Thursday, January 27, 2011

Want to Get Your Content Out There? Put it on Wikipedia.

At a recent talk in Chicago, an audience member asked a question. His foundation supports a private museum that is rarely open to the public. Over the past few years, they've worked hard to make their rich content more accessible both through digitization and programs... but people aren't coming. How can he promote smarter outreach for the future?

While there are many ways for museums to reach new audiences, when it comes to specialized knowledge, it's often a question of reaching the niche who care deeply about German watches from 1822 or the evolutionary shift in raccoon striping over time. The people who want that content may not be in the same city as the museum nor even aware of the museum's holdings. So they go to the Web and start exploring.

This is museum digitization 101. Museums of all sizes have moved to digitize objects and place them on discrete webpages so visitors can easily get to the content they want through a Google search. Institutions create exhibit microsites, blogs, and knowledge portals so people beyond the museum walls can explore content. But Google isn't the only way people access information on the Web. When people want knowledge, their first stop might not be a search engine. It might be Wikipedia.

If you want people to find out about your unique holdings and knowledge, rather than just sharing them on your own website (findable through Google, but maybe not at the top of the search results), why not also add them to the largest world encyclopedia? Wikipedia is an incredible place to reach hungry learners and join a community of dedicated researchers who care deeply about making knowledge accessible to everyone.

This isn't rocket science, but it's surprising how few museums have gotten involved with Wikipedia. What excites me about it is how accessible it is to any size institution. Anyone can contribute to it... including museum professionals.

For example, for the Brooklyn Museum's recent exhibition on women and pop art, Seductive Subversion, curatorial intern Rebecca Shaykin was assigned to improve (and write) Wikipedia articles on the 25 artists profiled in the show. The goal was twofold: to share knowledge about these artists with the world, and to create a content base that could be used for an iPad-based interactive component of the exhibition.

Before the project started, 14 of the 25 artists had articles on Wikipedia, of which only 11 were full-size articles. As Rebecca put it:
I certainly wasn’t expecting to find Wikipedia entries for all the artists in Seductive Subversion. After all, a good number of them, such as Mara McAfee, Dorothy Grebenak, and Kay Kurt, have been virtually forgotten over the years. But I simply couldn’t believe that many celebrated artists, including May Stevens, Dorothy Iannone, and Lee Lozano, had no Wikipedia presence whatsoever, while Pauline Boty, Britain’s reigning “Queen of Pop,” had one paltry paragraph dedicated to her brief but stellar life.
Rebecca spent much of the summer before the show researching the women artists, translating curatorial knowledge into Wikipedia's markup language, creating articles, and expanding the existing ones to produce museum-quality contributions.

The exhibition is now closed. The iPad-based interactive was very popular, both for the novelty of the iPad and the familiarity of the Wikipedia interface. From an operational perspective, this approach to content development does double duty--it generated a great content base for visitors AND one that persists in a widely used online space.

While many museum media projects involve developing content that can be used across multiple platforms--web, kiosk, mobile--that content usually stays within the institutional domain both physically and virtually. Even projects like ArtBabble, a niche video site that exists across and beyond the museums that feed it, must attract new users who do not have a pre-existing relationship with the website. Working in a platform like Wikipedia allows museum knowledge to go where the people are. And unlike YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and other highly-trafficked third-party sites, Wikipedia's mission, lack of ads, and status as a non-profit makes it a more comfortable bedfellow for many museums.

When you add content to Wikipedia, it's not like putting up a video on YouTube. It doesn't live on "your" page, open only for user comments and site-driven advertising. The content belongs to a diverse ecosystem of researchers and explorers. This may feel like a loss of control, but it's also a great step toward sharing knowledge, which is fundamental to museums' reason for publishing content in the first place. As Rebecca from the Brooklyn Museum commented:
The artists featured in Seductive Subversion deserve to be better integrated into the narrative of Pop Art, in text books, on museum walls, and, yes, even on Wikipedia. What I’ve done is simply lay the groundwork for their presence on this popular site, in the hopes of generating deeper interest in their lives in work amongst visitors to our exhibition and the general public alike. The pages featured on the iPads in our galleries, like all Wikipedia pages, are continually being updated. Already Wikipedians have begun contributing to the pages I created just a few weeks ago.
Like any information source, Wikipedia has inherent weaknesses. The knowledge presented is hardly universal--as Rebecca found out when she first investigated the presence of these important artists on the site. The Wikipedia community is serious about sharing knowledge, and museums can help that knowledge grow in particular directions of interest and expertise. Institutions can do so actively, as Brooklyn did. But they can also just make it easier for Wikipedians to find and use museum content in their work. At the Powerhouse in Sydney, objects in the online collection now have Wikipedia citation codes so interested folk can add images and information from the museum content to Wikipedia articles.

