Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Post: Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs

Stacey Marie Garcia came to the MAH first as a graduate intern in the summer of 2011. Since then, Stacey has become an indispensable member of our staff, leading our community programs and inspiring us to think in new ways about how we can build social capital in our community. I learn a ton from her every day and wanted to share her thinking--and her graduate thesis--with you.
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH.
Writing my masters thesis for Gothenburg University’s International Museum Studies program while also working four days a week as the Director of Community Programs at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History this spring was certainly a challenge but also an incredible opportunity. 

There were times when coordinating a fire art festival while researching social capital theory made me want to burn my computer. But, overall I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to be in a job, a museum and a community that I loved and furthermore to be afforded the valuable time most of us do not have to devote to further researching, thinking about, reading and discussing the theories that comprise the foundation of my work.

I chose to focus my thesis on Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs.  The purpose of my thesis was two-fold:
  1. To research and analyze community and civic engagement practices, methods, theories and examples in other museum programs.
  2. To apply the results of my analysis to produce a community-driven program design specifically for implementation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (the MAH). 
You can download and read the full version of my thesis here. For the purpose of this blog post I’ll discuss three key ingredients from my thesis that can activate community engagement in museum programs and how we apply this to programs at the MAH: assessing and responding to community assets and needs, building social capital, and inviting active participation.

Assess and Respond to Community Assets and Needs

If you want to activate community engagement in your programs, you first need to work together with your communities to determine their diverse needs, assets and interests. This can be accomplished through a variety of feedback methods conducted both inside and outside the museum.  Deeper community relationships through focus groups or community advising committees can further help museums connect with issues relevant to their communities while also hold the museum accountable for their responses. 

Two exceptional examples of community committees stand out: one long standing, The Community Advisory Committees of The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and one emerging, the Creative Community Council of the Children’s Creativity Museum.  Both emphasize museums reaching out into the community to support, understand and experience what the community is already doing. They stress community engagement should be an asset- over needs-based approach. It’s not solely about how museums can serve communities but rather what are the communities’ resources, knowledge and interests that can inform museum practice? Furthermore, how can museums and communities work together to share strengths in the community?

Museum programs need to then actively respond to their communities through a variety of ongoing discursive, collaborative and inclusive formats that address needs and assets but also invite communities to be active participants in this process. 

At the MAH

Our first program goal is to meet the needs and assets of our community as defined by our community.  We seek to understand this by listening to and developing ongoing dialogues with a range of community members. We attentively respond to requests and purposefully use different modes of feedback to inform program design from our comment board, social media outlets, conversations and observations both inside and outside the museum, creative feedback at events such as our Show and Tell Booth and online visitor surveys specific to our programs.  We continuously and actively respond to requests as well as invite people to be a part of our programs.

We also formed a Creative Community Committee (C3), composed of a diverse range of multigenerational community representatives from social services, the arts, business, education, the city, technology and our board of directors to provide a multitude of perspectives and expertise.  C3 meets bimonthly to help us understand and brainstorm ways the MAH can collaboratively implement and address the needs and assets of the vast array of communities in Santa Cruz County.

Build Social Capital

A crucial theory in community engagement through museum programs is social capital theory, best defined by Robert D. Putnam, who has written extensively about social capital in American society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”  Social capital has two main forms; it should gradually and increasingly encompass both distinct forms of bonding and bridging to create healthier, wiser, more connected, economically and socially sustainable communities.

Bonding social capital refers to networks that bring people together with common interests to strengthen relationships in preexisting groups.

Bridging refers to an inclusive and outward looking form of linking different and diverse individuals and groups together to form new relationships.

Museum programs can be designed to further bond similar groups together such as families and friends in family workshops such as the Dallas Museum of Art’s First Tuesdays. Museum programs can also bridge different groups that might not typically interact such as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum’s Educational Residential Centre, which designed a program specifically to bridge children of two groups engaged in social conflict, Catholics and Protestants.

