Thursday, May 29, 2008

Innovation and the Future of Science Centers: Your Thoughts Wanted

In a couple of weeks, I will be traveling to Toronto to participate in the Science Center World Congress. This is a conference that purports to focus on big picture, international science center strategy rather than how to explode balloons (which, frankly, is one of my favorite parts of ASTC).

As part of the conference, I'll be presenting with Eric Siegel (Director, New York Hall of Science), Jennifer Martin (VP Programs and Operations, Telus World of Science Calgary), Andrea Bandelli (independent brilliant guy, Netherlands), and Beverly Damonse (Executive Director, South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement) about "innovation and the future of science centers." As is the fashion these days, we're trying to avoid the standard 15 minutes of powerpoint drudgery apiece and present something a bit more engaging. To do so, we've each taken a single topic related to innovation and science centers to serve as a kind of launching point for discussion.

Eric questions whether innovation is even necessary in science centers. Jennifer explores the impact of including visitors in the process of innovation. Andrea considers how museums can innovate on multiple levels, from institutional to governmental. I look at the skunkworks model for non-sweeping change. And Beverly takes a broad view from a national perspective.

Please join the conversation started in the voicethread below. Add your voice to the discussion, and help us shape the direction our session will take in Toronto on June 16. We hope to include as many people as possible--both real-time and through technology--in the debate about the role of innovation in our museums.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Curated Collaborative Filtering: Listening to Pandora

How is a museum like a radio station? Both are collections of discreet, loosely organized content pieces that are both familiar and new. Your overall enjoyment of the content experience is determined to a large extent by the balance of items you like and those you don’t, those you know and those that are new. The more time between the good stuff, the less likely you are to tune in again in the future. And your loyalty to the radio station (its stickiness) relies on the regular introduction of unfamiliar content in an enjoyable context.

These criteria aren’t easy to meet, and the result is lots of people like me who never listen to non-talk radio. But recently I’ve become obsessed with a new kind of (internet) radio station, one that’s converted me back from my CDs to the radio. It’s called Pandora, and its successes reveal interesting lessons about aggregating museum content.

Pandora uses collaborative filtering to create a real-time radio station for you based on your preferences. You enter a seed artist or song (or several) and Pandora starts playing music that it interprets as related in some way to your selections. The extraordinary thing about Pandora is the complexity of its filtering. It doesn’t just group artists together and play music by similar musicians. Instead, it uses hundreds of tags, signifiers assigned to each song by a team of musicians, to find
correlated songs that may be of interest. Pandora is a product of the Music Genome Project, in which musicians define the individual “genes” of a song via signifiers and use those to generate song “vectors” that can then be compared to create highly specific and complex musical narratives.

For example, I created a radio station today based on just one song: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes by Paul Simon. That radio station then played:

  • She’s a Yellow Reflector by Justin Roberts
  • If Only the Moon Were Up by Field Music
  • She’s Going by The English Beat
  • You’re The One by Paul Simon
  • Withered Hope by They Might Be Giants
  • Big Dipper by Elton John
  • Wait Until Tomorrow by New York Rock and Roll Ensemble
  • The Tide is High by Blondie
Most of these songs were a. new to me and b. enjoyable (thus meeting the radio stickiness criteria). For each song, I could click a “Why?” button to see Pandora’s explanation for why it was played. For example, this image explains why The Tide is High was included:
There are over 400 different tags used to relate songs in the Music Genome Project, ranging from “brisk swing feel” to “lyrics that tell a story” to “sparse tenor sax solo.” From a single seed song, Pandora will generate a whole channel of music, and will shift and refine that channel based on your thumbs up/down rating of each song played. In this way, Pandora makes inferences about what you might like and introduces you to new music.

And it’s the introduction to new music that makes Pandora uniquely interesting to me as a museum person. When we talk about allowing visitors to curate their own museum experiences by voting for exhibits or aggregating custom tours, the fear among curators is that such projects will denigrate the collection and turn the museum visit into a kind of popularity contest. In short, we fear that visitors, if given the tools to create their own narratives, won’t want or use the ones we provide.

Pandora is a model for an alternative. Rather than user-based collaborative filtering, in which visitors receive recommendations based on what other “people like you” enjoyed, Pandora is an example of item-based collaborative filtering, in which visitors receive recommendations based on the similarity of previously selected items (seed songs) to potential members of the collection.

Pandora and the Music Genome Project is controlled by experts, musicians who, like curators, are uniquely skilled at identifying and tagging songs to create musical genes that represent the full spectrum of musical expression.
And their expertise makes for a better experience for me as a user/visitor. As an amateur listener, I could not tell you the particular elements of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” that appeal to me. Listening and reacting to the Pandora-generated songs allowed me to understand the nuance of what I like and don’t like. Turns out that I enjoy songs with “extensive vamping.” Could I have articulated that at the start? No. Not only does Pandora introduce me to new music, it expands my vocabulary for discussing music. I learned something! From experts!

