Monday, November 30, 2009

Guest Post: Top 40 Countdown at the Worcester City Museum

What happens when you combine reality TV tactics with a traditional art collection? This guest post, written by Philippa Tinsley, Collections Manager for the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum (UK), describes the innovative Top 40 exhibition they mounted in the summer of 2009.

In my experience, museum professionals aren’t big reality TV viewers. If you don’t watch Big Brother, The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars or X factor you probably dismiss these shows because they revolve around people you don’t know in an environment you find uninteresting and over-hyped. This is, of course, the same reason why many non-visitors don’t come to museums.

The secret of reality TV’s success is the viewer’s involvement with the ‘journey’ of the contestants. You are encouraged to develop an emotional commitment to your choice of participant (not necessarily monogamously), learning more about them as they stay in the programme, and in live shows, to support your favourite with your vote each week.

This was the main aim of this year’s summer exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, Top 40: Countdown of Worcester’s Favourite Pictures. We wanted visitors not just to tell us their favourites, but to develop a stronger emotional connection to specific paintings in the exhibition (and as a consequence to the museum as a whole during a time of major change).

The format of the exhibition was extremely simple – forty ‘star’ paintings from Worcester City Museums’ collection were hung in a visually pleasing layout with no reference to date or theme. Written interpretation about the pictures was kept to a minimum, although we did include family-orientated activity workstations relating to five individual paintings. In the centre of the exhibition we set up a ballot box and voting sheets and encouraged visitors to vote for their favourite picture and, if they wanted to, tell us why.

Each Monday morning we counted up the votes cast during the previous week and on Wednesday, the museum released a new Top 40 chart. A fairly large label with this week’s chart position was placed next to each artwork. We also sent out a weekly press release about the new countdown and announced the new number one on Twitter.

On the opening day someone wrote ‘About time we had a curator’ in the comments book and I was gutted – I thought the idea had failed. However, by the end of the first week it was clear that the majority of our audience was hooked. Spontaneous discussions broke out in the gallery on the relative merits of different pictures; visitors of all ages came back again and again to see where their favourite was in the chart that week and to cast another vote – at times they were queuing outside before we opened. As well as our existing audience, new visitors came just because they wanted to be part of it. I was particularly pleased to see young children persuading their parents and grandparents to participate. The minimal but family-friendly interpretation from us meant visitors were confident arguing that they liked a picture because it was ‘happy’ or ‘colourful’, but it didn’t hold anyone back - some visitors shared very considered art historical opinions on their voting sheets.

In reality TV, producers manipulate viewers’ reactions by shrewd production choices and editing that make boring contestants seem more interesting (see this great article for more analysis on this). I was in two minds as to whether it was ethical to influence our visitors’ commitment towards certain paintings in the exhibition and I’d welcome your comments on this. It was hard to avoid it completely: for example I deliberately chose to link the activity workstations to five very different paintings and this meant Mark Wallinger’s Samizdat (a very intense and quite academic contemporary artwork) probably got more votes because we actively encouraged up close examination. And there was the phenomenon we called the Thomas Creswick Effect: after four weeks of it receiving no votes at all, I wrote a press release about Worcester’s Creswick painting and our local newspaper ran it as an article. The following week it shot up the chart from number 40 to number 14!

The contribution of the positive support from our local paper, the Worcester Evening News, cannot be underestimated. They enjoyed being part of the project and reporting the chart each week – it made a great local story. It was clear that their publicity had more impact with our audience than our tweeting and Flickr posts. I believe this local emphasis intensified our visitors’ emotional connection and this was a key part of the exhibition’s success.

Staff were very supportive of the exhibition, perhaps because they too have a lot of love for the collection. We encouraged visitors to email us photographs of themselves with their favourite picture and the first pictures arriving in the inbox (unsolicited) were all taken by staff! Our summer exhibition is always a very lively show aimed at a family audience. Within this framework, lots of participation and little curatorial interpretation was not difficult for our staff or visitors. What was unexpected were the positive comments about the format both in the gallery and in the newspaper from very art-informed visitors. We are now actively looking at ways to build on this success in all our exhibitions, although it’s a much bigger challenge in touring or artist-curated shows.

