Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge

Blessing of the Replica Boards, July 19, 2015, 8am. Photo by Jon Bailiff.
Relevance is not an end unto itself. It is a bridge. When you open the path, people flood in. You open the potential for something more.

But a bridge to nowhere is quickly abandoned. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something significant. Killer content. Substantive programming. Muscle and bone.

This summer, we opened two exhibitions at my museum that are highly relevant to local culture. One is about the Grateful Dead (Dear Jerry), the other about the dawn of surfing in the Americas (Princes of Surf). Dear Jerry is relevant because Santa Cruz is a hippie town, UC Santa Cruz maintains the Grateful Dead Archive, and the Dead did their final tour this summer. Princes of Surf is about the young Hawaiian princes who brought surfing to the Americas 130 years ago--relevant because they did it in Santa Cruz, with boards shaped from local wood, on waves I bike by every week.

Both of these exhibitions are relevant to the cultural identity of Santa Cruz. Both had good design, great programmatic events, and enthusiastic response. But one of them--Princes of Surf--completely outshone the other. Crushed attendance records. Yielded mountains of press. Captured people like we've never seen before. Princes of Surf isn't "more relevant" than Dear Jerry. But its gateway led further into our community, deeper into the heart-spirit of Santa Cruz.

What makes Princes of Surf so special? The exhibition is small and fairly traditional in design. It features only two artifacts: the original redwood surfboards the princes shaped and used in Santa Cruz. Picture a room with two really long pieces of old wood, and some labels around the walls. That's about it.

And yet. These two pieces of wood are like the Shroud of Turin of surfing in the Americas. They are the answer to a mystery, proof of something we'd long believed but couldn't verify. They are at the heart of how so many people in my community define themselves. These boards connect modern-day surfers to something greater than themselves: across oceans, across cultures, across time. It's not about nostalgia. It's about a new connection to something deep inside.

Princes of Surf is simple. It starts with a theme--surfing--that is relevant to our community. And then it delivers something new and shocking, something old and reverent, something worth getting excited about.

The story of how these surfboards became significant speaks to the fickle face of relevance. Before the Princes of Surf exhibition, these boards rested deep in the collection storage of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. As royal boards, they were sufficiently relevant to the Bishop's mission to be collected--but not compelling enough to warrant exhibition. They were in storage for 90+ years before historians in Hawaii and Santa Cruz discovered they were THE boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas in Santa Cruz. The boards became relevant and important in Santa Cruz, and we paid a huge amount to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. But their significance here doesn't translate across the ocean. After this "blockbuster" run in Santa Cruz, the boards will go back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration.

In other words, these boards are significant--but only here, only because of their relevance to Santa Cruz. Attributes like "significance" are almost always contextual. And potent. When context and meaning line up, objects gain power.

Exhibiting these boards reminds me how rare it is to exhibit truly significant objects. So often in museums, we assuage ourselves with the idea that in the digital era, people will still visit museums because they want to see "the real thing." What we don't admit is that many of the "real things" we display just aren't compelling enough to get people in the door. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for exhibitions of second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. The thin, oily soup of blockbuster shows. They may be relevant, but that doesn't make them valuable.

I remember the last time I saw an object that was so relevant, and so valuable, that it had huge community impact. It was June of 2009. Michael Jackson had just died, and I was at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where they hastily erected an exhibit of the jacket and glove he wore in the Thriller video. Many organizations hosted tributes to Michael Jackson, but this tribute, this artifact, this outfit that froze Michael Jackson at his most insane and fabulous and other-worldly--it mattered. It was relevant AND significant.

When you hit both these notes, people respond. With Princes of Surf, it started before the exhibition opened. People lining the street on the Tuesday afternoon when the boards arrived from the Port of Oakland, cheering as the crates came off the truck. People pouring in to see the show. Grown men fighting for seats at lectures about the history of the boards. Couples stopping me on the street to marvel about the story. Kids wearing commemorative t-shirts around town. The exhibition is still open, and every week I have these moments--in the museum and out in the City--where people tell us and show us how much the boards matter to them.

My favorite moment of this project was on July 19, 2015, 130 years to the day since the teenage Hawaiian princes were first documented surfing on mainland USA in Santa Cruz. We celebrated the anniversary with a surf demo, paddle out, and luau. One of the most prominent surfboard designers in Santa Cruz, Bob Pearson of Pearson Arrow, shaped fourteen replica redwood boards for the demo. We partnered with pro surfers, shapers, surf historians, Hawaiian restaurants, a local radio DJ, and a Hawaiian biker club to make it happen.

