Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery

Reader, I was wrong.

Five years ago, I wrote a post arguing that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. I believe that the ability to take photographs (no flash) in a museum greatly increases many people's abilities to personalize, memorialize, and enjoy the experience. I still feel that way. Mostly. But this past week, a string of stories from London have changed my perspective.

Several come from an aptly-named blog: Grumpy Art Historian. Blogger Michael Savage and I rarely see eye-to-eye, and that's why I love reading his posts. Last week, he wrote a series of posts about the British National Gallery's reversal of their photo policy. For the first time, the National Gallery is permitting non-flash photography.

The result appears to be a total mess. Lots of flashes. Mobs of ipads. Dangerous leaning and touching. A swarm of cameras everywhere. The paintings have become beleaguered celebrities, pursued by mobs of novice paparazzi.

Reading Michael's posts carefully, it seems that the cameras are not the ultimate culprits. Cameras weaponize an already unwieldy mob of people. They are the sidearms of packed-in novelty seekers. A scene like the one shown above is not just a mess because of the bevy of phones and cameras. It's a mess because of the crowd.

A packed crowd in a museum turns a free-choice viewing environment into a programmed event. You are stuck with the people around you, in front of you, shoving up behind you. Suddenly, a visual distraction like a camera--innocuous in an uncrowded space--becomes as bad as someone talking in the movie theater. You can't not see their camera. You are all in the same space.

Why is this gallery so crowded? Because it's famous. Michael notes that other parts of the National Gallery are still relatively quiet and manageable. But the star paintings--the Van Gogh sunflowers, the Botticelli virgins--are mobbed.

The cult of celebrity is strongest in fields where the general public knows little. How many opera singers can you name? How many painters? How many museums? The biggest museums get the most traffic--and primarily therein to the big name artworks in their collections. There are plenty of galleries in the Louvre that are empty. The one with the Mona Lisa will never be one of them.

Museums have exacerbated this cult of celebrity through an emphasis on blockbuster exhibitions and traveling shows that "package" the greatest hits into must-see moments. We push the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the art. And then the crowds show up. They were told they must not miss it. They had better capture the moment however they can! And so the crowds shuffle through, cameras dutifully in hand. The art gets captured like a lame animal in a game park, instead of the wild thing it is.

Thinking about all of this, I remembered Don Delillo's beautiful bit in White Noise about the most photographed barn in America. Two of the characters in the novel go out to see this barn, and to see all the people taking pictures of it. One of them, Murray, says,
"No one sees the barn... Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
The barn, like Van Gogh's sunflowers, is a tamed thing. With every click, it becomes less a barn and more a likeness of a barn. It is sacrificed to the continuous capture of its likeness.

I'm OK with this happening to a barn in a novel. I'm not sure I'm OK with it happening to art and cultural artifacts.

Is there an alternative?

Michael Savage might say: turn back the photo policy. Get rid of the cameras. But I think the cameras are a distraction. The real thing we have to get rid of is the crowding.

I'm heading out next week on vacation, camping in the high Sierras. To do this, I have to get a wilderness permit. To do that, I either had to plan way in advance (I didn't) or I have to get up at 5am to stand in line for three hours to get a permit (I will).

There are wilderness permits for the same reasons there are restrictions on visitors to museums: to protect the artifacts (nature) and to ensure the safety and positive experiences of the participants.

The permitting system doesn't apply to the whole park - just the parts that are most vulnerable. The permitting system is not primarily based on money; anyone can get a permit for a reasonable rate. It is based on the idea that there is a maximum capacity for safe and positive wilderness experiences, and that there are rules and systems that have to be put in place to ensure that capacity is not exceeded.

There is a maximum capacity for safe and positive experiences with art in museums. The right capacity absorbs diversity in learning styles. Some people can sketch in museums. Some people can take photos. Some people can talk. Some people can look. Any of these actions can be catalysts for deep and meaningful engagement. And they can all do all of these things peaceably if there is enough breathing room among them.

I think of the best museums as generous places. They welcome different people spending different amounts of time doing different things to connect with the work on display. If they are popular museums, they support people visiting at many hours of the day to be able to have a good experience despite the demand.

Crowded places become parsimonious places. They are transactional by necessity. Every deviance from our own preferred mode of engagement becomes more visible and frustrating. Diversity breeds name-calling instead of understanding.

Let's find a way to build generosity back into the operation of the largest museums in the world. Let Van Gogh be Van Gogh. Let the people experience the sunflowers in their own way, with their own bit of space and time. We need to build systems that let visitors, and art, bloom.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Facilitating Creative Learning (for Professionals): More Notes on MuseumCamp

Last week, I wrote about MuseumCamp, the annual professional development event we hold in Santa Cruz. MuseumCamp is a playful, intense, spirited 3-day adventure in which small teams of diverse professionals do a rapid-fire project together on a theme. Last week, I focused on the 2014 theme (social impact assessment) and the many creative evaluation projects produced by campers.