Users of Pandora are protective of the Music Genome Project experts. There have been interesting discussions on the Pandora blog about the slow inclusion of user-based filtering, and listeners' related fear that it will taint the waters of the high-quality item-based process. The Music Genome Project involves visitors' submissions in a limited way. The core value is in the professional categorization of the songs.

Which means that curators still have a powerful role to play in the future of museums. Imagine if an art museum worked this way, if curators tagged every piece with tags representing everything from “misogynistic undertones” to “Picasso blue period” to “asymmetrical” and generated a tour for you real-time on a handheld device. You could have a personalized trip through the museum, enjoying an experience that is both highly responsive to your preferences and one which deepens your understanding and ability to articulate why you like what you like. In some cases, people might be surprised to learn that they prefer artists whose subject matter comes from childhood memories, or those who work in a specific medium. While the museum can’t be physically rearranged for each visitor, the content can be remixed conceptually to present a progressively engrossing, educational experience.

Personalization doesn’t just give you what you want. It exposes you to new things, and it gives you a vocabulary for articulating and refining why you like what you like. Pandora’s collaborative filtering process contextualizes data from a very personal starting point. You get the analysis and the narrative, but you get the slice that will resonate most with you. The world is opened a little wider and hopefully, you keep listening.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Creative Profiling: Tools for Defining and Understanding Your Audience

People who create content for the public try to appeal to a wide range of people, both in terms of demographics and usage styles. There are different learning styles. There are group and individual experiences. There are different levels of interactivity. And now, the research group Forrester provides new insights about different kinds of participatory styles among users of social media sites.

I've written before about three types of museum users: contributors, lurkers, and judges. Forrester separates social media engagement into six kinds of users:
  1. creators (people who produce content, upload videos, write for blogs)
  2. critics (people who submit reviews, rate content, and comment on social media sites)
  3. collectors (people who tag sites, use, create RSS feeds and aggregates)
  4. joiners (people who join social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn but don't create a lot of content)
  5. spectators (people who read blogs, watch Youtube videos, and visit social sites)
  6. inactives (people who don't visit social sites)
They also provide a profiling tool that allows you to view the breakdown of these types across age range, country, and gender. The demographic differences are interesting to explore (women aren't collectors?), and they have a nice feature where the averages in age and gender are provided as a yardstick against whatever particular demographic interests you.

No matter the demographic slice, the
sum of percentages of people in each user category add up to more 100%. This makes sense: many spectators are also joiners. I'm a creator and a collector but rarely a critic. The only exclusive group is the inactives--everyone else overlaps. The social media user types, like learning styles or gaming styles, are more like personality traits than exclusive groupings. Just as you can be both a kinesthetic and linguistic learner, you can be a collector and a joiner.

This is an important point, one that bucks against the arrangement by Forrester of these user types into a "ladder" with creator at the top, inactive at the bottom. It can be enticing to design experiences that will encourage visitors to "level up" from spectator to creator, or in my terms, from lurker to contributor. But that's not appropriate. It would be strange to imagine talking the same way about learning styles--trying to push people out of their own modalities into preferred "higher-level" engagement types.*
*Digression: Some people have commented that my hierarchy of social participation suffers this fault by implying that museums should be trying to level up to higher social engagement. I'd argue that the hierarchy is different because it's about process steps, not user types. The hierarchy pyramid is meant to demonstrate that the way to get to a social "level 5" experience is through the intermediate stages, not in a sudden leap. It's not a suggestion that all museums should be trying to get to level 5, but rather a sequence of steps for those who want to go there.

Instead of trying to push visitors to new heights, we should focus on providing content that accommodates the full range of user styles. The question is not "how do we make an exhibit so good that all want to create?" but "how do we make an exhibit so good that creators, joiners, collectors, spectators, and critics are included?" and maybe if we're ambitious, "how do we make an exhibit that specifically encourages one kind of behavior and has a better than average return rate on engaging that type of user?"

To answer these questions, we need to look at the range of who we serve. Museums provide well for spectators/lurkers, and recently, museums have focused on ramping up offerings for creators and contributors. But we're weak in the middle levels. We rarely engage the critics, collectors, and joiners. Where do visitors get to vote on their favorite content? Which exhibits allow them to aggregate selections from a group? Which allow them to connect with other visitors socially? These are the exhibits and design types that we should pay more attention to.

