Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Do You Define "Community?"

Close your eyes and imagine your organization's "community." Is it a mist of good feeling? A fellowship of uncertainty? Does it have a human face?

Communities are made of people, not rhetoric. You can define a community by the shared attributes of the people in it, and/or by the strength of the connections among them. When an organization is identifying communities of interest, the shared attribute is the most useful definition of a community. The second is a quality of the community (strong vs. weak) as defined.

I've been exploring three different lens for defining community: geography, identity, and affinity.

A community by GEOGRAPHY is defined by place. It is made up of the people attached to a given location: a city, a district, a neighborhood, a country. The simplest version of this community is the place where you live. But you might also feel part of a geographic community related to the place you grew up, or a place you used to live, or a place you often visit.

A community by IDENTITY is defined by attributes. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I am _____" in the same way. Jewish. Chicano. Fifth generation. Artist. Some identities are self-ascribed (like "vegetarian") whereas others are assigned externally (like "black").

A community by AFFINITY is defined by what we like. It is made up of people who end the sentence "I like _____" or "I do ______" in the same way. Knitters. Surfers. Punks. People who go to midnight movies. Some affinities are lifelong passions. Others are passing fancies.

These types aren't perfectly distinct. A community of people who go to trivia night at a given bar could identify by geography (the bar), identity (nerds), or affinity (trivia).

How much does the strength of connections among members matter to the definition of community? It matters in degree but not in kind. A strong community engenders fellowship among members, advances specific social norms, and has identifiable leaders. Weak communities are more diffuse, with members who may not even be aware of each other. These differences are useful when considering how and who to reach out to when trying to get involved with a new community. But the community exists whether it is strong or weak.

Maybe you want to work with Hmong immigrants to Minnesota. Or art-lovers of Brooklyn. Or Santa Cruz County teens who want to make social change. Communities may be huge and diffuse, or niche and tightly connected. The key is to be specific in who you seek. My biggest fear about "community engagement" is that it is too vague. It's easy to say "yep, we do that" if you aren't clearly defining the work and the people involved. Defining the community turns an amoebic concept into a human reality.

How do you define "community" in your work?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

p.s. I'll be speaking on these topics at the AAM conference next week. Scroll down in this post to learn more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A City and an Art Center Design the Future: Reflections on the Market Street Prototyping Festival

"The arts are future-making."

I wrote this down when Deborah Cullinan said it at a meeting of arts leaders about a year ago. We were discussing the potential for cultural organizations to have significant impact across communities: on planning, health, education, and quality of life. Deborah's vision for the arts leading the way to stronger future inspired me. But I couldn't fully imagine how a museum or an arts center could embody it.

Last week, I got to see Deborah's vision in action. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (which she directs) teamed up with the San Francisco Planning Department and the Knight Foundation to host the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Over three days, 52 artist teams erected experimental projects along San Francisco's biggest thoroughfare. They turned Market Street into a playground, a performance hall, and a meeting place. The result was a true experiment in designing the future--right here, right now--with artists and planners and civic leaders at the helm together.

The Festival is one moment in a decade-long project to redesign Market Street. Market Street is a central artery of San Francisco. It has wide sidewalks and lots of public transportation access points. 200,000+ pedestrians walk along it every day. But it's not just for transportation; it's also a huge swath of public space. In San Francisco, sidewalks account for 80% of all open space. In a city where parks are rare, streets can and should provide the social, recreational, and health functions that we expect from open space.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival was not a typical public art exhibition. The projects were messy, unfinished--true prototypes of future possibilities. A fitness trail for urban life. A soundtrack for the street. A urinal that watered plants. Pop up libraries, performance spaces, and seating areas. A hexagonal ping pong table that invited six people (often strangers) to play together. Lots of social bridging, surprise encounters, and more than a few mystified moments.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival stirred up a few thoughts related to design in public places, prototyping, and communicating complexity.


Just because you put something in front of a lot of people doesn't mean they'll take you up on it. One of the challenges and attractions of the Festival is the fact that most people were not traveling to Market Street specifically to play with the prototypes. They were heading to work, going home, running errands.

This made for some amazing emergent engagement behaviors, but also a lot of zooming by. I participated in a mini-observational study of one interactive sculpture in the festival. We found that 12% of passersby even stopped to glance at the piece (let alone interact) over a 15 minute interval.

What kind of cultural experience offers the right kind of invitation and opportunity for pedestrians in public space? Many Market Street prototypes struggled because they asked too much of people relative to their expectations and interests as they traveled along the sidewalk.

I've often encountered projects that try to address this challenge with confrontation. Put the most disruptive, loud, or provocative experience in the right of way, and people can't help but notice. This may be true, but such experiences are often so dislocating that they put people off and people scramble to get out of the way.

