Showing posts with label exhibition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label exhibition. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Adventures in Evaluating Participatory Exhibits: An In-Depth Look at the Memory Jar Project

A man walks into a museum. He shares a story. He creates a visual representation of his story. He puts it on the wall.

How do you measure the value of that experience?

Two years ago, we mounted one of our most successful participatory exhibits ever at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History: Memory Jars. Over three months, about 600 people filled mason jars with personal memories and put them on display. Better yet, the graduate student who led this project, Anna Greco, documented the whole project and did in-depth analysis of the visitor contributions. This post shares some of the highlights from the project and from Anna's research. I strongly recommend checking out her entire thesis [pdf] if you want to know more.


The Memory Jar project was simple. We filled a small gallery from floor to ceiling with shelves of Mason jars. We invited visitors to "bottle up" a memory in a jar, using craft materials to fill the jar with evocative objects and a hand-written label to tell their story. There were no written instructions, just a mural that suggested what to do and labels that prompted people for their name and memory. The project was linked to a larger exhibition, Santa Cruz Collects, about why local folks collect things. We realized that the most valuable things many of us collect are intangible--our memories--and the Memory Jar project was born.

From the beginning, we observed pretty amazing experiences happening with the Memory Jars. People were spending a long time working on them. Some of the stories were quickies, but others were powerful and personal. We started with 400 jars and assumed we wouldn't fill them all. Instead, we had to do a rush order on more jars halfway through the project.

Two years later, this project is still one of the most fondly remembered participatory experiences at the museum--by visitors and staff. There was something special going on in that gallery. What was it?


The challenge, of course, was to figure out how to evaluate the experience in a way that would help us identify the power of the project. We wanted to know whether the project truly had emotional resonance, and if so, how we could identify and document that.

Anna Greco did research in three ways: through in-person interviews with participants, surveys with participants, and observational analysis of the jars themselves. These methods revealed that the majority of participants had a meaningful experience with the memory jars that stuck--even in followup a year after the initial project.

I think most of us are familiar with interview and survey-based evaluation methods. I want to instead highlight the work Anna did to analyze the content of the jars observationally, which got at the question of emotional resonance in a more quantitative way.

Anna did two types of quantitative evaluation of the jars:
  • she analyzed the jar contents, looking at how full the jars were. This was used as a proxy for time and creative energy spent on the creation of jars.
  • she analyzed the text on the jar labels for length, for emotional content, and for intimacy. This was used to evaluate the amount of emotional energy dedicated to the jar activity.

In each of these analyses, Anna created a coding scheme to categorize the jars.

For the fullness of the jars, Anna created a seven-point scale, going from empty to full to full+ (additional decoration or objects on the outside of the jar) by percentage of jar full. It was fairly simple to identify whether a jar was 1/4 full or 3/4 full or had stuff popping out the top of it. The result here was surprisingly linear, with more than half of the jars full or full+. People used the stuff and they used it to the fullness of their ability. This could also be an argument for larger jars if we repeat the project.

For the content of the labels, Anna used three strategies.
  • She counted the number of words in each label. This was an easy (if time-consuming) proxy for engagement. The average label had 17 words, though the maximum was 105. Again, this indicates a high level of engagement, especially given the size of the shipping labels provided.
  • She created a numeric scale for the "intimacy" of each label. This was created with the help of Dr. Lauren Shapiro, a psychologist and former museum intern. Lauren and Anna created a scale of one to five where each level had specific elements to indicate intensity of the story shared, using signifiers like specificity of a memory, places, names, direct quotes, or medical information. 70% of the labels were a 3, 4, or 5, with only 4% at a 1. People got intimate, sharing intense stories of loss, special moments, and potent memories.
  • She created a coding schema for "emotions" expressed in each label. Lauren helped Anna create a manual for language cues to signify any of nine emotions: happiness, love, gratitude/awe, sadness, pride, anger, fear, confusion, and mixed. 36% of the labels were happy, closely followed by 32% that demonstrated no clear emotion. Labels in the "no emotion" were "reporting" memories without explicit emotional language, as in "I remember going to the beach with my friends." Among the remainder, love, mixed emotions, gratitude, and sadness were the most frequent.

