Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Multicultural to Intercultural: Evolution or Spectrum of Engagement?


How do you balance the value of honoring specific multicultural practices and bridging them to build new connections?

At the Inclusive Museum conference this summer, Dr. Rick West introduced this question through a tale of two museums.

He described the National Museum of the American Indian--where he was founding director--as a multicultural institution, celebrating the diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas. He envisions The Autry--his current gig--as an intercultural institution, telling all the stories of the American West. Rick explained intercultural work as an opportunity for museums to evolve beyond multiculturalism. To actively weave together cultures across differences instead of accentuating the distinctions among them.

This was the first time I'd heard the term intercultural. Researching further, I found this helpful set of definitions and diagrams:
  • In multicultural communities, we live alongside each other.
  • In cross-cultural communities, there is some reaching across boundaries.
  • In intercultural communities, there is comprehensive mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. 
These definitions present a clear bias towards interculturality as the "best" form of interaction. As someone who strives and works for social bridging (a form of intercultural practice), I'm drawn to that.

But I also appreciate the complexity and interdependence of these constructs--especially in cultural institutions. Working in an intercultural way means focusing on the relations among people. That can come at the cost of celebrating and learning about distinctive cultural practices.

For example, consider an ethnographic museum. Is it better to organize the content by cultural group or by theme?

Organizing content by cultural group immerses visitors in distinct artifacts, artwork, historical context, and people. It helps visitors get a sense of the diversity and differences among us. It can showcase the glory of a particular place or practice. It could be useful in a world of rapidly changing demographics and culture.

Organizing by theme immerses visitors in an idea common to humans around the world. It builds empathy and common ground. It could be useful in a world of multi-racial, multi-migratory people.

I have experienced extraordinary ethnographic museums of both kinds. Glorious exhibitions that immersed me in the intricacies of diversity. Powerful exhibitions that presented intersections that I never would have linked.

I think of the Museum of World Cultures (Gothenberg, Sweden) as an institution that masterfully explores both types. They organize many exhibitions about cultural groups (e.g. Wiphala, about a flag of a medicine man in the Andes mountains). But they also present exhibitions like Destination X, a thematic exploration of forced and voluntary international travel and migration.

Similarly, I've experienced performing arts organizations that do both well: projects that showcase the extraordinary specificity of a cultural experience or practice, and projects that present many diverse artists around a shared theme.

At my museum, we have a mission that explicitly pushes us to intercultural practice. But it's not obvious to me that this should be a field-wide strategy. I question whether cultural institutions should "evolve" from multicultural to intercultural practice, or whether these are just different approaches on a spectrum.

At its best, a multicultural institution honors the diversity of cultural practice.
At its worst, a multicultural institution tokenizes different cultures with siloed projects.

At its best, an intercultural institution draws unexpected connections to bring us together across difference.
At its worst, it wallows in relativism, using cultural artifacts as dots in invented constellations.

So what's best?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Is it Real? Artwork, Authenticity... and Cognitive Science

A farmer says he has had the same ax his whole life--he only changed the handle three times and head two times. Does he have the same ax?

This question launches Howard Mansfield's fascinating book about historic restoration, The Same Ax, Twice. Mansfield explores the sanctity and lineage of historic sites, from Japanese Shinto shrines (completely rebuilt 61 times in 1300 years), to igloos (rebuilt annually, oldest documented human dwelling), to the USS Constitution (80-90% rebuilt since it first sailed). 

He argues that these relics are stronger because of their reconstruction. As he puts it: 
So, does that farmer have the same ax? Yes. His ax is an igloo, and a Shinto shrine. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.
How does this question play out in museums? At the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual conference, a group of exhibition designers explored authenticity in a session called Is it Real? Who Cares? They explored a huge range of museum objects and grey areas of "realness." They arbitrated replicas, reproductions, models, and props... and the context that enhances or detracts from the perception of authenticity.

While many of their examples came from history and natural science, one of my favorite examples is from art. There are three portraits of George Washington shown at the top of this post: the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, a copy of it also painted by Gilbert Stuart, and a copy of it painted by his daughter Jane. 

Many artists work with assistants and reproducing processes. Are the reproductions less real than the original? If done by the same hand? If done by another hand? If done by a machine?

