Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I Blog

I spent the weekend queuing up posts for my forthcoming blog-cation--nine weeks of guest posts and reruns from the Museum 2.0 vaults that will commence next week. It feels like a real gift to myself (and hopefully, to you) to schedule all this content now and not have to worry about it when my baby is born. Thank you to everyone who recommended a favorite post from the past or who helped out with a guest post. You're in for a treat, with upcoming posts on creativity, collections management, elitism, science play, permanent participatory galleries, partnering with underserved teens, magic vests, and more.

I've never taken a break from blogging before. Every week for almost seven years, I've made sure to get new content up on the blog. And as I leafed through the back-catalog, corresponded with brilliant guest posters, and watched my blog-related stress float away, I found myself wondering: what the heck took me this long?

And that got me thinking about why I blog in the first place. I blog for four main reasons:
  1. I'm a self-directed learner who likes to write. Blogging gave me a way to formalize out-of-work learning in a format I enjoy. I didn't want to write about something I was an expert on; I wanted to write to explore new ideas, share my questions and ideas, and learn from the experience.
  2. I'm sufficiently externally-driven to realize that having a public place for my learning helps me stay focused and keep producing. Whether I had three readers or 3,000, I feel accountable to those folks to keep writing and sharing. Sometimes, this has led to an unreasonable amount of stress for an entirely extra-curricular activity. But for the most part, you keep me going.
  3. Reflective time is important, especially when your work is hectic. Especially over the past two years, while I've been working as the executive director of a small museum in transition, there have been many, many late nights when I cursed the blog and wished I could just call it quits. But I know that even in times of chaos--especially in those times--it's important to take time to reflect on what you are doing and making and learning. Blogging forces me to have a reflective part of my practice on a weekly basis, even when I feel about as reflective as a black carpet.
  4. I crave community, but I am not naturally outgoing in large group settings like conferences. I went to several big museum conferences in 2004-2006 where I identified and started admiring heroes in the field. I had no idea how to reasonably approach them or talk to them in the cocktail party milieu of big conferences. So I started writing, and sharing, and using the blog as a tool that gave me the courage to reach out to heroes and learn from them. Over time, the blog has itself become a hub of community that has significantly transformed my professional work and social life. It has been a catalyst for speaking and consulting gigs, and the laboratory for a book. But I never really saw the blog explicitly as a business development vehicle. It is these other aspects--learning, reflection, community--that keep me going.
It is this community--you--that I want to reflect a bit more on. 

I have always approached blogging as an open invitation to "wander along with me" in a learning space driven by curiosity. At the same time, I'm aware that only a tiny percentage of readers have actively pursued relationships with me and other Museum 2.0 folk through comments, emails to me, and hallway conversations. As the readership for Museum 2.0 has grown, I've struggled to feel the same tight-knitted-ness that characterized the early years. 

The total readership from 2010-2012 was more than double that of 2007-2009 (and has been flat since 2011). I've struggled with some of the "celebrity" aspects of having a big audience. It's overwhelming to go from being that person who felt anonymous at conferences to being mobbed by strangers who want to meet you. At the same time, the blog continues to introduce me to extraordinary people who enrich my life and work in many ways. Particularly in the last two years, the blog's readership appears to have expanded in two unexpected and delightful directions: out of the museum field and into the broader arts sector, and locally here in Santa Cruz, where "participatory" has become a familiar word because of the work we are doing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). I'm equally amazed when a comment comes in from a MAH member as I am when one comes in from an Australian opera director. And I feel incredibly grateful that the reach of the blog makes it possible to launch projects like Hack the Museum Camp and feel confident that people will want to participate.

To me, Museum 2.0 is most successful when it allows me to pursue my original goals: to learn, to reflect, and to do so in an engaged community space. Sometimes, I commit the sin of presuming what the audience expects or wants from me. It's an incredible gift to realize that, for the most part, it's OK for me to keep focusing on the questions and ideas that keep me up at night--even as those shift with my personal and professional growth.