It's always nerve-wracking when you host an event with an unconventional format. I remember early morning on July 19, getting on my bike, wondering if anyone would be at the beach when I arrived. Who in their right minds would show up at 8am on a Sunday for a history event?

I arrived to a sea of people, heads bent before a blessing of the boards. I stumbled into the throng. Someone handed me a lei. I walked with hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline to watch pro surfers attempt to ride the replicas. People lined the cliffs above the water. The tide was low, and we walked way out along the break, cheering the surfers on, watching them rise and fall. 

Back on the beach, the mayor proclaimed it Three Princes Day. The Hawaiian motorcycle club hefted the 200+ pound replicas and carried them down the shore to the rivermouth where the princes first surfed, like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead. A the mouth of the river where the princes rode, Hawaiian elders led us in a song of blessing. And then we got into the water again - hundreds of us, on redwood boards and longboards and shortboards and paddle boards and no boards at all, paddling out to form a circle in the ocean out beyond the break, holding hands, feeling the connection. We paddled back, dried off, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and dancing hula in the courtyard outside the museum.

July 19, 2015 Paddle Out, 11am. Photo by Levy Media Works via drone. I'm a speck in the water, top right between a blue and yellow board. Note the crowd at the river mouth in the background on the beach.
July 19 was amazing. For me personally, it was life-changing. And it had almost nothing to do with relevance. Yes, this project matters most in Santa Cruz, where the boards were born, but the relevance of the story was just the spark. Just the opening of a door of connection and meaning and depth and learning and love.

So let's celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but as a means. If your organization focuses on your local geography, be relevant to that. If you focus on a particular community, be relevant to them. If you focus on a discipline or art form or niche, be relevant to that. And then work like hell to make meaning out of it.

Because relevance is just a start. It is a bridge. You've got to get people on the bridge. But what matters most is what they're moving towards, on the other side.

***

This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. Thank you for taking this journey with me. It is an experiment in form, and I value all the comments and conversation around it. If there are other topics you think should be included in the series, please leave a comment with that topic for consideration.

Here's my question for today: Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance? 

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 4: Guest Comic and Open Thread

For the past few weeks, I've been writing about relevance and museums. The conversation in the comments on each post has been fascinating and educational. Today, I wanted to share a provocative comic made by a talented museum-er/illustrator, Crista Alejandre. I hope this piece encourages more dialogue among us in this penultimate post in the relevance series.


 ***  

This post is part of a series of meditations on relevance. This week is YOUR WEEK to weigh in on anything related to relevance that you want to explore. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: What responses, questions, and stories does Crista's comic spark for you?

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 3: Who Decides What's Relevant?

One of my favorite comments on the first post in this series came from Lyndall Linaker, an Australian museum worker, who asked: "Who decides what is relevant? The curatorial team or a multidisciplinary team who have the audience in mind when decisions are made about the best way to connect visitors to the collection?"

My answer: neither. The market decides what's relevant. Whoever your community is, they decide. They decide with their feet, attention, dollars, and participation.

When you say you want to be relevant, that usually means "we want to matter to more people." Or different people. Can you define the community to whom you want to be relevant? Can you describe them? Mattering more to them starts with understanding them. What they care about. What is useful to them. What is on their minds.

The community decides what is relevant to them. But who decides what is relevant inside the organization? Who interprets the interests of the community and decides on the relevant themes and activities for the year?

That's a more complicated question. It's a question of HOW we decide, not just WHO makes the decision.

Community First Program Design

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we've gravitated towards a "community first" program planning model. It's pretty simple. Instead of designing programming and then seeking out audiences for it, we identify communities and then develop programs that are relevant to their assets and needs. 

Here's how we do it:
  1. Define the community or communities to whom you wish to be relevant. The more specific the definition, the better. 
  2. Find representatives of this community--staff, volunteers, visitors, trusted partners--and learn more about their experiences. If you don't know many people in this community, this is a red flag moment. Don't assume that content/form that is relevant to you or your existing audiences will be relevant to people from other backgrounds. 
  3. Spend more time in the community to whom you wish to be relevant. Get to know their dreams, points of pride, and fears. 
  4. Develop collaborations and programs, keeping in mind what you have learned. 

We use a simple "honeycomb" diagram (image) to do these four steps.

We start at the middle of the diagram, defining the community of interest.

