool, not only on the web, but in a museum.

A website can fail softly, however there's no avoiding the awkwardness if we open a gallery and have nothing on the walls for several months. I think participants realize that we're relying on them to make this work.

We Make it Easy

Another key to the success of the project is that we lowered the barrier of entry for participants. Graphically, both on-site and online, the project is very inviting. Warm purple tones invite curiosity and modern iconography convey relevance to a younger, digitally-connected demographic.

We built a responsive website that renders elegantly across all devices and capitalizes on user impulse by allowing participants to submit photos instantly from their mobile phone or tablet's camera roll, as well as desktop computers. We also developed the site so each submitted photo had its own URL and threaded comment stream so discussions could take place around the submitted works. Social integrations are important so we infused easy sharing via Facebook and Twitter wherever possible.

When early feedback indicated users were confused about the submission process, we fine-tuned our language and quickly produced a promo video that distills the complete process in a hilarious 2-minute story.

In the gallery, we hung custom-made Post-It note pads on object title cards so visitors could take a reminder to submit an image with them when they left the gallery. We put couches and a coffee table in the room to entice visitors to spend time with the works and create a comfortable environment.

We did all of this to make it as easy as possible for someone to be a part of the project. We don't have control over whether or not a visitor participates, but we can control the participation environment so it is a delightful experience.

We Blur Digital and Real-World Experiences

The biggest difference between Oh Snap! and other crowd-sourced photography projects is the physical manifestation of tactile objects in the gallery. Too often, projects like this live exclusively on the web and have no "real-world" presence. We knew from the beginning that this project needed to effectively marry the digital with the real-world, with the goal of blurring lines between the two.

We found humor and fun to be great bridges between the physical and digital environments. From the language used on the website and in automated emails, to the promo video, to the gallery texts and Launch Party, we took every opportunity to infuse fun at every interaction point, be it online or in the gallery. This common thread unifies a multi-platform project like Oh Snap! and creates a consitent experience no matter how or where a user interacts with the project.

We See No Finish Line

Finally, and perhaps the most vital component to the success of the project is its unfinished nature. Oh Snap! is truly an "exhibition in beta." It's evolving and living and organic. We can change up the gallery if we need to. We can change the way the website functions or add elements as we need them. We're not locked into a traditional exhibition format and we have the ability to stay nimble.

We've also structured this project so we can maintain an ongoing dialog with participants even after the Oh Snap! gallery closes. When this project is officially over, we'll take what we learned and apply it to the next experiment, hopefully building on the work and insights gained from this project. We're not sure what that next experiment will be, but we're looking forward to trying something new.

If you have a question or comment for Jeffrey and the Oh Snap! team, please share it. Jeffrey will be checking in here over the next couple of weeks to respond.
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