Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Club Part 7: NMAI and the Challenge of Cultural Storytelling

This is the penultimate installment of Museum 2.0's book club on Elaine Gurian's collection of essays, Civilizing the Museum. Next week, we'll conclude by talking about opportunities for institutional change with chapter 8, "Turning the Ocean Liner Slowly." But today, a conversation about the often sticky world of cultural interpretation with chapter 20, "A Jew Among Indians" How working outside of one's culture works."

This essay, written in 1991, reflects Elaine's experience on the planning staff for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the Mall as an "insider/outsider"--a "hired gun" with museum know-how facilitating the creation of someone else's museum. NMAI opened to the public in fall of 2004, and has endured very mixed reviews for its presentation of the Indian experience largely from the perspective of native communities, not curators or historians. NMAI undertook a fairly radical development process in which they tried, via extensive interviews and community outreach, to create a place that represented the interests of people who, for the most part, felt that "museums are irrelevant institutions... have portrayed Indians inaccurately." The institution of museums was regarded with suspicion, and the interior museum experience was to be reconceived in line with the "multisensory spiritual aspect of the individual Indian cultures," making exhibition design (fire in galleries? active use of artifacts?) an "uncharted adventure."

Add to these challenges the particular challenge of creating a national institution. As Elaine puts it in the essay,
When I was last involved in such an endeavor, it was when the Boston Children's Museum was small, insignificant, and unselfconscious. The National Museum of the American Indian has none of these attributes, and working issues out in the full glare of media and publich funding accountability makes the task much harder.
Once she has explained the nature of the endeavor, Elaine spends the second half of the essay detailing "worries" about the NMAI development process. These worries fall roughly into three categories: the tension between the insider and outsider, the ability of standard Western exhibition and artifact techniques to adapt to a new aesthetic, and the ownership of stories.

I was curious to hear Elaine's thoughts on these worries now, fifteen years after writing the essay and three since the opening of the museum. As a visitor to NMAI, I felt few of these worries--the museum to me seemed like a place that had avoided many of these concerns by presenting something fairly benign. Many of Elaine's worries are passionate in nature; the resulting museum, to me, conveys little passion.

With regard to insider/outsider, Elaine wrote about the challenges of creating a place that is "by" and "for" a specific cultural group, while also intended for a much larger outsider visitor population. How will outsider needs for basic information (internalized by the insiders) be accomodated? When someone says, "you wouldn't understand," are they being realistic or racist? How will the museum serve both a distinct group and a more general one?

From my non-native visitor experience, NMAI felt neither foreign nor inclusionary; it felt stale. It wasn't like the experiences Elaine details being an outsider at a pow wow, where she felt both swept into and outside a unique experience. In recent email correspondence about this issue, Elaine commented:
The other problem is that there is a disconnect between what non-Native
Americans wanted to see and what the Indian people wanted to tell them.
Thia is both where the bravery of the NMAI and their lack of responsiveness
to the audience comes in. I don't know how to fix it but by beginning to
work in a dialogue with disappointed visitors and Indians with a point of
view and see if a new and exciting middle ground can be achieved.
This first issue is about cross-cultural understanding. The second issue, about presentation and care of exhibitions and objects, is about museums. Can museums successfully adapt traditional exhibition formats to subject matter and or visitors who expect or desire something spiritual or emotional? If museums radically change their interpretation styles to match the desires of a particular group, will those styles alienate other current or future visitors? Will those styles just redefine another rigid set of rules for right action? Again and again, the NMAI curatorial staff heard that Indians were not interested in the standard set of museum services. Was it possible to create new ones?

Perhaps not in this attempt. Again, Elaine comments today:
The first, where NMAI suffered, is in repetition. In talking directly with
Indian groups but synthesizing the material through a set of curatorial
eyes, the potential outcomes have a certain sameness and a timidity that
might have been avoided.

The repair for that is quite difficult. It means that when working
directly with folks for whom the museum media is not their natural forum,
the museum folks need to offer a much larger palette of physical outcomes
rather than just words, movies, material in cases, etc. And the palette is
not really invented yet. So the direct voice got straight-jacketed into a
frame of museum methods that did not exactly fit.

It also means that the museum palette needs to be stretched into areas that
the Indian community talked about -- smell, sound, spirit, language,
environments, etc. all of which are not yet comfortable exhibition

I have always wanted to get a group of Indigenous people together with the
most inventive designers in the world and have them design new museum
systems together.

Finally, the third issue is about storytelling. Who owns the Indian story, which is really the story of people from many independent sovereign nations? How the stories and aesthetics from individual groups be woven together into one coherent museum? How can the museum facilitators avoid becoming "the victims and the perpetuators of re-creationism?" When no one voice is regarded as authoritative or objective, how does the story get told?

The most fascinating commentary I've read on this is Jacki Thompson Rand's excellent article, "Why I Can't Visit the National Museum: Reflections of an accidental privileged insider 1989-1994." In many ways Jacki was Elaine's counterpart--a native member of the team, an insider where Elaine was an outsider. And yet, Jacki came out of the experience feeling like an outsider, stating that the museum and exhibion development was controlled primarily by traditional museum designers (white men) with small roles for native interpretation (Indian men). Most significantly, the story the museum finally chose to tell was not Jacki's story, which was one of history, not material culture. As she puts it:
today, the finished museum stands as a reminder of how the small-but-growing museum staff failed to find, in that tense moment of public scolding, inspiration and encouragement to tell the story that we know and the nation denies.
To Jacki, a museum that refuses to acknowledge and explore the Native past is not one that can properly reflect or illuminate the present or future. She was an intended insider--someone who NMAI was supposedly both "by" and "for." And yet she came out of it feeling that neither was true.

Elaine commented to me that she thinks exhibitions created by a single artistic vision--like the USHMM, Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, or any number of superstar cultural designs--work better. (See book club part 4 for more.) Perhaps, when one person is telling the story for many, they are free to create a new story that resonates both with its subjects and its visitors. The Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibition is not reflective of every Holocaust victim's story, nor does it claim to be. But the story created by Shaike's vision is a story that many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, connect with deeply. At NMAI, they sought to create a cultural story not just by curatorial consensus, but by mass consensus. Can a crowd tell a story as well as an individual?

Maybe not. But that doesn't mean that NMAI's experiment in museum "by" its subjects is uninteresting or not worth repeating. Most of Elaine's worries in 1991 came in the form of questions: how can we, what will happen when we, how will people...? Even if NMAI failed to answer these questions completely (or authoritatively), their attempts help us understand the answers possible. It's time to start looking at where it succeeds and fails and what we can learn to refine our question-asking and draw up new sets of worries. NMAI is just the beginning of the experiment in culturally-defined museums. I'll give Elaine the last word ("Rick" is Rick West, director of NMAI):
It can be forgiven but will now have to fix it. I think what Rick did is heroic ideologically but not totally successful visually. It will be up to the next team to look the problem straight in the eye and have courage enough to try new and untried display techniques that match its message.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Game Friday: The Aftermath of the ARG World Without Oil

There has been some fascinating coverage recently about the wrap-up of Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal's ARG World Without Oil, a huge community game in which players roleplayed within a fictitious scenario in which gas prices are at $7 a gallon, market and weather volatility is sky-high, and the state of both the natural and man-made world are in crisis.

World Without Oil ran from April 30 until July 12, during which time the central site provided a running commentary on the reactions--personal, political, financial, ecological--to a fictitio
us oil shock. Thirty-two "weeks" of events were condensed into the 10-week game, and each week, both in-game characters and real people--players all over the world--documented life in the new reality and swapped stories, solutions, and possibilities for survival. Players used all manners of Web 2.0--blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and more--to share content. If you go on the site now, you can access the "WWO time machine" and travel to any of the 32 "weeks" to see the stories at that moment in the crisis. There are also "threads" on the right column that present a variety of player-created tours of the archives.

