Tuesday, April 24, 2012

AAM Conversations: Want to Talk?

(No relation to AAM. Just cute.)
I'm heading this weekend to the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis. I'm psyched to spend a few days with friends and colleagues talking about some of the challenges we're grappling with in our work. I'll also be part of two sessions on Tuesday, May 1 - one in the morning about money and business models, and one in the afternoon about prototyping and experimentation.

I'm bringing a few big questions with me to AAM this year. If any of these are questions that you are working on or thinking about, I'd love to find some time during the conference to sit down and talk. As I've spent more time in the AAM community, I've developed some really deep friendships--which is good--but it also means that I am less likely to spend much time at conferences with people I don't know. I hope this year that some of these questions can introduce me to new people and new ideas.

Here's what I'd love to explore at AAM this year:
  • Event-driven models for museums. About 85% of visitors to our museum attend through a program/event. How prevalent is this? What should we be thinking about as we respond to community demand for events? What role will exhibitions play in this kind of institution? What's the chicken and what's the egg when it comes to events, exhibitions, and museum hours?
  • Participatory history programming. Over the past year, we've found it fairly easy to invent and sustain participatory art and craft projects. We're having a harder time doing the same with history, especially when it comes to drop-in or single-night activities. I'd love to learn more about what other organizations are doing to invite casual, active participation in history. UPDATE! THIS TOPIC IS SO POPULAR THAT WE WILL HAVE A MEETUP ON SUNDAY, APRIL 29 TO DISCUSS. MEET IN CONVENTION CENTER LOBBY B, OUTSIDE THE AUDITORIUM, AT 1:30 FOR A ONE-HOUR INFORMAL DISCUSSION. NO RSVP REQUIRED. TEXT 831.331.5460 IF YOU CAN'T FIND US.
  • Ethics of civic action. My institution is increasingly partnering with local cause-based organizations, especially in the social services. How should we be thinking about the ethics of who we partner with (and who we don't)? How do we deal with the blending of personal and institutional goals when it comes to contributing to efforts to improve the whole community?
  • Working with teams through change. We've undergone a pretty radical transformation over the past year. People (including me) are energized but tired, too. What should I be thinking about as a manager who wants to keep pushing forward but also wants everyone to feel supported and not burned out?
  • Fundraising with a community. Our museum is becoming increasingly community-driven in our programming and the way we engage with visitors on a daily basis. Our fundraising, however, is not moving in that direction. To what extent is it realistic or desirable to broaden our funding base? Should we think of ourselves as a client service organization (where visitors are clients and the support comes from others) or a "by and for the community" organization? This will come up somewhat in the Tuesday 9am Show Me the Money session, but I thought I'd raise it as a general question too.
If you want to talk about any of these questions too, awesome. I don't care what type of institution you are from or what your experience is, or even if you are attending the conference. I just care about having good conversations and learning from each other. Sunday April 29 is looking especially good for me for some meaty chats--let me know. Thanks!

p.s. If you are interested in interning/working at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and want to talk briefly about that at AAM, I'm open to that too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Building Community Bridges: A "So What" Behind Social Participation

Last Friday, I witnessed something beautiful at my museum. A group in their late teens/early 20s were wandering through the museumwide exhibition on love. They were in a playful mood, talking about the objects, playing the games, responding on the comment boards. On the third floor, they sat down in our creativity lounge and started making collages. At the adjacent table, my colleague Stacey Garcia was meeting with a local artist, Kyle Lane-McKinley, to talk about an upcoming project. Kyle had brought his baby with him. When I walked by the first time, the teens were collaging and Kyle and Stacey were talking. Next time, everyone was talking. Third time, one of the girls was holding and playing with the baby while Kyle and Stacey continued their meeting.

This is a tiny example of social bridging--people making connections to others who are not like them, who have different backgrounds, ages, races, professions, etc. The term was popularized by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he differentiates between social capital built through "bonding" with people who are like you and "bridging" with people who are not.

I've been documenting lots of small bridging incidents at our museum over the past few months. I don't know what formed the bridge between the artists and the teens in this circumstance. It could have been the baby (one of the girls was clearly pregnant, and a baby is a great social object no matter the circumstance). It could have been the friendly, low-key setting. It could have been the attitude of the museum that supports participation and conversation. I don't know what made it happen. I'm just glad it did--and I want to do whatever I can to make it happen more often.

