Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Book Club Starting: Groundswell

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Reach Advisors "museum conversation" with Web 2.0 expert Charlene Li, who is promoting her new book, Groundswell. I had not yet read the book but was mightily impressed by her references to its social profiles of different industries, ROI breakdowns for Web 2.0 strategies, and copious business anecdotes and examples. I got the book. I fell in love.

Groundswell is the clearest introduction to social media strategy I've ever read. Rather than focusing on technologies, Charlene and co-author Josh Bernoff focus on relationships--between businesses and customers, businesses and suppliers, and staff with staff. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a big picture for how to evaluate and plan a social media policy for their institution. The examples are primarily focused on large businesses with budgets much higher than those of museums, but the lessons learned are highly transferrable.

Charlene and Josh recommend a four-stage approach to engaging with the groundswell:

  1. profile your target audience's current use of social media
  2. determine your institutional objectives
  3. develop a strategy to meet your goals
  4. find the right technology to make it happen
The bulk of the book focuses of how this approach can be applied to each of five primary groundswell objectives as shown in the graphic to the right. Over the next five weeks (starting next Thursday), I’ll be leading a book club here on each of these five objectives and related strategies, posting each Thursday on my interpretation of each and opening things up for comment discussion. I encourage you to get the book, and add comments to this post if there are particular case studies or models you'd like to see examined.

I will not be covering the first four chapters of the book, which introduce social technologies, the four-stage approach, and the Forrester social technographics tool (previously introduced here). Instead, we'll be starting with the chapter on listening, taking a look at how monitoring visitor conversations across the Web and in private communities can improve your understanding of and communication with your audience.

And as a quick follow-up to the post earlier this week on walled gardens, I encourage you to check out the Groundswell website and how easy they made it for me as a blogger to take and reuse the images you see in this post. They also do something incredibly useful for readers: aggregate all of the footnotes and associated links in one place so you can click through them without having to type each link out. Of course, they're selling something, so they want to make it easy for me to get all of this stuff. But aren't we selling our exhibits and programs as well? Shouldn't we make it this easy to evangelize museum products?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is Your Museum Website a Walled Garden?

How can you make your museum website more effective in driving traffic and raising awareness of your institution? Most people think this requires designing more sophisticated content (and it can). But there is a simpler, more impactful way for museum websites to become more visible, cited, and visited in the online landscape. We don’t need to design new content; we have to change the way we invite visitors to use the content we already have.

Physical museums have grown more inclusive in the last 20 years, but outreach is still a foreign word on our websites. Museums are creating “walled gardens,” and it hurts online visibility and impact. This post explores the phenomenon of online walled gardens and how to transform our fortresses into more flexible, usable, spreadable spaces.

What’s a walled garden?

An online walled garden is a website or service that controls the degree to which users can transfer content—both user- and authority-generated—to other websites. For example, most social networks are walled gardens. What I post on my Facebook page is only available to other people in the Facebook network. I can’t access MySpace or LinkedIn users via Facebook, or vice versa. This makes good sense from a privacy standpoint but it’s lousy for me if my goal is to build relationships. I need a profile on each separate platform, and I have to keep up with each to cumulatively manage my friendships.

Walled gardens don’t just create relationship frustrations. They also lock content into non-transferable settings. When I write posts on this blog or share photos on Flickr, they are searchable in Google. They add to my aggregate online existence. But anything I write on Facebook is only visible within that network. Those messages, photos, and comments are locked behind walls.

Why build a walled garden?

Walled gardens can be highly appealing to companies. Maintaining a walled garden allows you to control the visitor experience and keep competitors from encroaching on your territory. Since I can only access Facebook content within Facebook, I have to be there, looking at their ads, to participate. On the positive side, walled gardens keep things at a controlled level of quality, safety, cleanliness, and service. They provide visitor experiences that are sculpted, tested, and guaranteed.

Museums: Physical Walled Gardens, Virtual Open Spaces?

Most physical museums are walled gardens. There is one entrance. There are clear delineations of who is inside and who is outside, and the rules inside (no photos, for example) often keep what’s inside from getting outside. Many museums try to partially break down the walls with outreach in the form of traveling exhibitions and programs in the community. These outreach efforts are not seen as detrimental to the core brand; instead, they are seen as needed “windows” into the potential visitor experience onsite. But they are limited by resources and logistics. It isn’t feasible to send your collection or your program staff on world tour every day of the week.

It is feasible to do so on the Web. Museums have a unique opportunity, as physical AND virtual spaces, to be walled gardens in the real world and open spaces on the Web. We can have it all. We already wall our collections and exhibits onsite—why duplicate the negatives of that walled reality online? Why not use the online space to do some outreach (with its own set of positives and negatives)? And yet much of what we do on the Web is as walled as our physical operations. It’s redundant. It doesn’t make sense.

How to evaluate and improve your website

Going back to the original question, you can improve the effectiveness of your website by taking down walls and making your content usable by visitors in more ways. But how do you know if your museum website is a walled garden? The way to figure this out is to ask yourself: how portable is our Web content? Do we make it easy for Web visitors to take bits of it away with them to their own places, or do we require them to stay “inside our walls” to engage?

Here are five top problem spots for walled gardens on museum websites and how to open them:

1. Make your images accessible. You may have a beautiful way for visitors to navigate through images of your collection. But do you make it clear whether and how visitors might use those images in other contexts? This is both a question of technical and legal permission. Technically, you have to make sure that each image is available—ideally, on its own page, with clear options to email it to a friend, embed it on their own Web pages or social network profiles, tag it for later perusal, and download it. Legally, you have to be clear about what the rights status is on each image, so people know what’s legal and what isn’t. People are going to steal your images no matter what your license scenario is. If you tell them what your legal situation is, they are more likely to use the image in ways that you condone (and to link back to you when they do so!).

2. Avoid Flash for presenting content you want to spread. Flash is a presentation format that can be used for fabulous interactive games and experiences. The problem is that it is highly non-transportable. It’s difficult to pull an image out of a Flash montage and send it to your mother. Flash experiences also frequently require single starting points and can create nested walled gardens within the walls of your site. For example, the Holocaust Museum has a great Flash exhibition of Angelina Jolie’s trip to the Congo. It has all kinds of audio and imagery to explore with a star at the helm. But because it’s in Flash, it has one entrance, so there’s no way to wander partially into the exhibition, to dip in for just a pageview or to link to a specific part of it. The benefit of Angelina Jolie can't spread across the site or the Web easily. In some cases, if you are only targeting deep online users, this is fine. But you will not be able to attract casual web users to these often costly elements when there is no way to “browse” first.

