Wednesday, June 13, 2012

17 Ways We Made our Exhibition Participatory

Going to MAH and seeing the LOVE exhibition on First Friday was a wonderful experience. It made me think in ways that I haven't before about the relation of art--as expressive culture--to democracy. It was fascinating to see people--across social differences--responding to representations of love in the paintings, images, objects and narratives that were part of the installation. It was exhilarating to see them inspired to create their own meanings in response: lovers whispering together in alcoves, people of all ages writing and drawing on walls and post-its, children painting, everyone sitting rapt before screens.
--Helene Moglen, professor of literature, UCSC 
After a year of tinkering, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is now showing an exhibition, All You Need is Love, that embodies our new direction as an institution. It is multi-disciplinary, incorporates diverse voices from our community, and provides interactive and participatory opportunities for visitor involvement. The exhibition is far from perfect, but it's a big step towards reflecting the "thriving, central gathering place" of our strategic vision.

This post focuses on one aspect of the exhibition: its participatory and interactive elements. We experimented with many different forms of visitor participation throughout the building, trying to balance social and individual, text-based and artistic, cerebral and silly. With one exception, no single activity cost more than $30 to produce/maintain. We developed and prototyped everything in-house with staff and interns. Pull up an armchair for a tour of our participatory hits, misses, and related discoveries. (Note: you can view these photos of the exhibition on Flickr here.)

Content Development

While most of the participatory components to the exhibition are products that are visitor-facing, there were a few ways we made our development process participatory in terms of collecting and curating content:
  • We partnered with two local newspapers--the Good Times and the Sentinel--to run contests looking for people with stories of crazy things they'd done for love and love rituals with family and friends. The best of the results were published on the papers online and included in the exhibition complete with first person labels, photographs, and artifacts.
  • We collaborated with two local organizations--the Rebele Homeless Family Shelter and Dominican Oaks retirement community--to conduct oral histories and produce a small audio and photo-based exhibit on maintaining love in tough situations. Here's a photo of one of the retired couples who came with their family to celebrate her 80th birthday in the exhibition.
  • We invited museum members and a few community members/organizations to create small exhibition components about unique love experiences with family, friends, teammates, romantic partners, and pets. 
  • We invited a private art school to fill a very public wall with paintings made by students in response to the question, "How would you depict love?" This is the most visible community component in the exhibition--a huge wall of 60 paintings hung salon-style, including a giant Marilyn Monroe, several superheroes, cats, goth girls--whatever said "love" to a range of kids. The inclusion and prominence of amateur art in the museum makes a complicated statement that is worth a whole other blog post.
  • We prototyped the most complicated interactives (the Love Styles quiz and Hearts to Hearts game) with visitors in the months leading up to opening. Because our visitation is highest during our monthly First Friday events, we used those as opportunities for testing. We called the prototypes "activities," got lots of participants, and people loved giving their feedback and seeing the prototypes evolve over a couple months. We've continued to do this for future exhibitions.
The Love Lounge

I LOVE... entryway.
On the first floor of the museum, just as you walk in, you encounter a small gallery that we have transformed into a participatory, creative space. This gallery has always been tough for exhibitions--it serves as a pass-through to the classroom, and during evening events, people pour through it on their way to and from classroom activities. We decided that instead of fighting this use, we should embrace it and reposition the gallery as an informal, welcoming space for active engagement with content. We also felt that it was useful to "front load" participation so that people understand right off the bat that they can engage actively at the MAH. So many museum exhibitions relegate the participatory bits in at the end. We wanted to welcome people in a participatory way, so that hopefully, they would carry that same energy and enthusiasm for active engagement upstairs.

The content of the Love Lounge focuses on individuals from Santa Cruz County, historic and current, and the crazy things they have done for love. Some are conceptual (i.e. interracial marriage, keeping a family together while homeless) and others are more immediate (i.e. making a special gift). The content was developed in a participatory way but is presented traditionally via artifacts, text, photos, and audio.

