Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Guest Post: Using Visitor Participation to Improve Object Labels at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Last month, I learned about a fabulous, simple participatory experiment called “Case by Case” at the San Diego Museum of Natural History that uses visitor feedback to develop more effective object labels. This guest post was written by the museum's exhibit team—Kim Blackford, Cary Canning, Margi Dykens, Michael Field, Erica Kelly, Jim Melli, Mary Lou Morreal, Tim Murray, Josh Payne, and Michael Wall. I hope you are as inspired as I am by this project!

Our problem is this. We have 2500 square feet of exhibit space destined to become a “core” (i.e., essentially permanent) exhibition on collections-based research. We have no funding and a staff that is stretched with temporary exhibitions, contracts, and other long-term planning. Add to this an administrative directive to “put more natural history objects on the floor” and a general lack of the front-end evaluation that would help staff understand the interests, preconceptions, and expectations visitors bring to the topic of collections and research in natural history museums. To date, the solution has been to put photos on the walls, pray for funding, and ignore the front-end evaluation bit. But when customers start shouting down the stairs to their friends and family, “Don’t come up here! There are only pictures,” you know you aren’t meeting expectations.

So we decided to create “Case by Case,” a “baby steps” approach that would:
  • put natural history objects on the floor immediately
  • let us play with evaluation of visitor perception of collection objects
  • help us start to understand the differences between what scientists see when they look at specimens versus what “regular folks” see
  • provide visitors with some participatory experiences
The premise of “Case by Case” is pretty simple: put objects on display with no label and provide the visitor with an opportunity to ask questions and/or make observations about the objects. Our exhibits group knocked around ideas for mechanisms of audience feedback. In the end, we went with sticky notes, pencils and plenty of wall space. We knew that we risked off-topic and off-color remarks but felt that the feedback would be more genuine (and useful) than mechanisms that controlled vocabulary (i.e., magnetic poetry). Plus, the implementation is dead simple.

Using an existing case, we selected a hornet’s nest as our first object. The wall behind the case was painted in contrast to the remainder of the exhibit floor to define the area. Visitors are prompted by signage on the wall above the case, but once feedback starts little prompting is needed.

Questions and answers rolled in. Off-color and off-topic notes (i.e., “Beiber Rules!”) appeared on the wall, but these were rare and were “pruned” from the wall by staff. Over the course of a month and a half the uniqueness of feedback seemed to have asymptoted. We sorted the notes into categories and found that most of the feedback fell in seven areas (listed in descending order of popularity):
  1. It is a beehive, right?
  2. What is it made of and how was it made?
  3. How old is it…or…is it a fossil?
  4. Where was it found?
  5. How are bees, wasps, and hornets different?
  6. Is it real?
  7. What is the story with the leaves sticking out of it?

So what did we learn? A real surprise was the number of visitors who thought the object was a fossil. This simply was not on our radar as needing to be spelled-out on a label. As we discussed it, however, we realized that the exhibits and floor plan leading to “Case by Case” primed the visitor to expect fossils. So while we learned some very specific things about what sort of questions people have about hornets’ nests, we also discovered that we are unwittingly preparing visitors to expect fossils in this area of the museum.

Ultimately, we wrote a very different label than we would have written if we hadn’t asked visitors about their perceptions.

Where to now? Taking folks’ feedback, we created a label and are leaving that object on the floor as evidence that we actually are using people’s feedback (it also accomplished our goal of “more natural history objects on the floor”). Now we have a new case in the spotlight with a bunch of sea turtle skulls. The overall goals are the same but we will continue to shake up the objects on display, selecting items from the collections that we hope are provocative for the public to view.

We see visitors clustered around the “Case by Case” area, reading, talking, writing and examining, and we believe that this project will continue to be engaging for visitors. At the very least it has already provided us with insights about our exhibits space which we could not have predicted, with a minimum of effort on our part. Although initially devised as a quick-and-dirty way to solicit front-end comments from visitors to provide basic information for eventual permanent displays, we now see the long-term potential “Case by Case” to engage our audience in exhibit development.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pranksters in the Museum