The breadth and depth of content is staggering. Yes, much was generated by the game masters, but there are now 143,000 google hits for "world without oil," the majority of which are player-generated blogs, livejournals, photo pages, videos, you name it. On an early game week, week 14, I counted over 35 player-submitted photos, stories, and missions (actions to try to address the crisis). Overall, about 60,000 interacted with WWO resources during the game, 1,871 of whom actively contributed content.

I admit that I was not one of them. I followed the World Without Oil story with great interest, but was frankly overwhelmed when I checked it out early in its release. It is a far cry from the "calculate your carbon footprint" or other casual games about resource usage. It required much higher engagement than reading news articles on the topic; it was a huge growing, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression. I wasn't ready.

Now that it's all over, strangely enough, I am. I've spent several hours perusing the WWO time machine, finding the voices, images, and missions most interesting and applicable to my lifestyle. And while I am someone for whom massive brainstorming around likely world events was not compelling this spring, I recognize that there are many people out there for whom this is an extremely successful form of engagement. There are many players whose lives--and everyday lifestyles--were changed by participation in World Without Oil. You can still get involved. I can't wait to see the curriculum guides they release in September to get students playing the game. But the biggest question in my mind is: what lessons can museums (and game designers, and etc.) learn from WWO?
  • Good game design can encourage serious visitor participation on specific topics. One way to look at the WWO resources is to consider that a small group of game masters empowered and provided a platform for 1,800 people to generate content for 60,000 consumers (and growing). The content was substantive, and arguably constituted a meaningful addition to the body of pre-existing content around the effect of a major oil event worldwide. The game masters led, but did not overshadow--they harnessed and supported player contributions to the extent that some active players were mistaken for fictitious characters.
  • Complex, multi-faceted strategy games are possible, as long as the game design accomodates complex, multi-faceted topics and directions. The beauty of WWO's oil shock is the extent to which oil scarcity is already considered an issue that spans the personal, political, financial, and scientific, and WWO, recognizing this, allowed players to engage on the levels most compelling to them. The newly reopened Liberty Science Center was recently criticized by the New York Times for making everything "personal, urgent, and political." I wonder how the same critic would react to WWO! The more we can accomodate visitors/players who want to engage in any of a number of ways--personal, theoretical, active--the greater the potential involvement and impact.
  • Alternate reality can encourage players to take action in their real lives. Some people have criticized WWO as a waste of time, saying, "I explored a few links and watched a few of the videos, but stopped after a while because the real peakoil blogosphere is actually more interesting. The thing is, the oil crisis is already here, or a few months away. No need to create an alternate reality in which it's happening." But is that reader changing her lifestyle because of it? Reading articles about the real world doesn't always inspire action the way a challenge, a mission, or an immediate crisis does. As one player commented: "rather than just getting people to 'think about' the problem, it [WWO] actually gets a large and actively interested community of people to throw ideas off of each other through their in-game blog posts, and the out-of-game Alternate Reality Game community. There's some potential for innovation there, for someone to think up a brilliant lifestyle change for the better that people can start jumping on board with." The link to reality--to real news and real oil crunch experiences--furthers players' interests in the fictitious cataclysmic event, and the cataclysmic fiction spurs real world action. As another player put it, "We hope that the people who play the game will ultimately live some of what they 'pretend' if they don't already. "
  • Gaming can create communities around specific topics. Consider the "we" in the above quote from a WWO player. This person expresses not only an interest in how WWO has impacted his own life, but also how it might impact lives of others. He considers himself part of a "we" who have aspirations about the game's reach. Imagine if a visitor made a similar comment about an exhibit, aligning her/himself with the exhibit designers and or artifacts. Powerful stuff.
  • Multi-platform, multi-access: wider reach. Since I only engaged with WWO as a lurker and not as a player, am I less affected by its content? Probably. But that doesn't mean I'm not affected at all. One of the reasons I look forward to seeing the WWO school study guides is to see how they intend for people to "keep playing" now that the game is closed. There are lots of people out there for whom there are significant barriers to involvement in an online game of this type--but the same people could benefit from a "video of the day," a book collecting player journal entries, or a three-dimensional exhibit timeline of the experience. It's a little surprising to me that while WWO provided many platforms and topics on which to engage and contribute content, there were relatively few ways to receive that content outside the web. I'd also like to see a more attention paid to the "first time user" experience, so that people like me, who were overwhelmed at the onset, have a smoother path in (and are therefore more likely to play).
  • What if? is a question everyone can answer. In museums, desire to avoid the political often creates obstacles to creating meaningful content. When I saw An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by Gore's framing of climate change as a "moral issue." And I immediately considered that that argument is not one which museums could easily present. But by avoiding the now and focusing on a potential event, like oil shock, war with Iran, virtual consciousness, or any number of reasonable near-future events, museums can get away with a wider range of "imaginative" presentations. Even better if it comes from visitors/players and the authorative voice doesn't have to take a position.
World Without Oil was a major effort involving substantive content and platform development. While I don't necessarily recommend a museum taking on a similarly ambitious game initiative, we need to get involved in these kinds of experiments--as partners, action sites, and, occasionally, as leaders.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Museum Trails: I like... personalizing the museum experience

Last week, I spoke with Jim Richardson, managing director of SUMO Design, about their very cool new project with the North East Regional Museums Hub: I like... museums. Funded by the UK MLA and launched on July 9, i like... museums is a website on which visitors can search for museums in the North East region of England. But it's not a typical directory. i like... museums allows users to search by "museum trails," interests that range from beer to yucky things to dressing up to space.

SUMO has done an impressive job of combining clean design, quirky content, and multiple points of access in a site that is surprisingly useful. No more scanning the list of 80-odd museums in an area trying to figure out whether Lady Waterford Hall or Cragside or any number of enigmatic and not-so-enigmatic attractions are appropriate for your interests. Trails were developed by staff, community members, and are submitted on a continuous basis by visitors to the site. Each museum was asked to select three of the initial trails specifically applicable to them and wrote blurbs on how those trails relate to their content. Visitors who submit trails also add their own commentary about why certain museums were included. You can seamlessly click from trails to museums to other trails, wandering the museum landscape. And you can rate the trails and view their ratings, which presumably might help you prioiritize some trails over others.

Here's what I love about this:
  1. It supports reaggregation of the museum experience. Rather than searching by name, location, or self-defined genre, you can find museums that relate to your specific interest. There are trails like i like... keeping the kids happy, with helpful content for specific audiences. And then there are the oddballs. Jim told me one of the first user-submitted trails was i like... pigs. When users get to reaggregate the experience, they base their decisions on and distinctions that most museums would be hard-pressed to come up with on their own. I'd love to see these trails crawl into museums, allowing visitors to reaggregate the exhibits within, so they can share with each other equally useful information about where the coolest stuff is for different ages, abilities, and interests.
  2. It supports irreverence. Perhaps my favorite trail is the user-submitted I like... things to do with a hangover which offers art adventures to take your mind off the pain, religious memorials for divine intervention, and seaside castles for "big blast of fresh air!" I can't imagine a museum or museum association willing to publish such a trail (though they should consider it).
  3. It furthers the idea of museums as multi-use venues. The North East Hub is willing to let users play with what a museum is "for"--whether it be inspiration, a good cup of tea, or meeting new people. The site subtly gives you more and more reasons to visit a museum beyond viewing the collection.
  4. Combining forces is a low-risk, low resources way for museums to get involved with Web 2.0. This project was the outcome of a "marketing training programme" put on by the Hub, and all 81 museums in the North East area are participating in (and cross-marketing) the project. By functioning as a directory and advertisement for museum-going in general, i like... museums is a good way for many museums to dip their toes in the water and get a sense of their potential visitors' interests.
i like... museums is owned and operated by the Tyne and Wear Museums in their role as the regional hub for North East museums. It is part of a larger regional museum campaign by the Hub. As Jim explains,
this includes: Five weeks of press advertising in seven newspapers, advertising on public transport, advertising in cinema's and sports centres, beer mats in pubs, sponsorship of two radio shows in two local radio stations, a printed regional museum guide and nine printed trail leaflets which are available at the 81 museums in the region, web banners on seven websites including Facebook and a MySpace page.
In the last two weeks since launch, they've had about 10 visitor trails submitted, and are working those trails into upcoming advertising campaigns for the site. But many people are accessing the site as "lurkers," and, according to Jim, the trails are a hit.
People are browsing the website by theme rather then through the A -Z directory at a ratio of 10 - 1, so these seems to be a much more engaging way to tell people about what museums have to offer.
The goal is for i like... museum to "change perceptions of museums, to encourage people to go to Museums, and to encourage those who already go to Museums to try another venue."

