Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Could Kill an Elegant, High-Value Participatory Project?

For the past year, I've been ending many of my talks with this image. It's my "artistic rendering" of one of the most inspirational participatory projects I know of--the Bibliotheek Haarlem Oost book drops.

Haarlem Oost is a branch library in the Netherlands that wanted to encourage visitors to add tags (descriptive keywords) to the books they read. These tags would be added to the books in the catalog to build a kind of recommendation system. To do this, the library didn't create a complicated computer system or send people online. Instead, they installed more book drops and return shelves, labeled with different descriptors like "boring," "great for kids," "funny," etc. This brilliant design allowed patrons to create new knowledge about the books in the library while only slightly adjusting their book-returning behavior. Read the original post on this project for more info.

This design inspires me because it creates new value out of what visitors already do. Too often, cultural institutions design participatory projects that require visitors to learn new tools or make sacrifices to contribute. The Haarlem Oost tagging return system wasn't one of these.

Or, so I thought. Two weeks ago, I decided I wanted a photo of the book drops and shelves in action for my forthcoming book. A Dutch friend volunteered to go snap the library. And then I received this email (bold mine):
I am afraid I have got bad news for you... This afternoon I went to the library in Haarlem Oost to take your pictures. When I arrived there, I noticed that they used 'normal' returning shelves instead of the tagging system. I asked one of the employees and it turned out that they quit using the system some time ago. Of course I asked her why. She explained that it more or less was a victim of its own success. First of all, particular shelves were overloaded in a short period of time (to be frank, I don't see the problem here, but to her it was a big problem, so I guess it influenced their working processes and confused them a lot)

Next to that, people were using the system so seriously that it took them a lot of time per book to decide where to place it. That caused some logistic problems in the (small) building, especially as they have some peak times. That meant that people often had to wait for other people to return their books - and then themselves again needed time to think where to place their books. There was an alternative system next to the tagging system to improve the flow, but people did not want to be rude and waited patiently on their turn- so the alternative did not work.

The woman I spoke to regrets that they do not use the tagging system anymore. She said that it gave them a good understanding on what the people in the neighbourhood like to read. She said that they are determined to introduce the system again when they have a good solution on the logistic problem, but unfortunately she could not give me a concrete term for that.
After I got over my shock (and the urge to delete the email), I realized that this depressing coda is a great illustration of the challenges of sustaining participatory projects.

As it turned out, the Haarlem Oost tagging system DID change visitors' behavior--but arguably, it changed their behavior for the better. Visitors liked the activity, and it helped staff learn more about the usage of the collection.

The problem was not that the system was buggy or hard to use, but that it disrupted staff expectations and behavior. It introduced new challenges for staff--to manage return shelves differently, and to deal with queues. Rather than adapt to these challenges, they removed the system.

This is both incredibly shocking and unsurprising. Librarians--and all cultural professionals--address challenges creatively every day. But the challenges they solve are known ones, emerging from the services they traditionally provide. No librarian would get rid of all the Harry Potter books because they are "too popular." No museum would stop offering an educational program that was "too successful." These are familiar challenges that come with the job and are seen to have benefit. But if tagging creates a line or people spend too much time giving you feedback? Staff at Haarlem Oost likely felt comfortable removing the tagging shelves because they didn't see the tagging as a patron requirement, nor the maintenance of the shelves as part of their job.

These front-line staff also probably weren't involved when the outside architect designed the tagging system. If you want participatory projects to thrive at your institution, you must bring staff along with you in their development and listen to their concerns in the design phase. You have to make it clear that sustaining and stewarding these initiatives is as much "part of the job" as traditional functions. Just as you try to design for minimum guest sacrifice, you have to be conscious of potential staff sacrifice. You can't innovate by capital projects and brilliant ideas alone.

Do you have a story to share of a project that got derailed post-launch in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments on what makes these projects fail (and hopefully, rise again).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Be Explicit if You Want Visitors to Work Together

One of the surprise pleasures of my recent trip to Brisbane, Australia, was the exhibition of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery. It was the most impressive multi-artist contemporary art exhibition I've ever seen. The vast majority of the artworks were exciting, accessible, and visually stunning. I expected a quick in-and-out visit, but found myself immersed in the aesthetic and cultural world of the art for hours.

But there was one exhibit that highlighted a particular frustration of mine. It was a multi-person exhibit that fell just short of inviting strangers to work together. With one simple tweak of the label text, it could have gone from good to great.

