Tuesday, March 30, 2010
When I was 21 and pondering this question, I came upon an answer that worked for me: work on the front line. I figured I could pay someone a lot of money to go to graduate school, or I could pay nothing (and hopefully get paid) to learn on the job. This decision fit well with my learning style--I tend to lean towards real-world experience and self-directed endeavors. Over my first year in museums, I worked at five different institutions as an educator, exhibit builder, exhibit cleaner, art model, and whatever else I could find. I never stayed at any one institution for longer than I was learning (about 3 months on average), and I never made more than $7 an hour. But I learned enough to know what I wanted from full-time employment and how to get it.
Now, several years of full-time museum work later, I'm consulting. I don't miss all-staff emails or office politics. But I really miss the time I spent working on the floor of museums, interacting with visitors and watching how they engaged with things I'd built. I've come to feel like front line time has been the most educational and undervalued part of museum work.
Spending time on the museum floor can be exhausting, but it's also a pleasure. It's a learning environment free of meetings and bureaucracy. It's a place to learn, one interaction at a time, how to serve visitors better. The stultifying, repetitive tasks teach you how to be more efficient and effective. The constant interaction with visitors gives you an opportunity to delight, mixed with a healthy dose of reality. In most museums, the people who design visitor experiences don't operate them--so they (and I'm included here) miss out on the important feedback loop of how visitors use what is presented.
The challenge is that front line time is not typically valued highly--in any industry. The people who sell the postcards and guard the art and shelve the books are the lowest folks on the totem pole, both in terms of dollars and power. This means that people who want to move up in an institution must move away from work on the floor. Graduate students try to get entry level jobs that involve desks, not aprons. And senior professionals are not encouraged to waste their time talking to visitors in the lobby. While many museums are starting to institute weekly or monthly "floor time" requirements to help all staff become more connected to visitors, these policies are the exception, not the norm. I worked at one museum where my boss asked me politely not to spend so much time on the floor because it wasn't a good use of the salary they were paying me.
This is a problem. It subconsciously trains staff to think of direct service positions as inferior, whether they came in feeling that way or not. It encourages young professionals to avoid front line positions for fear they'll be trapped in Visitor Services, unable to reach Education or Exhibit departments. It exacerbates the extent to which designers, marketers, and program developers may think of visitors as "other" instead of as familiars for whom they have respect and regard. It prevents the whole institution from learning effectively from front line interactions. And it tells people like me, who get inspiration and energy from working with visitors, that those activities are not a valued part of the design process or the workday.
I don't want to overglamorize front line work. It can be monotonous and physically and emotionally demanding. Rather than drawing a line in the sand between low paid front line work and highly paid office work, I think it would be more effective for visitor-facing institutions to develop hybrid job descriptions in which front line work is a duty among many. What's exhausting for ten hours can be valuable and enjoyable for one or two. Designers and educators who rotate through floor time have a better sense of their clients and goals. Staff at all levels can pitch in with hosting, admissions, and guard work and learn something from the experience. And everyone benefits from leaving their desks for a couple of hours and moving around. It clears the brain better than surfing YouTube ever can.
I'd like to find ways to balance front-line and behind-the-scenes time, especially for designers, marketers, and educators. But I realize I'm writing from my personal experience as someone who enjoys interacting with people and finds that conducive to learning. I appreciate that that's not true for everyone. What impact has front line work (or its avoidance) had on your professional career?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
When I decided to write a book about visitor participation in cultural institutions, I knew I'd do it in a way that reflected the values behind the book itself--transparency, inclusion, and meaningful community participation. I didn't just want to "walk the talk"--I truly believed that the book would be better for the participation. The challenge was to figure out how to do it and end up with a high-quality book. This post covers my personal process of encouraging--and harnessing--participation in the creation of The Participatory Museum.
Promoting Transparency: What it Felt Like to Write a Book on a Wiki
I wrote the first three drafts of the book--every word--on a public wiki. I made the decision early on to limit editing capability to people who signed up, so I could vet each person to make sure she wasn't a spammer, but anyone could read the content at any time. Every non-spammer editor who signed up was granted full access to change and comment on the content.
As it turned out, few people chose to participate during the formative development of the book, except during outlining, when their thoughts were incredibly helpful. But that didn't matter. Writing the book on a wiki helped me imagine that there were people out there who actively wanted and were expecting more content. I couldn't drop the project for months or abandon it entirely. I felt accountable to an audience, and that kept me going throughout the writing.
My big challenge during this stage was feeling comfortable putting my roughest work out for people to read. I'm a proponent of Peter Elbow's theory that you should separate the content generation part of writing from the editing part, so that you can create freely without letting your internal editor stifle you too much. This means my first drafts are often rambling, full of errors, "ADD EXAMPLE HERE"s and redundancies. I overwrite, and then I go back and ruthlessly edit. So the first drafts I put out were really quite a mess.
I remember the first draft of the first section that I put up. I was desperately nervous about how it would be received--and at the same time, consoled by the small number of people choosing to read it. One of the first comments I received was a private email from a respected colleague telling me he hated the tone of the introduction. It was a shock that helped me realize three things:
- Participants would be honest.
- They could criticize book content without criticizing me.
- Their critiques would help me improve the book.
Occasionally, I'd write a really rough first draft of a section that was overly personal or inappropriately opinionated, and I thought twice about doing so in a public venue. But those sections were the ones with which I needed the most outside help, because I had a hard time being objective about the content (these were mostly sections discussing projects I worked on directly). In the end, I was consoled by the small number of supportive wiki readers and felt that their contributions were more important than my fears. I intentionally didn't blog frequently about the progress, not wanting thousands of eyes on my halting first steps.
