Friday, June 27, 2008

Visitor Studies Association Replaces Keynotes with Dialogue

It’s not often I wake up and think: I wish I could go to another conference this summer. In Houston. In July. But the Visitor Studies Association is taking some chances next month with their annual conference, and it’s got me experiencing a new emotion around convention halls: excitement.

The VSA has replaced their keynotes with structured group dialogue. My first reaction was skepticism. “KEYNOTE SPEAKER: YOU” reminds me of when Time named “you” the person of the year. It smacks of substanceless pandering. But the VSA has taken an intentional approach to these structured conversations with the goal of putting the (arguably) best part of conferences—the side conversations and hallway discussions—front and center.

Why are they doing this? Joe Heimlich, the VSA conference program chair, explained that once the program committee settled on the theme of “Theory, Practice, and Conversations,” they decided to try to live up to the theme by focusing the whole conference around conversations. They felt that replacing the keynotes gave them a real opportunity to bring the whole audience together in focused participation which would hopefully spill out and over into the conference as a whole.

Joe explains some of the planned intentional dialogue events:
First, for the opening night dinner, we hired a local dance company that is putting together pieces about visiting museums, punctuated by an actor/dancer asking provocative questions to the group.

Then, for the first plenary, we’re starting with provocative statements, then splitting into small groups for structured dialogues about those questions. The groups can use three different approaches: physical, artistic, or traditional word presentation. This is the cocktail party, the hallway conversation, a structured time to meet and talk.

We’re going to use the group notes from that plenary and post the most interesting questions and topics raised on the talkback walls available throughout the conference.

Then at the last luncheon, we’re encouraging conversations based on ideas that emerge from the talkback walls. At each table there will be an envelope with questions inside. A person is randomly designated as the facilitator for a 15 minute discussion on each of the topics in the envelope.

I was particularly intrigued by the dance-initiated dialogue planned for opening night. Not only does the activity support local artists, it challenges how outsiders and insiders engage with each other and share knowledge in a conference setting. I spoke with Jane Weiner, the director/choreographer of Hope Stone, the dance company creating the piece. She was really excited about the opportunity to perform in a museum space (at the MFA Houston). Jane selected pieces from Hope Stone’s repertoire that juxtaposed with the space and the intended audience. As she put it:

We have a lot of pieces that I’m extracting from larger pieces that I think are really going to evoke questions. And we have a narrator between pieces, sort of Dr. Seuss-esque, asking questions to stir the audiences.

We have a duet between a woman and a stack of TVs. We have a superhot tango … And we’re dealing with questions like: why does our eye go to certain parts of the dance? Where do our eyes go to in art? How can we take eyes off of the TV and put them on art; how do we make the art as attractive as TV?

I’m sure many keynote speakers are honored to address their audiences at museum conferences. But the Hope Stone dancers aren’t just addressing—they’re engaging. And hopefully, the outcome of that multi-sensory engagement will be conversations that sustain and spread through the conference, both formally in the open plenaries and informally in the halls.

I was surprised at how generic the conference appears on the VSA website. Maybe it’s the marketing-speak to which we all succumb when writing event descriptions, but I didn’t get the energy and intentionality from the text that I heard from Joe and Jane. Joe commented that they didn’t want people to feel like they were getting into something radically different, that this is just an opening overture to potential changes in years to come.

It will be interesting to see how people react to the conference and whether they feel valued or put upon in the participatory sessions. It seems like a particularly useful format for people new to the field who may not have the social networks that grant access to the informal hallway conversations. But will the conversations improve the overall experience? The VSA will be doing post-conference evaluations to find out.

Whatever the outcome, I salute museum people actually living up to conference themes and the lip service paid to alternate conference formats. I'm helping plan next year's NAME/AAM retreat on creativity and collaboration, and those topics are certainly the driving force for the content of the experiences. Maybe the AAM program committee, planning The Museum Experiment for 2009, should consider replacing the big-name speakers with Bunsen burners, encouraging sessions that start with a hypothesis and see what precipitates.

Are you headed to Houston? I’d love to find a guest blogger who can report on how the conference feels from inside. Drop me a line or a dance move anytime.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

User Experience Design Patterns from the Yahoo! Library

When you design a new interactive, talkback station, or traditional exhibit for your museum, what best practices and design requirements do you consult? Do you use in-house documents to guide your actions? Do you use classic books? Museums don't have a well-developed body of industry-wide best practices. The "every exhibit is different" argument leads us into idiosyncratic practice, which is ok in institutions that retain staff for decades, but not so useful in the contemporary world of shifting workforces. We each have our own rules of thumb and dos and don'ts. But we don't have a standard vocabulary for addressing common problems, and as we solve them, we rely on institutional memory to retain the lessons learned rather than finding a way to universalize and document them.