This week, I want to share a bit about the behind-the-scenes of MuseumCamp. While MuseumCamp is an unusual event, I've learned a lot from it about designing workshops, charrettes, and meetings--pretty much any gathering where you want to encourage playful, creative, risky thinking in groups.

MuseumCamp was inspired by other action-oriented professional development experiences, ranging from open-ended unconferences to tightly-formatted tinkering workshops. Here are five key lessons I've learned about making this kind of event work.

Sleep on it. MuseumCamp uses an "inefficient" format where there are two full days and two half days. We do that so there is as much opportunity as possible to sleep on something and refresh the following day. We know MuseumCamp is intense, and we don't want anyone to feel like the energy of a single day is taking them on a ride without their consent. Wrestling with something meaty deserves a night in the middle.

It is my suspicion that a one-day workshop spread over two days will always be more effective than putting it all on the same day, even with the same number of hours of content sharing. There’s a sense that anything that exists within a single day can wash over you and disappear. A night in the middle helps you come back in the morning on your own terms to make the work your own. Camper James Heaton wrote about how this promotes "stickiness" of the experience, not during the project but afterwards, too.

Acknowledge the dips. At day 2 of project work at MuseumCamp, a lot of teams hit a wall. They are frustrated. They are going in circles. They feel stuck. On that day, counselors spend time helping teams call out their stuckness and cheering them on with the promise that they will hit a breakthrough soon. They do. I don't know that acknowledging the discomfort of the dip helps the breakthrough happen any faster, but it does help people push through with more confidence--and feel even better about the reward when it comes.

I first learned about this technique from Sam Kaner's excellent book, Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He calls this dip the "messy middle" of a meeting, when a group has to shift from divergent to convergent thinking.

Tag Team the Facilitation. One of the most effective ways we were able to shepherd MuseumCamp teams is by having a gang of counselors. Each counselor had a few teams specifically assigned to him/her, but other counselors (and me) could pitch in as helpful. Sometimes, getting secondary advice outside the team dynamic can be helpful.

To me, this is analogous to the benefits of having multiple staff members engaged with community partners on participatory projects. One staff member is the cheerleader/buddy, one can be the heavy or the expert or the critic. Yes, it can be inefficient. But it can also help positive relationships form among participants and guides.

And if you want a more efficient approach to multi-vocal facilitation, try an unconference. One of the most amazing professional camp-esque experiences I've ever had was at FooCamp, a completely participant-led event.

Create a safe space by focusing on process, not product. The biggest difference between last year's MuseumCamp and this year's was the product. In 2013, it was an exhibition in our largest gallery, on display for a month following camp. In 2014, it was a rapid-fire research project, documented on a website.

It's probably obvious that a big exhibition is WAY more high-stakes than a webpage. Two-time camper Katherine Gressel wrote about this difference and its impact.  2014 Campers were able to be creative and pursue highly speculative methods with the confidence that they weren't doing it for some big audience. It loosened up the experience, and I think, created more opportunities for learning.

Build structures to support meeting each other. In 2014, we did a better job of making time in the schedule for breaks and fun, both Camper-directed and staff-planned. But we didn't do enough to help people find other campers whose work might be relevant or exciting to them.

Breaks are not enough. Breaks are good for people to settle in with the people they already know... or to take a break from people entirely.

It's ironic that this is the part of MuseumCamp that is most lacking, since it's one of the things I care most about professionally (creating opportunities for strangers to connect). I think in the desire to not make all aspects of camp "too programmed," we miss an opportunity to program one of the necessary ingredients to people learning best from each other. I look forward to finding ways to improve this next year.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

MuseumCamp 2014: Experiments in Social Impact Assessment

You run a program. It changes kids' lives. It builds more responsible environmental stewards. It strengthens your community.

How do you measure that?

This was the question at the heart of last week's MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is an annual professional development event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in which teams of diverse, creative people work on quick and dirty projects on a big theme. This year, the theme was social impact assessment, or measuring the immeasurable. We worked closely with Fractured Atlas to produce MuseumCamp, which brought together 100 campers and 8 experienced counselors to do 20 research projects in ~48 hours around Santa Cruz.

We encouraged teams to think like artists, not researchers. To be speculative. To be playful. To be creative. The goal was to explore new ways to measure "immeasurable" social outcomes like connectedness, pride, and civic action.

The teams delivered. You can check out all twenty research projects here. While all the projects are fast, messy, and incomplete, each is like a small test tube of ideas and possibilities for opening up the way we do social impact research.

