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Chapter 4: Social Objects

Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 7 months ago


  1. Chapter 4, Part 1: Defining Social Objects
  2. Chapter 4, Part 2: Designing Platforms for Social Objects
  3. Chapter 4, Part 3: DIY Social Objects



So far, we've focused on social experiences in museums, both in terms of institutions connecting with individuals on a personal level and networking those connections to facilitate community engagement.  In many cases, this means creating new platforms for visitor engagement in institutions and offering experiences that are unlike those museums have traditionally provided.  This leads to an obvious and uneasy question: what about the artifacts?  If museums evolve to support visitors creating, sharing, and learning from each other, where do exhibits fit in?  Where is the object in the new museum conversation?


This is a more pressing question for some types of museums than others.  If you work in a children's or science museum, you're probably already comfortable with the idea that exhibits are designed experiences, a set of props and moving parts that help visitors connect with concepts.  But for history and art museums, where authentic objects are the heart of the visitor experience and business model, the question of what to do with real artifacts--not abstract, malleable exhibits but tangible objects in drawers--is a concern. 


You don't need to toss your collection to the wayside to engage visitors in social participation; in fact, the opposite is true.  In the best cases, objects are the engine of socially networked experiences, the content around which the conversation happens.  Every social network is fueled by content.  Without something to talk about and share affinity, there's little reason to connect.  Some social networks are about celebrity gossip. Others focus on custom guitars.  Others focus on religion.  We connect with people through our interests and shared experience of the world around us.


But "content" is a pretty general term.  In 2005, an engineer and sociologist named Jyri Engstrom coined the term "social objects" and the related phrase "object-centered sociality."  In an influential blog post, Jyri argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful online social networks.  The objects don't have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities.  For example, on Flickr, you don't socialize generally about photography or pictures, as you might on a photography-focused listserv.  Instead, you socialize around specific images.  You can share photos and comment on them.  You can invite users to submit their photos to various groups and galleries.  Each photo is a node in the social network that triangulates the users who create, critique, and consume it.  Just as on LibraryThing people are connected via books instead of reading, on Flickr people are connected via photos instead of art-making.


Flickr has photos. YouTube has videos. Upcoming.com has events. Jyri suggests that more generalized social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook, can only succeed if and when objects are at the foundation of the experience. Facebook has a diversified object model--for some people, status updates are the essential object, for others, it's virtual gifts or games.  In the mid-2000s, LinkedIn changed its design to focus its network more strongly around jobs instead of professional connections, which Jyri sees as a move to object-centered design:

Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.[ISN'T THIS A SHARED "OBJECTIVE" RATHER THAN A SHARED "OBJECT?" MAYBE I'M BEING OBTUSE...CC]


This is great news for museums.  Jyri comments that creating online social networks around objects requires the ability to "create digital instances of the object."  But physical social networks have no such need for digitization--just access to the physical objects themselves.  While web developers scramble for object catalogues upon which to base their new ventures, museums can tap into pre-existing stories and connections between visitors and collections.  The challenge is to find ways to use those connections to turn the objects into triangulation points for social behavior. Rather than convincing visitors that they want to be part of "the museum club," if we can find ways to make our objects function socially, they can form the nodes of useful and appealing social networks.


Social objects are a cornerstone of the me-to-we engagement pattern.  Objects serve as focal points for discussion, whether immediately and physically, as in the example of the pointing visitors in the Race: Are We So Different? exhibition, or virtually, as on LibraryThing.  Objects mediate the uncomfortable experience of talking directly to strangers, and thus can serve as a bridge among people that facilitate comfortable discourse.  My favorite social object of this kind is my dog.  When I walk around town with my dog, lots of people talk to me, or, more precisely, talk through the dog to me.  The dog allows for transference of attention from person-to-person to person-to-thing-to-person. It’s much less threatening to approach someone by approaching and interacting with his/her dog, which will inevitably lead to interaction with its owner. Unsurprisingly, enterprising dog owners looking for dates often use their dogs as social instigators, steering their pups towards people they’d like to meet.


Dogs generally are positive social objects.  With the exception of the rare people who move away from me because they are fearful of dogs, most strangers are effusive conversationalists about the dog.  There are other social objects with mixed impact.  Pregnant women, people in wheelchairs, and heavily tattooed individuals have all experienced both positive and negative reactions due to the ways that strangers interact with the social objects to which they are bound.  The ideal social object is both reflective of personal aspirations and flexible.  By displaying your relationship with it, you feel like you are expressing your best self.  But you can also dispose of that relationship or put it aside when it is not useful to you.


How can we activate museum objects, both pre-existing artifacts and designed exhibits, as social objects?  How are social objects useful in a museum context, and how can they help you achieve specific participatory goals in your institution?  


To answer these questions, we have to dig deeper into the characteristics of social objects, the ways they are used, and the impact they make.


