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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Guest Post by Nora Grant: Lessons from A Year of Pop Up Museums

This post was written by my colleague Nora Grant, Community Programs Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. 

“Pop Up” has become an international buzz term to describe ephemeral, experimental projects--from pop up restaurants to pop up boutiques--but a “Pop Up Museum” is still somewhat mystifying. How can you take something as substantial and precious as a museum and add a pop up twist?

There are many different models, including The Pop-Up Museum of Queer HistoryThe New York Met, SF Mobile Museum, and even a Pop Up Prison Museum.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), we have been experimenting with a kind of pop up museum that is primarily created by the people who show up to participate. We’ve been popping up around Santa Cruz County for a little over a year and have had over 30 different pop up museums. Our primary goal for pop up museums is to bring people together in conversation through stories, art, history, and objects. Building off of Michelle DelCarlo’s pop up museum model, MAH pop up museums bring different people, perspectives, and projects to one central gathering place, enabling a democratic type of public curation.

What does this look like? Imagine a potluck in which instead of a dish, everyone brings an object and/or story to share with others. We choose themes and venues in collaboration with a community partner. People are invited to bring something on topic to share. When people show up, they write a label for their object and leave it on display. The museum lasts for a few hours on one day, with people coming and going as they please.

We favor this “potluck” approach because it:
  • Empowers people to share meaningful stories and objects with one another 
  • Enables the museum to step outside physical confines, and collaborate with community partners who wouldn’t ordinarily come to museum programs 
  • Opens up conversation as to what it means to be a museum and who can participate in making one 
  • Allows us to experiment with themes, content, and collaborations in an intimate yet short-lived, simple way 

In addition to pop up museums we facilitate locally in Santa Cruz, we also want to provide global support for anyone interested in having a pop up museum. We have created a free and downloadable pop up museum organizer’s kit. Check it out if you’re curious about choosing a strong theme, working with a collaborator, designing a portable structure, or tips for implementation.

Designing a pop up museum structure that is replicable by amateurs in diverse venues, appealing enough to attract a variety of participants, and portable is not easy. We continuously iterated our pop up museum format with different set up designs and language to realize a structure that satisfied these objectives. Having a lot of pop up museums and observing what did and didn’t work enabled us to learn more about our community while providing practical, real-life content for the organizer’s kit. 

While the kit offers a step-by-step guide for organizing pop ups, I want to share some of the more unexpected takeaways I’ve learned through this process.

Pop Up Outside the Museum 

It’s appealing to plan Pop Up Museums in conjunction with exhibits or museum events, but people are rightfully confused about a pop up museum taking place inside a museum. Like a cafĂ© inside a restaurant, a museum inside a museum feels redundant rather than complementary. When framed by a larger museum, the pop up museum doesn’t embody as much individual vibrancy as it can’t be decontextualized from preexisting notions of said museum institution. When popping up in non-traditional exhibitory spaces, you cannot only prompt unexpected conversation, but also unite location and theme. For example, we had a pop up at an arboretum on Growth.

A Little Frame Goes A Long Way 

People like picture frames. They make the ordinary look special. They’re eye-catching. When we first started having pop up museums, we displayed objects on tables with black tablecloths, which had a simple yet flat aesthetic. So I bought vintage frames from a nearby thrift store, getting different shapes and sizes to accommodate various objects. The frames not only enhanced the aesthetic, but also visually communicated that the pop up museum serves as an open framework for the participant’s narratives. An empty frame is much more inviting than an empty table. Suddenly, people could pick and choose which frame they wanted, and design their own display within the communal show. Furthermore, open frames enable participants to physically touch exhibited content while demonstrating that the object still deserves special recognition.

Mix and Match Museum and Community Content 

One of the reasons we started the pop up museum was to challenge the idea that museums have an omnipresent authority over what is and what’s not “valuable.” We were surprised to learn that the pop up museum is actually most compelling when we exhibit objects from the museum’s collection alongside individuals’ objects. This bridges institutional and community-created content. By sharing the same space, you’re illustrating how a personal object can have just as much story value as a museum object. This mixing and matching ties into another conversation around what a “museum” means to people. People certainly have diverse views and relationships to museums, but I found that most of our collaborators were excited to partner with a museum because it validated their project or object. Something about the idea of a museum carries a lot of weight, and the Santa Cruz community has responded well to pop up museum collaborations. This is not to say that everyone loves the MAH or that everyone sees our pop up museum as museums for that matter. But we did notice that participants and collaborators were more attracted to having a pop up museum in partnership with the MAH rather than throwing one on their own.

