Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Is Your Museum Selling Out? Try this Game about Revenue and Ethics

A few weeks ago, debates in England got me thinking about the relative ethics of sources of museum revenue. The London Science Museum and the Tate were both under fire for taking sponsorship money from BP (which, at least at the Science Museum, came with some content strings attached). At the same time, Michael Savage wrote a blog post called The stupid fetish of free admission, and the end of the British Museum. In it, he argues that the British Museum's value has been severely compromised by its willingness to lend its artifacts out to other institutions worldwide for a fee. He also wrote a post slamming the Met and other museums for galas that smack of elitism.

I was intrigued by the different ethical questions related to museum income. And so, I present here a simple, irreverent game in which you can play museum director and rank the relative ethics of various sources of museum revenue. If you can't see it below, click here to play.

Most museums earn money with most of these sources--and some may not feel like ethical concerns to you at all. There are wonderful aspects to each of these types of revenue sources. But there are ethical issues too, and it's worth talking about their relative impact.

Share the game with your colleagues... and add your additional thoughts in the comments under the respective revenue sources. Play on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ASKing about Art at the Brooklyn Museum: Interview with Shelley Bernstein and Sara Devine


I’ve always been inspired by the creative ways the Brooklyn Museum uses technology to connect visitors to museum content. Now, the Brooklyn Museum is doing a major overhaul of their visitor experience--from lobby to galleries to mobile apps--in an effort to “create a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversation between staff and all Museum visitors.” This project is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of their Bloomberg Connects program.

I’ve been particularly interested in ASK, the mobile app component of the project. The Brooklyn team has been blogging about their progress (honestly! frequently!). To learn more, I interviewed Brooklyn Museum project partners Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, and Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement & Interpretive Materials.

What is ASK, and why are you creating it?

ASK is a mobile app which allows our visitors to ask questions about the works they see on view and get answersfrom our staffduring their visit.  

ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.

Are there specific outcome goals you have for ASK? What does success look like?

We have three goals.

Goal 1: Personal connection to the institution and works on view. Our visitors were telling us they wanted personal connection and they wanted to talk about art. We need to ensure that the app is just a conduit to helps allow that connection to take place.  

Working with our team leads and our ASK team is really critical in thiswe’ve seen that visitors want dialogue to feel natural. For example, staff responses like: “Actually, I’m not really sure, but we do know this about the object” or encouraging people with “That’s a great question” has helped make the app feel human.

Goal 2: Looking closer at works of art. We’d like to see visitors getting the information they need while looking more closely at works of art. At the end of the day, we want the experience encouraging visitors to look at art and we want screens put to the side. We were heartened when early testers told us they felt like they were looking more closely at works of art in order to figure out what questions to ask. They put down the device often, and they would circle back to a work to look again after getting an answerall things we verified in watching their behavior, too.

Moving forward, we need to ensure that the team of art historians and educators giving answers is encouraging visitors to look more closely, directing them to nearby objects to make connections, and, generally, taking what starts with a simple question into a deeper dialogue about what a person is seeing and what more they can experience.  

Goal 3: Institutional change driven by visitor data. We have the opportunity to learn what works of art people are asking about, what kinds of questions they are asking, and observations they are making in a more comprehensive way than ever before. This information will allow us to have more informed conversations about how our analog interpretation (gallery labels for example) are working and make changes based on that data.

So, success looks like a lot of things, but it’s not going to be a download rate as a primary measure. We will be looking at how many conversations are taking place, the depth of those conversations, and how much conversational data is informing change of analog forms of interpretation.  

You’ve done other dialogic tech-enabled projects with visitors in the past. Time delay is often a huge problem in the promise of interaction with these projects. Send in your question, and it can be days before the artist or curator responds with an answer. ASK is much more real-time. As you think about ASK relative to other dialogic projects, is timeliness the key difference, or is it something else entirely?

How much “real time” actually matters is a big question for us. Our hunch is it may be more about how responsive we are overall. Responsive means many thingstime, quality of interaction, personal attention. It’s that overall picture that’s the most important. That said, we’ve got a lot of testing coming up to take our ASK kiosksthe ipads you can use to ask questions if you don’t have or don’t want to use your iPhoneand adjust them to be more a part of the real time system.  Also, now that the app is on the floor we’re testing expectations that surround response time and how to technically implement solutions to help. There’s a lot to keep testing here and we are just at the very beginning of figuring this out.

That’s really interesting. If the conversations are about specific works of art, I would assume visitors would practically demand a real-time response. But you think that might not be true?