Jim also commented that museums have access to the website data, and may use the information about most popular trails to develop new marketing and content strategies. This is the part I'm most curious about--to see how, if at all--museums might be changed by being involved in this campaign. It's one thing to allow visitors to create their own trails. It's quite another to follow them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Club Part 6: Getting People in the Door

This week, thoughts on Chapter 12 of Elaine Gurian’s book Civilizing the Museum, "Threshold Fear: Architecture program planning." I chose to include this chapter, despite overlaps with Chapter 11 (Function Follows Form) and Chapter 13 (Free At Last), because the term “threshold fear” is an important one—not just for visitors, but for museums as well. In this essay, Elaine discusses the various barriers to entry for non-traditional visitors to museums, that is, the threshold fear that keeps such potential visitors from walking in our doors. But there’s another kind of threshold fear I care about: the one that keeps museums from fully embracing and jumping into new ways of engaging the public, new ways of including visitors. We all have problems getting in the door—they’re just different doors.

Elaine starts by detailing a series of fears and the potential audiences who reject museums because of them. She then says,
My thesis is that when museum management becomes interested in the identification, isolation, and reduction of each of these thresholds, they will be rewarded over time by an increased and broadened pattern of use, though the reduction of these thresholds is not sufficient by itself.
What does this “not sufficient by itself’ bit mean? Later, Elaine comments:
Now, after researching the topic, I am less certain that broadening the audience for museums is achievable in general. … Cultural icons serve many important purposes, but these, I have reluctantly begun to realize, may be quite different from, and perhaps mutually exclusive with, museums focused on community well-being.
Or, as a friend of mine put it as we chatted about this over the weekend, “Do museums really want all kinds of people hanging out there? It seems like they're about objects, not people.”

He, and Elaine, have noticed the trends over the last several decades that hinder inclusion and community development, including:
  • pursuance of iconic museum architecture which promotes aesthetic over community design
  • lack of access by public transportation and rise in entrance fees, contributing to the perception of the museum as a special destination
  • open hours not conducive to times when locals might actually use the museum
  • lack of diversity among staff
  • increase in security and monitoring

Some museums have done remarkable things to reduce these thresholds and have, as Elaine predicted, been rewarded for it.
  • The New York Hall of Science’s Career Ladder successfully recruits and advances neighborhood teens as floor explainers, and their full-time staff includes many people who have come “up through the ranks.” These staff members are true representatives of their community, and help give the museum street cred with their local visitors as an acceptable and positive place to visit.
  • The San Jose Museum of Art has drastically changed its approach to security, replacing guards with visitor services staff who provide interpretation and monitor visitor actions in a less threatening manner.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a street (and subway) facing entrance that was closed for many years; since reopening, it has increased walk-in traffic as well as relationships with the local community.
  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art found that skateboarders were using their entrance plaza and invited them to continue.
All of these examples are indicative of an institution-wide approach to promoting inclusion. They aren’t isolated “first Sunday” programs; they change the face of the museum to visitors. Some are simple design choices—like at the MFA. But many are about personnel. It’s no surprise that positive in-person interactions that support a variety of languages, attitudes, and experience in museums can be the biggest factor in promoting inclusion.

How do we get there? Some of Elaine’s suggestions are highly practical. For example, she recommends that museum folks engage with architects in architecture program planning, sharing with the architects their expectations and desires with regard to how people will use and perceive the space—not just formally, but informally as well.

She encourages looking at other congregant spaces—malls, zoos, parks, mosques—and considering how they approach openness to new and potential visitors. I think the religious institution model is a particularly interesting one. Like museums, many people feel they “ought” to go to church (or synagogue, etc), but rarely set foot inside. How do we turn those curious parties into visitors and users? In religious settings, the formula is part ideology, part community. The emphasis on social experiences and relationships increases comfort and ownership of an experience that, like museum-going, starts out as something foreign and mystical.

But churches do not only seek converts among the non-visiting masses; they also redesign and restructure their services and buildings to meet people halfway. And that gets back to my friend’s question: Do museums really want this? Do they want to drop their Gehry skylines in favor of design that might bring more people in the door?

Which reflects a more basic question: who are museums serving, and how does their design support that customer? If the customer is the collector or the object, then the traditional “temple of the contemplative” model is apt. But if the customer is the everyday person, we have to reconsider our loyalties and actions. Imagine the difference between an architectural planning session for Disneyland and one for a museum. Disneyland doesn’t have big name architects; they essentially have urban planners who design little villages of fun. Imagine mall-builders talking about design goals; they probably talk less about “the presence on the cultural landscape” than the ways that they will support people browsing and buying.

If for no other reason, it's worthwhile to consider how other industries approach architecture for their unique vocabularies (and the inspirations that accompany them). Elaine concludes by mentioning a 2002 competition in which designers in LA submitted plans to fix “dead malls.”
One entrant used the following four categories when contemplating useful spaces: big box cathedral – gathering; global vortex – raving; elastic bazaar – wandering; and smart mobs – swarming. Even the words chosen for the categories intrigue me. Imagine if there were museums that wished for raving and swarming.
Indeed. The threshold fear that we experience around words like inclusion or diversity is at least as great as that felt by non-visitors. Perhaps new words will help us. There are lots of examples out there of spaces that are designed for people, not for objects or ideas. How do train station architects, restaurant designers, and park rangers talk about their designs? What can we steal from their successes crossing thresholds, and what can we learn from their shortcomings?

Next week, discussion about the National Museum of the American Indian in Chapter 20, "A Jew Among Indians."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Game Friday: Museum Mad Libs!

I read recently about an awesome project at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2001, Collecting Our Thoughts, in which visitors were invited to write the labels for an art exhibition (more another time). Which made my mind go to a far more irreverent destination: Mad Libs.

Go ahead. Pick a plural noun. Then an adjective. Then a number. Then a verb in present tense. Then another plural noun. (Mine are in all caps below.)

Now construct the story of an artifact:
"This painting by Vermeer was completed in 1663. It shows a woman holding a water pitcher next to a window. Vermeer wanted to include some ZEBRAS in the image but they were too FAT. The woman who posed for this portrait had to stand for 276 hours in this exact position. She often thought, "Gee, I wish I could TANGO with PANCAKES instead of doing this."
Is this educational? Not in an obvious way. But it's a lot of fun, and it could be a great way to construct a personalized takeaway from a museum experience.
It's also a way for visitors to express themselves, enjoy their own expression, and feel like they play an active role in interepretation of museum objects.

