Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Coming Up, What Happened, How Can I Help, and What the Heck is this E-Blast For, Anyway?

Like a lot of organizations, our museum sends out a weekly email to folks who are interested in upcoming events, exhibitions, and happenings at our museum. We are sensitive to keeping it short, interesting, and readable. We mostly focus on sharing what exhibitions are on and which events are coming up that week. Just the facts, ma'am.

At the same time, we generate some pretty great digital documentation (mostly photos and videos) from recent events. This documentation often languishes in corners of the social web. We capture the moments, post them online, and that's it.

In the past few months, we've started to experiment with sharing documentation on the e-blast. We've known for awhile that the most clicked-on part of our e-blast is often the Wishlist--a simple call-out for stuff we need for programs and exhibitions. As a community-based museum, it makes sense that we actively solicit participation through the e-blast when we can.

Bolstered by the power of the Wishlist, we decided to explore other non-announcement-y content to add to the e-blast.

Here's a recent e-blast we sent. It features:

  • an event & exhibition announcement
  • an opportunity to apply for our teen program
  • an instagram video of a ten year old who did a spontaneous performance at a recent event
  • a wishlist request
This e-blast had a surprising surge in clicks. Our average e-blast has a click rate of 1-2%. This one clocked in at 3%. The only other blast that has ever had this 3% clicks offered two job announcements.

Of those clicks, the vast majority - 44% - were on the video of the singing girl. Triple the number of clicks that anything else got. Documentation trumped announcement. An exciting moment captured digitally was more interesting than the promise of future exciting moments. 

A crass way to look at this is that the video was link-bait. Of course people will click on a video of--as we put it--"a 10 year old crushing a surprise performance at First Friday." But this documentation is also a direct showcase of our mission to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. I was in the room when Lily got up on stage and belted out a song she wrote. It was extraordinary. It brought the room together. It was a mind-exploding, unexpected moment of connection. It's the kind of magic that sometimes happens at the MAH.

If we wanted our e-blast to be as reflective of our mission, programming, and values as possible, it would primarily feature:
  • invitations to get meaningfully involved
  • documentation and celebration of community members who have gotten involved, shared experiences, made unexpected connections, or experienced moments of ignition
  • clear and welcoming language about a diversity of available experiences where you could have these experiences too
We're moving in this direction, but we could probably do more. I'm a bit embarrassed at how simple this seems and how we had to wander into discovering it. We thought the e-blast was prescriptively for one thing. Our visitors are reminding us that any communication can and should be mission-oriented. Thanks, visitors.

If your e-blast was written in the language of your mission, how would it be different? What would it feature?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery

Reader, I was wrong.

Five years ago, I wrote a post arguing that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. I believe that the ability to take photographs (no flash) in a museum greatly increases many people's abilities to personalize, memorialize, and enjoy the experience. I still feel that way. Mostly. But this past week, a string of stories from London have changed my perspective.

Several come from an aptly-named blog: Grumpy Art Historian. Blogger Michael Savage and I rarely see eye-to-eye, and that's why I love reading his posts. Last week, he wrote a series of posts about the British National Gallery's reversal of their photo policy. For the first time, the National Gallery is permitting non-flash photography.

The result appears to be a total mess. Lots of flashes. Mobs of ipads. Dangerous leaning and touching. A swarm of cameras everywhere. The paintings have become beleaguered celebrities, pursued by mobs of novice paparazzi.

Reading Michael's posts carefully, it seems that the cameras are not the ultimate culprits. Cameras weaponize an already unwieldy mob of people. They are the sidearms of packed-in novelty seekers. A scene like the one shown above is not just a mess because of the bevy of phones and cameras. It's a mess because of the crowd.

A packed crowd in a museum turns a free-choice viewing environment into a programmed event. You are stuck with the people around you, in front of you, shoving up behind you. Suddenly, a visual distraction like a camera--innocuous in an uncrowded space--becomes as bad as someone talking in the movie theater. You can't not see their camera. You are all in the same space.

Why is this gallery so crowded? Because it's famous. Michael notes that other parts of the National Gallery are still relatively quiet and manageable. But the star paintings--the Van Gogh sunflowers, the Botticelli virgins--are mobbed.

The cult of celebrity is strongest in fields where the general public knows little. How many opera singers can you name? How many painters? How many museums? The biggest museums get the most traffic--and primarily therein to the big name artworks in their collections. There are plenty of galleries in the Louvre that are empty. The one with the Mona Lisa will never be one of them.

Museums have exacerbated this cult of celebrity through an emphasis on blockbuster exhibitions and traveling shows that "package" the greatest hits into must-see moments. We push the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the art. And then the crowds show up. They were told they must not miss it. They had better capture the moment however they can! And so the crowds shuffle through, cameras dutifully in hand. The art gets captured like a lame animal in a game park, instead of the wild thing it is.