In testing, visitors were seen making a circle pattern in the galleries. They would ask a question, wander around, get an answer and then circle back to the work of art. Another recent tester mentioned that the conversation about something specific actually ended in a different gallery as he walked, but that he didn’t mind it. In another testing session, a user was not so happy she had crossed the gallery and then was asked to take a picture because the ASK team member couldn’t identify the object by the question; she didn’t want to go back. This may be one of those things people feel differently about, so we’ll need to see how it goes.

If we are asking someone to look closer at a detail (or take a photograph to send us), we’ll want to do that quickly before they move on, so there’s a learning curve in the conversational aspect that we need to keep testing. For instance, we can help shape expectations by encouraging people to wander while we provide them with an answer and that the notifications feature will let them know when we’ve responded.

Many museums have tried arming staff with cheerful “Ask me!” buttons, to little effect. The most common question visitors ask museum staff is often “Where is the bathroom?” How does ASK encourage visitors to ask questions about content?

Actually, so far we’ve had limited directional, housekeeping type questions. People have mostly been asking about content. Encouraging them to do more than ask questions is the bigger challenge.

We spent a LOT of time trying to figure out what to call this mobile app. This is directly tied into the onboarding process for the appthe start screen in particular. We know from user testing that an explanation of the app function on the start screen doesn’t work. People don’t read it; they want to dive right into using the app, skimming over any text to the “get started” button. So how to do you convey the functionality of the app more intuitively? Boiling the experience down to a single, straight forward call-to-action in the app’s name seemed like a good bet.

We used “ask” initially because it fit the bill, even though we knew by using it that we were risking an invitation for questions unrelated to content—”ask” about bathrooms, directions, restaurants near byparticularly when we put the word all over the place, on buttons, hats, signs, writ large in our lobby.

Although “ask” is a specific kind of invitation, we’re finding that the first prompt displayed on screen once users hit “get started” is really doing the heavy lifting in terms of shaping the experience. It’s from this initial exchange that the conversation can grow. Our initial prompt has been: “What work of art are you looking at right now?” This prompt gets people looking at art immediately, which helps keep the focus on content. We’re in the middle of testing this, but we’re finding that a specific call-to-action like this is compelling, gets people using the app quickly and easily, and keeps the focus on art.



Some of the questions visitors have about art are easily answered by a quick google search. Other questions are much bigger or more complex. What kinds of questions are testers asking with ASK?

It’s so funny you say that because we often talk about the ASK experience specifically in terms of not being a human version of Google. So it’s actually not only about the questions we are asked, but the ways we respond that open dialogue and get people looking more closely at the art. That being said, we get all kinds of questionsdetails in the works, about the artist, why the work is in the Museum, etc. It really runs the gamut. One of the things we’ve noticed lately is people asking about things not in the collection at alllike the chandelier that hangs in our Beaux-Arts Court or the painted ceiling (a design element) in our Egypt Reborn gallery.

Visitors’ questions in ASK are answered by a team of interpretative experts. Do single visitors build a relationship with a given expert over their visit, or are different questions answered by different people? Does it seem to matter to the visitors or to the experience?

The questions come into a general queue that’s displayed on a dashboard that the ASK team uses. Any of the members of the team can answer, pass questions to each other, etc. Early testers told us it didn’t matter to them who was answering the questions, only the quality of the answer. Some could tell that the tone would change from person to person, but it didn’t bother them.

We just implemented a feature that indicates when a team member is responding. Similar to the three dots you see in iMessage when someone on the other end is typing, but our implementation is similar to what happens in gchat and the app displays “[team member first name] is typing.” In implementing the feature this way, we want to continually bring home the fact that the visitor is exchanging messages with a real person on the other end (not an automated system). Now that we’ve introduced names, it may change expectations that visitors have about hearing from the same person or, possibly, wanting to know more about who is answering. This will be part of our next set of testing.

The back-of-house changes required to make ASK possible are huge: new staff, new workflows, new ways of relating to visitors. What has most surprised you through this process?

This process has been a learning experience at every point... and not just for us. As you note, we’re asking a lot of our colleagues too. The most aggressive change is more about process than product. We adopted an agile planning approach, which calls for rapid-fire pilot projects. This planning process is a completely new way of doing business and we have really up-ended workflows, pushing things through at a pace that’s unheard of here (and likely many other museums). One of the biggest surprises has been not only how much folks are willing to go-with-the-flow, but how this project has helped shape what is considered possible.