So I want to close out this long season of blogging with a note of gratitude. THANK YOU for pushing me to keep thinking, learning, and writing. Thank you for sharing your ideas and case studies and comments and questions. Thank you for emailing me to tell me about a post that really helped your team. Thank you for inviting me to come to your museum/conference/art center/home. Thank you for making me feel like I am part of a community, even as we acknowledge the transactional and anonymous aspects of this kind of relationship.

Please feel free to share any thoughts you have on what does/doesn't work for you about Museum 2.0. The greatest gift you can give me is your thoughtful comments. Enjoy these next two months of posts from diverse perspectives, times, and places. I'll see you on the other side.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Come Work With Us at MAH as School Programs Coordinator

I know, I know. Any job with the word “coordinator” in it sounds like you might spend your time sorting socks into pairs. But this job is really important to the future of our museum, and I’m hoping that you or someone you know might be a great fit for it.

We are hiring for a School Programs Coordinator to wrangle the 3,500+ students and their teachers who come to the museum every year for a tour and hands-on experience in our art and history exhibitions. While we used to have a Director of Education who managed this, we’ve recently restructured our Community Programs department to have a Youth Programs Manager (the brilliant Emily Hope Dobkin), who oversees all experiences that visitors 2-18 have with the museum. School programs fall within this landscape, and our goal is not to see them as completely separate from the other work we do with youth—Kid Happy Hour, family festivals, teen program—but on a continuum. In this role, you will be the thoughtful, creative, detail-oriented lead who thinks about how school groups fit into the bigger ecosystem of youth experiences at the MAH and develops and implements them accordingly.

This job involves administrative management of all things school tours as well as collaboration with a diverse group of volunteer docents and education interns. Because 30% of the students in our school district are English language learners (and the majority of those, Latino), we are seeking someone who is bilingual and able to communicate comfortably with kids and adults in Spanish.

We see this job as a starting point for someone who is cheerfully obsessed with the future of museum education. Like most museums, we’re facing some big questions when it comes to the future of school programs:
  • Buses aren’t cheap, and teachers are increasingly stressed about “proving” the value of expensive field trips away from the classroom. Our school visit numbers have risen over the past few years, but we also hear a lot from teachers about this tension, especially when the teacher is trying to justify an art tour. How should we think about the role of onsite museum experiences in future educational partnerships? 
  • Many families in our area have opted into non-traditional school and educational formats, especially homeschooling. What kinds of programs should we consider providing for these groups? 
  • Not all learning happens in school. How should we think about the balance between formal programs for school groups and youth-centered programs that happen after or outside of school? 
  • We are an interdisciplinary institution that focuses on igniting “unexpected connections.” How can we create school tours that reflect the diversity and interconnectedness of creativity and culture without completely confusing teachers? 
  • We are an institution that focuses on “shared experiences” and social bridging amongst diverse groups. Most school tours are for intact groups—a single class or grade. How can we develop programming that encourages students to make connections with kids of other ages or from other parts of our County? 
  • We care deeply about participatory experiences in which visitors have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to large-scale collaborative projects. How can we invite students to collaborate with us the way we do with community partners and visitors? 
  • We are transforming our history gallery to be a more dynamic platform for civic engagement. How will this affect our school programs and our work with teachers? 
If these questions excite you, I hope you will consider applying. The application period closes on Monday, July 29.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hack the Museum Camp Part 2: Making Magic, Reality TV, and Risk as a Red Herring

We did it. Last week, my museum hosted Hack the Museum Camp, a 2.5 day adventure in which teams of adults--75 people, of whom about half are museum professionals, half creative folks of various stripes--developed an experimental exhibition around our permanent collection in our largest gallery.

We now have a painting hanging from the ceiling that you can lie under and experience in 3D. We have a gravestone with a Ouija board in front of it so you can commune with its owner. We have a sculpture in its crate/prison cell, unwrapped and unexhibited since its acquisition thirty years ago.

We also have 75 new friends, slightly bleary from the experience, which felt like one part intense work project, one part marathon, one part hallucinogenic love-in.