Thinking about all of this, I remembered Don Delillo's beautiful bit in White Noise about the most photographed barn in America. Two of the characters in the novel go out to see this barn, and to see all the people taking pictures of it. One of them, Murray, says,
"No one sees the barn... Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
The barn, like Van Gogh's sunflowers, is a tamed thing. With every click, it becomes less a barn and more a likeness of a barn. It is sacrificed to the continuous capture of its likeness.

I'm OK with this happening to a barn in a novel. I'm not sure I'm OK with it happening to art and cultural artifacts.

Is there an alternative?

Michael Savage might say: turn back the photo policy. Get rid of the cameras. But I think the cameras are a distraction. The real thing we have to get rid of is the crowding.

I'm heading out next week on vacation, camping in the high Sierras. To do this, I have to get a wilderness permit. To do that, I either had to plan way in advance (I didn't) or I have to get up at 5am to stand in line for three hours to get a permit (I will).

There are wilderness permits for the same reasons there are restrictions on visitors to museums: to protect the artifacts (nature) and to ensure the safety and positive experiences of the participants.

The permitting system doesn't apply to the whole park - just the parts that are most vulnerable. The permitting system is not primarily based on money; anyone can get a permit for a reasonable rate. It is based on the idea that there is a maximum capacity for safe and positive wilderness experiences, and that there are rules and systems that have to be put in place to ensure that capacity is not exceeded.

There is a maximum capacity for safe and positive experiences with art in museums. The right capacity absorbs diversity in learning styles. Some people can sketch in museums. Some people can take photos. Some people can talk. Some people can look. Any of these actions can be catalysts for deep and meaningful engagement. And they can all do all of these things peaceably if there is enough breathing room among them.

I think of the best museums as generous places. They welcome different people spending different amounts of time doing different things to connect with the work on display. If they are popular museums, they support people visiting at many hours of the day to be able to have a good experience despite the demand.

Crowded places become parsimonious places. They are transactional by necessity. Every deviance from our own preferred mode of engagement becomes more visible and frustrating. Diversity breeds name-calling instead of understanding.

Let's find a way to build generosity back into the operation of the largest museums in the world. Let Van Gogh be Van Gogh. Let the people experience the sunflowers in their own way, with their own bit of space and time. We need to build systems that let visitors, and art, bloom.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Facilitating Creative Learning (for Professionals): More Notes on MuseumCamp

Last week, I wrote about MuseumCamp, the annual professional development event we hold in Santa Cruz. MuseumCamp is a playful, intense, spirited 3-day adventure in which small teams of diverse professionals do a rapid-fire project together on a theme. Last week, I focused on the 2014 theme (social impact assessment) and the many creative evaluation projects produced by campers.

This week, I want to share a bit about the behind-the-scenes of MuseumCamp. While MuseumCamp is an unusual event, I've learned a lot from it about designing workshops, charrettes, and meetings--pretty much any gathering where you want to encourage playful, creative, risky thinking in groups.

MuseumCamp was inspired by other action-oriented professional development experiences, ranging from open-ended unconferences to tightly-formatted tinkering workshops. Here are five key lessons I've learned about making this kind of event work.

Sleep on it. MuseumCamp uses an "inefficient" format where there are two full days and two half days. We do that so there is as much opportunity as possible to sleep on something and refresh the following day. We know MuseumCamp is intense, and we don't want anyone to feel like the energy of a single day is taking them on a ride without their consent. Wrestling with something meaty deserves a night in the middle.

It is my suspicion that a one-day workshop spread over two days will always be more effective than putting it all on the same day, even with the same number of hours of content sharing. There’s a sense that anything that exists within a single day can wash over you and disappear. A night in the middle helps you come back in the morning on your own terms to make the work your own. Camper James Heaton wrote about how this promotes "stickiness" of the experience, not during the project but afterwards, too.

Acknowledge the dips. At day 2 of project work at MuseumCamp, a lot of teams hit a wall. They are frustrated. They are going in circles. They feel stuck. On that day, counselors spend time helping teams call out their stuckness and cheering them on with the promise that they will hit a breakthrough soon. They do. I don't know that acknowledging the discomfort of the dip helps the breakthrough happen any faster, but it does help people push through with more confidence--and feel even better about the reward when it comes.

I first learned about this technique from Sam Kaner's excellent book, Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He calls this dip the "messy middle" of a meeting, when a group has to shift from divergent to convergent thinking.

Tag Team the Facilitation. One of the most effective ways we were able to shepherd MuseumCamp teams is by having a gang of counselors. Each counselor had a few teams specifically assigned to him/her, but other counselors (and me) could pitch in as helpful. Sometimes, getting secondary advice outside the team dynamic can be helpful.

To me, this is analogous to the benefits of having multiple staff members engaged with community partners on participatory projects. One staff member is the cheerleader/buddy, one can be the heavy or the expert or the critic. Yes, it can be inefficient. But it can also help positive relationships form among participants and guides.