Intimate? Emotional?
Coding is useful but complicated
when the goal is to capture feeling.
We learned a few things from this process:
  • Creating a coding scheme for text analysis is complicated, but it's worth it. Especially with such a large number of jars, it was really valuable to be able to distill the diversity of stories via a few key axes of intimacy and emotion. Unsurprisingly, developing the coding schemes to be able to be applied fairly consistently by people without a lot of specific training led to imperfections. But just going through the process helped us understand how we COULD quantify this kind of extremely qualitative content. You can check out Anna's coding scheme manuals on pages 67-69 of her thesis.
  • Intimacy was the most useful indicator for this project, but still really complicated to measure objectively. If we were doing this again and had time to either code by emotion or intimacy but not both, I would choose intimacy. The intimacy measure was the clearest signifier of how people were using the Memory Jars and what stories they chose to tell. That said, we still had plenty of debate about what qualified as more or less intimate as the schema was being developed. Mention AIDS with no context, and you shot up to a 5 on intimacy. But tell an incredibly detailed story about your childhood, and you were likely to end up somewhere like a 3. When Anna did followup surveys, it became clear that many stories were more intimate to individual jar-makers than their coded labels reflected. It's arguable that the much simpler measure of word count is sufficient as a proxy; high intimacy stories had an average word count of 38, compared to the overall average of 17. If you use more words, you are probably going deeper into your story, which typically involves more commitment, intensity, and maybe--intimacy.   
  • There are quantitative ways to measure creative participation. We keep trying to find ways to assign numbers to different kinds of participatory projects at the MAH. None of them are perfect, but all of them are useful in moving towards better design and better yardsticks for our work. The Memory Jar project allowed us to experiment with a more robust approach to quantitative evaluation of participation, and it got us interested in other ways to do it in simpler projects. For example, check out this quantitative method we use for comment boards. 
  • Evaluating participatory experiences exposes new questions we actually care about, which are often different from what we thought we wanted to know. In trying to get a grasp of the kind of emotional resonance of the Memory Jars, we started having some interesting discussions about design and the end goals for our work. Would it be "better" if all the jars were a 5 on intimacy? If there were as many sad jars as happy ones? Just having this data opened up new ways of talking about what we are trying to achieve with our work. One of the goals we've stumbled into regarding participatory projects is the diversity of content presented. For some projects, ones that are designed to invite everyone to engage, we want to make sure the project absorbs a diversity of content in terms of language, emotion, intensity/intimacy, and creativity, so that every visitor can find their place in the project. In other projects, we actually want to "gate" the experience so that only people who are willing to devote X amount of time or intention will complete the project. Or we want to make it as simple and breezy as possible. Looking at the mix of what happened with the Memory Jars got us thinking about the ways we design for different kinds of outcomes, when we want diverse outcomes and when we want more focused sets.

What approaches have you used or considered for evaluating participatory projects? Please share your stories in the comments.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Truth about Bilingual Interpretation: Guest Post by Steve Yalowitz

You know those research studies that make you want to immediately change your practice in some way? I recently read The BERI report on bilingual labels in museums and was blown away by its findings. BERI was an NSF-funded three-year collaborative project co-led by Cecilia Garibay (Garibay Group), Steve Yalowitz (Audience Viewpoints Consulting), Nan Renner (Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, Art of Science Learning) and Carlos Plaza (Babel No More). This guest post was written by Steve Yalowitz, a Principal at Audience Viewpoints Consulting, who has a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology and has evaluated and researched informal learning experiences in museums and other visitor institutions for over 20 years.

Bilingualism in the U.S. is a controversial topic, and the same is true in museums. If someone asked you whether museums should or need to have text in more than one language, what would you say? You probably have an opinion, or you could probably come up with an opinion without too much effort. Maybe you are in a country that mandates multiple languages, or at an institution already committed to bi- or multi-lingual interpretation. However, based on my conversations and experiences with many museum professionals, my guess is that many of you are aware of the issue, may think it’s worth discussing, but have limited knowledge about the core issues surrounding bilingual interpretation.

I was co-author of a recently completed research study [PDF] funded by the National Science Foundation, the Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI), which strove to better understand bilingual labels from the visitor perspective. This qualitative, exploratory study involved tracking and interviewing 32 Spanish-speaking intergenerational groups in fully bilingual exhibits at four different science centers/museums. We observed and audio recorded the groups, and conducted in-depth interviews in Spanish after they went through the exhibit, with a focus on what the bilingual experience was like for the group.

The BERI study really expanded our thinking about bilingual interpretation, even though we’d been studying the topic for years. One of the main affordances of bilingual interpretation, of course, is that it provides access to content. The BERI study shows that access to content—the most obvious benefit of bilingual labels—is just the tip of the iceberg. Bilingual interpretation expands the way visitors experience and perceive museums, shifting their emotional connection to the institutions.

Here are three affordances that may not be as top-of-mind when we think about bilingual interpretation:
  1. Code-switching – We found lots of evidence of effortless switching back-and-forth between English and Spanish. We saw kids and adults switch from English to Spanish not only mid-conversation but mid-sentence, both in the exhibition and in the interviews afterwards. Museum professionals often incorrectly assume that if we provide Spanish text for Spanish speakers, they stay in “Spanish mode.” The power of bilingual text is that it’s bilingual – it provides access in two languages, and code switching lets you understand and express yourself from two different perspectives, with two sets of vocabulary. It was a huge affordance for bilingual groups, especially when some members were not able to understand English, or even if they were Spanish dominant or fully bilingual. 
  2. Facilitation – We researched intergenerational groups, so it’s not surprising that many of the adults saw their role as facilitator as essential to their own and the group’s success in the exhibition. We confirmed what other label studies have previously found: that adults were more likely to read labels than kids. However, this study found that in bilingual groups adults were more likely to read in Spanish, while the kids were more likely to read in English. With Spanish labels available, adults were able to facilitate, guiding the conversations and interactions, showing their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews where to focus and how to interact. Adults who were previously dependent on their children could now take the lead as confident facilitators. An added benefit of bilingual labels, even for those who could read in English, was that they didn’t feel slower or that they were holding up the group.
  3. Emotional reaction – This study found that the presence of bilingual interpretation had a profound emotional effect on the groups. Groups said they enjoyed the visit more, felt more valued by the institution, and many said having bilingual interpretation changed how they felt about the institution. In our field, if we focus on the emotional aspect of the experience, it’s typically around the content and what we’re hoping people feel when engaging with our exhibits. While some of the reactions were around engagement with content (as would be expected), many of them were really about feeling confident and comfortable–key factors for a satisfying and worthwhile visit. 
When asking whether bilingual interpretation is worth it, we’re often looking at it through the wrong lens. It shouldn’t be about whether it’s worth it for us as an institutional investment, but whether it’s worth it from the visitor perspective. Does it improve the visitor experience in a way that adds value to the visit, providing affordances that don’t exist in monolingual experiences? The answer, from the BERI study findings, is a resounding yes.