Invitation works better than confrontation. One of my favorite projects, designed by the Exploratorium, nailed the balance of invitation and opportunity on a public street. It was a simple pathway of fringed fabric that invited you to wander into a seating area with information about the drought (it made sense if you were there). The fringed pathways were perfect--intriguing and desirable, easy to walk along, intoxicating enough to entreat you into a new world. Many other projects struggled because the desired engagement was so open to the street. They were open books. The Fringe was a tentacle that lapped you in, a teaser that enticed people into stories they didn't know they wanted.


Prototyping is about learning, and learning usually requires communication. I was disappointed and surprised by how few of the Market Street projects were actively manned by their creators. While  "final" versions of these prototypes would need to stand alone on the sidewalk, the best prototypes are facilitated.

Facilitation has a dual function: the artists learn what worked and didn't, and visitors learn what the projects are all about. Hundreds of hours of community dialogue went into the development of the Market Street Festival prototypes--both on the street and online. Thousands more conversations during the festival. All of this dialogue helps build better projects, and ultimately, a better Market Street. Where it didn't happen, visitors, artists, and organizers missed an opportunity to learn and grow.


One of the most frequent questions I heard along Market Street was: "What's going on here?"

Many people thought the Festival was "an art exhibit" or "an art festival." ABC news headlined their segment saying "Market Street festooned with public art for 3-day fest." While this is true, it's also a missed opportunity for the larger project.

The point of the festival was artists and communities imagining potential futures for Market Street. The artworks were too rough to be "beautiful" and anyone seeking to judge them by that criteria might be disappointed. But as signals about the possibilities of the street? As prototypes for the future? Incredible... and not self-evident. That message could have been more clearly trumpeted throughout the Festival.


Overall, I'm amazed at the partnership, coordination, and energy that went into the festival. We often say that "arts deserve a seat at the table" of big civic decisions. It takes leaders like Deborah to claim those seats and launch successful collaborations.

The arts ARE future-making. I saw a little slice of the future last week on Market Street.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Hack Your Hellos: the Unofficial Way to Meet Someone New at AAM This Year

Everyone always says that the best part of conferences happen off the official schedule. Hallway conversations. One-on-one meetings. Late night adventures. 

This may be true. It's also incredibly frustrating--especially if you are new to a field or if networking sounds like a creepy, painful experience. If the best part of the conference isn't on the agenda, how the heck are you supposed to access it?

I'm getting ready for the American Alliance of Museums conference later this month. In addition to reconnecting with old friends and mentors, I want to meet people who aren't on my radar who will help me learn and grow. 

Last year, my colleague Elise Granata and I set up a very simple LinkedIn group to help people make productive connections at AAM. Here's how it works:
  • Join the LinkedIn group (if you are searching, it's called "Hack Your Hello's at AAM"). 
  • Post the question or issue that you want to discuss.
  • In the "add more details" section, list your contact info and availability during the conference.
  • Contact people who share your interests and set up meetings with them. (Hint: you can do this even if you are not going to the conference.)
That's it. Easy. It worked decently well last year, and I hope it might be even better in 2015.

If you are going to AAM and want more tips on what to check out, I suggest:

Download the mobile app. It's a bit clunky, but very useful for coordinating your schedule, especially while you are onsite. It's most valuable when you are in a lousy session and want to see what else is going on. Scroll, stand up, and get to something better.

Use your feet. There's a ton going on at all hours. Don't be afraid to leave a bad session for something else.

Follow people, not topics. So many session titles sound alike. How can you tell if you want to go to "Museums and Communities" or "Museums and Social Issues" or "Museums and Very Cute Lizards"? My solution is that when I find a person who fascinates me, I find out what else they are talking about and follow them. In this way, I've found my idols / mentors /friends--and learned a lot from their inspiring sessions.

Go to at least one session on something you know nothing about. Good for learning new things, discovering new mentors, and reconnecting with why you never want to work in that part of the building.

Hack your nametag. If you have to wear a nerdy nametag, make it work for you. Add a question, a twitter handle, or a quote that's important to you. People will ask you about it, engage with you around it. Instant wearable social object.

Get in touch with people before the conference and set up a meeting, meal, or walk. Hence the LinkedIn group. One of the reasons I like AAM is that it's a behemoth of a conference--so many people are there. Get in touch. Meet them. Learn. Repeat.

