Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Join us for Museum Camp 2014 on Social Impact Assessment

What is the change you hope your work effects in your community? Igniting compassion? Building a more creative workforce? Bridging cultural differences?

We all have aspirational social impact goals for our organizations. These goals are expressed in mission and vision statements. They are hinted at in fundraising letters. They are stewing in our guts when we wake up to get to work.

But how do we measure them? How do we know if our work leads to an increase in compassion, or unity, or creativity? How can we learn from our successes and failures and adapt our work to increase impact?

These are the questions that underpin Museum Camp 2014, a professional development experience in which diverse people from the arts, community activism, and social services will measure the immeasurable together. Our focus is on social impact in communities, and we will encourage teams to look at complex outcomes--like safety, cohesion, compassion, and identity--that are not commonly covered in our standard evaluative practices. We will do this by defining impacts of interest, identifying indicators of those impacts, developing creative ways to measure the indicators, actually doing the measurements, and reporting on the results. And we'll do this all in three days on July 30-August 2, 2014 in Santa Cruz, CA.

This is the second year that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) is hosting Museum Camp. Last year, the focus was on risk-taking in exhibition design. This year, the focus is social impact assessment. While the topics and the participants are entirely different, the core format is the same: three days, small teams of people from diverse backgrounds, intense learning, doing, and playing in a collaborative environment. It's summer camp for adults, 'smores included.

Because we at the MAH are not experts in this social impact assessment, we are working with smart researchers and evaluators from the arts, social services, academia, and social justice organizations to make this camp happen. We are co-presenting Museum Camp with Fractured Atlas, an organization that inspires me for their thoughtful approach to making art measurable and meaningful. Ian David Moss, Fractured Atlas's Research Director (and the rockstar behind the Createquity blog) and I are working together to develop the camp content and recruit brilliant counselors to support the process. This is the beginning of a couple partnerships between Fractured Atlas and the MAH, and I am PSYCHED to work with and learn from Ian and their crew. We also have some great counselors onboard from United Way, WolfBrown, and Animating Democracy@Americans for the Arts (and more to come).

If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through February 28 and inform people of our selections in early March. Space is extremely limited, so I encourage you to apply soon.

We are particularly interested in applications from people who are NOT in the arts or museums. Last year, many campers felt that the best part of the experience was the diversity of people in the camp. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. So please, spread the word--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Favorite Fundraising Email

Tis the season for end of the year fundraising letters. Now that I run a museum, I read this mail with particular interest. I'm always curious how organizations represent themselves, what they ask of me, and what they assume.

This is also the season for grappling with where to make donations and how to rationalize those choices. I loved this article by Talia Gibas about effective altruism and the relative value of giving to cultural organizations versus other causes. It is sparking conversation in the arts blogosphere and my own kitchen. Rather than retread the issue, I recommend you just read Talia's post.

I thought about "effective altruism" in a new light today when I received a fundraising email from Machine Project, an amazing experimental art space in LA, entitled "Another Year, Another (Even Larger) Hole in the Floor."

Here is the body of that email:
Dear Friends, 
Mark Allen here, Machine Project founder. As you probably saw, we just did this absurd project where we turned the gallery into a 99 cent store, which led to a disgusting bathroom, which led to a cave, which led to a secret door in the wall, which led to stairs in the middle of the floor, which led to a secret underground theatre. I raised the money to cut the giant hole in our floor and that was great, but I kind of forgot I also needed to fundraise to pay our rent. That wasn't so great!  
So, I'm taking this moment to hypnotize you into becoming a member, or renewing your membership, or making a donation of any amount of money, gold, yachts, or airplanes. Stare deeply into the eyes of the below image...1...2...3....

Excellent. You are completely under the power of this email. Now, without hesitation go directly here and join us for whatever wonders 2014 shall hold. 
best,
Mark and the rest of the elves at Machine Project

This email reminds me that in addition to all the serious work we do to demonstrate the value of the arts to society, it's worth acknowledging the value in providing pleasure, provocation, and joy. This email is a mini-art experience that I felt inspired to pay for. Was that a philanthropic or a discretionary spending choice? Does it matter?

You don't have to argue your way into being apples if you can celebrate being oranges. And if you can do so with a letter as idiosyncratic as your organization, even better.

Happy yacht-donating.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Guest Post: A Shared Ethics for Museum Internships

Is your museum running on interns? In this guest post, CUNY lecturer and former manager of the Guggenheim Internship program Michelle Millar Fisher makes a passionate argument for the end of unpaid internships. It is a strong, museum-focused complement to an excellent three-parter on Fractured Atlas about the ethics and future of unpaid arts internships. 

One of the most poignant signs I saw waved during the Occupy Movement was held by a young woman who politely advised The System to "F**k your free internships." Free intern labor wasn't ever right, but it has become glaringly unethical in the current post-Lehman-crash era. That protest placard highlighted the unpaid internship as a simultaneous symptom and result of badly broken political and social systems.

If you're reading this at work, you're probably reading it within ten feet of an unpaid intern. It's probably a path you had to navigate too. There's a sense of "it worked for me...." And it does - it did work for me. I got my first real job in a museum (at the Guggenheim) after a life-changing internship. My supervisor was amazing, caring, and supportive. I worked so hard in those three unpaid months that I made myself indispensable and jumped ship from my home country (Scotland) and came to New York. My whole career path has been positively changed by that one internship experience.

However, my experience was an exception to the rule that internships increasingly prove: free labor contributes to the growing inequities of the non-profit labor system. Issues of class and economic status haunt the museum internship. You have to be able to afford to work for free in order to take an internship that will help you onto the career ladder. There are certainly excellent programs that try to circumvent this stereotype, and there are stipends to be had in some museums, but they are far from the norm.

My experience was exceptional for one simple reason: my internship at the Guggenheim was the only unpaid internship I ever did. It was the only one I could afford to do. It was made possible by a small, unexpected windfall. If I hadn't had the windfall, it's highly unlikely that as a first-gen college attendee I would have been exposed to the other opportunities it afforded me. (I have somewhat of a "control" in this social experiment in that my talented sister has plied a similar path to me, but was unable to afford the opportunity of one unpaid internship at a museum. Even though she worked just as hard as I did, it took her five years longer to get her foot on the arts employment ladder than it did for me.)

I have done my very fair share of perpetuating the cycle of unpaid internships. As an Associate Manager of Education, I coordinated internships at the Guggenheim museum for four years before I headed back to academia. I expanded the program from around seventy-five interns per year to over one hundred and thirty in almost every department of the museum. I loved my job, and I think many of the interns had amazing experiences at the museum because we tried to take care of them, introduce them to arts networks through a rich weekly seminar program, and encouraged supervisors to be the best mentors they could. But now, as I counsel my university students, I feel it unethical to recommend the same path I took. I have taken a firm stand. I will not forward unpaid internship postings that come my way and actively respond to the senders, even when I know them well as colleagues: “This is not ethical!”

Is unpaid participation in the life and operations of a museum always a bad thing? No. Are the worst offenders larger museums who know they can get away with asking people to work for free? Yes. Is it unethical to ask college juniors and seniors, graduate students, and recently qualified degree holders to undertake multiple free internships? Absolutely. Making small changes and offering some kind of basic compensation for interns in the arts would benefit us all. If the lowest wage on the ladder is zero, entry-level wages don't have to be much higher, and this affects the whole pay scale for the majority of those who work in non-director positions.