Two recent events have got me thinking about pranks and unauthorized activities in museums.
  1. Improv Everywhere staged an event at the Metropolitan Museum in which an actor posing as King Philip IV of Spain signed autographs in front of his portrait, as painted by Diego Velazquez in the 1620s. After some silliness, engagement, and confusion, they were instructed to leave.
  2. Two students, Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler, created an unauthorized ad campaign for the Smithsonian as part of a school project. These "historically hardcore" images attracted a lot of attention on the internet, and when Jenny contacted the Smithsonian about it, she was instructed to remove the Smithsonian logo.
In both cases, outsiders co-opted the museum for their own devices. These unauthorized projects were engaging and attractive. Neither harmed the museums in question, though they both had questionable qualities. The Improv Everywhere actors gleefully passed themselves off as authorities and told visitors that yes, this young man in front of them was in fact 400 years old. The students' ads made unauthorized use of the Smithsonian logo and could be argued to dilute or misrepresent the institutional brand.

So here's the question: what's the right response to this kind of activity? There are two knee-jerk camps--one that says this is all unacceptable and another that says museums should loosen up and embrace the deviance. I feel like it's more complicated than that.

When assessing these kinds of unauthorized activities, here are the three things I'd consider:
  1. What's the quality of the project? Many of the people arguing for the fake Smithsonian ads mentioned how great they are, and that the museum should be pleased to thrilled to get such creative ad work for free. While the ads are indeed funny, engaging, and lovely, not every unauthorized use is. A museum would do better to evaluate this on a case-by-case basis--so the institution can say yes to the gems and no to the duds--rather than having an ironclad rule either way.
  2. Is it a project that would be improved with institutional support? Watching the Improv Everywhere video, I'm struck by the fact that it is the deviant nature of the activity that makes it fun. You watch the action expecting to see the guards intervene, and they become part of the drama. I'm not sure the activity would be as surprising or engaging if it were sanctioned by the museum, and I certainly think it would be a bizarre use of staff time to conduct such an event. Mark Allen of Machine Project talks a lot about the benefits of artists creating "shadow organizations" within museums to comment on and respond to their peccadilloes. Without the formal institution, there can be no deviance. That said, there are some projects that are best conducted with institutional support--Machine Project typically works in this fashion. And some truly outsider projects, like the fabulous Vital 5 unauthorized podcast tour of the Portland Art Museum, create products that I'd love to see museums adopt and champion.
  3. By shutting down the unauthorized project, are you working against your core values or mission? In many cases, the reasons these projects get rejected is to protect the institutional brand against interlopers. But brand is not as important as mission--and both contribute to public image. In the Improv Everywhere situation, I only see a loose connection between the Met's mission and the unauthorized activity insofar as the museum wants to engage people with the art. But the Smithsonian ads are a different story. The Smithsonian is a public institution that is actively seeking to make itself more open and pursuing a vision that positions the Smithsonian as belonging to everyone. By shutting down a high-quality deviance that was garnering enthusiasm for the institution, the Smithsonian may have done more harm to its image than good. Any organization's public image is shaped by lots of material and commentary in the marketplace--not just that institution's press releases and logo. It's worth remembering that when evaluating any given deviance.
What do you think about these kinds of pranks and unauthorized uses of the institution? How do you think museums should respond to or engage with the pranksters?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Does it Mean to Have a Relationship with an Institution?

Recently, I've been doing a lot of workshops with cultural professionals around the question of developing authentic relationships between institutions and visitors. There's a fundamental strangeness to the concept of a relationship between a human and an organization. Most of our relationships, after all, are with people, and when we try to put an institutional face on relationship-type transactions, it can kill the intimacy or makes it feel creepy and commodified.

This expresses itself most powerfully in museums when we talk about building relationships with visitors over time. If I go on a date with you and we have fun, I develop some expectations about what will happen the next time I see you. I expect you'll remember some basic things about me--say, my name. But museums are one-night stand amnesiacs in the relationship department. A visitor comes once, has a great experience, starts "building the relationship," and then the next time she shows up, no one at the front desk knows anything about her.

This is terrible, both for the visitor and for the museum. And for most institutions there's no practical solution to the problem. Unless your organization is tiny, staff members can't have personal relationships with every user--nor, ethically, might they want to. And so, unless we give up entirely or settle for the amnesiatic status quo, we have to find another way.

How do we appropriately extrapolate from what works in interpersonal relationships to develop relationships between organizations and users that are authentic, meaningful, and positive?

In looking at successful examples from institutions around the world, I've come to feel there are three important elements that can support healthy, inspiring relationships between organizations and users. I'm curious to hear what you think works and doesn't as well and I hope you'll share your experiences in the comments.