Then, we define the needs and assets of that community. We're careful to focus on needs AND assets. Often, organizations adopt a service model that is strictly needs-based. The theory goes: you have needs; we have programs to address them. While needs are important, this service model can be demeaning and disempowering. It implies we have all the answers. It's more powerful to root programming in the strengths of a community than its weaknesses.

Once we've identified assets and needs, we seek out collaborators and project ideas. We never start with the project idea and parachute in. We start with the community and build to projects.

Here are two examples:
  • Our Youth Programs Manager, Emily Hope Dobkin, wanted to find a way to support teens at the museum. Emily started by honing in on local teens' assets: creativity, activist energy, desire to make a difference, desire to be heard, free time in the afternoon. She surveyed existing local programs. The most successful programs fostered youth empowerment and community leadership in various content areas: agriculture, technology, healing. But there was no such program focused on the arts. Subjects to Change was born. Subjects to Change puts teens in the driver's seat and gives them real responsibility and creative leadership opportunities at our museum and in collaborations across the County. Subjects to Change isn't rooted in our collection, exhibitions, or existing museum programs. It's rooted in the assets and needs of creative teens in our County. Two years after its founding, Subjects to Change is blasting forward. Committed teens lead the program and use it as a platform to host cultural events and creative projects for hundreds of their peers across the County. The program works because it is teen-centered, not museum-centered. 
  • Across our museum, we're making efforts to deeply engage Latino families. One community of interest are Oaxacan culture-bearers in the nearby Live Oak neighborhood. There is a strong community of Oaxacan artists, dancers, and musicians in Live Oak. One of their greatest assets is the annual Guelaguetza festival, which brings together thousands of people for a celebration of Oaxacan food, music, and dance. Our Director of Community Engagement, Stacey Marie Garcia, reached out to the people who run the festival, hoping we might be able to build a collaboration. We discovered--together--that each of us had assets that served the other. They had music and dance but no hands-on art activities; we brought the hands-on art experience to their festival. They have a strong Oaxacan and Latino following; we have a strong white following. We built a partnership in which we each presented at each other's events, linking our different programming strengths and audiences. No money changed hands. It was all about us amplifying each other's assets and helping meet each other's needs. 

Getting New Voices in Your Head 

The essential first step to this "community first" process is identifying communities of interest and learning about their assets, needs, and interests.

How does this critical learning happen? There are many ways to approach it. You can form a community advisory group. A focus group. Recruit new volunteers or board members. Hire new staff. Volunteer in that community. Seek out trusted leaders and make them your partners. Seek out community events and get involved.

We find that the more time we spend in communities of interest--hiring staff from those communities, recruiting volunteers from those communities, helping out in those communities, and collaborating with leaders in those communities--the easier it is to make reasonable judgments about what is and isn't relevant. It gets easier to hear their voices in our heads when we make a decision. To imagine what they'll reject and what they'll embrace.

If you want to make program decisions relevant to a group, the thing you need most is their voices in your head. Not your voice. Not the voices of existing participants who are NOT from the community of interest.

Here's the challenge: if this community of interest is new to you, it's hard to get their voices in your head. It's hard for two reasons:
  1. If you are interested in being relevant to a community that is new to you, you likely have low familiarity and knowledge of that community's assets, needs, and interests. 
  2. At the same time as you are learning about this community, stumbling into new conversations, your existing community is right there, loud and in your face, drowning out the new voices you are seeking in the dark. 
Anyone who has been through a change process knows this. You start with the community to whom you are already relevant, with their peculiar expectations and strengths and fears. And then, you decide you want the organization to be relevant to new people. People with different expectations and strengths and fears. You learn something about these new people: they prefer programming later at night, they're inspired by this kind of program, they want content in this language. If any of these changes threatens the experience of the people already engaged, they may revolt. They may say you are dumbing it down, screwing it up, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It's easy to give up. It's easy to just listen to the voices already in front of you. To stay relevant to them and shed your visions of being relevant to more or different people.

But you can't give up. If you believe in the work of being relevant to new communities, you have to believe those people are out there. You have to privilege their voices in your head. You have to believe that their assets and needs and dreams are just as valid as those of people who are already engaged.

Every time an existing patron expresses concern about a change, you have to imagine the voices in your head of those potential new patrons who will be elated and engaged by the change. You have to hear their voices loud and clear.

These new voices don't exist yet. They are whispers from the future. But put your ear to the ground, press forward in investing in community relevance, and those whispers will be roars before you know it.