One more note on the wiki: while it was a community site, I felt very in control of the content. This book was not a multiple author project; I was generating 99.9% of the words on the wiki. So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use. I never felt like the contributors were going to take the project in another direction, and I felt confident making decisions NOT to use contributions that didn't work for me. I was actively part of every discussion raised by participants about the content, but I was the ultimate arbiter, and I think everyone felt comfortable with that.
Being Inclusive: Finding ways to open up the process
Only a few people chose to participate actively as content reviewers during the draft stages of the book, so I knew I had to find a way to encourage more people to help once I had a completed third draft. I decided to take a two-pronged approach. I would solicited a few respected colleagues directly to review either the entire manuscript or a specific chapter, based on their expertise and availability. But I also made the opportunity to review more publicly available, figuring that there were many people out there beyond the ones I'd selected who might be able to make meaningful contributions. I blogged about the opportunity in September 2009, and then faced a new problem: 92 people expressed their interest in helping. How could I possibly integrate the contributions of 92 people?
It was really important to me that anyone who expended effort on the project felt that they were making a useful contribution. I wanted to be able to respond to and thoughtfully consider everyone's comments. I was worried about my ability to do that across 92 people. I also wondered how truly useful their comments would be and whether I'd spend all my time chatting and not enough revising.
I ended up integrating a few of the 92 into my solicited group, ending up with eight people I asked to read the entire manuscript and eight I asked to review specific chapters. I'd asked everyone to explain why they were interested in helping, and it was obvious that a few people unknown to me would be really helpful (for example, a woman from a children's museum, a type of institution unrepresented in my handpicked group). The solicited group received hard copy or Word document versions of their sections, and generally had a more formal relationship with the process. I gave them a due date for their edits, and they took the work seriously and did it mostly outside the community wiki space.
But then I invited the rest of the 92 to join me on the wiki. I gave them fewer explicit instructions or support, figuring that those who were most motivated would get engaged and that I didn't really need to spend time cultivating more than that. As it turned out, about fifteen people got incredibly involved, and that was a sustainable number for me.
The contributions of these fifteen people were tremendous. They completely erased any bias I had against working with volunteers I didn't know personally. (It was also useful to read their bios on the Awesome Helpers page, so I got a bit of a sense of who each person was.) Unlike the solicited reviewers, who submitted their work in one chunk, the wiki-based reviewers tended to follow my progress and post comments on sections as I posted them. That gave me some immediate feedback to think about, even as I kept writing. When I finally went back to start a serious edit on the whole draft, I started with the wiki comments. They were a reminder of the conversations we'd had about the content, and they got me started more usefully than the solicited comments, which I hadn't lived with and thought about for weeks or months.
Of course, fifteen is not 92. It was obvious that there were people who were inclined to help but for whom the wiki or the content review activity was not appealing. As the participatory content review progressed well, I started looking for other ways for people to help. I decided to crowdsource the copy editing. Many of the 92 people were professional or amateur editors and I felt that with a clear process and style guide (suggested by a participant!), a group of strangers could successfully root out the errors. I also put out frequent calls on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog for quick comment on various bits, from the cover design to the blurbs for the back to the title. These quick requests brought a huge number of comments in from people who otherwise were not involved. The blog also became a useful conversation space for sticky sections (and a good way for me to provide content to blog readers even as I was working nonstop on the book).
At all times, I tried to project the sense that I would listen to and engage with all comments, but that I would make the ultimate decision. My goal was to be open-minded and supportive of disagreement while retaining control. This became particularly clear when it came to the cover design. Many people disliked the cover, suggesting that it was too '70s or Shel Silverstein or demeaned the content. I disagreed. I took their comments and we did alter some of the graphical elements based on some of the most egregious issues, but I stood firm with the original vision of the cover, which I love. The illustrator, Jennifer Rae Atkins, was fabulous about making changes, but she didn't feel as comfortable with the negative comments as I did. They were more of a personal attack on her work (which nobody wants), and she didn't have the same relationship with participants or the same confident stance about who controlled the project. It reminded me that the person who runs a participatory project should help other team members understand the process so no one feels threatened or confused by the role of outside comments and contributions.
Putting it all together
On December 16, 2009, I got home from a month of work in New Zealand and Australia to a gift: sixteen manuscripts from the solicited reviewers. For the next two months, I focused full-time on the book in its most intense phase. I would sit every day in my kitchen, often for sixteen hours at a stretch, surrounded by stacks of manuscripts. I'd edit chapter by chapter, starting first by rereading and addressing comments on the wiki, and then flipping pages in the stacks around me, finding the comments and making changes. This was a solo activity. I'd go days without talking to anyone but my husband about the changes I was making. I did not update the wiki or share the work.
The vast majority of the revision was not based on direct response to reviewer's comments, but rather on an indirect confidence they gave me to make major changes. The book changed significantly from the third to fourth draft. I cut the length by 25%, added new chapters, eliminated and shifted case studies, and changed the tone of the book overall. Few of these changes were specifically requested by reviewers, but their voices, sitting in stacks around me, urged me on as I figured out how to rework each chapter. Some had complained of redundancies in chapter 2, so I started looking for and slashing them everywhere. Others had pointed out a tone that was overly aggressive in chapter 6, so I made the whole draft more generous and relaxed. I started the edit on every chapter freaked out by the huge amount of change required. Reading participants' comments would focus me and help me figure out where to take it. By the third day of reworking a given chapter, I'd be on a roll, confidently cutting and pasting and flipping and rewriting. It was one of the most intense, fun work experiences of my life.