Would some form of universal museum internship standard mitigate this? How about a national Museum Internship Ethics Charter that would make three core promises to any museum intern:
  1. a stipend 
  2. a clear written statement of expectations given at the beginning of their internship 
  3. a final face-to-face evaluation with the internship mentor at the end of the internship 
I'm constantly surprised at how many students I speak with, even those who are working for college credit where this is meant to be regulated, do not receive any of these three components. A shared ethics on the subject of internships means a shared ethics for human resources in museum more generally. This type of shared ethics can only be a positive thing for both individuals at all levels, and the institution - and thus its visitors. Happy employees (yes, even interns!) mean greater productivity, creativity, and accountability.

 The students I teach in undergrad classrooms in New York are about a decade younger than me. They're the Internship Generation. The more I am faced with their predicament when they ask me about how to balance work experience that won't pay them with study and (especially at the city college where I teach) the jobs that are paying their tuition, or to write them letters of recommendation for unpaid labor, the more uncomfortable I have become.

How could we all better address this issue? Could museum managers agree to hire interns who need the work experience rather than those with a resume already the length of the Nile? Could they agree to put aside a small part of their yearly budget to compensate interns in some way? Could university instructors (especially those with tenure and a voice) steer their interns in the direction of paid opportunities, and campaign within their own departments to end the cycle of internships for credit? Could we all agree to a universal standard under the auspices of a body like the AAM? Are there already internship models out there that do this that we could learn from and offer as examples?

I'm truly interested in any discussion and feedback on this topic, and taking sustained action. I want to do better for my students, and to participate in the rethinking of a broken model I have helped to perpetuate.

What's your vision for the future of internships? Share your thoughts with Michelle and the Museum 2.0 community in the comments.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Visualizing the Tate's Collection: What Open Data Makes Possible

Detail on distribution of artworks in the Tate collection by birthdate of artists, visualized by Florian Krautli.
What does "big data" look like for museums? Collecting institutions have enormous stacks of data about the artifacts and artworks in their stores. Several museums around the world have worked hard to make their data accessible by providing free access to datasets, applying Creative Commons licenses to digital content, or creating APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow programmers to build their own software on the museum's data.

Last month, the Tate joined the party when they opened up their collection database to the world on GitHub, a website where programmers collaborate on projects. The Tate is providing metadata about artworks and artists in its collection--over 70,000 artworks in all. The data is in a computer language called .JSON that is commonly used for data sharing and processing. Even if you don't speak database, it's worth seeing how the Tate is presenting their collection to programmers on GitHub.

What can you do with these .JSON files? Anyone can pull down the data and use it for their own purposes, subject to some simple goodwill guidelines. Here are two examples of visualizations created by GitHub users:
These visualizations are fun. They are beautiful. They raise interesting questions about the Tate's collection and the imperfections of collections data. 

But the discussions they raise are limited. Florian's blog post centers on the question of why there are so many pieces by William Turner in the Tate's collection. A commenter pointed out that there must be an error in the data, as it is highly unlikely that Turner produced more than 40,000 works in his lifetime. Jim's post suggests some fun but somewhat silly conclusions about the height/width ratio of artworks.

Reading these posts and the related conversations, I was struck by two conflicting feelings:
  1. It's awesome that data-sharing is causing people to have a conversation about what artists are represented in a museum collection, what kind of artwork the Tate has, what surprising things can be visualized and learned from the collections data, and how the data can be improved.
  2. The data is sufficiently flawed and idiosyncratic to yield conclusions of questionable value. Knowing the dimensions of the frame a painting is in is much less compelling than many, many other things that could be known and explored about works of art. I'm imagining visualizations focusing on the gender or race of artists in the collection, frequency of loans (and to whom), frequency of display, common words used in label text... the list goes on. 
To me, the fact that #1 is exciting and promising makes addressing #2 worth it. Opening up data is just the first (big) step to make it usable and useful. These experiments prompt questions, identify gaps in the data, and promote new forms of collection, dissemination, and analysis. The data you have is not always the data you want, but you often don't know that until you start monkeying with it. Future iterations of data sharing and use will help institutions and citizen-participants take the next steps to make it meaningful. 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let's Stop Talking about What People Want and Need As If They Are Different (and we can tell how)


"Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need."

How many times have you heard this phrase in the context of cultural institutions? For me, the answer is too many. I'm calling this phrase out. I think it's presumptuous, disingenuous, and downright depressing.

It's presumptuous to suggest that we know what people "need" in a cultural context.

I know what my dog needs. He needs two cups of food per day. He wants a million cups of food per day. I think it is completely reasonable for me to give him not what he wants but what he needs.

I know what my baby needs. She needs to nap when she gets cranky, even though she keeps flailing her limbs. I think it is completely reasonable for me to wrap her up and put her to bed--to give her not what she wants but what she needs.

Very, very few museum visitors are in the "dog and baby" category. They are human beings. They are complex. I've spent a lot of time reading and engaging in visitor research, and I don't feel like I have a grasp on what visitors need separate from what they want. Does a mom want a program that includes her kids, or does she need it? Does an artist want an exhibition that stimulates his work in new ways, or does he need it? We spend a lot of time at my institution talking with people about their interests, needs, and abilities, but that doesn't mean that we know what an individual needs on a particular day, a particular visit. I don't know if someone need grounding in core content or exposure to new practices. I don't know if they need to be empowered or provoked. I do know a bit about what they respond to, what they ignore, and what it looks like when they really get turned on by something. But what do they need? I assume they are just as changeable and complex as any person in that regard.

It's really important to be able to articulate what we need to achieve our institutional missions. An organization with an public engagement mission has very different needs than one with a mission that focuses on original research. Some organizations need to focus on 3rd graders. Some need to conduct programs in multiple languages.

We may know what we need to achieve our missions. But that doesn't mean we know what visitors/audiences/humans need.

We ask funders to give general operating support to our organizations because we feel we know best what we need and want to be able to achieve. Why wouldn't we afford our participants the same respect with regard to their needs and wants? (For more on this in the world of poverty, check out this commentary on Give Directly.)

It's disingenuous to use the word "need" to mask our true intentions. In my experience, the "needs" of audiences often look suspiciously like the "wants" of the people speaking.

When I ask what the phrase "don't give people what they want, give them what they need" means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people's expressed desires but presenting them with objects and experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants' comfort zones. But I don't typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don't hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of "needs" of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear "don't give people what they want, give them what I want."

I will always remember when Robin Dowden of the Walker Art Center told me that she knew their teen website was working because she thought it was ugly and impossible to navigate. What teenagers wanted--and needed--was a website with unicorns and sparkly text. That site was not optimized for Robin's experience as an adult. It takes courage to embrace what diverse people want/need, especially when it flies in the face of traditional culture or standards.

It's depressing to imply that culture is not what people "want." Cultural experiences should be a pleasure. They can also be educational, challenging, empowering, political... but they must first be something people want. If we give up on the idea that people should WANT what we have to offer, we give up on the idea that what we have is desirable. Talking about what people need is like talking about going to the dentist. I don't want to be the dentist. I want to offer the most desirable experience possible--even if it's not what people walked in thinking they were seeking.


I'd vastly prefer if we used a phrase like, "Our job is to connect the familiar to the unfamiliar, and in doing so, ignite a passion for how diverse, exciting, and essential art [or history, or science] can be."

Or maybe something as simple as, "We do what we need to do to accomplish our mission. We think it's important. Here's why."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Psychology, Pricing, and Pay As You Will at the Children's Museum of Tacoma

my son, chucking money into the donation boxIn 2010, the Children's Museum of Tacoma was getting ready to move to a new, bigger facility. Over the years, they had noticed that 50% of their visitors were coming for free or at reduced cost--whether on free days or with special passes. When they moved to the new facility, they decided they wanted to radically expand access to the museum, AND increase revenue.