The artwork is called I, you, we and was created by Wit Pimkanchanapong. The title is highly descriptive of the piece, which is a little booth where two people can mix photos of their faces into a new image of a face that incorporates bits from each person. You sit down with a partner, make a collaborative image, and then email the composite home to yourself or someone else.

I looked on as many visitors enjoyed this exhibit, which created silly and surprising results. But as a solo visitor, I couldn't find a way in. Here's the label:
This label suggests that the artist is particularly interested in visitors engaging with those who are different from them. And yet there is no invitation for visitors to use the booth with strangers. It's ideally set up for a stranger interaction: the booths are in a public space and are open on both sides, so it doesn't feel like you are being asked to enter an intimate space with someone unknown. The interaction is quick, discrete, and doesn't require sharing anything more personal than your face.

This exhibit is missing just one thing: a statement on the label that says, "Invite a stranger to make a portrait with you." The staff could easily append the cute label shown at the top of this post with this sentence. It would give visitors like me a way into the experience and an opportunity to perform in keeping with the artist's desires. And even for people visiting in groups, it might present the opportunity for a fun interaction with someone new.

If you want to invite people to use your space socially, you have to give them explicit permission to do so. Letting visitors know that an exhibit is a two-person activity is useful information, but it's not enough to help people overcome their fears and approach strangers to help them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Six Steps to Making Risky Projects Possible

Last month, I gave the closing keynote at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand. The end of a conference is often a time of great enthusiasm quickly followed by a gaping maw of inability to act on that enthusiasm back at work. For this reason, I spoke specifically about how to make dream projects possible at real institutions. You can see or download my slides and you can watch the video of the talk. Or you can read this condensed version of the talk.


Elaine Gurian once told me there are two ways for institutions to innovate: they can be so small that no one notices them, or they can have a director who is willing to put his/her neck on the line for the innovation. It’s nice to have both. Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite museums are small, funky places run by iconoclasts—but that’s not useful to most professionals who work for organizations in which they have little control over size or leadership matters.

So if you’re not at one of those weird little institutions, how do you make innovation happen? How do you overcome institutional resistance to change and uncertainty to do something wild and hopeful?

It takes six steps.

First, you have to connect your idea to the institutional mission. I’ve written about this before, and it’s particularly relevant if your idea falls outside the traditional products or services of your organization. Pick apart your mission statement, and look for the words and phrases you can connect your project to. Ask leaders to be accountable to the mission. I used the example of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has a mission statement that includes unusual words like “bold” and “fearless.” If your institution says it is bold and fearless, how do your programs support that? What new projects might allow you to better reflect those aspirations? When you speak in the language of the institutional mission, executives will understand you better and be attentive to the new connections you draw from the mission to proposed projects.

Second, you need to find the right tool to implement your idea. Especially when working with technology, leading with tools instead of mission-driven projects is a mistake. If you say, “we need a blog,” others in your organization won’t know how to contextualize that within the programs and mission of the institution. If you say, “being transparent is part of our mission, so we need a way to share more of the behind-the-scenes everyday work we do here, and since people here are comfortable writing and taking pictures, the best way to do that is via a blog,” then people will come onboard.

Third, you need to align your idea with institutional culture. There are some ideas that will never fly where you work. Maybe the director is obsessed with “company secrets” and you’ll never be able to share behind-the-scenes work. Or maybe education staff are not willing to engage real-time visitors in dialogue around controversial issues. That’s fine. If your idea is mission-relevant, you will be able to find a way to make it palatable within the context of your institution. I used the example of two very different exhibitions that solicited visitor-contributed content: Playing with Science at the London Science Museum, and MN150 at the Minnesota History Center. The London Science Museum team designed an entire exhibition and then left a few open vitrines at the end for visitors to contribute their own toys during the run of the exhibition. The Minnesota History Center team solicited visitor nominations for exhibition topics and then built an exhibition out of those contributions. Both resulting exhibitions featured visitor-submitted content, but each institution did so in a way that felt comfortable to their work processes and abilities.

This may sound obvious and natural, but it’s easy to underestimate the power of institutional culture. Sometimes staff are unaware of their own cultural biases and requirements even as they manage new projects. I worked on one project in which the client institution thought they wanted unfettered teen expression. When they saw the results of that expression, they struggled with the content and eventually integrated it into their project in a way that diminished the teens’ involvement and hard work. In the end, this generated a substandard product for the client, and disappointment for the teens.