Because I made so many major changes to the book, I was a bit uncomfortable calling it done without going back to the participants for their thoughts on what I'd done with their comments. But I didn't feel like I had the time to do another full round on the wiki, and I didn't want to ask people who had already given so much to do more. Instead, I took a different approach, focusing on the book tone and style instead of the content. I asked a few people I trust who are not museum folks to read the third draft. My dad, my friend Robin Sloan, and my husband all spent time with the third draft and made valuable comments. I also sent out the book for advance review at this point, and a few of the reviewers--especially Kathleen McLean, Elaine Heumann Gurian, Dan Spock, and Leslie Bedford--gave me some additional comments that helped me tweak the final draft.
At this point, the copy editors got their hands on the draft. I structured the copy editing very tightly. There was a style guide, and I signed up for a shared account on the Chicago Manual of Style website so all copy editors could have access to that reference. There were two weeks of copy editing, and in a given week, a person could sign up for a chapter and download it as a Word document to edit, tracking their changes. Then, they'd email the document to me. I'd review and integrate their edits and reupload a new draft for the second week of signups. In this way, each chapter was edited by two people (and me).
I also asked a participant, Karen Braiser, to help me edit some images for inclusion in the book. This was pure grunt work--taking screengrabs, making them black and white, cropping them. But it was no more grunt work than copy editing, and I felt comfortable asking because Karen had volunteered way back in September to help in this way. By February, I felt like I could ask participants for anything. I felt confident that they wanted to support the project. And I was exhausted and really needed the help. The challenge was that the deadlines were so tight that I didn't feel right asking people to contribute with little notice. I relied mostly on a couple of friends and family members for these final steps. I am grateful to them for being available to pick a color for the cover, run out and take a photo in a bookstore, do a final run through the book, and respond to random phone calls in the middle of the workday. Thanks especially to Dave Mayfield, my climbing partner, who kept doing little favors for me in hopes I'd be able to go climbing with him again soon.
I've always been a bit perplexed as to why so many authors start or end their acknowledgments with some form of "Thanks above all go to my spouse, who suffered tirelessly through this process." While I was writing the book, my partner Sibley and I joked that it was one of the easiest times for him and that I asked little throughout the process. This is partly due to the fabulous participants, on whom I could directly and conceptually rely when I needed help. But I do want to thank Sibley for being the only participant during the stressful two months at the end of the book writing. Every time I'd start reworking a new chapter, I'd inevitably start moaning that I didn't know what it needed and that it was all screwed up. Sibley weathered my emotional outbursts and long stretches of noncommunication. And he fed me every single night, even if I went back to work while eating.
In a funny way, the thing that all participants provided me with most throughout this entire process was emotional support. Everyone who got involved believed in the project and wanted to see it succeed. They held me accountable, argued about how to make the manuscript better, and pitched in when I asked. In no way do I want to belittle the significant content and editing contributions that participants made. But the thing I want to thank them for most was just being there, showing support, helping me through, listening and reacting and contributing. Without them, I could never have written this book with such confidence and vigor in such a short time. Thank you for being there, for reading the words, for sharing your response, and for making this project worthwhile.
Monday, March 22, 2010
The Brazos Valley African American Museum is in the town of Bryan, TX, a town of about 75,000 right next door to Texas A&M University. It’s everything you’d expect from a tiny, community-built museum: a couple small rooms, a haphazard collection of objects, labels typed on printer paper and laminated or stuck to the wall.
But this museum, more than many others I’ve visited, had a very powerful and apparent reason for being. Its founders, Willie and Mell Pruitt, came to the area in the 1950s and were concerned that no one seemed to be documenting the history of the local African American community. They were educators and were heavily involved in the schools, first the segregated black schools, and then later, in the 1960s onward, with the integrated school. The curator of the museum, Wayne, is the son of the former principal of the black school, and about a third of the exhibits showcase people and objects from that school. The museum itself is in a building that used to house one of the segregated black schools.
Walking around, I felt a strong sense of the urgency and importance that the founders of the museum put on its existence. There were several exhibits that just told the stories of the founders and other local folks, and other displays that simply presented biographies of famous African Americans who were born in or had some connection to that part of Texas. Every display, from the ladies’ church hats to a prize-winning quilt to former Miss Teen Texas photos to artwork brought back from Africa, seemed to be filled with the stories and the lives of the people who had created, contributed, or were featured in them.
My favorite part was a wall of photos and transcribed oral histories from local elderly community members. It didn’t look promising (I wish I’d taken a wide view shot) –a bunch of framed pictures with full pages of text fixed to the wall next to them. It wasn’t even 100% clear which stories went with each photo. But the stories were totally captivating. I eagerly read hundreds of words and then moved onto the next one. I’ve included a couple of pictures I took of ones I particularly enjoyed. The stories conveyed the unique voice and spirit of these people in a way that helped me feel connected to them—even though we come from entirely different worlds. I learned about Juneteenth, the annual celebration commemorating June 19, 1865, when news of Emancipation finally reached Galveston Texas. I read stories from women who wore hat and gloves every day of their lives and women who trusted “Dr. Jesus” to help them deliver fourteen children. I read about penny candy and the circus coming into town on wagons that got stuck in the mud. It was one of those rare times where you read something in a museum and it helps you really understand something outside your own experience.