What makes an object social?


Not all objects are social objects.  Loosely speaking, a social object is one that mediates interpersonal interactions among those who create, own, use, critique, and consume the object.  Social objects aren't just for looking at or producing; they are transactional, facilitating exchanges among those who encounter them.  A chair is not a social object because one person designed it and another one sat in it; there is no social interaction between these two individuals.  But a chair may be a social object when two people argue over who gets to sit in it.  A chair is a social object when it is acknowledged as "Eric's chair" and becomes the topic of conversation among Eric's colleagues as an example of his possessiveness.  A chair is a social object when one person gives it as a gift to another.  A chair is a social object when one person shares a photo of it and another asks where it was purchased.  In other words, any object can be a social object in certain conditions, at certain times.


There are few objects that are persistently social, that motivate interpersonal engagement among a diversity of strangers at different times.  Even within networks designed to optimize the sociality of objects, some objects are more social than others.  There are some Facebook status updates and Flickr photos that generate lots of discussion, whereas others fall on seemingly deaf ears.  Whether in the real world or the virtual, there are at least five conditions that help render an object social:


Social objects are often personal.  Many of the most effective social objects are highly correlated with their owners or users as individuals and are not social objects when taken out of that personal context.  For example, both tattoos and pets are objects that become social when they are with their owner.  The owner has a set of stories that go with the object, and strangers have a set of socially-permissible questions to ask about the object.  If I approach you in a museum and ask what captivates you about the sculpture in front of us, you might look at me strangely and tell me you were just spacing out. But if I ask what type of dog you have or why he does that funny thing, you will chatter on for minutes. Yes, this can happen in museums, but it is most typical when you interact with museum staff, who have vested interests, relationships, and ideas about the objects on display. Museum visitors are rarely as “close” to exhibits as they are to their pets.


Some social objects are active.  Objects that are able to directly and physically interject into the space between strangers can motivate discussion.  For example, if an ambulance passes by or a fountain splashes you in the breeze, your attention is drawn to it, and you feel complicit with the other people who are similarly imposed upon by the object.  Again, dogs can be powerful social objects in this way - one may take it upon himself to walk up and sniff a stranger, forcing an interaction between the people who have been brought together by his action.


Relatedly, social objects are often provocative.  An object need not physically insert itself into a social environment to become a topic of discussion if it is a spectacle on its own.  Many of the objects in the Race exhibition fall into this category.  One of the most discussed exhibits is a vitrine featuring stacks of money representing the average earnings of Americans of different races. Money is somewhat exciting on its own, but the real power in the exhibit comes in the shocking disparity among the piles. People are compelled to point out of surprise. The powerful physical metaphor of the stacks makes the information presented feel more spectacular without dumbing it down or over-dressing it.


Some social objects are transitive (NEED BETTER WORD)[THEY OPERATE LIKE A TELEPHONE LINE  MAYBE SOMETHING LIKE transmissive or conductive? CC] .  While people don't consciously use or discuss them together, they have a social experience that passes through the object.  For example, a comment board or online discussion forum collects comments from individuals who are not colocated in place or time.  Those comments are social objects in a growing dialogue that happens among individuals who may never meet. 


The most consistently effective social objects are explicitly relational.   They require several people to use them to work, and their design often implies an invitation for strangers to get involved.  Pieces of content that are posed as questions are relational as long as they beg an answer.  Pool tables and chess boards fall into this category, as do many interactive museum exhibits and participatory sculptures that invite many people to work together to solve a problem or generate an effect. 


Most social object experiences are fleeting and inconsistent.  For social object experiences to work repeatedly for a wide diversity of users or visitors, day after day, you need more than just objects that exhibit one or more of the above conditions.  Museums are particularly challenging social object platforms, especially those (like art museums) in which visitors often already feel a little uncomfortable or uncertain of how to behave.  If you don't feel comfortable and in control of your environment, you are unlikely to talk with a stranger under any circumstances.  In 2009, I did social object experiments in several museums and informal learning environments in which I challenged colleagues and students to create objects that get strangers talking with each other without staff intervention.  At the Woodlawn Park Zoo in Seattle, a highly social place, it was fairly easy for graduate students to design objects, especially game-like objects, that visitors comfortably gravitated towards and used in connection with others.  But at the Denver Art Museum, it was almost impossible for staff to design successful social objects.  These were creative, energized professionals experimenting in an institution that has been lauded for its welcoming, friendly feel.  But visitors expect art to be strange and potentially uncomfortable, and so everything that the staff created--signs that altered the meaning of elevator buttons, invitations into stories and games, even a box of chocolates--was viewed silently with suspicion and confusion by visitors. [WHAT ABOUT HISTORIC SITES OR HISTORY MUSEUMS? VISITORS SEEM TO BE MORE LIKELY TO SHARE THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH OBJECTS THEY MAY HAVE ENCOUNTERED IN THEIR OWN LIVES APART FROM THE MUSEUM. CC]