I'm not going to write too much about the process here--please check out Paul Orselli's blog post for his perspective as a counselor, Sarah Margusen's Pinterest board for her perspective as a camper, or Georgia Perry's article for the Santa Cruz Weekly, which provides an outsider's view on the process. You can also see a ton of photos on Instagram, and I highly recommend the Confessional Tent videos for sheer silliness (more on those below).

Here's what I got out of Hack the Museum Camp.

It is amazing to actually DO things with colleagues in professional development situations instead of just talking. In 2009, after we hosted the Creativity and Collaboration retreat, I wrote a post about ditching "conferences" for "camp" experiences. Four years later, my appetite for these kinds of experiences hasn't changed. It felt great to once again be working with people--brainstorming exhibit challenges, editing label text, even just messing around on the player piano together. As a floating camp director, I got the best of this (interaction with all the campers) and the worst (no intense team time). I felt lucky to be able to dip into the various project teams, though that also gave me a completely aberrant perspective on camp. I was impressed by the extent to which the teams seemed to gel and people appeared, for the most part, to be happy spending the majority of their time here with a small group of teammates. There's always a balancing act between team project time and everybody time. If we do this again, I think we will swing towards a bit more everybody time so people could learn from more of the diverse and fabulous campers who were here.

I was surprised by the extent to which reality TV culture imprinted on the experience. People talked about the camp as Project Runway for museums. I'd give a team feedback and they said it was like Tim Gunn had blessed their project. As a forest-dwelling hippie, I know very little about reality TV, but it's clear that the model of "do an ambitious, wacky project really fast" is now tied closely to a slew of shows about everything from cooking to art-making. There were some ways we deliberately played with this--MAH staff member Elise Granata created an ingenious Confessional Tent where campers could make hilarious first-person videos about their experience--but there were other ways it really surprised me. Teams were more intense than I anticipated. Every team completed an exhibit in the time allotted. I assumed that at least one team would fizzle out, erupt, or just decide not to fully engage. Instead, everyone was focused and intent on creating something fabulous. I'm not sure how much reality TV affected this, but it was clear that people had internalized the "rules" of camp and were ready to play, and play hard. This mindset also impacted perception of everyone's roles in the camp. While it was completely hilarious to hear that "this is not Nina Simon best friend camp," it was also a little sad to realize that in the framework of something like reality TV, the camp director doesn't get to really jump in in an authentic, casual way with campers--I was expected to play the host role.

Diversity isn't just nice to have--it's fabulous. We selected our campers from a fairly large pool of applicants; about 1/3 of those who applied were invited to attend. During the selection process, we prioritized diversity--of experience, of geography, of gender, of perspective. Then, when we put together teams, we again tried to break people up such that every team would have a blend of individuals across several axes. Several campers commented to me that their favorite part of camp was the diversity of the campers' backgrounds and frameworks. If we were to do this again, I would ask one additional question of applicants: age. We had a good mix of people in their 20s-50s with a smattering of outliers, but it was clear that the most effective teams had age diversity within a team itself. Many of the oldest campers were "counselors"--seasoned exhibit designers I've known and respected for a long time--and we didn't have enough counselors for every team to have one. I'm not sure how important it is for every team to have a designated counselor--interestingly, in early feedback, many campers wanted leadership whereas counselors wished there had been a more even playing field. I do think that no matter what, it is valuable for every team to have a mix of ages and experiences.