Here are three lessons I learned at MuseumCamp about research processes:
  • Look for nontraditional indicators. The JerBears group used "passing of joints" as an indicator of tribal affinity at a Grateful Dead tribute concert. The San Lorenzo Levee group used movement of homeless people as an indicator of social disruption. People x (Food + Place) looked at photos taken by children in a park to understand what contributed to their sense of community. Some of these experiments didn't yield anything useful, but some were surprisingly helpful proxies for complex human interactions.
  • Don't (always) call it a survey. Several groups created projects that were somewhere between engagement activity and research activity. Putting stickers on signs. Taking photos. Finishing a sentence mad-libs style. My favorite example of this was the One Minute Art Project group, which rebranded a fairly standard sticker survey into a "fast, fun, free and easy" activity. They had several participants who said "I wouldn't do a survey, but I like doing this."
  • Every active research method is an intervention. It's easy to look at the One Minute Art Project referenced above and see a red flag - maybe people self-select into this because it's "art" instead of "research." But I realized through this process that a survey solicitation is just an active an intervention as an engagement solicitation. There are different biases to who participates and why. But we shouldn't assume that any one research method is inherently "neutral" just because it is more familiar. Many of the most interventionist projects, like the Karma Hat, yielded really interesting information that was not visible in more passive research methods.

And here are three of my favorite findings from the experiments:
  • On depth of bridging among strangers. Two groups dove into the work at the MAH on social bridging - one with the Karma Hat game, and one with a photobooth project. The Karma Hat required people to wear a hat, write their name on it, and pass it on. It was hugely used. On the other hand, a photobooth where people were prompted to take a photo with a stranger they met at the museum was barely used. We saw that people were ready and willing to engage with strangers at the museum, but not necessarily to build relationships on those engagements. This is just a drop in the barrel of exploration we are doing around bridging at the museum.
  • On smartphone usage at natural sites. We Go to 11 studied the difference in mood change for people at a beautiful site overlooking the ocean relative to their smartphone use. They found that people with smartphones used them to go from a state of active negativity (tension, anxiety) to active positivity (energy, joy). People who didn't use smartphones at the same site tended to embody passive positivity (serenity, calm). Not a shocker, but a pretty interesting project.  
  • On the power of programming to spark civic action. This project, measuring the connection between empathy and action at an indigenous solidarity film screening, is full of useful insights. Read their report for thoughts about the challenges of participant observational research, the power of spiritual experiences, and the results of a compelling survey about ignition to action.
I encourage you to explore all the projects and see what insights might connect to your own work and research goals. You can comment on the projects too and share your own ideas. Please bear in mind that these were very quick projects and are more like research sketches than full evaluations.

What did you get out of MuseumCamp? If you didn't attend, what do you want to know more about?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Making Meaningful Connections: Inspiring New Report from Irvine and Helicon

Our work to transform the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History into a participatory and community-centered place has been heavily supported by the James Irvine Foundation. I've learned a lot from Irvine Foundation staff and partners directly. But one of my favorite things they do is remarkably unpersonalized: they produce killer reports.

Their newest one, Making Meaningful Connections, was written by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand at Helicon. The report is a slim 12 pages on the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences. It is paired with a thoughtful infographic (part of which is shown at the top here) that summarizes their findings.

Making Meaningful Connections is not riddled with jargon and academic theory. Nor is it packed with juicy examples and case studies. Instead, it's a tight, inspiring, and reasonably original brief on the strategies that lead to sustained involvement of diverse people with arts organizations. It's the first report in a long time that I am sharing with my board. (The last one was on arts innovation and change, also from Irvine.)

Here are three aspects of Making Meaningful Connections that I like most:
  • New participant relationships are like new friendships. They take time, curiosity, respect and the willingness to be changed by the relationship. The report starts with an elegant friendship analogy (see the box on page 4) that breaks down the challenges of genuine arts engagement in a clear, relatable, and motivating way.
  • Targeted programming is not enough. The authors name the reality that one-off programs, exhibits, or shows for specific groups do little to change the mix of participants longterm. Interestingly, they argue instead that structural change--including but not exclusively programmatic change--is what makes the difference in participant makeup. They also acknowledge that some organizations are happy with their participant makeup, and that these multi-faceted organizational shifts are voluntary for those who want them.
  • The characteristics of successful organizations involve deepening, not adding. So often, these kinds of reports recommend a long list of changes and new things to add to your work. It can feel defeating or downright impossible to integrate them into already-strapped schedules. But this report was developed based on existing organizations and practices, looking for common characteristics as opposed to new directions. The recommendations read less like "thou shalt do this new thing" and more like "deepen and embed in this thing you already have." We all have missions. We all have leaders. We all have business models. We can all shift within our existing worlds. 
And here are two things I wonder about:
  • Universalist tone. This report could come from--and go--anywhere. I assume that's intentional, and for the most part, it's a good thing. The report is brief, clear, and open. If you are reading this report in Manchester or Malaysia or Memphis, you will find meaningful and useful content. On the other hand, the Irvine Foundation makes grants specifically in California. When Josephine Ramirez, Program Director for the Arts, introduced the report on the Irvine blog, she did so in the context of a state that is now 55% Latino and Asian. Nowhere in the report itself is there a comparable framing statement about why it is urgent to consider this work now, in California and around the world. Perhaps it's self-evident. But especially for organizations where cultural competency is in its infancy, those starting points and case statements are still necessary. Then again, Irvine made that statement pretty clearly in a previous report
  • Recommendation to bring practices "into balance." I didn't find it meaningful to imagine an institutional "balance" of the five recommended practices (welcoming spaces, relevant programming, respectful relationships, analysis for improvement, business model). I agree that all are important, and that they are interrelated, but I didn't see a rationale in going for parity. I'd like to understand more about the basis for that recommendation.