3. Chunk your content so it can be used on other sites and services. Imagine your museum website as a “free store” for content and materials related to your institution. Give away stuff—links, exhibit descriptions, images, mini-applications (widgets), feeds. Make the stuff easy to take, easy to subscribe to, and if possible, thank people in some way when they use it in novel ways. More and more web designers are turning away from flashy programming and towards universal style sheets that make websites as interoperable as possible. Whenever you can, you should package your content so that visitors can use it in other places (walled gardens or not).
The goal isn’t people telling their friends, “hey go check out this website.” The goal is for people to display a piece of your website on theirs. This is the brilliance of YouTube. You are more likely to see a YouTube video on a blog, MySpace page, a personal webpage, or in an email than you are to see it on their site. The exportability of YouTube videos makes their service ubiquitous and powerful.

4. Avoid registration at all costs. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has a good online collection database search. It’s easy to find images from the collection and browse from image to image based on artists and works. They also provide an option, called myCollection, where you can save your favorite images to a personal site within their site. The words “site within a site” should raise a red flag—this is a double walled garden! To participate, you have to register with an email address and password, and then once you’re in, you can only share your myCollection with other users of the site. You can't even find the myCollections if you aren't logged in. In some ways, this is great—SAAM is encouraging visitors to share their interests and preferences. But by restricting it to being a SAAM-only activity and by requiring registration, they miss the opportunity to see people spread their interest in the SAAM collection to other communities in which they are already engaged.

Why should I need to register with SAAM to save and share the images I like most? That should be an option, not a requirement, for participation. I predict that SAAM would get 100 times as much sharing of customized collections if it were easy to put those on users’ existing pages they’ve worked hard to create in public communities rather than requiring yet another new site they have to spend time on and have a password for and bug their friends with invitations on and…

5. When you invite users to contribute content, invite them to do so in the places that are most valuable to them. We often talk about making participation as easy as possible, but this point is more about making it as useful to contributors as possible. You should reward people who provide content on your site with as much value and flexibility as possible. Far more users will upload photos, text, or videos to your site if you do them the favor of placing their content in a place of value to them—whether that be large public communities like Flickr or YouTube, or in highly visible or exportable places on your own site.

The more exportable a user’s contribution is, the more likely she is to devote the time to participate. I have a constant personal quandary about the social network ExhibitFiles. Let’s say I see a great exhibit. Should I write a review on ExhibitFiles or a blog post on Museum 2.0? Or should I put up the photos from my visit on Flickr? Or should I twitter about it? All of these? My participation in ExhibitFiles is diminished because I am also already creating content in other places on the Web, and my choice about where to publish is primarily motivated by the value I’ll get back from the experience. In the ideal world, it would be easy for me to do many of these things at once—to write a review on ExhibitFiles that is then exportable in a way that I can also post it on my blog or any other webspace I manage.

Where are the walled hotspots on your site? What parts of the fortress are worth keeping, and which are you ready to tear down? If you have a story to share about leaving the walled garden behind, please share it in the comments (which are searchable, linkable back to you and your site, and exportable).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Quick Hit: Projects You Can Jump Into

Sometimes people send me interesting projects, job opportunities, and tidbits that don't fit the standard Museum 2.0 post structure. Rather than keep them resigned to Twitter, I've decided to start a new occasional feature, Quick Hits, that gets the good stuff right to you. If you have an opportunity, link, or suggestion that should be profiled here, please leave it in the comments!

And now, the quick hits for this week...

Can you see the future?
Jane McGonigal, the queen of alternate reality gaming, is starting a new game with Institute For the Future called Superstruct, and she's looking for five community managers/game masters. The game will run for eight weeks starting on Sept. 8, and game masters will work with her to lead communities of thousands of players on the Web who imagine the way our world will look in 2019. If you are interested in futurecasting or ARGs, this is a fabulous learning opportunity with a stellar leader at the helm. I would LOVE to do this but don't have the time... but my dream is that some museum out there is willing to carve staff time to do this and thus becomes synonymous with online communities, gaming, and the future. How cool would that be?

Hablo Espanol?
For her Fulbright, Elaine Gurian, museum superstar, is compiling a list of useful museum studies material that is available in both English and Spanish. Toward that end, she is looking for the best material written in both languages--on any continent--that has already been translated. She is also looking for the best material in Spanish that should be translated to English. If you know of such resources or would like to help, please contact Elaine directly at egurian @

Were you at VSA?
Did you attend the Visitor Studies Association conference and take part in their alternate keynote programming? I'd love to hear more about how it went and what you got out of it. Please share a comment here or on the original VSA conference post to let us know!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Living Library: Using Our Institutions as New Models for Civic Dialogue

Are you looking for an innovative no-tech way to engage visitors in civic dialogue? A platform for museum staff to serve as facilitators of safe spaces for difficult conversations? A way to bring people on opposite sides of an issue to a fruitful, positive meeting place? Then bow your head and say a silent "tak" (that's "thank you" in Danish) to the creators of the Living Library. What is the Living Library? According to their website:
The Living Library works exactly like a normal library – readers come and borrow a 'book' for a limited period of time. After reading it they return the Book to the library and – if they want – they can borrow another Book. There is only one difference: the Books in the Living Library are human beings, and the Books and readers enter into a personal dialogue.
The Living Library was conceived in Denmark in 2000 as a way to engage youth in dialogue about ending violence by encouraging people to meet their prejudices and fears in a safe, fun, facilitated environment. A Living Library requires three kinds of people:
  • Books, who openly and honestly represent certain stereotyped groups (i.e. Feminists, Disabled People, Muslims, Police, Goths, Gays)
  • Readers, who check out the Books for 45-minute to 2-hour discussions
  • Librarians, who facilitate the whole process
Since 2000, Living Libraries have been produced primarily in Europe at festivals and libraries with support from the Council of Europe youth sector. They are often one-offs for events but are increasingly included in the regular slate of programming at major libraries and cultural facilities (but at my count, only one museum). While a four-hour library may only draw 100 Readers, it engages those 100 people (along with 20 or more Books) in substantive dialogue, and the spectator/lurker effect on those who just browse the catalog or take a quick glance around can be much greater. They are careful to state that the Living Library is not a publicity stunt for an organization nor an advertisement for the Books involved. Instead, “The Living Library is a tool to foster peaceful cohabitation and bring people closer together in mutual and careful respect for the human dignity of the individual. This is true for the readers, the Books and the organisers alike.”

The Living Library is inspirational. It's also well-documented so you can do it yourself. The Council of Europe youth sector has made the Living Library tool available via this 36-page pdf booklet about organizing a Living Library. The booklet features personal stories from Books, Librarians, and Readers alongside practical explanation of what it takes to coordinate a Living Library. On the Living Library website, you can also find sample catalogues, Book application forms, and marketing materials for download. It’s an enjoyable, practical, inspiring read.