In our initial planning stages, we would go into meetings to explain the nature of agile and how this would unfold and I think many of our colleagues didn’t believe us. We were talking about planning and executing a pilot project in a six-week time spanabsolutely unreal.

The first one or two were a little tough, not because folks weren’t willing to try, but because we were fighting against existing workflows and timelines that moved at a comparatively glacial pace. The more pilots we ran and the more times we stepped outside the existing system (with the help of colleagues), the easier it became. At some point, I think there was a shift from “oh, Shelley and Sara are at it again” to “gee, this is really possible in this timeframe.”

After two years of running rapid pilots and continuing to push our colleagues (we’re surprised they’re still speaking to us sometimes!), we’ve noticed other staff members questioning why projects take as long as they do and if there’s a better way to plan and execute things. That’s not to say that they weren’t already having these thoughts, but ASK is something that can be pointed to as an example of executing projecton a large scale and over timein a more nimble way. That’s an unexpected and awesome legacy.

Thanks so much to Shelley and Sara for sharing their thoughts on ASK. What do you want to ask them? They will be reading and responding to comments here, and if you are excited by this project, please check out their blog for a lot more specifics. If you are reading this by email and would like to post a comment, please join the conversation here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sustaining Innovation (in Many Different Situations)

I'm in Europe right now, on a mix of vacation and work. The work is focused on "innovation." Last week, I sat on the jury for the first Cultural Innovation International Prize given by the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, and this week, I'm offering a workshop for museum professionals across Poland participating together in a "Museum Lab" in Warsaw.

Innovation is often represented as a shot in the dark, a one-time project, something prize-worthy. But one of the biggest challenges our Barcelona jury had was the reality that innovation is situational, not universal. What feels innovative in one context feels tired in another. The most innovative institutions find meaningful ways to challenge the prevailing wisdom in their own specific environments. And hopefully, they don't just do it once; they do it again and again.

These thoughts made me go back to one of my favorite books, Sustaining Innovation by Paul Light. Paul Light profiled 26 nonprofit and governmental organizations in Minnesota in the 1990s, each of which innovated over time, changes in leadership, and circumstance.

In 2011, I reviewed Sustaining Innovation, bringing in voices from Museum 2.0 readers like you as well as a colleague from one of the institutions Light profiled (Sarah Schultz, then at the Walker Art Center). If you're interested in innovation in museums and nonprofits, you may enjoy:

  • The first post, which outlines Paul Light's fundamental ideas and the most compelling lessons I learned from the book, including my favorite: "how to say no, and why to say yes."
  • The second post, in which Museum 2.0 readers shared their own experiences of how organizations support or block innovation. Including some very real stories and reflections... please consider contributing your own experiences to the vibrant comment thread.
  • The third post, in which I interviewed Sarah Schultz, who worked at the Walker Art Center for 22 years, on her experiences from "inside" one of the institutions highlighted in the book.
  • The fourth post, which raised a question about two different conditions for innovation--a stable institution with slack to foster innovation, versus a hard-driving institution making change on a shoestring. Which would you prefer?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Happens When a Viral Participatory Project is Too Successful? Diagnosing the Power of the Love Locks

Last week, the international press lit up with a story from Paris: the city is removing the "love locks" from the Pont des Arts bridge. 45 tons of rusting padlocks, inscribed with lover's names, were hauled off to protect the historic bridge and its views of the city. And so, one of the most successful, accidental, and fraught participatory projects of the past decade comes to an end.

The "love locks" are not a project with an institutional or artistic director. Nor are they historic. They started to proliferate on bridges around the world in the mid-2000s. The concept is simple: visit a picturesque bridge in an historic city. Carve or write your names on a padlock. Lock the lock to the bridge, throw the key in the water below. Your love is memorialized forever... or until the municipality decides that the locks must go.

