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.

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