It's also interesting for people thinking about the essential value of libraries and museums. One of the surprising things about the Living Library methodology is how closely it mimics traditional library experiences. The reader experience is mediated by a gate-keeping librarian and a catalogue. The Living Library spaces are often decorated to simulate libraries (except in cases where they are staged in real libraries). The design encourages browsing of the catalogue before selection of a Book, and the expectation is that you will spend a significant amount of time with any Book selected.

The creators of this project recognized an essential civic value of libraries as civil, safe places and capitalized on that value to make a risky proposition to users. By framing the whole experience in the context of a library, which has widely understood implicit rules and expectations, they turned something that could have simply been about provocation and bravado into a true learning opportunity.

This really challenged my preconceived stereotypes about libraries, museums, and the flexibility of their use and application of core concepts. I often think of the museum/library setting and standards of behavior as a hindrance, not a help, to participation. When I think about museums becoming experience facilitators rather than experience providers, I typically imagine transforming the framework of museums, not the objects. That is, I think about ways that our current collections could be reframed in more comfortable, open spaces as the triangulation points between visitors, providing conversation pieces and bonding opportunities. But the Living Library takes the opposite approach. Instead of transforming how books are used in a new setting, they transform the books and keep the setting.

Why on earth would someone set charged conversation in a place like a library, stereotyped as a space that abhors talking of any kind? Because that tension makes for a unique kind of conversation. The Living Library breathes new value into the traditional frame. The frame is what keeps things civil so the Librarians, Books, and Readers can make it civic.

Could this be applied to museums? I think so. How could visitors' stereotypes about museum behavior and the kinds of activities available in museums be exploited to provide a radically different experience? In the same way the Living Library is organized around the frame of librarians, catalogues, books, and the action of checking things out, a theoretical Living Museum could be organized around exhibits, artifacts, docents, and the action of looking at things or moving through spaces. Imagine a museum in which Artifacts of a war are veterans, family members, and former enemy combatants. Or an exhibit on immigration in which you could check out Legal and Alien Artifacts for discussion based on labels identifying their provenance and status. A museum tour in which a docent "tours" you to a variety of volunteer artists who talk about how they create their work.

I see the Living Library both as a useful tool and as an inspiration for other ways to reconceptualize traditional institutional frames. We don't have to throw out the word museum, the guards, the artifact labels. We just need to find new ways, again and again, to make them come alive.

Speaking of which, I'll be spending the rest of this week rediscovering gravity while rock climbing. So if I don't respond to your comments right away, it's because I'm between a rock and a... well, you know.

Would you use the Living Library? How else could you imagine reframing the traditional aspects of museum or library visitation towards new ends?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

State Fairs and Visitor Co-Creation: An Interview about MN150

Traditional exhibition design, in which the museum has a specific story or message to tell, doesn't easily accommodate visitor co-creation. What can visitors add if you already know what you want to say?

But there are other times when the message isn't simple, and in those cases, visitor voices can help strategically shape multi-dimensional exhibitions. It can be uncomfortable or downright limiting to declare yourself and your single voice the authority on a complex or multi-faceted topic. This realization--that a single museum voice was not the best way to tell a particular story--formed the basis for MN150, the exhibition explored in this post.

MN150 is a newish permanent exhibition (opened in Oct 2007) at the Minnesota History Center that marks the sesquicentennial of Minnesota with 150 of “the most influential forces in the state’s history.” All 150 topics covered were visitor-nominated, and the resulting exhibition features their passionate stories alongside representative artifacts and additional content. On the web, via the MN150 wiki, you can view the winning (and non-winning) nominations and additional historical content provided by the museum. This is a lovely example of a museum using its expertise to support and extend visitor interests, rather than lecturing or completely ceding control to visitors.

I sat down with Kate Roberts, lead exhibit developer on MN150, to learn about the particulars of this visitor-driven exhibition, which used a website, a state fair, and over 2700 slips of paper to apply a new process to a standard historical exhibition topic. Thanks to Kate and the team at Minnesota Historical Society for the fabulous photos from the project, which are sprinkled liberally through this interview.

How did this project get started?

Well, we knew we wanted to do an exhibit to mark the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary of the birth of the state of Minnesota). At first we thought we’d cover 50 topics, then 150. And we had to decide: should we pick the topics ourselves? Present one per year for 150 years? None of that made sense. What made sense was to put out the public call and find out: what does everyone think is interesting and important?

We know from research that our audience is very interested in taking the next step with us, like to draw their own conclusions and express their own opinions. We had success with another exhibit with an unusual format called open house in which the visitor experience is pretty open-ended. We don’t draw conclusions and spoonfeed people. So when it came to MN150, we wanted to do more of this and asked ourselves: how else can we do that?

How did you solicit visitor nominations?

We put a public call on the Web first and sent a notice to our membership and some local and regional historical societies, preaching to the choir, starting that way. We went out and talked to community groups that we didn’t think would use the Web—different ethnic populations, on the reservations. And then this opportunity came up to be at the state fair. The Minnesota state fair is a huge event—it’s the biggest state fair in the country. Everyone comes out. We got to set up some space in a historic house at the fair that the state fair foundation uses for its offices. You tromp around all day and eat food—so having this air conditioned spot was a big deal!

In the house, we had computers set up with the website. You could also talk to one of us or write it out. There were six of us milling around at any time, shilling outside, talking to people. We had our forms printed on fans—for the heat--and they could take it away, fill it out right there, and if we lured them into the house we could show them what we were doing. We had books of sample nominations, and sometimes we’d prompt them—“oh, I see you’re wearing a Wellstone tshirt. Do you think he’s worth nominating?...”

As an exhibit developer I don’t get to engage directly with visitors that often. It was really fun! It was an interesting combination of talking it up, talking to real people, with the web as backup.

What kind of staff were on the team at the fair?

The six of us always included one or two from curatorial/design, one from education, sometimes a costumed interpreter, and then tech support—either onsite or remote.

How did you explain what you were looking for?

We tried to say very loud and clear: you have to make an argument. Argue that this topic really promoted historical change. It’s not enough to say someone’s famous, that you like spam. You have to really say how did it change things. That made the vetting process easier down the road.

Were you ever worried that no one would respond, that it wouldn’t work?

We had a backup plan in place—I was working on shadow research, creating a backup list. Much of the research helped serve down the road when we were weeding through the nominations. If we didn’t get thoughtful comments, we were just going to do it ourselves. But we didn’t have to do that. It really worked.

When did you know it was really working?

It was at the fair. We saw it was really sinking with people—people were getting it. We also got some good marketing money, were able to place some ads about it. Local media was also interested; they were looking for content about the sesquicentennial.