Make room for personal expression and ownership--both by staff and audience members.

So often, organizations present people--staff, donors, board members--in the most formal ways possible, via long lists of printed names or stilted photographs. These lists do not convey the passion that these people feel for the organization. They model impersonal, businesslike relationships between the institution and the people who care about it the most. In contrast, organizations that feature staff or member walls celebrating people's diverse talents and interests reflect the idea that this is a community of people who care about each other.

This kind of personal expression comes out in exhibitions via signed or handwritten labels, staff picks, and visitor-contributed objects and stories. It comes out in creative donor walls and staff directories online. I always love it when I see a staff show at a museum or a wall at a design firm celebrating the kids who have come in to serve as focus group members (see photo). These kinds of indicators help me understand that I can be part of a community by getting involved.

Wherever possible, use institutional resources to encourage relationships among members and users rather than just with the institution.

A friend sent me this photo of an exhibit at SFMOMA, saying he had encountered this interactive on a first date and that it sparked a lot of discussion and personal sharing between him and his date. He commented that the fact that there were two stools at the station turned something that could have been solely individual into a social opportunity.

How often do we remember to put out that second stool? We know from copious audience research that the social experience is one of the most cited reasons that people visit and enjoy museums. There are so many ways that institutions can enhance this social experience, both for intact groups and for people who are interested in engaging with strangers. And these relationships--among people---are more natural to sustain than relationships with institutions or staff members. The challenge is initiating them. In most cases, docents and floor staff are trained to be the point person for conversation and idea-sharing. This creates a dependency where visitors only experience the communal relationship if it is facilitated by staff. We have to retrain ourselves and our staff not to be the center of the relationship but instead to be the hosts who match make among visitors, who can then pursue more sustainable relationships on their own. I've written a lot about this elsewhere with regard to social objects, but for the sake of this post, I'm thinking about how we create explicit ways (or not) for participants to get to know each other in the course of a museum visit. Sometimes an extra seat can make the difference between solo and social.

Support and enhance relationships through consistent multi-platform engagement.

In our personal lives, we use lots of tools to stay in touch and further relationships with each other. We hang out. We call. We write. Museums and non-profits use all these tools as well, but they often employ different staff (with different personalities and relationship styles) to manage each platform. I may have a conversation with a floor educator at a museum and then receive an e-newsletter from the same institution with a different tone and focus.

This may make sense from a workflow perspective, but it's unnatural from a relationship-building perspective. Instead of feeling like each communication medium enhances and deepens my relationship with an organization, I feel like I'm getting lots of discontinuous blips from a fragmented institution. This is most extreme in institutions that have a delightful, idiosyncratic style to their content communication and a more formal approach to development communication. I'm less likely to become a member or donate if that experience isn't naturally and obviously part of the relationship I'm building with the institution on the content side. Making this change means shifting from thinking about content experiences over here and communication strategy over there and instead focusing on community engagement as a coherent, unified experience.

Beck Tench has been doing some interesting work in this direction at the Museum of Life and Science. For example, winners of the Museum's "name that zoom" Twitter game now receive a personalized thank you in the (snail) mail from Beck, along with tickets to the museum and a silly prize related to the nature of the game. The idea of sending winners a reward is nothing new, but in this case, the reward shares the same sensibility as the game, thus more effectively deepening the relationship.

What do you think works or falls flat when it comes to building authentic relationships between organizations and individuals?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Quick Hit: Museums and Social Media in the New York Times

It's a good day for museum technologists. The New York Times special museum section focuses on "the spirit of sharing" and how museums are using social media to connect with visitors in new ways. The section features rock stars like Shelley Bernstein (Brooklyn Museum), Mike Edson (Smithsonian), and Rob Stein (Indianapolis Museum of Art) and covers projects from Tweetups to Arduino hacks to Google Art. It's a rare section about museums and social media that is neither overly gaga about technology nor full of hand-wringing about how these endeavors erode museums' value. While the articles could be more nuanced and reflective of the broad diversity of types and sizes of museums, it's still a great section.

I'm quoted in an article about how museums are using Twitter to bring visitors behind the scenes and engage in conversation around exhibits. I'm particularly glad that reporter Jennifer Preston featured Beck Tench from the Museum of Life and Science, who is doing incredible work bridging online and onsite adult engagement in thoughtful ways. I'm also thrilled that Shelley Bernstein, a long-time friend and fount of inspiration, is getting the credit she is due.