If you want to hear more about my work at AAM, I'll be speaking:
  • Monday April 27 at 2:30pm in a solo talk on "Building Stronger Communities" at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. This is the first time I've had 30 minutes on my own at AAM, and I intend to use it to talk about a few non-obvious lessons from the community-based work we are doing in Santa Cruz. 
  • Tuesday April 28 at 1:45pm in the "Museum Incubators" session, talking about how our teen program empowers youth to lead social change in our community and push our museum forward politically. This session is hosted by engagement rockstar Kathleen McLean. Kathy's sessions are always honest, fascinating, and fun.
  • Wednesday April 29 at 10:45am in the "Potluck Programming" session, talking about engagement offsite with brilliant colleagues from the Queens Museum, FIGMENT, SFMOMA, and Nelson-Atkins.
Enjoy the conference - or at least the LinkedIn group. I hope it helps igniting fruitful conversations.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

MAH Theory of Change, Part 2: A Multimedia Walkthrough for Your Feedback

Last week, Ian David Moss and I both blogged about the process of developing a theory of change for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Here's my post, and his. This week, I'm focusing on the WHAT of the project instead of the HOW, with a slideshow we made to describe the theory. 

What is your organization all about? What are you trying to accomplish? How do you connect the work you do to the goals you seek?

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, one way we're answering these questions is with a theory of change. It's a logical flowchart that connects activities to outcomes to impact.

There's a lot packed into this simple image, so we made a five-minute tour of our theory of change, featuring voices of staff members at our museum. If you can't see the slideshow in the post, click here to access it online. It has audio, so make sure you have speakers or headphones.

I'm curious how this slideshow comes off and whether it makes it easier or harder to understand. I'd love your feedback on it. We had fun making it, but I'm not sure whether it's the clearest way to engage with the theory of change.

This theory packages together so many of the things we're passionate about in our work at the MAH, and I'm trying to find the best way to convey these concepts. Please share your questions and comments--about the format, the content, or whatever strikes you. I'd love to engage in a discussion with you about it based on your reactions.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Developing a Theory of Change, Part 1: A Logical Process

This is the first in a two-part series about the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s new theory of change. This week, Ian David Moss and I are each writing blog posts about our collaborative process to develop a theory of change at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Check out his blog post on the Fractured Atlas site. Next week, I’ll share more about what is in our theory of change, and why.

For three years, we hit the gas at my museum—hard. We were pointed in a new direction and knew we had to push ourselves to expand our community impact.

Three years in, the dust settled on the many changes. We had tripled our attendance. Doubled our staff. Experimented, launched, and retired many programs and exhibition formats.

We decided it was time to shift from exploring to deepening. A little over a year ago, we received a three-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to strengthen our commitment to community engagement. One of the first things we decided we had to do was to grow some roots under the new strategies at the museum. We embarked on a process of “naming and claiming” the work we do.

Where to start? We decided to develop three things:
  • Clear engagement goals that define how we do our work
  • A theory of change to connect what we do to the impact we seek
  • An engagement handbook to provide an overview of our goals, our theory of change, and the programs where they are manifest
I’ve written about the engagement goals before. I’ll write about the handbook soon. This blog post focuses on the theory of change and the process by which we developed it.

A theory of change is a model that connects: the activities we do, to the outcomes they effect, to the impact we seek to create in the world.

We wanted to build a theory of change for two reasons:
  1. Externally, we need strong, data-driven arguments for support. We can’t just say,” fund this exhibition and the community will grow stronger.” We have to prove it. Donors want to understand the logic of how their dollars will translate into impact. A strong theory of change can make that case. 
  2. Internally, everyone needs to know what “good” looks like and how their work helps contribute to the overall goals of the organization. A clear theory of change helps staff make strategic choices at every level.
We didn’t know how to develop a theory of change. But we knew we wanted to be rigorous about it. So we contracted with Ian David Moss, of Fractured Atlas and Createquity fame, to shepherd us through the process. Besides being brilliant and skilled in this area, Ian came in with an outsider’s perspective, which really helped us get out of the mindset of what we THINK we do and shift into what is actually observable and track-able.

Here’s what we did:
  • Ian came to Santa Cruz, interviewed a bunch of staff, and drafted a very rough theory of change based on what he learned about our programming.
  • We did a board/staff retreat where we built theories of change in two directions: UP from our activities to our intended impact, and DOWN from the intended impact to the activities that fuel it. The “DOWN” side was the most interesting, because it helped us understand the role we could play in our desired impact—and the community partners we would need to engage and support to see the impact realized to its fullest.
  • We worked with Ian to revise the theory based on the retreat.
  • Ian did a social psychology literature review to understand the research grounding the connections we made from activities to outcomes to impacts. We identified areas where the connections were weak and where we have to do more research to ensure that the logic is sound.
  • We developed a final version of the theory in a wonky powerpoint flowchart model.
  • We worked with a fabulous illustrator (Crista Alejandre) to transform the flowchart into an inspiring graphic.
  • We started using the theory of change to focus our programs and partnerships, evaluate our work, and change the way we talk about what we do.
Here are some questions for Ian about his side of the experience working with us on this project. Next week, I’ll write about the actual content of the theory of change and how it is starting to impact our organization.

When you are working with an organization on a theory of change, how do you sort out the organizations' aspirations from the reality of their current activities?