No one planned the love locks, but their success is rooted in the same principles that make all the best participatory projects work:
  • it requires no instructions beyond its own example. See the other locks on the bridge, and you immediately understand how to participate. The other participants teach you how to play. While the tools require some forethought (purchasing and inscribing a lock), on the most active bridge, enterprising vendors have sprung up, ready to sell you a lock and inscribe it for you.
  • it is simple to do, but it feels significant. So many participatory projects do the opposite, requiring you to take a dozen tricky steps to no meaningful end. Payoff here is fast and powerful. 
  • it has emotional resonance. You don't need to write a missive about your relationship, just affix a symbol (which has been helpfully assigned by everyone else). And yet, the symbol feels important. It is an expression of the idea that love is forever and no one can tear you apart. I've read stories of people affixing locks during honeymoons, but also after the death of a spouse or a child. Sentimentalities can be embarrassing to say aloud... which means we are constantly seeking comfortable, often symbolic, ways to express them. 
  • it is durational. One of the reasons lovers are so frustrated by the removal of the locks is that they can no longer fulfill step two of participation: visiting your lock years later and reconnecting with time past. Few couples will actually do it, but for those who do, there is a huge secondary sentimental payoff. If your contribution is thrown into the trash bin at the end of the day it was made, it may feel trivial. The longer it stays, the longer the perceived commitment to the participants and their experience.
  • it connects you to something greater than yourself. We often say at our museum that "make and share is better than make and take." We're constantly seeking ways to invite people to participate in projects that grow over time, so participants can see how their contribution became part of a greater whole. The love locks do this in an incredible way, connecting your love relationship to those of hundreds of thousands of other couples. It reminds me of that moment in a wedding when the officiant turns to the audience and says "all of you are here to bear witness to this commitment." The locks bear witness to each other, and to everyone who affixes one.
Of course, it is this great collective uprising of love and locks that is leading to the love locks' downfall. I support any municipality that feels that the locks must go. I understand that they can pose a danger to people's safety. That they invite tourists to vandalize others' cities. That they are another way to capitalize on sentimentality.

Yet still I see them as beautiful lessons in how we all want to participate. We just need the right opportunity and mechanism. That's the key.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Learn to Love Your Local Data

Last month at the AAM conference, a speaker said, "we should all be using measures of quality of life  to measure success at our museums."
I got excited. 
"We should identify a few key community health indicators to focus on."
I got tingly.
"And then we should rigorously measure them ourselves."
Ack. She killed the mood.

Many museums (mine included) are fairly new to collecting visitor data. Especially new to collecting data about broad societal outcomes and experiences. Why the heck would we be foolish enough to do it all ourselves?

The "we have to do it ourselves" mantra is one of the most dangerous in the nonprofit world. It promotes perfectionism. Internally-focused thinking. Inability to collaborate and share. Plus, it's expensive. So when we find we can't afford to do it ourselves, we throw up our hands and don't do it at all.

Here are three reasons to find and connect with community-wide sources of data instead of doing it yourself:

The data already exists.

Want to know the demographic spread of your county? Check the census. Want to know how many kids ate fruits and vegetables, or how many teens graduated high school, or how many people are homeless? The data exists. In some communities, it exists in different silos. In others, someone is already aggregating it. 

When we started more robust data collection at our museum, we wanted a community baseline. We thought about collecting it ourselves (stupid idea). Instead, we found the Community Assessment Project--an amazing aggregation of data from all over our County, managed by a wide range of stakeholders from health and human services. Not only do they aggregate existing data, they do a bi-annual phone survey to tackle questions like "have you been discriminated against in the last year?" and "what most contributes to your quality of life?" We got the data, and we got involved in the project. Now, instead of using our meager research resources to collect redundant data, we can springboard off of a strong data collection project that we access for free. 

You may not have a Community Assessment Project in your community, but you have something. Ask the health department. Ask the United Way. Someone is collecting baseline community data. It doesn't have to be you.

We're stronger together.

Imagine a community with 50 different organizations working to reduce childhood obesity. Would you rather see them each pick a measure of success that is idiosyncratic to their program, or join forces to pick a single shared measure of success?

If your museum is working to tackle a broad societal issue, you're not doing it alone. Your program may exist in its own bubble of the museum, but there are likely many organizations tackling the same big issue from different angles.

Each of you is stronger--in front of funders, in front of advocates, in front of clients--if you can work together towards one shared goal. Even if it doesn't map perfectly to your program, it's worth picking a "good enough" measure that everyone can use as opposed to a perfect measure that only works in your bubble.

For example, one of the outcomes in our theory of change that we care about is civic engagement. We want visitors to be inspired by history experiences at the museum to get more involved as changemakers in our community. Our Community Assessment Project already measures indicators of civic engagement like voting, writing to an elected official, and speaking at a public hearing. Are these the indicators we would choose in a bubble? Probably not. But are they more powerful because we have years of good countywide data about them? Absolutely.

Shared data builds shared purpose.

What happens when those 50 different organizations agree on one indicator for success in reducing childhood obesity? They get to know each other. They understand how their individual work fits into a larger picture. They build new partnerships, reduce redundancies in programming, and fill the gaps. They do a better job, individually and collectively, at tackling the big issue at hand.

That's what we should be using measurement to do. I can't wait to hear a story like this at a conference and fall in love with data all over again.