Turns out, science has something to say on the topic. 

Cognitive scientists at Yale and University of Chicago researched how people perceive "identity continuity" of an artwork when reproduced. They conducted a simple experiment:
  • People read a story about a painting called "Dawn" created by an artist. There were different versions of the story. In some, the artist produced the original painting. In others, he instructed one of his assistants to paint it.
  • In all versions of the story, the painting was irrevocably damaged by mold. Gallerists hired another artist to reproduce it. 
When asked whether the new work was still "Dawn," about 30% of people said yes--if the artist had made the original with his own hand. If an assistant has painted it, the percentage climbed to 40%+. It was as high as 50% if the original work was commissioned for a commercial (hotel) setting. 

The researchers posit that the "personal touch" of the artist plays a key role in people's perception of an artwork's authenticity and value. By this notion, in the George Washington portrait example, Gilbert Stuart could make many copies of his own work at equal value, but his daughter's involvement dilutes its realness. That is, of course, unless you also factor in the "personal touch" of George Washington being in the room live during the portrait's creation--in which case Gilbert Stuart's own copies have diminished value as well. 

Whose soul is stamped on a work of art? On a tool? On a scientific specimen? What does it mean if we conflate realness with human essence?

If you care about authenticity, this research is pretty troubling. Sure, it shows that people value the original artist's hand in his/her work. But more than that, it shows that value is positively correlated with a perception of human touch. That perception can be faked--to both positive and negative ends. Artists embue anonymous objects with fictional narratives to increase their value. Companies buy up long-lived brands to add a human story to their wares. Spiritualists contact the dead. 

In museums, we care about both perceived authenticity and real authenticity. We want the power of the story--and the facts to back it up. This can come off as contradictory. We want visitors to come experience "the real thing" or "the real site," appealing to the spiritual notion that the personhood in the original artifact connotes a special value. At the same time, we don't always tell folks that what they are looking at is a replica, a simulation, or a similar object to the thing they think they are seeing. 

Some of the museum exhibitions that feel the most real are composite reconstructions of reality--true stories told well, with fake bits supporting the narrative. Some museum experiences can be more powerful because of the freedom that replicas afford. And when it comes to art, a forced focus on "the real thing" can mean less access to cultural artifacts. Were those plaster cast collections of the 1800s really hurting people?  

In the Is It Real? conference session, participants ranked a series of case studies of ambiguous museum artifacts from "real" to "fake," from "works" to "doesn't work." 

We live in a world where the commercialization of "fake" and "works" leads to some deceiving ends. The combination of "real" and "doesn't work" isn't a viable alternative. How do we get to "real" and "works" in the strongest way possible?

In other words: how do we remake the ax, tell the story of its reproduction, and honor its value every step of the way?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Museum 2.0 Rerun: Inside the Design of an Amazing Museum Project to Capture People's Stories

Recently, we've been talking at our museum about techniques for capturing compelling audio/video content with visitors. It made me dig up this 2011 interview with Tina Olsen (then at the Portland Art Museum) about their extraordinary Object Stories project. They designed a participatory project that delivers a compelling end product for onsite and online visitors… and they learned some unexpected lessons along the way. Lots of inspiring and practical tips below - enjoy!



How and why did Object Stories come to be?

The project arose from a grant announcement from MetLife Foundation around community engagement and outreach. I knew I didn’t want to do something temporary—a program that would last a year or two and then go away.

In the education department, we have some key values around slowing down, conversation and participation around art, and deep looking. And so this concept of asking visitors to spend some focused time thinking about their relationships with objects and artworks really made sense to me.

Also, on a personal level, I had this really powerful experience with my mother in a Storycorps booth in Grand Central years ago that had a profound impact on me. She had revealed things I’d never known, and I kept coming back to it.

What did you end up with and how did you get there?

Our first notion was all about something mobile, something that would go out to the community. We imagined an cart at the farmer’s markets where people could record stories. But we couldn’t figure out how we were going to sustain that with our staff.