Co-created programming that represents the complex range of voices in communities, offers platforms for communication, collaboration and shared experiences that can enrich preexisting relationships while also offer a space for new relationships to form and strengthen.  An example of this is The Portland Art Museum’s partnership with the faculty and students in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Department for their annual Shine a Light program.  The program is an experimental playground that bridges artists, students, chefs, comedians, hairdressers, bartenders, dancers, wrestlers and even tattoo artists to produce a community-led event.  Collaborative programs with diverse groups bring in a variety of visitors causing new audiences to interact and connect.

At the MAH

Our second community program goal is to build social capital by strengthening community connections with our collaborators and visitors.  This is a continual process of bonding within preexisting groups and bridging between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.  

Our programs bond our collaborators by closely co-creating programs with community organizations which strengthens their individual internal connections and their relationship to the MAH. For example, the MAH’s Poetry and Book Arts Extravaganza event partnered with Book Arts Santa Cruz and Poetry Santa Cruz to collaborate with 61 talented book artists and poets.  Evaluation surveys showed that Book Arts Santa Cruz members felt their bonds were strengthened as they connected with members in a collaborative capacity that increased group dialogue and stimulated a sense of pride, identity and vision around their work as a group at this event.

Cardboard tube orchestra at Radical Craft Night.
MAH programs are also designed to bond and bridge visitors through creative activities that form participatory dialogical spaces where knowledge is enhanced, widened and deepened through meaningful opportunities for visitors to converse, discuss and collaborate with each other. Relationships can grow as families bond over a Family Art Day experience or friends can work together to create their own shoebox guitar at Santa Cruz Music 3rd Friday or strangers can collaborate by participating in a cardboard tube orchestra. 

Sometimes we purposefully bridge distinct groups as well such as middle-aged women from local knitting groups with young college students interested in street art to yarn bomb our stairwell for Radical Craft Night.  The MAH’s historic Evergreen Cemetery brings together the Homeless Services Center and MAH volunteers or the local rugby team to collaboratively restore the cemetery.  We are constantly looking for new meaningful opportunities to bridge groups and individuals in our programs.   

Design to Invite Active Participation

Participatory design can be one of the most effective vehicles for developing relationships, building social capital and engaging with community members in museum programs.  Implementing participatory activities and constructivist learning theories allow the learner to actively experiment cognitively and physically, individually and socially, and to collectively build meaning and knowledge. Participatory programming highlights alternative narratives, activates communities and reverses the role of the visitors from consumer to producer, which in turn engenders more connected and active communities.

The value of participatory experiences is epitomized in FIGMENT, a free, creative, participatory, non-profit, community art event.  This participatory event led by emerging artists from all backgrounds, engages communities by encouraging a culture of making, doing, creating and collaboration rather than spectatorship. 

The Denver Art Museum has been leading the way with dynamic programs such as Untitled, which offers a variety of non-traditional encounters with art and the museum through participatory, multidisciplinary activities led by Denver’s creative community. 

At the MAH

Our third community program goal is to invite active participation by offering opportunities at events for visitors to have meaningful, hands-on, cultural experiences in which they act as contributors and co-creators, not just consumers.  We scaffold levels of participatory experiences at events that are intergenerational, multidisciplinary and appeal to different types of learners. We give visitors a new skill to claim rather than a product and work intensely with our collaborators to insure active participation in their activities.

All of our events require some level of participation. Sometimes that results in an artist-led cascading collaborative sculpture of 475 visitor-made scrap metal fish.  Other times it’s a collaborative collage animation workshop, a black light art activity with red lentils, dodge ball, recording songs to send to loved ones, writing haikus for strangers or an urban history scavenger hunt on bikes.

Artists from different worlds, brought
together through Street Art Night.
Our events invite our collaborators to work with us to design participatory activities and offer visitors active, collaborative and meaningful experiences that inspire citizens to positively and actively contribute to their communities.  