Ian: This is always one of the most challenging (and interesting) parts of the engagement. One of the reasons why I find theories of change valuable as a tool for this kind of conversation is that they are really good at making the chain of logic – or lack thereof – between an organization’s activities and goals really clear. That sets up a process where I map out what I perceive the connections to be, and then I run it by the organization to make sure that I’m understanding their thinking correctly. If I spot a place in the logic chain that doesn’t make sense to me, all I need to do is ask some probing questions about it. It could well be that I’ve overlooked something important, in which case I’ll add in whatever’s missing, or it could be that I’ve uncovered something the organization hasn’t thought of, which could spark a much-needed reassessment of what the strategy is or even what the real goal is. (This is exactly what happened to us at Createquity: our theory of change precipitated a global rethinking of our entire content and engagement strategy because we discovered a gap between what we were doing and what our aspirations were.) Either way, the theory of change makes the assumptions embedded in a strategy transparent to everyone and provides a way to put those assumptions to the test.

In our work together, we ended up looking primarily to social psychology research to develop a strong logical basis for the MAH’s theory of change. Do you often find that these projects take you outside of the “arts” field in terms of defining the logic that connects activities to outcomes to impacts?

It depends. I would definitely say that you guys are unusual in how you see non-arts and non-humanities research and practices as not just relevant but central to your work at the museum. But I’d venture to say that it’s a rare arts organization that can’t learn something from how things are done in the wider world, whether that means understanding how and why potential audience members are motivated to make the choices they do, or understanding the policy context for the community-level changes you’re hoping to see, or whatever. I think a very common mistake people make is to draw the frame too narrowly, to say “well, we don’t have any data on this exact thing that we’re looking for, so there’s no point in trying to answer that question.” The reality is that we have many tools to understand and to estimate the way the world works around us, and there are a lot of parallels and inferences to be drawn either from examples in analogous fields or from initiatives that have a general focus that includes the arts but isn’t specific to them.

What do you think is the most challenging part of developing a theory of change?

Different projects present different challenges, but one thing I’ve found to be consistent is that the theory of change process can end up drawing out major differences in thinking styles. There’s a certain type of person who’s really comfortable breaking ideas down into orderly, modular components and analyzing the connections between them. Then there are other folks who are not at all accustomed to thinking that way – they’re much more at home in an open-ended, anything-goes brainstorming session that encourages divergent thinking and untethered creativity. For those people, the process of creating a theory of change or logic model can very easily feel confining if you don’t set it up carefully. What I’ve found is that things go better if I make sure that nobody has unrealistic expectations placed upon them. A lot of people find it easier to have a conversation and then react to a model presented to them than be tasked with having to figure everything out themselves. On the other hand, other folks want to be super involved and that’s great too.

Any words of wisdom about how to build buy-in and encourage use once a theory of change is developed?

A really good way to do this is to include it in training materials for both current and new staff. The more that the theory of change gets talked about, the more likely it is to be used. You can also use it as a reference point for other institutional capacity-building things your organization is doing. So the MAH used it as the basis for a measurement framework for the organization. At Fractured Atlas, it was a key input for a new brand book we developed to guide our internal and external communications. It can be an attachment to grant applications or included in annual reports to donors. And it’s important that the theory of change be periodically revisited to make sure that it doesn’t reflect stale thinking. That all being said, I would emphasize that going into the process with the intention for a theory of change to be useful is the number one predictor of whether it will actually be useful. Furthermore, the best way to build buy-in for a theory of change is by giving people a voice in creating it. That’s why as much as possible I try to involve front-line staff as well as leadership in the process, so that it will feel resonant at all levels of the organization.

Thanks to Ian for collaborating on this process with us. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Community Science Workshops and Shared Authorship of Space: Interview with Emilyn Green

Imagine the most community-based science center possible. Imagine it in a poor, immigrant farmworker community. It exists. It thrives. In California. In a Community Science Workshop.

A couple months ago, I visited a Community Science Workshop for the first time in Watsonville, CA. I was awestruck. A small room, packed with gadgets, packed with fossils, packed with tools, packed with PEOPLE everywhere making and exploring and building and learning. The people were of all ages--moms with babies strapped to their fronts, six year-olds using skillsaws, pre-teens building robots, teenagers doing homework. There was a spirit of conviviality and purpose and helpfulness and Spanglish in the air. The design and feel of the place was different than any science center I'd ever experienced. I knew I could learn a lot from it.

I sat down with Emilyn Green, Executive Director of the Community Science Workshop Network, to learn more about their history, design, and engagement strategy.

Can you give me the overview of Community Science Workshops? What are they and where did they come from? 