I don’t think I’m over-romanticizing my experiences in Brazos Valley, but I’m not entirely certain why I took such pleasure in this small museum. I’ve been in other small historical societies with a comparable level of amateurism without feeling comparably affected by the experience. I think what I loved about the Brazos Valley African American Museum was the fact that it told a story that might not otherwise be shared. I felt lucky it existed. People—a lot of people—had to put in a great deal of time and effort and care just to make those stories available. As a non-Texan, non-Christian, non-African American, I learned a lot from people who I perceived as generously and genuinely sharing their life experiences. I never questioned why the museum existed or who it was for. It was for the people who had built it. It was for their unique, small community. And it was for me, too.
Have you ever had an experience like this?
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Several hundred people contributed their opinions, stories, suggestions, and edits to The Participatory Museum as it was written. What did they do? Why did they do it? What did they get out of it? That's what this post is all about.
Well actually, this post is about the people who participated at the highest level of engagement. As noted last week, the vast majority of participants got involved for just a few minutes at a time--the time required to read and comment on a blog post or a tweet. But there were 52 people who spent several hours working on the project as content reviewers or copy-editors. These 52 included:
- 15 people who contributed actively (and voluntarily) to content review on the wiki
- 16 people who I solicited directly to review the content of specific book chapters (of course these people were also voluntary but they were externally prompted to help)
- 17 people who copy-edited the final manuscript
- 4 people who performed specific tasks, including editing for tone and resizing images
Here's the breakdown of who responded to the survey:
Now on to the good stuff.
Who Participated and Why?
Participants included museum professionals, academics, students, and a few folks from related fields (community centers, arts management). Copy editors tended to be younger and included several students. There were three primary reasons people cited for participating:
- Interest in the topic of visitor participation. This was absolutely the top reason--every respondent mentioned it in some way. Many people wrote at length about their passion for participatory design and their desire to contribute to what they saw as an important resource that would "help advance the field."
- Interest in the collaborative writing process. Several said things like, "I was curious to see how this kind of participatory, collaborative approach would work in practice." Others noted that they were interested in being part of a community of practice around the project and getting to know and work with the other participants.
- Interest in me. Many solicited contributors cited "collegial friendship" as a reason for participating. People who were unknown to me frequently mentioned that they had followed the blog for a long time and felt like this was an exciting opportunity to get involved.
Finally, a few copy editors in particular mentioned their interest in getting a "sneak peek" of the book before it was released. They were also more likely than content reviewers to talk about their basic pleasure in editing and their desire to do what they saw as a fun activity.
What Was it Like to Participate?
Participants' experiences were generally extremely positive. This is not entirely surprising given that they voluntarily joined the project and then a subset voluntarily filled out the survey, so take this with a grain of salt. Whether they spent a few hours copy editing or reviewing a small portion of the draft, or upwards of 30 hours reviewing the whole book, people called the experience "empowering," "stimulating," "provocative," and "very enjoyable." A prolific voluntary content reviewer described the experience this way:
The material was meaty. The presentation was limited. The challenge was to increase accessibility. Liked the challenge. Good work worth doing.Responsiveness, both by me and by other folks on the wiki, was a huge contributor to participants' enjoyment of the activity. Many people cited my initial invitation and ongoing engagement and energy as a strong motivation for participating. One wiki editor wrote, "Nina, your active presence as the author / hub for the contributing community was tops. Everyone was both appreciated and seen to be appreciated." Another commented: "At first, I wasn't sure whether or not my responses were useful to anybody. It took a long time for any feedback to filter through. When it did come I really appreciated Nina's thanks and encouragement. That's what kept me coming back to the site."
Responsiveness mattered even when comments weren't integrated; as one content reviewer noted: "It was very important that Nina gave feedback and always commented back on the reviewers' comments. So, you felt that you were listened to, no matter if after all the change you suggested was not finally undertaken."
But it wasn't just me who kept people coming back--it was all the participants. One content reviewer commented that she "LOVED the conversations we reviewers were having with each other and you within the copy - I learned a lot and felt valued." Another wrote: "I loved being able to share my mental margin notes with the author and others, and then getting responses to those. I also really liked reading a bit of text, thinking one thing, then reading others' comments below and having my views changed or expanded." A copy editor commented that the project "had a real "it takes a village" feel - I felt part of something important." The wiki was also useful to people who worked on their own. A solicited reviewer who worked on the entire manuscript from hard copy noted, "It was very empowering to hold the draft in my hands and look at the other comments on the blog as I was reviewing. It really felt like a group effort!"
When I asked people about any frustrations or negative experiences, a few people raised the following issues:
- The wiki could be confusing. When a page on the wiki became very busy with many voices, it was hard to follow (scroll down on this page for an example). I encouraged people to use different colors to represent themselves on the wiki, which one person commented was not great for colorblind participants.
- Some people expressed performance anxiety about their ability to contribute. They worried if their comments would be useful, and once the wiki got really active, some felt unable to keep up with the activity. As one person said, "the bar felt high to me, but that was a good thing!" A copy editor expressed "lingering self-doubt" about her technical knowledge and noted that the redundant system by which two people would copy edit each section helped her feel confident in his work.
- Several people said they felt bad that they couldn't help more and wished they had more time. Lots of people echoed this sentiment: "My only frustration is that I couldn't do more." In a few cases, people felt this way because they didn't want to miss out on contributing to the whole draft, but for most people, it was just a general sense of being too busy to help as much as they wanted. While this may sound like a compliment, I see it as a warning for me as the project manager - I don't want participants who gave so much to feel like they didn't do enough.