Final Thoughts

These are certainly not the only components that constitute successful community engagement in museum programs but they are central for MAH programs and for our community.  This summer, at our Street Art Night, when I saw a young graffiti artist learning how to knit from a woman in her sixties and then taught her how to spray paint or at Experience Metal, when a motorcycle repairman learns how to operate a new tool from an art bike welder or when families work together to create their own cardboard neighborhood or when two individuals who met at one of our events team up to collaborate- it allows me to see first hand the gradual impact of our goals on the community and makes me realize all those late nights spent writing my thesis were completely worth it.

Stacey will be responding to your questions and comments on this post. Enjoy her thesis, share your own example, have a meaty conversation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Open Thread: Is the Gender Imbalance in the Arts a Problem?

Note: This is a post about gender diversity. I feel strongly that there are huge issues with racial and ethnic diversity in museums and arts organizations that deserve a million more posts. I don't know if gender diversity deserves more posts. That's why I wrote this.

Last week, I spoke at three conferences. One was a conference on risk-taking for librarians. One was a conference on pushing our practice in art museums. And one was a local TEDx. The first two had something in common that the last one didn't. Any guesses?

In library- and museum-land, the participants were 80-90% women. At TEDx, the mix was 50/50.

It took me awhile to catch on to the gender divide in museums, arts organizations, and libraries. I was an electrical engineering student (1% women), then worked at NASA (10% women), and then slowly slid from science museums (about 50% women) to history and art museums (60-80%, depending on who you ask). Even the museums I worked in with a fairly equivalent gender balance were completely out-of-whack when you looked at departments. Exhibits, technology, security, and senior management were majority male. Education and programs were female central.

At first, I reveled in working in progressively more female-engaged environments after my engineering background. But running a museum with 100% female full-time staff and 95% female interns has made me struggle with the obvious disparity. When we have new jobs or internships open up, men represent less than 5% of applicants. We have good male representation as volunteers, trustees, and visitors, but we're lousy on staff. We have 0.75 full-time equivalent men between a contract preparator, graphic designer, and visitor services staff member. We can't even rate a whole guy.

Judging from statistics in a few research studies on museum workers (and the obvious visual data at any museum or library conference excepting tech-oriented ones), this imbalance is extreme but not atypical. It gets even worse if you look at the future of the field. AAM has noted that museum studies graduate programs are "80% white and 80% female." It's not quite as bad as my 99% male electrical engineering class, but it's getting there.

This is a problem. Without this most basic kind of diversity on staff, people make myopic decisions that are biased towards certain audience types. Just as a male-dominated tech industry created a hugely celebrated device that women thought sounded like a menstrual management product (the iPad), a female-dominated museum and library industry leads to a narrow set of preconceptions when it comes to program development and design. I've had plenty of meetings where we had to remind ourselves that we couldn't just create craft activities for women and no there would not be hearts on the walls in the Love exhibition. We consult community advisors on a regular basis to compensate for our gender diversity (and other) deficiencies and ensure that our programming is meaningful and non-exclusionary for men. It's a challenge on a daily basis to run an organization for our whole community when our staff represents half at most.

But, and here's where it gets tricky... how BIG a problem is this gender imbalance? When we talk about other kinds of diversity in the museum workforce--racial, ethnic, socioeconomic--it's clear that the problem is serious. Many museums and other arts organizations are seen as instruments of an elitist, white culture that systematically excludes people of color (e.g. this post). True diversity on staff leads to the exposure and deconstruction of discriminatory practices that prevent our organizations from feeling truly relevant and open to diverse community members.