BERI was a three-year collaborative effort I worked on with Cecilia Garibay, Nan Renner and Carlos Plaza. When we received the award, we felt a great sense of opportunity and responsibility, since this was the first NSF-funded research study about bilingual families and their experiences in fully bilingual exhibitions. You can download the research report and find out about the research model, methods, analysis and implications for the field.

 We saw this study not as the answer to the field’s questions about bilingual interpretation, but as the start of a conversation around better understanding how it works. In doing so, we found out that it is a much more complicated and rich experience than even we thought. After a recent presentation about the findings, a museum professional told us that the study’s findings helped change how they think about bilingual interpretation. My hope is that some of you out there will continue this important work, and help change how I think about bilingual interpretation.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest Post: Weaving Community Collaborations into Permanent Installations at the Denver Art Museum

Earlier in 2013, I was amazed to visit one of the new “Studio” spaces at the Denver Art Museum. The DAM is one of several large art museums that is embracing making in a big way—first, through their event-based programming and open art studios tied to temporary exhibitions, and now, through a 1,200 square foot studio in which visitors can do art projects tied to the permanent collection. In this guest post, Stefania Van Dyke, Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects, tells the story of how the co-creative development and visitor participation in the “Thread Studio” that accompanied their 2013 summer exhibition, Spun, changed her perspective on her own work.

The Denver Art Museum is no stranger to community collaborations, but we’ve been dipping in our toe a little more deeply when it comes to developing permanent participatory installations. This summer’s Museum-wide celebration of textiles, Spun, consists of fourteen exhibitions and “moments” (most temporary, some permanent). Part of our approach to community involvement in planning Spun had to do with necessity; we needed help to pull this off. More important to the Museum’s long-term goals, it was an opportunity to engage creative locals in conceptualizing, programming, and installing in a significant way. As an educator, I know that lessons learned and questions raised from this experience will substantively shift how I think about and act upon our relationship with our local creative community moving forward.

I came on staff in December as the Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects with the immediate task of developing a permanent studioDAM’s term for an exploratory and interactive space—in conjunction with the reinstallation of our textile art collection (the main impetus for Spun). Once we had the basic components and goals for “Thread Studio,” my first instinct was to call upon friends on staff at other museums for feedback and insights. But my DAM colleagues encouraged me also to talk with community members who are intimately involved in the world of fiber and textiles. I soon discovered the enormity of that group: there are dozens of guilds in Colorado dedicated to quilting alone. Who are all of these people? What inspires them? Once we started the conversation, the outpouring of excitement was remarkable.

My colleague Djamila Ricciardi and I shared our concepts for the various components of the studio. Community artists gave their honest feedback, and we crafted a display based on these discussions and their contributions. More than 160 contributors, ranging from nationally known artists to hobbyist crafters, sent us samples, tools, and heirlooms that almost completely populated the 80 cubbies in our dense curio-cabinet-style display. Prompted by our simple questions (“Have you ever made a quilt out of particularly meaningful materials?”), they created pieces imbued with stories—like Amy Gibson, the mother of four who designed and made a quilt block out of parachute material her grandfather brought home from France after serving in World War II. Some community artists even helped install the space.

Visitors Going Rogue

We collaborated formally with community artists to design Thread Studio; once it opened, the participation expanded to museum visitors. Thread Studio contains two embroidery tables with designs printed on burlap and instructions for stitching, as well as a variety of looms on the wall on which visitors can weave with unconventional materials like jump ropes, vines, and bungee cords. Since the studio opened in May, visitors have left their marks there in the most awesome of ways. They’re tagging with yarn.

Now that we’re a few months in, we’re seeing visitors’ confidence and creativity grow. They’re not only contributing in unique ways to the pieces we’ve offered them formally, but they’re also going rogue. Someone expressed her (his? More men are participating than I anticipated) appreciation of the space by leaving a small hand-made lace heart on a chair. Another visitor yarn-bombed the tether on our remote control. Others are coming in to do spontaneous demos in the space. They’re gathering in groups:  in June, visitors stumbled upon members of the Rocky Mountain Lace Guild making both small talk and lace. And I recently got word of a spinning flash mob in the works, with dozens of spinners planning to pull out their wheels and spindles to show their stuff at the Museum.

Sustaining Collaborative Momentum

Now comes perhaps the biggest challenge: How can I, with help from my colleagues, sustain this organic enthusiasm and burst of creativity, as well as these relationships? Looking back at my team’s original goals for the Thread Studio, none of them mention it becoming an ongoing hub of community activity. I didn’t realize it when I started on this project last fall, but that idea has truly permeated everything we’ve done. Our primary goal was to inspire visitors’ own creativity—which we’re seeing in these traces they’re leaving behind and overhearing in visitors’ discussions in and around the space.

But what role does the initial community participation play for general visitors who may or may not care about textiles? Does it matter? Why is community involvement in a permanent installation important to us as museum professionals? What exactly about this space is inspiring visitors and how can we apply these lessons to other collection areas beyond textiles?