Are you working across your community to share key indicators of success? Share your story, question, or comment below. If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What I Didn't Learn in School: Diane Ragsdale's Crash Course on Beauty and Aesthetic Values

I have an unusual education for the director of an art & history museum: a degree in electrical engineering. Engineering taught me to be a tinkerer, a builder, and a problem solver. It taught me that you can design a different future. That experiments are crucial. That you can make things instead of just talking about them.

I value my engineering education. But every once in a while, I look at my brilliant colleagues with liberal arts backgrounds and wonder what they know that I don't. A lot, I suspect.

I've been getting a taste of what I'm missing by devouring Diane Ragsdale's terrific series of blog posts about the course she is teaching on Approaching Beauty for business students at UW-Madison. Diane calls it "Beauty Class," but it really seems to be about aesthetic valuing: identifying beauty in its many forms, and developing a personal aesthetic sensibility.

The course is roughly split into two parts: defining beauty (both universally and relationally, through "big idea" texts, videos, museum visits, and artist lectures), and exploring beauty (through encounters in formal art contexts and the wider world). Start here, and get ready to spend a lot of time with each post. You'll burrow down rabbit holes of gorgeous videos, cerebral reading lists, and provocative artist talks.

I didn't know I was hungry for this until Diane shared it. I've filled some gaps in my cultural education through a career in museums: reading, looking, exploring, listening. But it's mostly just content. I can identify artworks by famous artists. I can tell a local story from 1849. I'm stacking up bricks of content knowledge. But that doesn't mean I know how to build a wall.

Diane's course is teaching me how to build a wall. How to identify beauty, how to disagree about it, how to be generous with it. 

It reminds me of higher-level math classes in college. The best courses were about manipulating numbers to generate meaning, not computation. We used the word "beautiful" to describe the best mathematical proofs. Diane is teaching me how, when, and why artists use the word.

While I'm grateful to Diane, I'm also surprised. Isn't it strange that I have spent years working with curators and artists, and I'm just encountering this now? Why don't we blog about it and talk about it and present conferences about it? I've experienced a smidge of it in dialogues about curatorial authority, cultural differences, and race. But there are less political conversations to have about it, too.

In week one, Diane shares a powerful video of choreographer Bill T. Jones "translating" a dance phrase to unlock its technical, narrative, and emotive power. Diane's course is for business majors. Perhaps we're most explicit about our values when forced to translate them for foreign ears. 

I fear we in museums are not translating and making our aesthetic values explicit enough, often enough. I know my education is sorely lacking, so maybe I'm just missing a body of shared knowledge that everyone else has. But I'm surprised how I'm amazed how often I've had conversations like this with museum colleagues:
Them: I love this piece.
Me: What do you love about it?
Them: [long pause followed by mumbling]
The same professionals who shy away from talking about aesthetic values are completely comfortable talking about aesthetics. We are constantly talking about aesthetics--commission this artist, change the lighting, move that painting, change this phrase--but rarely about the values that underlie them. 

Is it impolite or impolitic to share our aesthetic values? Too personal? Too subjective? Too elitist? Too hard?

What do you think?

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Setting Your Mission Free in the Wild

Where are you most able to execute your mission: inside your facility, or outside of it?

There are a lot of reasons we focus on work inside our facilities. Our facilities are, ideally, spaces optimized for mission execution. Galleries purpose-made to show artwork. Performance halls perfectly tuned for the orchestra. Archives with climate control to protect artifacts.

But I'm increasingly seeing organizations (mine included) expand beyond our walls. In churches. On sidewalks. In health centers and hospitals and laundromats and housing developments. The Irvine Foundation recently published a great study on this phenomenon.

Why go out to these other spaces? We tend to focus on two reasons:
  1. It's where the people are. Or at least, it's where certain people are, people who you want to connect with but who choose not to walk through your doors. This seems to be the primary driver behind partnerships with organizations that serve specific target groups, whether those be homeless adults or preschoolers or ESL students. It's also the driver behind participation in events with huge visibility potential, such as farmer's markets or community festivals.
  2. As our missions shift, our buildings can't always keep up. The facility that was perfectly primed for the organization founded in 1920 may not fit the needs of 2015. Many organizations end up fighting their facilities--and pouring money into their operation--instead of using them as a springboard for amazing work.
I've been thinking recently more and more about a third reason for going outside: it's where the mission takes flight.