I'm not beating myself up about this. The updates also served a valuable purpose in keeping people connected to the project. As one occasional content reviewer wrote, "Nina was very encouraging; she provided interesting updates throughout the process. Other contributors were collegial and a valuable network of museum wonks has developed." The ongoing support from me and active nature of the wiki kept people inspired and engaged. One commenter wrote, "As I mentioned above, your generosity with thanks was an important motivational factor...If I had done some work and it had gone unrecognized, I probably wouldn't have been so willing to help later, not out of negativity, but I would have sensed that lots of other people were helping and my assistance wasn't so necessary." An infrequent content reviewer wrote, "I feel Nina was quite prompt in thanking, recognizing, and infusing comments from the contributors. This thing was alive."
People were willing to debate each other on the wiki, which I found fascinating (again, see this example). These were people who had never met each other, who knew each other only as a set of initials and a short blurb on the wiki. One commenter wrote, "the tone set by both Nina and the other commenters helped me to comment myself - it was positive and supportive, which made it easier to speak out, including sometimes disagreeing or challenging without either attacking or being attacked." There were more "I agree" statements than "I disagree" but I was thrilled to see both happen.
What Rewards did People Get from Participating?
One of the things I didn't handle perfectly (from my perspective, not so much participants') was how to reward participants fairly at the end of the process. I gave everyone as much responsiveness, encouragement, and support during the process as possible, but I wasn't sure exactly what everyone "deserved" as a thank you in the end. In the initial invitation, I asked people to tell me how they wanted to be thanked, and most asked for a free book and or their name in the acknowledgments. When it was clear that the list of participants was much longer than I'd anticipated, and their involvement so variable, I didn't know how to mete out these rewards fairly.
I ended up putting everyone in the Acknowledgments and giving everyone a free digital version of the book and a coupon to buy the paperback at cost. I gave the solicited reviewers a free copy of the paperback - these were people who I felt I had explicitly "put to work" and they put in the vast majority of the participant hours on this project. There was one wiki content reviewer who wrote back surprised that she wasn't getting a free book, and I sent one to her. I'm still not sure exactly how I should have handled rewards overall. It would have required me to evaluate whether XX's 30 hours of moderately helpful participation were "more valuable" than YY's 4 insightful comments that came just when I needed them. Or whether ZZ's copy editing, which was desperately needed, mattered less than QQ's extensive professional expertise. I didn't want to go there, and I didn't feel able to give everyone a free book.
In the end, at least as far as the survey respondents went, this didn't matter. When asked if they felt rewarded for participating, everyone said yes, and only a couple mentioned the discount or free book with appreciation. Most talked about the intrinsic rewards of contributing to the field, learning, and getting involved in an interesting project. They talked about the responsiveness and the liveliness of the experience. A few noted that they'd used this blog as a free resource for so long and felt glad to give back. Some also noted that the ability to introduce themselves on the wiki helped folks feel acknowledged "on their own terms."
I learned so much from this process, and I'm thrilled to hear participants reinforce a lot of the core principles in the book--make the participatory act meaningful, be responsive, support community dialogue. I'll close this post with a quote from a content reviewer:
I felt that participating was professionally rewarding. Participating in the review/editing process provided me with the confidence and insight to be able to work collaboratively with staff members in creating participatory exhibits and design processes in our Museum.
I hope this post helps you do the same.
Monday, March 15, 2010
People often ask me which museums are my favorite. I don't like to give a list. I've only visited about 0.01% of the institutions out there and I suspect that the other 99.99% includes some real gems. But when I really think about it, all my favorites (so far) have one thing in common. It's not the extent to which they are participatory. It's not their size or type or subject matter. It's the extent to which they are distinctive, and more precisely, idiosyncratic.
I visit lots of perfectly nice, perfectly forgettable museums. The institutions that stick with me are the ones that have a peculiar individuality. In some cases, that's based on subject matter, as at the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the American Visionary Art Museum. Other institutions are idiosyncratic in their relationship to their environment, like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, or to their community, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Some are scrappy and iconoclastic, like the City Museum in St. Louis, whereas others are august stalwarts like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. While most of my favorites are small (idiosyncrasy is easier to maintain without too many committees), some are quite large--places like the Exploratorium where a singular ethos infuses a massive facility.
Idiosyncratic institutions aren't just quirky and weird. They are usually staffed by people who feel incredibly passionate about their particular focus. These institutions are often more connected to their specific, local communities than more generic institutions. They are akin to local news organizations and charities. They reflect the soul of the community and can be responsive to its unique interests and needs. They are places that people point to with pride and say, "that's our place."
Even the business world is getting wise to the power of idiosyncrasy. The 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea shop (shown at right) is not a small community-owned place. It's a Starbucks. Over the last year, Starbucks has been opening stores in a few cities with a very different look--one that emulates the handmade, community vibe of locally-owned coffee shops. Whether you think this is a brilliant move or a corporate swindle, it demonstrates that even a large company with a highly branded, consistent image sees the benefit of individualizing offerings to different markets. Starbucks can't be a small funky startup, but it can try to look like one.
Why are museums going in the other direction, trying to become more consistent rather than celebrating their idiosyncrasies? To some extent, it's externally-driven. Funders and potential donors tend to look for particular benchmarks of professionalism (appropriately), and few are comfortable funding the most risky or content-specific institutions. But that's only part of the story. Mostly, institutions move away from idiosyncrasy on their own accord. I see three significant internal reasons for homogenization in museums:
- As money gets tight, museums look for exhibits, program strategies, and revenue streams that are "proven" by other institutions' successes, rather than charting their own potentially risky path.