What did you get out of Making Meaningful Connections?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Approach, Historic Mission: Remaking a Factory Museum via Community Co-Production

Imagine a historic site. It has an incredible story. But not enough people care about it anymore, and the museum is fading into disrepair. It is losing funding, attention, and relevance.

What do you do?

Yesterday, I learned about the Silk Mill, a British historic site that is going through a dramatic community-driven reinvention. The Silk Mill is part of the Derby Museums, a public institution of art, history, and natural history. The Mill itself claims fame as the world's oldest factory, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a birthplace of mechanized silk production.

Many people would look at the world's oldest mechanized silk mill and say that the core content of the museum is silk. Or silk production. Or factory life in the 1700s. The Derby Silk Mill folks have a different tack: they define the Silk Mill as being about making.

In the fall of 2013, they launched Re:Make, an ambitious project to redevelop the museum, live, on the floor, with a mix of staff, guest artists, and community members. They see this as directly related to the founding principles of the Mill as a place of experimentation, design, creating, and making. They see it as the future of their museum. And perhaps most ambitiously, they see it as a community-based project.

This means that not only have they turned their museum into an experimental project space, they have opened that space explicitly and intentionally to community co-production. They invite people to participate: in design, prototypingartifact interpretation, collections preparation, audience development.

They don't just invite participation by opening the doors. They host public co-making events, invite groups to book workshops directly, engage on twitter and tumblr, and encourage drop-in participation. It's clear from the diversity of activities, the professionalism of the scaffolding, and the forms of access that they are serious about inviting meaningful participation in the Re:Make project.

Watch the video at the top of this post, and you'll see the requisite happy people of diverse backgrounds with power tools and post-its. But you'll also hear participants saying things that speak to the intentionality of this process. Things like:
"I was curious about how it would happen. And then I thought, ok, it does seem serious. They do know what they are talking about." 
"I've never had anything quite like it... it's carried on. Everyone in the community helping out. I love the way they've stuck to their guns and said, guys, keep going."
These participants are engaged because they've been invited not just to participate once but to be part of something substantive and comprehensive. A strong participatory process is not a loosey-goosey, open the doors and do whatever strategy. It's serious. These guys needed to see that the museum was serious--putting resources, time, and real estate into the process. That investment by the institution helped them commit to making an investment of their own time and energy.

Staff members made some powerful statements as well. My favorite was this one:
"I'm the workshop supervisor, but the workshop belongs to everybody. It's like a swap. I'm a resource for the community, they're a resource for me, and the things we bought, in a public workshop, belongs to the public."
This staff member sees community members as partners. Everyone has something they need. Everyone has something to give. It's not a question of the participatory process being unidirectional, something that we are doing for you the community. It's a shared space and process.

Kudos to the Silk Mill for doing the difficult, messy, resource-intensive work of making their participatory process both open and professional. Invested at all levels. It shines through even from across the pond.

And it leaves me with just one question. As I explore how the museum is growing with the community remaking it, I wonder: what will happen when they are done? Is this a participatory process to redevelop a museum, or can it be a participatory product: museum as making space?

Many projects have more energy in the making than in the completion. The people walking into the Silk Mill, being asked for their ideas and help, are living in an era of possibility and opportunity. As the museum project gets completed, the opportunities constrict. While it was amazing to get to make a robot, it may be less amazing to see that robot completed.

One of the things that struck me most about the Silk Mill was the positioning of Re:Make as a natural extension of its historic use as a factory. A factory never stops making things. Its work is never done. Is there a way that the Silk Mill could shift from a project of remaking to a site for continual making? It seems to me that that may be the truest to the original intent of the site--and the most compelling to the community now engaged.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Three Business Books that Deliver on Organizational Change and Leadership

Have you ever picked up an intriguing-looking business book, started to read it, and then realized it's just one five-page article's worth of content spread out over 300 pages?

Maybe I'm unlucky or a bad chooser, but I've encountered whole shelves of one-horse fluff and drivel. It gives the gems a bad name.

But! Here are three great books that have stuck with me. I found each really helpful in navigating an aspect of organizational change and leadership.

  • Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity by Susan Kenny Stevens. This slim book provides cogent and insightful analysis of organizational evolution from startup to growth to maturity to decline to turnaround (hopefully). I have used this book in many ways over the past few years: to diagnose and understand an organization that was new to me, to plan for the future, and now, to relearn the needs and abilities of my organization as it moves out of turnaround and into growth. These 130 pages have a magical quality; I keep finding more in them. I didn't know what "capacity building" meant when I first picked up this book. I still don't entirely. But I do know that this book keeps helping me learn and grow... and that's about as good a definition as I've got at this point.
  • The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. I've been recommending this book to many friends and colleagues recently as they take on new leadership roles. Unlike the other two books on this list, this book is more about the individual in the organization than the organization itself. I found it to be incredibly helpful when I was preparing for and then taking on an executive director role, but it can be useful for anyone taking on a new role who wants to do so mindfully and successfully. This book uses the classic business book formula--pithy missives mixed with diverse examples--but it does so really, really well. The thing it does best is help you think about how to strategically plan out not just what you will do at work but who you will be, and how you can construct your position, relationships, and roles intentionally instead of having them "happen" to you.
  • The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni. I picked up this book on a whim at the beginning of the year based on the fact that Fractured Atlas, an organization I admire, was using it to guide their work. Like The First 90 Days, The Advantage employs a classic business book formula. But instead of focusing on individual leadership, this book focuses on organizational culture. I'm not sure I completely buy Lencioni's big idea, but the content is solid and useful--regardless of what trumps what. For us at the MAH, this book has been helpful as we shift from a startup culture of change and experimentation into a growth culture of strengthening and deepening our work. We are using approaches from The Advantage to write meaningful organizational values, infuse those into our hiring, onboarding and performance review processes, and protect and cultivate the unique aspects of our interpersonal culture that make us thrive. 

Now, I'm hunting for truly great books about moving from startup to growth/mature operations while maintaining energy, collaborative spirit, and creativity. I'm personally struggling with this a bit and would love your recommendations of books that can help in thinking about how to add structure in a way that supports and builds with minimal ossification.

What kinds of books would help you most in your work? What books would you recommend?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Learning Cultural Competency through Social Media

What if there was a place where we could learn more about the experiences of people who are totally different from us? Where we could hear directly, in their own words, what they love, hate, fear, desire, dream?

There is that place. It is called the Web.

I don't care who you are interested in learning more about--people of a particular race/ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, physical ability, generation, sexual orientation--there is a bubble on the Web populated by them. People often complain that social media can become an echo chamber to reinforce pre-existing beliefs and expectations. It's true. The extreme atomization and diversity of media sources can enable people to burrow into mirrored caves.

But most of the Web is open. Which means you can go into whatever cave you want--including those occupied by people who come from different worlds from you.

Earlier this spring, I decided to go on a mission to use social media to increase my cultural competency around Latino experiences, issues, and interests. At our museum, we're making a big effort to increase our engagement with local Latino families. Alongside work we are doing locally with specific neighborhoods, individuals, and organizations, I wanted to use the Web to learn more about Latino issues generally.

I didn't do anything fancy; I just shifted my informal news diet. I eliminated some blogs and podcasts from my reading list that reinforced information I already knew. I took a break from my regular diet of feminist-tinted news. I used the time I had carved out to tap into new sources related to the Latino experience and people of color.

How did I find these sources? I started by:
  • subscribing to some mainstream aggregators, like Huffington Post Latino Voices, Latino USA, Colorlines, Codeswitch
  • reaching out to Salvador Acevedo, a brilliant marketing strategist who focuses on Latinos. Salvador gave me suggestions of websites and influencers to check out. I spent a few hours hunting around and subscribed to a few that related to my interests.
  • following a few hashtags and people associated with these sources on Twitter, checking out the lists of who they follow, and adding more people to my Twitter feed through their networks.
That's it. It's not a complex educational activity. I'm not segmenting or diving into very specific areas. I'm wading in the waters of someone else's media landscape. 

In three months of doing this passively, I've already noticed some specific changes to my work practice. Here are just two examples:
  1. It has made us more savvy surveyors. There has been a lot of coverage in the Latino/PoC mediaverse about how Latinos self-identify racially on the US census. Blog posts like this one--which I probably never would have seen in my old news diet--have informed conversations at our museum about how we ask visitors to identify in demographic surveys. We are in a year of developing assessment tools for our programming, so this issue is highly relevant to our work, and these news sources help us address weaknesses in our approach.
  2. It has influenced exhibition content. I'm neck-deep in a redevelopment of our permanent history gallery about Santa Cruz County. Reading news from a Latino perspective has helped me consistently encounter non-dominant ways to look at California history. Yes, these narratives are also present in some of the advisory discussions and reference materials we are using in developing exhibition content. But hearing those counter-narratives reinforced daily in my news diet builds confidence in them and makes me more thoughtful about how to frame historical issues of immigration, labor, culture clash, and racism in the exhibition context.
Again, I don't want to suggest that this approach is ground-breaking or intensive. It's not. But it IS easy, and I have found it to be powerful as a context shift.