Reading this section--especially in a paper that has not always been friendly to innovations that open up and democratize institutions--gives me hope and energy about the future. The paper legitimizes social media in the mainstream, mostly reporting on projects, practices, and mindsets that have been in the works for years. This challenges those of us working in the field to push further. If you were going to write a special section on museums and social media, what would you include? What do you see as the truly innovative work on the ground, the hard questions to tackle?

For me, these articles bring up two questions I've been struggling with:
  1. What happens when personal relationships with staff, once closely guarded as a perk for high-level donors, become available to anyone who wants to get involved? How does a museum manage "relationship" resources, and how does that impact development?
  2. When a museum chooses a particular online community with which to engage--whether Wikipedians or Flickr users or Twitterers--is that choice largely determined by PR and marketing goals or by some sense of what communities are a good fit for the mission and sensibility of the institution? How do we use social media to expand and align with our access goals instead of just getting "whoever's out there?"
What would be in your section?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Welcome to Pine Point: A Multimedia Exploration of Nostalgia, History, and What it Means to be Human

In 1990, educator and cultural critic Neil Postman described a museum as "an answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a human being?"

I must admit that I've never found this definition very helpful. While I understand Postman's argument that every museum portrays a perspective on the nature of humanity, in most cases, I find that portrayal so abstract, so stripped of personhood, that it's hard to see the human in the institution. Without an explicit "I" voice, the museum's perspective on humanity is oblique to say the least.

But I came back to Postman's quote when viewing Welcome to Pine Point, a multimedia documentary about a small mining town in the Northwest Territories. Pine Point was a single-industry town, and when the mine closed in 1988, the town closed along with it. Welcome to Pine Point is a kind of virtual museum exhibition about the town, told from the perspective of Michael Simons, an artist who grew up in the nearby town of Yellowknife and visited Pine Point as a boy.

Welcome to Pine Point is not a museum project. It is an incredible narrative work that incorporates text, music, videos, and images into a lightly interactive, utterly engrossing digital story. (When you check it out, make sure to put your browser on fullscreen mode.) It is, in short, the best multimedia history project I've ever seen, and I wish more museums were pursuing projects like it.

What makes Welcome to Pine Point so amazing?
  • It's nostalgic in the best sense of the word. In 2009, Dan Spock wrote a beautiful essay, In Defense of Nostalgia, arguing that history museums should embrace the emotional power of loss, memory, and personal connection that comes with nostalgia. By interweaving images, artifacts, sounds, and the human stories of the town, Welcome to Pine Point invites people with no prior connection to the Northwest Territories to care deeply about its story.
  • It uses multimedia beautifully. I was really impressed by the diversity of artifacts in Welcome to Pine Point--from yearbook photos to VFW badges to video and photos from the 1980s and today. The variance and effective use of different media types reminded me of any great exhibition design, and it also highlighted how rarely museum professionals apply creative, surprising design techniques in online or media-based exhibits.
  • It tells layered personal stories. The subjective "I" voice of Michael drives the whole story. Because he cares about Pine Point, you care, or at least you're up for the adventure. Michael's strong narrative voice makes jumps in location or story manageable (even if I did spend some time confused about the connection between Cosmos 954 and Pine Point). Michael also interviews former Pine Pointers, and the highly personal "then and now" features on Kim Feodoroff and Richard Cloutier are highlights of the whole project.
  • It makes you contemplate your own connection to history. The first-person narration allows the project to directly address the audience with deep questions without sounding unnatural. When Michael wonders what it would be like to have your hometown disappear, he doesn't sound pretentious. He's a real person trying to figure it out, and that makes you as a viewer want to join him in figuring it out too. Some of the artifacts--government documents explaining that Pine Point will be taken off the map, videos from the final week of the town's existence--are devastating. It's impossible to watch people toasting the end of their town and not think about how you would feel in the same situation.
  • It makes you think about what it means to be human. Coming back to Neil Postman's quote, and Postman's related concerns about people blindly allowing themselves to be controlled by technology, Welcome to Pine Point is an arresting exploration of the conflicts between technological progress and humanity. If a mine makes a town exist, is that good? If a mine closes and it makes the town cease to exist, is that bad? What happens to the people? How do we make these decisions, individually and collectively? These are big juicy questions that few exhibitions really force me to grapple with the way I did as I watched Welcome to Pine Point.
Welcome to Pine Point has a lot to teach all of us who strive to design exhibitions and experiences that explore history in a meaningful way. It also, in my opinion, has something to learn from the museum model. The one negative reaction I had to Welcome to Pine Point was its insistence on a linear presentation of the story. While I appreciate the benefits of a straight narrative, in this case, I think the content could have been just as powerfully presented in a hub and spoke model with freer user navigation. The "chapters" of the project were loose, and I didn't necessarily feel I needed to see them in order. Some I wanted to return to, and some I wanted to skip. I would love to see an exhibition version of Welcome to Pine Point, in a gallery where I can flit in and out of various alcoves of memory... and then talk about it with others in the cafe. This is a project that begs conversation.