And that is educational. There's a lot of talk about training museum visitors to interpret museum content on their own, but the implementation of that desire is fuzzy. You look at the object, read the label, and then... what? Sometimes there's a proferred question to answer mentally. Sometimes school groups have scavenger hunts and they fill in blanks from the labels (arguably less educational than generating your own content). But in galleries of facts, there's often little prompting to be imaginative. And doing so is often the gateway to intrepretation.

I remember the first time an artist friend of mine took me to a museum and I watched him laugh at some of the art. I was shocked, and vaguely concerned that we might get in trouble. "Why are you laughing?" I hissed. "Because it's funny. The artist made something funny."

His training allowed him to think of artists as people with motivations and challenges, whereas I usually thought of them as names attached to objects. Games that allow visitors to imagine the mistakes, the accidents, the possibilities inherent in objects humanize them. They make them less perfect, less pedestal-y, more connectable.

Break it down and make a connection. Mad Libs seems like an ideal format for this conversion. It's both narrative and a game. And it belongs to the user. Leading questions at the end of labels, no matter how well-worded, come off as challenges from a higher power. They're owned by the museum. Holding the power to interpret in your own hand or pocket makes it yours--not the museum's--and that ownership encourages comfort and playfulness. Let visitors cheat--give them the paragraphs for each artifact with the blanks and let them put in the answers they think are funniest, most likely, or weirdest. Hold contests for the funniest submissions and put them on display at special events, or, if you're brave, alongside the objects themselves.

This kind of activity promotes spending more time with the object. One of the reasons I advocate strongly for games in museums is that games present compelling, addictive models for engagement with content. Most game content is banal, but it doesn't have to be. So often in museums, I find myself struggling to keep looking at the ancient rug or the swirling tornado after I've read the label and seen my fill. I have a hard time generating insightful questions and trying to answer them in my own head. But it would be easy for me to fill in Mad Libs. It would be easy for me to drop my own imagination into a silly story about the people who used that coin or how the museum built the xylophone. And these stories could point to hidden worlds of information--about conservation, object provenance, exhibit prototyping, the people involved--that otherwise are rarely discussed.

Creating museum Mad Libs for your institution would take about a day. Walk around, pick the objects you want to include, write the paragraphs, label the blanks with parts of speech, and take it to the copier. For about $1 apiece, you could produce 500 copies with a slick cardstock cover. Hand them out or sell them for $3 and see what happens. Offer them to school groups and families. Ask for feedback. Simple.

Or is it? The hard thing about incorporating visitor content in the museum has little to do with complexity or desire. I sincerely believe that most museums want their visitors to ask questions, give opinions, etc. The hard part is letting go of authority, telling visitors that not only do you want their thoughts about your stuff, you're willing to make a game of it. You're willing to let them laugh at the art, make up imaginary facts about the collection, and create stories about the experience. Some of the best Mad Libs are the ones where you get to change the words in famous fairy tales or nursery rhymes--where you get permission to mess with authority.

Cinderella has survived Mad Libs libel--Vermeer and your museum can too. How about it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jumping into Art in Second Life

When people talk about museum projects in Second Life and other virtual worlds, I'm often disappointed by the short-sightedness of the vision. Virtual worlds are a new, emerging technology, and like any new technology, overlaying old techniques onto new platforms is disappointing at best. So much energy is put into recreating physical spaces and their real-world limitations rather than experimenting with ways that virtual worlds create opportunity to do things that are impossible in real museums. These opportunities can be social--engaging with museum content with other visitors at their computers all over the world--as well as experiential--allowing visitors to jump into, smash, and manipulate content in ways that physics and conservators forbid in real space.

This week, a quick example of how each is possible.


The video below is a gorgeous example of the possibility of substantive, emotional experiences with museum content via virtual world representations.

It's a machinima (video) by Robbie Dingo, a 3D recreation of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

As one YouTube visitor commented:

A masterpiece recreated. I watched the beauty unfolding in front of me. Maybe someone once watched Vincent creating the original and felt the same way.
I hope so.
Sadly, Robbie's goal was to use Second Life as a platform to create a 2D representation of the painting--so the 3D space of the painting is not available for visitors to explore. But imagine the possibilities for a museum to take an iconic painting or artifact and create a 3D version of it for visitors to wander. Narrative information could be embedded throughout the landscape, or an entire exhibition's worth of content could be embedded metaphorically in the space. The result is one solution to the "problem" of viewing 2D art--that it's hard to figure out how to focus and be attentive to the piece if you don't have a strong art background. Creating a 3D space to explore encourages visitors to spend more time with the piece, literally getting inside it.


There have been many art events and openings in Second Life, perhaps most significantly Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings, which was recreated in four Second Life locations for a weekend event earlier this month. Giff Constable of the Electric Sheep Company had some interesting observations about the unique social aspect of this event:

Was it real (a question perpetually asked by the perplexed)? Well, I ran into some people I knew, met some interesting new folks, got into the vibe of the art, and even ended up in an art conversation chatting about interesting artists like Stephen Hendee and Joshua Davis. But was I with those people in Second Life? We were certainly making mental connections, and frankly, I probably spoke to more people than I would at a real-life art opening. It is easy to feel lonely at a real art show surrounded by people who are strangers, but I bet very few people logged into that event in Second Life last night felt that way.
I've written before about the ways that adding a layer of technological barrier can open up people to more comfortable interaction with strangers. In the same way, virtual worlds may be a more natural venue to encourage discourse about museum content among strangers than real-world physical galleries, where social norms override desire to communicate.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Book Club Part 5: Museums as Mixed-Used Spaces

This week, we consider Chapter 11 of Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum, "Function Follows Form: How mixed-used spaces in museums build community," but first, a short and relevant note about my writing process. As some of you know, I recently moved to the Santa Cruz mountains and am living an extremely rural lifestyle. We haven't yet solved the internet quandary, so most days, I bike to town to work from the library or cafes. And so, I'm writing this post from my new favorite spot: the Wired Wash Cafe.

This is the ultimate mixed-use space. It's a laundromat. With high-speed internet. And a cafe. And a poetry venue. And an art gallery. And a barbecue out front if you want to grill up some lunch. And couches. It has its own myspace page. The guy behind the counter just offered me a piece of gum.

And it's hardly unique. As Elaine points out in her essay, there are butchers who sell phone cards, barbershops with de facto day care centers, and bookstores that resemble cafes more than libraries. These mixed-use spaces arise organically--out of financial opportunity, spontaneous community use, and high-density interaction--and they contribute to community development. Specifically, Elaine advocates that museums stimulate and support "informal public life" through concious construction for diverse applications. As she puts it,
Public spaces have been regarded as necessary armature but not as catalysts themselves. ... Redressing this oversight, this paper concentrates on three elements largely overlooked by our field - space, space mix, and unexpected use - and attempts to show that if museum planners were to pay overt attention to these, they could enhance the community-building role our institutions increasingly play.
Elaine cites the work of Jane Jacobs, an urban planner who focused on supporting communities in the face of sterile suburban-focused growth trends. Some of Jacob's prescriptions for vibrant streets include:
use of services as many hours as possible, especially at night...
opportunities for loitering and the encouragement of people-watching...
short streets and frequent opportunities to turn corners...
sufficiently dense concentrations of people, including those who live there...
a disparate mix of useful services...
Museums are naturally tuned to some of these but not all. Inside the museum, there are many opportunities to wander and watch in a safe space (no cars, communal monitoring of activities). Elaine points out that children's museums and children's areas in particular are often designed to encourage seemingly unsupervised play opportunities for kids while also providing seating for adults to engage socially while watching the action. And museums have also greatly expanded their mixed-use services--both to daytime visitors through cafes and stores, and to corporations, organizations, and individuals for meeting space, fee-based programs, and special events. There are events where you can bring your dog. There are concerts, pow wows, and holiday bazaars, all kinds of things that stretch the popular ideas of what happens at the museum.