Forrester suggests that companies use their profiling tool (and related custom research services) to understand the behaviors and desires of target audiences, and then provide experiences accordingly. It's important to understand that fewer creators than joiners and spectators walk through your doors each day. With social media and participatory experiences, we shouldn't just focus our design efforts on what sounds cool or is easy to conceive. You wouldn't create an exhibition on music that only appeals to musical learners. In the same way, we shouldn't think of participatory experiences as being "just for creators."

What Forrester categories do you identify with? What kinds of museum experiences could you imagine accommodating those aspects of your personality?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Design for Social Engagement: Pointing at Exhibits

What makes an exhibit “social?” How do you design an object experience that encourages participation among visitors? This blog often analyzes how websites, designed spaces, even dogs promote participatory experiences among users. Today, we look inward for a how-to on one type of participatory design as applied to museum exhibits.

The photos above were provided by Paul Martin of the Science Museum of Minnesota from their award-winning exhibition RACE. When he speaks about these photos, Paul spends little time on the content of the exhibits. Instead, he focuses on what the visitors are doing: pointing at things. In RACE, visitors point things out to each other and start talking about them.

Paul has suggested that this metric—pointing—may be a valuable evaluation measure of a particular kind of engagement. On one level this is fuzzy. What does it mean when people point at things? Do they point because the thing is unusual or surprising? Do they point because the thing is familiar?

It’s hard to determine the pointer’s motivation for interest in the object. But there’s a simpler way to look at it: people point at things because they want other people to see them. Pointing is a measure of how viral something is. Some people point, others forward videos. The motivation behind it is the same: the body language equivalent of saying "you should look at this."

Exhibits that induce pointing are social in a couple of ways.
Pointing advertises and spreads the exhibit’s impact. If nobody points, then each visitor has to approach each exhibit (or not) and find something interesting (or not). When pointing happens, the work of figuring out whether an exhibit will be worthwhile or not is circumvented. She points, he looks. The exhibit uses the initial pointing visitor as an advertisement, spreading the content virally to others in the space. You may or may not find the thing your friend pointed out interesting, but either way, you are likely to look at it.

Second, unlike viral web experiences, the in-person pointer is setting up a social interaction with the pointee. On the web, content gets distributed semi-anonymously through networks and email lists. But in the museum, the distribution method is more personal. One person points, another person looks, and a social exchange takes place. The people may talk about the exhibit, or they may just communally revel in their interest in what was pointed at. Either way, the act of pointing has changed the exhibit from one that speaks to individual visitors to one that speaks to visitors in pairs or groups.

How do you design an exhibit that people will point at? To do so, you have to focus on providing something that people will want to show other people. Here are some design elements that can improve your "pointiness":
  • Make the object of interest simple enough to require little explanation. The goal is to make the barrier to pointing as low as possible. It's much easier on the pointer if all he has to do is say, "look!" and the other person/people will understand. If the pointer is then obliged to explain why she pointed, that increases the demand on her. In this way, non-interactive exhibits, objects, and text labels can all be sources for social interaction, assuming the message they have to share is clear and compelling enough to induce pointing.
  • Make the object of interest big and or accessible enough to be seen from a distance. If the thing you are pointing at is small, you have to bring the pointee close to the exhibit (and close to you) to share it. This can be fine, and is useful for promoting intimacy among family groups who are visiting together, reading labels together, using interactives together. But if you want to point things out to strangers or to disparate members of your group, it's easier if you don't have to drag them away from their current position to come close to you. Again, the size lowers the barrier to pointing by allowing people to do it without invading each other's personal space. The ultimate example of this is an eclipse. The sun is big. Everyone can point at it and share that experience from wherever they stand.
  • Make it easy to access and share the moment of interest. If it takes a visitor several minutes of interaction to get to the "pointable moment," and then that moment only lasts for a short time, that visitor has little incentive to point. It's too hard to explain what the other visitor will have to do to get to the good stuff, and it takes too long to want to stick around. Many of the most remarkable experiences in interactive exhibits are outcomes, so it's useful if those outcomes are long-lasting and easily experienced by several people. For me, a great example of this is the Exploratorium's Watch Water Freeze exhibit in which visitors look through polarized lenses at ice crystals forming extraordinary rainbows. The "pointable moment" is the outcome, but it's very easy to get there--you just look through the lens. When at the Exploratorium, I constantly find myself pointing this exhibit out to strangers because the barrier of explanation is so low ("look through the lens") and the payoff is high.
  • Make the exhibit spectacular, scandalous, or totally surprising. People point at things that are aberrant. This doesn't mean you have to go for the fireworks. In RACE, one of the most pointed at exhibits is a vitrine featuring stacks of money representing the average earnings of Americans of different races. Money is somewhat exciting, but the real power in the exhibit comes in the shocking disparity among the piles. People are compelled to point out of surprise. The powerful physical metaphor of the stacks makes the information presented feel more spectacular without dumbing it down or over-dressing it.
  • Make the exhibit break social barriers. This is an element that I'll explore in more detail in a future post. The idea here is that when an object breaks some of the social mores preventing communication among strangers, it's easier for people to take that break as an opening for their own socially aberrant behavior. This is why dogs are social objects--they don't understand societal rules against licking strangers. If the exhibit "licks you," then you may feel more comfortable and interested in sharing it with a stranger. In the example of RACE, the very topic opened up a socially locked door, which then gave "permission" for discussion. One of the accidental design elements was an overabundance of audio bleeding into the space from a large number of exhibit videos. The SMM folks found, to their delight, that the buzz from the videos creates a kind of sound landscape of people talking about race. When you hear other voices talking about race, you feel more comfortable joining or starting your own conversations. The sound bleed was a design interloper that changed the rules of engagement with RACE and may have made visitors more comfortable pointing things out to each other.
There are drawbacks to designing exhibits that encourage pointing. These design rules aren't for every exhibit. Encouraging "pointiness" can require letting go of design practices that encourage personal ruminating or communing with the exhibit. It doesn't work well when the exhibits involve sequential interactions or prolonged engagement. But it is useful when you want to encourage informal social interactions among visitors. You don't need to start with participatory design shooting for the deep discussion among strangers. Sometimes, all you need is someone to point you in the right direction.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Novice Interpreter and the Art of Conversation