If you're interested in jumping into the Wikipedia waters and need some guidance, send an email to glam[at]wikimedia[dot]org. That will send you to Liam Wyatt, a friendly Australian who manages cultural partnerships for Wikimedia and is a vocal advocate for museums entering this space.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sustaining Innovation Part 3: Interview With Sarah Schultz of the Walker Art Center

This is the third in a series of posts about Paul Light's book Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally. This post features an interview with Sarah Schultz, a museum staffer at one of the institutions Light profiled in the book (the Walker Art Center). Sarah has worked at the Walker since 1992 and is currently the Director of Education and Community Programs.

As a long-time employee of the Walker, how do you react to Paul Light's observations about what makes an institution innovate?

I honestly wasn’t aware of the book when it first came out. But having just read it, I think it's really accurate. Light’s notion of innovation as an organizational practice that has to be continually nurtured is right on. I've had the benefit of being in an organization that really does practice and value innovation at every level. There's a high tolerance for risk and failure, trust from the top, and a strong sense of mission in everything we do.

In my experience, innovation is about flexibility, capacity, and collaborative relationships. It's the ability for me to work with my CFO to be able to budget and align the right kinds of resources for new projects. A crew that has the capacity to build a sign at the last minute. Guard staff who are willing to let an artist step between two panes of glass to perform. Our collective willingness to be nimble and generous is really the reason I've been able to do any kind of innovative project here.

How does the process of getting an innovation off the ground work at the Walker?

One key idea that Paul Light talks about is the notion of slack. You need the headspace and the free time to think of ideas, and the resources to make them happen--whether that's $30 or $300,000. A good organization will value unstructured time and a good CFO will help you find that financial slack. Every organization has pockets of restricted and unrestricted money. To innovate, you really need those unrestricted dollars. How do you loosen up funds? My CFO has been very proactive and a wonderful partner in figuring out how to create an overall department budget that frees up small pockets of money for new projects.

Can you give me an example?

It's always seemed challenging here to find funds for interpretative materials. It's easier to secure grants for community-based programming or exhibitions, but it's not easy to get funding for some of the core work that museums do. So when we want to innovate with interpretation, we have to budget creatively. For example, Card Catalogue is a project around our permanent collection, an evolving catalog made up of printed cards visitors can collect and keep in a binder. It’s a great project that allows us to keep researching and creating content around our collection, and we need about $10,000 per year to produce it. That is a not a major expense here, but we also don’t have $10,000 just lying around. It's too small to write a grant for, too big to assume we just have the money. Working with the CFO, we went through my budget and found ways to realign funds to find the money to do the project.

You talked earlier about the importance of flexibility and nimbleness on staff--the proclivity for people to be open and say yes to something new rather than throw up barriers. What do you see that makes that possible--or not possible--in different situations?

I can't stress enough the importance of opportunities for staff to gather informally, be collegial, and play together. That's how we build trust. The Walker is also a place where everyone is committed to supporting artists and new work, so every time we bring in an artist, staff are enthusiastic about the idea of coming together to create something. It's inherent in what we do.

That said, the fact that we work with contemporary artists can also create a lot of stress in our institutional systems. Their processes can be really different from ours. We just had a situation with an artist collective that came for a site visit and decided they wanted to build an igloo. Their process was to plan what and how we will work together this coming summer is by actually by doing a project together right away. While everyone supports the energy of working with artists, when it's -10 degrees and you're being asked to help build an igloo on the fly, people can get frustrated. A lot of these partnerships push against our internal ways of working, and while that's a healthy tension, we need to be sensitive to the stress on our organizational systems and each other. This is especially true in today's climate, when everyone is trying to do more with less.