It's not as clear to me that this same issue applies when talking about men, especially white men, who are not victims of systematic discrimination. When it comes to fields like engineering, the reason that people are so energized about increasing minority participation is twofold:
  1. Many minorities (women and racial/ethnic minorities) receive constant harmful messages about their inadequacy when it comes to that may prevent them from pursuing passions in math and science. This is perceived by some as deeply unfair. It takes active intervention and investment to reverse this systematic discrimination and bias.
  2. Engineering careers come with economic opportunity that can move people up socio-economically and advance national GDP/innovation. Engineering jobs can enable minority citizens to achieve more, thus balancing out some inequity and cultivating more overall wealth. 
Do these same arguments apply in fields like the non-profit arts? These jobs are low-paying, economically unstable, and highly competitive. They are not seen (unfortunately) as essential to generating significant personal or community wealth and value. And I don't know that there is a systematic gender bias preventing men from pursuing careers in arts or education. I've never heard of a man who was told that art might be too "hard" for him as my female college roommate was told about mechanical engineering. There may be a gender representation issue in museums, but is there an equity issue? I'm not sure.

I would really, really like to work with more men. I would love for them to be interested and to be represented. But I don't know where the point is at which men are feeling deterred from their interests in pursuing museum careers and what I can do about it. I don't know if I should worry about this.

Maybe it's OK to have some fields that are gender-imbalanced as long as minority voices have a role in program development and production. Maybe it's great that there's a field where women can take the lead. I'm proud that our institution went from having a male director and all-female staff to a female director and all-female staff--at least girlpower goes all the way to the top here. There are plenty of other content and media industries that don't have female domination--our power in museums could be a balancing salve in the bigger picture. We can and do create superb programming for our whole community, with the same implicit deficiencies of any organization that lacks diversity.

Or maybe it's terrible that men are slowly opting out of museum work. Maybe it means they will slowly opt out of cultural institutions altogether and perceive them as irrelevant to their lives. I know from talking to friends who work in ballet that it is indeed possible for a whole genre of art to be seen as "for women."

What do you think? Is the gender imbalance causing problems for arts workers, visitors, or society? How does it affect you? What should we do about it?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

12 Ways We Made our Santa Cruz Collects Exhibition Participatory

In the spirit of a popular post written earlier this year, I want to share the behind the scenes on our current almost-museumwide exhibition at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz Collects. This exhibition showcases collectors from throughout Santa Cruz County--people with collections from animal skulls to dryer lint to priceless historic flags. The content focuses on the question of WHY we collect and how our collections reflect our individual and community identities.

This exhibition represents a few big shifts for us:
  • We used a more participatory design process. Our previous big exhibition, All You Need is Love, was highly participatory for visitors but minimally participatory in the development process. Santa Cruz Collects is based on collections and stories from people throughout our county. That meant months of tracking down leads for people with interesting collections and working with them to develop an approach to showcasing their objects that was cohesive while honoring the diversity of their experiences.
  • We had some money. Instead of a total budget of $200 for participatory elements, we spent about $4,000 on materials for participatory elements in this exhibition. This shift was largely thanks to a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, which provided funding for a key  component--the Memory Jar installation. A million thanks to them.
  • We focused more on design. While the Love exhibition was popular, it was our first attempt at full integration of interdisciplinary content on a big human idea, interactivity, and participation. The result was not as visually cohesive or attractive as it could have been. Coming off that experience, we wanted to prove that we could have great design AND great participation in this show. We worked with an incredible intern and staff team to push it to the next level, both by improving the overall visual aesthetic of the show and by focusing in on fewer, more developed interactive components. Santa Cruz Collects has garnered rave reviews visually from some of the same people who were dismayed by All You Need is Love. 
  • We're involving visitor services and volunteers more intentionally in facilitation. This is the first time we've had an ongoing activity with a lot of materials (Memory Jars). There are Legos and fake flowers and fabric scraps and sand and a whole lot more. Rather than having our exhibit team walk through and fix things up every once in awhile, we wrote facilitation plans for the Memory Jars and other intensive participatory elements. Our visitor services team is responsible for managing, replacing, documenting, and in some cases, improving these elements now that they are live on the floor.
Without further ado, here's what we did to make the exhibition participatory. You can find several more photographs here. I hope there's something in here you can use. As always, I welcome your questions and comments. 