We ended up with a gallery in the museum instead. It’s in a good location, but it’s also kind of a pass-through space to other galleries. It has a recording booth that you sign up in advance to use, and you go in and tell a story about an object that is meaningful to you. The other parts of the gallery are for experiencing the stories, and for connecting with the Museum collection. We have cases with museum objects that people told stories about, with large images of those storytellers adjacent to the object, and in the middle of the gallery is a long rectangular table with touchscreens where people can access all the stories that have been recorded.

Your recording booth asks participants for audio stories plus photos of themselves with their objects. Why did you choose this format instead of video?

We had planned on having it be video. The proposal to Metlife was all video. Then we started working with our local design and technology firms—Ziba Design and Fashionbuddha—and in the prototyping, it became clear we had to go another way.

We partnered with the Northwest Film Center to conduct workshops with community organizations around personal object storytelling. These really informed the project, and helped get the word out about the gallery. We rigged up a video recording booth in Fashionbuddha’s studios.

We found people would go in, do their story, come out, say it was so powerful and cathartic, but then the videos would be really bad—boring, too long, unstructured. They were often visually uncomfortable to watch. And some participants were turned off by the video recording—they found it too scary, and being on camera distracted them from telling their story – especially older people.

We had this moment where we were going to sign off on design and move to fabrication, and I was really worried. We had participants who loved the experience, but the watchers were really lukewarm about the results. And we realized of course that the majority audience would be watchers, not storytellers. We invited a cross-section of artists, filmmakers, and advertisers to join us for a think tank. We all sat down and looked at the content and we said, “this is not good enough, this is not watchable enough.”

So what did you do next?

We came up with a system that was much more structured and is based on audio, not video. In the current setup, you walk into the booth, all soundproofed and carpeted, and then you sit down on a cozy bench. You can come alone or with up to three people. You face a screen, and the screen is close enough to reach out and touch without getting up. The screen prompts you, with audio and with words, and it’s in both English and Spanish, because we really wanted to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community in Portland.

First, the screen asks if you want to watch an example story. If not, it says “let’s get started.”

There are five prompts that follow, and for each, you get 45 seconds to record a response. Each of the prompts was really carefully written and tested to scaffold people to tell a great story. People don’t necessarily walk in the booth knowing how to do that. For example, the first prompt, which is about discovery, asks, “When and how did you first receive, discover, or encounter your object? What was your first feeling or impression of it? Who was there?” This prompt really gets people sharing specifics, sharing details—the things that make a story successful.

Another good example is the final question: “If you had to give it to someone, who would it be and what would you say to them?” This question really makes people focus on the meat of what’s important about their object, and it’s a natural summarizer… but in an interesting, personal way.

After you record your audio, you get to take the photos and give your story a six-word title.

We experimented with when in the process to take the photos, and it’s nice at the end—it’s a kind of reward. The recording is often very intense—people cry, it takes something out of them. Photos are fun. We prompt participants to hold the object in different ways: close to camera, pose with the object in your lap, hold your object as close to your face as possible, hold it in profile.

How do you edit the stories?

Fashionbuddha built a backend content management system where you can choose audio segments, reorder them, and choose photos. This is made to be sustainable with current staffing– while we have the ability to edit within a 45 second chunk, 99% of the time we don’t do it—we just pick the segments and photos we want to use and put them in order.

The gallery also features objects from the museum’s collection with people’s stories about them. Who are the people who record stories about museum objects?

That is more curated. The first testing we did there was very much the same as Object Stories – anyone could sign up and get involved, pick an object in the museum and tell a story about it. Those stories were, frankly, often very banal. There was an imbalance between stories with people’s own objects, with which they have profound relationships, versus museum objects that they might come see once or twice and like, but not really have a deep connection with.

So we realized we had to have an equivalence–the museum stories had to be profound too. And it couldn’t all be curators, but these storytellers had to be people who had profound relationships with museum objects. We have four stories up now: from a guard, a curator, a longtime museum lover, and an artist. In the future, I’m thinking of really mining our membership, putting out a call to them, building some programs that might help us seed and support the museum stories.

The website for the stories is beautiful. You also got some prime physical real estate for this project. How did you get the gallery?

That was really hard-won. At first, it was going to be a little booth tucked away somewhere. As the project progressed, our prototyping showed us we didn’t want a shallow experience--a photo booth where you could just drop in and do it. We wanted something where people could spend the time and focus deeply on the experience at hand. That required more space.