It takes more than just an intriguing object to get visitors talking.  To accentuate the socialness of an object, you need to design a platform for it that enhances its ability to be shared.  Jyri Engestrom talks about the fact that there should be active verbs that define the things users can "do" relative to social objects--consume them, comment on them, add to them, etc.--and that all social objects need to situated in systems that allow you to share them.  If I can't share my object experience with you, how can we discuss it?  In museum situations when visitors are co-located, experiences are often shared naturally among proximate individuals.  But there are many museum experiences that are not shareable, either because of prohibitions on actions like photographing artifacts, or because exhibits are designed for individual consumption.  To make social objects shine, we need to design platforms that promote them explicitly as shareable, relational objects.


Activity: Social Object Hunt

Personal, active, provocative, relational.  Can you find the objects in your institution that already function well as social objects?  What traits do they exhibit?  How could these traits be amplified (or other traits added) to improve their sociability?


IS THIS SECTION TOO BRIEF?  SHOULD THERE BE MORE ON IDENTIFYING PRE-EXISTING SOCIAL OBJECTS? [I'd welcome more examples from museums to elaborate the different concepts. This section is really interesting but I'm not entirely sure I grasp exactly what you are saying and how the concepts substantially differ from one another. CC]



Designing Platforms for Social Objects


Museum exhibitions are typically designed to create visitor experiences around objects.  These experiences may be aesthetic, narrative, multi-sensory, educational, entertaining, or interactive, and designers often focus on promoting one or two specific types of experiences.  Only rarely is the intended experience social, and few exhibitions are designed to promote the exhibits or artifacts within them explicitly as social objects.  Online social networking platforms, on the other hand, are designed to do this.  Consider the difference between the range of functions a person can do with relation to a photograph in an exhibition versus on Flickr. 


In an exhibition, a visitor can look at photos hanging in the gallery.  She can read information about each photo and its creator in label text, and she can probably also access information about how the photograph is catalogued in the museum's collection database.  In some cases, she may be allowed to take her own pictures of the photographs; in other cases, she will be prohibited from capturing any likeness of the artifacts or even their labels.  In some installations, at the end of a series of photographs in an exhibition, she may be able to write her thoughts about the photographs in a comment book.  She is likely to find an opportunity to buy images of the photos in a catalog or postcard set in the museum's retail shop.


On Flickr, a user can look at photos.  He can read information about each photo and its creator, as well as additional information about how, where, and when the photo was taken.  He can leave a comment on the photo.  He can mark the photo as a favorite in his personal collection of favorites.  He can make a note directly on the photo to mark some small detail of interest.  He can add tags that serve as descriptive keywords for the photo.  He can view the comments, notes, and tags created by other users who have looked at the photo.  He can send a personal message to the photo's creator with other questions or comments.  He can invite the photographer to submit the photo to a special group or collection.  He can send the photo to a friend by email.  He can include the photo in a blogpost or entry on another social network.  He can talk about the photo on Flickr and elsewhere.


Flickr is a platform that is designed to promote the social experience around photographs.  Most exhibitions are not. This doesn't make exhibitions worse than Flickr for displaying photographs; on the contrary, from an aesthetic perspective, it is much more appealing to see photographs beautifully mounted and lit than digitally amidst a jumble of text.  In the case of the "notes" function in Flickr, the social activity of adding notes deliberately distorts the view of the photo by covering the image in rectangles indicating the locations of noted details.  Activating an object in a social way has design implications that can seriously diminish the visual and evocative power of the artifact.


So what do you gain by adding all of these social functions?  Consider this photograph, taken by John Vachon in 1943 and titled "Workers leaving Pennsylvania shipyards, Beaumont, Texas."  In January 2008, the Library of Congress offered this image on the Flickr Commons, a special area of Flickr reserved for images from public institutions like museums and libraries.  This image is not on display at the Library of Congress.  You can view it in the Library of Congress' online database, but that image is smaller and less attractively presented than it is on Flickr.  In other words, there is no way for visitors to experience this image in a designed context that promotes its aesthetic or historical power.  But there is a way to experience it socially on Flickr.


As of August 2009, this image has 53 user-supplied tags, 8 user-created notes, and 14 community comments.  It was included in a Flickr group run by Peruvians about "People - costumes and customs no limits."  And it was featured in an unknown number of blog posts and personal emails sent from the site.  The comments and notes on the Flickr page include several compelling and useful discussions.  People answer each other's questions about why the "Pennsylvania" shipyards were located in Texas.  Two people shared personal recollections of growing up near these shipyards, and one added historical links to a race riot that happened in the town of Beaumont the same month the photo was taken.  Several people commented on the both the integration of the men and the physical separation of the black and white workers; as one note comments, "Looks like 'quitting time' was as segregated as the rest of life."  