 *** 

This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you today: Who decides what is relevant in your institution? Have you ever seen a project succeed or fail based on interpretation of community assets and needs? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 2: Content vs. Form

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending. If people on the street are talking about X, the museum should be talking about X too.

This is the least useful form of relevance for the arts. "Now" is not an easy business model to chase--especially for institutions rooted in permanence. "Now" requires major changes to how we work and what we offer. "Now" comes off as disingenuous and irrelevant if done wrong. And now is not tomorrow. It is not the long term. It is just now. Endlessly, persistently, expensively, now.

I used to work at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. Our mandate was to be the museum of Silicon Valley--not of its material history, but its pulse of innovation. This was impossible. The exhibits we put on the floor were immediately dated. Their physicality, long timelines, and big budgets made them immutable objects. They didn't speak to the thrilling drumbeat of change at the heart of innovation.

The problem was not one of content but one of form. This isn't just a science center problem. It's a cultural institution problem. The solution is in focusing on changing form more than content. Changing hours and pricing. Curatorial processes. Interpretative techniques.

Consider the experiments at the New World Symphony in Miami, where they are performing classical orchestral music for outdoor "wallcasts" that include projections and visual content. Or Streb Labs, where choreographer Elizabeth Streb flipped the traditional dance model by opening a 24/7, open-access venue for practice and performance. Or museums that extend their hours to match working people's schedules.

These institutions are not being relevant by presenting cat selfies curated by a hot celebrity. They are making canonical content relevant by updating the form. 

William F. Buckley, the conservative political commentator, said: “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas ... but because the idiom of life is always changing and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”

Changing the form is about adapting to the vibrations of modern life. You can make "inaccessible" content relevant if you put it on a pedestal that speaks to today. The pedestal of today may be irreverent, or political, or multi-sensory. It may be loud or quiet. Digital or analog. The pedestals will keep changing with the times. The content needn't.

Of course, sometimes when you create a new format that prioritizes "the vibrations of modern life," those vibrations can affect the content. Consider the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum's "Rethinking Soup" lunch series, in which community members share a meal and discussion about social justice issues. Once you put that weekly lunch on the calendar, you're going to fill the bowl weekly with content. Sometimes, that content may be of-the-moment. Other times, grounded in the museum's collection. The weekly format doesn't prescribe contemporary content. But it makes space for it when warranted.

New formats introduce structural changes, whereas new content may only hit the surface. When a museum hosts a one-off community conversation in response to a national crisis, I often wonder: is this opportunistic? Are they taking up a hot topic briefly, only to retreat when the fire goes out? I worry that they will check it off the "relevance" list and forget about it. I worry they won't do the full work of changing to be more relevant in the long-term.

This kind of change is taxing. Relevance is only worth the effort when it is a gateway to utility and meaning. If making something more relevant makes it less meaningful, it's not worth it.

Consider the Victoria and Albert Museum's "rapid response collecting" program, which started in 2013. Curators acquire and display contemporary objects via "a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology."

I applaud the V&A for changing their acquisition format to be more responsive to modern life--no easy feat. Yet I'm unsure about its value. Museums have huge issues with overstuffed collection stores of dubious relevance to the modern day. Does collecting more stuff faster help improve relevance? Or does it accelerate an unhealthy emphasis on the "now?"

One of the objects the V&A collected is a pair of jeans produced at a Bangladeshi factory near another factory that collapsed. What's the value of a pair of store-bought jeans made nearby the site of the tragedy? This kind of relevance is a second-class offering to the cult of "now." If the V&A wants to speak to that tragedy, there other objects in its collection that could bring meaning (and relevance) to it. Objects rescued from factory fires. Objects made under duress. Objects that breathe life into the issue at hand.

"Now" matters, but not as much as utility and meaning. "Now" can distract from the real work of relevance--making cultural institutions useful, meaningful, and connected to people's lives. Not just now. Later, too.

***

This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you: How do you perceive the difference between relevance of form and content? Are there examples (of either) that have had lasting impact on the relevance of your institution? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 1: Overview

"We want our museum to be relevant."

I've heard (and said) this many times. But what does it mean for a cultural institution to be relevant? To whom? How? Why?

Relevance is relative and relational. It's the extent to which a thing is connected to something that matters.

In pop culture contexts, relevance is about currency. Now-ness. Relevant information is ripped from the headlines, hot hot hot. Exhibition about #blacklivesmatter? That's relevant.

In professional contexts, relevance is about utility. Usefulness. Relevant information helps solve a problem or improve a line of work. Art therapy program for trauma victims? That's relevant.