But museums are not as good at encouraging "unexpected use" of the museum, nor are they entirely comfortable with use that appears to be disruptive or disrespectful, even if it is highly enjoyable and attractive to users. More and more, museums are designed to give visitors scripted experiences, and each space conveys its use (and, therefore, its misuse) clearly. Elaine suggests that museums might want to focus on cultivating the concept that the museum is a gathering place by offering more space, seating, and services in the free entry galleries, by providing chess tables and lunchtime seating, by hosting voter registration and blood drives. After all, I could be writing this from a museum right now--if there was one nearby with flexible hours that encouraged my participation as a worker, people-watcher, and occasional facility-user.

Supporting unexpected use can serve the community by providing useful social services that are within the broad strokes of most museum missions. For example, Elaine discusses the ways some museums have dealt with latchkey kids who show up in the afternoon unsupervised. While some museums would perceive such visitors as a disturbance or would not grant admittance without an adult, others have developed services like the Brooklyn Children's Museum's Kids Crew to promote hanging out at the museum as a cool (and safe) activity. In a less structured way, Brooklyn Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman realized that people from the neighborhood were making use of the lit outdoor space in front of the museum entrance at night as a gathering space. The Museum entrance has recently been redesigned to promote this kind of use in a large and attractive outdoor public plaza.

The Getty Center in Los Angeles (shown in the image at a birthday party) stands out as a museum created to truly be a public place. It's free and relatively easy to get to by public transportation (or you can pay to park). There's a mix of indoor and outdoor space, and it's debatable whether the gardens or collection are more valuable. The exhibits are mixed in separate buildings to encourage wandering among them via outdoor plazas. There are places to picnic, watch the scenery, and socialize. There's no pressure to see the galleries; many people treat it as a beautiful public space and use it in diverse ways.

But it doesn't take a huge endowment to encourage mixed-use; it can be profitable as well. The Halal butcher didn't add video rental to his business out of social service; "the motivation was to follow the money." Similarly, museums can capitalize on the mixed-use desires of their clientele by exploring the boundaries of institutional comfort. Is it okay to allow visitors to sleep in the galleries for overnights? Is it okay to serve drinks among artifacts? Is it okay to let breakdancers use your beautifully waxed floors to practice? Is it okay for people to express themselves artistically or musically in the galleries? Is it okay to hold singles nights? Is it okay to host a flea market? Is it okay to allow political organizing in meeting spaces?

The answer need not be yes to all of these. The Halal butcher might blanch at offering videos featuring scantily clad actors, and the museum might say no to some kinds of use that they feel might alienate other visitors, distort the mission, or harm artifacts. But saying yes to many of these can encourage new people to come through the door who might otherwise never come near the museum. Also, providing for and supporting informal interaction loosens up the impression of what can and can't happen at the museum. People might start coming for a greater variety of functions--to get a great cup of coffee, to drop their kids off for school, to hear a DJ or watch the street art and sand castle building. And, hopefully, people will start to feel like the museum is their place and will invent new uses and experiences to have there.

The interactions that happen at farmer's markets, thrift stores, and the Wired Wash Cafe are not uniformly peaceful nor enlightening. They are lively, active, and social. You could put a 2.0 wash on it and say that creating more mixed-use space requires trust in visitors--that their self-designated activities will be acceptable to each other and to the museum. These spaces are more like open platforms than prescribed, designed interactions. Or, you can think of it as an opportunity for museums to increase their value proposition as civic spaces in the face of competition from the Wired Wash Cafes of the world. Or, you can think of it as a way to honestly implement the "town square" model to which so many museums give lip service.

Elaine points out, per John Falk's research, that "[museum] visitors spend fully half their time doing something other than attending to the exhibitions and about one-third of their time interacting with other people." Rather than fighting these findings by trying to force people to spend more time with the museum content, museums might embrace them, supporting and acknowledging that there are lots of valuable ways to engage in museum spaces. Heck, I don't just want a museum that offers me the internet function I'm receiving right now. I want a museum that offers all these functions--couches, coffee, poetry, friendly folks who are also sitting around--maybe even a washing machine. It's no longer crazy to see a laundromat with art on the walls. Why should it be crazy to see a museum with seemingly unrelated services?

Next week, Chapter 12: Threshold Fear.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Is "Museum" a 4-Letter Word (for visitors)?

There have been some fun semantic jousting matches recently on the ASTC listserv about the difference between science museums and science centers. And earlier last month, the Museum of Television and Radio announced a name change to the Paley Center for Media. In the NYTimes article about the switch, Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of the center, made no apologies about the change:
‘Museum’ was not a word that tests really well with the under-30 and 40-year-olds,” especially in the context of radio and television, Ms. Mitchell said.
I'm not sure what research Ms. Mitchell based her comment on, but I'm hardly surprised by her findings. Despite the herculean efforts many museums take to offer accessible, cool, inviting experiences to the public, the word museum is still laden with the ghost of "don't touch" past. Add to this the fact that many museums no longer offer the basic collections and research services associated with them historically, and the appeal of the word diminishes. In the example of the Paley Center, the NY Times article continues:
Moreover, the name was somewhat misleading: some patrons would arrive expecting to see, say, Archie Bunker’s chair. In fact, until recently, museumgoers had nothing that they could see, unless they wanted to watch a specific old program. As part of the continuing changes, the West 52nd Street space now offers a rotating display, which now features Middle Eastern media, including a live feed of Al Jazeera’s English television channel.
But does switching to "Center" really clear up the fact that the place is a repository of and distribution center for media content? And more importantly, will it attract more visitors, members, and gifts?

I don't think so. The word Museum is not powerful enough, alone, to attract or repel visitors. Museum means different things in different markets. It's interesting that science museums have started to gravitate towards "center" to convey interactivity, and yet childrens' museums are rarely called centers and don't seem to suffer under the Museum label (though drunken variations of the Funatarium abound).

As an illustration, consider the following names:
  • Pirate Museum
  • Art Museum
  • Rock Star Museum
  • History Museum
What makes you excited about some of these and yawning at others? The word Museum has nothing to do with it--or, rather, our prejudices and expectations have more to do with the word(s) preceding Museum than the M-word itself. Kids wouldn't care if they were going to the Harry Potter Museum or the Harry Potter Castle of Fun or the Harry Potter Center: their interest in the topic overrides any prejudices about the venue.

In fact, Museum can be quite a useful word, especially if your collection is small, your topic is odd, or you generally seek credibility.
Driving across the country last month, I was amazed at the zillions of road signs for museums--it seemed like we passed more museums than truck stops. Many were local historical, but there are also Harley-Davidson dealerships, locksmiths, and candy stores with small window signs that say "AND MUSEUM." Labeling your collection--however dinky--a museum puts it into a useful category that signals value, organization, and public presentation of the stuff.

What if you think you are creating something so beyond the standard museum, either in collection, presentation style, or interpretation, that you want a new word? It's hard to create a new genre around a single location. The Exploratorium did it--and spawned off many "wondariums" and "discoveriums" trying to tie into the same spirit of activity and invention that makes the original a success. But the Experience Music Project? Sony Wonderlab? Will those brands define new genres? Are these places helped or hindered by their non-traditional names?

When the International Spy Museum was first being conceptualized, there was a name study commissioned. The designers initially favored a more mysterious name, the House on F Street, which they felt conveyed the intrigue of the future site. But people surveyed overwhelmingly prefered the straightforward "Spy Museum." And going with the Museum label has probably had other legitimacy benefits for SPY, which has been criticized as too Disneyesque. The House on F Street could be a haunted house, a ride, a movie... the Spy Museum is clear, and they've been able to stretch what they offer within that label.