It seems like when that happens, you'd have to ask yourself: should we change the system based on this experience, or did this push us beyond our ability?

Exactly. Every time, we have to ask ourselves that question, balancing innovation with our institutional capacity. Asking those questions and refining your practice is precisely how you continue to stay inventive and responsive.

Can you think of a time when you changed the system in response to an external need or stress point?

In the 1990s, we decided we wanted to engage a teen audience. This would be a major institutional undertaking. We created a teen arts council, invested in staff, and invested in programming. We discovered that teens felt uncomfortable in the galleries because they had to check their backpacks and they felt the guards were watching them. And the guards were watching them; they didn't trust teens. So we had to do a training program with the guards so they could understand teens and change their behavior in the gallery to make people more comfortable. From that one experience, we are now much more sensitive to how different people experience the galleries and the guards. Guards, visitors services, and education staff have become leaders in advocating for visitor experience--and we're much better at staff training and being responsive to issues that arise.

How do you think the current economic climate has affected your ability to innovate?

I do think the combined intensity of institutional ambition, public expectation and constrained resources is stressing people out. It's harder to find that slack money and free time now. We are culturally in a time of serious recalibration and that's a bumpy ride. There are moments when we get through it very gracefully, and there are times when we don't.

I don't think this is specific to the Walker. Museums are in the business of the public good and the people who work in them are very committed and creatively ambitious. We tend to be generative and generous people and we want to make things happen. We want to deliver on our promise and try to provide something for everyone. Strategy is hard because strategy is about sacrifice. It's hard in this line of work to say no.

My favorite part of Paul Light's book was his discussion of "why to say yes and how to say no."

Everything we've been through economically in the last two years could help us learn how to say no and how to focus and prioritize. This is actually my personal struggle--how to do less better. I'm hungry and my staff is hungry and we want to do everything and we can't. And so we have to focus and find the most effective work we can do. It’s finding some optimism in that saying, “never let a good crisis go to waste." Ironically, this can lead to greater innovation.

How does the need to say "no" affect your approach to innovation in lean times?

We have an inclination to innovate becuase we're constantly asking ourselves how we could a do better job. At the same time, we're dealing with this question: what happens when you do something innovative and it becomes the status quo - internally and externally? In the 1990s, we were an innovative leader in teen programs. Now the teen arts council model is no longer considered innovative. Do we focus on implementing the programs we know are successful, or should we be pushing out in a new direction?

You could spend all your time doing what you now know works, and spend no time on new creative challenges. On the other hand, innovation for its own sake isn't productive. I get frustrated when a client asks for something no one has done before. That shouldn't be the reason we try something. But I know that funding and media often demand it.

If a funder is saying they will fund something new, or if the media attention is for something new, or even if innovation is part of the narrative of your institution, it is sometimes going to drive some of your decisions in a way it probably shouldn't. That is part of the challenge and lesson in learning to say no.

If you start with the right question and a real desire to create something of public value, it can lead you interesting places. We didn't start our teen initiative to do something new; we did it because we believed there was a real need and opportunity to serve teenagers in a way that no one was doing at the time. It drove us in a direction that turned out to be very innovative. But we don't always have to be the ones with the new idea. You know, MOMA did a really great project with visitors with Alzheimer's. When we were researching this idea (which is now our Contemporary Journeys program), we consulted with them. We shouldn't redesign that wheel but maybe just adapt it. The goal is to do great work, not to be innovative.

Have you ever done a project that was innovative but didn't hit your goals in terms of serving your community?

We are committed to serving a broad audience and to supporting artists who are pushing at the boundaries of artistic practice. That's a really interesting tension, and it's allowed us to do a lot. It also means we're sometimes out of step in one direction or the other.

Back in 2004, just before we opened the building, we undertook a project to conduct some local research about art and civic engagement. Our metaphor for the new building was a "town square," and the research project was intended to help us figure out what that would look like and feel like. We talked to 30 audience representatives--artists, activists, local leaders--and we dove into the work that Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza had done through Animating Democracy. We created a framework for how this would look in the institution. We made a full color poster, a spectrum of civic engagement, lots of materials, and we were going to give this to the curators to use. This would be a model for the new way we were going to work with artists and audiences.