Just like live reality TV, Top 40 felt like a risk at times. It was relatively low budget, but unlike most exhibitions took a lot of curatorial and technical staff time during the exhibition’s run. It could have gone badly wrong: a larger proportion of our audience (and our peer group) might have considered our interpretation strategy as dumbing-down or a demonstration of the museum’s curatorial ignorance. Or our visitors might have become bored and we could have lost that valued connection before the exhibition ended. But in reality, the exhibition format really worked, both for the participating visitors and for the future shape of Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum. The challenge now is to take that audience connection into the next step of the museum’s organisational development.

Philippa will be checking in to answer any questions you might have in the comments here on the blog. I'm on vacation this week and will join the conversation when I return!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preservation in Action: Ambition and Excitement at Zealandia

This week at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, a librarian stood up and said, “one of the great challenges of this sector is to make preservation sexy.” People laughed with incredulity; no matter how CSI-like the pitch, it’s hard to capture public attention with preservation projects. And yet earlier in the week, at the Zealandia nature sanctuary in Wellington, I’d seen some hints of how to do just that.

Zealandia is a nature preserve with a big hairy audacious goal: to restore a neglected valley into a haven for native birds, plants, and a few special ancient species. Their signage is upfront and specific about this plan; the large sign at the entry says, “It will take 500 years to reach our goal.” Miles of public trails are littered with evidence of the ongoing efforts: volunteers at work, temporary feeders and enclosures, experiments ongoing and hibernating.

Zealandia provides visitors with a beautiful, peaceful experience in nature. There are interpretative trails and helpful staff to aid visitors in tuning in to the bird sounds and identifying the native animals now thriving in the preserve. But the thing that stood out most was the sense that Zealandia is a place of action, where projects are actively underway. Many of the projects—like a huge, specially designed fence to separate birds from lizards until the populations of each stabilize—were both impressive in scale and were communicated well as short-term steps on a long path to a thriving natural habitat. As a visitor, I repeatedly ran into objects, staff, and signs explaining the specific science at work on the preserve and how the project was evolving. The interpretation was frequent, clear, and adult in tone and content. I felt respected as someone who could understand science and might be interested in more than just a nice walk in the park.

This sense of action, coupled with Zealandia’s ambitious goal, gave me a feeling that I was visiting something Important. Some of the signage pointed out “firsts” happening at the preserve—new techniques for introducing species into new habitats, creating a completely mammal pest-free environment, and inviting people to visit the project while underway. I felt like the sanctuary staff and their 400 volunteers were welcoming me into their vision for a future version of human coexistence with nature. This feeling was reinforced by inclusive signage that used the lovely construction “visitors like you,” as in “Seven years after taking control of the land, the Sanctuary was ready to receive visitors like you, seven days a week” which made me feel specially engaged as an individual.

As a side note, my positive feelings about the onsite Zealandia experience were somewhat undermined by their branding as a "conservation attraction" on their website and on billboards around Wellington. I presume that this branding will help them appeal to a potentially large audience of those seeking exciting experiences in nature, but to me, this veiled the truly exciting work at the physical site. Online, you can access some evidence of their powerful work, such as this clear and impressive timeline of key achievements, but these messages are not front and center as they are at the preserve. Zealandia isn't more than just a nice place to go see animals in natural habitats, and I think it's a disservice to market it that way.

But let's get back to the good stuff. Reflecting on the impact of my Zealandia visit later at the National Digital Forum, I realized how rare it is that cultural professionals communicate with the public about the exciting ongoing nature of preservation projects. As at Zealandia, cultural preservationists often pursue incredibly ambitious goals—to digitize huge collections of records, or to save centuries-old objects. Zealandia’s signage opened with an unambiguous image: a black and white photo of the valley pre-nature preserve—barren, clear-cut, devoid of natural life. Standing there looking at the photo, and then taking in the rich diversity of plants and bird sounds around me, I was instantly compelled by the sense that the work going on at Zealandia was valuable, and that it was going in the right direction.