This week I've been looking at a more deliberate way to document best practices from the world of user experience design. Yahoo! is a very large company with a wide variety of user-facing products created by staff who in many cases have zero interaction with other staff also creating user-facing products. This creates two design problems. The first is consistency. To a user, interacting with Yahoo! maps and Yahoo! fantasy sports should feel similar. If the fantasy sports staff never interact with the maps staff, how will they align what common user actions (e.g. ratings) mean in the world of Yahoo! products? The second problem is redundancy. If the fantasy sports staff have come up with a great way to rate other members of the community, why should the restaurant review staff design their own rating system?

The solution is a design pattern library, a place where Yahoo! staff publish generalized solutions to common user experience problems. These can be as broad as "
how do you communicate change on a webpage?" or as specific as "how do you rate an object?" The patterns are arranged hierarchically, with some patterns including many sub-patterns for specific manifestations of the problem. At every level, the pattern includes a problem, an image-based example, a solution, recommendations for use, and rationale. The patterns serve both as useful how-tos and thoughtful why-shoulds. They are used internally across Yahoo! by a community of designers who rate, comment, and adapt them for use.

And now Yahoo! is making some of them public. You can access a limited design pattern library
here. Of particular interest to museum folks are the "social" patterns, which include best practices for feedback/review architecture and reputation indices. The review architecture is useful when considering how to design talkback stations, the reputation patterns valuable in the application of game mechanics to museums.

In 2006, I
wrote about how game mechanics can improve the stickiness of a museum experience. Now, these Yahoo! reputation patterns explore the impact a variety of game devices (points, leaderboards, competitiveness) have on social communities. How should you identify different constituencies in the community? How can you reward participation, and what kind of participation should you acknowledge? In simple language, clear examples, and helpful bullet points, the Yahoo! design patterns help us tackle some of these questions.

They're also enormously useful from an industry development standpoint. You can read more about Yahoo!'s process for creating their internal pattern library in this paper. That library, unlike the patterns published publicly, is very much a living, shifting set of best practices. It gives Yahoo! staff a common vocabulary and supports a culture of institutional sharing and reflection. And while exploring best practices for collectible achievements is fascinating, there's a whole world of other design practices I'd like to see chronicled in this fashion. ASTC gave us ExhibitFiles, a place where museum exhibit designers share case studies and reviews of individual exhibition projects. But maybe we need to create design pattern library for exhibits as well, a place where people can share solutions and recommendations for problems across exhibitions ranging from wayfinding to personalization.

How do you share and learn about best practices for general museum-related problems and solutions? What formats and content would be most useful for you?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Reflections on the Science Center World Congress

What is the Science Center World Congress? It's a question whose answer eluded me from the day I registered eight months ago through the first few days of the conference this week. Now, a day and two thousand miles from the closing ceremony, I realize I was lucky enough to participate in a very special kind of conference, one which deals specifically with the global politics of science centers. Most museum conferences are focused on professional learning and networking. The Science Center World Congress looked standard in makeup--keynotes, plenaries, parallel panels--and yet the content was made distinctly different by the people involved. In most sessions, I didn't learn new things to apply to my own museum practice; instead, I learned new things about what that practice looks like in different countries. I heard from CEOs whose center is the only one in their entire country (Chile), educators who work with students who have never encountered a computer before entering the science center (South Africa), and web managers whose sites are locked behind federal government firewalls and draconian restrictions (Australia).

And these conversations weren't exclusive to the program events. Casual discussions were steeped in government policies, national literacy rates, and worldwide attitudes towards science. It was not unusual for a person to pull out a document showing national dropout rates for their country in the middle of a cocktail party. It was a broadening, inspirational experience that made me question my own interest and focus, which is so distinctly based in a world that presumes a certain level of education and consumption.

It was also a frustrating experience. This supposedly international meeting of 400 people featured mostly white and western faces. The thread of difference ran through the conference--between the advancement of science in the north and south, between the needs of visitors in developed and undeveloped countries, between the relative impact of health and national politics on the way science is presented. Each session was required to include presenters from at least three continents, and frequently a person would stand up for their allotted 15 minutes and start by saying, "the previous speaker's challenges are interesting but they are entirely different from those in my center." Yes, this made for diverse and varied sessions, but it also left me with a feeling that we are missing or refusing the opportunity to have mutually productive exchanges about how this industry can support worldwide growth of informal science education. We talked alongside each other but rarely to and with each other.