The research was sound, the model was pretty good, and it basically went nowhere. It just went into people's file cabinets. I think there are two reasons this happened. Our internal team, including myself, was not yet the most skilled at the internal advocacy needed to move the project forward. So the institution couldn't seem to wrap its head around how to put this research into action.

What I'm now finding 5 years later, is that a lot of these ideas are manifest in Open Field--a current project to explore how an institution, artists, and a community can come together to co-create a place for creative exchange. I don't even think I was conscious of the connection between the research and Open Field. The research turned out to be a seed we were planting. It just took awhile to find its ground. I think Open Field would have been almost impossible without that map, but it was not a linear journey.

You need to be open to the purposelessness of innovation. Some things move at different paces. This is why informal staff discussions and time together is so important. When we invested in a new outdoor grill and some large communal picnic tables last summer as part of Open Field, suddenly a lot of ideas were generated between staff at lunches and casual time together. You can't go to a meeting and be innovative. Innovative thinking is a balance between structured collaboration, happy accidents, and serendipitous conversations. You can't really say I'll be innovative at 2pm on Fridays. You need a balance between structure and openness to make all of this possible.

Thanks to Sarah and the Walker for providing such powerful, honest, realistic stories of innovation in action. Sarah will check in with the blog to respond to comments or questions you might have for her.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sustaining Innovation Book Discussion Part 2: Your Experiences with Innovation (and Lack Thereof)

This is the second in a series of posts about Paul Light's book Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally. This post is an "open thread" post, in which you are encouraged to share your own experiences (positive and negative) with innovation in organizations. Next Tuesday will feature an interview with Sarah Schultz, a museum staffer at one of the institutions Light profiled in the book (the Walker Art Center).

This post is number 500 in the world of Museum 2.0. It's a long time coming. I've wanted to do open threads for years--to, at least part-time, transition this blog into a more democratic conversational space for cultural professionals. I think (hope) that Museum 2.0 now has a critical mass of readers and participants that we can make this work.

So I'm just going to ask two questions and then open the floor. Last week, I reviewed Sustaining Innovation, a book that explores management styles and internal procedures that support innovation at non-profits and government agencies. And so I'm curious:
  • In your own work experience, what practices have you seen that encouraged or made innovation possible?
  • What practices have you seen crush innovation or make it impossible?
Please share your stories (anonymously or otherwise) in the comments!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Postcards as a Call to Action: A Powerful, Political Participatory Experience at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

The best participatory projects are useful. Rather than just doing an activity, visitors should be able to contribute in a way that provides a valuable outcome for the institution and the wider museum audience. Finding legitimate ways for visitors to be of use is easier said than done. This week, I saw a great example at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum that blew me away with its power and simplicity.

The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is a small historic house dedicated to the story of Chicago’s progressive activists in the early 1900s. The participatory activity in question is part of the new Unfinished Business gallery, a room in which the museum engages with a contemporary issue related to the passion and work of Jane Addams and the historic Hull-House activist residents.

The current Unfinished Business exhibition focuses on the prison industrial complex. It has three main parts: graphic novel-style wall graphics about the history of Hull-House activism related to incarceration and youth imprisonment, an activity station focused on juvenile justice reform, and a second activity station focused on prisoners in solitary confinement at Tamms Supermax Prison. It is this station that grabbed my attention.

The station is a collaboration between the Museum and Tamms Year Ten, an advocacy group that supports prisoners and seeks to expose the injustice with which many are held in solitary confinement. A simple label explains that when Tamms opened in 1998, prisoners were only supposed to be held in solitary confinement there for one year. Ten years later, one-third of the prisoners were still there. Tamms Year Ten runs a number of projects that invite people to write to prisoners, send photographs of the outside world, and advocate for them. The Museum activity label begins:
The Tamms Poetry Committee came together after asking prisoners what people on the outside can do to alleviate the stress of prolonged solitary confinement.