- Many museums no longer employ in-house exhibit developers, relying instead on a short list of contractors and consultants. Design firms' projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions.
- Small museums, which are most likely to cultivate local, distinctive voice and approaches, often have an inferiority complex. Rather than asserting their uniqueness, they try to emulate large museums.
- The audience cycles frequently as families "age out." Institutions may feel less of a need to offer something unusual or distinctive if the audience will keep refreshing every few years.
- The content is often seen as not being community-specific. Science is science, and grocery store exhibits are grocery store exhibits. Funders like the NSF have encouraged science centers in particular to share their techniques and evaluations, which is fabulous but also leads to rampant and sometimes unthinking imitation.
- These museums have undergone the fastest growth in the industry in the past thirty years. There is a big business of selling exhibits, copies of exhibits, and exhibit recipe books, and many individuals who start new institutions rely almost entirely on these vehicles to fill their galleries.
I understand why retail establishments benefit from becoming bigger, more homogeneous, and more distributed. People like to buy from chains because they know what they are going to get. But consistency should not be the number one value when it comes to providing visitors with educational, aesthetic, social, and hopefully transformative experiences. I'd argue that one of the top reasons people DON'T visit museums is that they think they already know what they are going to get. Especially when it comes to small museums with limited collections, a distinctive personality is often the best thing the institution has to offer. Trying to cover it up or smooth it out in favor of "best practices" does a disservice to the museum and the audience. It creates another forgettable museum.
Do you share my love of idiosyncratic institutions? How can you cultivate idiosyncrasy in your own work and museum?
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Overview: Stages of Development and Participation Types
The Participatory Museum was written over a 15 month period that began in December of 2008. Participants were engaged in the following ways:
- Content review (open). I wrote the plans, outlines, and multiple drafts on a public wiki that was available for review, edits, and comments. While all stages were open for comment, I made an explicit ask right before releasing the second draft, and consequently, the second draft was most heavily edited. 65 people participated on the wiki, though the vast majority of the activity came from a core group of 15 (more on that below).
- Content review (solicited). In addition to the volunteers who signed up to help on the wiki, I directly solicited sixteen professionals in the field who I respect to provide feedback on particular chapters (or in some cases, on the entire draft).
- Content review (stealth). Many of the book sections started as blog posts on Museum 2.0. Sometimes, I'd put out a post on something I was struggling with for the book (see this early example). Readers' comments helped steer the book, even if these commenters never visited the book development wiki. At least 50 blog posts and 240 related comments fall into this category.
- Copy editing. I invited people to sign up to copy edit sections of the final draft. 17 people contributed to this effort. This process involved people downloading sections of the book, editing them in Microsoft Word, and reuploading them. Each section went through two copy editors for redundancy.
- Marketing copy. I invited people to help develop marketing copy for the book - to vote on the title of the book, help write the blurb for the back, and comment on the cover illustration. 210 people voted on the title, 6 contributed to the blurb, and about 30 commented on the cover.
- Image and content research. In a fairly traditional process, I asked professional colleagues to help me source images and examples that should be included in the book. In a couple of cases, I opened this up broadly to my Facebook or Twitter network, for example, when I was looking for a generic shot of visitors checking out a photography exhibition. I also cold-contacted people on Flickr with image reproduction requests, 100% of which were granted.
- Cut the length of the book from 125,000 to 99,000 words. There were many redundancies in the original draft, and Bruce Wyman in particular was delightfully brutal at pointing them out.
- Restructure the book. You may notice that the graphs below show only six chapters, whereas the final book has eleven. This restructuring was based on their comments and edits.
- Streamline case studies, especially those in which I was personally invested. Conxa Roda was a queen of cutting.
- Improve the section on evaluation. Peter Linett, Mark Kille, and Andrea Bandelli were instrumental in making this happen.
- Track down examples from further afield, especially from smaller institutions, institutions outside the English-speaking world, and institutions that focus on living history.
- Shift the tone of the book. Sarah Barton and Elaine Gurian in particular helped me settle on a more generous, positive voice.
- Generally feel confident about making big changes. I made the vast majority of edits and restructuring on my own, but I was bolstered in doing so by the many comments and opinions of the contributors. They cheered me on conceptually as I worked late into the night. Without them, the differences among the drafts would have been much less significant (and the final result of lower quality).
When and how did people participate the most?
With the exception of spikes each time I made a blog announcement about the book development, the traffic to the wiki stayed pretty constant throughout 2009. The dead time in October was an error on my part--that data was lost.
Looking just at the returners (and excluding me), you can see how low the overall traffic was, and how concentrated in the various participatory time periods:
Despite the fact that the wiki enjoyed more visits during the first draft than the second, there was far more editing activity for the second draft. I took a different approach to the two drafts: the first draft was made available as I wrote it, whereas I released the second draft all at once (and gave people a fixed timeframe in which to make their comments). Here's a graph comparing wiki activity during the first draft (Feb-Oct, 2009) and the second draft (Nov 1 - Dec 18, 2009):
Clearly, the numbers of comments and edits were WAY up for the second draft. But this doesn't tell the whole story. When we look at the graph of the relative number of people involved, it looks like this:
Chapter 1, 5, and 6 received a lot more love in the second draft than the first, but the difference otherwise is not huge. The outline is an outlier because it was used as a planning tool and enjoyed lots of discussion among people who were interested in the book in its earliest phases. The number of people actively involved from draft one to two jumped from about 5 to 15--but those fifteen people collectively made hundreds more comments and edits to the draft. Of those fifteen, just six--Sarah Barton, Conxa Roda, Mark Kille, Mike Skelly, Louise Govier, and Claire Antrobus--contributed 95% of the edits. The power law is alive and well.