These Flickr users aren't just saying, "nice pic."  They're answering each other's questions about the content, sharing personal stories, making socio-political commentaries. They're doing things that don't happen when visiting the real collection or viewing the photo in the Library of Congress database, and it's arguably creating a more engaging, more educational experience with the content.  Is all of this worth the aesthetic tradeoffs that Flickr's design implies?  In this case, given the lack of meaningful alternatives, absolutely.  And if your goal with an exhibit is to encourage visitors to engage with each other about the stories and information at hand, it might be comparably valuable for you to prioritize design for sociality over design for aesthetics or individual experience.


What do physical platforms for social objects look like?  You don't need to replicate every social tool provided by online social sites like Flickr to be successful.  These tools are not a guarantee of social transactions.  Flickr provides tools that make it possible for any image to be shared and experienced socially, but that doesn't automatically ensure that each photo will foster intriguing dialogue.  Some photos enjoy more conversation than others. The Flickr team is continually assessing the utility of the tools available and developing new tools to promote new kinds of engagement.  Just as the Flickr platform features tools that are focused on the social experience around digital representations of photographs, in physical space, we have to think about what social tools will most meaningfully and consistently motivate interpersonal exchange.


You may not be able to write a note directly on an artifact, but museums and physical environments provide other social design opportunities that are impossible to simulate virtually.  For example, oversize objects often function as social objects because they are surprising and can be experienced by many people at once.  There's no way to design a comparable virtual object that suddenly and completely overwhelms several strangers' sensory experience.  Highly designed immersive environments, which provide context that may make some artifacts feel more active or provocative, are another example of a physical design platform that can accentuate the sociality of objects. 


In the following five sections, we explore different classes of social tools, or design techniques, that can activate artifacts as social objects: juxtaposition, instructions, questions, sharing, and performance.  




One of the most powerful and simple design techniques for activating objects as social objects is juxtaposition.  Rarely employed in online platforms, juxtaposition of artifacts was the basis for several groundbreaking exhibitions like Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, presented in 1992 at the Maryland Historical Society.  In Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson selected artifacts from the Historical Society's collection--objects that were overlooked or might have been perceived to have little evocative power--and used them as the basis for highly provocative, active, relational exhibits.  Mining the Museum opens with a display of busts, as described by Judith Stein in Art in America:


"Three low pedestals to the right of the case supported portrait busts below eye level. Harsh lighting caused shadows to pool in their eye cavities, imparting an air of cranky melancholia to a toga-clad Henry Clay, and Napoleon Bonaparte and Andrew Jackson in uniform. None of

these worthies had ever lived in Maryland; they exemplify those previously deemed deserving of sculptural representation and subsequent museum acquisition. To the left were three higher and empty pedestals that bore only small plaques proclaiming the names of celebrated African Americans who were Marylanders: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker.  By dramatizing the absence of their portraits, Wilson found a canny way to reveal the slights of history and to indicate major gaps in the museum's collections."


With this simple and powerful display, Wilson was able to put museum objects (the busts of the white men) in conversation with non-objects (the absent busts of the African Americans).  While the objects themselves are unremarkable, the platform on which they are presented adds a provocative, relational layer to their presentation, which translates to a more social reception by visitors.  The juxtaposition implies obvious questions: "Why are these here and those missing?"  "What's going on here?"  Curators and museum educators often ask questions like this, but these questions don't resonate strongly when they come from an external source.  In Mining the Museum, these questions bubbled naturally to the top of visitors' minds, and so people sought out opportunities for dialogue.  There were other powerful juxtapositions in the exhibition, such as an exhibit on "Metalwork, 1723-1880" which featured a fancy silver tea set alongside a pair of slave shackles.  The cognitive dissonance visitors feel when encountering these strange combinations spark questions that are unanswered in label text.  To find the answers, and their own reactions, to the provocative challenges on display, visitors turned to each other.  Mining the Museum generated a great deal of professional and academic conversation that continues to this day.  But it also energized visitors to the Maryland Historical Society, who engaged in dialogue with each other and with staff, both verbally and via written reactions, which were assembled in a community response exhibit.  Mining the Museum was the most successful Maryland Historical Society exhibition to date with regard to attendance, and it fundamentally reoriented the institution with respect to its collection and relationship with community. 


Several art museum exhibitions have used this juxtaposition technique in a less politicized way to activate visitor engagement.  In 1990, the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden mounted an exhibition called Comparisons: An Exercise in Looking in which pairs of art objects were hung together with a single question in-between.  By asking visitors to connect two pieces via an explicitly relational query, the artifacts were activated as social objects in conversation with each other.  While the juxtaposition may not have consistently supported visitor dialogue, it provided the tools for discussion in a venue (contemporary art) in which visitors often feel uncertain about how to respond to the art. 