Serial Pop Up Museums Sustain Interest 

Pop Up Museums are ephemeral, and because of their brevity, it can be difficult to maintain and sustain momentum for each one. We experimented with serial pop up museums and held six pop up museums thematically tied to an exhibition last fall. Held in collaboration with six different partners, taking place in six different locations, and occurring on consecutive Saturdays, each pop up expanded the overarching theme of the exhibit. Unlike other pop up museums which live for one day, serial pop up museums have the advantage of reaching a larger audience and encouraging repeat participation. 

What’s wonderful about the pop up museum is that it’s a flexible format for sharing. The changeability is part of its charm. We don’t know exactly how, or where, or with whom it will pop up. But like the blank labels or empty frames we leave out on the table, pop up museums will continue to invite and support public conversation, personal empowerment, and open-ended narratives.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Disinterested or Excluded? Two Very Different Forms of Non-Participation

"I hate museums."

Imagine two people saying this.

For one of them, the statement is grounded in disinterest. She's visited museums, she didn't enjoy them, she's more of a sports person, it's not part of her life, it's not her thing.

For the other, the statement is grounded in exclusion. He didn't feel welcome in museums, feels like they aren't for him, he wasn't invited, it isn't comfortable.

How can you tell the difference between these two people?

It's almost impossible to do so. They are likely to use similar language--language of disinterest--in describing what turns them off. It's safer to say "I'm not into it" than "I feel excluded." Sometimes the difference isn't even apparent to the person speaking. People can mask exclusion as disinterest unconsciously as a protective measure against what they are really experiencing.

From the institutional standpoint, this difference matters. It matters when we think about who our organizations are for and what we are willing to do to invite those people to participate. It may be ridiculous for an institution to be "for everyone." But how do we decide who it's ok to disregard?

I think it's ok to strategically disregard people who have disinterest in the content or format of your work. It's not ok to ignore people who have interest but feel excluded.

It's not only politically problematic to ignore them--it's also a bad business practice. Excluded yet interested people are potential participants who can and will be engaged if the organization is more open to them.

I fear that too often, professionals mis-identify exclusion as disinterest. It's easy to do. We mirror what we hear from non-participants about "not liking it." We stick with those who like it and feel included. We perpetuate the exclusion. And then we wonder why some people don't show up.

What's the alternative? We can probe deeper. We can start looking for signs of interest and building on them. We can start identifying the code words that turn "it's not for me" into "I choose to spend my time elsewhere" versus "you made me feel unwelcome." We can be ok with disinterest. We can work on inclusion. We can make a change where it will matter.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How False Conviction Could Help Science Centers Be More Human

It’s not every day that a science center releases an ebook about wrongful conviction in rape and murder cases. Then again, the New York Hall of Science isn’t just any science center. For a long time, I’ve admired their ambitious work, from exhibitions on complex topics like network science to integration of contemporary art into their galleries to incredible dedication to advancing the careers of diverse youth in Queens. Now, NYSCI is experimenting in a new medium, with a very tough and adult content focus. The result is False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt, and Science

I sat down with Eric Siegel, NYSCI’s Director and Chief Content Officer, to learn more about False Conviction. This interview is not really about an ebook. It’s about thinking about science centers and the public understanding of science as a human problem.

How did this project come about? 

I was at a planning meeting for NISE-NET in St. Paul five years ago. NISE-NET is probably the single largest investment that the National Science Foundation has made in informal learning, with the intention of spreading knowledge about nano science. We tried to find ways to make nano science interesting to the public, but it was mostly shiny futuristic potential that seemed to leave people cold. I cut out from the meeting by myself to check out an exhibition called Open House, if These Walls Could Talk at the Minnesota History Center.

I was struck by the mortality, pathos, and sense of loss that pervaded the exhibition. Not that it was sad, but that it was human. Contrasting that rich human narrative with the kind of gleamy tweaky technology narrative that was emerging from the NISE-NET meeting made me realize that generally speaking, science museums ignore many of the aspects of life that are the most resonant--mortality, sex, humor, tragedy, pity, joy. If there was a way to engage these deep emotions in the context of science museums, then there is an opportunity to expand our impact.