What did they do? They went to a "pay as you will" model. Now, they encourage visitors to become mini-philanthropists, enabling inclusion for all. Charging admission is a means test, and they want everyone to be able to pass.

The Children's Museum of Tacoma is two years into their "pay as you will" model, and it looks like a success. Attendance jumped from 40,000 at their old facility to about 120,000 at the new facility. Membership has doubled (now including new perks that extend beyond free admission). Attendance by low-income families is up. And while the average amount paid by each non-member visitor is down (dropping from $6 to about $3), the attendance increase means a net revenue gain. The museum launched this new strategy with a major grant from a funder (Key Bank) that provided five years of admissions offset--enough risk capital to give the museum time to grow into the new approach. The transformation of admission fees and its impact is documented beautifully in this blog post by Jeanne Vergeront. Check it out for a lot more details and numbers.

I called the museum because I was curious to learn more about the mechanics of communicating this approach to visitors. "By donation only" can offer a wonderful sense of welcome, or it can be misleading. (Consider the ongoing lawsuits at the Metropolitan Museum on this very issue.) I wondered whether "pay as you will" might come with its own confusion and stress for families without much exposure to museums--the exact people the museum is trying to make welcome. The "pay as you will" messaging is very different, for example, from Mixed Blood Theater's "Radical Hospitality" approach, which emphasizes completely free theater experiences.

"No cost" is much more clearcut than "pay as you will." Might "pay as you will" become another museum mystery, another source of threshold fear for visitors who don't have a yardstick by which to reasonably guess what they SHOULD pay to visit?

I spoke with Chad Russell, the Administrative Coordinator at the Children's Museum of Tacoma, about their experience. He told me, "We often get asked if there is a suggested donation, what should we pay. We don’t want to put any pressure on for a suggested donation – we want you to pay what you think.”

Chad also told me:
  • They have donation bins throughout the museum, so if people don't want to give much when they first walk in, they can pay somewhere else. Some people will donate more on their way out (but are not prompted to do so).
  • They train their frontline staff to engage with people about WHY it is pay as you will, explaining that your donation makes it possible for other kids who couldn’t afford it, so they can come play for free. Some kids apparently come in with their piggy banks, proud that they can pay to attend the museum--because whatever they have to offer is valued as exactly enough.
  • When people are stressed about how much to pay, he says, "before we went to this model, the cost was about $5 at the door." This might help more literal-minded people feel comfortable with an ambiguous system.

To me, this seems like an improvement on the norm... especially in a children's museum, which has a high number of repeat visitors (who can become familiar with the system over time). I can imagine families deciding on a value and paying it fairly consistently with little stress. I can imagine the cute rituals of kids, excited to contribute personally, proud to be part of making the museum available to all. But I can also imagine visitors being confused and stressed out--which is even worse in front of your kids. 

Does "pay as you will" fundamentally change the relationship between the institution and community members with regard to the cost and perceived value of the experiences inside? There's still a transaction--or at least a conversation--at the gate. Is that a good thing, because it invites/requires people to grapple with the cost of providing these experiences? Or is it just a different wrapper on same old means test

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Participation, Contemplation, and the Complexity of "And"

"The words we use in attempting to change museum directions matter. We need translators within each cultural context. We do not yet have precise words or even uniform understanding of the words we use. But we do have 'and.' And a good thing, too." 
--Elaine Heumann Gurian, The Importance of "And"
Recently, I've been embroiled in local and national conversations about the relationship between active participation and quiet contemplation in museums. Our museum in Santa Cruz has been slammed by those who believe participatory experiences have gone too far. It has been championed as a site of courageous experimentation. It has been challenged for our community-centered approach. I joined the dialogue this weekend with an op-ed echoing Elaine Heumann Gurian's powerful call for the "museum of 'and'" - a museum that includes and values multiple experiences and approaches.

Each of these articles--and the comments around them--are fascinating artifacts of a debate that has been behind the scenes for too long. I am glad this conversation is happening and that both museum professionals and local Santa Cruzans are engaged. We always knew that the inclusion of participatory and community-centered practices in arts institutions was controversial. But this is a rare moment when that controversy has come directly to the surface. It's a unique opportunity to learn from people with different perspectives.

To me, the backlash against participatory and community-centered experiences is not surprising. I've always understood that participatory experiences are not for everyone. I've always known that some people feel that social work means mission creep for museums. What surprises me is the argument that participatory and community-centered initiatives, offered alongside many other interpretative strategies, program types, and projects, can erode the value of an institution and the experiences it provides.

Like many of our supporters, I am perplexed as to why critics claim we have thrown tradition out the window when, from my perspective, we have simply added new opportunities alongside a strong commitment to traditional practice. We know most visitors use only a small percentage of the programming and interpretative elements that museums provide. Some people commune with the art. Some visit the archives. Some come to family festivals. Why should a comment wall in an exhibition be more threatening than a label? Why is a crowded Friday night event in conflict with a quiet Saturday in the galleries? Why should any one type of experience in the museum have veto power over others?

I have wrestled with these questions over the past six weeks. In doing so, I've come to believe that the fundamental issue here has little to do with participation. It's about the complexity of "and."

My whole museum career has been predicated on the "museum of 'and'" premise, as championed by Elaine Heumann Gurian and the museum professionals who crafted the seminal publication Excellence and Equity in 1989. I believe the strongest museums fearlessly seek out, test, and iterate many ways to achieve their missions. I believe that the diversity of the human experience necessitates an approach that values multiple forms of learning and making-meaning. As I wrote in my op-ed:
The more "and" we integrate into the MAH, the more people value the museum as a catalyst for meaning-making, creative expression, and civic participation. Value is reflected in the diversity of the people who participate, the power of the experiences we offer, and their ripple effects throughout the county. The stronger our value, the stronger our finances, the stronger our ability to expand all our offerings -- the contemplative AND the participatory.
But "and" is not an easy mandate to carry out. It requires balancing priorities, embracing creative tension, including diverse voices, and staying true to our mission as we explore new opportunities.

Here are the three big tensions we're confronting as we navigate being a museum of "and":

Defining the limits. One could imagine applying the principle of "and" willy-nilly to justify any outgrowth. One commenter on my op-ed, referencing the idea of our organization as museum "and" community center, asked: "If diversity is the goal, why not also make MAH part skate board park and off leash dog area?" The answer to this question comes back to the strategic vision for the organization. Our museum's vision statement begins with the phrase, "The Museum of Art & History is a thriving central gathering place...". This framing suggests a community-centered approach in which the museum brings people together around art and history. If our vision statement started with a phrase like " The Museum is a cutting-edge research facility..." that would imply a different set of appropriate activities, approaches, and limits.

We are rigorous internally about tying our mission and vision to specific programmatic strategies and goals for different program areas. Those goals form the constraints for our approach to "and," allowing us to say yes with confidence to some opportunities and reject others.

Resource balancing. With infinite resources, "and" can exist without friction or conflict. But in reality, every organization has to decide where to put time, money, and attention. It's not possible to perfectly balance resources across areas, and it's probably not useful to do so. Let's take the one example of active participation and quiet contemplation. Here are several different ways to look at the balance of these two forms of visitor engagement:
  • Time: 90% of our open hours are daytime hours when people can explore exhibitions in peace and quiet. The other 10% are primarily Friday nights when we offer hands-on, social event-based programming that tend to be crowded and lively.
  • Attendance: 25% of our visitors attend during daytime hours. 65% attend during community programs. This means we devote 90% of our time to 25% of our general visitors, and 10% of our time to 65% of them. (UPDATED on Nov. 8 to reflect onsite visits only. The unaccounted for 10% attend on school tours. Thanks to those who wrote in seeking clarification.)
  • Space: During daytime hours, approximately 15% of our exhibition galleries offer participatory experiences. During community programs, that number jumps to 95%. Our building is about half galleries, half public spaces. The public areas include both participatory and traditional content but are dominated by open space and seating.
  • Staffing: We have 2.25 full-time equivalent staff members devoted to exhibitions and collections, 2.5 devoted to community programs.
  • Money: We spent $287,000 last year on exhibitions and collections, $179,000 on community programs. Both of these figures represent increases over the previous year.
Looking at all of these bullets, how would you assess the relative number of resources devoted to participation and contemplation? How would you decide where to put more resources? How would you decide who is underserved and who is overserved?