The pirate museum in Key West, Pirate Soul, went the opposite direction and assumed an unclear name. Is "Pirate Soul" a strong enough brand to stand on its own, or do they lose potential visitors who look at it and think, what is that thing? In my mind, they missed a huge opportunity to be the Pirate Museum. When your content is wacky and compelling enough, the word Museum adds a legitimacy that transforms a potential tourist trap into a valuable attraction experience in the eyes of potential guests.

But what about the Paley Center and other museums offering more traditional content? If "art museum" is a deadly phrase, but you are a place that collects and shows art, what are your options?

I have a personal aversion to the word Center. I went to a junior high that was a feeder from many elementary schools, including one called the Center for Early Education. We always talked about those kids who came from "the Center" like it was some Orwellian futuristic kid-pod. But beyond my personal association, I think Center suffers from the fact that there's no public concept of what a center is. A park or library, sure. But a center? What is that thing?

A marketing blogger commented about the Paley Center's lack of context, saying:

If it's not a museum then what is it? Center for Media is open to interpretation varying from a room with a computer in a middle school to a State Department of Censorship, or (hopefully) an intriguing destination that offers rich content. ...

Best Buy is a Center for Media. YouTube is a Center for Media, the Apple Store is a Center for Media, Pearl Art Supply is a Center for Media, and so is the Public Library.
If you're searching outside the word Museum, why not adopt less ambiguous words with strong cultural associations? There are evocative location-based words, like Park, Alley, Lab, Station, and Market. There are action-oriented words, like Project and Exchange. Even words like Club, Gang, Crew--which connote more social than physical organizations--are identifiable expressions of some of the things museums are trying to be.

Of course, at the end of the day, it's what's inside that counts. And it will always be more powerful, marketing-wise, to have visitors walking out saying "That was the best museum I've ever been to!" than saying "That was the best thingamajig I've ever been to!" If you can make your content compelling, exciting, and glorious on the inside, word will spread and you could be calling yourself Aunt Ethel and people would still come.

What words could you imagine on your institutional masthead? How has being a Museum been a help or a hindrance in your world?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Game Friday: Math Party

Here's my secret: I love math. A lot. It's the most direct reason I ended up working in museums. In college, I taught differential equations. It was the single most failed course at my university (an engineering school). Over three years, I taught 12 sections of 30 students each--hundreds of people who had chosen to study some form of engineering. And many of them hated, or at least feared, math.

Math, like the dentist, has gotten a bad rap. You spend so much time in grade school doing computation that you wind up thinking it's all memorizing, no theorizing. It's as if in English class you only taught grammar and spelling without letting students read great books as well. So I went into science museums psyched to share the good stuff with people, to let them see that math can mean big problems and big crazy ideas.

Why the soliloquy? Because I don't think enough science museums are embracing the zany wonder of math. And this week, Casual Games featured a flash game based on the famous Four Color Map problem, and I fell into reverie. The Four Color Map is one of the simplest of great math challenges. Here's how it works:
  1. Draw a big scribble on a piece of paper, making sure the lines overlap a lot. "Close" the scribble by finishing somewhere where you attach to another line.
  2. Take out four crayons. The goal is to color in all the little closed areas made by your scribble. The only rule you must follow is that no two adjacent areas that share a boundary (a line, not a point) can have the same color. Good luck!
The cool thing about the Four Color Map problem is that until 1976, no one could prove that EVERY possible map could be colored with only four colors. And to this day, no one has proven it without a computer checking lots of configurations, that is, elegantly.

There are lots of games to play with the Four Color Map theorem. You can draw a scribble and do a two-colored competition with a friend to see who can fill in the most areas (you get one color, they get another, follow the map rules and alternate until one player can't go anymore). You can download this set of puzzles (PC-only, so I haven't vetted) and try to color them with four colors. You can play the flash game, which has a slightly different premise related to area covered (check out the comments for some lively math debate). Or, you can do what I used to do at a children's museum: put out a table, some crayons, and a sign that says STUMP THE MATHEMATICIAN and let people try to invent their own five color
maps. They'll never do it... but it seems so possible! And everyone's minds will be stretched trying to figure out the rules that dictate what kinds of shapes need how many colors.

So many demonstrations and experiments at science museums are about bringing energy, depth, and fun to a subject that many students find dull in school. I want to see more museums hitting up infinity, playing with knots, making mobius strips, and generally doing the same for math.

And if you want a REAL challenge, try
to fill in this map with only four colors. Yes, it is doable... though it was the crux of a 1976 April Fool's Day math hoax.

Sigh. Math humor.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

PSA: Receive Museum 2.0 Via Weekly Email

Do you like the content here but hate having to come to the site to get it? Don't want to deal with RSS readers or feed aggregators?

Well, now, thanks to Feedblitz, Museum 2.0 comes right to your (email) door. You'll see a new box in the sidebar where you can sign up for a weekly email with the full content of that week's Museum 2.0 posts. If you can view HTML in your email, you'll see all the pictures; plus, there's a handy table of contents at the top so you can click right to posts of interest. The email links to the comment pages and allows you to email individual posts to others, too.

To subscribe, enter your email address in the sidebar, or click here.

Sure, email isn't 2.0. But part of Web 2.0 is getting the content where you want it, when you want it. Which sounds pretty darn good to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Book Club Part 4: Teams and Superstars

This week, a look at Chapters 16 and 17 of Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum. These essays are of a pair and represent one of my favorite things about Elaine's personal philosophy: support for contradiction, for ANDing what others might OR.

The first essay, Let's Empower All Those Who Have a Stake in Exhibitions: About the uses, meaning, and failings of the team approach, advocates for a multi-pronged approach to exhibition design involving "three equal advocacy positions - content, design, and audience." By now, this concept of team design is firmly engrained--for better or worse--into most institutions; if it's a tiny museum, everyone is pitching in, and at large museums, there are often formal processes for the assembly of exhibition teams that balance curators, designers, educators, and evaluators.

In some ways, the essay is historical, discussing the erosion of curator control and the rise of the educator as an equal player at the table. But the issues raised and the ideal presented are still highly contested today. Many educators still feel like unequal partners, arguing that exhibition designers dump finished or nearly-finished products on them for interpretation. Contract design and traveling exhibitions add complexity; how are in-house staff involved when creative development and design happen somewhere else?

In many institutions, these questions cause problems that cost both emotionally and economically. Underdeveloped strategies for communication and decision-making among stakeholders--including board members, outside contractors, and in-house staff--often lead to cyclical hand-wringing. There's often little or no thought put into conscious development of professional team strategies, whether training for staff to learn more about the perspectives of other advocates at the table, or clear decision-making processes. Many design firms--from architecture to video games--have structured ways for staff to engage in a variety of projects, teams, and disciplines to learn the business, develop strong working relationships, and understand the stakeholders better. Why don't more museums do this? Many museums, especially large ones, exhibit the worst of the feudal cubicle wars--the Collections Department vs. the Exhibition Department vs. the Education Department. There's a serious need for more cross-department training and teaming--so we can build better experiences AND avoid WWE-style smackdowns (though those might be a good source of ancillary income).