In personal contexts, relevance is about meaning. Interest. Relevant information feeds a person's (or a group's) proclivity or affinity. Lecture on bees for an audience of beekeepers? That's relevant.

How do we build relevance in cultural institutions? We become more relevant when we matter more to more people. We do that by being useful and meaningful. Not by being hip.

Five relevant suggestions:
  1. Ignore flash. The fastest path to irrelevance is trying to keep up with the cool kids. We are wasting resources on of-the-moment content and hot new gadgets. 
  2. Interrogate form. Relevance isn't solely about content. We need to think about the structure of how our institutions function--from hours of operation to explicit and implicit rules of use--to make our work relevant to the patterns of contemporary life. 
  3. Identify the "who." The implication of "being more relevant" is being more relevant to somebody. Who is that somebody? The more we know about the community or communities of interest, the better we can connect to their interests, needs, and assets. If we want to matter more, we need to know what matters. 
  4. Make change. Relevance isn't something you wish for. It's something you build. Once we understand what matters most to people, we have to make changes to make those new connections. Credibly. Sincerely. Seriously.
  5. Acknowledge that relevance is a door, not a destination. Relevance doesn't incite powerful emotions or learning on its own. It is a gateway that opens the potential for more.  
When we connect our work to the things that matter most to people, in forms that fit their patterns of life, it will be relevant. And then the real work (and magic!) can begin.

Over the next few weeks, I'm diving deeper into these topics with a series of posts. If you are curious about what relevance means in the cultural sector, this series will probably be relevant to you.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my first question for you: what's the biggest question on your mind about relevance and cultural institutions?

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the  conversation here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Breaking the Museum 2.0 Mold

Dear reader,

Today is my birthday. I decided to give myself a gift this year: permission to change the Museum 2.0 blog.

I've been blogging weekly for almost nine years. Now, I'm planning to shift to a less regular schedule, prioritizing quality over quantity and consistency. No more Wednesdays like clockwork. Instead: intermittent, thoughtful posts with passion behind them.

I don't make this change lightly. I love the rigor of weekly blog posts because it forces me to keep up an important activity that helps me learn and grow. I believe in the power of ritual. I'm nervous to let go of a ritual that has been so meaningful to me (and hopefully, to you) for so long.

But I also know there is huge potential to improve Museum 2.0.

My decision crystallized last week, when I read Diane Ragsdale's thought-provoking post about the Irvine Foundation's recent report on the cultural lives of Californians. And then this morning, when I read Ian David Moss's reflections on the same report. I've been planning to blog about the Irvine report as well. But I realized, reading their fine posts, that my current blog format doesn't enable me to go into the depth and analysis I want to. To add something substantive to the conversation. To advance my learning (and hopefully yours) on issues that matter.

I used to want to be the dependable weekly source. Now, I want to be more like Diane Ragsdale (who doesn't?). Diane doesn't blog every week. She blogs when it makes sense, when she has something meaty and glorious and challenging to share. And then she takes the time to really engage with commenters in substantive discussion.

I have no illusions that I can be Diane Ragsdale. But I can be someone who dives into big questions, explores research, profiles powerful projects, shares surprising lessons, and proposes wild ideas. With joy. Deeply. Frequently. Sometimes. When the time is right.

This year, I want to give myself space to write when it feels best. I want to believe in my ability to keep blogging without consistent deadlines. I'm scared to hit "publish" on this post, but I know it's the right thing to do. I hope this gift will open new doors to learn, share, and connect. And send me into this next trip around the sun eager for the challenges ahead.

Thanks for being part of the continued journey of Museum 2.0.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What the Museum Sell Out Game (Re)Taught Me about Participation Inequality

Last week on this blog, I tried an experiment. I wanted to open up conversation about how we judge the relative ethics of various sources of museum revenue--all of which have moral grey areas. Instead of writing a post and soliciting comments (my typical approach), I used an online polling tool to create a simple game where you could read short provocations about questionable revenue sources and give each source an ethical thumbs-up or down.

The outcome taught me a few things about ethics... but it taught me even more about online interaction.

In the last week:
  • 10,000ish people saw the blog post on the web or as an email. 
  • 3,125 people viewed the game. 
  • 610 people played the game.
  • 20 people commented on it. 
This is a beautiful demonstration of participation inequality online. The vast majority of folks consume most content online passively. Some people actively play, share, collect, or gather online content. A small percentage comment on it. An even smaller percentage create it.

