Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest Post: Collections Access - Open the Door Wider

North Carolina Museum of History 1988.39.4
I’m always amazed when my colleagues tell me that the biggest barrier they face to “opening up” the content at their museums is from registrars—the people who care for collection objects. In this courageous guest post, Adrienne Berney, a Collections Care Trainer who works primarily with history museums, gives us an insider’s guide to these issues. 

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’sCommittee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Spring Museum, have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, not the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an overarching open-access approach to collections?

This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs
by photographing an artifact in the Sandy Spring
Museum collection,  was for sale as a limited edition
giclee print in the museum’s gift shop for the duration
of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.    
Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often? The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation.
By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Spring Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents, for their contributions to this post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: Answers to the Ten Questions I Am Most Commonly Asked

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. I'm amazed at how well most of the answers in this post hold up two-plus years later (though I would revise my answer to #8 if I were writing this today). Originally posted in April of 2011, just before I hung up my consulting hat for my current job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Note: the title of this post pays homage to Elaine Heumann Gurian's excellent and quite different 1981 essay of the same title.

I've spent much of the past three years on the road giving workshops and talks about audience participation in museums. This post shares some of the most interesting questions I've heard throughout these experiences. I like to use half of any allotted time slot to talk and half for Q&A, so we usually have time to get into meaty discussions. Feel free to add your own questions and answers in the comments!


1. Have you seen attitudes in our field about visitor participation shifting over time?
Yes. Granted, I live in an increasingly narrow world of people who are exploring these topics and want me to work with them, but I still learn a lot from the questions and struggles I hear from colleagues and people who comment on the blog.

The Museum 2.0 blog has been going for almost five years now, and I've seen people's concerns and questions evolve over that time in the following way:
  • For the first couple of years--2006-2007--most of the questions were about the "why" of participation. Why should institutions engage with people in this way? How could staff members justify these approaches to their managers? I've seen this line of questioning almost completely disappear in the past two years due to many research studies and reports on the value and rise of participation, but in 2006-7, social media and participatory culture was still seen as nascent (and possibly a passing fad).
  • In 2008, the conversation started shifting to "how" and "what." In 2008 and 2009, there were many conference sessions and and documents presenting participatory case studies, most notably Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean's book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. I wrote The Participatory Museum in response to this energy--to put together case studies in the context of a design framework so we could talk as a field about what works and why.
  • In the past year, I've seen the conversation shift to talking about impact and sustainability of these projects--how we evaluate audience participation and how we can shift from experimental pilots to more day-to-day implementation.

2. Are there certain kinds of institutions that are more well-suited for participatory techniques than others?

Yes and no. I honestly think the only kind of cultural institution that cannot support audience participation is one in which staff members don't respect visitors or what they have to contribute. I've never heard people say they don't care about visitors, but I've seen it in how they pay attention to visitors' needs and contributions. This anti-participatory behavior is also sometimes manifest within staffs where only certain employees' ideas are recognized and solicited, floor staff are ignored, etc.

But for institutions with a genuine interest and respect for visitors, participation is always possible. It looks different in different types of institutions. Small organizations are often best at forming long-term relationships with community members, whereas large organizations can rally lots of participants for a contributory project. Art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to initiate participatory projects but the most likely to work with artists whose approach to participation might be quite extreme. For more on the differences among different types of museums (with examples), check out this post.

3. A lot of these projects are about getting people to be more social and active in museums. What about traditional visitors and supporters who may not want to participate?

In my experience, staff members are more sensitive to this issue than visitors and members are. I've met beautifully-coiffed ladies in their 70's who are hungry for conversation, and I've met pierced teenagers who prefer a contemplative experience. Most people who really love and support a museum want it to be loved and well-used by the larger community, and many of these folks are thrilled by techniques that engage new people with the organization.

That said, I think it's really important for all these engagement strategies to be "opt-in." It's common in many museums to offer cart-based activities that invite visitors (mostly families) to play a game, try an experiment, or make art. Just as those kinds of activities offer opt-in deeper engagement for some visitors, participatory techniques can offer opt-in social or active techniques for those who want them.