There are three participatory components for visitors to the Love Lounge:
  • An entrance doorway with spray-painted I LOVE ________ that people can complete with chalk. People love this and it's easy to manage with a sponge. The content is fairly surface-level, but it creates a nice feel when you walk in. 
  • A wall on which people can write answers to the question: "What's the craziest thing you've done for love?" with sharpies. This is the smash hit of the room and the most risky thing in the whole exhibition. What kind of crazy museum gives people sharpies and lets them write on a wall? As it turns out, the wall is fairly manageable and generates fabulous stories. The biggest problem is the sharpies running out; visitors pound them into the walls, and they have to be replaced every two weeks. We also have problems with kids scrawling on the bottom (you can see the height below which the wall becomes a toddler playground) and occasionally, people writing inappropriate things. We haven't had too much swearing, but there are rare moments of violence. "Murder" is not something you want to see on this kind of wall. We manage the wall by repainting it when it gets full (about every 3 weeks, and yes, we photograph it first) and spot-repainting anything offensive the day it is noticed. The content truly is amazing. Every time we repaint, I'm sad to see many of the stories go--but then I'm always overwhelmed with the quality of what replaces them.
  • A typewriter on which people can write love letters. They can pin them to the wall or take them home. This is the sleeper surprise of the room--few people do it, but those who do get completely hooked. It's not unusual to find a teenager at the typewriter for an hour or a family learning how to use it together. 
There was a fourth interactive element in the Love Lounge in which people could recommend favorite love songs to get added to the soundtrack that plays in the space. We cut it in the first week after opening. It wasn't a substantive activity, we had no way to get back to people to tell them their song had been added, and it was right next to the typewriter--too many activities on one little desk.

Sound Stairs

As you walk up the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, where the main gallery is, your footsteps trigger voices from the community saying "I love dance," "I love anthropology," "I love cats," etc. This installation is the only one that cost more than $30--about $2,000 for the parts. We see it as a long-term investment for the museum. We stole the idea from the Pittsburgh Children's Museum and worked with a fabulous local volunteer engineer to make it happen. We invite visitors to record themselves at the front desk with the staff member, and every month, we dump new voices into the staircase. We plan for this to be a permanent installation with content specific to the given exhibition at any time. This sound installation is delightful and adds surprise to the museum. I'm not sure whether people come back to hear their voices on it, but they certainly enjoy triggering them, listening, and recording themselves.

Second Floor and the Main Gallery

The main gallery for the exhibition primarily focuses on a blend of traditional exhibition content exploring romantic and platonic love. There is a mix of artwork, historical artifacts, community stories, and labels about the psychology of love. There are also four participatory experiences spread throughout the gallery:

The abacus and sticker setup for the Love Styles test.
  • "After the Breakup, I..." wall. This is a simple post-it-based talkback wall where people share their breakup stories. Powerful, poignant, and entertaining. We used this technique to develop the prompt. Requires occasional culling for violent or overly sexual content, but mostly, it's PG-13 and on-topic.
  • Love Styles personality test. This is our most elegant interactive in the exhibition, and it is always occupied by absorbed visitors. It is a personality test (based on real science) in which you can determine your own love style by answering a series of questions, teen magazine-style. We spent a long time prototyping this one. We didn't want people to have to add up points or do anything too onerous to participate. So, we created simple handmade abacuses that people use to track their responses to sets of questions. At the end of the quiz, you look at the beads to figure out what style is dominant. You then put a sticker under the name of your dominant style. The stickers accumulate to show a simple statistical distribution of love styles in the visitor community. Every once in a while, a post-it from the breakup interactive will make its way over here as a form of commentary on the activity. 
  • Hearts to Hearts card game. This social game, based on the popular Apples to Apples, is a mixed bag. The idea is to select adjectives from a deck that best describe the feeling of common relationship experiences--Thanksgiving dinner, office holiday parties, sharing rooms with siblings. When you get a group together at the table, it's incredibly fun and successful at prompting people to share personal stories related to the topics at hand. But it's hard to explain to visitors who haven't played Apples to Apples, and if there is not a gallery host to facilitate, this one often sits unplayed.   
  • A DIY wedding!
  • DIY Wedding Chapel. This one was not created by us. Artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle decided to create an immersive, surreal wedding chapel in which to show video clips from their series of weddings to the earth. They wanted to invite visitors to engage in spontaneous wedding ceremonies in the chapel, and so we brainstormed together until we decided on a blackboard with fill-in-the-blank wedding vows. (Rejected ideas included a paper towel dispenser for vows.) While very few people actually write and recite vows in the chapel, the ones that do are passionate and heartfelt, even when goofy. This is definitely a case where people's participation is higher given the overall participatory vibe of the gallery. In a traditional museum, I suspect people would see the blackboard as "part of the art" and not touch.
Elsewhere on the second floor, there are two small activities that explicitly tie the love show to our history collection:
  • Love Map. In the history gallery, there is a map of Santa Cruz County with paper, pins, and red yarn for writing a memory about a love experience in the county and connecting it to the place where it happened. This was launched as a facilitated activity during a "Love Fest" event in April and stayed. It is a bit of an ugly stepchild interactive--since it wasn't planned with the rest of the exhibition, we tend to forget to maintain and regulate the content. It can get messy, but the layered effect is somewhat appealing despite the reduced coherence.
  • Love matching game. Also created for the Love Fest, this little game is perched on a wall on the way from the second to the third floor. It is a simple poster showcasing photos from the museum archives of couples in love, old valentines, etc., along with cards with clues to match to the photos on the posterboard. We have found these staircase landing activities to be surprisingly appealing. Here are some girls crowded around it on their way through the museum. 
3rd Floor