The Congress exposed some places and issues in severe need of attention, but I fear these are indignations quickly raised, quickly forgotten. Climate change was a major topic of discussion in the keynotes (one CEO joked, "welcome to the world congress of climate change"), and both Steven Lewis and Sheila Watt-Cloutier spoke powerfully about places where human life is already threatened or wiped out due to global warming. They are places outside our daily lives--the Arctic, Papau New Guinea--and are easy, in some ways, to ignore or forget. The same is true for the political and educational challenges threatening science education worldwide. How much time will I spend considering the challenges faced by colleagues who serve publics totally outside my daily comprehension?

I believe that the standard format of the Congress was a severe impediment to potential growth on these topics. There was never a session in which a person could present challenges and then brainstorm with the whole group potential solutions and create partnerships to take home with them. There was never a sense that we were there to be accountable to and supportive of each other. One woman stood up at a keynote to tell the other delegates how expensive it had been for her to come to the Congress from Colombia and how desperately she wanted help and support from other centers to be able to serve her visitors. How are we addressing this woman? There was a carbon tax levied on all delegates; perhaps there should also be tiered registration rates based on national GDP or the distance between your museum and its closest science center neighbor.

There is one formal way to address her concerns and those raised by the Congress as a whole. The Congress ended with the presentation and signing of the Toronto Declaration, a document that spends its first two thirds patting ourselves on the back for what we already do and the second third committing to new initiatives to be assessed in 2011 at the next World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. These include:
  • ACCESS: advocating for all citizens of the world to have access to a science center in their own region
  • DIALOGUE: actively promoting dialogue among citizens on issues related to science and society
  • UN GOALS: identifying how science centers can contribute to the achievement of the UN Millenium Development Goals
These are some powerful and provocative goals. Many CEOs at the Congress seemed skeptical of whether science centers should even be engaged in "issues of science and society," let alone be a place for dialogue on these topics. The reality is that even for developed countries rich in science centers, the second and third declaration goals are highly debated and far from realized. Early in the document, the declaration proclaims, "[Science centers] are safe places for difficult conversations." I don't think that's yet true. It's part of the reason this blog exists; even in the richest countries we are not yet sufficiently courageous and skilled to offer visitors a place for difficult conversations about AIDS, global warming, local and global disparities between rich and poor, and all the inequities that tie science to society. I'm having discussions with people in the US about how we might do this every day, and those discussions are at the most preliminary level.

We need to work together, really work, to come anywhere close to meeting these goals. I'm not sure what the global strategy looks like from here or how these goals will be achieved or attempted. I'm concerned that such a strategy may not exist. "Go home and try it" is not going to get us much closer by 2011. Frankly, I don't see the platform for the extension of the Congress, and in the spirit of dialogue, I'd like to help create a forum for these initiatives and related actions to exist outside the vacuum of international committees.

What is the roadmap for the continuance of the discussion started at the Science Center World Congress? I ask this both to the CEOs and international leaders who led the conference and to those of you who might want to be involved. If museums are really committed to changing the world, we need to move out of conference rooms and plenaries and start working. We need to create some collaborative structures (probably on the web) for continued dialogue and mutual support. Who's leading that charge? After all, a declaration is only as good as the revolution that follows it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Innovation, Chaos, and Leadership: Skunkworks and the CEO

I'm at the Science Center World Congress in Toronto this week, enjoying the best (international idea sharing) and worst (fatuous self-congratulation) of the museum conference experience. I'll share more thoughts throughout the week, but this evening I wanted to offer my slides and comments from a panel this afternoon chaired by Eric Siegel on Innovation and the Future of Science Centers. I focused on small-scale innovation, taking off from last month's post on skunkworks.

What is the role of the CEO in institutional innovation?
As I prepared for this panel, I realized how dominant the CEO has been in conversations I've had over the last several months in the opportunity for innovation and change in museums. Over and over I've heard: "without X and her vision, we couldn't do this," or "as long as Y is here, there's no chance."

We've fallen into this problematic paradigm where the CEO must be the visionary who initiates change. Sounds reasonable on the surface, right? But it's troubling for two reasons. First, it focuses innovation on a single person, which means fewer ideas are breaking through and more communication has to happen to spread the ideas and get buy-in. But more significantly, many of the characteristics of innovation--flexibility, risk-taking, chaos, failure--are highly threatening to staff when they are embodied by top management. A CEO who changes his mind each week is no friend to staff, no matter how innovative his thinking is. Chaos on an institutional scale is unsettling whether it derives from a lack of leadership or aggressively visionary leadership. Either way, people are afraid for their jobs, uncertain of how to do a good job, and unclear on the overall mission.

My proposition is this: rather than pursuing institution-wide major changes in policy, process, or content, museums (and CEOs) should be setting up models that support small innovations in pockets spread throughout the institution. Since innovation requires chaos, that chaos needs to be structured within a support system that values and provides security to the innovators made to work in that system. On the panel, Jennifer Martin talked about the way the Ontario Science Centre's Weston Family Innovation Center invites visitors to innovate (take risks, fail, etc.) by providing them a safe environment in which to do so. Museum management needs to do the same.