I hope we can start that conversation here. Experience the project, share a comment, and let's talk.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Ministry of Rules: Interview with Nikki Pugh

Last month, artist Nikki Pugh led an utterly charming, often hilarious community residency at the City Gallery in Leicester, UK. Nikki created "The Ministry of Rules"--a shadow organization that existed for one week during half-term break, staffed by visitors who served as "Inspectors" investigating, exploring, and poking fun at the rules that make museums and galleries go. I spoke with Nikki this week to learn more about the Ministry and their fun and games.

How did this project come about?

The City Gallery was mounting a contemporary art exhibition at the New Walk Museum called Play Ground, which featured artists who treat the gallery space as a kind of carnival instead of as an aesthetic temple. The gallery staff wanted half-term activities as part of their learning program and they invited me to lead these through what evolved into a residency format. The idea for the Ministry of Rules came from a desire to provide a framework as a jumping-off point for activities relating to concepts within the exhibition and my own art practice, as well as play and games in a wider sense. I wanted the details of the residency to be shaped by the people who got involved with it, so it needed a structure with an edge that could be pushed against in different directions.

What were the City Gallery goals for the project?

The staff member I worked with had in mind a particular feeling she wanted people to go away having--that kind of sense of community that comes when you've worked together to achieve something. I wanted, if possible, to really confront the ideas wrapped up in the exhibition's introductory text. But I also knew that I wanted the project to be emergent, so I had to be prepared to let this go if necessary.

I think that's what's most impressive to me about the project--the fact that every day's activities were determined by the visitors who'd come the day before. Can you explain how that worked?

I really wanted visitors to make this their own project and their own space; not mine. We had a corner of the gallery that was cordoned off as the Ministry's HQ, and you could only enter if you were a Ministry employee (my badge clearly marked me as a secretary). Most of my time was spent managing that threshold: providing the initial information and invitation; managing expectations of it being an 'easy' craft activity; helping people make their ID badges; and guiding them through taking their Inspectors' Pledge. Only then, as an official Inspector for the Ministry, could you could enter the space. “Come in, this is your headquarters now, yourinvestigation, you make the decisions.”

There was a large mind map on the wall with a prompt in the middle encouraging visitors to imagine a slightly distant future with no staff present to enforce the rules in galleries or museums. The Inspectors could contribute ideas about what that might happen as a result. We used those ideas as the basis for the daily activities in the Ministry.

For example, at the end of day 1, we had one thread on the mind map about what would happen if the absence of staff meant that no one would be there to turn the lights on. One inspector had written that if the lights were off, "you could get up closer to the paintings and smell them as well." This sparked our activity for day 2, where we invited Inspectors to make nose trumpets to amplify the smell of the museum. They made cones from construction paper and then went out into the museum to sniff things and record the smells on clipboards.

Every day had a pattern like this. At the end of the afternoon, volunteers and I would examine the mind map and we'd come up with an activity for the next day in response to what had been written. On day 3 we made memory machines, based on a couple of comments wondering how people would learn with no staff around and whether that meant we would forget about the past. On day 4 Inspectors made "top secret trails"--personalized maps of the museum--based on a comment about kids passing knowledge to each other. Interestingly, although Inspectors spent comparatively little time working on the mind map, it was a vital tool for us in making the Ministry an emergent process.

How did the museum staff respond to this experience?

There were certain anxieties before we started: I was an unknown face; the gallery was deliberately trying a new way of working with an artist; and there were relationships between the two hosts to be negotiated. All this on top of the emergent nature of the project and no one really knowing ahead of time what was going to happen. However, once we got going there was a real buzz as the activities started permeating the whole building.