This week, I listened to the new podcast episode of Radiolab, my favorite NPR show. The podcast featured the two hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, speaking to a crowd about their unique partnership. For those who haven't listened, Radiolab is an hour-long popular science show that looks in-depth at topics like "emergence," "time," and "mortality" from a range of scientific perspectives. Radiolab does what I hope all great museum exhibitions can do--take a deep topic and make it compelling on many levels. Near the end of the talk, an audience member asked,
How do you choose which level to approach a topic when your listeners range from people who know nothing to people who know all too much?
and at minute 15:30, partway through the answer, Robert said something extraordinary:
I think we both start also as virgins. We don't know really what we're talking about at the beginning--we find out along the way. And we make that very clear. So we never pretend to anybody that we're scholars cause we're not. And we do represent ourselves as novices, which is a good thing. It is a good thing in a couple of ways. First, it means we can say, "what?!" honestly. And the second thing: "can you explain that again?" honestly. And then the third thing is, it allows us to challenge these people as though we were ordinary, curious folks.

We have a show coming up right now about synthetic biology, where engineers are building life forms that are new to existence, new to the history of life. And they're doing it quite... aggressively. And we, we yell at them and we fight with them and we argue with them, and they give right back. But we're trying to model a kind of conversation with important people, powerful people, but particularly knowledgeable people, where we say--YOU can go up to a person with a lot of knowledge and ask him "why?," ask him "how does he know that?" Tell him, stop! Ask him why he keeps going. And get away with it. And that's important.
Effectively, Robert is saying that Radiolab isn't just a show where the hosts have conversations with scientists. It's a show where the hosts model a way for YOU to have conversations with scientists, a way for regular people to engage with experts rather than deferring to or ignoring them.

To do this kind of modeling, Robert and Jad actively portray themselves as novices. They make themselves look stupid so we don't have to feel that way. They articulate the basic questions and knee-jerk reactions in our own minds, carrying us deep into the content from a common starting place. By humbling themselves in this way, they create a powerful learning experience. Robert and Jad aren't content experts, but they are interpretative experts, skilled interviewers and producers. And those skills drove the cultivation of personae that are wonderfully accessible.

Which brings me to museums and how we present content. Reread the question and substitute the word "visitors" for "listeners." Reread Robert's response. Could you imagine a curator, designer, or museum educator speaking this way about an exhibition? Ever?

After listening to this clip a few times, I wondered: what if museums dropped the authoritative voice, the cultural voice, the friendly teacher voice, and adopted a novice voice? What would it feel like to read labels that challenge the information provided or acknowledge the questions in everyone's head: How did they get this giant sculpture in here? Why does anyone care about this dead stuff? Why is there lots of snow if global warming is happening?

My feeling on this is mixed. I love the Radiolab experience, but I wonder how much the success of the "novice voice" is contingent on the context of conversation. A novice challenging and discussing with an expert is interesting. A novice alone on an exhibit panel could be as isolating as any other single exhibit voice, and potentially more annoying.