And it was really important to the director and to me that Object Stories connected to our mission and to our collection. That led me to feel strongly that we needed to have museum objects in the space. It couldn’t be an educational space with no works of art in it. I wanted to integrate this experience into what you do in the rest of the museum. We ended up with a very multi-departmental team, and that helped too.

The big goal is to activate your connection with objects in the rest of the museum, that Object Stories models the idea of having deep relationships with objects for any visitor who comes in.

What do you know so far about the non-participating visitors to the gallery?

I only know anecdotally. People are really entranced with the stories, browsing them on the touchscreens, and with the museum objects as well. They even spend a long time looking at this big case we put up that just features 8x10 cards with photos of people with their objects.

I was surprised at how long many visitors will spend at this case. It’s just graphics. Why would people look at that? I think it may be because people are visually included in the space, and that’s rare in an art museum. They’re very interested and maybe even moved by it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What are Your Engagement Goals?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the use of the word "quality" in the arts and its many forms. A commenter, Stacy Peterson, responded by turning my exploration back on itself:
Quality makes sense but engagement is more open to interpretation. "Engagement? What do you mean by engagement? There are many different forms of engagement with many different outcomes depending on your goals, your project, or your institution."
Touché. I believe in transparency in all language use--whether the words are familiar or new. Inspired by Stacy, I wanted to share some of the work we are doing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to clarify what we mean by engagement.

This is a big year for us in naming and evaluating our work. In early 2014, we developed a set of five engagement goals: Relevant, Sustainable, Bridging, Participatory, Igniting. We use these goals to evaluate our current engagement strategies, assess new proposed strategies, and guide productive discussions about how to improve our work.

We developed these goals through a series of all-staff workshops. We moved from pre-existing department-specific goals upwards, trying to write broad goals that make sense across our diverse work. Then, we applied the filter of our mission statement to finalize the five goals.

We wanted goals that are specific to our organization while applicable across it (archives, exhibitions, historic sites, events, fundraising, school tours, online). I don't think these goals are universal by any means to the museum or arts field. They are idiosyncratic to our institution, our mission, and our community. That said, our process and goals may be useful examples for others.

Here's a short description of each engagement goal:
  • RELEVANT: Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history. 
  • SUSTAINABLE: Provides important resources to help the MAH thrive financially and organizationally. 
  • BRIDGING: Brings community members together across differences. Celebrates diversity and encourages unexpected connections. 
  • PARTICIPATORY: Invites diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents. 
  • IGNITING: Inspires excitement and curiosity about art and history. Expands opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum. 
For each of these goals, we wrote a single page explaining what the goal is and listing clear examples of what "high," "average," and "low" execution of the goal looks like. If you are interested in the specifics, you can check out this 6-page document about our engagement goals.

Focusing on these five goals forced us to be specific about what success looks like for us. For example:
  • We chose to include "bridging" but not "bonding" because our primary social goal is to connect strangers, not to deepen existing relationships. While we are pleased when people bond with their friends and family here, it's not our primary goal. Excessive bonding can lead to cliques and exclusion. Excessive bridging, on the other hand, builds a more open and connected community.
  • By focusing on "igniting" rather than "deepening," we own our limited role as a spark for interest and learning. We focus on introducing people to lots of things and giving them tools and opportunities to pursue deeper engagement on their own. For us, that empowering spark is more important than the long-term learning.
  • By including "sustainable," we acknowledge that every engagement strategy must be manageable in terms of time and money. This has prompted more conversations about workload, scheduling, and financing for projects. We haven't cracked the sustainability code for every engagement strategy. But just naming it encourages us to talk about it.
Since we wrote these goals in the spring, we've started baking them into our work and program evaluation in different ways. We are:
  • writing an "engagement handbook," which has a one-page description of each engagement strategy at the museum, how it works, and its connection to each of the engagement goals. Already, this document-in-process has helped us orient new trustees and staff. It helps connect the dots in a diverse organization with lots going on.
  • using engagement goals as part of new standardized evaluation templates for projects. Right now, staff members evaluate goal achievement based on the "low," "average," "high" criteria set forth in our goals document. This fall, we are exploring ways to collect this data from participants in addition to making a judgment call from our perspective.
  • talking about the goals and using them whenever we are planning or reviewing engagement activities. This includes brainstorming ideas for programmatic tie-ins to exhibitions, reviewing what was good and bad about a recent event, and evaluating potential collaborators for a project.
This is very much a work-in-progress. I'd love to hear what you are doing in your own organization to bring clarity, specificity, and measurability to the many qualities of engagement--or success. 