Sometimes, staff will claim that certain engagement techniques are so distracting for non-participants that they should not be offered even on an opt-in basis. I frankly think this is ridiculous. We know from research that people like to engage with content in different ways, and many museums tout the fact that they offer multi-faceted learning experiences. If we accept that sometimes people want to read the long label, sometimes people want to discuss things, sometimes people want to touch, and so on, then we have to offer a diversity of options. If we prescriptively decide you can only talk over here and you can only read the long label over there, we limit the quality and impact of the visitor experience.

4. Do you see any cultural differences in whether and how people like to participate around the world?

This is a really interesting question, and if I had any friends who were international social psychologists I would probably spend all my free time pestering them about this. My limited experience and research has led me to believe that people in every culture want to express themselves and connect with each other--the differences are how they prefer to do so.

Sometimes the difference comes down to preferred tools. In Taiwan, I noted that many more visitors and staff members were enthusiastic about taking and sharing photos than they were writing on a talkback board. In Denmark and Amsterdam, I experienced radical dialogue programs like Human Library, but also a strict formalism as to what happens in galleries.

Other times, the differences come down to social conventions. Some cultures value individual expression, whereas others prioritize the group. At the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (search "Vietnam" here), staff have told me that participatory projects work best when a community of participants is engaged in a group process where they can come to consensus and defer to the group. In contrast, processes that engage individual participants as creators might work in a more individualistic culture like Australia or the US.

I'd love to hear more peoples' reflections on this. In every country I've visited, I've heard a version of this question that starts, "Maybe this works for Americans, but here in X..." After seeing so many varied and inspiring participatory projects from around the world, I can firmly state that this is not an American phenomenon, nor is participatory work even necessarily best-suited to U.S. culture. There are long histories of highly-engaged participatory governance and cultural work around the world, and in many ways, America's obsession with the individual may be more of a hindrance than a help to projects here.


5. Where do you see the biggest resistance to incorporating participatory techniques? What's the biggest obstacle to more of these projects happening?

The first thing you have to tackle is fear of change. This isn't unique to audience participation; it's a reality that any new project or course of action stirs up all kinds of anxieties about organizational change.

Once you get past the fear of change to the specifics of audience participation, you have to separate people's expressed resistance from the actual obstacles. Resistance to audience participation is often expressed as fear of losing control. There's a worry, mostly on the part of content experts and brand managers, that their voices won't be as dominant as they once were when visitors are invited to participate. These fears are well-justified, but they're often predicated on the false conflation of control with expertise. You can be an expert and have a strong voice--a voice visitors want to hear--without being the only voice in the room. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it's something we're comfortable with in news, politics, and other venues... why not museums?

And ultimately, loss of control is not the biggest obstacle to implementing participatory projects. I would suggest that the biggest challenge is the fact that they require fundamentally different ways of operating. If a traditional exhibition project is one in which a team "puts on a show," a participatory project is one in which a team "plants a garden" and then must tend and cultivate it over time. Participatory projects require sustained engagement between staff and community members, and that is not baked into our traditional job descriptions, staffing plans, and project budgets.

6. How do you evaluate participatory engagement strategies?
My simple answer is: evaluate these projects as you would evaluate any new technique or program. If your institution cares about numbers, count participants and impacted visitors. If your institution cares about deep engagement, measure dwell time and survey people about their experiences. If your institution cares about delivering on mission, measure indicators that reflect your core values. This sounds flip, but the reality as I've seen it is that every institution has its own criteria for what makes a project a success. If you evaluate your project by something other than those criteria, you won't be able to make a convincing argument about whether to continue with these efforts or not.