I’m spending the summer reflecting and trying to get a handle on these questions and their answers, trying to harness the momentum that we’re experiencing and to learn from it. DAM staff has been talking a lot lately about being seen as—or actually being—a contributing part of the local “creative ecosystem.” I recognize that we’ve started heading in that direction with Thread Studio and don’t want to lose it. As someone who has only ever worked on more traditional exhibitions of capital-A-art, this has been a challenging and unpredictable project. I did not enter this project thinking about the importance of co-creating a permanent space with our community, but now that I’ve seen it through this way, my work will never be the same.

Stefania will respond to your comments and questions here.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Why Do We Interpret Art and Science So Differently?

A genius has just created a major body of work. Her work is monumental in her field, but her achievements are somewhat opaque to the general public.

Imagine seeing a museum exhibition related to this person's work. What will you experience?

The answer depends on what kind of museum you are visiting.

If we're talking about an an artist working in the context of an art museum, it's likely that the genius' work will be presented with minimal interpretation. Labels will reference the importance of her work in the context of the art world. The curator and any educators will work around and noticeably behind the artist herself.

If we're talking about a scientist in a science museum or science center, the presentation will be completely different. Museum exhibition designers will distill her achievements into stories, objects, and interactive components that are understandable to lay people at the middle school level. The genius might have a quote, photo, or object on display to give context to the story, but the majority of the content will be developed and produced by the museum, not the scientist.

Both of these approaches have plusses and minuses. Science museums get criticized for "dumbing down" big ideas for a general audience. Art museums struggle with seeming "pretentious" and narrow in their interpretation.

As someone who has worked in both science and art museums, I'm confused as to why there is such a gulf in our perspectives on how and why interpretation fits into the picture. Artists and scientists both work in specific contexts on big, complicated ideas. There are huge opportunities for science and art museums to cross-program with geniuses like Olafur Elliason, James Turrell, and many, many folks working across the art/science spectrum. While a few institutions have capitalized on the intersections between art and science (notably, the Exploratorium, Science Gallery, and the New York Hall of Science), most stay squarely in their own camps.

Why do we think science is impossible to communicate in its "pure" form but that art must be communicated in that way lest it be distorted? Why do we think scientific research is any more or less understandable to the general public than fine art? Considering the emphasis in schools on science and the evisceration of art programs, I wouldn't be surprised if science literacy is higher than art literacy in contemporary American society.

Both types of institutions would be well-served if we examined the expectations underlying our work and whether we are going overboard to disassociate ourselves from them.

In science centers, we try to combat the notion that science is complex work for a limited, rarified few. So we focus on the idea that "you can be a scientist" and that "science is fun." Do these democratizing messages prevent us from pursuing interesting ways to present the extraordinary genius of some scientists and the incredible complexity and repetition of scientific work?

In art museums, we try to combat the notion that art is something your child can do, and if you like it, it's art. So we focus on the idea that "artists are special" and that "art is complicated." Do these elitist messages prevent us from exploring useful ways to honor the creativity in everyone and the simple pleasures of aesthetics?

It's ironic that the stereotypes we're trying to run from lead us to each other.

Thank you to the ISEN listserv for helping spark this post, via the controversy over Richard Dawkins' denigrating remarks about informal science.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Into the Deep End: What's Keeping Museums from Telling Meaty, In-Depth Stories?

I just finished listening to This American Life's incredible two-part series about gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago. It does everything a great documentary story can do: it takes you into another world, introduces you to unforgettable people, defies expectations, and delivers tough realities instead of fairy tales.
I've been consuming a lot of documentary stories recently, primarily through, my new favorite go-to nighttime reading source. Longform curates superlative non-fiction from a variety of sites and magazines. It has introduced me to corrupt university fundraisers, the true history of Tom Dooley, and the world's oldest marathon runner... and that's just in the last week.

All this delightful non-fiction makes me wonder: why aren't museums great at telling these same kinds of deep, intense stories? Why are exhibitions, which have huge potential as immersive, multi-platform narrative devices, so rarely used to that effect?

Yes, I know that every platform is different, and that the captive attention we afford to radio, TV, and written material doesn't map perfectly to a free-choice wander through an exhibition. But exhibitions have the potential to use all those narrative tools PLUS objects, immersive design, and interactive experiences to tell stories.

Strangely, exhibitions have become incredibly successful at creating immersive environments that tell broad conceptual stories--but not so good at telling tight, focused stories. I've experienced many excellent thematic exhibitions that gave me an overall sense of a story, but few that really dove into a particular object or incident. This seems strange given that museums are organized around objects. Think about how common it is to see an exhibition on a time period, an artistic genre, or a broad scientific discipline that uses a variety of objects and narrative devices as guideposts along a diffuse journey, and how rare it is to see an in-depth experience around just one object or set of objects, as in Peter Greenaway's extraordinary (and fictionalized) delving into Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, or Anne Frank's intimate attic hideout.

Too often we pull our punches by using the weakest storytelling techniques--broad generalizations on 50 word labels, an immersive wading pool of narrative bits. We avoid the incredible power that comes from a deep dive into one object, one story, one moment. Social object theory tells us that the most compelling stories exist around individual objects, but we weaken those stories by throwing too much in the same pot. We justify the tradeoff by arguing that we have to tell the broader story, offer more context, integrate more objects.