The idea of "risk" is often a red herring. This was probably the biggest surprise for me - yet it shouldn't have been. We framed this entire experience around "creative risk-taking." Throughout the camp, I pushed teams to make sure that their projects truly challenged traditional museum practice. While this probably did inspire some teams to do some weird and wonderful things, it was also problematic for two reasons:
  • For campers who are not in the museum field, it was confusing. Everyone's definition of risk is different, and while museum professionals may share a common language around the topic, that commonality breaks down when you involve artists and technologists and game designers and performers. The whole point of bringing in non-museum professionals was to expand the dialogue around what is possible, and in some ways, the "risk" framing limited those possibilities.
  • More importantly, I've discovered again and again that when you are actually doing what others categorize as risky, it doesn't feel like risk at all. When I hosted a panel on risk-taking at AAM in 2011, all of the panelists agreed that we don't see our work as "risky"--we just see it as the work we are compelled to do (scroll down to the second part of this post). Once each team got into their projects, they were just cranking to make it happen. Sure, they might have decided to present an art object in a confrontational and opinionated way. Or they might have chosen to make up a fictitious narrative around history artifacts. Those are risky decisions in the broader museum context. But in the context of Hack the Museum Camp, they were just the starting points for projects. I wish we had focused more on a theme like "make an exhibit that is completely delightful and surprising" and less on "make an exhibit that takes a risk."
On the other hand, it was also empowering for some campers to experience how doing things that are "against the rules" can generate really wonderful levels of creative output. I know that our staff and members are really excited and energized by the exhibition that this camp created. We'll open the exhibition formally to the public this Friday, but already, we've had great response from donors and visitors who have wandered through. Yes, the exhibition is chaotic. But it is also full of surprises and vitality, and it showcases a very wide palate of approaches to collection objects. While the timing isn't great given my upcoming maternity/blog leave, I'll try to write a post at the end of the exhibition run sharing some of the reactions to the exhibition itself from visitors.

What questions do you have about camp? What would (or wouldn't) make you want to participate in something like this? I also encourage campers and counselors to share comments here, though I know that you represent a tiny subset of the folks reading this.

In closing, a quote from one camper's evaluation of the experience:
I like to say that if I am not afraid every day, then it is time to move on to another job. There were several moments during camp when I was felt a surge of anxiety, trepidiation, self-doubt. What is amazing about being with such a great group of people, is that they carry you through it. ... By the end of this week I will probably forget the sound of the player piano, the feel of the hard floor, or the carpal tunnel setting in my fingers. But I won't forget the many individuals who were so generous and tenacious; so honest and proud.
Thanks for all the memories.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hack the Museum Camp: Making Space for Creative, Generous Risk-Taking

Here in Santa Cruz, we're brushing off our tents and lining up the counselor whistles for Hack the Museum Camp, a 2.5 day adventure that starts today. We have 75 campers here from around the world who will be working in teams to develop exhibits based on artifacts from our permanent collection that challenge museum conventions and traditional exhibit design practice. The campers are about half museum professionals, half artists, architects, and designers of all stripes.

This project is a big, audacious risk for everyone involved. For the campers, there's the stress that comes with trying to design and execute an exhibit idea in 48 hours. For me, there's the uncertainty that comes with turning our museum's largest gallery over to a motley crew of risk-taking campers.

But as we work out all of the kinks, I've come to realize that my biggest fear is that the projects won't be risky enough. That even when given the space and opportunity to push boundaries, most of us will settle into our traditional comfort zones of doing it "right," not "screwing up," and playing it safe.

As the camp director, I've been spending a lot of my time thinking about what we can do to scaffold this experience to really encourage creative risk-taking. For me, this comes down to two big areas: how we create space and support for risk-taking, and how we orient the risk-taking towards work that will excite and energize visitors.

Risk-Taking Requires Space-Making

On our staff team, the most important tool that encourages risk-taking is our organizational culture. We can talk all we want about being experimental, but what really matters is the kind of cheerleading, coaching, and love that staff and interns get when they take risks. As Beck Tench has beautifully expressed, every risk-taker needs a "space-maker" to clear the way for true experimentation.

I am asking all of our Hack the Museum counselors and our staff team to think about how we can be those space-makers for campers, focusing not so much on how the projects can be executed but how the campers can really pursue their risk-taking passions. I feel lucky that one of our camp counselors, Kathy McLean, spearheaded the incredible "No Idea is Too Ridiculous" project at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage - and I'm hoping she and others will be able to bring some of the energy from that work to our campers this week.