But the staff experience, while important, isn't the key. The real question is how the team approach affects the visitor experience. Dan Spock, commenting on the rise in museum attendance from 1990-2000, offers this hopeful note in Elaine's essay:
...could [the rise] also be related to the fact that museums have become more engaging? And might this be correlated to the increased preponderance of exhibitions developed by teams? Perhaps the inclusion of a wide variety of skills and perspectives in development also generates a more multivalent and attractive visitor experience in the finished product.
Perhaps. It's certainly true that a diversity of voices has changed the way that exhibits are presented, objects labeled, and artifacts interpreted. But what about the soul of the exhibition? As Elaine notes, "It is evident that creative vision is not a collective activity, but it is an essential ingredient for successful exhibitions." So who owns the vision? Kathy Sierra has written brilliantly about the dumbness of crowds and the inability of teams to create anything truly revolutionary. And I've heard many museum professionals bemoan the tepid, shiny, overbuilt exhibits that grace the halls of too many contemporary museums. Where's the balance in a team that allows originality and passion to shine through?

Which leads to Chapter 17, Reluctant Recognition of the Superstar: A paean to individual brilliance, and how it operates, which leads with the refreshing statement: "I was wrong! The team approach to exhibition production is not the only way to go." In this essay, Elaine relates her experience with "superstar" exhibition developers, who have extraordinary talent and force of aesthetic will to create truly special museum experiences. She writes at length about Jeshajahu Weinberg, the founding director and visionary of the US Holocaust Museum, who in many ways defied museum convention to create extraordinary experiences.

I'm enamored of the superstar as well, and wrote about it at length in this post about exhibitions that change your life. Interestingly, Elaine comments that working for or with a superstar does not mean that other staff are "mere serfs acting out the decisions of the master." Instead,
The team members believe that they are in the presence of a rare talent who, like the artist in the atelier, is worth working for, and has final authority. With the voluntary permission of the group, the content of the exhibition is shaped by a single intelligence. The group's acquiescence resembles the eagerness of actors in a repertory company.
So should we turn over all the museums to superstars? Maybe. Like Elaine, I find their exhibitions to be the most memorable.
But they may not be a dependable source. I'm glad the Elaine distinguishes the superstar as a truly rare breed. They aren't just the best in the business; often, they are outside the business and drop in infrequently, like comets. And absent that opportunity, we need to develop team approaches that allow the bit of superstar within each team member to be acknowledged and supported. It's not an easy task; what is creative brainstorming for one team member is an overwhelming mess for another.

We also have to find good ways to make the team approach as appealing as following (or being) the superstar. Problems arise when leaders style themselves as superstars to avoid team decision-making (a role typified by the boss on The Office). As Elaine comments, following a superstar is a voluntary thrill, not a bureaucratic trudge. How can we bring the same thrill into teamwork--and allow all members of the team to provide those challenging, exciting, brilliant moments for staff and visitors alike?

Where do you come down on the team approach? Give us your comments, and get ready for next week on Chapter 11 on mixed-use spaces in museums.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Betting on Braincake: Interview with Jen Stancil

Last week, Elaine Gurian and I talked about radical change in museums. She said it can happen in one of two ways—either the organization is small enough that no one will notice, or has a director with such strong vision they can charm and fund the pants off of a new idea. Jennifer Stancil, director of the Girls Math and Science Partnership (GMSP), has both. Former museum start-up queen, Jen is taking a small organization whose goal is to promote girls’ involvement in math and science through research and programming to new, innovative, exciting places.

Gender equity work in math and science isn’t exactly woo-worthy. What’s so special about the GMSP? If you search the web for the organization, you won’t get to some academic-looking page in soft blues and statistics. You’ll land on Braincake, their social networking site for girls, parents, and teachers focused on math and science education. Braincake isn’t some fakey attempt to pander to teens. It’s got style, a strong brand, and growing content. It reflects the GMSP’s—and Jen’s—commitment to creating a set of programs by and for its audience: teen girls.

Jen and I sat down to talk about building for teens, working the web, and the role of innovation in museums.

When I left DC, I was packing my stuff and found your Braincake materials. I continue to be impressed by how novel, attractive, and audience-specific Braincake appears.

For me, the look of Braincake, the over-arching brand, is so strong. It was done with about $250,000 of market research about what girls knew, liked about science, how they wanted to be approached about science. MARCUSA did the research and the Heinz endowment and the Alcoa foundation paid for it.

It was not a tough sell. Those are two of our founding partners. And at that time they were doing a public awareness campaign. We know that girls do not engage in science, math, technology, engineering outside of school at all. What do kids do after school? They play sports. The computer games they play and the tv they watch—it’s not focused on science. They’re not watching the Discovery channel 24/7. I knew that coming to the organization and I had this look and the website to work with. Coming in to research that says that—where do you go from there? How dov you reach today’s girl? Because today’s girl was not even the girl they were talking to. Regardless of how much marketing you do, there was a lot of adult configurations in the branding.

With Braincake, the look and the entrance to the website is successful, but what about the guts? The main part about redoing the interior of the “house” (launched Feb this year), is how do you age this appropriately to a 13 or 14 year old? We’d vet designs past kids. And you’d see the morph at 12, 13, 14—the gaps from age to age. When you’re reading Seventeen Magazine, you’re really about 13 years old. So how do you design for that kind of maturity, and for kids who want a MySpace? But we’re a non-profit. We didn’t want to build MySpace. One of the vendors made a proposal to us with the phrase: “It’s MySpace meets NASA." I like that; here’s an educational site that also has social networking at its core. So to get the design and language geared to them is very difficult because most of the stuff for them is ads and magazines.

For lots of people, it's overwhelming to jump in and embrace social networking as a basis for an educational tool. What was your personal journey to get there?

The easy answer is: I’ve got an audience and I need to understand it. But my background is in museum startups. The thing that struck me, building Exploris, I started going into Lowe’s and Home Depot, and darn it if they aren’t doing educational programs! They’re stealing my thing! Museums aren’t competing with other museums; they’re competing with corporate America. You can go to Michael’s and learn to sew, knit, do crafts. Museums don’t have the lock on hands-on informal education experiences.

Museums have a dual challenge now. When I was at Exploris, we had the AAM president come and talk about research done on how people perceive experts, and [he said] museum people are in the top three for respected authorities in fields. We field questions for science fairs and research. We bear a lot of responsibility as museums as experts. But at the same time as I feel the pressure to be an expert, I’m starting to feel pressure to keep my programs edgy—to move the way our culture is moving and the way that corporations—stores—have decided that education is a major part of how they work. So I started thinking in a business sense. That’s what it boils down to.

You're talking about changing the unique value proposition that museums have for modern society.

Exactly. I’m into the whole hedgehog proposition. Where do you hit that centerpiece? What are you best in the world at? We’ve got to be unique, and we’ve got to be great for girls in science. So we’ve got to be figuring out how their concept of changing the world can connect to math and science.

It wasn’t deliberate like we need to start reading Seventeen. We listen to our girls. We have girls saying, have you heard of this? Do you look at this? It turns out there are certain design qualities that girls really like—a cluttery look—like J. K. Rowling’s website. We have a teen team—14 advisors of diverse age and background and race—and they are so funny. One of them said, I hope you never advertise in XX… that’s really beneath you. She understood the cleanness of the brand. Which is very sophisticated for her age.
And yes, the design is cutesy, but it’s also very serious and attracts very intelligent girls.

So when it comes to Web 2.0, it's what they want. For example, podcasts. We selected girls and they go out on the road and we get them with great mentors. And we’re going to equip them with recording software, and they’re going to sit in a $200,000 radio studio to edit it. With counsel. We put them with CIA agents. With robotic engineers. These girls got so much out of the experience about women—about why careers in science are for them.

With Girltalk, doing these podcasts, we want this to be girl-led, we them to be at the center of the project. We based the grant on inquiry, and that’s why we got it from PBS.