For example, on Monday afternoon Inspectors were asked to make more interesting alternatives to all the signs and rules in the building. Once the new signs had been made, I challenged Inspectors to place them somewhere in the museum. I told them that outside our HQ we couldn't be sure if staff might be sympathetic to the Ministry of Rules or not, and therefore Inspectors should sneak their signs into position whilst no one was looking. The staff had been briefed in advance and they could decide whether to be friendly or not when they encountered suspicious behavior. The Inspectors' Pledge from the initiation process established boundaries of acceptable behaviour for when the activities took place in the wild and there were no reported problems. We left a lot of cardboard around the place over those 5 days and for the most part it wasn't tidied away.

Sounds like that's a great way to play with the idea of the Ministry being a "shadow" organization within the larger museum. How important was it for people to know they were part of something secretive as opposed to just openly invited to participate?

When I do school projects or pervasive games (for adults), it's really important to set that context of an expanded version of self to steer things slightly beyond participants' comfort zone. But in the particular context of the museum at half-term, I don't know if it actually was that vital. People were quite happy to come along and draw things and make things and do things. And the kids were often 5 and younger, so some of the Ministry ritual may have gone over their heads. However, in the particular context of drop-in activities in a busy museum at half-term, I don't know if it actually was that vital. People were quite content to simply come along and draw things and make things and do things. Also many of the children were around 5 years old or younger, so some of the Ministry ritual and specific reinforcing language I used may have gone over their heads. It wasn't that important that I wouldn't drop it or adapt it if it obviously wasn't appropriate!

I deliberately ditched the whole Ministry of Rules thing on the final day to try and see if it mattered or not. Instead of asking people to join a secret organization, as they approached the HQ I would appeal to them with something like: "Thank goodness! You must be the Museum Fixer Uppers! We really need your help!" positioning them as experts whose skills and assistance were urgently required.

I think that aspect was more important: soliciting their help and expertise. That kind of conspiracy and complicity is more important than the secrecy stuff.

Going back to the original goal of people working together in community, how did you keep from being the "go to" person who all the Inspectors looked to as the facilitator of their experience?

Beyond the initial orientation I deliberately distanced myself from telling people what to do. They were the Inspectors. We facilitated the entry into the fiction and the practical activity and then the Inspectors pretty much self organised, seeking out the materials they needed and settling into whatever space was available.

Over the whole week, there were only about two or three Inspectors (old and young) who would persistently come up and ask me "what do I do next?" For the most part people took it on themselves and went with it. That kind of became the main goal as the project found it's identity - conferring ownership of the events and the space. I was always mindful of trying to step back and let as much as possible come from and belong to the participants.

In truth, while that was very successful, I don't think we cracked the challenge of really getting people to work with each other across groups. On the last day, we very intentionally designed an activity that was intended to bring people together to assemble new exhibits out of an assortment of components made by the Inspectors, but even then people gravitated towards working on their own or within their own families. ID/name badges were used to help encourage group crossover, but I think that rarely happened in practice. In the end it was a community project in which participants contributed meaningfully and sequentially to the bigger idea of the Ministry, the content of the space and the actions being made, but they didn't necessarily collaborate directly in real time.

Thanks so much to Nikki for sharing her story. Nikki can be found on the Web and on Twitter, and she will be monitoring and responding to comments here on the blog this week.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Adventures in Participatory Audience Engagement at the Henry Art Gallery

This winter, I once again taught a graduate class in the University of Washington's Museology program. In 2009, students built a participatory exhibit from scratch. This year, we took a different approach. Thirteen students produced three projects that layered participatory activities onto an exhibition of artwork from the permanent collection of the Henry Art Gallery. You can explore the projects in full on the class wiki. This post shares my reflections on the projects and five things I learned from their work. All the photos in this post are on Flickr here.

Background: Why They Did What They Did

The Henry Art Gallery exhibition we worked with, Vortexhibition Polyphonica, was intended to explore three big ideas:
  1. Different voices “intervene” or add new points of view to the exhibition at periodic intervals.
  2. Surprising or unexpected, as well as unknown, works from the permanent collections are featured.
  3. The guiding principle is uncovering relationships between the works of art themselves rather than explicating information or theoretical concepts.
I suspect these big ideas were opaque to most visitors. The exhibition looked like any standard contemporary white box with artwork and labels, albeit featuring an eclectic mix of works and signed labels (to accentuate the role of different voices). My students decided to make these big ideas more explicit and engage visitors as participants while doing so.