When people talk about participation inequality, we often focus on the disparity among levels of participation. We ask: how can we motivate more people to contribute?

But another way to look at participation inequality is via the diversity of types of participation available. We ask: how can we create different pathways to participation for people with different motivations? 

On platforms with many participatory options, more people are more active. On Facebook, you can post, like, comment, add photos, play games... but you don't have to do all of those things to be an active contributor. Watching friends change their profile shots to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage reminded me how Facebook is constantly experimenting with new ways to participate.

I think this diversification is key to inviting broad audiences to feel meaningfully involved in participatory projects. So often we stick with one or two basic strategies, ignoring the fact that those forms may be welcoming to some and off-putting to others.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I write blog posts on a platform where you can comment. I assume that commenting is the way people want to participate. But the barriers to commenting--both technical and psychological--can be huge.

When I decided to make this little game about museum ethics, I hoped that more people would participate than typically comment on a blog post. I was astounded by the difference. 0.6% of game viewers commented. 20% of game viewers played. Clearly it was an effective alternative form of participation.

I learned from what these 610 players contributed. It challenged some of my preconceptions about how people feel about the ethics of grants, attendance, facility rental, and corporate sponsorship. It gave me (and hopefully them) a whole lot more food for thought than the post alone.

Games aren't right for every circumstance. But this experiment made me question: what am I doing to make it easy and meaningful for people to participate in the work we do? How can we offer more diverse ways for people to get involved?

Share your comment below. If you are reading this via email, you can join the 0 Comments here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Is Your Museum Selling Out? Try this Game about Revenue and Ethics

A few weeks ago, debates in England got me thinking about the relative ethics of sources of museum revenue. The London Science Museum and the Tate were both under fire for taking sponsorship money from BP (which, at least at the Science Museum, came with some content strings attached). At the same time, Michael Savage wrote a blog post called The stupid fetish of free admission, and the end of the British Museum. In it, he argues that the British Museum's value has been severely compromised by its willingness to lend its artifacts out to other institutions worldwide for a fee. He also wrote a post slamming the Met and other museums for galas that smack of elitism.

I was intrigued by the different ethical questions related to museum income. And so, I present here a simple, irreverent game in which you can play museum director and rank the relative ethics of various sources of museum revenue. If you can't see it below, click here to play.

Most museums earn money with most of these sources--and some may not feel like ethical concerns to you at all. There are wonderful aspects to each of these types of revenue sources. But there are ethical issues too, and it's worth talking about their relative impact.

Share the game with your colleagues... and add your additional thoughts in the comments under the respective revenue sources. Play on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ASKing about Art at the Brooklyn Museum: Interview with Shelley Bernstein and Sara Devine


I’ve always been inspired by the creative ways the Brooklyn Museum uses technology to connect visitors to museum content. Now, the Brooklyn Museum is doing a major overhaul of their visitor experience--from lobby to galleries to mobile apps--in an effort to “create a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversation between staff and all Museum visitors.” This project is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of their Bloomberg Connects program.

I’ve been particularly interested in ASK, the mobile app component of the project. The Brooklyn team has been blogging about their progress (honestly! frequently!). To learn more, I interviewed Brooklyn Museum project partners Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, and Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement & Interpretive Materials.

What is ASK, and why are you creating it?

ASK is a mobile app which allows our visitors to ask questions about the works they see on view and get answersfrom our staffduring their visit.  

ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.

Are there specific outcome goals you have for ASK? What does success look like?

We have three goals.

Goal 1: Personal connection to the institution and works on view. Our visitors were telling us they wanted personal connection and they wanted to talk about art. We need to ensure that the app is just a conduit to helps allow that connection to take place.  

Working with our team leads and our ASK team is really critical in thiswe’ve seen that visitors want dialogue to feel natural. For example, staff responses like: “Actually, I’m not really sure, but we do know this about the object” or encouraging people with “That’s a great question” has helped make the app feel human.

Goal 2: Looking closer at works of art. We’d like to see visitors getting the information they need while looking more closely at works of art. At the end of the day, we want the experience encouraging visitors to look at art and we want screens put to the side. We were heartened when early testers told us they felt like they were looking more closely at works of art in order to figure out what questions to ask. They put down the device often, and they would circle back to a work to look again after getting an answerall things we verified in watching their behavior, too.

Moving forward, we need to ensure that the team of art historians and educators giving answers is encouraging visitors to look more closely, directing them to nearby objects to make connections, and, generally, taking what starts with a simple question into a deeper dialogue about what a person is seeing and what more they can experience.  