So maybe it isn't just about novice voice. Maybe it's about interplay among many voices and levels of expertise. Should museum content and exhibit labels use dialog more heavily? One of the most popular interactives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Real Cost Cafe, in which visitors select fish from a menu and hear their choices dissected in terms of environmental impact on video by a waitress, a cook, and a dishwasher in a restaurant. It's not the most fun game ever. It's engaging because the content is presented as a dialog among characters. The characters aren't expert scientists or fish researchers. They are knowledgeable, normal, relatable folks.

Like Radiolab, the Real Cost Cafe models a conversation on a contentious topic. Perhaps its greatest strength is this modeling, this suggestion that environmental food choices are worth discussing at the dinner table. That it's ok to have strong opinions, ok not to provide a balanced take on everything. This is what Radiolab does so well--acknowledges that science is not an objective abstraction. It's something worth getting worked up about, confused about, passionate about.

Isn't that what we want to model for museum visitors about our own content? What's the difference between a label that models a kind of content engagement and one that purports to provide that engagement?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Museum Skunkworks: Carving Out a Place for Risk-Taking

I once asked Elaine Gurian how museums can change. She said it happens in one of two ways: either the place is small and inconsequential enough that no one is watching, or there's a passionate, gutsy director willing to risk his or her job.

Here's the problem with both of these ways: they require circumstances that are outside of most museum employees' control. Where's the bottom-up option for people who are motivated to do something new within sprawling, bogged-down places? Where's the opportunity for risk in museums that are too big to avoid the media microscope?

There's a third way, a way modeled in huge tech companies trying to compete with young start-ups. "Skunkworks" are internal mini-companies given specific, often tangential projects outside the larger corporate bureaucracy. They can be secret advanced projects like the Lockheed design of the U-2 (Lockheed coined the term skunkworks in 1943). They can be parallel projects, in which a small team works independently to innovate something already in progress on a larger scale. Or, they can be satellite projects, exploring uncharted institutional territory.

Skunkworks projects have two advantages:
  • they allow institutions to develop really great ideas that would get squashed by standard channels and processes
  • they allow institutions to take risks in a controlled way that does not impact the majority of staff, day-to-day functions, or revenue streams.

The thing that all skunkworks projects have in common is a pass from standard bureaucratic procedures (see Lockheed's skunkworks operating rules for an example). Project leaders are typically given a small budget and team and let loose to work. They don't have to fill out forms or ask permission. The point is to encourage "safe risk" by segmenting it so that the related chaos does not adversely impact the entire institution. In a museum context, this effectively means carving out a small group and letting them function like a small, inconsequential, visionary institution--one that can move quickly, fail often, and hopefully innovate some new opportunities and methods for the larger museum.

The change created by these skunkworks doesn't tear the institution apart or require vision retreats. It's small and isolated. The failures, the successes, and the risks are owned by a few staff in their own world. This means not only that innovation can happen, but that it can happen in a controlled way--and can be applied, scaled, or ditched for the institution as a whole.

How do skunkworks projects get started? There are two ways: directive from the top or desire from the bottom.

There's more attention these days on the "from the top" model. Fast Company published a wonderful article in 2005 about IBM's skunkworks, the "emerging-business opportunities" (EBOs), which were initiated in 2000 by the senior vice president of strategy. In IBM's case, the EBOs carved out a space where experienced managers could develop new business models in industries that weren't viable in the short-term (and thus were systematically excised by execs focused on shareholder value). Their success is laudable (producing $15 billion in revenue in the first five years), and by encouraging entrepenurial rising staff into avenues outside the traditional bureaucracy, IBM can hold on to people who might otherwise peel off to their own ventures. IBM can offer these risk-takers something most startups can't: a safety net. When EBOs fail, the teams don't lose their jobs. IBM can learn from the mistakes, absorb the relatively small financial and morale losses, and move on.

But again, the "from the top" model requires something that few museum staff have: authority. And while they may receive less press, the more typical path for skunkworks is grassroots. An ambitious staff member goes to a manager and says, "I have this crazy great idea." The manager affirms the crazy-greatness of it--and its non-viability within the corporate structure. But instead of the conversation ending there, the staff member says, "here's how I think I could do this." They set a small budget, decide how much time the staff member (and any others) can devote to it, and the person goes at it.

We've all done this at some point--worked on something on the side and then presented it to hopefully delighted managers. But it's more powerful when the organization has a way to support these kinds of activities, so the renegades feel institutionally connected and the quiet geniuses feel motivated to come forward. It also lets people propose things that are outside of their own departments.