Prior to fair, the website had generated 200-300 responses. We received about 2700 total, including plenty of repeat nominations for the same person. Overall, about 40% of the nominations came from the fair, but we think it also generated a lot more interest and traffic to the website.

Were there any surprises for you in the content of the nominations?

I was surprised by the variety—while we got a lot of the usual suspects, we also got a lot of individualistic ones—in my family, in my town. I was really surprised by the range and just how much people know about history.

We had to do research on some, but not as many as you might think. We didn’t go beyond the internet to do our checks. We also talked to historians on staff. One surprise I remember: a person who wrote about a key battle that he/she said was a turning point in American Indian relations. That’s a big topic for Minnesotans, and I got really excited about this and went right to an expert. And according to the historian, it didn’t pan out—it was a minor battle. We contacted the person to find out more about the reasoning behind the nomination but we never heard back.

Did you maintain contact with many of the people who nominated things? How did you reach them?

In an ideal world they gave us an email address so we could get back to them. A few people gave us phone numbers only. But we had contact information for everyone. We got back to everybody, not just the winners. We sent folks an email as soon as we could to thank them for the nomination. We didn’t give them a set decision date, just an opening the following Oct 07.

Once you received them all, what did you do with the nominations?

We weren’t exactly sure how best to do this, so we killed a lot of trees. We printed out every web nomination. Then we spread them out in piles—web and written—all the Bob Dylans, all the Princes, and then most were sorted into twelve or thirteen topical categories. Then we sat there for a while and thought—now what?

Then we started going through the piles and taking out the ones that really did seem like they would never make it. And then we’re still left with hundreds and hundreds.

We as a team then winnowed based on our criteria--geographic distribution, diversity of experience, topical distribution, chronological distribution, evidence of sparking real change, origination in MN, exhibit readiness, and quality of nomination.

We did it with a lot of talking. I was just locked in this room with the others and the nominations. We were lucky in a way because so many people had really put their hearts and souls in this—so we were able to pull those out, along with the ones that seemed intriguing, and we would contact them to learn more. We were working on this full time for 2-3 weeks—myself, a full-time assistant, and then a part-time educator and designer.

Were there any nominations cut because the designer felt they couldn’t be exhibited?

Yes, some topics were cut because they were not exhibitable. You can’t take on a huge topic like the freeway that was cut through the Twin Cities—which wiped out neighborhoods, relocated people—it’s still a source of conflict and people bemoaned their lost homes. Great topic, but I don’t think we can do it any kind of justice in an exhibit like this. Since exhibit readiness was in the criteria from the start, we thought this was appropriate to do.

So we got down to roughly 400. Then we generated a list of the nominations and topics in their categories, and we identified about 40-50 historians and MN history experts, generalists and specifics, journalists, representatives of ethnic groups. We put together packets and sent them out to everybody. We gave them a ratings sheet for each category. So we got back written comments and ratings 1-10.

Were any of the decisions contentious?

Looking back it’s just amazing to me how off-track we got, how often we said, “this topic has to be there—even if it’s not there, I don’t care. It has to be there.” We had this moment—we had one day where we were sitting in the room doing our conversation, and someone said that something had to be there even if there was no nomination, that we would manufacture a nomination. We broke for lunch that day, and our education person went to lunch, and one of her staff members asked her what she was doing up in this room all the time—and when she explained, he said, “you better not include X! If you include X and not Y, that’s just wrong!” She came back after lunch and said we have to be really careful to stick to what we said we were doing. We can’t be going out soliciting nominations—we have to have a justification for every one of these. No more personal preference.

It helped a little bit in that the folks making the decisions were informed but not expert on MN history. We had our little hobby horses certainly, but nobody was so entrenched.

And it was just painful. My topic that I submitted didn’t make it—I kept trying to convince folks and that didn’t work. Our designer got really worked up about public radio for awhile--it's very politically charged here in Minnesota. He did submit a nomination that was successful. Some of the political figures were hard. People have their favorite politicians. Since we have a history as a Democratic state, we had to be careful to look at the Republicans as well. Jesse Ventura was very hard for some of us—he made it because the nominator made a very interesting argument how he changed the image of Minnesota.

Once you got down to the 150, did you go into a standard design process?

Pretty much. The only thing that wasn’t standard is that the 150 were picked by February 07, we had until October, and we didn’t know what we had in the collection for each topic. We contacted the nominators to scramble for stuff for the exhibit. Our designer ended up designing a modular system that could really accommodate just about anything. My favorite moment was—he had ordered one long case for the 1980 Olympic hockey team that stunned the world—and we just had our hearts set on getting a puck and hockey stick from those guys. Instead what happened was the coach’s daughter donated a framed photo of the whole team. And then we had another topic on a fishing company, so we ended up using that long case for a fishing rod. Our designer did a great job making guesses in layout as the stuff kept coming in.

The winners must have loved the fact that you asked them for artifacts. I was always surprised with The Tech project at how much they wanted to be involved and enjoyed feeling needed.

It was so rewarding. I think so positively about these people. We love our winners, we call them our MN150 peeps. Now we’re using that group as a focus group for a new web survey. They were hard to let go of when the exhibition opened.

For the opening, we had the best night ever. We invited them as special guests, and then before the exhibit actually opened, we all gathered in the auditorium and had a really nice presentation. Our director talked, I talked about the process, the conservator talked about the challenges of getting god knows what through the door. He had very funny stories about people’s rubber ducks and these kinds of things. When they walked in, we gave them each a book of the exhibition and we all signed it. And then through the course of the night, it was like yearbooks in high school: they were all asking to sign each other’s books. Then once the exhibit started we had photographers to get people with their exhibits.

How are you evaluating the exhibition? What do visitors and staff think of this?

Our plan is to have the summative evaluation done by the end of this year. This is considered a permanent exhibit. There were a lot of naysayers on staff along the way, but the institution was pretty solidly behind the whole exhibit. Our anecdotal evidence is that visitors tend to like it. They get it.

For the first several months, there was no intro panel. I don’t really think people read them, and if we did one, I wanted to know what kinds of questions people were asking and fit a panel to that. A few months ago we did put up an intro panel about the process, that it was community-based and so on. And we ask: “What would you add?” The interpreters do say that that conversation is happening.

Having completed MN150, are you back to business as usual? Or are you looking for new ways to experiment?

There’s a new one we want to launch—a traveling exhibition on 1968—we’ve proposed doing it in partnership with 3 other institutions in the country (Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta). It would travel to all of them and others as well. What we’ve been talking about lately is that we really want the exhibit to be shaped by the people who lived it. How can we get a website—a new kind of website that would invite people to really talk, to go along with us in the creation of the exhibit. What more could it be? How could it really be the nexus of the exhibit?