"Send poems!" was one of the answers.
Museum visitors are invited to write poems on postcards and send them to Tamms prisoners. There is a set of books of poetry that visitors can copy from (recommended by the Museum's poet-in-residence), or they can write their own. Tamms Year Ten provides lists of prisoner names and addresses, and the Museum prints up address stickers that visitors can affix to their postcards. The Museum screens and mails the postcards to the prisoners. Unfinished Business curator Teresa Silva told me that only a handful of postcards have had to be removed for negative or off-topic comments. The majority are beautiful, thoughtfully-rendered postcards. I choked up just looking through a stack. The messages were lovely, but the real power came in the simple address stickers that connected the cards to real prisoners in solitary confinement.

Yes, this activity is political. But it is political in a way that fits right in with the Museum’s mission and history. The Hull-House activists were concerned with creating a compassionate criminal justice system, and that work is by no means “finished” business in this country. Just as visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium clamor to take real action to protect the oceans, visitors to the Jane Addams Hull-House respond positively to this opportunity to engage in a bit of progressive, compassionate activism.

From a design perspective, this activity is scaffolded for success. The political nature of the activity is overt, so participating visitors know what they’re getting into. The postcards say right on them “I am sending this poem in solidarity with you.” Furthermore, selecting and copying out a poem from a book is something that most anyone can do. People can decorate their poems as much or as little as they like, and those who choose to take a more creative route and write their own poems or letters are invited to do so. Like the best participatory projects, this postcard activity is constrained but not limiting. The Museum gives people the tools to engage confidently without prescribing the output.

And most powerfully, that output is something useful, something that matters not just to the museum or to other visitors, but to the world. Kudos to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum for such an inspiring call to action.

Note: for more photos and explanation of this activity, please consult this blog post by curatorial assistant Teresa Silva.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sustaining Innovation Book Discussion Part 1: What Does it Take Innovate Naturally and Frequently?

This is the first in a series of posts about Paul Light's book Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally. This post is my review of the book. Next Tuesday, we'll experiment with an "open thread" post, in which you are encouraged to share your own experiences (positive and negative) with innovation in organizations.

The longer I consult with museums and cultural institutions, the more time I spend peering into people's eyes, wondering: do folks here feel able to innovate? Is this a place where staff members are comfortable taking risks? What divides an organization that is ready to experiment from one that is not?

Sustaining Innovation is a thoughtful, comprehensive book that has helped me think more concretely about these questions and their answers. It's an atypical book about organizational innovation for two reasons:
  1. It focuses on non-profits and government agencies instead of for-profit companies.
  2. It focuses not on single acts of innovation, but on the organizational conditions and management strategies that support natural, frequent innovations.
What differentiates innovation in non-profits and government agencies from that in businesses? Light argues that while in business, any new idea that generates revenue can be an innovation, a new idea or technique is only valuable for a non-profit organization if it contributes to that organization's ability to deliver on its public mission. He suggests that it's often too expensive (and distracting from mission) for organizations to get on the hamster wheel of pursuing new ideas for their own sake. Instead, Light defines innovation as "an act that challenges the prevailing wisdom as it creates public value." It only matters if it matters.

To write the book, Light selected and studied 26 innovative non-profits and government agencies across Minnesota during the mid-90s. Some are primarily "what" innovators--changing the prevailing wisdom about what their organization should do or whom it should serve. Others are "how" innovators--using unusual techniques to accomplish traditional goals. All operate "just beyond the possible" to achieve their missions and serve their clientele. Of the 26, two are museumish: the Minnesota Zoo and the Walker Art Center, and three are arts organizations: Artspace, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater and Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The rest are schools, mental health facilities, housing, social justice, economic development, and environmental organizations.

Because the focus of the book is on organizational structure and not on specific acts or events, Light spends almost no time describing each organization or its particular innovations. Instead, he uses illustrative examples from each to support broad theses about leadership styles, internal structures, and operational strategies. These pick-and-choose examples can feel a bit disorienting and manipulative, since it's hard to draw your own conclusions with little context about the organization being mentioned. But overall, I found his approach effective and strongly preferable to the common alternative--an anthology of case studies devoid of connections or overriding conclusions.

So what did I learn?