How can cultural preservationists communicate the largeness of their dreams, the dire state of the unpreserved landscape, and the potential richness of successful projects? By communicating the need, making the process public, and inviting “visitors like you” to enjoy the richness of the expanding cultural assets made available by the effort. I hope that I will one day walk into an archive or history museum and feel the same sense of urgency, purpose, and progress that I felt at Zealandia.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Museums, Church, and Doable Evangelism

I often think museums are like church--passionately loved by staff and devout audiences, irrelevant or off-putting to lapsed or uninterested adults, alien and overwhelming to newcomers. Devotees would like to attract new audiences, but must balance the desire to make newbies feel welcome with authentic demonstration of core values, beliefs, and practices.

What is the appropriate way to evangelize cultural institution use to the unconverted? Is it the "mission" of cultural professionals to help people connect to what we see as positive personal and community outcomes, and if so, how should we go about it?

On Nov. 6, the radio show This American Life included a segment about bait and switch tactics used by Christian evangelicals to entice non-believers onto the path to salvation. The show coupled an uncomfortable ex-evangelical sharing deceitful techniques he had engaged in with a minister named Jim Henderson talking about "doable evangelism," a practice that doesn't rely on what he deemed "acting like jerks."

Jim argued that many pastors overfocus on "conversion-centric evangelism," expending effort on sneaky pitches and highly produced rallies that result in previously non-religious people making statements of faith in Jesus. He suggested that those events are not effective in creating Christians in a meaningful way--the statistics of conversion and continued involvement are abysmal--and that Jesus' instruction to "make disciples" requires much more than making "converts." Instead, Jim and his compatriots focus on being good Christians, connecting with other people in real relationships free of artifice, and hopefully, enriching community members' lives with the evidence of their own faith.

Jim cares more about helping people to the "finish line" of lifelong Christian practice then getting them over the "starting line" via some kind of bait and switch. His techniques sound a lot like model social media practice: listening, being respectful, and encouraging ordinary Christians (not just experts) to act as evangelists. He spends time with non-believers visiting churches and talking about what's persuasive, what's off-putting, and how they think about faith. He does what so many cultural professionals are fearful of or see as a waste of time: "helping Christians see themselves through the eyes of outsiders."

Jim made me think of the recent debate about blockbuster exhibits with tenuous ties to institutional mission, as well as evening events that are more about socializing than content experiences. So many of cultural institutions' efforts are focused on getting people over the starting line--into museums, paying tickets--as opposed to focusing on the long game of connecting people to cultural pursuits in a sustained way. And while first-time attendance may be a good step towards lifelong connection, Jim would argue that if a visitor comes for the first time based on a lie, you are unlikely to build a meaningful relationship with that individual.

How can cultural professionals practice "doable evangelism"--making new visitors feel welcome and encouraged without resorting to activities that are not mission-relevant? A couple ideas:
  • Welcome new visitors with genuine affection and interest. Vishnu Ramcharan, who manages the floor staff (called "hosts") at the Ontario Science Centre, has a simple rule for hosts working the lobby: treat every visitor like you are thrilled that he or she has come today. Not excited generally or about the institutional content, but sincerely pleased that that person in particular has arrived. While overenthusiasm can be off-putting, genuine interest is almost always a comforting start to a new experience. Content in non-majority languages, strollers, and other affordances help too.
  • Help people understand why you do what you do. I'm amazed by the number of museums that don't make it crystal clear that admission tickets help pay for research, education, and outreach activities by the institution. Make it clear that your institution is there to help the community. Encourage staff to share why love their work, the objects on display, and the stories behind them.
  • Listen to what visitors and non-believers say about your institution. Two years ago, my dad and I embarked on a podcast project called Museum Hater. The idea was that we would visit museums and talk with each other (and other visitors, and people outside) about what didn't work for them. After getting thrown out of one museum and rejected by others, we aborted the project. Museums saw us as a threat, but we thought we were going to expose the discrepancy between staff and visitors perceptions to mutual benefit of everyone. Even if you don't want my dad and I to come to your institution, consider taking off your badge sometime and engaging in some of these conversations with visitors and other community members.
  • Thank people for coming, and encourage them to reflect on the visit's outcomes. A good host isn't just happy to see you enter; she also enjoys the goodbye at the end of a satisfying interaction. In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk suggests that it is just as important to confirm that visitors have had their needs met and to validate the positive outcome of the visit as it is to provide affordance for those needs in the first place.
  • Make your core ideals clear in other community venues. Evangelism can mean being present in larger conversations related to your content outside your institution's walls. This can be formal--like children's museum staff getting involved with local parks and school boards--or informal, like science museum staff pitching in on the climate change talk on Twitter.
What do you think? Is "doable evangelism" something we should strive for? Or is the starting line so important that we need to keep focusing on getting people in the door?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Quick Hit: Meet Me Down Under