To that end, they designed and executed three projects:
  1. Xavier, an opportunity for visitors to "talk" with a sculpture in the exhibition via magnetic quotation boards and alphabet fridge magnets.
  2. Stringing Connections, in which visitors could describe relationships between works in the exhibition and make them visible by tying pieces of yarn between them on a large map of the gallery.
  3. Dirty Laundry, which invited visitors to air their own personal secrets and memories connected to works of art and to the exhibition overall.
All of these were designed intentionally to support the exhibition goals around multi-vocality, surprise, and relationships among artworks. While the students didn't have a chance to do exit interviews before the participatory activities were added to the exhibition, in summative evaluation when the participatory activities were available, many visitors volunteered that the
activities helped them explore relationships between works (Stringing Connections), the surprises hidden within artworks (Dirty Laundry), and the idea of many voices discussing art (Xavier). These nontraditional audience engagement techniques helped make complex goals and visions explicit and understandable to visitors.

What I Learned Part 1: Facilitation is Powerful

When I taught this class the first time, I put a real
premium on the idea of designing participatory activities that were visitor-driven and required minimal or no facilitation. Two years later, while I still appreciate the very real operational limitations of most institutions with regard to facilitation, I now believe that it's often essential to success. This is especially true in more traditional or formal institutions, where a pervasive "don't touch, be quiet" sensibility colors the ways visitors behave. It also proved necessary from a practical perspective in a security-minded institution where craft materials in the galleries had to be carefully controlled.

In the case of the Henry--a sparsely attended contemporary art space--the smiling invitations from my students for people to participate played a huge role in people's engagement and enjoyment. When activities were not facilitated, people were often too timid to interact. (This is less true of Dirty Laundry, which required a blend of friendly invitation to participate and private spaces to contribute secrets.) As one participant said, "the museum feels friendly in a way it usually doesn't." People make the museum friendly, not activities. All of the activities were well-used, and I think the main attractor was smiling students who invited you to play.

It's also worth noting that the facilitation supported thoughtful, on-topic engagement. While visitors used Stringing Connections and Xavier to express a variety of ideas related to art and how artworks are connected, there were no inappropriate or off-topic submissions to these projects. These two projects were always facilitated. Facilitators gave visitors a person to ask if they had questions and probably reinforced a sense that you were in the presence of an authority (a friendly one) and this was not a time to screw off.

Dirty Laundry was more complicated. It was facilitated in some areas but not in others. For example, visitors were invited to add their own secrets to hampers in front of selected artworks and were instructed to write secrets or memories that those specific artworks evoked. Even with example content to guide participation, most visitors used these opportunities to write secrets on any topic, unrelated to the artwork. Written instructions were not enough to compel them to do otherwise.

Lesson 2: Reward with Shareable Take-Aways

Each of the project teams gave participants some kind of gift for taking part. Dirty Laundry had buttons. Stringing Connections made friendship bracelets with extra yarn, which quickly became a hot commodity. And the Xavier team took a photo of each visitor with his conversation and immediately uploaded it to Flickr, handing the visitor a card with a link to access the photo later. These buttons, bracelets, and cards advertised the activities to other visitors and enhanced the sense of friendliness and invitation that helped people feel comfortable participating.

Each project also invited visitors to make assets that then were immediately available for others to see and build on. People revisited the Stringing Connections map several times to see what had been added, and Xavier participants came back to watch the Flickr sideshow. This was perhaps most effective with Dirty Laundry, where some participants who contributed a secret on the street outside the museum later came inside to check out their secrets and the rest of the collection. This isn't participatory rocket science, but the power of being able to see how you have contributed to a growing collection or project in real time is powerful.

Lesson #3: You Really Can't Guess What People Will Contribute

While this lesson is especially true of the Dirty Laundry secrets (see lesson 4), I was equally impressed by the diversity of contributions in Xavier and Stringing Connections. On the Stringing Connections map, visitors were invited to label the relationship they saw between artworks with a short phrase or sentence. While some were simple and descriptive ("very geometric," "they both feature red"), other labels revealed surprising connections ("it's what your insides look like," "silent sound"). Likewise with Xavier, some people would take a silly tack to their conversation with the sculpture, whereas others were more abstract. These differences didn't seem to be correlated with age or appearance. And while of course we know not to judge books by their covers, it's always nice to have a nine-year-old boy or an elderly couple surprise you into remembering that.