In 2004, the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University took this idea further and presented Question, "an experiment that provokes questions about art and its presentation in museums."  Rather than just displaying art in a neutral way along with questions on labels, Question featured radical display techniques that were intended to tease out, but not answer, basic questions that visitor have about art, like "what makes it art?" "how much does it cost?" and "what does it mean?"   The team mounted artworks by famous artists and children together on a refrigerator.  They crowded European paintings against a cramped chain-link fence and mounted other pieces in natural settings with sound environments and comfortable seating.  All of these unusual and surprising design techniques were meant to provoke dialogue.  As exhibit designer Darcie Fohrman commented, "In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We want people to ask strange questions and say, 'I don't get this.'"  


As in Mining the Museum, the design techniques chosen for Question were strategically optimized to promote the artifacts as social objects.  This means that in many cases, the objects were not presented in a way that allowed visitors to approach them from a "neutral" perspective or even necessarily to enjoy viewing them.  It's hard to take pleasure in a silver tea set that is forcibly paired with a set of slave shackles, and a refrigerator is probably not the ideal aesthetic setting for a sketch by Miro.  Some visitors found these exhibits pretentious, shocking, or distasteful.  By designing the exhibitions as successful social platforms, these exhibitions drew in new and enthusiastic crowds, but they also turned off some visitors for whom the approach was unfamiliar and unappealing.  Just as Flickr's choice to allow users to write notes on photos may be distracting to some photography buffs who prefer unadulterated images, these socializing exhibition techniques are in conflict with other museum values.  This conflict doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue activating museum artifacts as social objects, but I do want to acknowledge that doing so can come at a price.




Juxtaposition, even when explicit, can be misinterpreted.  If you are looking for a more direct way to create a platform to activate pre-existing artifacts as social objects, consider writing some rules of engagement with or around the objects.  The easiest way to invite strangers to comfortably engage with each other is to command them to do it.  This is something museum professionals are already comfortable with when it comes to individual experiences with interactive elements. We employ instructional labels that explain step-by-step how to stamp a rivet or spin the magnet.  The same explicit steps can be used to motivate social and interpersonal interactions.  While this may sound perscriptive, as in the individual case, there are many games and experiences that use instruction sets as a scaffold that invite visitors into play that becomes much more open-ended and self-directed. 


Many exhibits require more than one person to use, and these typically employ labels that say, "sit down across from a partner and..." or "stand in a circle around this thing."  For visitors who arrive with family or social groups (the majority of museum visitors), these instructions are easy to fulfill.  But for solo visitors, these labels pose a challenge.  Where can I find a partner?  How can I get others to stand in a circle with me?  


It's easier if the labels explicitly instruct people to "find a partner," or, even better, to "find someone of your gender," or "find someone who is about your height."  If the instructions are clear, it gives visitors a comfortable way to enter into a social encounter that would otherwise feel awkward.  I can point back to the instruction label and say to the stranger, "it says I need to find another woman to use this exhibit."  She can confirm via the label that this is indeed an institutionally-sanctioned interaction.  And if the woman declines to participate, she isn't rejecting me--she's rejecting the instruction.  It's not that she finds something unsuitable about me; she just doesn't want to play the game.  Clear instructions give both askers and askees safe opportunities to opt in and out of social experiences.


In some traditional museums, especially art museums, it can be hard to convince visitors that it is okay to engage directly with the objects, let alone with each other.  When SFMOMA mounted an exhibition on The Art of Participation in 2008, the exhibition included several components in which visitors were directly instructed to interact with objects and with each other.  Recognizing how unusual this requested behavior was in the face of standard art museum behavior, SFMOMA used orange labels for all of the interactive components.  At the entrance to the exhibition was a simple orange label that read:

Some of the objects in this exhibition are documents of past events, but others rely on your contribution.  Watch for the instructions printed in orange on certain object labels--these signal that it is your turn to do, take, or touch something. 


In other words, SFMOMA created a special label type for interactive elements.  This label set up a casual game for me: look for orange, do the thing. Had the participatory instructions been integrated into the standard black labels, visitors might not have be as aware of the commonalities across the interactive art pieces. The repetition of the orange may also have encourage some reluctant visitors to engage, as it suggested multiple opportunities for participation.


I had a powerful social experience in The Art of Participation around one such set of interactive objects, the One-Minute Sculptures.  The piece was a low, wide stage in the middle of the gallery with some unusual objects on it (broomsticks, fake fruit, a small fridge) and handwritten instructions by the artist encouraging visitors to balance the objects on their bodies in funny, specific ways.  About three people could fit on the stage comfortably, and the evocative and weird instructions naturally led people to try their own combinations of objects and positions.  The placement and physical dileanation of the stage was a useful device which enhanced the performative quality of the experience. People could watch what was happening from many sightlines and join in. People on the platform could turn in multiple directions to entice newcomers into the action. But it was also easy to step off the platform and out of the activity. The platform's position in the middle of a large gallery made it feel like a safe place to try strange things.