I'm about to leave on a month-long trip to New Zealand and Australia. If you happen to be in the land of kiwis or kangaroos, you can find me:
  • At the National Digital Forum at Te Papa on Nov 23-24, keynoting a closing session about how to move risky projects from dreams to reality.
  • Offering free workshops open to the public on participatory museum practice in Wellington (Nov 26), Christchurch (Nov 27), and Auckland (Dec 14). Click on a city name to learn more about how to register and attend.
  • Hiking in the Wakatipu area Nov 28-Dec 6.
  • Leading internal workshops with Te Papa (Nov 25), the Powerhouse Museum (Dec 8-9) the State Library of Queensland (Dec 10-11), and the Auckland War Memorial Museum (Dec 15).
See you in the southern hemisphere!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ASTC Recap: Questions, Colors, and Reflective Research

Last week, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) held their annual meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. I participated in three sessions: a Pecha Kucha design blitz, a dialogue on bridging online/onsite connections, and a discussion of the IMLS 21st Century Skills report. This post recaps these sessions, provides my slides, and shares what I learned at the conference.

Designing Questions

Kathy Gustafon-Hilton coordinated a massive Pecha Kucha session, featuring 19 design professionals sharing 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. Beyond being totally exhausting, this session offered some highly varied insights into the value of prototyping, the dangers of the color red, and what happens when good exhibits go bad.

I spoke about the importance of designing intentional frameworks for asking visitors questions, based on this blog post. Exhibit labels in science centers ask more questions than any other kinds of museums, and yet the questions are often awful--teacherly, overly rhetorical, and totally meaningless. While questions like: "Where were you last night?," asked by a cop or mother, garners the full attention of asker and askee alike, museum questions like "what is nanotechnology?," are fairly meaningless to all involved. I shared examples of question frameworks designed for specific types of visitor experiences: personal framing of exhibits (as in Facing Mars), private sharing (like the Storycorps booths), public dialogue (as in the Advice exhibit), and so on. Download my slides here.

Elsewhere in the session, I was incredibly impressed by:
  • The new Dialogue in Silence exhibition, presented by the same group (Dialogue Social Enterprise) that created the incredibly successful Dialogue in the Dark exhibition. Where Dialogue in the Dark is a tactile and auditory experience led in complete darkness by blind guides, Dialogue in Silence is an exhibition of interpersonal challenges that must be completed in total silence.
  • Two presentations (by Mikko Myllykoski of Heureka and Chuck Howarth of Gyroscope) that questioned whether science center exhibits should be cutesy and colorful. Both of these designers presented compelling images and evidence from exhibit work and child development experts about the idea that you can make sophisticated, muted exhibits that help children slow down, focus, and enjoy themselves with interactive content. Chuck offered a quote from an advisory psychologist who commented that "children should be the brightest thing in the space." Mikko noted that when Heureka switched to digital screen-based exhibit labels from graphics, they saw an entirely new behavior: kids reading labels, instead of their parents reading while the kids hit the hands-on elements. Mikko suggested that the kids saw the screens as being "for them" and felt drawn to read long paragraphs of text when presented digitally.
  • Jane Werner, director of the fabulous Pittsburgh Children's Museum, talked about the Charm Bracelet project, a local collaboration among arts organizations that is both incredibly ambitious (with a goal to transform the troubled North Side neighborhood into a cultural and educational jewel of the city) and wonderful distributed (they make microgrants for small projects that make a difference in the neighborhood). We so frequently over-focus on our own institutions' problems, and Jane and her cohorts in Pittsburgh are thinking much more expansively about their collective power to make positive change in their community.