But tight doesn't have to mean limited. When we experience intense depth, as in the Minnesota History Center's Open House, which explores the stories of residents of one St. Paul home over time, or the Boston Museum of Science's beautiful theater experience about Nikola Tesla, or an incredible single artist show, it stands out. It's unforgettable. The individuals, the nuance, the specificity--the story tattoos itself on your memory in a way that a generalized exhibition cannot. It leads to more interesting conclusions and motivates further exploration. While the story is tighter, the impact is less prescribed, and more powerful.

One of the most surprising versions of this I have ever experienced was in a very small museum in Texas, the Brazos Valley African American Museum. They had a very simple exhibit of single-page laminated stories, transcribed from oral interviews with elders in the community. I was captivated by these first-person accounts because of their clarity and specificity. They led me to places I never would have gone otherwise. The narrative device was almost nil, and yet the content experience was better than I've had in most exhibitions.

Specificity trumps generality when it comes to creating a powerful documentary story. It's easy to imagine a hard-hitting exhibition on teens and gun violence that might tell a "broader story" than that on This American Life--more statistics, more diverse images and voices from throughout the country, more opportunities to reflect and connect. And yet it wouldn't be as powerful as an exhibition on just one story of one high school. It wouldn't be as deep. It wouldn't be as real. And ultimately (and ironically), it wouldn't have the power to expose the bigger issues in the nuanced way that a tight focus can.

When have you experienced this kind of deep dive in an exhibition? What do you think makes it possible, and what do you think makes it so rare?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

When I was a teenager, I was enthralled by interactive fiction. I loved the idea of the web as an infinite landscape, with stories and poems spiraling out in nonlinear directions.

Fifteen years later, the web has evolved tremendously... but hypertext-based interactive art and fiction is  still a nerdy sideline at best. A cult of linearity has dominated content on the web, with implications about how we think about effective storytelling both online and in museums.

One of the loveliest recent examples of linear multimedia storytelling is the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek story produced by the New York Times. Spend a bit of time exploring it, and you'll notice:
  • Incredible pacing brings you into and out of media components to the story just when you want them. The photos, videos, and maps are not distractions; they are embedded wisely in terms of size, frequency, and length.
  • It's a linear story, told top to bottom, with pagination for "chapters" of the story. You scroll down, you read, you watch, you continue on.
There are real positives to linearity in storytelling, even in an online environment freed from the page. Consider this lovely little story about past and present colliding in a Portland basement. It's a simple linear progression of text and images. The back and forth between the images and text creates a kind of dramatic tension that builds suspense and encourages a slower, more contemplative read. Slight introductions of movement, as in this Pitchfork feature on Natasha Khan, help you connect the words on the screen with the ideas they intend to animate.

And yet it surprises me that we have come this far, and linear storytelling - mostly top-to-bottom, occasionally left-to-right - is the still the best option for most content. It would have been so easy--and appealing--to read the Tunnel Creek story laid out on a giant map of the mountain, with different pockets of the story emerging in the different areas where things happened. 

The cult of linearity online isn't limited to storytelling. Continuous scroll is now a dominant design pattern across the web. Whether you are browsing through Facebook posts or Pinterest pins, you scroll from top to bottom through a never-ending march of content. Why wouldn't it be preferable to see pins in clusters based on similarity? Or to see Facebook posts grouped by geography, or proximity to me on the social graph, instead of in a long, chronological list?

My reluctant conclusion is that for now, simplicity trumps possibility when it comes to online navigation. It would take time and energy to familiarize users with new modes of navigation, and that could cause people to opt out. Ergo, Jorge Luis Borges and I will have to wait for the garden of forking paths to become a reality.

This makes me wonder: does this preference for linearity impact people when visiting museums? Are people overwhelmed or confused by the "infinite paths" that we offer through galleries, collections, and exhibitions? 

I used to work at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, a "fixed march" museum that sends all visitors on the same linear path through the permanent exhibition. This format became increasingly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in history museums, where you could reasonably dictate the "right" path through chronological content. In some museums, like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the fixed march itself serves as a symbol of the content, whereas in others, it's a convenient way to manage visitor flow.

I grew to disdain the fixed march approach to exhibitions as too controlling and directed, leading to less interesting arrangements of objects than are possible in a more varied, free-choice approach. But maybe my disdain is based on the diverse and long experience I've had in museums. Maybe it is actually more comforting for visitors, more grounding, to experience most museums as linear stories. That's not to say you can't skip certain bits or linger in others--just that some expert is subtly telling you that you are on the right path, progressing through the story as it was intended to be shared. Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format. 

I'd love to see research on how open and closed exhibition layouts impact visitor dwell time, satisfaction, and engagement. What have you observed? 

Perhaps open floor plan museums are my dream opportunity to nerd out on forking pathways. Are museums pioneering renegades for their free-choice approach to visitor navigation and exploration of content? Or are we fools to ignore the preponderance of linearity in other forms of media?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Three Exhibition-Related Opportunities in 2013