The social experience of watching other people perform easily leads to another social experience; taking pictures of each other.  I was attempting some physically amibitious one-minute sculptures of my own when I decided I wanted some visual documentation.  I asked a young man to take my picture.  He took a picture of me balanced on the fridge, and then suggested that I try a slightly different pose.  Soon, we were cheerfully art directing each other into increasingly strange poses.  We enticed onlookers to join us and gave them explicit instructions about how to pose with the objects.  The gallery turned into a group social experience in the creation of art.  I knew something unusual and powerful was happening when, several minutes into this experience, my new friend George was working on a new pose, paused, and said, "I think I'm going to take off my shirt." 


This was an incredible social experience mediated by the objects on display.  It was unique; I don't expect to experience this kind of playfulness, intellectual curiosity, and physical intimacy with every visitors with whom I engage socially in museums.  But it need not be an isolated incident.  The me-to-we pattern is at work here.  Each of us engaged first with the exhibit individually.  We could read specific instructions and then alter them to create personal expressions of self-identity.  The exhibit platform was well-positioned and designed to naturally draw in spectators and would-be participants.  There was a direct prompt to take pictures of each other (a simple social action).  And there was room and opportunity for this to evolve into open-ended and truly wild social art experiences.  What started with clear instructions evolved into a mysterious dance. 


As a final exploration of the use of instructions in motivating social experiences, let's turn to the humble audio guide. One of the most powerful instructional experiences I've ever had in a museum environment is through the work of artist Janet Cardiff.  Cardiff creates incredible soundscapes that entirely immerse you in an augmented reality that overlays evocative sounds and stories over your lived experience.  In 2005, the Hirshorn Museum commissioned Cardiff to create a 33-minute audio walk, Words Drawn on Water, around the National Mall.  Cardiff told me exactly where to go, step by step.  I walked with her on an iPod (and two colleagues by my side) on an incredible journey around museums and outdoor artscapes, experiencing objects like James Smithson's tomb and the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery in a powerful and evocative way. 


Words Drawn on Water was an amazing experience that used a combination of exacting directions and unusual narrative to draw me into an intimate series of object experiences.  It was also a highly isolating, personal experience.  Though I experienced it with friends (and we talked afterwards), throughout the audio walk each of us was lost in the minutae of our own augmented experiences.


In contrast, consider the MP3 experiments, which are live events produced by the participatory performance group Improv Everywhere. Like Cardiff, Improv Everywhere distributes audio files for people to listen to on their own personal mp3 devices.  But the MP3 experiments are explicitly social, and the instructions are used not to draw participants into personal experiences but into social ones.  Participants gather in a physical venue at a perscribed time with their own digital audio players, and everyone hits “play” at the same time. For about half an hour, hundreds of people play together silently, as directed by disembodied voices inside their headphones. The city becomes their gameboard, and objects are activated as social opportunities. They use checkerboard-tiled plazas as boards for giant games of Twister.  Participants point at things, follow people, and physically connect with each other.  The MP3 experiment is a model for how a typically isolating experience—listening to headphones in public—can become the basis for a powerful interpersonal experience with strangers.


The MP3 experiment is an exercise in following instructions. The voice tells you what to do – stand up, shake hands, play Twister, make silly shapes—and you do it. Over the years, the experiment has grown in popularity, and participants have a sense that they will be asked to do something a little unusual in the context of the event. But it’s still impressive how quickly the recording sets a supportive tone in the face of absurdity.  And it's interesting to compare the use of instructions in Words Drawn in Water versus the MP3 experiment to see why one is individual and the other social.


In both Words Drawn on Water and the MP3 experiment, the audio track overlays unusual instructions and suggestions onto a familiar landscape.  But Cardiff layers on strange and surprising narrative elements that confuse and unsettle the listener.  This confusion leads to a hyper-focus on self as the listener grapples with basic questions of direct and personal import: where am I?  Is there really a bee over there?  Why am I hearing soldiers?  As the audio piece continues, the listener continues to follow the specific instructions on where to step, but is immersed a private world of secrets and strange thoughts.


In contrast, the MP3 experiment adds a layer of silliness and play, not story and mystery, to the instructional set.  Unlike the step-by-step instructions in Words Drawn on Water, which make you feel as though you have to keep up or it might leave you behind, Improv Everywhere treats participants like preschoolers (in a good way), giving them lots of time to perform tasks and rewarding them energetically for doing so.