A Community Science Workshop is a place for kids to tinker, make, and explore their world through science. The first one was started in 1991 by a San Francisco educator, Dan Sudran, in his garage. The Exploratorium is great, but it wasn't super-accessible. Dan was living in the Mission neighborhood, which at the time was very kid-dense, mostly first-generation immigrants, and Dan noticed that when he was messing around in his garage with physics gadgets, he could not keep the kids in his neighborhood out of his garage. They were so fascinated and wanted to be there every day.
There are lots of great science museum resources, but not where these kids can walk after school. In most cases, they're not places where kids can go by themselves at all.

So the Community Science Workshop model is to put a drop-in, FREE community science center in a place that is walkable to kids' lives and schools. In a place where kids are already walking around after school.

The core program is a permanent, dedicated physical space, full of interactive hands-on physical exhibits, as well as a tinkering and making space, and recycled materials. Most Workshops also run a wide range of additional programs - supplemental school day programs, afterschool programs, mobile units that go to housing projects. There are a whole bunch of programs to disseminate the science but the central workshop space is the heart of it.

Where do Community Science Workshops fit in the informal science landscape?

It's kind of tricky. We don't fit the more common templates. The best explanation is "community science center." But in the more traditional lexicon, these might be defined as "informal spaces."

Now that there is a new emphasis on "ecosystems of STEM learning" - for us, that's really helpful. Our programs end up being the hub of the local science learning ecosystem--especially in communities where there isn't a science center for miles in any direction.

How are Workshop locations selected?

The first one was in the Mission. We received two rounds of NSF funding in the 1990s to expand. We've focused on farmworker communities--there are so many kids in these communities throughout California. At that time, we expanded to Watsonville, where strawberries come from. And Fresno in the Central Valley--a city of 500,000, hundreds of miles from the closest science center. And a couple other sites that didn't make it financially (more on that later).

I came on in 2010 to start the statewide nonprofit network. At that point, we opened three new locations: Sanger, Greenfield, and a new San Francisco workshop in the Excelsior neighborhood because the Mission has changed so dramatically. The Mission location is still a useful hub for San Francisco school programs. Excelsior is now the walkable neighborhood space.

What happened to the ones that folded?

We received NSF funding for three years and then it cut off. In places that succeeded, at that point, a local coalition was in place to fund the Workshop. Where it didn't work, no local support stepped up. That taught us a lot. Now, when people are interested in starting one, we emphasize permanence. It takes a local coalition of people who are really committed to this to have a program that lasts.

Who are those local coalitions?

We're really different from traditional science centers in our funding model. We don't have paying members. We're not going to do that. It's not a Community Science Workshop if it's not free to participants. In fact, we have almost no individual donors. We have a few shining, beloved exceptions, but that's not a significant part of our model at this time.

So we tend to have three legs of support: municipal, grants/donations, and fee for service (usually with the school district). The municipal support can be actual funding - from Parks and Rec, or Environmental Education/Public Works in Watsonville - or a free building, or free access to a van, or materials... or free access to the dump to get materials. Several Community Science Workshops also get Measure S grants - gang prevention grants - through their cities. Grants come from community foundations, small local family foundations, local businesses. And then the fee for service is mostly school districts that contract with the Workshop for science enrichment/science instruction.

What unique design elements make Community Science Workshops work?

Geography is key. We tend to overemphasize it, because it's the initial requirement for any kind of success in these communities. Kids in these neighborhoods are wandering around alone after school. So if kids can walk to us, they can participate.

Once in the space, there are a bunch of design features that continue to be about access. Our fundamental premise is that kids are really interested in stuff. Given a wide variety of stuff, they will find something that they are excited about and will take on projects. We assume the motivation is there. The interest is there. So if a kid is not engaging, it's likely some barrier to access.

One thing you'll notice when you walk in is a ton of user-generated content. Most is hand-made, by participants or staff or parents, and that is everything from our signage to our exhibits.

We tend to be fully bilingual where appropriate. Our staff is almost always Spanish/English bilingual. And we hire from the community. Over 30% of our staff statewide are either former Workshop students or parent volunteers. That's an important design principle for the space - who the kids see when they enter the space.

We have some considerations about height and accessibility. We make sure that kids can grab materials and tools without staff intervention. Part of this is practical: you can't facilitate making and tinkering for 30 kids if you have to hand them everything they need. And it shows kids that they can be the agents of their own learning.

And then there's the most important design element - it's MESSY. We've been playing around with different ways to describe this and not terrify people. It's not messy like “vermin-infested”. It looks like a space that is used by humans every day. It's "purposfully messy." It's organized enough so people coming in can learn the layout, but it's the opposite of sterile. Surfaces are dense, and covered, and richly layered, and there is nothing in the room that implies "don't touch me or you'll get in trouble." That bar is pretty low for kids - they really need to know they are welcome to explore.

I loved the feeling of the space. It made me think of the Spanish word "ambiente"--that convivial, welcoming feeling. It also made me think about some of what we learned in a recent ethnographic study in which some Latino moms talked about "American events being so organized, whereas Latin events have joyful chaos." I know that most of your design focus is on kids. Do you think there is also a cultural/ethnic aspect to the kind of access and design you use? 