A sample exhibition label for one of the collections -
incredible toasters from 1906 to 1960.
  • We collaborated with community members to source content and develop the show. This is an exhibition built from community members' stuff. We did a series of call-outs to find intriguing collectors. Sometimes, we'd hear something vague about a guy with great branding irons or a lady who showed wild stuff at the county fair. We tracked down as many people as we could and developed a big spreadsheet so we could evaluate the possibilities. We wanted diversity along several axes--stories, types and sizes and scales of collections, perception of value, age of collector, gender, and geographic home base of collector. We were fortunate to have an in-house team with varied attention; while I cared most about the stories behind the collecting, our art curator Susan fixated on aesthetics of the objects, and our history curator Marla focused on novelty, diversity of county representation, and whether people were calling us back. Because we wanted a really clean design and a personal feel, we interviewed all the collectors to capture their stories, creating labels that blended their first-person quotes with our curatorial commentary about the "why" behind their collecting. A stellar volunteer photographer, Tony Grant, took a portrait of each collector in his/her element. While some collectors had us select and design the displays of their objects, others collaborated with us to create their areas, adding their own unique quirks (like putting hats on computers to personalize them).
  • We worked with volunteers and interns again to create soundscapes that focused on collecting. One volunteer captured stories at the flea market; another asked people on the street about the memories they would keep (to accompany the Memory Jars).
  • We worked co-creatively with a group of anthropologists and archaeologists from UCSC to produce a small exhibition on the 3rd floor based on a pre-existing exhibition they had created about how they encounter and work with objects in their global research. We agreed to take the artifacts from their original show but worked with them to rewrite labels and shift the focus to be more personal and in-line with the Santa Cruz Collects big idea. This was a partnership that involved meaty dialogue to get to a shared success; it was important to the anthropologists that we not present fallacious images of them as "collectors" or antiquity hunters, and it was important to us to show the human side of why they work with particular objects. 
  • We made a giant mobile for the center of the museum out of origami birds folded from visitor comments received in the past year. Our community programs staff worked with visitors to make the birds, vote on a final design, and hang the mobile over a series of evening events prior to opening.
  • As in the past, we prototyped all interactive and participatory visitor experiences at museum events in the months leading up to the show. The prototypes were all simple, cheap, and extraordinarily valuable in shaping the final product. We have a rule that every prototype must be used to answer a specific question we can act on, whether that's an A/B comparison, figuring out what's confusing, etc.

First Floor

  • Exploring and making jars with the instructional
    mural in the background.
    Memory Jars installation.
    Our first floor Lezin Gallery is small--about 300 square feet. We like to use it as a participatory introduction to the exhibition, to front load the concept that you the visitor are invited to actively contribute to the exhibition at hand. This time, instead of offering lots of little experiences, we devoted the gallery to one experience: making Memory Jars. The idea is simple: floor to ceiling shelving holding mason jars, each of which holds a label that reads "I remember..." We put out donated craft materials and colored pencils and invite visitors to bottle up a memory to add to the collection. This activity was developed after several prototypes intended to explore the idea that some of our most precious collections are not physical at all. We tried collecting dreams, collecting smells or sounds or stories, but memories was most resonant. We decided (with the support of the James Irvine Foundation) to go big and devote the whole gallery to the activity, spending money to build shelves and buy matching jars. Since the activity is so simple to explain, we hired a local illustrator to create a giant mural to provide instructions in an IKEA dreamland style. We collect people's email addresses (opt in) on a clipboard if they want to come get their jar at the end of the show in late November. We've been overwhelmed by participation in the first month. We have 400 jars, of which about 300 are filled already. Some are funny, some are sweet, some are poignant, some are sad. We're going to need more jars. They might not match.
  • Pocket Museums in bathrooms. We also brought back the pocket museums in the first floor bathrooms - see last week's post for more discussion of these and their mixed success.