Two years later, I met Peter Neufeld, the head of The Innocence Project. Peter started telling me this absolutely fascinating and deep take on the way in which the misunderstanding of science is fundamental to the false convictions that The Innocence Project helps to overturn. On one side is DNA evidence, which was developed through the scientific method, and on the other side are a raft of quasi sciences and unreliable memories. Eyewitness identification is considered the gold standard of evidence to find guilt. And yet the plurality of cases that the Innocence Project has overturned were based upon eyewitness evidence. Even more amazingly, people turn out to be very susceptible to manipulation and frequently confess to crimes they did not commit.

I am listening to Peter go through this litany like the brilliant lawyer he is, and I am thinking that this is an amazing opportunity to put science in a very human context. Like so many chance meetings at conferences, we expressed interest in working together, but unlike most, we actually stuck with it.

I keep in my head a Venn diagram that has three circles--one is passion, the second is funding, and the third is audience. I am always looking for projects in which the intersection of those three circles is substantial. This project had that feel. We engaged with the Sloan Foundation, a leading funder in public understanding of science, who made a first time grant to NYSCI to plan the project. Peter and I brought in two equally passionate partners, Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the NY Times; and Geralyn Abinader, the former head of digital media at the American Museum of Natural History. Finally we engaged Theo Grey, one of the first developers for the iPad who had started a British company called Touch Press. So we had the key players.

I always have a strong feel for the passion and funding part of the venn diagram, but I am less confident of my understanding of our audiences. However, I was encouraged by the popularity of forensic science and the widespread and growing awareness of the problem of false convictions in our criminal justice system. I felt, and our partners agreed, that there was a great potential for a large audience for the project.

Is there a target audience for the project? If so, whom? 

It clearly is a book for adults. When Touch Press was doing their planning, they identified the target audience for the book as "educated and lefty." I like that, though I know that libertarians will find a lot to appreciate as well. My hope is that we can find a way to get it into the science and humanities classrooms in colleges and universities, and I am working on that.

It is a bit too sexual for most high schools, though one high school philosophy teacher reported using it to great effect. One of his students reflected:
Using the interactive iPad book to test my own reliability in crime scenes and investigations was really powerful. Feeling involved and somewhat responsible myself made me take the interactions seriously and I was even emotionally invested and ultimately disappointed at my own inaccuracies. Now knowing how difficult it is to put actual evidence together, not circumstantial or through coerced confessions, I feel more strongly than ever that we have to rely as much as possible on science to do this work fairly and justly.
Teachers and science conference organizers have been very enthusiastic and the sparse reviews on the iBook store has been positive. Anyone we can get to look at it and devote the time to it really seems to love it. But the key part seems to be getting people’s attention for a sustained engagement of 4-5 hours with a deep, rich, and harrowing set of content.

That’s not easy. I was struck by how this is partly interactive, but within a structured, linear narrative. How did you make decisions about how to structure the story? 

From the beginning, we knew this was fundamentally a book. We want 5 hours of your time to read this book. No website can deliver that kind of sustained attention. Our interactives were carefully designed not to lead one too far or for too long from the narrative. We didn't want people wandering through youtube videos, etc., but rather we wanted the interactive portions to illustrate parts of the narrative. Jim is the author and he is so brilliant and addresses the subject with such clarity and authority that we had a lot of trust in his sense of the structure of the book.

Why are you using the iBooks platform? It seems to limit availability.  

This is our biggest problem right now. When we started the project, we chose to work with Touch Press because of the quality of their work, but also because they had long-standing and deep connections into Apple's digital media group. They felt confident and had some assurances that our project would get a lot of visibility on the Apple iBooks store. It hasn't. Apple has a long history of ambivalence about its forays into education, and right now False Conviction is not getting the kind of exposure we want and need. We have always planned to make a non-interactive version of the book, both for epub/kindle and on paper, so we are working on that right now. Peter, Jim, and I have been doing some science conferences, but we haven't found the right way to get this very compelling project out further. The iBook story is a bit of a mystery and backwater, nothing like the App store, though it seems so similar. So we have learned a lot, and are working on building readership for the iPad version and also creating versions for other platforms.

While the content is really compelling, the audience and format are obviously challenging. This whole project is kind of risky. How do you figure out how to explore a new project like this? 