The year is ending, and I have three exciting opportunities to share with you if you are an exhibition-oriented individual, or someone with an interest in the indoor side of creative placemaking.
  1. Join our team. We're looking for an Exhibitions Manager to join our team here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. In this full-time role, you will be responsible for interactive exhibition development, project management of all our site-specific work, and you will lead the redevelopment of our permanent History Gallery into a more dynamic, participatory, and flexible space. This is a highly collaborative role, and we are looking for the perfect blend of strong design skills with a generous enthusiasm for amateur and professional co-creation. Please check out the full description and how to apply if you are interested. 
  2. Come to Camp. You Can't Do That in Museums Camp is filling up. Next week, I will be reviewing applications for this event and making decisions. If you are interested, please apply soon! This camp will be a 2.5 day event in July of 2013 at which participants work in teams to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you've ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. You do not have to be a museum professional to be part of this--we'd like a diverse mix of participants. Registration will be $150 and by application only
  3. Join the conversation. Spurred partly by the most recent (and fabulous) issue of the Exhibitionist and conversations we're having at our museum, I'd like to hear your reflections on how you think about exhibition formats and schedules. We're toying here with switching from a format where we change all of our exhibitions four times per year to something more flexible throughout the building. I'm curious what has worked or been challenging at other museums, especially small and mid-sized ones, when it comes to both frequency of exhibition changes and the approach. Some of the big questions on my mind include:
    • If we change exhibitions more frequently, will it drive more repeat visitation? Will it give a sense of energy and change? 
    • What do we lose in quality and ability to create complex work if we rotate more frequently?
    • Would it work to create an infrastructure for exhibitions that are flexible, inviting changing insertions and shifts, but don't rotate entirely? Would visitors "read" that as new content, or would the visual similarities make it seem like same old same old?
    • What if we slowed down and changed some spaces less frequently--like once a year? What opportunities might that open up for participatory and community projects that evolve over time in the space?
If you have thoughts on any of these questions or want to share the story of how you approach exhibition rotation and formats, please share a comment!

And if you know anyone who should be at Camp or should apply for the job, please pass this on.

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?

    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?

    Wednesday, February 29, 2012

    Why We Wrote an Exhibition Philosophy

    Last month, MAH curator Susan Hillhouse and I sat down and wrote an exhibition philosophy for our museum. We wanted to share with people, in as clear and transparent a format as possible, our approach to developing exhibitions. In particular, we want exhibition collaborators--artists, researchers, historians, collectors--to understand our goals and how we intend to steer the exhibition development process. It's a working document, and we mean to put it to work planning new projects with our partners.

    Here's the short version (read the whole thing here):
    The Museum of Art & History is committed to creating exhibitions that inspire our diverse audiences to engage deeply with contemporary art and Santa Cruz County history. We see our visitors as partners in actively interpreting and exploring exhibition content. 
    This philosophy steers our work, and it means that we do things a little differently than some other museums and galleries. If you are working with us as an artist or contributor to an exhibition, you should expect that museum staff will create multi-modal, interdisciplinary, participatory, immersive, and social experiences around your work. We will invite you to engage in discussion about these exhibition elements, and if you want to be involved in brainstorming possibilities, that’s fabulous. If not, that’s fine too–but you should know that we will be following this philosophy in all of the exhibitions that we develop. 
    We wrote this exhibition philosophy after a series of confusing and sticky conversations with collaborators about mutual expectations of what an exhibition should be. We knew internally that we wanted our exhibitions to become more interdisciplinary, more participatory, and more responsive to audience needs. But we weren't explicitly making those goals public. Susan and I had many long conversations with contributors who were concerned that our efforts might demean or distract from their work. We discussed research about how visitors experience museums. We debated the relative merits of different forms of interactivity. We challenged our partners, they challenged us, and we all learned a lot from the experience. And by "learned a lot" I mean we learned we needed an exhibition philosophy--a starting point for dialogue that could happen earlier in the exhibition planning process.

    Debates about interpretative materials, interactivity, audience needs, and visitor participation are often seen as internal museum wonk issues. But at a small community museum that primarily creates exhibitions with living, local artists and collaborators, we have to involve our partners in this conversation. If an artist is uncomfortable with the idea of interactivity around his work, or a historian is unwilling to allow visitors to comment on her research, that's a problem for us. It goes against our goals for the visitor experience, and those goals are ultimately more important to us than showing any particular artwork or artifact. In most cases, there's a way to work through the disagreements to come up with a solution that satisfies everyone's needs. But we wanted to be direct with potential partners about what we're trying to do--and why.

    We're working to create a comparable philosophy for our community programs, the vast majority of which are planned with dozens of community partners. We feel like it's a good starting point for any new collaboration--you tell me what you're about, I tell you what I'm about, and we all understand what the goals are. Artist Mark Allen raised this issue in the recent report on the Machine Project residency at the Hammer Museum, saying (p. 40):
    I think the hardest thing was that I never did and still don’t understand what people wanted, what they were expecting to get, and whether they got it or not. I think it was a little unclear what the mandate was. To a certain degree, I’m happy to do my own projects and it was amazing to work with you guys and I learned a lot, but any situation where you’re invited to do something and you don’t know if you’re fulfilling expectations is emotionally challenging. 
    I'm curious about other ways that museums directly express their philosophy on exhibitions, or learning, or programming, as a guide for partners and visitors. I know a few institutions have internal documents on these kinds of things (ASTC just published several from science centers around the world), but I'm curious about the use and value of external statements. Have you done this at your museum, either directly with a document or indirectly through conversation? How do you help your community understand your goals and related methods?

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    A Radical, Simple Formula for Pop-Up Museums

    Pop-Up Museum [n]:
    1. a short-term institution existing in a temporary space. 
    2. a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.
    Over the past few years, there have been several fabulous examples of pop-up museums focusing on visitor-generated content. There was Jaime Kopke's Denver Community Museum, which existed for nine months in a Denver storefront in 2008-9 to celebrate visitors' creations. Maria Mortati runs the wonderful SF Mobile Museum, which roams the Bay Area showing mini-exhibits on evocative themes. The never-quite-opened National History Museum of the Netherlands created an innovative vending machine for historic objects, which traveled to festivals and urban centers for people to add their memories.