Goal 3: Institutional change driven by visitor data. We have the opportunity to learn what works of art people are asking about, what kinds of questions they are asking, and observations they are making in a more comprehensive way than ever before. This information will allow us to have more informed conversations about how our analog interpretation (gallery labels for example) are working and make changes based on that data.

So, success looks like a lot of things, but it’s not going to be a download rate as a primary measure. We will be looking at how many conversations are taking place, the depth of those conversations, and how much conversational data is informing change of analog forms of interpretation.  

You’ve done other dialogic tech-enabled projects with visitors in the past. Time delay is often a huge problem in the promise of interaction with these projects. Send in your question, and it can be days before the artist or curator responds with an answer. ASK is much more real-time. As you think about ASK relative to other dialogic projects, is timeliness the key difference, or is it something else entirely?

How much “real time” actually matters is a big question for us. Our hunch is it may be more about how responsive we are overall. Responsive means many thingstime, quality of interaction, personal attention. It’s that overall picture that’s the most important. That said, we’ve got a lot of testing coming up to take our ASK kiosksthe ipads you can use to ask questions if you don’t have or don’t want to use your iPhoneand adjust them to be more a part of the real time system.  Also, now that the app is on the floor we’re testing expectations that surround response time and how to technically implement solutions to help. There’s a lot to keep testing here and we are just at the very beginning of figuring this out.

That’s really interesting. If the conversations are about specific works of art, I would assume visitors would practically demand a real-time response. But you think that might not be true?

In testing, visitors were seen making a circle pattern in the galleries. They would ask a question, wander around, get an answer and then circle back to the work of art. Another recent tester mentioned that the conversation about something specific actually ended in a different gallery as he walked, but that he didn’t mind it. In another testing session, a user was not so happy she had crossed the gallery and then was asked to take a picture because the ASK team member couldn’t identify the object by the question; she didn’t want to go back. This may be one of those things people feel differently about, so we’ll need to see how it goes.

If we are asking someone to look closer at a detail (or take a photograph to send us), we’ll want to do that quickly before they move on, so there’s a learning curve in the conversational aspect that we need to keep testing. For instance, we can help shape expectations by encouraging people to wander while we provide them with an answer and that the notifications feature will let them know when we’ve responded.

Many museums have tried arming staff with cheerful “Ask me!” buttons, to little effect. The most common question visitors ask museum staff is often “Where is the bathroom?” How does ASK encourage visitors to ask questions about content?

Actually, so far we’ve had limited directional, housekeeping type questions. People have mostly been asking about content. Encouraging them to do more than ask questions is the bigger challenge.

We spent a LOT of time trying to figure out what to call this mobile app. This is directly tied into the onboarding process for the appthe start screen in particular. We know from user testing that an explanation of the app function on the start screen doesn’t work. People don’t read it; they want to dive right into using the app, skimming over any text to the “get started” button. So how to do you convey the functionality of the app more intuitively? Boiling the experience down to a single, straight forward call-to-action in the app’s name seemed like a good bet.

We used “ask” initially because it fit the bill, even though we knew by using it that we were risking an invitation for questions unrelated to content—”ask” about bathrooms, directions, restaurants near byparticularly when we put the word all over the place, on buttons, hats, signs, writ large in our lobby.

Although “ask” is a specific kind of invitation, we’re finding that the first prompt displayed on screen once users hit “get started” is really doing the heavy lifting in terms of shaping the experience. It’s from this initial exchange that the conversation can grow. Our initial prompt has been: “What work of art are you looking at right now?” This prompt gets people looking at art immediately, which helps keep the focus on content. We’re in the middle of testing this, but we’re finding that a specific call-to-action like this is compelling, gets people using the app quickly and easily, and keeps the focus on art.



Some of the questions visitors have about art are easily answered by a quick google search. Other questions are much bigger or more complex. What kinds of questions are testers asking with ASK?

It’s so funny you say that because we often talk about the ASK experience specifically in terms of not being a human version of Google. So it’s actually not only about the questions we are asked, but the ways we respond that open dialogue and get people looking more closely at the art. That being said, we get all kinds of questionsdetails in the works, about the artist, why the work is in the Museum, etc. It really runs the gamut. One of the things we’ve noticed lately is people asking about things not in the collection at alllike the chandelier that hangs in our Beaux-Arts Court or the painted ceiling (a design element) in our Egypt Reborn gallery.

Visitors’ questions in ASK are answered by a team of interpretative experts. Do single visitors build a relationship with a given expert over their visit, or are different questions answered by different people? Does it seem to matter to the visitors or to the experience?