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Looking for Inspiring Examples from Unlikely Suspects? Check These Out.

How do you find fresh and inspiring resources in your field?

This is a tricky question in the nonprofit arts world--and probably in every field. There are some industry blogs and twitter feeds. There are some good conferences. There are some useful research papers. But most of these resources live in narrow silos, invisible to most of us. If you don't know the language, the players, the conversations in that subset of the field, you won't even know where to look.

The result is that the resources we know most about tend to be limited to those in our respective silos, and stories about giant organizations. Not so helpful for a curious person with diverse interests--especially if you care most about small, experimental organizations. They often don't have the bandwidth or the visibility to share their stories easily.

I was discussing this with a colleague last week when I realized: I am part of the problem. Every once in a while, I see something great, and I don't share it. Each of us is a connector to new work and new worlds.

Below are two excellent e-books put out by the National Arts Marketing Project, one on artistic interventions in uncommon places, and one on taking a leap of faith with "weird" programming. (Full disclosure: my museum is profiled in the latter.)

I love these e-books. They are short, beautifully produced, and thoughtfully edited. Best of all, they profile diverse organizations I know very little about.

NAMP puts out some other e-books about branding and digital engagement which may also be of interest. But for me, the stories in Making Space and Let's Get Weird--about art in laundromats, theater in churches--share lessons that go far beyond marketing.

Thanks to NAMP for writing these e-books. And thanks to you for sharing the resources that you are inspired by--whenever and wherever you can.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

But What About Quality?

Image courtesy Museum Quality Dance. Photo by Carrie Meyer.
Scene: a regional workshop on arts engagement. A funder is speaking with conviction about the fact that her foundation is focusing their arts grantmaking strategy on engagement. Engaging new people. Engaging more diverse people. Engaging people actively in the arts. Any questions?

One, from a museum director. The question that comes up every time, the question so big it deserves the impropriety of all caps: BUT WHAT ABOUT QUALITY?

No one wants to do crappy work. Everyone wants quality, in one way or another.

The word "quality" is often code for aesthetic quality, as judged by a specific set of cultural expectations and preferences.

But just as its definition suggests, quality is itself a quality. Quality Shakespearian theater is different from quality contemporary dance. Quality is mutable and multitudinous. It is not code for one idea. It can unlock several.

Here, in no particular order, are ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences:
  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it? 
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?
No arts experience hits them all. Heck, no museum exhibition hits them all. Consider:
  • A dry exhibition, diving into an arcane topic. High academic quality, low igniting quality.
  • A community-based exhibition, full of life but rife with amateur design and poor editing. High participatory quality, low technical quality.
  • An edgy contemporary art show that alienates and confuses many visitors. High innovative quality, low relevant quality.
The next time someone asks you, "But what about quality?," ask them: "What do you mean by that?"
Invite the conversation about forms of quality, and the different outcomes of different forms. Define what quality means for your goals, for your project, for your institution. And then proceed with the confidence that you are going to do the best damn job you can to achieve the kind of quality you seek.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Participatory Moment of Zen: Diverse Visitor Contributions Add Up to Empathy

Whoever wrote this comment card: thank you. You made my month. For those who can't see the image, the card reads:
When I first saw the "pastports" I didn't really understand, but after reading what people wrote in them I felt an overwhelming connection to all the words of so many random people. Everyone has something valuable to say, no matter how they appear outwardly.
This person is writing about a participatory element (the "pastport") that we included in the exhibition Crossing Cultures. Crossing Cultures features paintings by Belle Yang that relate to her family's immigration experiences.