    And now, Michelle DelCarlo has created a shockingly simple template for pop-up history museums focusing on personal objects of meaning. I strongly recommend you read her whole blog back to the beginning (it's not too onerous) and check out the evolution of her experimental format, which she has deployed in museums, libraries, and classrooms in the US and Australia.

    Here's how it works:
    • Michelle partners with an organization, institution, or group. They come up with a theme, a date, and invite people to come.
    • On the prescribed date and time, people show up with personal objects on the theme. There is paper and pens to write labels. The objects and labels are laid out on tables.
    • People walk around, look at objects, and talk about them.
    This project is beautiful in its simplicity. Any institution could do this with a few folding tables, pencils and paper, and a little bit of promotion.

    There are a few things about this that I find incredibly interesting:
    • The experience is event-based. Michelle noted after early experiments that short timeframes work best for participants. These are museums that last not for a day or weekend or month but for two hours. The experience is the museum, and the objects are exciting because the people are there to share them. There's no forced sense that the objects should remain or be relevant beyond the event.
    • The goal is promoting conversations. Michelle has an explicit mission to "create conversations between people of all ages and walks of life." It's not fundamentally about the theme or the objects but the conversations that happen around them. (She also has an interesting take on the deliberate choice of "conversation" instead of "dialogue" as the goal.)
    • The design is humble--and radical. Look at photos of Michelle's pop-up museums, and you'll see a bunch of plastic tables with objects lined up on them. Because the experience is the key focus (and because of the highly temporary nature of the experience), the design costs are nil. There's no focused lighting or casework or beautiful labels. This is the natural extension of what some innovative exhibit designers--especially Kathleen McLean--have been advocating for: simple, flexible formats that put primacy on ideas and visitor contribution. It tracks almost exactly with Kathleen's Manifesto for the (r)evolution of Museum Exhibitions, all the way down to the snacks. And it looks totally unlike a standard museum. 
    • The format focuses on intimate experiences. Michelle's pop-ups reach twenty or so people each time, and that's ok. Particularly for small museums, which deal in magnitudes of tens instead of thousands, this format can provide the kind of unusual deep experience that can only happen at this scale. Smaller is not worse. It is different. This is a format that works for small.
    Kudos to Michelle for her inspiring work. We can't wait to try out the format at our own small place, and in partnership with non-museums in our area.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Balancing Engagement: Adventures in Participatory Exhibit Labels

    We’ve been doing a little experiment at our museum with labels. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum recently loaned us some fabulous surfboards that tell the co-mingled history of surfing and redwood trees in Santa Cruz. In our quest to make the public areas of the museum more reflective of Santa Cruz culture, we moved these boards from a comprehensive display in the history gallery into a main stairwell, prominently visible from the lobby and throughout the building.

    The surfboards are beautifully hung in their new location, but they present a new challenge: we have to write very short labels. They’re no longer “an exhibit” per se—more of an evocative design element that hints at an important story told elsewhere in the museum.

    We decided to approach the label-writing for these boards in a participatory way. We blatantly borrowed the brilliant technique the San Diego Museum of Natural History used to write labels based on visitors’ questions. We put up the following label along with a pedestal with post-its and pencils:
    We're writing a description* for these surfboards and we need your help.
    • What do the surfboards make you think about?
    • What do you want to know?
    Understanding what you think helps us think about how we display our collections.

    *note: originally, this said "we're writing a label" but with that phrasing, lots of people wrote creative titles for the surfboards (like the title for a work of art) instead of talking about content of interest.
    Visitors have gone to town, writing both basic questions (“who made them?” “who were the surfers who used them?” “how did they ride the plank?” "how old are they?") and sharing opinions (“better in their natural form," “my joyful youth circa 1963”). We’ve learned some things that should definitely be on the final label, such as the clarification that the plank on display is not an early surfboard but the raw material used to make one.

    We can certainly write a decent label based on this activity. But one post-it threw me for a loop. It said:
    “you should do something to spruce these up a bit. I wouldn’t have noticed the boards except for the post-its.”
    Maybe this person was writing about his or her preference for neon paper products, but I doubt it. It was the activity that drew this person (and probably others) to the surfboards—not the objects themselves.

    And that leads me to a basic question: Is it better to replace the post-its with a label that answers visitors’ questions, or to continue to support this participation? Instead of clearing the post-its and putting up a nice, discreet label (my original plan), we could keep the post-its and just write answers to the questions directly under them. Or, we could write a starter label based on the questions asked thus far, but then invite (and respond to) additional ones.

    The fundamental question here is how we balance different modes of audience engagement. You could argue that visitors are more “engaged” by an activity that invites inquiry-based participation than one that invites them to read a label, even if they never get answers to their questions. Or, you could argue that this kind of active engagement should be secondary to sharing information, which can be more efficiently communicated by a label.

    If museums are truly about inquiry-based models for learning, we need more tools—especially in history and art museums—to promote inquiry-based engagement. Science centers and children’s museums promote inquiry-based learning with multi-sensory experiences that are focused more on igniting curiosity than providing answers. Seeing how people responded to these simple post-its made me consider the relative paucity of tools we have to “ignite curiosity” in art and history institutions. If museums of all kinds are going to make serious claims about being places for 21st century, multi-modal, inquiry-based learning, we’ve got to have robust, diverse onsite experiences to back them up.