Lesson #4: Yes, Total Strangers will Share Shocking Secrets in Museums

While this project held lots of surprises, for me the biggest one was how popular the Dirty Laundry activity was, and how many people were willing to write personal secrets on bright pieces of laundry-shaped construction paper. There were 168 secrets contributed during the weekend this activity ran (a weekend in which 250 people visited the museum).

The secrets ranged from funny to sexy to deeply serious. I am still flummoxed as to what would make someone admit to an affair or bad parenting in a sterile art gallery, or the devastating one that read, "I avoid the important, difficult conversations with those I love the most." I was generally surprised that neon construction paper and golf pencils felt like good materials for sharing such personal content. I was also surprised that so many people were willing to write a secret and hand it to a facilitator to be hung on a clothesline. While the group had planned for ways to invite anonymous participation, that didn't seem to be a concern for many contributors.

Why did this happen? I don't know. But one student commented, "A lot of people need therapy and can't afford it. This is kind of an opportunity for that." I think this makes some sense. In this short video, one participant even talks about her therapist.

The secrets had such a power and draw that they started to overshadow connections with the exhibition itself. It was clear that there were some people for which the secrets were a compelling exhibit in their own right. This could be a good thing in the right context, but it's worth being aware of when you do and don't want participatory activities to stand alone.

Lesson #5: Experimentation is Stressful

We teamed up with the Henry for this project because staff members there expressed a real desire to experiment with participatory engagement. As it turned out, the experiment pushed everyone's abilities and comfort levels. I am incredibly grateful to the Henry for being so flexible and supportive of our class. It was just darn hard to do a rapid, messy experiment in a formal institution.

This was partly my fault. I resisted requests from the Henry to let staff really collaborate with students so I could protect students' independence and ability to pursue their passions without feeling pressured or influenced by staff desires. We also had an incredibly tight timeline--one month from first meeting to live projects--which necessitated setting ground rules from the start so students wouldn't have to keep asking staff if their projects were ok. While the Henry was open to experimentation, they hadn't really done interactive activities in the galleries alongside artworks before, and this project brought up a lot of questions. We had one big issue with Xavier when staff raised the question of whether the students were modifying the artwork or activating engagement around it. Ultimately that question was resolved by repositioning the activity to be slightly less close to the sculpture, but getting to that solution involved some hasty meetings and negotiations.

In the end, students told me they vastly preferred working with a museum to developing a project in a non-institutional public space. I feel mixed about this choice. While I think the students did fabulous work that is very translatable to future careers in exhibition and program design, I personally struggled with the constraints of the traditional museum wrapper. I felt like we couldn't go as far as I wanted in terms of pushing the boundaries of audience participation, and I worried that the students might end up designing glorified cart activities. Now that the dust has cleared, I think about Paul Light's definition of nonprofit innovation as "an act that challenges the prevailing wisdom as it creates public value." In the context of the Henry Art Gallery and the UW Museology program, these students were superb innovators. Now it's up to me to figure out how to push the envelope a bit further next time.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Quick Hit: What Should I Ask about Google Art?

This Friday, March 4, I'll be moderating a panel discussion about experiencing art in virtual environments at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (4pm, 1 hour, free). Our guests are two of the people behind the Google Art Project - Anna de Paula Hanika and Kai Kewei.

Anna has been forthright in the press about her enthusiasm for Google Art to open up museum and art experiences for a wide and diverse audience. I'm looking forward to a conversation that focuses on how and why Google Art and other museum-related technology initiatives can do just that. Needless to say, I'm one of the people who believes the 2008 IMLS research that shows that online encounters with museums increase visitation. Friday will present an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how virtual experiences impact users both in terms of art engagement and interest in museums.

I have a few questions I'm planning to ask about the virtual and the real, situated 3D versus more user-driven browsing, and surprising use cases for Google Art. But I'm not an expert, and I suspect many of you reading this know a lot more about Google Art than I do. What would you like me to ask? What do you want to know, and what discussions do you think are most important at this point?

The panel will not be recorded or streamed, but I'll happily report back in the comments here once it's over.