Second Floor 

A visitor mid-vote at the Deaccessioning station:
are these objects worthy of our museum? 
The Solari Gallery is the heart of the exhibition, where the majority of the collections are on display. There are three participatory elements in this gallery:
  • What Kind of Collector Are You? quiz. This is a teen magazine-style flowchart quiz that takes you through a series of simple scenarios and decisions to determine what type of collector you are (based on five major types as defined by psychologists). Participants vote by putting a button in the jar labeled with the type they turn out to be. We've found personality quizzes to be a very popular form of participation; in this case, the layout allows you to either do the quiz and then vote on your type or to vote directly just by reading the labels on the jars. This might be a defect or a good thing. I talked to one visitor who told me, "I knew I was a 'for others' type and then I went back and did the quiz to be sure." 
    • Deaccessioning interactive.
      We stole this idea directly from the 2009 UCL Disposal? exhibition. We picked four objects from our collection with dubious connection to our collecting policy, explained the pros and cons of keeping each in short bullet-style labels, and let people vote on whether we should keep them or not. We were careful to phrase it as "pro/con" instead of "keep/dump" because we didn't want to promise to act based on visitors' votes. After much debate about how to make this feel different from the personality quiz (which also has a voting-style interaction), we decided to use tickers for votes--the same kind you use for counting people at events. People like clicking them, but they also monkey with the reset knobs on the side. Fortunately, anyone who changes the votes changes the pros and cons equally (the reset button only affects the thousands digit). But the voter fraud is worth it. The activity does get people looking really deeply at the objects and arguing with their friends about what we should keep, and we can see their preferences in the votes.
    • Hoarders Anonymous. We didn't want to label any of the collectors in the exhibition as a hoarder, but we knew we wanted to deal with this topic. We created a simple table (made from a cracked vitrine filled with junk) with a hanging "Hoarders Anonymous" sign, an "Are You a Hoarder" quiz, a checklist to take shopping to help you keep from excessive hoarding, and a notebook where people can share their hoarding stories. And pencils. The only problem with this element is that the completed quizzes tend to pile up. They aren't fascinating or personal enough to take home, so they hang around. We thought about a different format for them or a way for people to add them to a "hoarded" pile, but we ultimately decided just to sweep through each day and recycle completed ones. While this table is in the middle of the gallery, people have very intense personal experiences writing in the notebook or doing the quizzes with friends. I credit the intern who developed this for a carefully honed sensitivity to both the seriousness and humor inherent in hoarding.

    • Digital Collections comment wall. One of the special collections in the show is from Bruce Damer's Digibarn--an idiosyncratic personal museum of computer history. We wanted to create a talkback wall that dealt in some way with the fact that computers have become the repositories for many of our collections, and the increasing availability of cheap digital storage has made hoarders of us all. But most of the prompts we came up with--how do you curate your digital files? what are your most important digital collections?--generated boring responses. After internal prototyping, we came up with a prompt about the opposite of digital collecting--digital loss. The current prompt reads, "I deleted those files because..." and the setup is designed to resemble an old-school computer terminal. It has generated wonderful and diverse stories. 

    3rd Floor Landing

    Danny's artifacts in the middle,
    flanked by visitor-generated lists.
    • List Scrolls. One of our collectors, Danny Lazzarini, collects found lists. We decided to use her collection as the basis for a participatory project in which visitors would contribute to large lists we put on scrolls flanking Danny's. Again, it took a lot of prototyping to come up with prompts that were suitable evocative to generate interesting responses. Our final four are "Things that scare me," "Things we forget," "Things I can't let go of," and "The best feelings in the world." We have markers out for people to respond, and the lists fill up with diverse responses. We cycle in one fresh list every two weeks so there are always lists that are full to read and others that invite new participants. After big events, they can get packed, but that's kind of interesting too. There has been some sexual innuendo but nothing we deemed offensive so far.