    In this case, given the location on the stairs, we’re likely to replace the post-its with a label as planned. But the bigger question remains: How can we promote true inquiry in our institutions, and how can we give visitors the tools not just to ask but to debate, discuss, and address their questions with each other?

    Tuesday, August 09, 2011

    Engagement, Distraction, and the Puzzle of the Puzzle

    Note: Thanks to Lisa Hochstein for allowing me to quote her emails in this post. She is a fabulous and thoughtful artist. You can learn more about her work here.

    Two weeks ago, we inaugurated a Creativity Lounge on the third floor of our museum. It's a little living room in a lobby area that invites people to lounge on comfortable chairs, leaf through magazines and books related to art and Santa Cruz history, and generally hang out.

    The area that houses the Creativity Lounge also shows art. The same day we opened the Creativity Lounge, we opened new exhibitions throughout the building, including a paper collage show in the 3rd floor lobby by local artist Lisa Hochstein. Lisa was thrilled that her work was on display at the museum. She was less thrilled about the Creativity Lounge--or very specifically, the art jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the coffee table.

    Lisa emailed me to ask us to remove the puzzle, commenting:
    It seems to me that there's a fine line between something that is inviting versus something that is distracting, and for me this falls into the latter category. I think it also sends a message that you don't trust the exhibits to engage the public and that, instead, you will bring in something else to entertain them.
    I disagreed, and the puzzle stayed. We started a pretty fascinating (and yes, a little frustrating) dialogue about the puzzle and the question of what constitutes desired engagement in the museum.

    Lisa and I have fundamentally different ideas of what a "good" museum experience is. For Lisa, the goal is for people to engage with the exhibitions. For me, the goal is for people to have an enjoyable, educational, cultural, social experience. That includes exhibitions, but it is not limited to them. I consider visitor experiences successful if people walk out inspired by art, stimulated by history, and eager to come back and share more with friends and family. I think it takes a diverse range of components to provide these outcomes, and I see the museum as a holistic experience comprising these components.

    But for obvious reasons, Lisa cares about the experience people have with her exhibition specifically. When Lisa and I first discussed this, I argued that increased dwell time in the area and increased visitor comfort would likely lead to people spending more time looking at her work than would otherwise occur. But Lisa questioned this. Would visitors remember the puzzle or the exhibition around it? Is a contact high really sufficient when it comes to exhibition engagement?

    This is a version of what I call "the petting zoo problem." An unnamed art museum once created an incredible interactive and participatory installation related to a temporary exhibition. This installation was a big hit by exhibition evaluation standards--high dwell time, high engagement, high satisfaction. But some people on staff at the museum questioned the validity of the installation, saying, "Of course people like it--it's a petting zoo. People love petting zoos."

    To Lisa, the jigsaw puzzle is a petting zoo. Interestingly, she sees art and history books as more sympatico with the goals and intent of a museum, and she feels positively about people perusing them. I don't see the puzzle as different from the books--both are tools that offer people alternative activities, and I don't see one as more absorbing or distracting than the other. From my perspective, if one part's a petting zoo, it's all a petting zoo. But it's an on-mission petting zoo--and that's what matters to me.

    There's no question that the Creativity Lounge (and the puzzle) is a hit with visitors. We've received several positive comments about it, and we've observed a major increase in dwell time and repeat use of the third floor lobby since the installation has gone up. Families who used to zip through in under a minute are now spending thirty minutes working on the puzzle and looking around. Teenagers are curling up with art magazines. One woman worked on the puzzle for two hours last week--when I asked, she said her teenage daughter was out shopping and she decided to come play in the museum while she waited.

    To me, this is all good news. It demonstrates that we're on our way to becoming the "thriving, central gathering place" in our strategic plan. But it doesn't necessarily mean that more people are engaging with Lisa's exhibition more deeply. In the future, I'd love to make custom puzzles based on work in our collection (like the Columbus Museum of Art does) so that people can engage more deeply with those specific works. But I'll always also feel great about opportunities for people to engage with each other around culture in ways that are not exhibition- or collection-driven, because that's our mission too.

    Now, two weeks later, I contacted Lisa again to ask if her opinion had changed after spending time in the space. Lisa wrote:
    I do see a value in creating a space where people like to spend time and where they feel comfortable to just unwind and be. It's good for the museum to become important in more peoples' lives, thereby assuring (hopefully) its longer-term viability. If attendance and membership go up as you add more of the types of features that I would consider distractions, then maybe they're a good thing. Personally, it's a bit of a disappointment to me to think that the displays in the museum aren't sufficient to accomplish those goals, but I recognize that my own biases are just one piece of a much larger picture (or puzzle).
    Kudos to Lisa for being open to a thoughtful dialogue about these issues. It's interesting to me that she talks about the displays not being "sufficient to accomplish those goals." I don't think of exhibitions as the be-all end-all of the museum experience, and so I don't think they should be sufficient on their own to accomplish our visitor experience goals. I don't think I'm devaluing exhibitions by adding the puzzle--I see it as an "and" that makes the whole museum a more desirable place to be.

    I'm curious if you've dealt with similar debates at your own museums--either with external partners like Lisa or internally with other staff. What's your experience, and how have you resolved issues like this?