So that's the first step. Managers and CEOs need to provide security and give staff confidence that risk-taking will not count against them. This point was highlighted in a Fast Company article about IBM's innovation support project, the "emerging business opportunities" (EBO) program:
When a pilot doesn't work, Harreld quickly kills the EBO and finds another important position at IBM for the erstwhile leader who took the risk: "You want to celebrate failure because you learn something. It's harder to do that early in your career. You need some level of security to say, 'I screwed it up,' and be comfortable that you're not going to get fired," he says.

The security element may sound obvious, but if you think about it, it's a strange bedfellow for innovation. Chaos needs stability? It's not always true; there are some businesses, like tech startups, in which everyone is engaged in chaos and risk-taking. There's no stability because everything is always changing. But (for good or ill) most museums are not tech startups. And the people who work at them aren't going to work each day wondering whether they'll boom or bust. Museums are about frameworks, scaffolding for learning. And in the case of institutional innovation, that scaffolding can support staff learning as well.

But providing stability is not the hardest part. More importantly, managers and especially CEOs need to step back from being innovators themselves. I refer to these leaders in their ideal form as "benevolent visionaries"--people who want to encourage new ideas but are willing to create the conditions for staff to generate them rather than creating the ideas themselves.

This is really hard. It means going to bat with funders and boards for ideas and experiments that are not your own. It means stepping back from the "thought leader" role and into a service role:
service to staff, comparable to service to board and mission. But the potential benefits are enormous. When leaders' passion for their museums goes towards supporting structures for others to innovate, identifying and granting opportunities for limited chaos, hopefully institutions can grow more flexibly--and more confidently--than ones in which the CEO is the sole owner of new ideas.

Is it harder for a CEO to be an innovator or a service person? Is it harder for top management to risk the institution or to empower junior staff to risk small projects? A lot of this comes down to ego, not change or risk. And I don't have an answer for how to innovate that.

Do you?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chatbots and Non Player Characters as Instigators for Visitor Feedback and Reflection

How do you get a good story out of someone? I've come back to this question again and again. Whether you want memories or insights, offer comment books or touchscreens, it's hard to design ways to invite meaningful visitor submissions. Finding great questions to ask can help. So does making the output significant in terms of display and usage. Most of all, you need great listeners. And this week, I had an aha moment about a designed listening technique: conversations with computers.

We all know that direct verbal communication is a powerful way to get feedback. The problems are scale and comfort. You can't talk to everyone, and not everyone feels comfortable talking to you. The fabulous Storycorps
project partially sidesteps these problems by requiring participants to bring their own conversation partner to the booths in which they record life stories. The facilitator is functionally another visitor, one with whom the participant is not only willing but eager to speak.

But Storycorps still requires facilitators, and it asks a lot of its participants. What if there was a way to have a one-on-one conversation without ANY other human--staff, friend, or otherwise? Could a computer be a good conversationalist?

This week in the Mind exhibition at the Exploratorium, I met D.A.I.S.Y., an artificially intelligent chatbot. Daisy is a computer program designed to mimic human verbal communication that lets you have a text-based “conversation” with a machine.

You've probably seen Daisy or something like her before. You type and the computer answers. Daisy learns new words and syntax with every interaction, but the computer program can be reset to "newborn," so her learning is bumpy. The experience of text chatting with Daisy is chaotic and her speech is often nonsensical.

But despite her incoherencies, Daisy evokes an emotional response. Visitors relate to her--or try to. As one of the evaluators commented, visitors want to make meaning out of their interactions with Daisy. Visitors interact with her over several lines of text even though they're getting little back content-wise.

"Jeez!" I thought. If visitors will spend ten minutes chatting with an inane computer program, why don't they spend as much time at the talkback station? Why do they just type "I like cheese" at the talkback and then run away to talk more with Daisy?

Because the talkback station doesn't listen. Daisy may not be complex, but she's highly responsive. She wants to understand you, and you want to help her understand. This is what separates Daisy from all the instructional graphics and "What do YOU thinks?" we can put on screens. She makes you feel like she actually cares what you think. And that makes you feel listened to, and makes you want to speak. A good listener isn't someone who knows all the words (or even how to put them into complete sentences). A good listener is someone who focuses on you and your words. And that's Daisy's whole reason for being.