The questions come into a general queue that’s displayed on a dashboard that the ASK team uses. Any of the members of the team can answer, pass questions to each other, etc. Early testers told us it didn’t matter to them who was answering the questions, only the quality of the answer. Some could tell that the tone would change from person to person, but it didn’t bother them.

We just implemented a feature that indicates when a team member is responding. Similar to the three dots you see in iMessage when someone on the other end is typing, but our implementation is similar to what happens in gchat and the app displays “[team member first name] is typing.” In implementing the feature this way, we want to continually bring home the fact that the visitor is exchanging messages with a real person on the other end (not an automated system). Now that we’ve introduced names, it may change expectations that visitors have about hearing from the same person or, possibly, wanting to know more about who is answering. This will be part of our next set of testing.

The back-of-house changes required to make ASK possible are huge: new staff, new workflows, new ways of relating to visitors. What has most surprised you through this process?

This process has been a learning experience at every point... and not just for us. As you note, we’re asking a lot of our colleagues too. The most aggressive change is more about process than product. We adopted an agile planning approach, which calls for rapid-fire pilot projects. This planning process is a completely new way of doing business and we have really up-ended workflows, pushing things through at a pace that’s unheard of here (and likely many other museums). One of the biggest surprises has been not only how much folks are willing to go-with-the-flow, but how this project has helped shape what is considered possible.

In our initial planning stages, we would go into meetings to explain the nature of agile and how this would unfold and I think many of our colleagues didn’t believe us. We were talking about planning and executing a pilot project in a six-week time spanabsolutely unreal.

The first one or two were a little tough, not because folks weren’t willing to try, but because we were fighting against existing workflows and timelines that moved at a comparatively glacial pace. The more pilots we ran and the more times we stepped outside the existing system (with the help of colleagues), the easier it became. At some point, I think there was a shift from “oh, Shelley and Sara are at it again” to “gee, this is really possible in this timeframe.”

After two years of running rapid pilots and continuing to push our colleagues (we’re surprised they’re still speaking to us sometimes!), we’ve noticed other staff members questioning why projects take as long as they do and if there’s a better way to plan and execute things. That’s not to say that they weren’t already having these thoughts, but ASK is something that can be pointed to as an example of executing projecton a large scale and over timein a more nimble way. That’s an unexpected and awesome legacy.

Thanks so much to Shelley and Sara for sharing their thoughts on ASK. What do you want to ask them? They will be reading and responding to comments here, and if you are excited by this project, please check out their blog for a lot more specifics. If you are reading this by email and would like to post a comment, please join the conversation here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sustaining Innovation (in Many Different Situations)

I'm in Europe right now, on a mix of vacation and work. The work is focused on "innovation." Last week, I sat on the jury for the first Cultural Innovation International Prize given by the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, and this week, I'm offering a workshop for museum professionals across Poland participating together in a "Museum Lab" in Warsaw.

Innovation is often represented as a shot in the dark, a one-time project, something prize-worthy. But one of the biggest challenges our Barcelona jury had was the reality that innovation is situational, not universal. What feels innovative in one context feels tired in another. The most innovative institutions find meaningful ways to challenge the prevailing wisdom in their own specific environments. And hopefully, they don't just do it once; they do it again and again.

These thoughts made me go back to one of my favorite books, Sustaining Innovation by Paul Light. Paul Light profiled 26 nonprofit and governmental organizations in Minnesota in the 1990s, each of which innovated over time, changes in leadership, and circumstance.

In 2011, I reviewed Sustaining Innovation, bringing in voices from Museum 2.0 readers like you as well as a colleague from one of the institutions Light profiled (Sarah Schultz, then at the Walker Art Center). If you're interested in innovation in museums and nonprofits, you may enjoy:

  • The first post, which outlines Paul Light's fundamental ideas and the most compelling lessons I learned from the book, including my favorite: "how to say no, and why to say yes."
  • The second post, in which Museum 2.0 readers shared their own experiences of how organizations support or block innovation. Including some very real stories and reflections... please consider contributing your own experiences to the vibrant comment thread.
  • The third post, in which I interviewed Sarah Schultz, who worked at the Walker Art Center for 22 years, on her experiences from "inside" one of the institutions highlighted in the book.
  • The fourth post, which raised a question about two different conditions for innovation--a stable institution with slack to foster innovation, versus a hard-driving institution making change on a shoestring. Which would you prefer?