One of the ideas I’m hot on these days is embedding your conversations with visitors into their world rather than forcing them to come to your website. So for something like 1968, I’d recommend going somewhere like—a social networking site targeted at boomers—and connecting with them and their stories in that context. But that's for another conversation...

Thank you to Kate and all the courageous Minnesotans who took on this project! What questions did I miss--what do you want to know about MN150? What ideas do you have for the “next experiments” in the world of visitor co-created exhibitions?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Notes from the Future: Reflections on the IMLS Meeting on Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century

What’s in the crystal ball for museums and libraries? The IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) has commissioned a preliminary proposal for an NAS (National Academy of Sciences) report on museums and libraries in the 21st century. The NAS publishes one such report every business day, and apparently these reports are seen as a gold standard of objective, well-researched content on a range of industries and issues. The goal, from IMLS’s standpoint, is for NAS to create a report that can address the fundamental issues facing museums and libraries in the 21st century, with an intended audience of industry professionals, trustees, funding sources, and government representatives.

Of course, that audience is a long way from seeing such a report. Last week, NAS brought 25 people (including me) to Washington to discuss what issues might be appropriate to cover in the report, which is at least 3 years from hitting the press (assuming it receives funding). What follows are my notes from the meeting, separated roughly into six major topics of discussion.

The six topics are:

  1. How do you plan for the future?
  2. What are the essential differences and similarities between libraries and museums?
  3. How do you measure and articulate the value of museums and libraries?
  4. How can our expertise and assets be applied towards new ends?
  5. Who owns the stuff? Who controls the experience?
  6. How do we reimagine physical space and assets?

Please skip to the topics that interest you. The NAS has expressed high interest in hearing from interested parties who were not at the meeting; please share your personal 21st century issues as comments and they will get to the labcoats in Washington.

I introduce these notes with three general observations:
  1. Some leaders are more radical than I hoped, and these people have a hard time advocating for change when their accountability is to those who have not changed.
  2. Some leaders are more conservative than I feared, and these people are alternately smug and desperate about maintaining their power.
  3. Meetings about the future end up being about the present. We were much less creative and forward-thinking than we could have been. Dream big, share it in the comments, and help this be a more productive study.

1. How do you plan for the future?

Two related but contradictory truths reigned over talk about the future: (1) the future is already here in bits and pieces, and (2) most predictions about the future are wrong. The accelerating rate of technological change suggests that we have no way of determining what comes next on a ten-, twenty-, or fifty-year timescale.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the future. Unfortunately, for some directors, “sustainability” means “finding long-term ways to receive funding to do the same things we’ve been doing.” This attitude is often self-serving: it’s also a practical problem for those who actually want to create change. To paraphrase Ginnie Cooper, innovative chief librarian of DC: “I have to serve two audiences: my current audience and my future audience. The problem is that my current audience is vocal and my future audience is silent. It’s hard to serve the future when the present demands certain services and accountability.” Serving the future audience is a crapshoot, and that makes it hard to fund and advocate for with confidence.

One of the most promising models for doing so (and a potential way to structure the NAS report) is scenario-based planning. In this model, rather than trying to answer a set of broad questions, you look at the spectrum of viable conditions and extrapolate useful strategies from those. For example, you could imagine a spectrum in the world of intellectual property from unlimited free access to assets to controlled costly access. At each point along that spectrum there are implications for how museums and libraries do business. What would your institution be in a world where you have more non-English-speaking (real and virtual) visitors than English speakers? Where homeschooling is dominant? Where few families own powered vehicles? These what-ifs aren’t just science fiction; they’re a useful way for us to break out of present paradigms, to silence the current audience for a few minutes and plan for the future.

2. What are the essential differences and similarities between libraries and museums?

One participant commented that the creation of IMLS twelve years ago was an arranged marriage between two grudgingly consenting agencies. The question was raised of whether we all belonged at the same table. From my perspective the line wasn’t between libraries and museums but public-facing and private/researcher-facing organizations. If it’s not open to the public, I don’t care if it’s a book or a fossil—the methods of interpretation and audience engagement are fundamentally different.

With regard to public-facing institutions, there were interesting distinctions drawn about the way libraries and museums provide information. Libraries are more customer-focused, museums, more content-focused. Libraries are in the “just-in-time” information business, set up to help visitors find the specific asset or information sought. Museums provide the information that we deem useful or interesting. Libraries’ direct service programs, from voter registration to computer classes, are focused on supporting citizens’ needs broadly, whereas museums’ direct services (programs, outreach) are focused on spreading museum content.

Both libraries and museums are (somewhat frustratingly) lumped with the K-12 public education system. They are seen as “add-ons” rather than alternatives, and in many cases are increasingly conforming to K-12 standards to justify their utility as sites for field trips and educational funding. Many expressed interest in aligning together as public spaces dedicated to informal learning, sharing research and a use case based on an alternative to rather than component of formal education.

3. How do you measure and articulate the value of museums and libraries?

There was strong interest in the NAS report addressing the specific value and use of museums and libraries as part of the cultural, educational, and civic landscape of the U.S. I’m skeptical of this endeavor: does it really help us understand and address the future to define what we do now? Isn’t this just another self-serving “here’s why you need us?” On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that research in the value of informal learning, and evaluation metrics beyond earned income, throughput, and educational outcomes are underdeveloped.

Many librarians cited Ray Oldenberg’s book The Great Good Place for its definition of “the third place”—not work/school, not home—where people can go to find community. Becoming “the third place” is vastly appealing and highly unrealistic given the current limits of our institutional support for communities. I’d love to see someone fully imagine an institution that would be that third place, and then see how we could adjust museums and libraries to reflect those (or not).

4. How can our expertise and assets be applied towards new ends?

There was lots of discussion about the relevance of our assets and interpretative methods. Some ardently clung to the ability of “the real thing” to trump all virtual versions of an artifact, but most acknowledged that museums and libraries will no longer be in the business of providing original information (except perhaps to researchers) in the next 30 years. Joshua Greenberg from the New York Public Library talked about transitioning from teaching information literacy to information fluency—helping visitors navigate and harness the vast world of digital information to their own ends. Of course, to do this, staff have to be not just fluent but masters of new information platforms. Retraining staff to be translators and hosts instead of experts and authorities is both technologically and philosophically tricky (and necessary).