This reason is specific to taking programming outdoors, in the public sphere. Outdoor festivals, plays, and concerts have an energy that gets dampened and contained indoors. The outdoors absorbs difference comfortably; you can come or go, eat or talk, participate in different ways without alerting concern. And outdoor events proselytize themselves; anyone walking by can get a glimpse, a taste, a sensory solicitation to come take part. People share viral videos of flash mob orchestras in grocery stores and operas on the street because these events set isolated art forms free.

This isn't just true of the arts: think of an outdoor capoeria class, dog festival, or co-working meetup. When we take our interests and micro-communities into the public sphere, we bring them into the light. Yes, the space is more chaotic, less intentionally-designed--and that may mean that the experience is less intense than in purpose-built facility. The magic can be more diffuse, the audience less attentive. But the benefits of the open air, the open invitation to partake, often seem to outweigh these negatives.

Even someone walking by who doesn't participate can have his day altered by what he saw or heard. If we walk by many outdoor fitness classes, we may feel more motivated to exercise. If we walk by many public art installations, we may feel more inspired to create. If we walk by music and culture and conversations and kindness, we may feel better about ourselves and our community.

None of this contact happens if these activities are trapped inside buildings. The magic stays locked inside. Sometimes, that works--and you feel the special hum of "just us" sharing the experience. But often, the magic could go further.

How many of the best things you're doing are locked behind doors? How might things change if you could do them out on the street?

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Love…and a Desire for Things to Stay the Same: Guest Post by Karen Wise

Visitors in front of the African Elephant Diorama at the Natural
History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC photo)
This guest post was written by Karen Wise, Vice President, Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

 “I love it! You’ve made it better without changing it.”

Those words haunt me. The person who said them is a member of our Board of Trustees. He’s one of our biggest supporters. He is committed to our aspiration of creating a new model of what museums can be in the 21st Century. Yet he was thrilled that we had not changed what he loved – any of it – when we installed our new signage system.

This isn’t an isolated issue. Loyal museum visitors – members, patrons, volunteer docents, people who grew up coming to the museum -- love the old exhibits they are used to. Familiarity may breed contempt in some contexts, but apparently not in museums. Familiarity with our museum seems to breed loyalty, love and a desire to have things preserved rather than changed. Dioramas. History exhibits with hundreds of objects and no coherent story. Schizophrenic bird halls with 5 different design and content presentation styles. How do we grapple with this difficult fact - that what staff may see as old-fashioned exhibits, those with no stories, just lots of coded content – can be visitor favorites???

The specifics of what visitors love is often hard to tease out. A couple of months ago, my middle school age daughter and her friends were in the back seat of the car talking about the museum where I work. One of them broke the unwritten rule against talking to the parent driver and asked me what was coming next. They got excited when I told them we were bringing in an exhibit on mummies. Then one of them asked me where we were going to put it. When I told him - into a hall that held what remains of our old California History Hall - the kids protested loudly that the old Hall is one of their favorites. When I asked them what they love about it, they named a few objects, but then one said “the whole thing” and my daughter said “the smell.”

Their loyalty, that fondness for the familiar, the smell--these precious memories do not drive attendance or keep us relevant. Even at a museum like ours, where more than 70% of our visitors are bringing others to facilitate a social (often family) experience, only new things can reliably motivate a visit.

In museum circles, there is also a widely recognized need for us to be relevant, to tell big stories that matter, to create experiences for the widest possible range of audiences, and - in the case of science museums - to help solve the STEM crisis by making science fun, accessible and interesting. As museums work to fulfill visitor-focused missions – in our case to inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds - we face some ironic paradoxes.

Each month, during our visitor intercept surveys, we ask a sample of 200 visitors whether they came to see anything in particular, and if so what. The most popular answer among those that say yes is Dinosaurs. When asked what they want more of they say Dinosaurs - and more hands on experiences for kids.

No visitor has ever told us that s/he came to the museum to learn a big story or to see science in action. And yet, as museum professionals, we are constantly talking about our responsibilities to tell those big stories, to display a wider range of our spectacular stuff, to help visitors make sense of change through time, put current anthropogenic climate change by putting into the context of climate change throughout the history of the earth, and to display our collections as evidence for the history and evolution of the earth and life on it.

So how do we balance that perceived obligation to tell big stories – of the history of our planet and life on it, of evolution, extinction and survival, of how science works, visitor motivations for social experiences -- with great objects and specimens and memorable stories?