The way the Web 2.0 stuff happened with Braincake has been very much about what kind of girl we think today’s girl is. We don’t think science is nerdy. Girls have so many options, and some of them don’t see limitations, and we here girls saying in 5th grade, “oh my friends will fail test deliberately to get boys’ attention.” The psychology of girls in the 5th, 6th, 7th grade is so incredibly complex. We just want to hear from them, to make a place for them. Girls are self-perpetuating, self-driven. So once we get them into something, it will become sustaining. So you have to be thoughtful about your hooks. How do you simulate community on a website? There are ways you can upload your own pictures in your personal viewing of the Braincake page. There are hidden cookies. These things are built this way because girls are built this way.

How is going, audience- and use-wise?

I’m looking at our stats. Prior to changing the site in February, we had about 2100 discrete visits per month. Post-February, we’re up to almost 8000 per month. Web traffic has quadrupled. We had one million hits in 2006, and we have about 5000 registered users—1000 who joined since the overhaul this year. Some people are voyeuristic, some are active. Having the girl blogs and the parent blogs coming out in Feb, it’s a small way to start a community—but when a girl asks a question instead of an adult, it’s more fascinating.

It was difficult to figure out how we maintain security while using 3rd party tools. Everything is vetted before it goes up. It’s a moderated chat. The reason we chose typepad [wordpress] is because we could be notified immediately when we get a comment in, we can monitor in live time.

The content starts with the teen team. Regardless of having this internet portal that was built to be a database and the first thing that people know about the partnership—and that is the way you first find it (GMSP)—we keep many of our programs small and intimate as they build so we can spend time with them one-on-one. The girls on our team are all articulate and engaged and I want them to feel the confidence to do something they might not otherwise have the chance to do. We tell them: here’s a global forum for you. Everyone’s aware when a new girlblog comes out and they support each other. I get forwards daily from teens. That’s what they do—find cool stuff on the internet and send it around. We know we have to build our website partially on word of mouth—it has to come from that legitimately.

Have you gotten any negative feedback about it being too superficial or hyped for a research program?

No. I don’t think it’s a lot of hype. The feedback I get is—what an innovative and unique brand. I think it’s seen as intelligent. We were academically incubated for so long. But even then we were putting out pilots of things. And now, programs are 80% of what we do.

What advice would you give to someone who sees this and wants to do something like it at their own institution?

First of all, [if the interest is in gender and math/science] I’d want people to consider being affiliates. Using this brand to put wrapping paper on their own girl programs and expanding and disseminating our programs.

There’s a lot of money out there to be had around gender—but there’s more money to be had around corporations who are desperate to recruit a new workforce. It’s all workforce development. There’s no trick to it. And all you have to turn to the math media. It was not even a month ago that in Newsweek they did a report on No Child Left Behind and they said that in K-6—the museum market—we are teaching 17 min less math per week and 23 min less of science per week than previously. That’s one period a week we are shortchanging our kids that in math and science. And they’re already behind globally. So who is going to rise to the challenge to get kids engaged in this and sustain their long term interest in these highly lucrative careers? We’re not equipping teachers and kids, we’re not teaching it in a way that’s appealing to them. And we’re not competitive.

And if you think what we're doing is radical and you want to do it, well, we’ve already done it, so figure out how you can connect and build.

It seems like one of the keys is that you are running Braincake more like a tech company than a museum, that you are really able to embrace innovation.

This is about whether you’re nimble or not. My goal is to lead a nimble organization. Not wayward—but we’re able to adapt quickly and that’s built into us. And museum people want to be that way. We have a museum community that’s intelligent and capable and the desire and passion to educate people is there. But the organization around them doesn’t support it.

It's been amazing, working with the language of innovation. If I want to do something like podcasting, it happens. Podcasting for the Science Center? Much slower process. Much more difficult. I just take it for granted that this is the way that I run the business. I think that’s what we need—a whole bunch of people that take it for granted that they run their shop as a nimble, edgy, progressive shop. That’s what they say about museums in the 60s and 70s, right? That’s what they were built on, people taking risks and responsibility and just doing it. I think we need more of that.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Game Friday: When Does Addictive Play Stop Being Valuable?

At dinner recently, I mentioned a friend who had given up playing computer solitaire for Lent. "Oh," said a woman at the table. "I had to stop that, too." She then proceeded to explain that not only she but her mother and great-grandfather had, at one point or another, been addicted to computer solitaire.

You could chalk it up to hereditary defects, but I suspect there are a lot more people out there with this same problem. One of the things that makes games compelling is their capacity to draw us in and swallow us up--spitting us out hours later dazed and squinting.

While profiling the lives of Dance Dance Revolution addicts might be entertaining, I'm more interested in considering how the ubiquity of addictive play impacts the extent to which gaming is an educational activity. I'm a strong advocate for the positive learning value of games, whether on the playground, on the computer, or at poker night at Uncle Dave's. These days, it's not just about improving your reflexes; experts have expanded the concept of "valuable" play to include MMOs like World of Warcraft (which teach teamwork, social leadership, and may help you get a job), and many corporations are turning to game companies to develop educational games for training and recruiting.

And yet. Does sitting in front of the computer slaying giant spiders for hours on end REALLY make you a better person? I'd argue that the longer you play a game--the more you become an addict--the more diminishing the returns. And this is something that is particularly true of addictive games, because they tend to be games that value repetitive gameplay over thinking.
Tetris gets harder because the blocks fall faster, not because you suddenly have to compose a haiku in the middle of a level. Yes, you have to be mentally present to swing Tiger Wood's golf club, but you don't have to confront new and unusual challenges on a frequent basis.

A lot of game design discussion centers around learning curves, meaning how long it takes to learn how to play. I'm more interested in learning curves--how much learning happens when during play. Games may have high barrier to entry and require a long learning period, or they may be easy to pick up right away. Either way, once you're running on auto-pilot, the educational value goes way down.

This is a problem specific to games, which have a predefined, consistent set of rules. Open-ended play, reading, skateboarding--these are all activities that don't have rules, so you can continue to learn and grow by trying new things and fiddling around. There's the "learn something new" stage and then the "refine and get it perfect" stage, but after that, you're not learning; you're mostly just having fun. It's educational to try a new recipe, or even to try it a couple times. Once you're making the meal for the zillionth time, people start complaining.

There are a variety of social pressures that encourage us to keep moving, to read a new book, to try a new trick, to go to a new film, rather than doing the same old thing. Not so with addictive games. Addictive games allow us to wallow in skills we already have, to set our brains aside awhile and just do.

So how do you keep brains engaged and gamers learning? To create a truly educational game, you'd have to design the game's incremental increase in complexity to require substantively different actions. To get harder, the game would have to change.

This creates a two-sided challenge for educational game designers. FIRST, they have to take content which is, on the face of it, not very fun, and use it as the basis for gameplay that is lively and compelling. THEN, they can't bask in creating an addictive experience; instead, they have to keep changing it so that it continues to be a valuable rather than rote experience.

This isn't easy. It's so hard to do the first step--to come up with gameplay that is reasonably fun related to serious content--that once accomplished, designers rarely move to the second. Which makes a lot of these games predictable and boring. Sure, if you're teaching facts by repetition, like spelling or times tables, addictive play is a good thing. But if you're teaching "learning skills" or concepts, which many museums attempt, it's a barrier to real learning.

The good news is that there's one really simple design technique that almost always furthers learning: a social component. Playing hearts on the computer against AI opponents, I'd argue, is significantly less educational than playing in a room with other people. The relationships among players, the cues and signals, create challenges that are constantly evolving. Which is why corporations and researchers are so interested in social gaming--real and virtual--as bases for institutional growth. Jane McGonigal thinks games can save the world. IBM thinks games can save their company. The games these folks are thinking about are relational, multi-player, complex systems. They change all the time. If we want to create games that evoke the complicated, rich worlds of content (in museums or otherwise), we can't sit at home playing solitaire.