Fourth, you need to find a way to evaluate what visitors do – and more importantly, to evaluate using criteria that are understood and appreciated by everyone in your institution. It’s not helpful to just measure outputs (number of visitor comments, length of stay) if those don’t translate to something that staff understand as useful outcomes. There are several good resources on evaluating participation. There is a preponderance of reports about the value of new media literacies towards educating productive citizens of the 21st century. Assessment tools like the Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills report can help you couch both your goals and evaluation in contexts that are well-understood by funders and executives alike. Another source of resources comes from the growing body of social media evaluation tools. I’m particularly enamored of this simple diagnostic used at the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina to articulate the types of institutional goals they are trying to achieve with forays into participation. They use these explicit goals as measuring sticks for the projects and experiments they pursue.

Fifth and most challengingly, you need to reserve resources (dollars and staff) for project operation. Unlike most traditional cultural products, projects that encourage visitor participation require staff to “tend the garden” of contributions long after the launch date. I consider this the greatest obstacle to the inclusion of participatory practice in cultural institutions because it fundamentally changes the way organizations staff and fund projects. Many museums are making this shift as they hire “community managers” who communicate with users on an ongoing basis. But institutions that incorporate dynamic content and participatory engagement throughout struggle to prove every day that they need to continue providing consumable materials and floor staff to sustain engagement.

Sixth, you need other people to help you. Pushing forward new projects in your own institution can be a tiring and thankless task. If you have friends and colleagues—whether internal or external—who can help you get to the next step or just commiserate and cheer with you, you’ll feel less lonely in your endeavor. I believe you need to find specific people—not just social networks—who can help you in this effort. When you meet someone who can help you, ask her. When you meet someone you can help, make an offer. These transactions will make change possible.


To help jumpstart these relationships, we did one of my favorite activities. People took out two business cards. On the back of one, they wrote something they need. On the back of the other, they wrote something they could offer someone else professionally. We unveiled a giant gong in the front of the room. If you found a "match" - someone you could help or could help you - you got to come up and hit the gong. People bonded over all kinds of skills, from helping digitize collections to performing outcome assessments to strategizing about new programs. And despite the exhaustion of the end of a long conference, everyone got up and moving in their quest to hit the gong (as evidenced by photos like this one).

As a brief design digression, I'd like to suggest that the gong is essential to this activity working. It's a motivator that has no intrinsic value - certainly less value than the outcome of the activity of finding a helpmeet in your work. But it helps focus WHY people will participate in something a bit silly by coupling it with a silly win condition. It invites people to play. It's another example of how scaffolding participation with design objects can make interpersonal exchange more desirable.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Guest Post: The Denver Community Museum

This post was written by Jaime Kopke, the founder/director of the Denver Community Museum, a pop-up community-generated institution that ran from Oct 2008-April 2009. This post shares her reflections on the project, its design, and its impact.

The Denver Community Museum (DCM) was a grassroots operation in almost every sense. There was no budget, no staff, no permanent location, no Board of Directors and no collection. It was me, a handful of occasional volunteers, some very kind local business partners and a city full of participants.

The DCM was a temporary, pop-up museum which ran from October 2008 - April 2009 in an unused storefront in downtown Denver. From the beginning, the museum stated that it would exist for less than year in a well-trafficked area of the city (possibly in multiple locations). It was, in effect, an institution with an expiration date.

There was no agenda or angle in setting up the DCM, the idea was simply to create an awesome place for the community to share their stories. I was inspired by pop-up shops I had seen in NY along with a community museum there called the City Reliquary. Over a year I began to wonder how to combine the two ideas and the DCM was the result. The DCM was a place that was part science experiment. It aimed to challenge the traditional notions of a museum: permanent vs. temporary, past vs. present and fact vs. fiction.

The contents for each month-long exhibition were entirely community generated. A series of projects were announced, serving as calls for participation, which were open to all Denver area residents. These challenges posed a creative test, which individuals could interpret and solve as they pleased. Every month a new challenge was issued and the previous challenges’ results were displayed within the museum. As a result, each month a new community collection was created to be put on display.