Most museums, including us, might answer this question by changing our approach as we create new experiences. But as we look at creating new layers for iconic, historic exhibits this can get dicey. In our case in LA, we’re addressing this now as we consider our diorama halls. We have some of the best diorama halls in the world. They are incredibly detailed depictions of scientifically and visually accurate moments in time and place with backdrop murals made accomplished artists – including some famous Plein Air artists who created them as part of W.P.A. projects during the Great Depression. How do we make them relevant, engaging, must-see experiences without changing them? Can we? There are plenty of models out there – and the range of options keeps increasing with technological innovations. We will learn from them all, but none that we have seen yet quite fit the full range of inarticulate needs of our visitors.

No matter what we do, I know this: we will test and test and test before we install anything in the diorama halls, lest anyone complain that we changed them.

Thanks to Karen Wise for this thoughtful post. Please share your perspective below--Karen and I both look forward to the conversation. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Museum 2.0 Flashback: Threshold Fear

This week, I was on the radio talking museum inclusion (with Michelle Obama!) and committed the cardinal sin: defining a term using the term itself. The term was "threshold fear"--the sense of discomfort upon walking into an unfamiliar and potentially threatening space.

Threshold fear has interested me for a long time. It deserves better than my quote. The radio segment, and the fact that I broke my arm over the weekend and can't really type, encouraged me to dig up these old posts on threshold fear. I hope you enjoy them.

  1. Getting People in the Door (2007). A review of Elaine Heumann Gurian's essay on threshold fear and architecture program and planning from her book, Civilizing the Museum. The post was part of a series I did on this incredible book--which I highly recommend.
  2. Come on in and Make Yourself Uncomfortable (2012). A simple exercise for those who want to experience threshold fear firsthand.  Hard to imagine that some people don't find museums welcoming spaces? Find a space to feels uncomfortable for you and see what it's like to walk in the door.
Have a great week--and don't fall off your bike.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Building Community: Who / How / Why

These are the slides and notes for the talk I gave at the American Alliance of Museums conference on Monday, April 27 about the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. There are links embedded to other posts that go deeper into specific topics.

For years, I’ve been associated with the idea of “visitor participation.” When I became the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History four years ago, I took this work with me. We invited community members in, to be active contributors, collaborators, and co-creators in our museum space.

We had incredible success transforming our institution into a vibrant cultural center. But when people told us what they loved about the museum, they didn’t use the word “participation.” They talked about community building.

I don’t think there is a way to directly build community. We can’t sit down and say, “let’s go build some community.”

Participation is one (of many) tactics for building community. As time has gone on, my attention has shifted from the tactic of participation to the outcome of building community. And so today I want to talk about building community: the who, the how, and the why of it.

WHO (slides 3-23)

"Community” is not an abstraction. It is a group of people connected by something shared. That something may be a place, an identity, an interest, a worldview.

The most important first step for any institution that seeks to “engage community” is to be specific about WHO you are talking about.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, our community starts with geography. We exist for people who live in Santa Cruz County. We are unapologetic about focusing local. Even though Santa Cruz is a tourism destination, we mostly ignore tourists. Tourists can’t help us build community in Santa Cruz County if they are only in town for a day.

Focusing local helps us define our community by identity. We have partnered with the county-wide community assessment project to learn more about the demographics, interests, and needs of local residents.

In some ways, we do a good job engaging people who reflect our whole County. Our audience’s income diversity matches that of the County. We’re connecting with people across all age segments in our County. Right now, we're working hard to empower Latino residents to see themselves in our museum. We live in a City that is 19% Latino, in a County that is 33% Latino. Our visitors are about 8% Latino. If we want to reflect the identities of our community, we’ve got to focus on changing that.

At the same time, “identity” doesn't always mean demographics. For example, in Santa Cruz there is a huge community of creative people who identify as artists in non-traditional media. That’s why we partner with fire sculptors, knitters, graffiti artists, and bonsai growers. They are artists whose experience deserves a home in our institution alongside painters, photographers, and sculptors.

Finally, we define our community by affinity. We focus on people who are culturally curious, actively creative… but may not see a traditional arts institution as a place for them. We’re unapologetic about connecting people with history and with art in new ways, even if those ways are sometimes in conflict with more typical museum practice.

We think about this redefinition of affinity not just in terms of our programming but our internal structures as well. Some of our best volunteers come from the County court referral system. We're a place you can work off your traffic ticket. And that means we get volunteers who are A. very motivated to complete their hours and B. culturally curious but maybe not inclined to walk into a museum. They see "museum" on the list of options and they think: hey, I like history, I dig art, maybe this is a good option for me. We've hired amazing people out of this unorthodox volunteer pipeline.