He may have died eighty years ago, but John Cotton Dana was alive and well at the meeting, with a few folks citing his proclamation that museums should “learn what the community needs and fit the museum to those needs.” Many people gravitated to the idea that it is community “needs, not wants” that we should address. Unfortunately, it’s easy to cast community needs as wants if they are inconvenient to our plans. I would prefer us to try to “learn what the community does, map how we could improve or support what they do, and fill in the white space.” Joshua talked about a staff member at the NYPL who hosted an event for NYC knitters helping them understand the library resources that might be useful to them. Do they need knitting information? Maybe. Do they want it? Sure. Do they now think the library is more useful to them? Absolutely.

5. Who owns the stuff? Who controls the experience?

Maureen Whalen, Associate General Counsel of the Getty Trust, spoke eloquently and somewhat distressingly about intellectual property. I worry that museums are becoming increasingly closed-fisted with their assets; she worries that other content providers see museums as freeloaders and won’t allow museums to provide full access to loaned or purchased items in a way that supports institutional missions. If museum and library content is licensed, not owned, how can we work within those licenses to allow visitors to use and remix to their heart’s content?

Of course, there’s a less legal question here, one about authority and control. The most upsetting moment of the meeting for me was when some participants expressed a willful disregard and derision for participatory scholarship on sites like Wikipedia. One director stated that he wants his institution to be “authoritative, not authoritarian.” This sounded appealing until I realized that he was not willing to acknowledge other non-scholarly authorities … which sounds authoritarian to me.

There was an urgency about the extent to which major collections and research institutions are not “on the map” of online information sources frequented by the general public. This seems hypocritical given those same institutions’ unwillingness to engage in the neighborhoods of information they disdain. How can you get on the map if you think every other stop is managed and used by heathens? Following up on point #4, I think there’s a huge opportunity for research institutions to support and guide amateur scholars, to promote “research fluency” in a world of highly personal and social information gathering. But that requires acknowledging their existence.

6. How do we reimagine physical space and assets?

One of the most interesting differences between museums and libraries is the role of the physical place. Libraries have a shared physical and data infrastructure based on the primacy of loans and sharing to their functions. Museums lack that meta-infrastructure, and many argue that it is their distinctions and niches, not their similarities, that make them viable.

I feel mixed about this. The relevance of physical stuff to everyday information-gathering is going to keep diminishing, and if we want to be civic “conversation spaces” around content, it’s unclear what form physical institutions should take. What’s the best physical site for civic engagement? A museum, a library, or something else? Some discussed co-location of museums and libraries, as well as co-location with other civic institutions like post offices or parks. If the goals are similar, I like the idea of a powerhouse “third place” that is a part of every community, a central place that can rival Starbucks, malls, and other experience businesses as safe social meeting grounds.

Will museums become as indistinct from each other as libraries—and receive related benefits of a fluid, shared collection and access to resources? Or will they accentuate their idiosyncratic differences as experience providers and move away from libraries’ distributed service model? Some libraries are moving towards the museum model—creating heavily designed spaces, complementing information assets with increasingly sophisticated exhibits. What is the information institution of the future?


I came out of this experience feeling like we spent too little time talking about change. We talked a lot about what we are already doing and what is already happening. But we didn’t spend enough time on what might happen and how we might change to address it.

Let’s change that. Please share your vision and help our field get out of committee and into the great unknown.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Why Click! is My Hero (What Museum Innovation Looks Like)

There’s a value of this exhibition that extends beyond the exhibition itself. We’re accustomed to the notion that people are enfranchised in the democratic process. We’re not accustomed to the idea that they are enfranchised in the cultural process. This is a really unique experiment. Things like this are far and few between.
No, these are neither the words of a self-important curator nor a well-spoken museum director. They are the words of a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, Jeff Howe, and he’s talking about Click!, the crowd-curated photo exhibition now open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Why is a leading technologist paying such loving lip service to a photo exhibition? Because Click! isn’t a standard exhibition. As Shelley Bernstein, organizer of the show, puts it, “it’s a conceptual idea put on the wall.” It’s a research project about crowd-based decision-making—one so well-executed and interesting that Jeff Howe can’t help but get excited.

Click! is an exhibition of photos that were submitted by open call and judged by individuals over the Web in an experiment following the collective intelligence model set forth by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. In keeping with James’ model, the judging process was highly designed to mitigate influence (people could not view other votes or comments, vote more than once, or skip to specific images), respect the artists (judges used a sliding scale instead of quantifiable ratings, artists could choose to be anonymous on the web, in the museum, or both), and capture diversity (judges were asked to self-identify by geography and art expertise).

I’ve written at length about what excites me about Click! It is a substantive research contribution by the museum to the social technology field at large. As James comments in the attached podcast (scroll down), Shelley’s team did something that he thought was “too hard” to do in his work—tackle the effect of crowds on the subjective question of art evaluation. The research is now very understandably portrayed on the Click! website, where you can explore the results in a variety of ways (and if you get confused, there’s a webcast tour to guide you).

Click is not just a clever use of technology—it’s an original use of technology. To people like James and Jeff Howe, it’s a new data set in their work on crowd-sourcing and collective intelligence. To the museum world, it’s a new attempt to merge people, the web, and a physical exhibition. Shelley’s team created new rules for every step, from the attribution options during the open call to the way the photos were sized and hung to represent the data set.

You may not think it’s pretty. One of the most challenging moments in the podcast is when contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai says, “[Click!]’s about data, and making the data visual. It’s not really a photography show in the way I would curate a photography show.” Shelley and Eugenie are both explicit about the fact that Brooklyn made decisions in favor of the research and against the most beautiful exposition of the art. All the photos were printed with the same process, and their sizes were determined by the judging process, not aesthetic preferences. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post commented that the resulting show is not that visually impressive, but they are comparing Click! to photo exhibitions, which Shelley and Eugenie would deem inappropriate. It would be more correct to compare it to data visualizations like tag clouds or spark charts.

And that’s a really interesting element of this whole story. Click! isn’t just a research project; it’s a deliberate attempt by the museum to present something and say, “don’t judge this as art.” Not everybody believes or wants to hear that. I asked Shelley if she received any negative feedback from the artists about their work being treated like data rather than art. There was rousing debate about the validity of the crowd-curated model on the blog before the opening, but Shelley said that for the most part people got it because her team was so open with the artists throughout the process. And as one woman comments in the podcast, for her, the thrill was about having her photo in the museum. There is dynamic tension between what the museum wants to present and what participants, visitors, and reporters want to experience.

And that’s a good thing. It’s proof that Click! is not a popularity contest made to "give the people what they want". As with any good museum exhibition, Click! was designed and created by staff to challenge, educate, and add value to patrons’ lives. On the podcast, Eugenie Tsai reacts with surprise to the fact that online evaluators spent an average of 22 seconds on each image. She thinks of that as incredibly long, both compared to her own curatorial process and to the standard museum visitor (who spends an average of 6 seconds on each piece of art). Click! produced a new kind of visitor behavior. As in the Exploratorium’s experiments in active prolonged engagement, Click! designers devised new models that connected visitors with exhibits in a different way. Not necessarily better, but different and new.