There should be an entire book about innovative failures. By far the most educational stories in the book concern the Phoenix Group, a housing/economic development non-profit that imploded over the course of Light's research. Part of me wonders whether the organization was actually built to "sustain" anything (it may have been a deliberately unsustainable business model). Phoenix was an over-innovator: they said yes to everything, intentionally ignored or eschewed basic accounting and management principles, and pursued flexibility to the extreme. They were highly exposed to risk, and when one project failed, it took down the whole organization. Great food for thought about the negatives of treating internal structures (especially related to finances) as unrelated or adversarial to "real" mission work.

Innovation is for everyone. Light hammers again and again on the fact that the capacity to have good ideas is not limited to designated "creatives" or executives. Much of the book focuses on how to cultivate good ideas throughout an organization. Many of the institutions profiled have formal processes for inviting ideas from across the institution, including innovation investment funds in which promising new ideas can receive some startup money to get going. In a few of the schools and community organizations, this openness to ideas extends to students/clients/audiences who are given significant opportunities to propose, evaluate, and pursue new experiments.

CEOs of innovating organizations are not grandiose heroes; they are visionary structuralists. The leaders Light profiles work tirelessly to push authority downward and cultivate innovation at all levels, creating structures that reward good ideas with clarity and transparency. They find ways to budget, schedule, and structure organizations so that management is an asset rather than a hindrance. These managers, directors, and leaders spend their time encouraging internal collaboration rather than furthering their own pet projects. They shepherd the mission, make clear decisions, attend to outside forces... and they go home for dinner.

Trust and follow-through are really, really important. Empty promises about collaboration, risk-taking, or permission to fail are far more dangerous than no promises at all. In a surprising turn, Light comments that organizations in which leaders and staff talk about "faith"--in each other, in the mission, in a higher power--seem particularly effective at supporting each other through the stresses of innovation. But where faith isn't discussed, frequent cross-departmental communication suffices. Leaders in innovative organizations "communicate to excess" with staff, especially in encouraging, rewarding, and celebrating innovative practice. For example, the Minnesota Zoo has a comprehensive system for responding to staff suggestions and complaints, with a specific timeline for acknowledging, considering, and acting on the ideas (all while maintaining the employee's desired level of confidentiality).

The hardest thing for an innovating institution is figuring out "how to say no and why to say yes." This was my favorite takeaway from the book. As Light puts it, "the challenge for an innovating organization is to distinguish between compassion and loyalty to its employees on the one hand and toughness toward the ideas they produce on the other." It's difficult to cheerlead staff and make rigorous decisions at the same time. The best internal investment fund programs have formalized internal vetting systems in which diverse members of the staff (and sometimes, clients) are able to evaluate and prioritize new ideas. Light calls out four common questions used to evaluate new ideas:
  1. Is this faithful to who we are? (mission)
  2. Can we do what we plan? (capacity)
  3. Will what we do actually make a difference in outcomes? (impact/workability)
  4. Can we get the dollars we need to act? (resources, secondary concern)
Light notes that the fourth of these is a distant follower to the other three. If it's a good idea that's right for the mission and for the organization, leaders at innovative institutions don't tend to worry about getting the funds to make it happen.

The challenge of "how to say no and why to say yes" applies to funding as well as ideas. Both when desperate and very successful, organizations may be offered funding that is not in the best interest of the core mission. I was really impressed by the stories of organizations that said no to grants that would either lead to program creep or come with strings attached that might unproductively constrain the organization. Notably, one organization, Chicanos Latinos Unidos En Servico (CLUES), gives back leftover grant money when their projects come in under budget to keep their focus tight and their funding relationships disciplined.

Merit pay does not promote innovation, and may be generally unfit for non-profits and government agencies. Light closely examined merit pay and pay-for-performance programs and found no correlation between them and innovation. From his perspective, these programs don't work in non-profits for a few reasons, but the primary one is practical. The money available for merit pay programs is usually pretty small and often threatened by outside, non-performance-related events like salary freezes. If you can only give someone a 5% bump for their creative merit, that may not be enough to have significant impact, especially if that person isn't in it for the money. Instead, Light suggests it is more important that organizations measure outcomes and frequently celebrate innovative acts--both successes and failures.