Doing this work in partnership with our local community, in partnership with people who have an affinity for active cultural experiences, we’ve been able to grow rapidly and tremendously. Over four years, we’ve tripled our annual attendance and more than doubled our budget and staff and programs.

Last year, our board and staff came together to develop a “theory of change” that connects the activities we do to the impact we seek. We decided as an institution to focus on just one impact statement: “our community grows stronger and more connected.” It feels amazing to be so aligned and clear about purpose. We’re making our focus on community more overt, tangible, and measurable.

HOW (slides 24-42)

There are three “tracks” to our theory of change: individual empowerment, social bonding, and social bridging.

Let’s start with empowerment. We seek to empower our visitors to raise their own civic and creative voices. A lot of museum visits can actually be disempowering, making people feel they are not smart enough or cultured enough to get it. We want everyone to leave the museum feeling that they could become an historian or artist—a civic and/or creative agent of change.

Empowering people starts by involving and including them. Showing that their voice matters. This starts right when you walk into our museum, where you can share opinions about how to improve the institution on a comment wall. We work with people on programs in their neighborhoods, relevant to their stories, so that people get personally connected. And we look for pathways—whether inside or beyond the museum—for people to go deeper. This might mean taking on a project in our historical archives, starting a studio art practice, or getting involved in local issues and organizations. 

Empowerment is the “individual” side of our theory of change. The other side is about building social capital through bonding and bridging.

These terms come from Robert Putnam, Harvard researcher and author of Bowling Alone. Both bonding and bridging contribute to building community. We bond with people who are like us. We bridge with people who are different from us.

Putnam and other researchers have collected lots of data demonstrating that in the past 50 years in America, bonding has increased and bridging has decreased. We live in an increasingly polarized world, with fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. We are more bonded than ever, and more segregated from each other in our respective bonded spaces as a result.

Museums are great places for bonding. Decades of research have shown that one of the primary reasons people go to museums is to bond with friends and family. While we welcome the people who come to our museum to bond, they don't need much help from us to do so.

Bridging is another story. If we don't focus on designing for bridging, it won't happen. So we spend most of our energy working on ways to bring people together from different walks of life in the museum. We bridge by bringing together unlikely partners--across artistic & historical practices, socio-economics, race/ethnicity, and age. Our programming isn't for target audiences. We strive to be a place where you will always meet someone new, someone who is not like you, in a positive environment.

I'm proud of the bridging work that we do. But it is so, so delicate. Bridging requires careful balancing of who is in the space. If any one bridged group starts to take over, it starts to become a bonded space. As Jane Jacobs noted, "self-destruction of diversity is caused by success, not failure." She was talking about gentrification of neighborhoods, but the idea carries over. When too many of the same kind of person flock to a place or program, it weakens the ability to bridge.

We're struggling with this right now when it comes to family audiences. When I first came to the museum, it was not perceived as a family-friendly place. As we developed new 3rd Friday community festivals, we were careful to design them as intergenerational experiences. More and more families showed up. Now, families are dominant at 3rd Friday, and some adults feel like "it's a kid thing."

Keeping bridging alive requires constant attention and effort. But it's worth it because of how important it is to building a stronger and more connected community.

WHY (slides 43-54)

This vision of a museum working to build a stronger and more connected community is deeply important to us in Santa Cruz. But I don't think that every museum should be doing this work. I don't wish that every museum would be community-oriented. I wish that every museum would be clear about its goals, specific about its strategies and measures, and unapologetic about pursuing them.

I don't think the challenge of museums is being community-oriented. I think the challenge is being authentic to what your institution is about, the community you work with, the vision you have. There is no one-size-fits-all template for that.

Clarity of goals, methods, and measures enables us to proudly and honestly pursue the work that we think is most important. I want all museums to have that.

I started my career as an engineer. One of the essays that inspires me most was this lecture that a computer scientist named Dick Hamming gave in 1986 called You and Your Research. Hamming was addressing the question of why more scientists don't do Nobel Prize-worthy work. He said:
The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important, and he also does not believe that they will lead to important problems.
If you want to have impact, if you want to change the world, you have to work on an important problem.

So often, we focus on the tasks in front of us. The next exhibition. The marketing campaign. The big event. This work is useful. But if you aren't attacking a big problem through it all, what's the point?

There are many important problems that touch the museum field: building stronger communities, transforming the education system, the need for creative play and inspiration, social equity, artists as changemakers, education about global issues. And so on.

I don't care what important problem you choose. But I hope you are working on one. Important problems will keep you up late at night, but they'll also get you out of bed in the morning. They are the reason this work matters. They are the only way we will change the world.