A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.

Please go to the Click! website and see the results for yourself. Please listen to this amazing 52 minute recording of the discussion among Shelley Bernstein, James Surowiecki, Jeff Howe, and Eugenie Tsai. You can also download the audio here and listen to it in the subway and fist pump at the good parts.

If 52 minutes sounds daunting, here are some highlights to jump to:

  • On Implementation: Concise, useful information from Shelley about the specific choices they made “to come up with a formula that was good to show the data and also respectful to the artists,” (starts at minute 25) and to hang the show as data, not art (43 and 48).
  • On the Role of the Curator: Eugenie Tsai talks about the range of curatorial options and expands on the concept that “museums should be looking for new ways to organize exhibitions” (min 19).
  • On Value to the Field: Jeff and James discuss how this reflects something “very different than the kind of collective problem solving or endeavors that you see on the web.” (min 32)
I’ll leave you with this gem from an audience member at the very end of the show:
You have set a model for doing this—research! It’s a research project! You are setting an example for museums to go out and find out what people think, and for curators it’s a teachable moment … I see you doing research, presentation, and education on so many levels, and it’s really an exciting project that is a true foundational experience for future exhibitions.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Quickie: Get More Museum 2.0!

Three other places to find me this week:

1. I was interviewed by Paul Orselli, exhibit creator extraordinaire, on his blog ExhibiTricks.

2. Tom Sakell, a reader and interaction designer, created this very cool presentation for the government that animates my hierarchy of participation with Web-based examples. While I'm most interested in the use of the pyramid for in-person experiences, Tom does a wonderful job demonstrating what it means for museums on the Web.

3. Reach Advisors puts on monthly "Museums Conversations"--conference calls with experts open to the museum community on topics of interest at large. This Friday (July 11), the call will feature Charlene Li of Forrester Research and me talking about museums and Web 2.0. Charlene is a star in the Web 2.0 audience research field whose work I referenced in this post in May about audience profiling. She is the co-author of Groundswell: Winning In a World Transformed by Social Technologies, one of the current bestsellers at Amazon.

The Museum Conversation will be held at 1pm ET/10am PT on Friday, July 11. It's free, but the catch is that it’s already fully subscribed, so Reach Advisors can add only 15 more spots. To request a spot, email susie(at) ASAP with your name, title, organization, and email address. On Thursday evening, Susie will be able to confirm whether or not you are able to slip into one of the 15 available spots, so please respond to her ASAP if interested.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Strange(r) Encounters: Conditions for Engagement

I've written before about techniques for talking to strangers, looking at how buttons, buses, and dogs and can all be tools for participatory design. Today, we return to that well-loved topic and look more broadly at the conditions of participation. So as you read, please consider this small assignment: think of a notable encounter you have had with a stranger.

I used that instruction recently to kick off a meeting at a museum planning a participatory education space. Around the conference table, there were stories about love, aggression, and wackiness, extraordinary objects and unusual situations. One guy talked about a mysterious cellphone caller and the twenty minute mutual "how do I know you?" conversation that followed. There was a woman who married her cab driver, another who formed a lasting friendship over the improper use of a magnet. There was a self-aggregating group who toured an art exhibition. There were two fights, both involving parking spaces. And my favorite, from a designer who was initiated into a secret world of graffiti-ed walls behind elevator doors in his art college in an entirely silent exchange.

I love these stories because they highlight unique moments in our lives. They stand out, at least in America, because of their infrequency. We spend most of our time studiously ignoring strangers, and it takes extraordinary situations to overcome those cultural mores and fears. This morning I was at a fourth of July parade swarming with people and didn't talk to a single stranger. There was no reason, no opportunity, no desire to go out of my comfort zone and do so.

What compels you to talk to strangers? So far, I've assembled the following list of conditions for non-compulsory participatory encounters with strangers:

  • Desperate Need for Information or Help -- used to find bathrooms, band-aids, and the time. These interactions are motivated by overwhelming personal desire which allows the requestor to overcome cultural barriers. Also, because the information or assistance sought is specific, the expectation is that there will be no further interaction beyond its provision. This makes the interaction feel "safe" for both parties. Interestingly, at the City Museum in St. Louis, these interactions (between visitors and staff) are intentionally promoted by a lack of wayfinding signage.
  • Unsure of the Rules -- related to the above, but with more chance for sustained interaction. These occur when you enter a situation and need help understanding how to act--how to order your food, get in line, signal the bus driver. This situation is less dire than the above, and the interaction comes not out of personal need but social interest in "doing things properly." This frequently happens in long and confusing queues at airports, where strangers will create and communicate shared stories about where they should stand, what's going on, and what their best chance is of getting on a flight. People often take on "helper" roles in these situations, rising to the occasion to assist others in the absence of professional information and to reprimand those with aberrant rule sets (i.e. people who cut in line).
  • Unusual Rules -- as in games and other situations in which a mutually respected third party authority creates a new set of rules that encourage strangers to interact. This occurs in speed dating, social gaming, and any time you are instructed to "turn to the person sitting next to you." In the background information about the alternate reality game SF0, the author calls the game "an interface for San Francisco," that is, a new rule set in which you are represented as a character who is and is not yourself. As they put it: "... most importantly, your character is able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do." In other words, you are playing, and when playing, you are operating under new rules. The picture at the top of this post comes from a Flickr group called 100 Strangers, in which people take on the challenge of photographing strangers. That simple external task, supported by a collective and mediated by a device, empowers people to meet and learn each other's stories.
  • Intimate Observation of an Extraordinary Event -- when two strangers "share a moment" instigated by an outside spectacle. The spectacle can be as mundane as a kid picking his nose or as profound as a UFO sighting. The key is that it is shared by just a few people. If a thousand people see a kid pick his nose, it's comedy. If two people in a crowd happen to be looking at the same moment at the kid and then notice each other and smile, it's intimacy. These encounters are often non-verbal but can still be intensely personal. I once watched a baby stroller almost tip over at the same time as another man. The mother was oblivious, but the man and I had an intense moment of shared protective watchfulness. The curator at the meeting earlier this week who ended up touring an exhibition with strangers did so because of a shared moment with another person who was looking "behind the exhibit" at the same time as him. Sometimes these kinds of moments are manufactured, as in the elevator graffiti story, by one stranger who chooses to reveal a secret spectacle to another. These non-accidental moments are not always pleasant--flashers fall in this category.
  • Carrying Something Visible and Strange -- this is initiated by one person who turns him or herself into a kind of spectacle, whether by holding balloons, walking a dog, or wearing a wild hat. These visible identifiers become social objects that appeal differently to different people. You might enthusiastically approach a knitter while your friend would always walk up to whittlers. No matter the physical object, there are some people who will approach you to talk about it, even objects that connote non-social focus, like books or laptops. The object must, however, be distinctive enough to entice observers of the carrier/wearer to overcome social barriers and approach. In The Game, a very strange book about hitting on women, experts suggest that men wear flamboyant, ridiculous clothes to nightclubs as conversation starters. This can go overboard, however, as demonstrated by the image at the top. Unless we're at Disneyland (and for many people, even there), furry costumes do not inspire participatory encounters.
  • Doing Something Visible and Aberrant -- Highly related to the above, exemplified by the NYC group Improv Everywhere. These activities are not always grounds for participatory encounters. If you are doing something too weird or well-scripted, people look at you as a show or a threat, not an opportunity to engage. I had an extremely positive experience of this type once while doing pullups in the subway in DC. Someone started counting when I got close to ten, and then everyone started trying to see how many they could do and we became a big exercise encounter group for a few minutes. These encounters happen when the initial action or actor is perceived as welcoming, as having room for involvement and potentially improvement.
I think it's interesting that all of these conditions involve mediation by an abstract concept (rules, information), event, or object. There are lots of interactions with strangers that are unmediated, but these tend to be the ones we warn children about: encounters in which a stranger approaches you because of specific interest in YOU--your appearance, your residence, your wallet, your sexual preference. These interactions are more uncomfortable than the mediated ones because of their directness. The immediate reaction is, "Why is this person approaching me?" and there is no obvious, safe answer. With mediated interactions, the answer to the question is known, and thus the engagement feels safe.