Many evaluations of participatory projects focus solely on the experience for participants. I have yet to see a participatory project in which the direct participants who co-designed an exhibition or contributed their own stories to a program did not have an incredible, often transformative, experience. The problem is that these participants are often tiny in number compared to your organization's overall audience. To effectively and completely evaluate the impact of a participatory project, you have to look at how it affects not only participants but also the broader audience... and staff.

This question of evaluation is still very open. I wrote a chapter in The Participatory Museum about it, but I continue to seek out really good examples of participatory project evaluation. I strongly believe it is through shared evaluations and documentation that we will advance as a field overall in these efforts.

7. What kind of changes do you think have to happen for museums to really be able to embrace and support audience participation, not just in one-off experiments, but for the long term?

This comes back to the idea that participation happens fundamentally in operating, not in designing or developing programs. After a phase of experimentation and pilot projects, I think any organization that is serious about audience participation has to examine how it recruits staff and what their tasks and roles are.

We also have to become more flexible about how we engage visitors as partners on an ongoing basis. For example, I recently learned about the Science Gallery's approach to involving community members. They have a pretty explicit engagement ladder in which someone starts as a visitor, becomes a member, then an "ambassador" who is empowered to put on some programs in collaboration with the institution, and finally a member of the "Leonardo Group" -- an advisory group that meets a few times a year to tackle upcoming creative challenges the organization faces. Rather than having standing advisory committees representing various constituencies, the Leonardo Group is a nimble, diverse crowd of engaged participants who contribute significantly to the Science Gallery's programming and resources through one-off events. This kind of engagement ladder provides a structured framework for participation without overly constraining how people get involved.


8. When you are creating programming explicitly to engage new communities, how do you still satisfy your base?

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year, but it's one that still comes up frequently in discussions with colleagues. I've come to feel that the "parallel to pipeline" strategy is a solid approach. You start by offering a custom, distinct program for new audiences and then find ways to integrate what works for them into your core offerings. The important part of making this work is acknowledging that you do have to make some real changes to the pipeline when you ask that new audience to transition into it. The parallel programs are not a "bait and switch" used to hook new audiences into your traditional offerings. They are a starting point, and a testing ground, from which you should be learning new ways of working that can be applied more broadly and fundamentally to how the organization operates.

9. If so much of this work is about creating personal relationships with visitors, how do we sustain it beyond individual staff members?

This question comes up most frequently when talking about social media. There's a fear that if an individual staff member becomes the voice of the organization on the Web, and then that person leaves, the relationships she built will disappear. Interestingly, I never hear colleagues express the same fear when it comes to individuals who run specific key programs for an organization (even though those membership managers, educators, volunteer coordinators, and others have very personal relationships with many important constituencies).

When it comes to online community engagement, I always turn to Shelley Bernstein and Beck Tench as my luminary teachers. Both of them are very clear about the need to be personal AND to distribute the relationships throughout staff as much as possible. Beck in particular has done an amazing job of working as a partner to other staff members at the Museum of Life and Science to help them develop social media projects that they can manage on their own with only light involvement from Beck. The animal keepers run their blog. The Butterfly House manager shares photos on Flickr. And so on. In this way, engaging with visitors through social media becomes something that many staff members are involved with based on their content and programmatic skills. This leads to diverse projects and relationships--and a better safety net for the institution overall.

10. When you build a relationship with a community for a project and then that project ends, how do you keep those people involved?

This is one of the toughest questions I've been grappling with lately, and I'd love to hear your reflections on it. It's a question that tends to come up only for organizations that have committed to audience participation over the long term. You invite a group of people to co-design an exhibit or co-produce a program, it happens, it's fabulous... and then what? In most cases, those partners were solicited for specific skills or attributes related to those specific projects, and it's not easy to naturally translate those same people to another participatory opportunity. In my experience, many of these people become a special class of members or volunteers, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with a standard membership arrangement. These folks have had a taste of higher engagement and many of them want more. I'm not sure what the most sustainable way is to keep them actively involved as the organization shifts over time.

What are your answers to these questions? What are your questions that should be on this list?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Post: Creativity – Why do some places have it and others don’t?