How do you make a listener like Daisy? Responsiveness is more important than complexity, no matter the venue. In the gaming world, Daisy would be called a non-player character (NPC). NPCs are the trolls and wizards that roam through video games dispensing clues and forked paths. Interactions with NPCs often feel staged. You don't feel like your part of the conversation matters--it's just a vehicle for them to tell you about the crystal sword. Over time, game designers have tried to improve NPCs by making their linguistic skills more complex. But some of the best, most emotionally evocative NPCs are silent, simple creatures that express themselves solely in relation to you. A rock can more responsive than a photorealistic human if it rolls after you in just the right way.

And the things that make NPCs and chatbots emotionally engaging isn't all virtual. Some libraries employ dogs to sit and watch struggling readers intently as they work their way aloud through books. Why? Because they look like they're listening. They appear to care, and that's what matters. Ironically, some of the early chatbots were used to parody psychotherapists, repeating your statements as questions and asking to hear more. Cheaper than an hour on the couch and almost as useful.

Daisy has no physical representation beyond her words, so her language is all she has to make her seem fake or real. In a strange way, her nonsensical text makes her feel more human than a complex character with a range of stock phrases. You can't spot the gaffes where she didn't respond to your words precisely, since she never responds to your words precisely. It's always a little random, and that feels human too.

One of the Exploratorium designers explained that Daisy can be primed with a small vocabulary set that tends to focus her conversation around particular topics. In MIND, they've primed her with content around consciousness. But they could just as easily give her a vocabulary of words like museum, exhibit, and questions like "what do you think?"

It's sort of maddening talking to someone like Daisy. But she makes you care, makes you want to engage. And isn't that what we want for our visitors?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Relativism, Multiculturalism, and Myth: New Stories about Modern Museums

What if witty cultural commentators reviewed museums the way they do music and restaurants? If Anthony Lane turned his cutting tongue from movies to museums? If Stephen Colbert "reported" on museums at times other than during the TV writer's strike?

We're not used to being analyzed label by label, artifact by artifact, the way plays, meals, and other cultural items are. It's painful. And instructive. And revelatory. And painful.

Political satirist PJ O'Rourke has written a maddeningly fascinating article on the Field Museum's new exhibition on Ancient Americas in the conservative publication The Weekly Standard. It's a long, funny piece with a disturbing conclusion, namely, that we have washed out, dumbed down, and stripped the dignity from classic exhibitions by embracing multiculturalism and avoiding presenting anything potentially offensive. O'Rourke wants us to return to the old. Instead, I see his words as part of the challenge museums face adapting to a new world with a distributed sense of authority.

O'Rourke takes the most umbrage at the curatorial stance that ancient Americans were "just like us." As he puts it,
At the Field Museum, the bygone aboriginal inhabitants of our hemisphere are shown to be regular folks, the same as you and me, although usually more naked and always more noble. Ancient Americans have attained the honored, illustrious status of chumps and fall guys. Never mind that they were here for 12,000 or 13,000 years before the rest of us showed up with our pistols and pox, so most of their getting shafted was, perforce, a do-it-yourself thing.
He points out that human sacrifice is given an "everybody's doing it" soft touch whereas the invasion of Western colonialists is depicted in its own "pity parlor:"
You enter a hushed and funereal room with tombstone lettering on black walls.


In 1492, the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, triggering a
devastating loss of life almost inconceivable to us today.

Mao Zedong, please go to the white courtesy phone.

The article is full of these funny, frustrating vignettes that cast the exhibition content as overly politically correct, lacking in information above the 4th grade level, poorly organized, poorly inspired.

More than anything, O'Rourke laments the dissolution of the mythic role of the museum in our cultural landscape. He waxes poetic on the time he spent at the Field Museum as a child visiting with his grandmother, awed and overwhelmed by the savage dioramas, unwrapped mummies, and general aura of mystery and knowledge. This is pure sentimentality, and to me, a weak argument. The myth O'Rourke prefers, that of museum as reverential temple, is no less problematic than that of the multicultural happy family. The same can be said about his preference for presentation of content on the Ancient Americas. Here's his concluding argument:
The ancient Americans weren't regular folks. They lived strange, spectacular lives on strange, spectacular continents untrod by man and more remote for them than Mars--or the world of museum curation--is for us. The ancient Americans were tough as hell. They did their share of nasty stuff. But even the Aztec don't deserve to be patronized, demeaned, and insulted by what is--or is supposed to be, or once was--one of the white man's great institutions of learning.
This is just another myth, one more palatable to O'Rourke than the "they were just like us" myth. On the Field Museum website about the rationale for this exhibition redesign, staff comment directly on the changing focus of research anthropologists, stating:
The notion of “cultural progression”—meaning that the most “successful” cultures are those that are the most “socially complex”—has proven to be untrue. Today, scientists understand that people change cultural practices to respond to changing conditions. Change is complicated and not necessarily in a straight line towards “progress.”

