Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What You Lose When You Become Embedded, and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations

In the community engagement universe, there's a high premium on arts organizations becoming "embedded" in their communities. Instead of being lone islands of culture, the goal is to be part of the fabric of diverse cultural life.

I'm proud of the way that my own museum works on embeddedness. For us, it means showing up at other people's events. Supporting organizations and community projects that are extended family to our own goals. Partnering, everywhere. Joining a long list of people and organizations working together to build a stronger community.

But today I want to acknowledge the loss that comes with being embedded. The loss of distinct space. Of voice. Of importance.

This loss is real, and I'm feeling in it another sphere of my professional life: this blog.

I've always treated blogging as a learning practice. I learn twice; once in the writing, and once in the reading and engaging with commenters.

In the past three years, the number of comments on this blog has declined significantly. Readership is up. Comments are down. What used to be a lively online discussion--with some posts garnering over 50 comments--is now fairly sedate.

People are still engaging with these posts--they just aren't doing it on this website like they used to. When I talk to colleagues, I hear they are using Museum 2.0 posts for all kinds of things: office discussion groups, Facebook debates, grad school homework. In its own small way, Museum 2.0 is "embedded" in many platforms and mediums.

Problem is, I'm only part of a tiny fraction of those conversations. I'm learning less. I feel more lonely in my writing. It makes it harder to keep it up.

This "problem" disproportionately impacts only one of this blog's thousands of users: me. For me, this content being embedded across different platforms and conversations is lovely in the abstract but frustrating in the day-to-day. I used to feel like a party host with really amazing guests. Now I feel like a street performer. I'm part of a bigger city. I supply some content but only get to talk with a few gadflies who stick close to the show (of whom I am very appreciative). One of my greatest blogging-related joys is when someone shares a blog post with a colleague and accidentally hits "reply" instead of "forward"--thus letting me in on their conversation.

This is what it means to be embedded. To not be the center of attention. To be used by someone else, somewhere else, without notification or participation. To be more important, but to feel less important.

I absolutely believe that being embedded makes us stronger and more resilient. But it also means less control of space. Less people coming to our party. More time blowing up balloons and giving them away. Wondering--rarely knowing--where they will land.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How Museum Hack Transforms Museum Tours: Interview with Dustin Growick

A new company in New York, Museum Hack, is reinventing the museum tour from the outside in. They give high-energy, interactive tours of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The tours are pricey, personalized, NOT affiliated with the museums involved… and very, very popular.

Today on Museum 2.0, an interview with Dustin Growick. Dustin is a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) by day, Museum Hack tour developer/leader at AMNH by night. 

How did you first get involved with Museum Hack? 

Dustin: About a year ago I met a couple of people from Museum Hack at a conference. They were “preaching the museum gospel” in NYC via alternative tours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was intrigued and curious to learn more, but also skeptical of the merits of an outside group running roughshod in The Met.

So I went on a tour…and experienced the museum in an entirely new way. I heard incredible—and often salacious—stories behind hidden gems I’d walked past numerous times. We interacted with the art and with each other through dynamic photo challenges, kinesthetic activities, and conversations. We discussed impressionism from Manet to Monet, and delved deeper in pointillism and Greek sculpture. Heck, I even learned about a 17th century German drinking game. For the first time in a long time, I was personally interacting and engaging with the museum, the collection, and with complete strangers in a way that highlighted the art. 

When the opportunity to design my own two-hour museum adventure at the American Museum of Natural History presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been leading my own Museum Hack tours at AMNH for about 9 months now. The tours boil down to three key things: engagement, relevance and fun. I want to help people find interactive and accessible points of entry and give them the tools to curate their own experience during every museum visit.

Can you give an example of the kind of Museum Hack activity that makes this different from other museum tours? 

Here’s an example that I experienced on that first tour of the Met. While in the American Portrait Gallery, we played a game called Matchmaker Matchmaker. Here’s how it goes:
  • Take a few minutes to allow a subject in one of the paintings to “find you”. It can be a human or an animal, and they can be the main focus of the piece or some strange-looking fellow lurking in the background. Go to whatever piques your interest and draws you in. 
  • Use both the posted information and your imagination to come up with a simple backstory for this individual. What is their name? Why are they in this scene? Where did they get that phenomenal feather boa? 
  • Find a partner or get matched with a partner. You now have exactly two minutes to concoct the epic love story that brings together the two characters you’ve chosen. 
  • As you stand amongst the portraits, share your tale of deception, love, mystery, and intrigue with the rest of the group. 
During this simple, ten-minute activity, we curated our own experience by practicing “high levels of noticing” and by investigating museum signage on the wall and online. We were encouraged to use our smartphones to search accession numbers if we wanted to dig deeper than the copy on the wall. We shared what captivated and spoke to us on a personal level, not just what we were told was “important." But perhaps most significantly, we used the art and the subjects therein as jumping off points for bringing the museum collection to life.