Deconstructing just the first few minutes of an MP3 Experiment audio piece reveals a lot about what makes this project so successful as a social experience.  In the case of the 2006 implementation, the recording starts with two and a half minutes of music without talking. While this feels long if you are listening at home, in the context of the event it’s a way to get comfortable with the whole idea of the experiment without being asked to do something right away.  Unlike Cardiff, who launches you into action, Improv Everywhere lets you have some time to get ready.


Two and a half minutes in, the “omnipotent voice” Steve introduces himself. He explains that you will have to follow his instructions to have “the most pleasant afternoon together.” Steve has a deep, fake “god” voice, which makes him sound both benevolent and like someone you want to please. He’s not your friend, but he likes you. He’s not quite human, but he understands your world. You feel like you are in safe hands.


The first thing Steve asks you to do is to look around the park to see who else is participating—or not. This is an incredibly easy introductory task that doesn’t make you look silly. It bolsters your confidence that others are participating and that they also look like regular folks, not stupid at all. Then he asks you to take a deep breath. Again: easy, non-conspicuous, non-threatening.


Finally, at 3:45, after those two non-physical activities, Steve asks you to stand up. Like a preschool teacher, he asks you three times if you are ready, and then says, “stand up now.” He asks you to wave to others who are standing up. Now you are starting to feel a little foolish and exposed, but also welcomed by the others who are waving to you. It’s a friendly kind of discomfort, and you’ve had enough build-up to feel okay doing what you are told.


At 4:30, Steve starts a “pointing game” in which he asks you to point to the tallest building you can see, then the Statue of Liberty, then Nicaragua. For each of these, he says to point even if you can’t see the place – just point to where you think it is. You don’t have to have the right answer: you just have to try. After giving you a few seconds, Steve always says, “good.” After the Nicaragua question, Steve says, “Most of you are pretty good at geography.” This is hugely generous of Steve. He could easily make fun of the (likely many) people who can’t identify the direction of Nicaragua. Instead, he declares that you are pretty good.


Finally, Steve asks you to point to the ugliest cloud. These silly requests establish complicity between you and him, an understanding that you are special people doing special things. You have moved from making a factual judgment to a subjective one, and again, Steve validates your choice, saying, “I agree. That cloud is pretty ugly.”


The experiment continues, and participants do stranger and stranger things—following people, playing freeze tag, taking pictures of each other, forming a giant dartboard. But it’s all founded on those first few minutes, which create an environment of safe progression, clear instruction, and emotional validation.


Is the MP3 Experiment superior to Words Drawn in Water?  Not at all.  The two audio pieces are optimized for different kinds of experiences, one social, the other narrative.  It's all in the way the instructions are delivered. 






Perhaps the most common tool used to activate museum artifacts as social objects is the question.  More direct than juxtaposition and more open-ended than instructions, asking visitors questions is often seen as a kinder, gentler way to nudge visitors towards certain kinds of discussions and social experiences.  Questions are easy to write and require significantly lower design risks than either juxtaposition or instructions.  These make questions a simple tool to implement, but it is just as challenging to write a great question that motivates social engagement as it is to do other kinds of social platform design.


Unfortunately, the ease of implementation often leads to misguided, poorly thought-out, or downright stupid uses of questions in label text and throughout museums.  Asking a question, even providing a talk-back location for visitors to answer the question, does not guarantee an engaging social experience. In reality, most of our questions are too earnest, too leading, too obvious, to spark interest, let alone engagement.  Some questions are nagging parents, asking "how will your actions affect global warming?"  Others are teachers who want parroted answers, inquiring, "what is nanotechnology?"  Some pander facetiously.  And worse of all, in most cases, there is no intent on the part of the question-asker to listen to the answer.   As one exhibit designer commented to me, questions can feel fake, even condescending, like we're handing out little "talk back opportunities" just to give visitors something to do.


Any time you ask a question--in an exhibition or otherwise--you should make sure that you have a genuine interest in hearing the answer.  I think this is a reasonable rule to live by in all venues that promote dialogue.  Have you ever had someone ask you a question and not care to hear the answer? I used to be TERRIBLE about this. My husband still frequently calls me on it.  I'll ask him a question, and then literally walk out of the room. It's disrespectful. It's rude. And more than that, it begs the question: why did I ask him in the first place?


Why do we ask visitors questions in exhibitions? It shouldn't be a half-hearted gesture, questions tossed out without any listening to follow.  Questions are relational devices that can create new connections between people and objects and people and each other.  There are many reasons to ask questions in exhibitions.  Sometimes a question may cause you to reflect personally on an experience or concept.  In other cases, questions might be posed that encourage you to discuss your response with other visitors.  In facilitated experiences, staff might enter into direct one-on-one dialogue with visitors.  And in talkback stations, questions may be used as the basis of a networked set of visitor responses over time available for all to peruse.  These are all different kinds of social object experiences. Staff don't have to be there physically to receive and respond to every visitor's answer, and there don't even have to be physical mechanisms in all cases for visitors to share their answers with each other.  But the design of the question must value the time and intelligence of each visitor, so that answering the question, or entering dialogue sparked by a question, has clear and appealing rewards.