Research has shown that there is no best or model culture; all cultures have advantages and disadvantages and these can only be assessed in the appropriate social and environmental context. All cultures are equally valid to the individuals living in them. And all people question their culture’s rules or norms at times. This new understanding dramatically affects our interpretation of cultural development across the ancient Americas.
Additionally, the Field site points out that many of O'Rourke's favorite displays, which he characterizes as "curled and yellowing but unchanged: respectful, factual, precise" are laden with inaccuracies and stereotypes.

You could stop here and cast off O'Rourke. Times have changed. He's out of touch (and often off-putting). But that's not the whole story.

Because the Field Museum is trying to do something new, they have to work hard to overcome O'Rourke's (and everyone else's) preconceived notions. It seems that the Field doesn't do a great job clearly or consistently conveying this new anthropological world order. It's harder to understand an exhibition organized by "challenges" than one arranged by geography or time. The Western colonialists who are portrayed as invaders inflicting suffering via disease and religious conversion do not appear to be portrayed as "equally valid" to the cultures of the native peoples. And O'Rourke's frustration with the use of language like "anthropologists don't fully know" in label text is understandable. From O'Rourke's vantage point, the museum has increased its finger-wagging while decreasing its knowledge. As he puts it:
At the portal of the "Ancient Americas" exhibit is the first of many, many wall inscriptions telling you what you should be thinking, if you happen to do any of that.

The Ancient Americas is a story of diversity and change--not progress.

Were this a criticism of pre-Columbian societies, you'd be in for an interesting experience. It isn't. You aren't.

The above lines tell me that (from O'Rourke's angle) the museum has retained an authoritarian posture while dropping the authoritative content. How annoying! Are we authorities or aren't we?

We're still working out how to distribute authority, to share it, to acknowledge situations where we don't have it. It's hard to tell this new cultural story without being cast by conservatives as relativist, wishy-washy know-nothings. It's equally hard to please those on the opposite side of the spectrum; O'Rourke's article
reminded me of the cultural wrenching at NMAI, and Jacki Rand's thoughtful indictment of that institution as ceding too little authority to native voices. It also recalled the Creation Museum, and its ability to tell a compelling (authoritative) story, appealing to some, abhorrent to others.

O'Rourke is wrong. We don't have to go backwards to go forwards. Instead, we need to relearn how to tell stories skillfully in this new context of flexible, distributed authority. O'Rourke's article is one of many challenges that motivates me to seek out new models for compelling, powerful experiences in a new authority order. Otherwise, we find ourselves castigated, learning (and cringing) from people who remember simpler, more exotic tales--and think we have nothing better to offer.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Community Exhibit Development: Lessons Learned from The Tech Virtual

On June 4, we opened The Tech Virtual Test Zone, a new 2000 sq ft gallery at The Tech Museum of Innovation featuring exhibits on the theme of art, film, and music that were originally developed in Second Life by a community of creative amateurs. I was the project manager/curator for the exhibition, leading both the Second Life-based community exhibit design process and the real world translation of virtual exhibits. Now that the dust has cleared and the kids are banging on the exhibits (and showing us what we have to change next), I have the time to step back and share some of the lessons learned from this experience.

On many levels, The Tech Virtual experiment was a success. We shrunk the exhibit design process (concept to floor) from 2 years to five months. We engaged with hundreds of creative folks around the world who developed about 50 virtual exhibits, of which seven were created in real life. The resulting (real) exhibits are high-quality experiences that reflect a level of creativity that could not have resulted from our scant in-house exhibit development staff. We inspired a community and got real results.

But it wasn't all rosy, and we weren't perfect. Here are my top ten lessons from The Tech Virtual experiment with regard to design exhibits with a community of amateurs.

1. Give away the fun (and easy) part. We did not ask people to design whole exhibits and hand over CAD drawings so we could build them. Ultimately, what The Tech Virtual community contributed was great ideas for exhibits. Some museum pros have been puzzled by this. One exhibit designer told me, "we never seem to lack for good ideas. It's the execution of them as good exhibits that's the challenge." Exactly. If good ideas are easy to come by, why not let other people contribute them and focus our time on the hard work of execution? I think the reason we hold onto the idea generation part is because it's fun, not because it's the activity in which we have the most specialized expertise. This is not to say that the virtual designers didn't work hard to make their ideas in-line with our museum goals--in fact, we could have given them much clearer and stricter criteria and they would have thanked us for it. Our job was to provide a structured environment in which to develop ideas and the expertise to build the best of them. We certainly did the latter but only learned about the importance of the former late in the process.