It's also interesting that mediating conditions (at least in the real world) are not places. While the Web includes several places like chat rooms that functionally mediate interactions between strangers, there aren't many analogous places in the real world. Even bars, the cornerstone of the pickup scene, tend to primarily attract packs of friends who very occasionally venture ten steps from the pack to talk to a stranger. Creating a place for participation is not enough. To design spaces that encourage participation, you have to find ways to offer users mediating objects, rules, and events, and enough non-uniformity to allow intimate moments to slip through. And the hardest part? You have to do it in a way that feels accidental, surprising, and authentic. Otherwise you just become another guy in a bunny suit, people hurriedly passing by.

What conditions did I miss? What's your story about interacting with strangers?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century in 714 Words (or less)

Dear Museum 2.0-ers,

Next week, I'll be going to DC for a meeting convened by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Museum and Library Services on "Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century." They've asked each of the participants to prepare a one-page position paper (today = highly alliterative) on the topic and to provide one paper that "you think would be important for everyone interested in the subject to read."

The paper is the easy part. I am recommending the transcript of Clay Shirky's speech about Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, in which he argues that the next twenty years will be marked by people's slow, incremental, and astoundingly impactful awakening from being passive consumers (of TV) to partly active content creators.

But one page! It's a good writing exercise to see if you can write anything of substance in 720 words or so (I encourage you to try it). I'm not sure I succeeded. I wanted to share it with you to get your thoughts on this topic. What did I state poorly? What did I gloss over? What could I cut out? What would you put in your one-page epistle to the future?

Here are my 714 words. I'm sending it off tomorrow, but your opinions are appreciated anytime.

Note: I highly recommend that you check out (and add to!) the comments on this one, including a response manifesto by educational technologist Ira Socol.


Over the last 50 years, public-facing museums and libraries in the U.S. have established viability in two ways—via designed experiences (exhibits, programs, courses) and access to assets (artifacts, books). Today, both of these models are threatened, and within 50 years they will no longer be sustainable. To be successful (and hopefully essential), museums and libraries need to pursue new models in which we provide platforms for social engagement, transitioning from providing designed, controlled experiences to comfortable venues for people and discourse.

Why are our current models failing? On the experience side, we’re being out-competed by retail. Our offerings are perceived as less varied, flexible, and sophisticated than those presented by bookstores, bars, and cafes. We rarely offer alcoholic beverages, comfortable seating, background music, or free admission to go with the art, lectures, and interactive experiences now available in many hybrid retail spaces. And on the assets side, we’re being rendered obsolete by digitization and the Web. While museums and libraries may be trusted sources of information, people increasingly prefer sources that are immediately and widely accessible for use and reuse. Regardless of how museums and libraries portray themselves, it’s clear to users: Wikipedia belongs to them. The artifacts in museums, which they increasingly cannot even photograph for IP reasons, do not.

The popular option at this time is to try to beat the experiential competition and ignore the Web-based cultural shift. This translates to higher ticket prices, more blockbuster exhibitions, and less community engagement. I contend that we will be more successful, and tremendously more interesting, if we take another path.

First, there are some things we have to learn from the competition. From our experiential neighbors, we have to learn to put our customers first. We have to privilege our visitor/users over our governing stakeholders. One of the most interesting examples of this is the recent evangelical megachurch trend. To the distress of some purists, megachurches don’t serve God or priests; they serve people. They offer daycare and Starbucks and late night services. They make church convenient. We need to stop worrying about the respective gods of our institutions and start making our experiences comfortable, accessible, and convenient.

From the Web 2.0 revolution, we have to learn to be generous with our assets. The good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of people debating the content of every book, scientific principle, and artistic movement on the Web right now. The bad news is that museums and libraries are rarely part of those conversations and in many cases are willfully preventing the inclusion of their assets in that discussion. We are entering a cultural era of explosive content production by non-anointed regular people. Real artifacts are not suffering with the rise of digitization; they are gaining new lives in personal memory sites, blogs, and collection-based social networks. We should be helping enable these conversations in the real world. We need to stop focusing on protecting our stuff and start creating new physical analogs to these virtual tools—platforms for people to engage with our content on their own terms.

Together, these lessons paint the picture of a future museum or library: a safe, comfortable live venue for discourse about content. We are uniquely situated to be these venues. Most “community spaces” are replete with advertising, and none can provide the access to collections—precious conversation pieces—that libraries and museums offer. The people who congregate on the Web to talk about books and artifacts are looking for places to meet in person, and we should welcome them. They want expert support, and we can provide it. They want to sit on couches and make noise at 9pm, and we should offer that. They want to make and share videos and stories and exhibits about our assets, and we should assist and reward them. We can consciously create platforms that enable broad, meaningful engagement—excellence and equity—and transform our visitors into ardent, active users. As the digital divide increases, we can also be sources of training and access for those locked out of new communities and assets (libraries are already moving in this direction). The Web has given people the opportunity to dream up their own community spaces. If we can listen and remake ourselves into those dreams, we will finally become places for our audiences.