In the Venn diagram I described above, our certainty about the curatorial passion and funding were strong, but our understanding of the audiences and distribution were more experimental. I have tried to be very transparent with my colleagues and other stakeholders about the benefits of undertaking these experiments, to mixed success.

So it is not so much where I judge to take it, but rather the team's success in demonstrating its value to the goals of the institution. This requires that we be honest about what we have achieved and not assert that something is worth doing solely because we can get funding for it or because one of the program team is hot for the project. We're getting better at this. All that said, man are these brand new approaches invigorating, food for the mind, and great for finding really remarkable and creative staff. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to do this.

How does this project fit into the broader context of NYSCI? 

All of our work is focused on ways of broadening the invitation into science. We want to make projects that have a broad public invitation, that are human and humane, that are brilliantly executed, and that bring new ideas to the table. We want to demonstrate that NYSCI is thinking broadly and energetically about informal STEM learning, and that we continue to be recognized as a laboratory where creative ideas can emerge and be deployed. That is what we are trying to do in all the projects we have been working on, whether Design Lab, Human +, Connected Worlds, or False Conviction.

What are you ultimately hoping to achieve with this project? 

A few things. First I think the power of the image of falsely convicted people spending a couple of decades in prison knowing that they are innocent is a haunting and nightmarish scenario, a kind of Pit and the Pendulum, buried alive horror. Can we leverage the empathy that we have with people who are in that horrific situation to make people think more about how science has a real impact on our lives? Can we re-integrate deeper feelings, more humanity, into how we approach thinking and teaching about science?

There is a 20 minute video--a real video--in False Conviction of a young man confessing that he committed a murder that he *did not* commit. The two detectives interrogating him slowly close the noose on him, and it has the fascination of watching a boa constrictor kill and eat a small mammal. But we are watching a boy ruin his own life, in real time.

I am also really interested in the question of sustained attention, and how we can combine the sustained attention that one gives to a book or a movie with the sense of interactivity and participation that one gets from a good science museum exhibition. This question continues to vex our field as we continue to "design for distraction," piling one experience on top of another.

So from the affect and emotion of the project to the form of the project, I am hoping it helps our field think through some new options.

Ultimately we want to move people with the reality of these stories and the deep way in which science is central to the possibility of preventing or minimizing false convictions. The Innocence Project is a tremendously participatory project, with hundreds of volunteers around the country. Our hope is that this book engenders even more active participation. This is real stuff, with real consequences on real people's lives. More and more cities around this country are re-opening entire classes of cases to look at the possibility of the misapplication of science resulting in the dual tragedy of decades of innocent people’s lives being wasted and real criminals continuing to commit violent crimes. It is as personal and compelling as science gets.

False Conviction can be purchased through the iBook store and read on an iPad or an Apple computer running Mavericks through the iBook program. You can find it here

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Year Three as a Museum Director... Thrived.

LinkedIn has a new feature where people can congratulate each other on work anniversaries. It has some of the same feel as the disconnected affection of people wishing you a happy birthday on Facebook, with professional reflection baked in. Seeing so many cheerful one-liners in my inbox made me think about how different my work situation is today than the last time I reflected on it in public in 2012, at my one-year anniversary.

I've now been the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for three years. I arrived in 2011 with the explicit directive to execute a turnaround. Three years later, we're out of turnaround and into growth mode. Over the past three years, we've tripled our attendance, doubled our budget, and, most importantly, established deep and diverse relationships with community members, artists, and organizations across Santa Cruz County. This year was a year of building, challenging, and strengthening.

I'm open to any questions you want to share in the comments. In the meantime, here are some...