I feel very careful talking about the ways that the particular populations who we choose to work with for social justice reasons are also the people who make our work possible because of cultural expectations. For example, kids and tools. It's much easier for us to work with kids with power tools in these Workshops than it might be with other families because a lot of these parents use tools in their own lives. They are comfortable with them.

I was amazed by how community-based and authentic it feels. Many science centers struggling to engage "underserved" people with informal science. You are succeeding. What do you think is the difference? 

I come back to geography. Easy access to the space. When I talk with people in science centers, some really dedicated people working on these questions, they acknowledge that geography is a big hurdle they have to get over.

But there also is a sense of community ownership. For example, the Exploratorium is an extraordinarily participatory museum, but it's not nearly as participatory as a Community Science Workshop. Any big museum has barriers and limitations to full community ownership. Anyone walking into a CSW could repair a broken exhibit--anytime.

And that's the way we respect the contributions of the families we are working with. They are authors in the space.

To make a sweeping generalization, it seems that the folks we work with--working class people, people who work with their hands for a living, people with larger extended families - are very comfortable with spaces where multiple people are authors. They are comfortable with shared authorship of space and events. Whereas formal organizations have a harder time facilitating a shared sense of space and events.

Really interesting. So there is authorship, but no bylines.

 No visible bylines. But they still exist informally. The bylines are in the community’s awareness of the space. "Aurora made that sign." "I helped paint that sign." "I was here when Sal was working on that." People know, but they know based on their real experience of it in the space.

When I visited, it was so clear that there are so many people who use the Workshop again and again, who build things over time, who get involved in different projects for different reasons. 

Yes. And it's hard for us to document. Half of our attendance per year is in enrollment and school-based programs, but half is in our drop-in spaces, where we don't track participants at all. We know anecdotally that a lot of these people are repeating and deepening their participation, but we don't have the data.

We're just starting to interview our alumni now and creating a catalogue of their stories. It's powerful. But that's not the focus of the program. The focus of the program is to make it work every day.

Big thanks to Emilyn Green and the Community Science Workshop Network for sharing insights in this post. Emilyn will be checking in on the comments here and can respond to your questions.  If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crossing the Professional-Amateur Line

Think back to the last time you crossed a line.
Did you feel brave? Deviant? Proud? Ashamed?

In art institutions, we typically treat the curator as the arbiter of quality. The curator draws the line between worthy and unworthy. He may explain the rationale behind where he drew the line--or not. Either way, visitors are expected to respect the line, respect the judgment, and appreciate the resulting display.

I'm not sure how well this is working for us in museum-land.

As our culture explodes in embracing creativity across the professional/amateur spectrum, museums have two choices:
  1. we can sharpen the line.
  2. we can embrace the embrace.
#1 is the weaker choice. It's the kid at the beach, frantically retracing the line in the sand with his foot as the sea swallows it. It's him yelling, "this is the way you are supposed to play!" and his voice getting lost in the waves. It's him standing on the beach, alone, as everyone continues the game around him.

#2 is the powerful choice. If done critically and with intention, it advances understanding of different types of quality and different levels of expertise. It covers the entire beach. If done poorly (uncritically), it turns the museum into yet another place to watch cat videos.

I actually believe that we have MORE ability to advance scholarship and curatorial expertise with #2 than #1. The line in the sand is not your expertise. It's a weak symbol of your expertise. And once everyone has trod over the line, it loses its power.

Expertise is worthy. Period. The classics don't lose their power when they share library shelf space with beach reads. Top boxers don't lose their status when they fight at the end of a long bill of lesser athletes. Why are we so afraid that great art will lose its power if we surround it with other work?

I've been grappling with this question as we enter the final month of a massively crowd-sourced exhibition at my museum called Everybody's Ocean. We took our inspiration for the exhibition's format from the vastness and complexity of the ocean. The ocean is a force. A home. An inspiration. A trash receptacle. We wanted to reflect this diversity of identities by inviting all kinds of artists and artworks into the gallery. The exhibition includes artwork about the ocean by over 250 artists of all backgrounds and abilities, grouped into ten poetic metaphors for the ocean.

The exhibition has been polarizing. Most visitors love the diversity, quality, and abundance of the art. But some visitors--especially some artists--hate it. As one upset artist said to me:
"We artists have so little. Being included in a museum exhibition used to be a sign of real achievement. With this exhibition, you've ruined the sanctity of that experience." 
When I hear this, I feel sad that the value of artistry is being reduced to a thin line of curatorial discretion between "in" and "out." I understand her concern. But I think it's a concern born out of weakness, not strength.

How can we be proud of the artistic ground that we are covering without worrying about where we draw the lines?
How can we go on the offensive instead of the defensive about the power of art and quality?
How can we cross lines joyously, thoughtfully, critically--and without fear?