For a long time, I knew I cared deeply about designing from "me to we"--inviting visitors to form social connections through participatory experiences--but I couldn't express a clear reason why. Social bridging is becoming my why. While both kinds of social capital are important (and their growth non-exclusive), there are often many more opportunities for bonding than for bridging in daily life. We bond with the friends we grew up with, the people we work and play with. Even online forums that invite diverse participation tend to hinge on bonding around a key shared interest. At museums, we mostly bond with the friends and family with whom we attend. Social bridging is harder to come by, especially as society becomes more striated. Bridging is essential to building strong, safe, diverse communities. There are few places where bridging happens naturally. If we can make our museum a place that intentionally encourages and inspires bridging, we will make a powerful impact on our whole community.

For this reason, at the MAH we try to explicitly bake social bridging into the way we plan programs and exhibitions. We deliberately partner with diverse groups for single events--for example, a February music event had a main stage lineup that jumped from ukelele singalong to opera to hawaiian dance to rock. We tailor the programming blend to diverse ages, making sure no activity is just for kids or adults, no matter how much glue or fire is involved. In exhibitions, we showcase local, first-person stories and objects--from students, roller derby girls, retirees, and homeless families--alongside the art and historic objects. We include comment boards and games that link visitors to each other, often not in real time, through shared stories and experiences. And in program evaluation, we ask collaborators and visitors alike if they met anyone new and how those encounters contributed to their experience.

We're just at the beginning of this work. We have a long way to go before we're really making a measurable impact--and we're not even quite sure what "measurable" will look like. We know that most of the bridging that goes on here is surface-level and brief--as in the example of the teens and the baby. I don't know how deep we can expect to go, or whether our role will primarily be as a space that encourages safe, friendly collisions in a community-wide pinball machine. From my perspective, if we can help make our community one in which people walking down the street smile at strangers instead of looking away, we'll be on the right track.

I'm excited to explore these topics more with you in the months to come, and I'm curious to what extent social bridging feels relevant and compelling in your own work. Where have you encountered it, what resources help you understand it, and what do you think we should be doing about it?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Upcoming Museum 2.0 Book Club: Blueprint

Once there was a project to design a national history museum in the Netherlands. There was a location, a budget, and a flurry of planning. The team developed some highly innovative digital projects and approaches to history. Three years later, at the end of 2011, the project was canceled.

What happened? While not wholly explored, that question reverberates throughout a new book, Blueprint, that shares the plans for the Dutch Museum of National History. The book walks readers through galleries that never existed, and then steps back to tell the story of the project, the underpinning goals, the experimental projects along the way, and the pain in closing.

I chose this book for our next Museum 2.0 book club for three reasons:
  1. The experimental projects of this museum-in-process included some of the most innovative participatory initiatives I've ever seen, especially in a discipline--history--that is often staid.
  2. The book was released just four months after the project was officially canceled. My early skimming suggests that it is very much a "hot" history of a recent event and probably less prettied-up than most accounts of the politics of museum planning.
  3. It's about Europe. Most of the books we've explored on this blog in the past focus on museums in North America. A lot is changing in European museums--especially when it comes to money. 

This book club will work like the others (see the "Book Discussion" keywords on the right to access past ones). Starting a month from now, on Wednesdays, the blog will features a mixture of my thoughts along with guest posts from you reflecting on how the book is useful in your own work. Because it might take a little while for you to get the book, we won't start until mid-May--likely May 16.

If you'd like to participate...
  • Get your hands on a copy of the book in the next few weeks. You can buy it here, and yes, it is in English. To order, click the red arrow-shaped button that says "Bestel" on the upper left. Or see Jasper's kind comment below offering to help you buy one. Read it (or a large chunk of it). 
  • If you are so motivated, fill out this two-question form to let me know you want to write a guest post or participate in a group discussion about the book. I'll be looking for guest posters who represent different types of institutions, countries, and approaches to the material. You don't need to be a museum professional to be eligible--just a good writer with an interesting perspective to share. 
For four weeks starting in mid-May, each Wednesday there will be a Museum 2.0 post with a response to the book. I'd like to write one or two of these at the most. The goal is to make the blog a community space for different viewpoints. Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Power of Symbolic Participation: A Story from the Skirball

Imagine you want to invite people to meaningfully engage with a serious topic in an exhibition. How would you do it? What forms of content delivery or participation might induce someone not just to read/look/listen but to care--and hopefully, to act?