  • Making space for distributed leadership. When I look back at some recent projects that I'm most excited about (like this teen program), I realize that I had very little to do with their conception or execution. What I did was make space for my brilliant staff members to tackle their dreams. I helped them find funding and partners and time to make amazing work happen. We talk a lot at our museum about empowering our visitors, collaborators, interns, and staff by making space for them to shine. I know our organization will keep thriving because we keep expanding who can bring leadership to the table. 
  • Building an amazing team. Of course, space-making works when you respect your colleagues and know they can do killer work. We have an incredible group of people working together at the MAH right now. I've never worked in such a supportive, energized, active environment. We work hard to name and build our culture in many ways. Institutional culture is something I never really understood before and I am now completely fascinated by how it can shape work.
  • Making co-creation sustainable and powerful. Participatory work can be very labor-intensive. We have prioritized opening up to as many partners as possible through collaborative structures that scale. In a town of 65,000, we're collaborating with over 2,000 residents per year: teen punk bands, professional paper-makers, genealogists, food justice activists, and everyone in-between. We've developed program formats and tools that allow us to slot in and support partners without constantly reinventing the wheel. We're seen as a trusted and desirable partner to diverse cultural practitioners in our community. And now, we're investing in strategic outreach to prospective collaborators who come from backgrounds and communities that aren't already involved.   
  • Naming our goals and our culture. We have shifted from a time of explorative chaos to a time of putting down roots. We have a better sense of how we work, what we are trying to achieve, and who we are. A lot of that is institutionalized through naming. We wrote a new mission statement. We wrote engagement goals. We wrote values statements. We're working on a theory of change. These documents help us talk to ourselves and to others about what we are doing and how we can do it better. They aren't intended to force fit our work to aspirational language; instead, they are intended to make transparent that which is existing but ephemeral. When we name what we do and why, we can be more open, authentic, and accountable in our work, especially with community partners.
  • Naming fears, too. As we shift from turnaround to growth mode, I have a lot of worries: that we will lose some of our collaborative magic, that getting bigger will mean getting less effective, that maturing will mean losing touch with what is most relevant. I know that all of these are healthy, creative tensions that come with change and growth. I'm trying to operate from a position of hope and not one of fear. And when I'm afraid, I try to be honest and open about it and to invite everyone on our team to help write our collective future in the most positive way possible.

  • Taking criticism too personally and letting it impact my emotional health too much. I learned this year that really, truly, not everyone is going to like what we are doing. I can't harbor secret hopes that everyone will like it or that I can change their minds with goodwill. Now, when people tell me they don't like something, I try to have an out-of-body experience where I separate the "it" from "me." I find when I do this, I can more rationally examine their critique and whether it is something I should respond to/act on. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. Either way, it helps me stay focused on the work and not on the emotional stress.
  • Letting myself ignore glaring problems that still exist. A donor walked into the museum a few weeks ago, someone who supported me from day one, and she asked me, "why is this lobby still so cold and uninviting?" I jumped in and started talking about how we are designing furniture for it, that we've been focusing on injecting warmth in gallery spaces, that it is energized and peopled during events... She cut in and said, "that's all well and good, but if you are standing outside thinking about whether to come in and you don't KNOW about all that stuff, and all you see is this awful dead lobby, why would you come in?" She is right. We have to change it. In any work environments, there are things that we fix right away, and then there are other things that are just a bit too tricky or unpleasant. And so we wait, and we put them off, and eventually, we pretend they aren't problems. They are still problems. We can't become inured to them. We have to fix them. 

  • As we grow, how can we do as much growing as possible outside the museum's walls? We're investing a lot in a public plaza project outside of the museum. We're exploring ways to become embedded in other parts of the civic landscape, ranging from social service providers to public transit. I firmly believe that a community-engaged museum is a web of interactions. We need a strong core, but we also need beautiful, strong radiations and intersections.
  • How do we prioritize social bridging in contexts that privilege bonding? We've pivoted heavily towards a goal of promoting bridging experiences that bring together diverse people and cultural practices across differences. We've gotten pretty good at doing this at museum programs, but it gets more complicated when we are working with a bonded group like a homeless center or a school tour. We want to do the sensitive cultural work of being good guests in others' spaces, but we also want to make sure that our engagement in their spaces creates intersections and bridges across multiple groups. We're going to start doing a lot more rigorous research and experimentation in this area in the months to come.
  • How do we share our bifurcated story as both a place to engage with art and history AND a place that builds community? Obviously, these things are interrelated, but they are not identical--especially when it comes to communication. Right now, we have a double life online. One on side are the conversations we have with our visitors, which mostly focus on engagement experiences. On the other side are the conversations with funders, fellow practitioners, and community partners, which mostly focus on larger goals and experiments. It's clear from visitor and member comments that they are also interested in the bigger picture, but it's not obvious how we can share that bigger picture alongside the "come on Friday night for X" kind of messaging. This is more than just a question of email--it's a question of how we can best involve our energized participants in the deep work that underscores everything we do. 
Here's to another amazing year. I feel so lucky to work in my community. To work for my community. To see change happening because of the work we are doing. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.