I spent years immersed in a feminist media landscape. I consumed news, pop culture, and media through that lens. Now, I'm trying out someone else's media landscape. I'm noticing how that lens is showing me things I didn't see before. It's focusing my attention differently. It's turning the Web into a window instead of a mirror.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Design for Community is Design for Strangers

This post is a hypothesis I'm exploring. Please amplify, poke holes, ask questions, and help me learn.

There are lots of places where we can come together with people we already know. Dinner tables. Coffee shops. School. Church. Ball fields. These places are important. The relationships they support are powerful. These places help us strengthen bonds with the people who matter most.

But those places are tribal places. They are places for people who are already affiliated--whether they have met previously or not.

What about places for strangers? Places where we encounter people who are truly different from us?

Those are places of uncertainty. Places of friction. Places of possibility.

Those are places that build community.

Or rather, those are places with the potential to build community. Sadly, most of these places are not intentionally designed to bring us together. They are built to let us pass each other, to practice "civil inattention." We look, we confirm that there is no imminent threat, we ignore, we walk by. Public space is designed for neutrality.

But what if we designed public space for community? What if we treated interpersonal collision as creative opportunity instead of risk? What if we used art to activate space in a different way? What if we designed spaces and interventions to bring people together?

These are the questions on my mind as I start working more intently on an outdoor plaza project. I've been reflecting a lot recently on our museum's work on "social bridging"--bringing people together across cultural, ethnic, geographic, generational, and socio-economic differences--and how to take it outside.

Recently, we made a conscious strategic decision to prioritize bridging experiences over bonding experiences in our programming. Not that bonding with people we already know is bad, nor that we don't want to support it at the museum. But bonding is easy. Bridging is hard. There are so many places and opportunities to bond, and so few opportunities to bridge.

There's a moral argument that we need more bridging to build strong civic life. But there's also a business differentiation argument. Bonding is crowded. Bridging is wide open.

At our museum, magic happens when we intentionally design opportunities for strangers to interact. Festivals that mash up dozens of seemingly-unrelated creative practices. Collaborations with unorthodox community partners. Exhibits that offer explicit invitations into dialogue with strangers. Pop Up Museums where people share the objects they hold most dear. Moments like the one in the photo, where two strangers made a meaningful connection without words, through art.

Now, our museum has received an ArtPlace grant to redevelop a forgotten plaza into a creative heart for Downtown Santa Cruz. I'm thrilled and finally realizing what this means for our community. I've been reading and thinking a lot about "creative placemaking"--both the possibility and the hype. And I realize that in public space, we have even more opportunity to do bridging work that makes a difference.

Public space has the greatest potential to be community space. Anyone can dwell there. Anyone can activate it. It's open 24 hours a day. And yet, so often one of two things happens:
  1. It gets turned into bonding space. It is commercialized, gentrified, or specified for a particular subset of the community. It becomes exclusive, either explicitly or implicitly.
  2. It gets neutralized and deadened. Seating gets removed, streets are built for cars, and laws turn lingering into loitering into crime.
These things happen because we are afraid and unsure of what will happen when strangers meet in public space. We don't have a business model for it. We don't have the liability insurance for it.

But I believe there is a business model. I believe the opportunities outweigh the risks. I believe this is the work we need to do to build our communities. Designing infrastructure and interventions that activate and connect us across our differences. Design that brings strangers together.

I look forward to exploring these ideas more with you in the months to come.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Adventures in Evaluating Participatory Exhibits: An In-Depth Look at the Memory Jar Project

A man walks into a museum. He shares a story. He creates a visual representation of his story. He puts it on the wall.

How do you measure the value of that experience?

Two years ago, we mounted one of our most successful participatory exhibits ever at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History: Memory Jars. Over three months, about 600 people filled mason jars with personal memories and put them on display. Better yet, the graduate student who led this project, Anna Greco, documented the whole project and did in-depth analysis of the visitor contributions. This post shares some of the highlights from the project and from Anna's research. I strongly recommend checking out her entire thesis [pdf] if you want to know more.


The Memory Jar project was simple. We filled a small gallery from floor to ceiling with shelves of Mason jars. We invited visitors to "bottle up" a memory in a jar, using craft materials to fill the jar with evocative objects and a hand-written label to tell their story. There were no written instructions, just a mural that suggested what to do and labels that prompted people for their name and memory. The project was linked to a larger exhibition, Santa Cruz Collects, about why local folks collect things. We realized that the most valuable things many of us collect are intangible--our memories--and the Memory Jar project was born.

From the beginning, we observed pretty amazing experiences happening with the Memory Jars. People were spending a long time working on them. Some of the stories were quickies, but others were powerful and personal. We started with 400 jars and assumed we wouldn't fill them all. Instead, we had to do a rush order on more jars halfway through the project.

Two years later, this project is still one of the most fondly remembered participatory experiences at the museum--by visitors and staff. There was something special going on in that gallery. What was it?


The challenge, of course, was to figure out how to evaluate the experience in a way that would help us identify the power of the project. We wanted to know whether the project truly had emotional resonance, and if so, how we could identify and document that.