Bridging Online and Onsite Experiences

Tamara Schwarz (Chabot Space & Science Center), Seth! Leary (NRG! Exhibits), Rob Semper (Exploratorium) and I hosted a wide-ranging discussion session on design techniques for developing projects that involve both online and onsite elements. Rob shared some of the Exploratorium's forays into electronic guidebooks, Seth! talked about the Bellevue Sculptural Travel Bug project and geocaching, and Tamara and I both talked about content experiences that incorporate exhibits, social networks, and in the case of a newish project I'm working on, cellphones. Download our slides here.

I particularly appreciated Rob's thoughtful description of how people use guidebooks in real life - first, as inspiration for a hazily considered trip, then to really plan specifics, then on the ground as a guide to pre-selected and new opportunities, and finally, as a memento, peppered with comments on experiences sampled or postponed for future visits. How can a device-based guide offer the same range of experiences packaged in a small container?

This session also led to some discussion about physical infrastructure to support web-based experience integration. Many museums, especially those of the big old box variety, need guidance and help figuring out how to build data services into their facilities, and I suspect that these kinds of considerations will become a constant feature of new construction projects once a model is developed.

21st Century Skills

In the final minutes of the conference, Marsha Semmel (IMLS) hosted a session with myself, Julie Johnson (Science Museum of Minnesota) and Bronwyn Bevan (Exploratorium) to share the IMLS report on 21st Century Skills. Without getting too deeply in the weeds, 21st Century Skills is a phrase that has gained a lot of traction in US policy circles around education and workforce development. The basic idea is that there is a set of skills that need to be emphasized for kids today to be good citizens, workers, and leaders in the 21st century--skills like collaboration, global awareness, and media literacy. While most of the national discussion has focused on schools and enterprise, IMLS wanted to demonstrate to policymakers that museums and libraries already communicate many of these skills. IMLS also wanted to help museums and libraries improve their skills, both for audiences and for their own professional communities. So, IMLS convened a group of advisors (including Julie, Bronwyn, and I) to consult on the creation of a report and diagnostic tool for museum and library professionals, which you can download here.

During the session, we discussed how the 21st century skills report can serve as an actionable tool both for fundraising/advocacy activities and professional and program development at science centers. Marsha also gave a brief overview of IMLS grants available that support regional groups and institutions performing 21st century skills audits and professional development workshops.

The REFLECTS project at MOSI

In keeping with the session on 21st century skills in museums, I want to report on one other session I attended that really inspired me for its forward-thinking approach to professional development and visitor experience. A team of researchers and floor staff from the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, FL, came to the conference to talk about REFLECTS, a huge initiative in which floor educators are trained to perform self-reflective research on their own interactions with visitors and adapt their behavior to improve visitor engagement.

The REFLECTS project blends practical institutional demands with deep research. The point of the project is to train educator staff to be able to appropriately scaffold visitors' experiences at the museum. The team defines a "successful" visitor experience as one that is both active and engaged (as opposed to passive and disinterested). Floor staff are recorded via both video and audio as they interact with visitors, and then those floor staff go back later and code the recordings for cues that they define as indicating active engagement: visitors making comments about the exhibit, asking and answering each other's questions, making connections to prior experiences, and so on. The researchers don't judge the content of the cues (i.e. whether a visitor asks a silly question or a complex intellectual one), just their incidence. And then they head back out on the floor to adjust their behavior and try again.

In the session, MOSI staff showed video of themselves engaging with visitors before and after working in the REFLECTS program, and the difference was impressive. The educators weren't doing a better job communicating content in the "after" videos; in fact, many of them offered less content in these videos. Instead, they were doing a better job supporting visitors having their own content experiences, rather than trying (often unsuccessfully) to coerce visitors into engagement.