2. Level the playing field or tip it in their favor. People who work with non-professionals on participatory projects often talk about finding "neutral" sites for meetings or meeting on their (the non-professionals') territory. In Second Life, I am not an expert--but many of our virtual exhibit designers are. Not only was Second Life a comfortable, familiar place for them to engage, it was a place where my authority as the museum exhibit designer came down a notch and we became individuals bringing different skills to the table.

3. Contests are good for raising awareness and focusing behavior, but not good for building sustainable communities or work in a flexible environment. We awarded $5000 to each exhibit design that was translated to real life. Doing so meant we could raise awareness very quickly (because everyone loves to blog about a contest), which was useful given the short time frame. It also focused the experience. People weren't coming to The Tech Virtual to muse about exhibits; they came to build exhibits on a deadline for submission to the contest. However, the contest also prevented us from legitimately fostering collaboration. People were unsure whether they should go it alone (and try to win the whole prize) or team up with others. We had several community discussions about the competition disincentivizing collaboration--the money sent a contradictory signal to all our talk about sharing. Also, because this was an experiment, parameters and criteria kept changing throughout the process. That's ok for a community project, but very frustrating (and for some, blatantly dishonest) in a contest.

4. Trust is essential, especially in a changing environment. As mentioned above, we were doing an experiment which necessitated changes and flexibility. But this was an experiment with human subjects. When we changed something, we were changing it on people. We had to be honest with them (and express our own personal frustration at changes we could not control) for this to not be a disaster. Had we held onto an authority voice rather than presenting ourselves as individuals engaged in the project, people would not have been willing to weather the storms with us.

5. It's important to have a way for folks to build their exhibit ideas. Some museum professionals asked me, "couldn't the participants have just described their exhibit in text?" While requiring people to build their virtual designs required more work (and expertise) from them, it also allowed them to clearly articulate their designs and to engage on a more professional, specific level about the exhibits. The point of Second Life is to lower the barrier to build things--things that move, things that make sounds, things you can explore (like exhibits). When you build something, it serves as a good launching point for discussion about what's missing and what the essential strengths of the exhibit are. It's easier to talk about interactivity by asking, "what can I do here?" than by talking in suppositions. It's also standard practice in community arts programs. If I ran a poetry or drawing workshop, we wouldn't critique participants' ideas for poems or drawings. We'd talk about the work itself. The same thing applies to exhibits, but Second Life is a tool that facilitates making the exhibit in a more accessible way than full-scale fabrication.

6. Second Life was a better community space for The Tech Virtual than the Web. The Tech Virtual was launched as a two-platform system: a website and a Second Life island. The website serves as a simple social network and exhibit proposal holding place, enabling people to propose projects, join exhibit teams, and comment on each other's work. But we quickly found that the website was a support platform for the exhibit workshop in Second Life, not an equal partner. I think there are three reasons for this. First, on the website we had to create any community from scratch, whereas with Second Life we entered a world of established communities. This is similar to the issue many museums deal with of whether to engage in established social spaces like Flickr, Youtube, etc. or to start their own. In our case the "start your own" component of this project was much less successful than jumping into Second Life. Second, Second Life was fundamentally a more social space, since one of its most powerful elements is live presence. We could hold workshops, meetings, and support informal conversations among participants and learned that this real-time engagement with others was a huge motivator for increased participation. Finally, as explained in #5, Second Life was the place where people could actually build their ideas, which became the key element in the development of an exhibit.

7. It's more important to have social instigators lead your community than authoritative professionals. Community management staff need not be curators or exhibit designers. They are more like floor staff or educational program staff--energetic, social communicators who are comfortable in the environment of your community space. We lacked this staff member, and made up for it with a group of wonderful volunteers and an amazing intern, Sarah Cole. In Second Life, our level of participation was directly proportional to the number of Tech staff social engaging with others via workshops, tours, and informal discussions.

8. The community provided great exhibit inspiration but their projects required heavy translation to become real exhibits. We learned early on that the elements that make for fabulous virtual exhibits are overlapping but not identical to those that make fabulous real exhibits. In the beginning of the project, The Tech's director would speak about "copying" exhibits from Second Life to real life. We quickly realized that this was unrealistic, both technically (no way to export Second Life models, different physics than in real life) and conceptually (modes of interaction are entirely different in Second Life). Once we realized that virtual exhibits would not translate directly to the real world, we transitioned to a model where the real exhibits were "inspired by" the virtual. In all cases we chose superlative virtual exhibits in which the core idea was powerful enough to transcend platforms. We maintained that core idea in the real version of the virtual design, and tried as much as possible to retain other aspects of the virtual designers' goals in recreation. The negative side of this is that no one (and it should have been a Tech staff member) was providing a heavy content overlay to the experience. We were too open in structuring the initial call for ideas, and then too rushed and focused on building them to develop a serious interpretative overlay with strong educational outcomes (something that The Tech would like to have in all exhibits).