This week's guest post is written by Julie Bowen, VP of Experience and Engagement at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Julie is one of my true heroes--a creative systems thinker who has the intelligence, patience, and guts to make big shifts possible at large informal science organizations. I met Julie almost ten years ago, when she was leading the Agents of Change project at the Ontario Science Center, and I have admired her ever since. 

Years ago, I was running a workshop at a conference introducing a creativity technique to museum professionals. There was a lot of energy in the room, some very intense conversations and some great ideas were built. In the debrief to the experience I asked people what they thought they might take back to their institutions from the workshop. The comment that brought me up short was “This was great. I can see a lot of potential for how this could help us develop better stuff. But it would never work in my museum because my boss would never go for it.” 

This is a comment I’ve heard a lot over the years, and have wondered about what it takes to introduce or build more creativity into institutions. Having worked in and with a lot of different institutions, teams and departments, I’ve discovered that the secret sauce is different in each context – some places and people are distrustful of creativity, some get stuck in the planning, some need permission to be creative, others see creativity as the purview of a specific department, some are enthusiastically creative for a while and then fall back into more comfortable patterns and some embrace it as a part of their corporate culture. 

Based on a lot of experimentation (and a lot of failures), a whole lot of conversations and some amazing questions from people, here are some things that seem to contribute to getting creativity introduced and to having it stick. Not all of these are required in every instance, but having more of these seems to increase the likelihood of success (whatever that looks like). 

The leadership environment

Leaders (whether on a team, in a department or institution-wide) have to be open to taking risks, trying new things, evaluating and learning from failures. Discussions about what type and level of risk is acceptable and when risk is acceptable (early in the development process, contained to a defined time period or clearly articulated experiment) are useful here. The leadership environment is key. If your leadership can’t see value in creativity then try and work within your own sphere of influence to show how creativity can be valuable. You’ll have to be patient and persistent. If the leadership is actively disinterested in creativity, it will be hard to get whatever change you make to stick beyond what you can influence. To be a creative or innovative institution, with a lasting commitment to creativity, then creativity (and the inherent risk taking) needs to be supported at the top, valued for what it can bring to the institution, built into operating procedures, and reflected in the culture of the organization (through action, and aligned with values, mission and vision and reinforced through training and rewarding of staff and management).

Prototype lab at TELUS World of Science Calgary, 2011
The physical environment

The physical environment has to be conducive to creativity – and by extension to taking some kind of risk whether personal, professional or institutional. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson contends that “if you are not prepared to be wrong you’ll never do anything original”.  One way of doing this is to create a ‘skunkworks’ --a real place and time carved out of the day to experiment – where people can get comfortable being creative. This means a place that’s safe to try out stuff – where if something doesn’t go well, you’re not front and center in the museum’s lobby (once you get good at experimenting – then the lobby can be a fun place to try stuff with people), that is sturdy enough to invite experimentation (with robust floors, work surfaces, seating) easy to clean up, stocked with tools and random, cheap materials that can be used by staff to build and try stuff.

The idea environment
  • Processes can get in the way of or can facilitate creativity. Sometimes changing the way you get to ideas, can change the kind of ideas that are generated. Think of a different way to brainstorm – for instance, build ideas out of things rather than words. 
  • There needs to be a reason to be creative – usually in response to a problem or opportunity – that blank piece of paper in front of you can be more daunting than a well-defined set of restrictions. To get started, consider what your assumptions are about the problem at hand and then think about ways to question those assumptions (for instance, if you’re thinking about a new food service design, you’ll probably assume tables and chairs. What happens when you take away the chairs? Or the tables? Or the idea of ‘service’)