We did three things to supplement Belle's paintings (installation shots here, peopled shots here):
  1. We issued a call to locals who are immigrants, or whose family immigrated, to share an artifact and story with us. We mounted those objects and stories alongside visitor-contributed suitcases. Many, many visitors responded emotionally to these stories. They diversified the voice of immigration in the exhibition and encouraged people to share their own histories verbally.
  2. We created a "pastport" - a small booklet with evocative prompts related to identity and place. Each prompt was tied to a different artwork in the exhibition. In front of each of those paintings, you could stamp your pastport, reflect on the artwork and the question, and share your story. People could take the pastports home or hang them, open to a preferred page, on a clothesline. The clotheslines were always full.
  3. We created a simple wheel with open-ended questions about identity and place, setting it in a lounge area. The idea was that people would spin the wheel and start a conversation. This element was a dud - it was not as compelling as the rest of the exhibition, and redundant in a gallery replete with juicy conversations.
Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level. The suitcase collaborators contributed to the exhibition for months, through a sequence of outreach, discussion, writing, object sourcing, editing, and design. The pastport contributors were visitors who came and shared their stories in written or drawn form in real time, without staff contact, to be showcased for a few weeks. And the conversationalists (with or without the wheel) contributed to the ephemeral dialogue around the exhibition.

Often when I talk with folks from other institutions about visitor/audience participation, the focus is on one form of participation. Collaboration in the months before the show. Visitor feedback during the event. Response mail art after the visit. The institution picks one form and goes with it.

In my experience, offering many different forms of participation garners more quality interactions. People self-select into the opportunity where they can give and get the most value. 

Everyone has "something valuable to say." Some people say it with a poem. Some with a colored pencil. Some with a paella pan. The trick is to invite many voices in many forms. That's where meaning--and empathy--lives.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Coming Up, What Happened, How Can I Help, and What the Heck is this E-Blast For, Anyway?

Like a lot of organizations, our museum sends out a weekly email to folks who are interested in upcoming events, exhibitions, and happenings at our museum. We are sensitive to keeping it short, interesting, and readable. We mostly focus on sharing what exhibitions are on and which events are coming up that week. Just the facts, ma'am.

At the same time, we generate some pretty great digital documentation (mostly photos and videos) from recent events. This documentation often languishes in corners of the social web. We capture the moments, post them online, and that's it.

In the past few months, we've started to experiment with sharing documentation on the e-blast. We've known for awhile that the most clicked-on part of our e-blast is often the Wishlist--a simple call-out for stuff we need for programs and exhibitions. As a community-based museum, it makes sense that we actively solicit participation through the e-blast when we can.

Bolstered by the power of the Wishlist, we decided to explore other non-announcement-y content to add to the e-blast.

Here's a recent e-blast we sent. It features:

  • an event & exhibition announcement
  • an opportunity to apply for our teen program
  • an instagram video of a ten year old who did a spontaneous performance at a recent event
  • a wishlist request
This e-blast had a surprising surge in clicks. Our average e-blast has a click rate of 1-2%. This one clocked in at 3%. The only other blast that has ever had this 3% clicks offered two job announcements.

Of those clicks, the vast majority - 44% - were on the video of the singing girl. Triple the number of clicks that anything else got. Documentation trumped announcement. An exciting moment captured digitally was more interesting than the promise of future exciting moments. 

A crass way to look at this is that the video was link-bait. Of course people will click on a video of--as we put it--"a 10 year old crushing a surprise performance at First Friday." But this documentation is also a direct showcase of our mission to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. I was in the room when Lily got up on stage and belted out a song she wrote. It was extraordinary. It brought the room together. It was a mind-exploding, unexpected moment of connection. It's the kind of magic that sometimes happens at the MAH.

If we wanted our e-blast to be as reflective of our mission, programming, and values as possible, it would primarily feature:
  • invitations to get meaningfully involved
  • documentation and celebration of community members who have gotten involved, shared experiences, made unexpected connections, or experienced moments of ignition
  • clear and welcoming language about a diversity of available experiences where you could have these experiences too
We're moving in this direction, but we could probably do more. I'm a bit embarrassed at how simple this seems and how we had to wander into discovering it. We thought the e-blast was prescriptively for one thing. Our visitors are reminding us that any communication can and should be mission-oriented. Thanks, visitors.

If your e-blast was written in the language of your mission, how would it be different? What would it feature?

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.