Anna Greco did research in three ways: through in-person interviews with participants, surveys with participants, and observational analysis of the jars themselves. These methods revealed that the majority of participants had a meaningful experience with the memory jars that stuck--even in followup a year after the initial project.

I think most of us are familiar with interview and survey-based evaluation methods. I want to instead highlight the work Anna did to analyze the content of the jars observationally, which got at the question of emotional resonance in a more quantitative way.

Anna did two types of quantitative evaluation of the jars:
  • she analyzed the jar contents, looking at how full the jars were. This was used as a proxy for time and creative energy spent on the creation of jars.
  • she analyzed the text on the jar labels for length, for emotional content, and for intimacy. This was used to evaluate the amount of emotional energy dedicated to the jar activity.

In each of these analyses, Anna created a coding scheme to categorize the jars.

For the fullness of the jars, Anna created a seven-point scale, going from empty to full to full+ (additional decoration or objects on the outside of the jar) by percentage of jar full. It was fairly simple to identify whether a jar was 1/4 full or 3/4 full or had stuff popping out the top of it. The result here was surprisingly linear, with more than half of the jars full or full+. People used the stuff and they used it to the fullness of their ability. This could also be an argument for larger jars if we repeat the project.

For the content of the labels, Anna used three strategies.
  • She counted the number of words in each label. This was an easy (if time-consuming) proxy for engagement. The average label had 17 words, though the maximum was 105. Again, this indicates a high level of engagement, especially given the size of the shipping labels provided.
  • She created a numeric scale for the "intimacy" of each label. This was created with the help of Dr. Lauren Shapiro, a psychologist and former museum intern. Lauren and Anna created a scale of one to five where each level had specific elements to indicate intensity of the story shared, using signifiers like specificity of a memory, places, names, direct quotes, or medical information. 70% of the labels were a 3, 4, or 5, with only 4% at a 1. People got intimate, sharing intense stories of loss, special moments, and potent memories.
  • She created a coding schema for "emotions" expressed in each label. Lauren helped Anna create a manual for language cues to signify any of nine emotions: happiness, love, gratitude/awe, sadness, pride, anger, fear, confusion, and mixed. 36% of the labels were happy, closely followed by 32% that demonstrated no clear emotion. Labels in the "no emotion" were "reporting" memories without explicit emotional language, as in "I remember going to the beach with my friends." Among the remainder, love, mixed emotions, gratitude, and sadness were the most frequent.

Intimate? Emotional?
Coding is useful but complicated
when the goal is to capture feeling.
We learned a few things from this process:
  • Creating a coding scheme for text analysis is complicated, but it's worth it. Especially with such a large number of jars, it was really valuable to be able to distill the diversity of stories via a few key axes of intimacy and emotion. Unsurprisingly, developing the coding schemes to be able to be applied fairly consistently by people without a lot of specific training led to imperfections. But just going through the process helped us understand how we COULD quantify this kind of extremely qualitative content. You can check out Anna's coding scheme manuals on pages 67-69 of her thesis.
  • Intimacy was the most useful indicator for this project, but still really complicated to measure objectively. If we were doing this again and had time to either code by emotion or intimacy but not both, I would choose intimacy. The intimacy measure was the clearest signifier of how people were using the Memory Jars and what stories they chose to tell. That said, we still had plenty of debate about what qualified as more or less intimate as the schema was being developed. Mention AIDS with no context, and you shot up to a 5 on intimacy. But tell an incredibly detailed story about your childhood, and you were likely to end up somewhere like a 3. When Anna did followup surveys, it became clear that many stories were more intimate to individual jar-makers than their coded labels reflected. It's arguable that the much simpler measure of word count is sufficient as a proxy; high intimacy stories had an average word count of 38, compared to the overall average of 17. If you use more words, you are probably going deeper into your story, which typically involves more commitment, intensity, and maybe--intimacy.   
  • There are quantitative ways to measure creative participation. We keep trying to find ways to assign numbers to different kinds of participatory projects at the MAH. None of them are perfect, but all of them are useful in moving towards better design and better yardsticks for our work. The Memory Jar project allowed us to experiment with a more robust approach to quantitative evaluation of participation, and it got us interested in other ways to do it in simpler projects. For example, check out this quantitative method we use for comment boards. 
  • Evaluating participatory experiences exposes new questions we actually care about, which are often different from what we thought we wanted to know. In trying to get a grasp of the kind of emotional resonance of the Memory Jars, we started having some interesting discussions about design and the end goals for our work. Would it be "better" if all the jars were a 5 on intimacy? If there were as many sad jars as happy ones? Just having this data opened up new ways of talking about what we are trying to achieve with our work. One of the goals we've stumbled into regarding participatory projects is the diversity of content presented. For some projects, ones that are designed to invite everyone to engage, we want to make sure the project absorbs a diversity of content in terms of language, emotion, intensity/intimacy, and creativity, so that every visitor can find their place in the project. In other projects, we actually want to "gate" the experience so that only people who are willing to devote X amount of time or intention will complete the project. Or we want to make it as simple and breezy as possible. Looking at the mix of what happened with the Memory Jars got us thinking about the ways we design for different kinds of outcomes, when we want diverse outcomes and when we want more focused sets.