The third floor of the museum takes love to a more spiritual and conceptual level. The sole gallery holds extraordinary paintings by Joan Brown, mostly reflecting her deep love of cats. Outside the gallery, there are personal stories from community members about connections to animals, and a lobby area that we have rebranded as a Creativity Lounge. There are three participatory activities on the third floor:
Cat temple meditation.
  • Animal stories. At the end of a wall featuring five animal photos and related first-person stories, there is an entreaty for participation. If you have a pet story to add to the wall outside the gallery, you can email it to our curator of history/collections manager, Marla. Only two people have done this. People like looking at and reading the pet stories on display, but the idea of going home, finding a photo, writing something up, and sending it in? Not so much.
  • Me collages. The Creativity Lounge is entirely taken over by this simple activity, in which visitors are invited to make collages that represent "the things you love most" from recycled magazines. There is a beautiful, simple set of clotheslines on which visitors can hang their completed collages. This activity is a bit of a conundrum. From an experience perspective, it's terrific. Visitors of all ages spend a long time working on their collages. They talk with each other while creating, both bonding and bridging as they cut and glue. There are many people who clearly have aha moments about the pleasure of simple art activities. And yet, while the collages look lovely on the wall, the content produced by them is weak. Almost no one looks at the finished collages except as a design element. We have a basket of completed ones (too many to hang!) with a sign that says, "Take home a hand-made collage." No one does. They pile up.
  • Meditation cushions. This is a different kind of interaction. In the gallery with the Joan Brown paintings, there is a "cat temple" that Joan built and painted. It is strange and beautiful and we wanted people to have a different way to experience it. We put out some simple cushions on the floor--the kind you'd put on patio chairs--in a semi-circle around the temple. There's a simple label inviting you to sit and meditate on the work. I'm always surprised and delighted when I see people doing so, sitting quietly on red cushions, while just outside the gallery the scissors and magazine bits are flying at the collage activity. It's nice to remember that there really is room for all different kinds of participation in a museum.

So What?

What's the cumulative effect of all these participatory experiences? Do they really help people connect with the content at hand? And if their development means less room (mental or physical) for contemplation of artworks and historic artifacts, is it worth it?

Of course, I'm biased. I feel strongly that we need to provide multiple entry points to exhibitions. We need labels AND audio AND post-its AND collage-making AND games AND meditation. I am proud to see visitors increasing their dwell time, sharing their delight and enjoyment of the space, having meaningful conversations in the galleries, and generally expressing that the museum is becoming a useful place for them to explore topics near and dear to the heart (literally).

What's the downside? In this case, the tradeoff was in design. Because we were taking this "and" approach for the first time, we didn't quite have the skills to figure out how we should organize everything to be participatory AND look gorgeous. We realized we needed a more complex hierarchical design approach to incorporate all the new elements sensibly and attractively. The multi-disciplinary content and the inclusion of community voices were just as challenging from a design perspective as the participatory components. The whole process exposed our weaknesses in a good way. We know what we need learn about and improve on over time.

For now, I'm glad to hear visitor comments like this one, from a 16-year-old girl:
even though we have seen famous exhibits from picasso to monet-this is the first exhibit that makes me want to do art
Amen to that.
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