Who is the audience for Museum Hack? You are a museum insider and a content geek. But I know that Nick Gray, the Museum Hack founder, often emphasizes that Museum Hack is for people who don’t love (or even like) museums. 

We at Museum Hack have gone back and forth about our target audience: is it people that don’t like museums that we want to convert, or people who want a more personal experience, or people who want an active museum experience?

I don’t think anyone who doesn’t like museums would ever pay for a tour. Then again, many of our most passionate participants are somewhat ambivalent towards museums--or people who are daunted by the Met or AMNH and want a more personalized experience. I think of us guides as “museum personal trainers”. Whether you’re an art history buff, a professional athlete, or don’t think you even like museums, sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.

How do you advertise Museum Hack? If you want to get people who are not already interested in museums, how would they even know to look for you? 

Social media and word of mouth. It started with word of mouth, and then it got much, much bigger. Now a ton of our business comes from TripAdvisor reviews and Zerve - a ticketing website. We’re one of the top-rated destination tours to do in NYC. The reviews are so positive. And then during the tours themselves, we’re hashtagging, tweeting - that is promotional too.

When we became more known on these trip planning websites, it shifted our audience. It used to be mostly young New Yorkers. Now we have a larger and more diverse audience, including a lot of tourists who are thinking of going on tours anyway.

Are there differences between the Museum Hack experience at the Met and AMNH? I imagine that there are a lot more presumed barriers to break down at an art museum than a science museum. Dinosaurs seem pretty accessible. 

There’s a certain level of assumed stuffiness or pretention at the Met. We do a good job of breaking down those boundaries--and maybe those tours involve a little more swearing and silliness. As far as AMNH goes, there’s a little bit of that, but we focus more on offering a more personal experience, finding ways to engage with things in the space and make them personally relevant to you. One of the big ones is that we bring the people behind the artifacts to life. I don’t think on a normal tour they talk so much about the badass character and life experience of the explorers and revolutionaries behind the specimens.

How do you start a Museum Hack tour in a way that signals the different experience ahead? How do you manage the diverse people on the tour who may want different things from it? 

We have a specific opening activity to bring the group together. We huddle up, share what you should expect from the tour, and introduce everyone. Everyone puts their hands in the middle--like a sports team--and does a cheer. From the start, you are face to face with strangers. We use language throughout the tour to encourage the interpersonal, e.g. “make eye contact with two new museum friends.”

It also helps that we generally sell out at 8 people, and the guide always has a co-host if the group gets that big. Having two guides means we can do split stops at some places, giving some people one experience and some another. It allows a little more freedom, and it also gives people many voices and personalities to engage with.

It seems like there are two ways to look at Museum Hack. One is that you have completely reimagined what a museum tour can be, and for whom. The other is that you have produced the most excellent version of a museum tour—more engaging, more personalized, more entertaining. Which description do you think is more accurate? 

That’s a tough question. I think that for the two museums in which we work, it might be A. But for museums in general, it's B. There are definitely elements of what we do in use at other institutions and in other contexts, and this leads me to believe that B is a more accurate description. But as far as The Met and AMNH go, I think we've totally reimagined the tour experience (A).

How has Museum Hack informed your day job as a museum educator? 

It has made me a better educator and added tremendous value for the audiences with which I work, both at NYSCI and on Museum Hack tours. Ultimately, it hinges on coming back—time after time—to the same five questions:
  1. Why should my audience care about [insert content]? 
  2. How does [insert content] relate to their lives and their interests?
  3. What are the tangible points of relevancy that will engage my learners on a personal level? 
  4. Am I giving people the tools necessary to curate their own museum experience during repeat visits? 
  5. What is my “ask” of my audience? What are their “next steps”? 

Museum Hack let me step outside the routine context of my normal scope of work to really explore the core concepts of interactivity, engagement and relevancy. It’s made the museum experiences I facilitate more enjoyable, longer-lasting, and much more meaningful.

But you don’t have to take my word for it: next time you’re in New York, shoot me an e-mail. We’d love to give you a first-hand taste of the Museum Hack special sauce, and prove to you why we truly believe that Museums Are F***ing Awesome.

You can share your questions and comments directly with Dustin here in the comments section or by emailing him at

Monday, December 15, 2014

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

When basketball players are offering more cogent commentary on racial issues than cultural institutions, you know we have a cultural relevance problem. Can we be as brave and direct as these young women? 

Gretchen Jennings convened a group of bloggers and colleagues online to develop a statement about museums' responsibilities and opportunities in response to the events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. 

Here is our statement. It is not enough on its own. We are not enough on our own. I hope you will join us with your own words and actions.

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…
  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues (to be updated, add your comments below)

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown,
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront,  Museum Notes
Porchia Moore, @PorchiaMooreM

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Quick Hit: Three Blogs to Expand Your Arts Nonprofit Universe

It's that time of year. Scrambling at work, socializing afterwards... which, if you are a torn extro/introvert like me, can involve a lot of time in the bathroom reading while everyone else is toasting the season.