Our strategy is not to try to perfectly balance the teeter-totter of resources but to develop the most generative combination. We do that through a structure that emphasizes cross-functional job descriptions, a program development strategy in which exhibitions and events build on each other, and an evaluative eye on how our mission and goals are manifest across diverse projects.

Messaging. Perhaps the biggest challenge to "and" thinking is the way that our organization presents itself and is presented in the media. We have a big banner outside our building that says PARTICIPATE. We do not have a comparable one that says CONTEMPLATE. Almost every article about our museum casts the institution as one that has gone through radical change. We issue press releases for everything we do, but the stories that get picked up tend to be about new programs and approaches. People talk about the museum in terms of then and now, old versus new.

In some ways, this makes sense. We want to welcome in people who may have felt excluded by traditional museums, so we over-communicate a sense of openness, inclusion, and active participation. The press loves novelty. People who get involved are passionate about what's new. People who feel less connected focus on what they lost.

A detractor says our museum has "gone to hell." A supporter responds, "Gone to hell? More like back from the dead." Both of these perspectives represent "or" thinking. The reality is that we have made the museum more vibrant by adding, not replacing. But it can feel like more dramatic change because the new additions get the lion's share of the ink and the oxygen.

Is it possible to have a brand that represents the totality of the diverse experiences offered by one institution? Probably not. It's both impractical and strategically undesirable to try to present a museum as all things to all people. Each visit is a single data point in a constellation of diverse experiences and offerings. While our staff and our most engaged participants perceive the diversity of the blend over the course of the year, most people only attend once or twice and form an impression based on those singular experiences--or on what they read in the paper. To teachers we are an educational facility. To historians we are a research facility. To art-lovers we are an exhibiting facility. To crafters we are a making facility. And so on.

As a museum with a mission to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections," it is our challenge to make the "and" more overt, to help people see the bridges between the experiences they currently enjoy and unfamiliar ones that might open up new opportunities for them. In the same way that we focus on social bridging--bringing people together across difference--we are also increasingly focused on programmatic bridging--bringing museum experiences together across program areas and audiences. We may never be seen entirely as a museum of "and." But we can do our best to be that kind of institution and hope that the message shines through.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Art Brings People Together: Measuring the Power of Social Bridging

Earlier this fall, I read this headline: "Stanford study: Participation in a cultural activity may reduce prejudice." I eagerly read about a new social psychology research study in which whites, Asians, and Latinos engaged in a simple collaborative activity--making a music video together. When the music video was focused on Mexican culture, the researchers found that the white and Asian participants demonstrated a decrease in prejudice against Latinos, both immediately after the activity and six months later. When the music video was not focused on Mexican culture, no such change occurred.

I wanted to know more. So I called one of the researchers, Tiffany Brannon. I talked with Tiffany, and also with Hazel Markus and Alanna Connor, Stanford social psychologists who recently co-authored a pretty fascinating pop-science book about understanding cultural difference. And then I started talking with Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley psychologist who blogs under the title Are We Born Racist?. The book of the same title that he edited is rocking my world, both as a museum professional who cares about inclusion and as a new mother.

It's impossible to process everything I am learning from these four psychologists in just one blog post. I am just starting to dive into the science of intergroup relations (psychology-speak for social bridging), and I greatly appreciate these individuals who are working to popularize and open up what could otherwise be esoteric research. So consider this just the first of many posts related to issues of cultural inclusion, evaluation, and impact. I realize that I may sound like a college freshman who just discovered Psych 101, but heck. This blog is about shared learning, and I went to engineering school.

My biggest question for these social psychologists is this: how do we apply their lessons to our work? At my museum, we pride ourselves on developing programming in a collaborative way that emphasizes diversity and intentionally encourages social bridging by bringing people together from different walks of life around cultural experience. We have witnessed and experienced incredible moments of transformation: homeless people and history buffs working together on historic restoration, graffiti artists and knitters collaborating on new artistic projects, visitors from different backgrounds making collages, or sculptures, or dance performances together. Our theory of change posits that when we develop projects that bridge “unexpected connections” between diverse people and ideas, people build understanding and social capital with community members from different cultures, generations, and backgrounds. But how do we know whether these efforts are working? Are we building social capital or just accumulating feel-good anecdotes?

Some irrational part of me hoped these social psychologists would whip out a magic list of prescriptions for successful social bridging or a checklist of indicators of its incidence. That didn't happen. But each of these studies yields another useful nugget. In the case of the Stanford study, I was fascinated to learn that the content of the music video was significant in terms of signaling change in prejudice. We often invite visitors to collaborate on activities comparable to making a music video--but we could be more mindful and strategic about the themes and content of these activities.

Reducing intergroup bias isn't a primary goal in all of our work, but in some projects, it's of particular interest. As we start the process at our museum of updating our permanent history gallery, one of our specific goals is to increase intergroup understanding in our community. We hope that visitors will not only learn about our diverse roots but be able to identify and transform some of the persistent challenges that divide us. We have some strategies for tackling this: convening diverse content advisors, incorporating anti-bias educational approaches in our design, developing participatory opportunities for visitors to connect past to present. But how will we know if we are actually achieving our goals? How can we assess the success of our social bridging efforts, and what can we learn from those measurements to improve our practice?

I have seen a lot of inclusion practices and policies in museums and cultural institutions, but I haven't seen many evaluations of their success. I think the general sense in our field is that it is too hard to measure these kinds of things, beyond counting the number of participants from different backgrounds.

But when I asked Tiffany Brannon how social psychologists measure something like prejudice against Latinos, she immediately brought up three different ways:
  1. Non-verbal communication. You can video-record interactions among participants, and then look at various non-verbal indicators of comfort or discomfort: who do individuals stand next to, do they make eye contact, how do they position their bodies. You can measure the change in that comfort before and after the research activity. While this would be difficult to do in a museum en masse, it could certainly be done with a small representative sample of visitors.
  2. Implicit Associations test. This test, which many of us have experienced in some form (perhaps at a science center), asks participants to sort words and pictures as quickly as possible. It reveals unconscious associations, for example, between skin color and criminality, or weight and intelligence. There are many forms of the test and it can be modified to target specific questions of interest. Measuring the change in implicit associations over time is a proxy for change in bias. Check out the range of demonstration studies online to see the possibilities. 
  3. Direct questioning. In the music video study, Tiffany and her research partners went back to participants six months after the activity and asked a series of questions about their interest in interacting with Latinos and their perspective on immigration policy questions that significantly impact Latinos. While it is not easy to ask directly "what do you think about XX people?" and get a truthful or useful answer, it is doable to ask proxy questions that are shown to be correlated with bias against particular groups. This technique is particularly interesting to me because our county already manages a bi-annual community assessment project that asks direct questions about perception of prejudice. We might be able to tie our efforts to their research AND show that participation at the museum yields a statistically significant different result (or not). 
These techniques are not rocket science, but none of them even occurred to me prior to my conversation with Tiffany Brannon. We may not be able to do the kind of publishable research in a museum that happens in a lab, but even in a messy system we can learn a lot to improve our programming and assess impact. I hung up from our phone call feeling like something immeasurable might be measurable... and also, that there is huge potential for partnership between researchers and cultural organizations to learn more about social bridging together, using the applied world of our community programs as the basis for formal research.