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Participatory Museum, Five Years Later

This week marks five years since the book The Participatory Museum was first released.

I wrote The Participatory Museum for two reasons:
  1. to explore the "how" of participatory design in museums, cultural centers, libraries, and science centers
  2. to create a version of this blog that was more "shareable" with organizational leaders and trustees 
By many measures, the book has been a success. Over 20,000 copies have been sold around the world. Over 150,000 people have accessed the free online version. I've given talks and workshops about it all over the world. Weekly, I hear from someone who is putting ideas from the book into action. 

Across the museum field, the questions about visitor participation have gone from "what?" and "why?" to "how?". I feel lucky to be a small part of that change. 

That said, there are a couple big things I got wrong in the book - or at least, that I've changed my perspective on since writing it. 


When I wrote the book, I was coming from the perspective of an exhibit designer. I thought the pinnacle of participatory practice was an exhibit that could inspire collective visitor action without facilitation. A black box with people crowded around, talking and sharing and making and doing.

Now, I look back on the book and the biggest thing I see missing are the people inside that box. 

If participation was my mantra from 2007-2011, community has been my mantra since then. Over the past four years, I've been running a small regional art and history museum in Santa Cruz, CA. Our museum is highly participatory: plenty of opportunities for visitors to contribute, for artists to collaborate, for community members to co-create. But almost ALL of those opportunities are facilitated by people. Those people are driven not by the design precept of participation. They are driven by the human precept of inclusion and involvement. 

I no longer feel like the "best" forms of participation are unfacilitated. Like many engineers, I think I was overly presumptuous about what design could do on its own. Since 2010 I have seen, again and again and again, how valuable human facilitation is to the participatory process. Humans empower each other. Make space for each other. Invite each other in. Cheer for each other. Build community.

Five years ago, I was fixated on unfacilitated participation because I thought it was much easier to scale than facilitated participation. It is. But I've learned that humans can be agents of scale too. Every time we encourage a volunteer to launch her own collections research, or empower teens to launch their own program series, or invite new partners into our projects, we invite them to participate. That participation is powerful and scalable. We just have to think differently about how we craft job positions and expectations. We tell all our new colleagues: you will not be judged on what you do but how you empower others to do. We need employees who focus less on creating experiences directly for visitors and more on creating platforms for visitors to share with each other. Then, participation can be scalable--and human, too. 


When I wrote The Participatory Museum, I wrote about participation as a design tool--a wrench that could be turned to reach certain goals in a cultural setting. As a designer, I wanted to present participation as "value-neutral," or, as I wrote, another technique "for the cultural professional's toolbox." I acknowledged that participatory projects best support goals like relevance, dynamism, personalization, socialization, and creativity--but I avoided much argument about why those goals might be more more important than others. 

This choice was strategic. I didn't think the field needed another argument for "why" participation. I wanted to dive into the "how" instead. But this choice also belied my background as an engineer and designer--someone trained to think of tools as apolitical.

Over the past few years, I've learned that participation can be highly political. When you seriously value the diverse experience and knowledge of community members, you challenge the traditional assignment of knowledge authority. I always knew this cognitively, but over the past few years, I've experienced it directly and viscerally. 

Our greatest champions and our loudest critics agree: our museum has become an inclusive community gathering place. Whether you think that's incredible or a disaster depends on your point of view. 

Terms like "inclusive," which have become commonplace in the field, are still highly contested when put into action. I know we're doing something right when community members are arguing about it. Over the past year, our board and staff have leaned into the political nature of what we do, developing a theory of change with community impact at its heart. I've gotten more comfortable and more confident with the idea of the museum as political body that advocates for empowerment and social bridging. When we really live our mission, that's where it takes us. 

But that's just our institution--not everyone's. I still feel strongly that there is no universal reason to encourage visitor participation. What is participation for? Is it intended to increase learning? Empowerment? Social bridging? I don't care what your reason is... as long as you have one. 

The reason, the mission, the underlying goal--that's what fuels me now. I don't identify as a designer/engineer the way I used to. I identify as a community activist. And if I ever write another book, it will probably be about that.

I'm curious to know: has The Participatory Museum played a role in your work? What do you think has changed around these issues in the past five years?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Want to Activate Public Space? We're Hiring... And Some Thoughts on Iteration and Temporary Positions

For the past two years, I've been working on a project to activate the concrete space adjacent to our museum as a vibrant, community plaza. After years of community town halls, design, and prototyping, we're finally starting to build our dream. It's an exciting, intense, educational time.