It's worth noting that I only knew one of these six people (Conxa) before this process began. In particular, Sarah Barton had incredible influence on the content development, and she is someone I would definitely go to in the future for content review.
While I was thrilled by the participation of this small group, it was obvious that a huge number of Museum 2.0 readers were not involved in the wiki process. For this reason, I stepped up the double-posting of case studies and book content on the blog and wiki so I could have the benefit of the comments of a wider group. Blog commenters, who not represented in the graphs above, represented the most diverse and numerous group of participants in content review. Hundreds of people offered a single comment on a post or tweet throughout the second draft process.
The solicited content reviewers also had incredible impact on the book, but in a way that was quite different from that of the wiki and blog commenters. The wiki and blog comments appeared in real time, whereas the solicited reviewers sent me their complete edited manuscripts in one pile in mid-December. This meant that throughout the writing stages, I could rely on blog and wiki commenters to steer me in the right direction. By the time I got back the manuscripts from solicited reviewers, I was pretty much "done" covering the wiki comments and could focus fairly exclusively on the solicited drafts. These solicited commenters in general provided incredibly detailed comments, though a few folks opted to offer an overall impression instead. Frankly, I'm glad that not everyone wrote line-by-line comments - I couldn't have handled it. Special thanks go to Georgina Goodlander, Ed Rodley, and especially Bruce Wyman for doing something very wonderful with their edits: making me laugh.
A few surprises
Every time I do a project that involves user participation, I'm always surprised to find some of my expectations are completely off the mark.
Here are four surprises I encountered in this project:
- Unsolicited contributions were at least as valuable as those that were solicited. Part of me suspected that the people who I directly asked to review the drafts would be more honest, more critical, and just generally more helpful in the direction of the book. I expected that wiki volunteers would mostly be Museum 2.0 fans who might not feel comfortable being critical, especially in a public venue. This was not the case. I received FABULOUS critical comments on the wiki, including and especially from people I did not know. In one case, Chris Castle, one of the few people to comment on the first draft on the wiki (and someone I didn't know), became someone I solicited formally for the second draft because I had appreciated her early contributions to the wiki.
- The numbers worked themselves out. I was nervous when I threw open the wiki and over a hundred people registered to edit. How would I deal with a hundred commenters and the 16 I'd solicited? But it turned out that only a small percentage of that hundred got deeply involved - a number (15) that was manageable for me. And that's not to say others who made a single comment didn't have impact--I got value out of every comment and edit, even if people only contributed once.
- People preferred to comment on a finished draft rather than the work in progress. At the time, I thought people would be MORE excited to comment and help shape the book as I was first writing it than to comment on a complete draft. I was wrong. The second draft was offered to participants with a much more specific, time-limited ask, and it was much more successful than the open-ended "help me as I write it" approach to draft one. This makes sense - the second draft experience was much better-scaffolded - and it made me reconsider the extent to which participants want to be involved in the early development of other peoples' projects.
- People loved to copy edit. I was nervous that no one would want to copy edit. I had lined up a good friend to save me if needed (and Dave Mayfield did make many key contributions). But I was totally wrong about this. People were THRILLED to copy edit. Copy editors were the most likely to enthusiastically blog or tweet about their experience. They were also more likely to be young or new to the museum field than other contributors. I think copy editing was a way that people felt they could make a meaningful contribution without having to be some kind of expert. They got a sneak peek of the most final draft. And apparently some people LOVE finding grammatical errors. Heck, I guess I do too.
Next week, tune in for a post focused on participants' experiences--how they were encouraged to participate, how they felt about the experience, and how the feedback and reward structures worked. If you were a participant, please consider filling out this short survey to add your voice to next week's post.
What else do you want to know about this book-writing process?
Monday, March 08, 2010
- a guy on the phone, lounging in front of his computer
- a guy taking a photo of me while ignoring simple questions
- a guy who used a mirror effect to look like an alien
- a penis
Chatroulette is an online service that allows you to videochat with random strangers. It pairs you up automatically with other users to talk, and you can click "Next" at any time to jump to someone else (as I did to penis-guy, and as all three of the other users did to me). It's in the same vein as Omegle (a text-based "talk to strangers" system), and it's attracting a lot of media attention and tens of thousands of concurrent users.
Chatroulette frustrates me. It drives me nuts that it's being called "groundbreaking" in the realm of human-to-human interactions. Chatroulette is not groundbreaking, nor is it threatening to the social fabric of society. It's a novelty, and a mostly depressing one at that. Chatroulette exacerbates the perception that stranger interactions are uncomfortable, weird, and often sexual in nature. It encourages people to see each other as entertainment instead of as human beings. And because users use the "Next" button so liberally--to escape gross users, to find someone interesting--the fundamental activity on Chatroulette is not chatting or connecting with strangers. It's evaluating people. In most cases, within two seconds, you or the person with whom you are videochatting decides that the other person is not worth their time. And that means you reject or are rejected by others, multiple times each minute. What an unpleasant feeling. As New York reporter Sam Anderson put it:
I got off the ChatRoulette wheel determined never to get back on. I hadn’t felt this socially trampled since I was an overweight 12-year-old struggling to get through recess without having my shoes mocked. It was total e-visceration. If this was the future of the Internet, then the future of the Internet obviously didn’t include me.Chatroulette strips away all of the social conventions and scaffolding we use to relate to strangers in public. The interactions are private, which means there's no external social pressure to conform. The interactions are anonymous, which means there's no need to be accountable for your actions. And the interactions are fleeting, which promotes shock value and immediate, dramatic actions. These three characteristics make Chatroulette just about the worst environment possible for interacting with and potentially relating to strangers. It may be a fun plaything for people who like to provoke and be provoked. Occasionally it's a place for a surprising cross-cultural encounter. But it's rarely a place for building relationships--even the simplest kinds--among strangers.