What approaches have you used or considered for evaluating participatory projects? Please share your stories in the comments.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Building a Pipeline to the Arts, World Cup Style

It's World Cup time. And for the first time in my adult life as an American, that seems significant. People at work with the games running in the background on their computers. Conversations about the tournament on the street. Constant radio coverage.

If you are reading this outside the United States, this sounds ridiculously basic. Football/soccer is the world's sport. But in the US, it has only recently become something worth watching. For most of my life in America, pro soccer was considered something risible and vaguely deviant, like picking your nose in public.

But now it's everywhere. It's exciting. And it's got me thinking about how we build energy and audience for the arts in this country.

Barry Hessenius recently wrote a blog post questioning the theory that more art into the school day will increase and bolster future adult audiences for art experiences. Like Barry, I feel that more art in schools is always better. I also share Barry's skepticism that there is a direct, premier line between art in schools and adult audiences for art.

I got into museum work because learning happens in many places and many ways. School is just a small part of it. When we talk about what kinds of experiences create pathways to more arts participation as adults, we have to look in AND beyond school. We have to look at what kids are doing after school. What kinds of tools and media they can access. Who their role models are.

Consider soccer. Soccer did not transition into a national phenomenon in the US based solely (or even mostly) on school participation. Soccer isn't just part of school; it's part of life. Millions of youth play in afterschool and weekend leagues. International stars like Pele captured attention on the airwaves. Immigrant families found local leagues where they could participate and feel connected socially. Stronger youth leagues led to stronger college teams led to stronger Olympic and professional performance. And all of that led to more audience--at all levels of the game.

There have been pro soccer leagues in the US on and off for almost a century. But over the past fifty years, soccer has ascended on more levels to a stronger footing overall. Instead of just creating a league for top play and hoping an audience would show up, soccer is developing a constantly-refreshing audience by creating opportunities for kids as young as four to participate in AYSO youth leagues. AYSO goes out of its way to include kids with different abilities, with "everyone plays" as one of its chief tenets. At the same time as it promotes inclusive participation, AYSO is affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation (the pros). AYSO builds both the players and the audiences for soccer's future in this county at all levels.

This isn't just a soccer phenomenon. Across sports, there is a deliberate embrace of practice at all levels to strengthen participation. In basketball, there is street ball and varsity and college play and D-league and the NBA. All of these levels and types of play support a pipeline that accommodates players and audiences at different levels of skill, financial capacity, and enthusiasm.

This pipeline absorbs diversity in quality of play without "dumbing down" the experience or lessening the desire to achieve top levels of excellence. When we talk about embracing participatory experiences at non-professional levels, arts professionals often get worried that the best work will get drowned out in mediocrity. But the diverse world of sports has done an extremely good job of preserving the top levels of play. At the same time, it has cultivated active spectators who understand the subtle differences between the tiers. Imagine if people were as knowledgeable about the specific talents of top symphonic conductors as they are of top athletes.

What would that take? Arts already offer opportunities for participation, grand narrative, and diverse tiers of quality that are needed to make this pipeline a reality. We just have to connect the dots. Imagine if the world's leading symphonies were affiliated with the largest organizations for first-time instrument players. Imagine if every community theater was a development theater for a bigger one. If ballet theaters and ballet schools and dance in the park events were coordinated. If kids were checking out art supplies from the library. If maker fairs were connected to science centers.

To me, this kind of pipeline is necessary to build future audiences and practitioners in the arts. It just requires a few things:
  • Mutual respect, coordination, and collaboration among organizations that work at different levels of expertise, budget, and scale. Instead of seeing differences in quality as competitive or embarrassing, we could see different tiers as part of a healthy ecosystem that builds rather than detracts. Enough art already exists to get this going--it just isn't usefully connected yet.
  • Emphasis on developing both practitioners and audiences. Why can professional sports leagues charge hundreds of dollars for a ticket? Because they have built demand through hundreds of hours spent playing and watching the game for free or low cost. Sensible tiers lead to sensible discernment when it comes to paying for audience experiences.
  • Diversity of opportunities to engage. School is only one of many venues where cultural experiences can happen. If we embrace the abundant diversity of venues and formats rather that declaring some "in" and others "out," we can spend more time building a field and less time parsing out who belongs there.

I dream of a time when we have as much attention and access to creative and cultural activities as we do to athletics. Sure, there will always be non-participants. There will always be audience gaps. There will always be top performers on the bench. But hopefully, there will be a culture of diverse people participating, cheering, and showing up.

If we can do it for soccer, I know we can do it for art.