Have you done research on social bridging in your cultural practice? What would you like to learn, and what have you discovered?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Should Happen to Underperforming Nonprofit Organizations?

"I want death panels. I want to kill organizations that aren't showing their value."
--Devon Smith 

Now that's the kind of sentence that makes you put down your fork.

Last month, I had the good fortune to join a few brilliant people for a "Dinner-vention" about the future of the arts in America. In the course of the conversation, Devon Smith, a social media consultant from Threespot, started talking the problem of arts organizations that are no longer relevant or useful to their communities. [Watch the two-minute conversation between Devon and Clayton Lord starting at 14:25 in the video below.]


Devon didn't mince words. "Some organizations are going to die," she stated. "I want to incentivize them to die quicker." She argued that we need a way to correct for the fact that nonprofits don't operate in a traditional capitalist marketplace, and therefore aren't subject to the market forces that might otherwise cause them to fold when they are no longer useful. Hence, death panels.

For a long time, I agreed with this argument. Like a lot of people, I am incredibly frustrated by organizations floating on endowments that allow them to sail on regardless of impact or community relevance. I'm pissed off that well-capitalized organizations that engage a narrowing constituency can raise millions while young organizations struggle to be viable even as they produce powerful work for growing communities. I agree with Devon that more mergers and accountability would be a great thing. I wish organizations would focus more on creating amazing work than on sustaining operations.

But here I sit, the director of a museum that almost closed, squirreling away money for an operating reserve. I am part of the problem. And proud of it.

As I've watched arts organizations struggle over the past few years, I haven't thought, "gee, it's great that the market is causing these places to shut down." I haven't thought, "wow, the market is really resetting our field in a productive way." Instead, I've thought, "this is wasteful and depressing."

Consider two high-profile arts closures in 2013: that of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the 3rd Ward. Neither of these organizations closed because of a collective decision that they had outlived their usefulness. They closed for capricious financial reasons, and they left disappointed artists and participants in their wake. Could each have offered MORE community value? Absolutely. But when market forces hit arts organizations, it doesn't necessarily mean a more useful outcome than when arts organizations are insulated from those same forces with cash reserves, endowments, and other potential hindrances to change.

And let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the market does a better job at this than nonprofits. When the dotcom crash started killing off companies in the early 2000s, my DC housemates scavenged strange gifts from vacated offices. We decorated our group house with purloined office chairs and giant motivational posters--the detritus of an industry that was massively hemorrhaging. Yes, the market corrected for the dotcom bubble. But it did so in a way that was wasteful and chaotic.

What's the alternative to this waste? We have the opportunity in nonprofits to create a MORE efficient marketplace than capitalism offers. Instead of talking about "creative destruction," I think we should focus on creative reinvention. I firmly believe that there is more value to be created, faster and more efficiently, by reinventing and transforming existing organizations than by killing them and starting again. 

Consider the museum I run. In 2011, we were on very shaky financial ground. Our cash balance was zero, but that wasn't the only asset we had. We had a gorgeous building in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. We had an army of long-time donors, members, volunteers, and participants who invested a lot in the organization and cared about its longterm future. We had a dedicated staff that wanted to make this museum as good as it could be. We had a vision for the museum as a thriving, central gathering place in the community.

As we transformed our programming in pursuit of that vision, we were able to tap these existing assets to quickly and dramatically increase our value to the community. We were able to do that faster than we ever could have if we had started anew.

You could argue that if the museum had closed, the resources that had gone into it--money, effort, goodwill--would have been redistributed in the marketplace. But we know that's not exactly what would happen. There would be a lot of leakage. There would be a lot of waste. It would take much more energy to recapture those assets than to redirect them.

And so I issue a challenge to people who are frustrated with arts organizations and their limited relevance to your community: reinvent them. Recombine them. Reenergize them. Instead of starting your own organization, find a way to add value to one that already exists. House your program in an underutilized library. Pitch your project to a struggling symphony. Sure, some of those organizations are not going to change, or not enough, to be worth your participation. But some will.

Forget killing. Forget life support. Let's revitalize our communities, and the organizations that engage them, with the courage and creativity they deserve.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Who Counts? Grappling with Attendance as a Proxy for Impact

When you count attendance to your museum, do you include:
  • people who eat in the cafe?
  • people who rent the facility for private events?
  • people who engage with your content online?
  • participants in offsite outreach programs? 
  • volunteers? 
This summer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the kind of "how sausage is made" story that rarely gets written about the arts. It's about museum attendance and how the five big, free museums in St. Louis count it. There's quite a range. Summertime concerts at the history museum? Those count. Outdoor movies at the art museum? Nope. At the St. Louis Science Center, the focus of the article, there was a particularly creative perspective on attendance, including numbers for offsite board meetings, parades where staff made a showing, and attendance at a school next door. The only form of engagement lacking in the article is online participation--which for many museums, could yield the highest numbers of all.

Even if you consider some of these counting strategies to be egregious, the basic question is still relevant: who counts? When I reflected on our museum, I realized we have some inconsistencies in how we calculate attendance. For us, annual attendance includes programmatic activities onsite and off (about 10% of our programming is conducted at community sites). That means daytime visitors, event participants, school tours, and outreach program participants. It does not include facility rentals, meetings, fundraising events, nor people who might see us at a community event but not directly engage.

What's missing from this picture? I think you could reasonably argue that we should be counting:
  • researchers who come in to access information in the archives
  • people who rent the museum for a private event that includes a curator/artist tour of exhibitions
  • kids in museum summer camps
  • people who visit the historic cemetery that we manage
  • people who talk with us online about historic photos we share or blog posts about the collection
And then there are the weird inconsistencies. Why do we count participants in an art activity for families at a community center but not members of the Rotary Club to whom I give a presentation about the museum? Why do we count visitors who tour the galleries chatting with their friends but not visitors who tour the galleries chatting with a staff member (i.e. as part of a meeting)? 

This doesn't even get to the potential parsing of people's intentions. If someone comes to an exhibition opening for the free food, do they count? If a kid gets dragged to a museum with their parents, do they count? If someone has an epiphany about art outside the museum, do they count?

Probe too deeply and the question gets absurd. The more important question is not WHO counts but WHAT counts. Internal to an individual museum, relative attendance--changes over time or program--can yield useful information. But if you try to make meaning out of attendance comparisons across institutions, you start juggling apples and oranges. While many institutions separate attendance by program area, I don't know of any that separate attendance into "impressions," "light engagement," "deep engagement," etc. - categories that might actually have meaning. 

What is meaningful in the context of achieving our mission? That's the number we should be capturing.

The Relationship Between Attendance and Impact

How can we measure impact? That's a huge question. Let's look at it in the narrow context of the relationship between attendance and impact.

What is the information value of attendance? Attendance does a good job representing how popular an institution is, how used it is, and how those two things vary over different times of day, days of the week, times of year, and types of programs.  

But does attendance demonstrate mission fulfillment? Unless your mission is "to engage X number of people," probably not. For some institutions, like the MCA Denver, attendance is seen as a very poor measure of impact. But for almost all museums (even MCA Denver), attendance is correlated with impact in some way. 

For attendance to be correlated with impact, you have to find a way to articulate a theory of change that connects attendance to your mission (inspiration, learning, civic participation, etc.). And then, you have to be able to calculate a conversion factor that relates the number of people who attend to the number for whom the mission is fulfilled.  