Taking Risk-Taking Beyond Provocation

Assuming that campers are ready to take risks at Hack the Museum Camp, the other big question on my mind is how we encourage teams to do so in a way that is about opening up new possibilities instead of shutting down old ones. One of the things I've noticed in working with students in particular is that many risk-takers want to jump directly to confrontation. They see risk-taking as a way to give the finger to the establishment.

While confronting traditions can be a useful starting point, confronting visitors can be lead to unpleasant experiences. Instead of confronting, I always encourage risk-takers to think about how they can approach their work in a way that is "generous" to visitors. It can be just as subversive to hand someone a flower as it is to slap them in the face--and they are probably more likely to be receptive to your larger message. Some of the most powerful risky work I've experienced has started with an invitation, not a confrontation. Our museum's mission to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections." I believe that we are most likely to achieve this mission if we invite people into the unexpected in with experiences that radiate generosity and possibility.

I'm not sure what we are going to get out of this week. I am very, very excited to find out (and to share it with you). You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram via @santacruzmah and #hackthemuseum. We'd also love to hear how YOU would hack a museum exhibit if given the opportunity. Happy hacking!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Image Beats Text: Good for Museums, Tough for Me

Over the past year, I've had a hazy sense that the social web is transitioning from a text-based to visual medium. Services like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are growing at incredible rates, especially with younger users. Facebook shifted its design to focus on photo and video-sharing in response to data showing that this content is shared way more frequently than text and links. Visual content motivates more responses than text, engages younger participants, and is often cited as a major trend of 2012 and 2013.

A trend in which I take almost no part. It's surprising (and a bit embarrassing) to realize how little I engage with tools that appear ascendant broadly and are in constant use by my colleagues. I appreciate these tools--the attractiveness of Instagram, the usability of Vine, the utility of Pinterest. But I live in a digital world in which text is still king. I spend my professional time online reading blogs, reading reports, sharing articles, engaging in text chat. I use an RSS reader to aggregate articles to read, a bookmarking tool (pinboard) to save links of interest, and conversational tools (Twitter and Facebook) to share. And of course, I use this blog as a reflective space to learn by writing.

In contrast, many of the people I work with use visual social media formats as their lead tools for creating, sharing, and consuming information. At our museum, Pinterest is a primary tool for brainstorming and sharing ideas. Instagram has become a popular way to share photos, along with Flickr, where we catalog all our images from events and exhibitions. And the most recent excitement is around Vine, which we're using to make snippets of video showcasing our work. Individual staff members use these tools both personally and professionally. They are invested in them beyond their workday.

I'm supportive of all of this. At the same time, I recognize that these tools and this form of content-sharing is (so far) not for me. Part of that has to do with my personality--I love to write, and I rarely take photographs. While I'm comfortable working out my thoughts in a half-baked way in words, I rarely use images as part of that learning/reflecting/sharing experience. I just haven't figured out how to integrate these tools into my workflow.

But what's awkward for me is actually probably very good for museums. Museums, and museum staff members, tend to be highly visually-oriented. It's about the objects, the display, the people, the process, the event--the image of the experience. I suspect that there are many more museum professionals who are ready and eager to share photographs or videos documenting their work than are ready to write about it.

This is great for museums looking for authentic ways to engage with people online. We don't have to hunt for photogenic projects: we have impressive feats of construction and wonder on display on a daily basis. Visual content can build excitement about museums in a way that would be hard for a social service agency or nonprofit to emulate.

At the same time, we might think about how these tools might be used inside our field in the context of professional development and building communities of practice. Most of the professional networks I belong to online operate using the most antiquated of text-based tools: the listserv. Even sites that do encourage use of images or video as part of professional sharing tend to make those elements optional while text is required.

This makes me wonder: are younger practitioners creating their own online communities of practice in visually-based social networks? Are there opportunities for explicit knowledge-sharing that are rooted in photographs and videos? Does the growth of visual content affect who within an organization produces digital content and how those resources are managed?

Clearly, this is not my area of expertise. I'd love to hear what you think.