Innovative organizations are stressful places to work. An innovating institution is relentlessly, sometimes thanklessly, pushing against the status quo. It can be fun and exciting, but it is rarely an easy place to be. Light notes that it's less stressful to work for a "how" innovating organization than a "what" innovator, since "how" innovators aren't trying to change the core principle of the mission, just accomplish it in new ways. For example, the Dowling School, a "what innovator" that transitioned from being a school for children with disabilities to being an integrated magnet, has to constantly fight to demonstrate that children of all kinds can get high-quality educations by working alongside students who are diverse in physical and mental ability. In contrast, Cyrus Math/Science/Technology Elementary School is a less stressful "how" innovator whose innovations primarily focus on how the school is governed and how teachers do their work. Many organizations transition in and out of being innovative over time, and staff stress tolerance and fatigue can be a big contributor to how long an institution sustains innovation.

In the end, Light says it takes four characteristics--trust, honesty, rigor, and faith--to sustain innovation. It's not about money. It's not about size. Light profiles organizations with all kinds of disfunctions--executive turnover, bureaucratic stagnation, chaotic funding, competitive market forces. You don't need to be perfect to be innovative. You just need to focus on mission, support the heck out of your colleagues, and make clear decisions. Easy, right?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Open Letter to Arianna Huffington, Edward Rothstein, and Many Other Museum Critics

Note: This post is written in response to recent articles about museums by Arianna Huffington (on museums and new media) and Ed Rothstein (on museums and ethnic identity).

Dear Mr. Rothstein and Ms. Huffington,

It's not about you.

I appreciate that you write about museums, and by doing so, publicize their work and efforts. I appreciate that you write thoughtfully about changes in the cultural sector. But I'm a bit frustrated by the short-sightedness of your vision with regard to the role that museums serve in society. In short, I think you focus too much on your personal experience and preferences, not acknowledging the fact that you represent an incredibly small and rare slice of museums' intended audience. It's not about you. It's about culture, learning, and community space--for everyone.

There are two basic assumptions you've made lately that I think are flawed:
  1. the idea that (art) museums are fundamentally for a contemplative experience, and that techniques that distract from classical forms of contemplation are therefore bad.
  2. the idea that it's ok for (American) museums to have a Euro- and white-centric approach to interpretation, but not ok for them to center on minority identities or approaches.
Myth #1: Museums are about contemplation.

In October, Rothstein bemoaned the way that mobile phones have distracted people from looking at art. Last week, Huffington mused on the same question with regard to social media, worrying that museums might lose their power as secret gardens of idle aesthetic pleasure in a world overrun with media.

While both these articles have some reasonable points in them, the underlying argument reflects a bias about what museums are for. Museums are not fundamentally for "contemplation" any more than they are for "celebration" or "exploration" or "challenge." Looking at the data on museum use, very few visitors come alone to sit in quiet reverence and soak in the beauty. As John Falk's research has shown, these "spiritual pilgrims" represent a much smaller percentage of museum audiences than those who come for social experiences, to learn something, or to have novel experiences.

When critics coo over museums as aesthetic temples, I get nervous. These same folks prefer their galleries sparsely used and quiet. They are nostalgic for a type of museum experience that is frankly both endangered and dangerous to the long-term future of museums. They remind me of Catholics who miss the old days when everything was in Latin and ignore the fact that the antiquated rituals they long for also led to serious erosion of use and value of the churches themselves. This nostalgia threatens museums' abilities to engage younger, more diverse audiences. I understand why connoisseurs of classical museum experiences can feel threatened--but that doesn't mean they get to arbitrate what makes a quality museum experience in an age when museums have gotten serious about universal access, inclusion, and diverse learning styles.

New interpretative techniques don't threaten the fundamental value of museum experiences; most of these tools thoughtfully create new opportunities for access, enjoyment, and understanding. I've heard many people rant about how "no one looks at the artifacts anymore! They just snap photos through their phones!" but you could equivalently argue that these digital memories help people form relationships with artifacts and images beyond a single fleeting visit. I appreciate Huffington's argument that we should avoid "social media being the point of social media," but I also worry when she writes that "the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from the aesthetic experience." I have a very hard time imagining that anyone, even an incredibly knowledgeable media-maker such as Huffington, can fairly arbitrate what is and isn't the "right" kind of connection. If you gasp when you see an artifact, I snap a photo, and another visitor texts her friend about the experience, is one of us doing it wrong?