Another way to look at this is as an R&D arm for the museum. I met recently with some folks from an experience design firm who frequently do short 6-8 week research projects in fields outside their expertise. This summer, they're building a museum exhibit. There's no client, no cash. They don't see it as a waste of time to try these new things--they see it as a controlled way to explore new industries, technologies, and application of their skills. And they put some of their best people, not their interns, onto these projects. It's a way to have their leaders moving forward instead of spending all their time managing others.

Ok, you might say. But why do I need to put these people in a separate room and let them ignore the accounting forms? Doesn't that fracture our overall institutional culture? Can't we innovate into our current systems?

Yes. But it will be wrenching institutional change, or it will be wrenching institutional lack of change. It will not be nimble. It will not be controlled chaos.

Consider this anecdote. A few years ago, I worked at a museum that held a $1000 contest to come up with a great new advertising idea. I won with a suggestion ripped from The Mystery Spot--give out free bumper stickers as people leave, and watch them spread the brand around town. I was given a check, and the marketing department was given the idea. Nothing happened. Zero bumper stickers made. If they had given me the $1000 to start my own bumper sticker campaign--heck, $250 would have been sufficient--I could have designed a sticker, had it printed, and started handing them out. Instead, a new idea got passed through the standard channels and went nowhere. It had executive-level support, but it didn't fit into the schedules and standard way things were typically done, so it couldn't be done.

It can be painful and scary to try to change your core services. It's hard to try a "whole new approach" to exhibits, programs, fundraising, etc. while the train is moving. Rather than wishing on visionary directors or out-of-the-way places, we can use skunkworks models to support our own mini-visionaries in the nooks and crannies of the institutions we already have.

What do you think? Can you imagine your institution supporting a skunkworks project? Can you see yourself suggesting one? If you could start your own tiny universe to innovate one thing in a museum, what would you do?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Get on the Bus: How Mass Transit Design Affects Participatory Potential

There's a tag applied to many Museum 2.0 posts called "Unusual Projects and Influences." Posts under that tag tend to examine non-museum things, from malls to games to ad campaigns, and draw some design lessons for museums from their foreignness. Today, we look at a familiar thing: urban mass transit. Specifically, we analyze the relative social behavior of people on buses versus those on trains, and look for clues as to what design elements contribute to different kinds of participatory behavior.

In my highly anecdotal research, the bus is a more social space than the train or subway. The express bus I take most days to get to work feels like a big, slightly uncomfortable family. People talk. The bus driver waves as I bike up. One guy sings. It's on the cusp of personal--any moment the people reading and chatting might spring into a
ction, to make change for someone getting on, offer first aid, or run after someone with his forgotten jacket.

Others have written about the propensity for social engagement (both desired and undesired) on the bus, and one woman I spoke to told me she STOPPED taking the bus because the communal feel of it was overwhelming at a time in the morning when she'd prefer to be left alone.
In contrast, the subway is often a sterile world of passing through, a place where people ignore each other studiously. The voices are recorded, the doors perpetually closing.

This post is not intended as a pro-bus manifesto. Instead, I'm interested in the why. What design elements make buses more social than trains? What aspects of that socialness are desirable in museums (and how might we mirror buses or trains to promote them)?

And most of all:

hy do people feel empowered to express themselves and engage strangers on the bus?

Small size, repeat visits. You may take the same train every day, but chances are that train is eight cars long. Even if half of the other people on your train are regulars, the distribution of people throughout the cars means you are unlikely to have a repeat familiarity with many of them (which might open the potential for a casual relationship). On the bus, in contrast, you can see almost everyone, even if it's packed. I take the same bus every day and recognize many of the people on it. Some folks even have "their" seats. The repeat experience is progressively familiar, so I feel like I am entering a space with known faces.

This has its positives and negatives. I'm cheered to see the woman who likes to talk hiking, less so the man who flips through mail-order bride catalogs. The better you know the other folks, the more they set the flavor of the experience. This sounds risky to institutions like museums, where we want to design the experience through exhibits and architecture, not interpersonal exchanges. But in cases where there is interest in promoting more dialog, it's worth thinking about the power and challenge of a cumulative community to create the feel of the place. How does the repeat experience in a museum become progressively (and positively) communal?

The driver provides live facilitation. Bus drivers are welcomers, info-desks, guides, gates, and protectors all rolled into one. I was not surprised that most of the images I found on Flickr related to buses showed an open door and a smiling driver. In a world of increasingly automated commercial exchanges, bus drivers provide a human interface. If I get on the bus without money, the bus driver has the discretion to wave me through. If I'm biking up behind the bus and he sees me, he waits. If someone is being too loud or aggressive, she steps in. And if someone is celebrating, he sings along. I've written before about the power of live facilitators. To me, the opportunity for the bus to feel personal rests largely on the role of the driver/facilitator, whose job is less to drive the bus than to convey passengers safely to their destinations. How can all of your staff become facilitators of people instead of devices?