Imagine managing a shoe store. Your mission is to sell shoes. Attendance is the total number of people who walk in the door. Of those people, 10% actually buy shoes. That means 10% is your conversion factor; if you want to sell 5 pairs of shoes, you need fifty people to walk through the door.

Now let's say your mission isn't just to sell shoes, but to build relationships with customers who will love your shoes and buy more of them in the future. Maybe the conversion factor from first sale to repeated sales is 20%. Now you have fifty people who walk through the door, five who buy shoes, and one who will be a longtime customer.

Now let's turn back to museums. The St. Louis Science Center's mission is to "ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning." What's the conversion factor from a single visit to that mission? 

I'd start by splitting the "igniting" from the "sustaining." You could argue that any single visit or interaction with the Science Center--at the facility, out in the community, online--could have the spark of ignition. But sustaining lifelong learning requires a different level of commitment. That count could include people who are visitors/members for 10+ years. Or volunteers who participate on a weekly basis. Or students who visit at some point and go on to careers in science and technology. 

It's not easy, but the museum could define the indicators that it considers representative of sustained learning. It could count those incidences. With some effort, you could calculate conversion factors from igniting to sustaining for each major program area. And if you knew the conversion factor for general attendance from igniting to sustaining, you could actually generate an estimate of how many of the kids zooming around the facility are likely to sustain a lifelong interest in science.

Looking at it in this way would also allow institutions to expand beyond reductive "all about attendance" approaches to demonstrating impact. You could argue that some of the most important work of "igniting and sustaining lifelong science and technology learning" has nothing to do with attendance to the science center. It might involve producing ad campaigns linking science to community issues, or advocating for job training programs in technology, or designing curriculum for community colleges. And again, if you could designate indicators for the kinds of learning impacts possible through these efforts and the conversion factors from igniting to sustaining, you could count and present them. 

So perhaps the St. Louis Science Center's annual report could look like this:
"Our mission is to ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning. We know that not every spark leads to a blaze, so we focus on igniting as many sparks as possible and making strategic investments in programs that are likely to sustain learning for the long term. 
We ignited science and technology learning this year through ongoing exhibits, educational programs, outreach in the community, and online interactions, which reached 3 million people. These sparks grew into sustained lifelong learning for at least 400 people, who got involved in local technology hobbyist projects, who pursued careers in science and technology, and helped us facilitate learning experiences as volunteers at the museum. 
We also focused this year on working with the countywide adult education agency to start an intergenerational science program at three senior centers throughout St. Louis. While this program only involves 40 people per site, all of them are participating in the kind of deep science engagement that is proven to lead to lifelong science and technology learning."
Too unwieldy or unorthodox for funders? Maybe in the beginning. But in an age of nonprofit accountability and increasingly sophisticated evaluation strategies, I think this kind of approach could be useful. What do you think? 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Back to Blogging with a Roundup of Terrific Articles

Back to the land of the blogging! My eyes may be bloodshot, but the sight of the blogger interface still warms my heart.

I've spent the last eight weeks on a "blogcation" so I could focus on the birth of our new baby, Rocket. MUCH appreciation to the incredible guest authors who helped me out: Stefania Van Dyke, Beck Tench, Julie Bowen, Adrienne Berney, and George Scheer. And thanks to you for engaging with their posts and with the reruns from the Museum 2.0 vaults. I may not exactly be "refreshed," but I am thrilled to be writing again.

This week, I thought I'd ease back in by offering a roundup of five of the most interesting bits I've encountered online in the past two months.

IF YOU READ NOTHING ELSE... read The Northwest London Blues - a gorgeous essay by novelist Zadie Smith about libraries, British politics, and changing perspectives on community space. She knits together nostalgia and activism with a level of nuance rarely found in debates about the value of museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces. Here's a taste:
And the thing that is most boring about defending libraries is the imputation that an argument in defense of libraries is necessarily a social-liberal argument. It’s only recently that I had any idea that how a person felt about libraries—not schools or hospitals, libraries—could even represent an ideological split. I thought a library was one of the few sites where the urge to conserve and the desire to improve—twin poles of our political mind—were easily and naturally united. 
Give yourself a long afternoon and read it.

OR IF YOU HAVE A SHORTER ATTENTION SPAN... you may share the common opinion that baseball is too damn slow. In a useful post, Doug Borwick suggests that art is like baseball: declining in relevance. Doug offers analogies between the challenges faced by Major League Baseball and those of traditional arts institutions: a legacy practice that has gotten more commercial but not more connected to real people and real communities. Check out the comments for more unlikely connections between Mao and the American national past time.

SPEAKING OF RELEVANCE... the NEA has just released the highlights reel of the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, featuring increases in arts engagement via electronic media, art-making and sharing, movies, and reading, and decreases in attendance to visual and performing arts. There's a lot more to unpack here; Reach Advisors took a first stab from a museum-centered perspective with a rousing call-to-action in response to declining attendance. Again, the comments are meaty and worth reading.

AND SPEAKING OF DIGITAL PARTICIPATION... ArtsFwd is hosting a national innovation summit for arts and culture October 20-23 in Denver. It appears that the in-person event is limited to participants from fourteen cities (funder-selected?), but they are offering a virtual live stream for free. Strangely, it's not easy to figure out who is speaking on which topic, but the topics and format look compelling. Full schedule here. Update: you can find the speakers here and they are truly awesome.

NAKED, BLEEDING THIEF BREAKS INTO MUSEUM, SPENDS THE NIGHT REARRANGING ITS STORAGE FACILITY. This is mostly just a really great headline. Though the curator's quote is pretty fabulous, too.


I'll be back next week with a longer essay. Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Guest Post: Restoration Artwork

This is the last of the guest posts offered during this fall season, and it dovetails with last week's post about opening up collections access nicely. George Scheer is the director and co-founder of Elsewhere Collective, a fascinating "living museum" in a former thrift store in Greensboro, NC. Elsewhere is at the top of my list of places I would most like to visit. In this post, George grapples with the challenges of balancing the care for a museum collection with that of contemporary artists-in-residence who are constantly reinterpreting it.

Every Saturday, the curatorial team at Elsewhere, a living museum in downtown Greensboro, NC, reviews the project proposals of its artists-in-residence. Proposals involve sculpture, performance, participatory-projects, videos, and installation that use and respond to the museum’s collection.  This past July, artist Guillermo G√≥mez proposed to restore a piece of art.  

Restoration is a formal gesture for most museums. In this post, I hope to bring out some of the complexities of the idea of restoration as it occurs within an experimental museum supporting both a collection and the practices of emerging artists.

Elsewhere is a living museum, set in a former thrift store once run by my grandmother, Sylvia Gray, from 1939-1997.  During this period, she amassed a vast collection of inventories, filling the three-floor store, including a former 14 room boarding house, and third floor workshop.  In 2003, collaborator Stephanie Sherman and I “re-discovered,” the former store, declared nothing for sale, and began inviting artists to create works using the set, or collection of objects.  From the outset, we imagined an infinitely re-arrangeable puzzle, a three floor installation composed and recomposed from only what was at hand.  Both objects and art-objects would be part of this continuing transformation and evolution.  The objects, artworks, and the traces of past experience are all part of an unfolding continuum of the living museum.  

The artwork to be restored is a piece called the Glass Forest, (2009) created by Agustina Woodgate, composed of glass and brass cabinets and mirror-etched bark patterns.  The Glass Forest was itself an act of restoration. It re-set the room’s contents of glass mirrors and significantly restored the tired tongue-and-groove floor. Curiously, Guillermo is the current studio assistant of Ms. Woodgate, and is intimately familiar with Woodgate’s work, process, and thinking.  