The primary researcher at MOSI, Judith Lombana, offered some hard-nosed business reasons for the REFLECTS project. She noted that in a region driven by tourism, MOSI must do whatever it can to deliver memorable experiences to visitors that will encourage repeat visits. She also noted that museums spend a lot of time giving visitors scaffolding that is not successful at improving engagement or learning, and that this is a business problem. As she put it: "waste occurs with activites or resources that some particular guest does not want."

But Judith also noted some other major professional development values of the project, especially that the floor educators who are engaged as researchers via REFLECTS feel empowered and validated, able to improve their performance as educators and understand the framework in which they do so. Sadly, there is little on the web so far about this project, but you can find a one-page brief at the bottom of this page. Hopefully, they will soon start publishing their findings for the broader museum audience.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More Delightful Secrets: How Much Space Would You Give to an Exclusive Subset of your Audience?

A month ago, I wrote about the pleasure of secret, exclusive places in cultural venues, and many of you wrote in with stories of your own. Last week in Denmark, I experienced two more delightful hidden treasures, and they led me to this simple question: how much space and money would you devote to providing an exclusive experience within your institution?

Let me explain. I visited two museums in which resources were devoted to experiences that only a tiny fraction of the visiting public would consume. In both cases, these exclusive experiences were wonderful surprises. Were these underutilized wastes of space or special places for the special visitors?

My first experience was at the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen. The Experimentarium offers an impressive mobile phone-based activity called Ego Trap which transforms a two-hour visit into a narrative, social game. Ego Trap uses voice and text messages to immerse visitors in a research study carried out by mysterious hosts, who entreat them to use certain exhibits, answer questions, and perform multi-person challenges as part of the elusive study. Eventually (spoiler!), players realize that a hacker has gotten into the system, and they must choose whether to side with the scientists behind the study or the hacker. Visitors who choose the hacker approach a secret door, marked STAFF ONLY. They input a code into their phones and the door unlocks to reveal the headquarters of the science research study: a dark lair filled with electronic equipment and... rats' nests. The scientists running the study were in fact rats out to enslave humans and turn them into lab animals! The rats' HQ challenges visitors to tackle a final game to escape successfully from the rats' lair.

This game, and the secret room that hosts it, is only available to the tiny fraction of people who play Ego Trap and make it all the way to the conclusion of the game (which takes about 2 hours). I was only able to access it because a staff member was touring us through and gave us the behind-the-scenes look. As my husband said, that secret room with its mousy trappings was "the coolest part of the whole museum." Is this an example of a powerful reward for highly engaged visitors, or a missed opportunity for more visitors to see the Experimentarium as full of secrets and mystery?

As a second example, we later sojourned north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a lovely art museum surrounded by incredible grounds on the seashore. At one point, we strolled out a non-descript door from the cafe to examine an outdoor sculpture. Beyond the sculpture, we noticed a path, and then a gate. Uncertain whether we were leaving the museum's grounds, we wandered through the gate and into a magical enclave that included a mist-covered pond, a wavy slide, and several art installations--whimsical huts of all kinds. While the museum and the main grounds were packed, this large and beautiful outdoor area was virtually deserted--not surprising given how hard it was to find.

In both of these museums, our favorite experiences came when we stumbled onto or were let into these secret, exclusive places. We felt a special kind of ownership of these spaces that we had discovered. We were like the early explorers, delighting in our own cleverness, ignoring evidence that these places had been previously discovered by other worthy trekkers (and of course, created by their designers).

It's very hard for a museum to justify dedicating space and resources to something that will remain unmarked and unadverstised. Especially in the case of Louisiana, which was packed with people, we were shocked that such a beautiful part of the grounds were kept "private" when it could have been occupied by many happy visitors. But these were also the most memorable parts of our visits, the aspects I felt compelled to share with friends and family--and with people like you.

Could your institution include an intentional set of hidden surprises, a secret "extra level," or just a hidden door to a small experience? Would you be willing to exclude the majority to give a small group a sense of specialness that might not be otherwise attainable? What's the business argument for doing so, and how much space and money might be usefully employed in such a manner?