    Finally, it would feel completely strange to not give shout-outs to the staff and interns who made all of this possible. You may not care about the names of the individuals on our team, but they all deserve a million years of credit and goodwill. And the interns deserve rocking jobs. So thank you to interns Anna Greco, who led the Memory Jar and Deaccessioning development, Nora Grant, who created our Hoarding Anonymous chapter and helped with label writing, Rose Cannon, who developed the personality quiz and a little matching game (not described in this post) for the stairwell, Sara Radice, who made our labels absolutely gorgeous, and Megan Merritt, who made the perfect list scrolls. And of course, our killer exhibitions team, Susan Leask, Marla Novo, and most of all Robbie Schoen, who went above and beyond as preparator to make the most beautiful displays of electric drills and animal skulls that you will ever see. Many other people helped make this project happen, but this is the core team and I am incredibly honored to work with them.

    And P.S. some of the interns are graduating and moving and we need more fabulous collaborators to heap creative challenges on. Come intern with us.

    Wednesday, September 05, 2012

    Gender Differences in Participation: The Pocket Museum Example

    This morning, I checked in on the Pocket Museums on our museum's ground floor. This simple participatory project invites visitors to contribute their own small objects in little alcoves in our bathrooms. We piloted it last year as part of a "behind the scenes" event, and we brought back last month to coincide with a thematic exhibition on collecting and identity.

    Here's the strange thing. I walked into the women's bathroom and saw what I expected to see--a bunch of quirky objects on display with stories written on post-its.

    Then I walked into the men's bathroom. No objects. A couple stories. And a lot of screwing around.

    After I took down all the "kick me" and "kick it" post-its covering the Pocket Museum title label in the men's room, I realized that this is the perfect example of an A-to-B test for gendered response to a participatory museum experience. The men's and women's bathroom got the same prompts and the same supplies in identical spaces. But people have participated in completely different ways.

    I'm not drawing any major conclusions from this, but it was incredibly interesting--especially since the behavior in the men's bathroom deviated sharply from the range of participatory response we see throughout the rest of the museum. We have seven participatory elements in our current exhibitions on three floors, ranging from voting to talkback walls to an in-depth "make a memory jar" craft activity. The participation is almost 100% on-topic and appropriate. We don't see much screwing around here. People like participating, we take them seriously, and they take us seriously.

    But not so much in the men's bathroom. Here are three possible explanations for this gender divide:
    • Men and women use bathrooms differently. A women's bathroom has a slight social function, whereas a men's bathroom does not. Given the chance in a more private, male-only space, men might be more likely than women to mess around. 
    • The Pocket Museum activity could be more appropriate for women, many of whom carry bags or purses. If the activity is not as relevant to men, they might use the tools provided to do something else.
    • Maybe women are the lead participants throughout the museum, and they create a normative set of seed content that encourages men to behave comparably in exhibits (but not in bathrooms). I would be surprised if this is the case given my direct observation of visitors in the galleries; however, the Dallas Museum of Art's Ignite the Power of Art study DID show a much higher incidence of participation among women at that museum (62% vs 38% for men, more information here). 
    I'm sure you have many other ideas about why this might be happening... and I hope you share them in the comments. What I think is interesting is that this is noticeable at all. It makes me curious about what other techniques we could use to test differences in participatory response. In general, we try to encourage multi-vocal participation, deliberately ensuring that the seed content represents diverse approaches to the activity or exhibition. We want a broad range of people to feel that there is a place "for them" in the exhibition and to feel connected to diverse participants through the activity. 

    This bridging effect is really important to us. The last thing we want is to become the kind of place where one demographic group participates while another stands back and watches (a problem common to science and children's museums when it comes to kids and adults). Maybe A-to-B testing can help identify some of the subtle differences among our visitors and improve our approach so that we keep making sure that our invitation to participate rings true for our diverse community.

    And in the meantime, we'll try to get some better seed content in the men's room... or maybe we need a different activity in there. This may be the first time I advocate for gender-segregated exhibit design. What would you do?