9. There are many ways for creative amateurs to be involved in exhibit development. The above points may make it sound like the virtual designers only contributed ideas. In four of the seven real exhibits, they also contributed content and expertise. Three exhibits feature original art and music by the virtual designers, and (overlapping) three relied heavily on the technical expertise of the virtual designers. They enabled our engineering and fabrication team to push beyond our in-house capabilities to tackle some exhibit components and or content elements that we could not have produced in this timeframe. We also branched out of the virtual-to-real process to solicit amateur content. One of the exhibits features video of original paintings being created. To produce that content, I put an ad on craigslist and invited artists down to The Tech to be videotaped while creating art. One of these artists, a graffiti artist named Dan, had such a good time that he a. came back with some friends to do more graffiti for us, and b. came to the exhibit opening and was pretty overwhelmed with excitement to see his piece in this real museum.

10. There is nothing like the feeling of sharing and giving to others. I saved the hippie stuff for last. It was AMAZING to have all of the virtual exhibit designers here for the opening to see the real product of their virtual work. Dan wasn't the only one who was thrilled to see his work at The Tech; I had hallmark moments with all of the virtual designers. They made me cry with their enthusiasm and gratitude. Usually, you feel motivated to build great exhibits for your visitors. You leave the opening dazed, relieved, and happy to see people enjoying the pieces. But in this case there was the added layer of connecting with people who felt like old friends, returning the gift of their good ideas with the gift of good exhibits. I think we made a high-quality exhibition product with all of these virtual designers, and that's my number one criteria for feeling that this was a success. But just because the "feel good" stuff isn't primary doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Yes, you can build wonderful exhibits with people from all over the world. But you can also build a community at the same time, and that's pretty powerful as well. All of the exhibits in this small gallery have tentacles out to people all over the world who helped conceive them. And that makes this little experiment feel pretty big.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Event Announcement: The Tech Virtual's First Exhibition opens June 4!

Summit Invitation

Looking for something to do on Wednesday? The exhibition I'm curating for The Tech Museum of Innovation is opening and we are hosting a summit on June 4 (in real life and in Second Life) for museum professionals to discuss the process by which it was created. The summit will be held at The Tech from 1-5pm PST and will feature:
  • keynote address by Philip Rosedale, founder and chairman of Linden Labs (creator of Second Life)
  • tour of the new exhibition with the people who designed the virtual and real versions of the interactive exhibits
  • roundtable discussions on translating virtual exhibits into physical reality, open source models for development, marketing impact of virtual worlds for museums, community design best practices, and the future of museum collaboration

To give you a bit of background, the
exhibition is called The Tech Virtual Test Zone, and it is an experimental gallery of interactive exhibit prototypes on the theme of technology in art, film, and music. None of the exhibits were initiated by staff; instead, they were developed online by a community of international volunteers via the web and Second Life from January-March of this year. In March, we selected the best of the virtual exhibits for translation into the real world. On June 4, the physical prototypes hit the floor of The Tech and the real fun (and analysis) begins.

While many people latch on to the Second Life aspect of this project, my primary interest is in the transformation of the exhibit process into a user-generated experience.
Are community-driven design techniques viable for all kinds of exhibitions (and institutions)? Are the resulting exhibits better, worse, or in some way distinctive from exhibits developed via a more standard process? How do the community members feel about their involvement in the creative part of the exhibit process? What technologies help or hinder the success of these projects, both in terms of community satisfaction and quality of outcomes? Can you really build eight interactive exhibits based on virtual prototypes in two months without going insane?

I've been grappling with these and other questions over the
last several months. And while I'm excited to engage in this discussion with other museum professionals on June 4, I'm even more thrilled to meet the real people behind the avatars who initiated these wonderful exhibits. They're coming here in person, and a few have already trickled into the construction space over the weekend. It changes the stakes when you feel accountable not just to visitors and donors but to remote community producers as well. Did we change too much? Did we honor their intentions? Did we breathe life into their aspirations?

I don't think I always made the right choices about how to respect, support, and foster the creative abilities of our community designers. I learned some surprising lessons about independence and institutional relationships with communities through this process and expect to learn a lot more in the week to come. Museum folks often sit in rooms and talk about how we can serve our communities. It will be refreshing to have some of those community representatives live and in-person to tell us what they're really getting (and where we're missing the boat).

So! Later this week, a post-mortem on the summit. In the meantime, join us Wednesday in San Jose or at The Tech in Second Life (in virtual New Venture Hall) for an afternoon of lively discussion. If you would like to join us live and in person, please send an RSVP note to

I hope to see you then!