While each challenge had a specific question/theme, the form of the artifacts were left up to the individual participants. Whether it was a homemade object, written story, audio clip or drawing, everything was accepted - unless it was was horribly offensive (which never occurred). It was free to participate in and to visit. It did not matter if the memories/stories represented were real or imaginary. There were no size limits, age limits or skill level required and nothing was for sale. This open process may have overwhelmed some, but many, many more found it liberating. Visitors would see a globe painted by a five-year old next to a professional artist’s embroidery and be inspired to create their own item. By far the most important elements though were the stories people shared. Each participant wrote their own text describing the process, meaning or anything else they liked. Unlike many museums that just ask for comments or set a fun little “activity corner,” the DCM gave over complete control and that’s part of the reason it worked.

But not to be led astray, relying solely on specifically-made artifacts to fill your museum is not easy path. Challenges were only announced one month in advance and there was less than a week between shows. Participants would drop off/pick up their items on the last Friday/Saturday of the month, giving me approximately four days to type/print the exhibition text, mount info cards, lay out displays, move shelving etc., set up any participatory elements and organize the opening, which occurred the following Friday or Saturday. I never knew what my contents were until it was time to create the display.

When I imagined the museum before I began, I had fantastic visions of walls filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful handmade artifacts, each sharing a special story. While beautiful handmade objects did come in, sometimes what I got was a big brown ball of soap. A ball of soap dropped off “by a friend” in a paper sack with no information other than a name. When you open the doors to everything, you have to stick with it, but there is no doubt more submissions would have been helpful. If I were to do this project again, the biggest adjustment would be to marketing and outreach. I needed a lot more of it. A lot.

That being said, each show (luckily) had about 30-40 artifacts/participants - though some were done in groups as well (mostly schools). While each challenge always brought in new participants, there were also several very dedicated repeat submitters. Though I usually had enough artifacts to make an interesting exhibition, the size and form of these artifacts was constantly varying. To help fill in the blanks, I often added participatory pieces which allowed the visitors to take an active role. As a project that was based on community sharing, turning the museum into an open platform was essential. There was never an exhibit where the visitor simply viewed and read. The shows always included something that you could touch, take...or most importantly leave behind.

These elements varied from doodled on post-it notes to wishes stuffed in bottles. One of the most successful of these installations happened during the ’29’ exhibition. The challenge asked participants to create an artifact related to them at age 29 (whether that be future or past). In addition to the pieces submitted we set-up an extensive timeline wrapping around the room, weaving in and out of the displays. A typewriter was set-up in the middle of the room with a stack of index cards, asking people to share what they were/will be doing at age 29. The response was amazing. Almost every visitor typed up a card and added it to the wall. Not only did people genuinely enjoy thinking about the question and sifting through their memories, on several occasions complete strangers ended up reminiscing together. A group of three friends realized they were all 29 the year which September 11th took place; their talking aloud brought two other visitors into the conversation and the five of them ended up sitting down and sharing their memories of that year. I was shocked...and very happy.

The magic however, did not always occur naturally. I often had to introduce the participatory elements to get visitors to join in. This wasn’t really out of place since I greeted almost everyone who came in to tell them about the museum. I usually just left it with, “and there are parts where you can do/add things so be sure to look around.” That usually did it. I am a firm believer in people’s desire to explore and be surprised. If someone asked I was more than happy to give them more information, but mostly I left people to discover things on their own. Some participated, others did not.

One interesting outcome was that as time went on, some participants started designing more and more interactive artifacts all on their own. They had either submitted before, or visited and experienced the nature of the space firsthand. By the end, I had participants giving me directions on how to display their pieces and what people could do with them. In terms of visitors, I never really counted (maybe I should have), but I would have to guess that each show roughly 150-200 people stopped by, with most of the activity centered around the openings.

I think the reason the DCM worked was because it was informal and honest. We have all seen museums that try a little too hard with their interactive elements, jazzing them up with highly polished graphics and fancy displays. The DCM was approachable and had no expectations. Things did not have to fit a pre-conceived space, they weren’t confined to a bulletin board and nothing was forced. There wasn’t a separate area for “community submissions”. I also had to let the little things go. Some people never submitted the story to go along with their artifact, no matter how many harassing emails I sent. Some people dropped items off the DAY OF the opening. Many more surprised me with the most enchanting and heartfelt objects/stories - far beyond what I could ever have dreamed. The DCM was grassroots, but it may not have worked otherwise. Everyone played a part and that part was equal for everyone.

Jaime would like to open up the comments to any questions you may have, please feel free to fire away. Also, Jaime will be speaking at the next AAM conference in May 2010 during a panel titled “On the Road: Nomadic, Pop-up and Ephemeral Museum Experiences.” You can reach her directly via denvercommunitymuseum @ gmail . com