The proposal was as much to restore an artwork as it was to “take back” the artwork, because after 4 years of slight interventions, film shoots, and an “unsuccessful” effort to create a new work that changed the tone, composition, and material content of the piece, it was determined a restoration-reset of the Glass Forest was in order. During the proposal it was discussed that certain elements of previous works and interventions should remain in the restored Glass Forest and it was further noted that Ms. Woodgate’s work undid a previous work, Mr. Stag’s Hosiery Museum, by Lucy Steggals, a period piece of an imagined hosiery salesman. At every moment the question of restoration was countered with the preservation of traces.

The restoration, which was championed by the curatorial team, has sparked an interesting debate about the intersecting challenges of making work in and from a museum collection, and the occasional incongruity with artists’ creative needs and formal structures of residency program itself.  

Elsewhere’s residency invites artists to use the museum as site, resource, and concept to create new artworks. Artists are explicitly asked not to have proposals before they arrive, but rather immerse themselves in the museum, its community, and collection. The artists’ challenge after a short three days on the ground is to design a response to the museum, press their experimentation with materials, and transform both object and artwork. To this effect the curatorial team works closely with each artist to support the process, guide the careful use of collection, push a continual reflection on site specificity, identify past histories, and ensure a relation to the various publics that the museum serves.  

Sometimes a work just doesn’t work, or the challenges of the residency don’t connect with the artist’s practice, or the timeframe for response is too short to fully engage the complexity of the museum’s context. While there is a strong resistance toward “fixing” a work, Elsewhere’s curators are all artists and view their role as collaborators in the overall creative development of the museum-as-artwork. They maintain a creative autonomy and intimate relation with the museum and its collection that empowers them to play with and transform the visual environment. Most importantly, the conversation about restoration brought to light the contingent values that support a site-specific, museum-based, experimental practice with a collection.  

As a guardian of a collection, Elsewhere breaks a marker of tradition by allowing art and object to be transformed. However, extreme purposefulness and resourcefulness are applied to the tiniest plastic bead, antique cloth, and wood scrap left from a cut made to century old lathe. “Successful” artworks draw out qualities in the collection, reflect material histories, and show the artists’ process and conceptualization. Each moment of material use is collection use, and represents an ethical and aesthetic decision for resource potential and the way we advance and perpetuate Elsewhere’s meaning to its artists and publics.  

Like other museums, Elsewhere is an interpretive space, constructed to secure and invest in cultural meaning, cultural objects, and creative expression. We willingly transfer this interpretive responsibility from the institution and its curators to the artist at the artist’s most precious, fragile, and critical moment of creative process. This demands that awareness and responsiveness be deeply embedded in the artist’s practice and thought. For curators, it means they must act as guides for the artists, supportive and challenging, but willing to continually reflect on the museum’s own institutional reflexes, aesthetic tendencies, and precious instincts.  

As I write this post Guillermo’s restoration remains in mid-process. Strangely, I am the only one on the team who saw the Glass Forest in its original inception, and I’ve remained quiet about small details that are different between Guillermo’s actions and what I remember to be Agustina’s original intent. Nevertheless, in those gaps of document, memory and intervention, Elsewhere evolves. Each artist brings a restorative and disruptive process. We welcome that. They often place pieces into the puzzle that unhinge whole sections of the picture, but they also restore and evolve the visual environment and the museum’s meaning. It is a living process, a deeply artistic process, and an exciting part of the museums’ imaginary--that a restoration is always already a new work of art.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest Post: Collections Access - Open the Door Wider

North Carolina Museum of History 1988.39.4
I’m always amazed when my colleagues tell me that the biggest barrier they face to “opening up” the content at their museums is from registrars—the people who care for collection objects. In this courageous guest post, Adrienne Berney, a Collections Care Trainer who works primarily with history museums, gives us an insider’s guide to these issues. 

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’sCommittee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Spring Museum, have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, not the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an overarching open-access approach to collections?

This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs
by photographing an artifact in the Sandy Spring
Museum collection,  was for sale as a limited edition
giclee print in the museum’s gift shop for the duration
of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.    
Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often? The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation.
By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Spring Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents, for their contributions to this post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: Answers to the Ten Questions I Am Most Commonly Asked

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. I'm amazed at how well most of the answers in this post hold up two-plus years later (though I would revise my answer to #8 if I were writing this today). Originally posted in April of 2011, just before I hung up my consulting hat for my current job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Note: the title of this post pays homage to Elaine Heumann Gurian's excellent and quite different 1981 essay of the same title.


I've spent much of the past three years on the road giving workshops and talks about audience participation in museums. This post shares some of the most interesting questions I've heard throughout these experiences. I like to use half of any allotted time slot to talk and half for Q&A, so we usually have time to get into meaty discussions. Feel free to add your own questions and answers in the comments!

BROAD QUESTIONS ABOUT AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION

1. Have you seen attitudes in our field about visitor participation shifting over time?
Yes. Granted, I live in an increasingly narrow world of people who are exploring these topics and want me to work with them, but I still learn a lot from the questions and struggles I hear from colleagues and people who comment on the blog.

The Museum 2.0 blog has been going for almost five years now, and I've seen people's concerns and questions evolve over that time in the following way:
  • For the first couple of years--2006-2007--most of the questions were about the "why" of participation. Why should institutions engage with people in this way? How could staff members justify these approaches to their managers? I've seen this line of questioning almost completely disappear in the past two years due to many research studies and reports on the value and rise of participation, but in 2006-7, social media and participatory culture was still seen as nascent (and possibly a passing fad).
  • In 2008, the conversation started shifting to "how" and "what." In 2008 and 2009, there were many conference sessions and and documents presenting participatory case studies, most notably Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean's book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. I wrote The Participatory Museum in response to this energy--to put together case studies in the context of a design framework so we could talk as a field about what works and why.
  • In the past year, I've seen the conversation shift to talking about impact and sustainability of these projects--how we evaluate audience participation and how we can shift from experimental pilots to more day-to-day implementation.


2. Are there certain kinds of institutions that are more well-suited for participatory techniques than others?

Yes and no. I honestly think the only kind of cultural institution that cannot support audience participation is one in which staff members don't respect visitors or what they have to contribute. I've never heard people say they don't care about visitors, but I've seen it in how they pay attention to visitors' needs and contributions. This anti-participatory behavior is also sometimes manifest within staffs where only certain employees' ideas are recognized and solicited, floor staff are ignored, etc.

But for institutions with a genuine interest and respect for visitors, participation is always possible. It looks different in different types of institutions. Small organizations are often best at forming long-term relationships with community members, whereas large organizations can rally lots of participants for a contributory project. Art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to initiate participatory projects but the most likely to work with artists whose approach to participation might be quite extreme. For more on the differences among different types of museums (with examples), check out this post.


3. A lot of these projects are about getting people to be more social and active in museums. What about traditional visitors and supporters who may not want to participate?

In my experience, staff members are more sensitive to this issue than visitors and members are. I've met beautifully-coiffed ladies in their 70's who are hungry for conversation, and I've met pierced teenagers who prefer a contemplative experience. Most people who really love and support a museum want it to be loved and well-used by the larger community, and many of these folks are thrilled by techniques that engage new people with the organization.

That said, I think it's really important for all these engagement strategies to be "opt-in." It's common in many museums to offer cart-based activities that invite visitors (mostly families) to play a game, try an experiment, or make art. Just as those kinds of activities offer opt-in deeper engagement for some visitors, participatory techniques can offer opt-in social or active techniques for those who want them.