The individual
  • There are a number of skills that can improve creative output – one study found the five skills that distinguished the most creative and innovative executives included association, observation, questioning, experimentation, and networking.
  • If you’re trying to introduce creative ideas into your institution, something to consider is whether the ideas you’re introducing solve a particular problem that you are struggling with, or if they are aimed at your perception of someone else’s problem. Giving unsolicited ideas to the marketing department when you work in the exhibits department is unlikely to be successful (think of it as how you would feel receiving someone else’s idea on how to improve what you do before you throw the ‘you should try this’ at someone else). 
  • Ask a lot of questions – to really get creative, asking questions of yourself and others, exploring different ways of looking at a problem or opportunity, observing behavior – all of these things can help you get more creative.
  • Build something – take the idea out of the world of talking about it and build it (cheaply and quickly) – this can be a really powerful way to show yourself, your potential users and your boss what the idea could be. It also provides a really great test of whether something has any merit in being pursued.
  • Recognize that ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are a quarter a dozen and great ideas are rare. If you’re grumpy because “no one likes my ideas or ever implements them” then think about folks like Thomas Edison who is reputed to have tried and failed 10,000 times to invent the light bulb. Ideas that have merit are those that are subjected to rigor – observation of the problem and an understanding of its nuances, testing of possible solutions, iterating, re-testing, experimentation, seeking out critical feedback. Some ideas eventually make it out of that crucible to become something really amazing, and others die on the vine. Not to worry, there are dozens of other ones that will come up in the course of the exploration…that’s the fun part about creativity.
What have you found works or doesn’t to introduce or increase creativity in your organization, department, team? 

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: What Does it Really Mean to Serve "Underserved" Audiences?

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. This post is even more relevant today to the broader conversation about audience diversity in the arts than when it was published three years ago. If you like the post, please check out the thoughtful and complicated comments on the original post

Let's say you work at an organization that mostly caters to a middle and upper-class, white audience. Let's say you have a sincere interest in reaching and working with more ethnically, racially, and economically diverse audiences. What does it take to make that happen?

Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of giving a talk at an institution I've long admired: the Taylor Community Science Resource Center at the St. Louis Science Center. Besides having the longest name on the planet, the Taylor Center is one of my greatest inspirations when it comes to an institution authentically and whole-heartedly making a difference in the lives of underserved community members.

The Taylor Center is run by Diane Miller, who launched its award-winning Youth Exploring Science program in 1997. Diane is both visionary and no-nonsense about deconstructing the barriers that many low-income and non-white teenagers and families face when entering a museum. Most large American museums are reflections of white culture. There are expectations around what people wear, what they can and can't do, and how they relate to each other that may be comfortable for whites while feeling alien for people who don't grow up in a white culture. I'm white, and several of the things Diane told me about are things I don't notice because I'm part of the majority culture. Guards staring at black teens and grumbling about their clothes. People who feel pressured to sit quietly through a film when they've grown up in theaters that encourage vocal participation with the show.

When Diane started running community partnerships at the Science Center in the 1990s, she decided not to start with programs to bring more black and economically-disadvantaged families to the museum as visitors. Instead, she went out into local neighborhoods with low-income families and lousy schools and asked parents how they felt about their kids' science education. The parents told her they felt okay about what their kids were learning but were concerned about their children's job prospects as adults. So Diane asked them, "What if I hire your kids and pay them to learn science, teach it to other people, and gain professional skills?"

This is the root of the Youth Exploring Science (YES) program. Most teenagers join the program at fourteen and stay through their high school years. During the school year, they spend one day per week at the Taylor Center working on science projects and leading science programs for young children, seniors, and other community groups. In the summer, they spend 8 weeks working full-time at the Taylor Center learning and facilitating public programs. What started with 15 students in 1997 has grown to support 200 students per year. The program is rigorous, engaging students in serious scientific projects as well as personal and professional development workshops.

YES students defy expectations. They graduate high school in record numbers and the majority go on to post-secondary education. Diane told me several stories about teens who came in thinking of themselves as dumb but changed their perspective as their confidence grew in two areas they associated with intelligence--knowing science and being able to teach. If you can teach science, how can you be stupid? Diane told me about one young man who raised his grade point average in a single school year from 1.0 to 3.0. She asked him, "How did you do this? I don't understand what happened." And he said, "It's easy. I was misdiagnosed." Many of these kids come in mis- or self-diagnosed as dumb or incapable. YES changes that.