Museums have been grappling with this question for years (here's a 2007 roundup of such projects), most aggressively in zoos and natural history museums where staff hope to inspire conservation and in history/concept museums that focus on civic engagement and activism. It's a particularly tough problem because of the multiple psychological steps required to shift someone from ignorance or disinterest to action. Too often, we jump immediately to offering visitors a way to act without first helping them care passionately about the issue at hand. You have to care before you want to act, and caring--about the earth, about civil rights, about art--is not a given. As environmental educator David Sobel has written, "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it."

I was reminded of this "care, then act" framework when I saw a recent story about a student's experience at a powerful issue-driven exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, Half the Sky. This exhibition about oppression of women worldwide is based on the book by the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn. It's a hard-hitting show about women who are suffering from and rising out of human trafficking, unequal access to education and health care, and cultures that treat them as disposable property. The exhibition, like the book, is intended not just to tell stories of doom but to encourage visitors to act to help transform the lives of women worldwide.

No small task for a museum exhibition. I was involved in early planning for this project, and we were all struck by the enormity of the challenges, our strong desire to make change, and the reality of what might be practical and possible.

When I visited the exhibition in November, I saw many participatory opportunities for visitors to act. Some are very specific and useful--postcard petitions to sign and send, a "click to give" campaign run in partnership with a corporate donor. Visitors can share what inspired them in the exhibition and what they plan to do after leaving the museum (similar to the Holocaust Museum's interactive about confronting genocide today).

But the most beautiful participatory elements are mostly symbolic in nature (and designed by Karina White, a very talented person). The largest was a "wish canopy" that hangs above the entire gallery. Visitors can "share a wish for a woman or girl" or "share a wish for a woman facing a difficult situation." The wishes are then added to the ceiling installation over time, creating a "sky" of wishes for women.

The strangest participatory element was a wall full of dots--20,000 of them, representing just a slice of the 60 million women who are suffering worldwide. There was no specific instruction with the dots. Visitors had colored them in, written tiny messages in them, and used them to make designs.

I didn't really understand what the dots were about. To me, they seemed like an activity without a reason--purely symbolic, and weak symbolism at that.

My perspective on the dots changed when I read a short blog post about a visit by a young visitor named B.J. (age/gender unknown). B.J. described Half the Sky this way:
The area was huge and completley white. They had little areas where stories of women suffering and the good they had done. They also had activities. 
One was where you wrote a wish for a woman you know and for a struggling woman out there. The other was were you colored in a dot with any color, saying you supported women. There were 20,000 dots. 
I knew I couldn't do the wish. What was I going to say? Sorry your life isn't awesome! Hope it gets better! That was what everyone would write and it was completley pointless, to me. 
So i did the dots. 
I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot,I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. 
When we left I was kind of stunned. While the other kids were talking about what was happening at school, changed but wanting to temporaily forget about anything really important, I sat their in silence, thinking. 
I thought about the women who tried so hard and suffered so much. I thought about the dots. And I thought about how many I would have colored, given the time. Maybe a thousand. Supporting a thousand.
This account fascinated me for several reasons. B.J. clearly was moved by the exhibition and didn't know how to respond. B.J. was not ready to do the concrete action of sharing a specific wish for a woman. B.J. didn't see that as a meaningful way to engage. But  B.J. did see the dots as meaningful.

I don't think that B.J. thought that filling in dots actually meant s/he was taking useful action. But it was a way for B.J. to express a newfound concern for women in need. It made me realize that symbolic participation might be a way for us to help visitors take the first step toward action by allowing them to express an emotional reaction. It's not practical to imagine that every visitor is ready to sign a petition or express his/her intention to change or act in a specific way. The dots provide a kind of scaffolding, allowing someone like B.J. to show s/he cares. And that's not weak or useless at all.

Just as there are scales of social and creative participation, maybe there are scales of civic participation as well that we should be considering as we design these kinds of activism-oriented projects. Anyone have a good model or relevant story to share about the pathway to action?