The bus stops where you want. The train stops where it is scheduled to stop. The bus stops when people on the bus pull a cord or the driver sees someone who wants to get on. Stopping is a human-powered activity. This makes the bus feel friendly, less robotic. Again, this relies on the facilitated element of the driver, but it also gives the individuals getting on and off personal agency (and responsibility) to manage their own experience. I still get a weird thrill when I pull the cord. It feels powerful: I am stopping the bus. Also, the frequency of potential stops means the bus is more likely to get you close to where you want to go. It's reasonable to say "the bus picks me up." Trains, on the other hand, just pass through. How can museums take you where you want to go, from your own personal starting place?

We have childhood memories of social bus rides. Even I, who never rode a school bus, can identify with that cultural experience. We see it on TV. We have memories of idiosyncratic drivers, bullies, and being jammed together like sardines. We expect buses to be rowdy, social spaces. If people have childhood memories of trains, they more likely recall the scenery, the long trip, the feel of moving along the tracks. The things we remember about buses are about people. The things we remember about trains are about transit. What memories do you want people to have about your museum--the people, the architecture, the stuff?

Buses travel familiar landscape. Unlike trains, which depart from dedicated, specific structures and often travel underground through landmark-free tunnels, buses are on the streets where we live and work. They go where cars, bikes, and pedestrians go. They have windows so you can see what you are passing. The first-time bus experience requires much less decoding than the train experience--no special place to start from, no weird machine to dispense tickets, no turnstile. If you get confused, there's a driver to greet and assist you. And while bus schedules and maps are at least as complicated as train maps, you can use familiar locators--known intersections and buildings--to navigate. You don't have to learn a whole new lexicon of stops and related aboveground locations. You're on the sidewalk, then on the bus, then on the sidewalk again. This relates to the frequent discussion on this blog of museums as destinations versus places in the path of daily life. How can museums become part of rather than set away from the everyday?

The bus takes a long time. The frequency of stops and the local windiness of buses makes them downright provincial. As a driver said in this charming article about the glacial pace of NYC buses, "the bus is only as fast as its slowest rider." Social chitchat among strangers is something associated with small towns and areas where people move slowly. It's no surprise the bus can simulate that experience, even in Manhattan. What museum experiences slow you down while simultaneously bringing you in contact with others?

Looking at this list, none of these design elements intrinsically relates to a social or expressive experience. Buses don't employ drivers or operate on city streets to improve the comfort and participatory experience of riding. But a few simple elements--the live facilitation, the small size, the placement of service in a familiar area--have a cumulative effect that makes the whole bus experience more personal, more comfortable, and thus, more conducive to social engagement.

This can be extrapolated to other forms of transit. Elevators are unfacilitated, speedy automatons that are so non-conducive to social behavior that good friend will cease their conversation during the ride. On airplanes, my husband now flies business class and reports more friendliness and conversation with neighbors: more comfortable seats, more personal service, and long hauls may contribute.

What social experiences have you had on mass transit? What lessons do you see that can be extrapolated to experiential spaces like museums?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Lab at Belmar: Museums Coming Soon to a Mall Near You?

Let's say you want to start your own funky, irreverent exhibition and program space. How would you start? Try to convince folks at a big institution to give you a forgotten wing? Start an exploratory project to open a small, probably struggling, museum? Raise a ton of money for a world-class building and pray for visitors? Forget your grand dreams and try to weave awesome strangeness into your regular museum job?

In Denver there's another way. It involves an exotic museum bedfellow, the suburban real estate developer.
Billed as "part art museum, part public forum," The Lab at Belmar is a contemporary art space in a suburban Denver development. It's a hip, energetic place. It also has an unusual founding story. From the first issue of the Lab's Notebook:
The Lab was conceived in 2003 when a few high-minded young developers of a new, 104-acre urban development called Belmar approached the Denver Art Museum and asked if, maybe, they could borrow some of those nice paintings the museum wasn't using. The point of Belmar was to replace a dying shopping mall with a vital city center for Lakewood, an inner suburb of Denver, and art seemed to be part of that concept. At the time, I was Master Teacher of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum. Director Lewis Sharp and I quickly convinced the Belmar developers that they didn't want paintings from the basement, but a dynamic alternative to the traditional art museum. Creating a new city center provides the opportunity to create new forms of civic life.
You can debate among yourselves whether an outdoor mixed-use retail shopping space constitutes a "vital city center." The point is that developers saw art as a valuable contributor to a self-identified "vital city center," and museum folks saw "vital city center" consumers as a viable audience for a new kind of institution. Many museums call themselves town squares but exist in isolation. The Lab is delightfully, challengingly mixed into an active (albeit manufactured) social space.