It's time to put to rest the idea that there is a basic adversarial relationship between technology and quality museum experiences. The important thing is not that a museum employs these tools or those. What's important is that museums relentlessly pursue strategies that allow them to be as relevant, useful, and essential to their communities as possible.

Myth #2: White-centric is OK, other-centric is not.

This myth is primarily put forward in Edward Rothstein's recent rant about identity museums, though its bias is reflected in Myth #1 as well (since the contemplative temple vision of museums is innately wrapped up with a Euro-centric vision of what museums are for). Rothstein criticizes a show on Muslim scientific discoveries and others for being ineffectual, revisionist messes. While there's some validity to his argument that exhibitions that scream, "Me!" are often uninteresting, Rothstein seriously understates the extent to which the majority of European and American museums have an unrelenting, white, wealthy "Me!" encrusted on their walls.

Rothstein admits that "even the great imperial museums of Vienna, London, and Paris .. reflect the power and grandeur of their creators." I'd argue that he should replace the word "even" with "especially." Imagine being a young woman walking into a science museum in which Marie Curie is the only female name chiseled into the wall of heroes. Imagine being a member of an indigenous tribe that is treated solely as ancient history in an anthropological museum. Imagine being poor, or an immigrant, or anyone who isn't part of the great colonizing story of most museums and historic houses. It would get pretty damn tiring seeing all those "Me!"s that belong to someone else.

I'm not suggesting that we move to a world in which we have a rainbow of identity museums for every background and interest group. Instead, I think it would be incredibly useful if we would acknowledge the inherent biases that come with any design process and figure out how to transcend them. I'm thinking of projects like Dialogue in the Dark, in which blind guides lead visitors through a pitch-black, multi-sensory environment, or places like the Wing Luke Asian Museum, which strikes an incredible balance between telling a uniquely ethnic story and welcoming non-Asians into it. I'm thinking of the tensions and lessons that come when an institution authentically engages with new audiences, as in the St. Louis Science Center's YES program or the Glasgow Open Museum. I'm thinking of places like the American Visionary Art Museum, whose educational mission is to "expand the definition of a worthwhile life."

So, my professional, critical, and museum-loving friends, let's get beyond these out-of-date ideas about museums as temples to the past and start figuring out how to make them even better for the future.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Happy New Year! Two Free Books! And Watermelon!


Dear Museum 2.0 readers,

2010 was a big year for me. I published The Participatory Museum in March (with help from many of you!) and spent the rest of the year traveling to give workshops and presentations related to its content. While I did learn a ton from my experiences, especially in far-flung places and small museums, it was also exhausting. Thank you so much for hosting me, picking me up at airports, taking me to karaoke bars, showing me secret parts of your museums, helping me find vegetarian food, and sharing your ideas, dreams, and schemes for the future.

A quick top five list of amazing experiences in no particular order:
  1. ArtPrize, the democratic art festival in Grand Rapids that blew my mind
  2. Taiwan. Everything about it. Especially the stinky tofu.
  3. Workshop with rural librarians in Pendleton, Oregon. Fascinating and fun to stretch out from museums for a bit.
  4. The Brazos Valley African American Museum in Bryan, Texas. A community museum with serious heart and essential value.
  5. Explora (Albuquerque, NM). The most peaceful, personal, emergent science center I've ever visited.
For those who are interested, the book has sold 2,300 copies, and 17,000 people have read some portion of it online in the free edition. I'm excited to see how the book helps people move from ideas to action (and I sincerely hope it isn't languishing unread on too many shelves).

As a thank you for all of your friendship, inspiration, and support in 2010, I'm giving away two copies of the book. They have slight water damage on the back cover from a plant in my house. I prefer to think of this as "personalized character." If you feel the same way and you'd like one of them, drop a comment here and I'll pick two people at random in the next week.

My husband Sibley and I have a tradition of making silly New Year's videos to share our lives with friends, family, and colleagues. This year's video tells the story of The Participatory Museum's sequel and exposes some deadly secrets we uncovered this year in the worlds' museums (Denmark! Taiwan! Barcelona! Milwaukee!) and at ArtPrize. I hope you enjoy it. Here's to the start of a year in which I hope we will all move a little closer to our wildest dreams.