And if you want a more efficient approach to multi-vocal facilitation, try an unconference. One of the most amazing professional camp-esque experiences I've ever had was at FooCamp, a completely participant-led event.

Create a safe space by focusing on process, not product. The biggest difference between last year's MuseumCamp and this year's was the product. In 2013, it was an exhibition in our largest gallery, on display for a month following camp. In 2014, it was a rapid-fire research project, documented on a website.

It's probably obvious that a big exhibition is WAY more high-stakes than a webpage. Two-time camper Katherine Gressel wrote about this difference and its impact.  2014 Campers were able to be creative and pursue highly speculative methods with the confidence that they weren't doing it for some big audience. It loosened up the experience, and I think, created more opportunities for learning.

Build structures to support meeting each other. In 2014, we did a better job of making time in the schedule for breaks and fun, both Camper-directed and staff-planned. But we didn't do enough to help people find other campers whose work might be relevant or exciting to them.

Breaks are not enough. Breaks are good for people to settle in with the people they already know... or to take a break from people entirely.

It's ironic that this is the part of MuseumCamp that is most lacking, since it's one of the things I care most about professionally (creating opportunities for strangers to connect). I think in the desire to not make all aspects of camp "too programmed," we miss an opportunity to program one of the necessary ingredients to people learning best from each other. I look forward to finding ways to improve this next year.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

MuseumCamp 2014: Experiments in Social Impact Assessment

You run a program. It changes kids' lives. It builds more responsible environmental stewards. It strengthens your community.

How do you measure that?

This was the question at the heart of last week's MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in which teams of diverse, creative people work on quick and dirty projects on a big theme. This year, the theme was social impact assessment, or measuring the immeasurable. We worked closely with Fractured Atlas to produce MuseumCamp, which brought together 100 campers and 8 experienced counselors to do 20 research projects in ~48 hours around Santa Cruz.

We encouraged teams to think like artists, not researchers. To be speculative. To be playful. To be creative. The goal was to explore new ways to measure "immeasurable" social outcomes like connectedness, pride, and civic action.

The teams delivered. You can check out all twenty research projects here. While all the projects are fast, messy, and incomplete, each is like a small test tube of ideas and possibilities for opening up the way we do social impact research.

Here are three lessons I learned at MuseumCamp about research processes:
  • Look for nontraditional indicators. The JerBears group used "passing of joints" as an indicator of tribal affinity at a Grateful Dead tribute concert. The San Lorenzo Levee group used movement of homeless people as an indicator of social disruption. People x (Food + Place) looked at photos taken by children in a park to understand what contributed to their sense of community. Some of these experiments didn't yield anything useful, but some were surprisingly helpful proxies for complex human interactions.
  • Don't (always) call it a survey. Several groups created projects that were somewhere between engagement activity and research activity. Putting stickers on signs. Taking photos. Finishing a sentence mad-libs style. My favorite example of this was the One Minute Art Project group, which rebranded a fairly standard sticker survey into a "fast, fun, free and easy" activity. They had several participants who said "I wouldn't do a survey, but I like doing this."
  • Every active research method is an intervention. It's easy to look at the One Minute Art Project referenced above and see a red flag - maybe people self-select into this because it's "art" instead of "research." But I realized through this process that a survey solicitation is just an active an intervention as an engagement solicitation. There are different biases to who participates and why. But we shouldn't assume that any one research method is inherently "neutral" just because it is more familiar. Many of the most interventionist projects, like the Karma Hat, yielded really interesting information that was not visible in more passive research methods.

And here are three of my favorite findings from the experiments:
  • On depth of bridging among strangers. Two groups dove into the work at the MAH on social bridging - one with the Karma Hat game, and one with a photobooth project. The Karma Hat required people to wear a hat, write their name on it, and pass it on. It was hugely used. On the other hand, a photobooth where people were prompted to take a photo with a stranger they met at the museum was barely used. We saw that people were ready and willing to engage with strangers at the museum, but not necessarily to build relationships on those engagements. This is just a drop in the barrel of exploration we are doing around bridging at the museum.
  • On smartphone usage at natural sites. We Go to 11 studied the difference in mood change for people at a beautiful site overlooking the ocean relative to their smartphone use. They found that people with smartphones used them to go from a state of active negativity (tension, anxiety) to active positivity (energy, joy). People who didn't use smartphones at the same site tended to embody passive positivity (serenity, calm). Not a shocker, but a pretty interesting project.  
  • On the power of programming to spark civic action. This project, measuring the connection between empathy and action at an indigenous solidarity film screening, is full of useful insights. Read their report for thoughts about the challenges of participant observational research, the power of spiritual experiences, and the results of a compelling survey about ignition to action.
I encourage you to explore all the projects and see what insights might connect to your own work and research goals. You can comment on the projects too and share your own ideas. Please bear in mind that these were very quick projects and are more like research sketches than full evaluations.

What did you get out of MuseumCamp? If you didn't attend, what do you want to know more about?