YES is carefully designed to support opportunities for disadvantaged kids to get involved with science. These kids are different from the mostly middle or upper-class white kids who volunteer at many science centers. Many YES teens don't come in with confidence about their own abilities. Many of them don't have the clothes required to go to a job interview. Many of them continue to be looked at suspiciously on the bus or on the street, even when they are traveling to and from a job site where they do incredible work for their community. Many of them don't come in focused on a particular topic or even science in general. The YES program helps teens not only learn science but learn how to articulate their interests and pursue new passions.

All these disadvantages don't mean that these teenagers can't be competent workers, superlative contributors, and successful learners. It doesn't mean that these teenagers are any less valuable to the St. Louis Science Center or society as a whole than others. But it does mean that they need different scaffolds and support mechanisms to succeed.

Diane pointed out several design features of the Taylor Center that uniquely serve these teenagers. Most of the walls are clear, so the space feels open, welcoming, and safely overseen. YES student projects last for several years, and teens are given dedicated space for their projects. Their work stays up on the walls and they have ownership over their project space for the long term; no one is going to reset everything or give up on them in mid-stream. There is healthy food in the fridge, and this summer, the Taylor Center became part of the city subsidized lunch program, offering a daily meal to local kids who receive free lunch at school but don't have a comparable meal source in the summer.

The Taylor Center is also explicitly not inside the St. Louis Science Center (although there are plans eventually to move to the main campus). The YES teens do most of their work as science educators within the Taylor Center, a place that they know and feel is "their" space. Some YES teens do work in the Science Center itself as well as providing outreach programs to other community centers, but for the most part, the YES program benefits from the controlled, safe environment of the Taylor Center.

The YES program doesn't just benefit the teens who participate and the community groups they serve. The Taylor Center is a testbed for the St. Louis Science Center to think more concretely about how to build successful community partnerships and how to confront internalized biases or obstacles that prevent more diverse involvement. At one point in the discussion last week, someone from the audience asked a question about whether "nontraditional" audiences really need a different kind of mediation than other museum visitors. The questioner noted that visitors have been using museums for their own diverse purposes since the beginning of time. Why can't new visitors do the same?

Diane told an amazing story in response. At one point, some YES teens told her that they thought more people from their communities would enjoy the Science Center and the other museums in St. Louis' Forest Park, which happen to be free. As they put it, "if there's one thing poor families are looking for, it's free things to do on the weekends." So the teens worked with the YES staff to put together a grant proposal in which they would partner with families at St. Louis homeless shelters to introduce them to the local museums.

The proposal was funded, and YES teens partnered up with individual homeless families on monthly outings to museums in Forest Park. The teens had an innate understanding of how it feels to be a new museum visitor, and they crafted the program carefully based on their knowledge. The teens paired up one-on-one with families, so that they could blend in easily and look like individual families instead of like a conspicuous tour group. They helped the families understand what's in the museums, how to approach exhibits, how to figure out when you can use an interactive element--all the cultural secrets that are easy for frequent museum-goers to forget. The YES teens were able to make a connection and design a program in a way that was more culturally appropriate and likely to succeed than traditional museum staff members likely could.

This story illustrates what advocates like Elaine Heumann Gurian have been saying for years: museums need to go to unfamiliar lengths to truly welcome and serve new audiences. You have to be open to listening, open to change, open to confronting unspoken biases about the "right" way to experience or engage with your institution. And you have to find ways to promote diversity, not as a nice to have, but as a must have. In the case of the St. Louis Science Center, YES teens have unique backgrounds, knowledge, expectations, and needs that positively enhance the all staff members' ability to serve wider audiences. Humble thanks to Diane, YES staff, and the teens for generously reminding me how illuminating and necessary it can be to see the world through someone else's eyes.