Here are three blogs that I'm loving these days for breaks from the chaos. Each of them comes from the extended family of museums: close enough to be relevant, far enough to spark new thinking. These are the cool cousins I'm fascinated and energized by.
  1. Butts in the Seats. Joe Patti runs a performing arts center in Ohio. For ten years (!) he has been blogging about arts management. He does so thoughtfully, prolifically, and very frequently. He points me to resources I've vaguely heard of. He writes with an open, curious mind. His posts open up questions and ways of thinking about audiences, marketing, management, and engagement that get me thinking differently. Start with the Categories list on the right if you don't know where to start. Check it out here.
  2. Nonprofit with Balls. Vu Le is hilarious, wicked smart, and writing extremely important weekly posts about nonprofit management and organizations based in communities of color. If there's one blog that has rocked my world and made me laugh inappropriately in the bathroom, it's this one. Imagine if Buzzfeed were run by a nonprofit manager... and actually funny. Vu is surprisingly singular for his cogent, explicit posts about cultural competency, frustrations of fundraising, and challenges of nonprofit management. He is based in Seattle, but the blog is pretty universal. If you want to know more about organizations rooted in communities of color, leadership development, unicorns, or vegan analyses of Game of Thrones, start reading this blog now
  3. Grasstronaut. This is a new blog by my colleague at the MAH, Elise Granata. Grasstronaut offers long-format essays and interviews about grassroots and DIY arts spaces. Elise has opened my eyes to the world of hybrid, informal arts spaces. They operate with a completely different set of budgets, decision-making processes, and vulnerabilities than formal organizations. What does it look like when youth invent their own arts empowerment spaces? When comic book stores host comedy shows? When arts organizations get shut down and reborn over and over? Read Grasstronaut and find out
What are you reading and appreciating this season? 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Will They Play in Pyongyang? Culture, Geography, and Participation

The objections started in Texas. During a workshop on museum visitor participation, someone spoke up and objected: "this might work in California, but it will never work in Texas."

Then in Australia: "this might work in America, but it will never work in Australia."

In New Zealand: "this might work in Australia, but it will never work in New Zealand."

For years, I've heard some version of this refrain. For the most part, I discounted it. I saw how participatory techniques were working in diverse museums around the world. I felt and continue to feel that everyone, everywhere, wants to be heard in some way. This is a human desire. It is not culturally-determined. There is no country or city or institution where visitors don't want to make a connection.

What may be culturally-determined, however, is HOW people want to participate. In different countries, I've noticed broad trends in how people feel most comfortable sharing their voice. For example:
  • American museum visitors often feel comfortable sharing their own opinions/stories/creative expression. We have a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of self and individuality, and it shows in a million post-it talk-back walls in museum exhibitions.
  • European museum visitors appear more comfortable engaging in interpersonal dialogue and social games with strangers. While they may not be as comfortable as Americans with "me" experiences, they are much more up for "we" activities.  
  • In Asia, I've noticed museum visitors are willing--enthusiastic, even--to take photos with strangers. To pose with them. To find favorite artifacts together and say cheese. I've never seen that kind of openness with strangers and cameras in the US or Europe.
Cultural differences can play out on local levels as well. What plays well at one museum may fall flat a few miles away. What works for one visitor may feel uncomfortable or inaccessible to someone from a different cultural background.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of cultural inclusion. Here are two observations about visitor participation:
  1. Participatory activities invite people to engage in new ways that may disrupt traditional norms of interaction. In this frame, any kind of participatory activity could work, anywhere. Why restrict people to barriers based on cultural norms when the whole point is to create opportunities beyond them? The way visitors engage--or don't--should not limited by culture or geography.
  2. Participatory activities work best when people feel comfortable and confident getting involved. In this frame, cultural starting points matter a lot. Is that activity an opportunity or a threat? Am I sharing my voice or being exposed? The way visitors engage--or don't--may have a lot to do with their cultural starting point. 
These two tenets are almost always somewhat contradictory. When we are presented with a new opportunity, it often feels like a challenge. The question is whether the challenge feels appropriate or impossible, appealing or demeaning. My suspicion is that culture has a lot to do with the answer.

Consider a simple activity that invites people to describe their identity using a simulated passport. For many people, it's empowering to name oneself as a person of a certain background, ethnicity, interests, etc. But for others, it can feel like unwelcome exposure, a reminder of the frustrations of legal status, or another nudge of how they don't fit into society's boxes. 

I try to be attentive to whether an activity systematically excludes certain people in the nature of how or what it invites... and in my current work, to especially focus on participatory activities that empower people who lack voice in other venues.

Here are the questions that help me think about this:
  1. Who do we most want to empower to participate in this activity?
  2. What invitation to engage will feel most compelling to our target participants?
  3. How might that invitation exclude or turn off other prospective participants?
  4. Are we ok with that?

How do you think about this question of culture, geography, and participatory experiences?