Sometimes, staff will claim that certain engagement techniques are so distracting for non-participants that they should not be offered even on an opt-in basis. I frankly think this is ridiculous. We know from research that people like to engage with content in different ways, and many museums tout the fact that they offer multi-faceted learning experiences. If we accept that sometimes people want to read the long label, sometimes people want to discuss things, sometimes people want to touch, and so on, then we have to offer a diversity of options. If we prescriptively decide you can only talk over here and you can only read the long label over there, we limit the quality and impact of the visitor experience.


4. Do you see any cultural differences in whether and how people like to participate around the world?

This is a really interesting question, and if I had any friends who were international social psychologists I would probably spend all my free time pestering them about this. My limited experience and research has led me to believe that people in every culture want to express themselves and connect with each other--the differences are how they prefer to do so.

Sometimes the difference comes down to preferred tools. In Taiwan, I noted that many more visitors and staff members were enthusiastic about taking and sharing photos than they were writing on a talkback board. In Denmark and Amsterdam, I experienced radical dialogue programs like Human Library, but also a strict formalism as to what happens in galleries.

Other times, the differences come down to social conventions. Some cultures value individual expression, whereas others prioritize the group. At the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (search "Vietnam" here), staff have told me that participatory projects work best when a community of participants is engaged in a group process where they can come to consensus and defer to the group. In contrast, processes that engage individual participants as creators might work in a more individualistic culture like Australia or the US.

I'd love to hear more peoples' reflections on this. In every country I've visited, I've heard a version of this question that starts, "Maybe this works for Americans, but here in X..." After seeing so many varied and inspiring participatory projects from around the world, I can firmly state that this is not an American phenomenon, nor is participatory work even necessarily best-suited to U.S. culture. There are long histories of highly-engaged participatory governance and cultural work around the world, and in many ways, America's obsession with the individual may be more of a hindrance than a help to projects here.


QUESTIONS ABOUT RESISTANCE TO CHANGE

5. Where do you see the biggest resistance to incorporating participatory techniques? What's the biggest obstacle to more of these projects happening?

The first thing you have to tackle is fear of change. This isn't unique to audience participation; it's a reality that any new project or course of action stirs up all kinds of anxieties about organizational change.

Once you get past the fear of change to the specifics of audience participation, you have to separate people's expressed resistance from the actual obstacles. Resistance to audience participation is often expressed as fear of losing control. There's a worry, mostly on the part of content experts and brand managers, that their voices won't be as dominant as they once were when visitors are invited to participate. These fears are well-justified, but they're often predicated on the false conflation of control with expertise. You can be an expert and have a strong voice--a voice visitors want to hear--without being the only voice in the room. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it's something we're comfortable with in news, politics, and other venues... why not museums?

And ultimately, loss of control is not the biggest obstacle to implementing participatory projects. I would suggest that the biggest challenge is the fact that they require fundamentally different ways of operating. If a traditional exhibition project is one in which a team "puts on a show," a participatory project is one in which a team "plants a garden" and then must tend and cultivate it over time. Participatory projects require sustained engagement between staff and community members, and that is not baked into our traditional job descriptions, staffing plans, and project budgets.


6. How do you evaluate participatory engagement strategies?
My simple answer is: evaluate these projects as you would evaluate any new technique or program. If your institution cares about numbers, count participants and impacted visitors. If your institution cares about deep engagement, measure dwell time and survey people about their experiences. If your institution cares about delivering on mission, measure indicators that reflect your core values. This sounds flip, but the reality as I've seen it is that every institution has its own criteria for what makes a project a success. If you evaluate your project by something other than those criteria, you won't be able to make a convincing argument about whether to continue with these efforts or not.

Many evaluations of participatory projects focus solely on the experience for participants. I have yet to see a participatory project in which the direct participants who co-designed an exhibition or contributed their own stories to a program did not have an incredible, often transformative, experience. The problem is that these participants are often tiny in number compared to your organization's overall audience. To effectively and completely evaluate the impact of a participatory project, you have to look at how it affects not only participants but also the broader audience... and staff.

This question of evaluation is still very open. I wrote a chapter in The Participatory Museum about it, but I continue to seek out really good examples of participatory project evaluation. I strongly believe it is through shared evaluations and documentation that we will advance as a field overall in these efforts.


7. What kind of changes do you think have to happen for museums to really be able to embrace and support audience participation, not just in one-off experiments, but for the long term?

This comes back to the idea that participation happens fundamentally in operating, not in designing or developing programs. After a phase of experimentation and pilot projects, I think any organization that is serious about audience participation has to examine how it recruits staff and what their tasks and roles are.

We also have to become more flexible about how we engage visitors as partners on an ongoing basis. For example, I recently learned about the Science Gallery's approach to involving community members. They have a pretty explicit engagement ladder in which someone starts as a visitor, becomes a member, then an "ambassador" who is empowered to put on some programs in collaboration with the institution, and finally a member of the "Leonardo Group" -- an advisory group that meets a few times a year to tackle upcoming creative challenges the organization faces. Rather than having standing advisory committees representing various constituencies, the Leonardo Group is a nimble, diverse crowd of engaged participants who contribute significantly to the Science Gallery's programming and resources through one-off events. This kind of engagement ladder provides a structured framework for participation without overly constraining how people get involved.


QUESTIONS ABOUT WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

8. When you are creating programming explicitly to engage new communities, how do you still satisfy your base?

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year, but it's one that still comes up frequently in discussions with colleagues. I've come to feel that the "parallel to pipeline" strategy is a solid approach. You start by offering a custom, distinct program for new audiences and then find ways to integrate what works for them into your core offerings. The important part of making this work is acknowledging that you do have to make some real changes to the pipeline when you ask that new audience to transition into it. The parallel programs are not a "bait and switch" used to hook new audiences into your traditional offerings. They are a starting point, and a testing ground, from which you should be learning new ways of working that can be applied more broadly and fundamentally to how the organization operates.


9. If so much of this work is about creating personal relationships with visitors, how do we sustain it beyond individual staff members?

This question comes up most frequently when talking about social media. There's a fear that if an individual staff member becomes the voice of the organization on the Web, and then that person leaves, the relationships she built will disappear. Interestingly, I never hear colleagues express the same fear when it comes to individuals who run specific key programs for an organization (even though those membership managers, educators, volunteer coordinators, and others have very personal relationships with many important constituencies).

When it comes to online community engagement, I always turn to Shelley Bernstein and Beck Tench as my luminary teachers. Both of them are very clear about the need to be personal AND to distribute the relationships throughout staff as much as possible. Beck in particular has done an amazing job of working as a partner to other staff members at the Museum of Life and Science to help them develop social media projects that they can manage on their own with only light involvement from Beck. The animal keepers run their blog. The Butterfly House manager shares photos on Flickr. And so on. In this way, engaging with visitors through social media becomes something that many staff members are involved with based on their content and programmatic skills. This leads to diverse projects and relationships--and a better safety net for the institution overall.


10. When you build a relationship with a community for a project and then that project ends, how do you keep those people involved?

This is one of the toughest questions I've been grappling with lately, and I'd love to hear your reflections on it. It's a question that tends to come up only for organizations that have committed to audience participation over the long term. You invite a group of people to co-design an exhibit or co-produce a program, it happens, it's fabulous... and then what? In most cases, those partners were solicited for specific skills or attributes related to those specific projects, and it's not easy to naturally translate those same people to another participatory opportunity. In my experience, many of these people become a special class of members or volunteers, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with a standard membership arrangement. These folks have had a taste of higher engagement and many of them want more. I'm not sure what the most sustainable way is to keep them actively involved as the organization shifts over time.

What are your answers to these questions? What are your questions that should be on this list?