We are hiring a temporary contract curator to activate the plaza this summer with 25+ cultural events. The goal is two-fold:
  1. to start engaging the plaza as a creative, event-filled, vibrant space.
  2. to experiment with different kinds of events (time of day, audience, size, type) and get a sense of how we can best program the space in the longterm.
The ideal candidate has a good grasp of our local artistic assets in Santa Cruz County, a knack for participatory placemaking, and enthusiasm about putting on a show... multiple times per week. If you are interested and want to learn more (including how to apply), click here

Capital projects are sexy and exciting, but they are also finite and physical. That makes me nervous. My engineering training taught me to design through iteration. I'm at my best when we can tinker, prototype, and continuously improve our work through a series of small experiments.

This iterative approach is great for growth in an existing organization. But in the case of Abbott Square (the plaza in question), we're building something new. It's literally a project in concrete. We can iterate somewhat, but at some point, we have to make decisions about how the space will work--and those decisions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The size and import of some of these decisions worry me--not because we'll make bad decisions, but because they are so definite.

There's an apocryphal story about a college campus where they started with no concrete paths, and then eventually laid paths where students' shoes were causing wear in the grass. Lovely story, but when you are laying concrete, it is really, really hard to wait for the shoes before building the paths.

How can we wait for the shoes? That's part of the reason we are hiring a temporary contract curator instead of a permanent position. We want to try walking around before we define the program plan for Abbott Square.

Eventually, we will hire a full-time person to curate Abbott Square. But we don't yet know whether that person will be focusing primarily on booking movie nights or launching sketching clubs or engaging buskers... or all of the above. This temporary pilot allows us to test out the possibilities. We can see what works best in the space, and by extension, what kind of person will best make it happen.

I'm curious whether other organizations have taken this kind of approach with positions in new venues/projects/expansions. How do you know who you need before you open? How do you experiment and course-correct as people wear their own paths into the space?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Data in the Museum: Experimenting on People or Improving Their Experience?

Every few months, a major news outlet does an "expose" about data collection on museum visitors. These articles tend to portray museums as Big Brother, aggressively tracking visitors' actions and interests across their visit. Even as the reporters acknowledge that museums are  trying to better understand and serve their visitors, there's a hint of menace in headlines like "The Art is Watching You."

We're trying to personalize. We're trying to adapt. We're trying to be responsive. But it can still come off as creepy. In a world of iteration, prototyping, and A/B testing, do we need a new ethical litmus test for social experimentation?

I came back to this question as I listened to the most recent RadioLab podcast about Facebook's mass social experiments on users. For years, Facebook has teamed up with social psychologists to perform social experiments through small changes to the Facebook interface. These experiments look a lot like those conducted in social psychology labs, with two big differences:
  • the sample sizes are many tens of thousands of times larger than those in the lab--and a lot more diverse across age, class, and geography. 
  • no one signs a form giving consent to participate. 
I thought this sounded great: better data, useful research. Turns out not everyone thinks this is a good way for us to learn more about humanity. Last year, there was a HUGE media kerfuffle when people were shocked to learn that they had been "lab rats" for Facebook engineers researching how the News Feed content could impact people's moods.

To me, this was surprising. Sure, I get the ick factor when my personal data is used as currency. But I know (mostly) what I'm buying with it. Facebook is a completely socially-engineered environment. Facebook decides what content you see, what ads you see, and your personal ratio of puppies to snow warnings. And now people are outraged to find out that Facebook is publishing research based on their constant tweaking. It's as if we are OK with a company using and manipulating our experience as long as they don't tell us about it.

It seems that the ethical objections were loudest when the intent of the experiment was to impact someone's mood or experience. And then I started thinking: we do that all the time in museums. We change labels based on what visitors report that they learned. We change layouts based on timing and tracking studies of where people go and where they dwell. We juxtapose artifacts to evoke emotional response. We tweak language and seating and lighting--all to impact people's experience. Do we need consent forms to design an experience?

I don't think so. That seems over the top. People come to the museum to enjoy what the invisible hands of the curators have wrought. So it brings me back to my original question: when you are in the business of delivering curated experiences, where is the ethical line? 

Consider the following scenarios. Is it ethical to...
  • track the paths people take through galleries and alter museum maps based on what you learn?
  • give people different materials for visitor comments and see whether the materials change the substance of their feedback?
  • cull visitor comments to emphasize a particular perspective (or suite of perspectives)?
  • offer visitors different incentives for repeat visitation based on behavior?
  • send out two different versions of your annual membership appeal letter to see which one leads to more renewals?
  • classify visitors as types based on behavior and offer different content to them accordingly?
I'd say most of these are just fine--good ideas, probably. I suspect we live in an era where the perceived value of experimentation outweighs the perceived weight of the invisible hand of the experimenter. Then again, I was surprised by the lab rat reaction to the Facebook experiments.

It's hard sometimes to differentiate what's an experiment on humans and what's an experiment to improve your work for humans. As the Facebook example shows, just claiming your intent is to improve isn't enough. It matters what the humans think, too. 

I guess that's what makes us more than lab rats--we can speak up and debate these issues. What do you think?

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