There have been studies showing that active support for the arts contributes to healthy, thriving communities. Museum folks wave this research in the face of anyone who will listen each time budgets get cut. But perhaps a more powerful argument--the one currently being tested in Belmar--is that arts institutions support commerce by providing a cultural flavor to otherwise generic retail and mixed-use spaces.

In this way, The Lab is selling an art experience the same way Urban Outfitters sells youth culture--and in my mind, that's a positive, not a negative. The brand, the marquee, the fabulous set of quirky and irreverent programs all support the idea that The Lab is a hip place to be. In turn, from the developers' perspective, that hipness is transferred to the entire Belmar development, transforming it from a standard mixed-use outdoor retail district into a Place where Ideas and Art are Happening.

And isn't that what museums should contribute to their local environments? Like the 826 Valencia project, The Lab at Belmar is both physically and intellectually set into the landscape of popular recreational experiences. Finally, a museum that does MORE than its retail neighbors, offering burlesque performances, tag team lectures, and art fitness training. When juxtaposed against the movie theaters and Ann Taylor Loft, The Lab offers something distinctive. Even the shoppers who walk by and will never enter The Lab are affected by its inclusion in the development. The Lab doesn't have to be a destination. It's part of the place, offering commentary, the way any good art institution should.

I know there can be a dark side to this. In the same way that a civic "nice to have" museum can fall off the political funding agenda, a commercial "nice to have" can get dumped if it doesn't contribute to net revenue. But I don't think an institution funded by real estate is intrinsically less independent than one funded by grants and major donors. Maybe it's a brilliant marketing ploy, but when I see statements in the Notebook like:
The Lab sincerely apologizes to our neighbor Dick's Sporting Goods for hanging a sign in our window stating, "We're not Dick's." Apparently, we are.
I laugh, I cheer, and I feel good about the potential of museums in daily life.

What's your opinion of the Belmar model?

Addendum: I received an email from Adam Lerner, head honcho at The Lab, who clarified the financial arrangement as follows:
The support The Lab receives from the developers of Belmar was seed money that had scheduled ramp down from 100% in 2004 to a baseline 30% in 2008 -- and the 30% is actually public money from property tax in the Belmar district through a very complicated and interesting arrangement. I think it matters that we are not simply a developer’s philanthropic project. It’s more honest.
And honestly, they still aren't Dick's.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Content from AAM: Virtual Worlds and Eye on Design slides (and more)

My more complete thoughts and reactions to the AAM (American Association of Museums) conference are forthcoming in a longer post soon. Today, I want to share slide presentations and interviews you might be seeking related to the sessions I chaired this week.

First, Charting New Territory in Virtual Worlds, which featured Paul Sparrow (Newseum), David Klevan (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Chris Lawrence (NY Hall of Science), and Nora McCartney (NY Hall of Science). We talked honestly and openly about a range of virtual worlds projects, ranging from the funded to the unfunded, the small (serving 20+ students) to large. Chris bravely served as our "applause-o-meter" (see right) so that we could prioritize which questions to answer first. In fact, the slides (while minimal) contain content that was not covered in the session, since we focused only on the questions of most audience interest. You can view the slides here, or download them by clicking "view" in the player below.

After the session, Jonathan Finkelstein, author of Learning in Real Time and blogger behind Real Time Minute, interviewed the panelists (sadly, I was rushing to session #2 and could not join them). You can read Jonathan's post and hear the panel interview here. Jonathan also interviewed me separately--to listen directly to the interview, click play below.

Download Interview with Nina as MP3

Next up was Eye on Design: Inspiration from Outside the Museum, which featured Emily Sloat Shaw (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), Jennifer Rae Atkins (Andrew Merriell and Associates), Eric Siegel (NY Hall of Science), Penny Jennings (West Office Exhibition Design), Brianna Cutts (IDEO), Darcie Fohrman (Museum Exhibitions), and John Chiodo (Chiodo Design). The AAM blog covered the session, and you can download the slides here.

This session was extremely well-attended and audience members shared some great comments. One man, upon seeing Smart Studio's use of a flashlight-like device to reveal interpretative content in a historic space, talked about how his museum used cheap flashlights as a "do it yourself" lighting source for small, intricate jeweled artifacts. Another woman talked about how the use of visitor-manipulated art (in her case, blocks of clay) transformed a quiet university museum space into an active, social opportunity for creative expression and exploration.

For those who want to explore the design inspirations in the slides further, here are some useful URLs:

What questions or thoughts did these sessions, explorations, and inspirations bring up for you?