Chatroulette frustrates me most because it doesn't live up to its potential. I blame that deficiency on lack of scaffolding of the social interactions. I can't help but think how much better it would be if the system provided an external prompt--a challenge or a topic to discuss. I could imagine having a great time on videochat debating the merits of a piece of art with a stranger, trying to solve a puzzle together, talking about a news event, or sharing stories. Each time I've tried to initiate this kind of interaction on Chatroulette, my partner in videochat has disconnected from me, leaving me feeling rejected and dejected. While I've heard stories of people dancing with strangers on Chatroulette and generally sharing surprising experiences, the first three attempts/five minutes of use didn't make me want to soldier on in search of positive encounters.
I've had some fabulous interactions with strangers in comparably open-ended environments that offered just a bit more designed structure. Think of the Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit, which allows people to virtually arm wrestle with strangers in science centers around the US. When you sit down to use it, you grasp a metal arm (meant to simulate your competitor’s arm) and are connected to another visitor at an identical kiosk. This visitor may be a few feet from you in the same science center or hundreds of miles away at another science center. You receive a “go” signal, and then you start pushing. The metal arm exerts a force on your arm equal to the force exerted by your remote partner on his own metal arm. Eventually, one competitor overpowers the other, and the game is over.
The Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit, like Chatroulette, connects strangers via webcams in short-term, shared encounters. But because the exhibit experience is focused on a third thing--the arm wrestling competition--visitors are generally playful and positive with each other and walk away from the experience having enjoyed a unique connection with a stranger.
Bringing a "third thing" into the Chatroulette ecosystem would help people interact in a civil manner. It would also help them interact, period. Many times on Chatroulette, I've been connected to someone and we stare at each other, uncertain of how to start a conversation in such a decontextualized environment. And so, out of embarrassment or discomfort or uncertainty, one or both of us click "Next." I've learned that holding up signs or puppets, or playing a musical instrument, helps lengthen chat time. These are all social objects that help get the conversation going.
I could imagine a delightful application on a museum website that would allow me to chat with a stranger about a featured artifact or artwork. The object and the context of the museum website would both provide framing and structure that would likely make for a positive encounter. I could imagine a game in which people were paired up and asked to construct a vision of a better future. I could imagine virtual advice booths, with strangers helping each other solve their problems. Instead, we got Chatroulette--another nail in the coffin for those who believe that peaceful, positive, useful interactions among strangers, especially on the internet, are unlikely.
Now let's go out and design something better to prove them wrong.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Hey kid! Want to buy a book?
As many of you know, I've been working for the past year+ on a book about visitor participation in museums, libraries, science centers, and art galleries. Now, after long last, the book is here!
The Participatory Museum is a practical guide to visitor participation. It's been described as "essential reading" by Elaine Heumann Gurian and Sebastian Chan, and Kathleen McLean calls it "an extraordinary resource" (more reviews here).
Why did I write this book? Over the past four years, there's been lots of discussion about the "why" of visitor participation, but in my opinion, we've been lacking a good resource on the "how." The Participatory Museum is an attempt at providing such a resource. I hope it opens up a broader conversation about the nuts and bolts of successful participatory projects.
The book is split into two parts, providing what Leslie Bedford calls "a convincing marriage of theory and practice." The first half focuses on principles of design for participation, drawing on examples from the Web, retail, and restaurants as well as cultural institutions for lessons on how to help visitors confidently and enthusiastically contribute in ways that help achieve institutional goals. The second half focuses on participation in practice, looking in detail at ways that institutions can involve visitors while staying true to their mission and staff culture.
While the book draws heavily from the Museum 2.0 blog, many case studies and design principles in the book will be new to even the most devoted blog followers. There are projects from Vietnam to Australia to the Netherlands to the US, from libraries, museums, science centers, zoos, state parks, and art centers. At 388 pages, there's a lot to explore and to help you refine your thinking and participatory project planning. It's available internationally in paperback ($25) and as PDF/ebook ($18), and I'm finishing the free online version this month.
As many of you know, this book was created via a participatory process that involved many individuals. Over 100 volunteers helped steer and refine the content, copy-edit the draft, choose the title, and write the blurb for the back. Over the next month, I'll be posting a four-part series about the participatory book development and self-publishing process. If you participated in the creation of The Participatory Museum--even if you just answered a simple question on Twitter or visited the wiki site during its creation--please consider filling out this survey to help inform these upcoming posts.
I'm also trying to make the website for the book a participatory place for continued discussion and debate about these topics. The site is still in early days, and if you have any ideas about its design, please feel free to share them either as a comment on this post or in the discussion section of the book website.
If you would like to help promote the book, please share the website with your friends and colleagues. You can write a review of the book (once you've read it, please). Blog about it. Tweet about it. I'm particularly hopeful that you might be able to help this book reach people slightly outside the museum field, like librarians, state park interpreters, and community arts organizers. If you have a favorite magazine, journal, or site that should review it, let me know. If you think I should talk about it at a particular conference, let me know. If there's a bookstore or book seller you think should offer it, well, you get the idea. I'm also trying to schedule book events around the world over the next several months - if you want me to come to your city, please fill out this form and we'll start figuring it out.