There are two parts to the question of how to design questions for social engagement:  What are the right questions, and what are the right ways to ask them?


Make Sure You Care


There may be no "right" questions when it comes to museum experiences, but there are certainly wrong ones.  To be successful social tools, questions should be personally, compelling, and most of all, they should inspire interesting answers.  The right questions can be short or long, simple or wacky. They can require yes/no responses or lengthy paragraphs. The key is that they are genuinely interesting and that they trigger a learning response both for the person who chooses to answer and the person who chooses just to spectate. This is the golden rule of developing questions for visitor dialogue: you must be truly interested in their answers. If you don't care about the answer to the question, why on earth should anyone else?


There's a very simple way to test if a question is interesting or not, and whether it yields interesting responses: ask it.  Take your question out for a spin.  Ask it to ten people, or twenty, and see what kind of responses you get.  Ask the question to your colleagues.  Ask your family.  Ask yourself.  Listen to or read their answers. If you find yourself dreading asking the tenth person that same question, you have the wrong question.


One of the most cared-for questions posed in the last few years in a museum venue was developed by Frank Warren, the man behind the PostSecret project.  PostSecret is a very simple participatory project.  Frank asks people to anonymously contribute secrets they've never told anyone before by sending him postcards in the mail.  He encourages people to make their postcards brief, legible, and creative.  When PostSecret was launched in the Art-o-Matic community exhibition in 2004, Frank handed out 3,000 self-addressed postcards to strangers on the street to get the project started.  He received about 100--some funny, some heartwrenching, many beautiful--all of which went on exhibit.  Art-o-Matic ended, and Frank thought things were done.  But that was just the beginning.


PostSecret has become a worldwide phenomenon.  By 2009, Frank had received hundreds of thousands of postcards.  He publishes about 20 of his favorites each Sunday on his blog, which receives millions of hits weekly. He has published five books of postcards and has put on numerous gallery and museum shows of the postcards. I heard him speak at the American Visionary Art Museum in 2006 along with a crowd of at least 300 people who came to see (and handle!) the cards, get books signed, share their own secrets, and express their passion for this project. 


The success of PostSecret is essentially based on the power of the question, "What is a secret you've never told anyone?"  It is, by design, one of the most personal questions there is.  It's a question that people are only willing to answer anonymously, and when they do, they generate evocative, haunting responses.  As Frank put it, "their courage makes the art meaningful."  The contributors care deeply about their answers, and they labor to create something of value, a worthy vehicle for their secrets.  While the postcards may not be aesthetically outstanding, the power of authentic, courageous voices shines through.


One of the reasons these voices shine through is that Frank presents himself as a compassionate, interested listener.  He publishes his home address for people to mail in their postcards, which helps establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect between a secret-giver and its recipient.  You aren't sending your postcard to the masses; you are sending it to Frank, a guy who will read it and will treat you and your secret generously and with love.  When I heard Frank speak, I was amazed by his humility and his love and respect for the people who send in postcards.  I would quickly fatigue of the cards revealing hidden affairs, thoughts of suicide, and peeing in the shower (the most common secret), but Frank appears to have a boundless enthusiasm for the postcards.  Frank said that each time he gets a postcard in the mail, he feels like he is holding “a living secret being experienced in real-time." This is a man with secrets of his own, for whom the question and its answering is a cathartic and necessary event.  He is, in other words, the ideal listener to pose this question. 


But he's not the only listener out there.  PostSecret is sustained and grows because the question induces a compelling spectator experience.  There are many more people who read PostSecret cards than will ever submit their own.  There’s an urgency to the secrets—even ones that have been hidden for tens of years—because the postcard represents the moment at which it was finally let out. Each week, the website offers new secrets, and the old ones, stored in Frank's basement, disappear.And by curating the cards that he releases for mass consumption, Frank tailors the listening experience to model the kind of cards that he perceives as most valuable--those that are authentic, diverse, and creative.


Frank commented that he thinks we love these cards not because we’re voyeurs, but because they reveal “the essence of humanity.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but there are certainly hundreds of postcards that resonate with me personally—and I imagine with everyone who views them. Across age, gender, continent, language, the PostSecret viewers see the same desires and troubles. There were many stories of personal action taken after reading others’ cards, and appreciation for no longer feeling alone in a secret or a feeling. The PostSecret postcards are social objects that represent an incredible outpouring in response to a simple question, framed well by someone who was whole-heartedly ready to listen.  


Not every museum exhibit will spawn a question with as broad and deep an interest base as PostSecret.  There's a much less sexy question at work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "Fill the Gap" campaign.  "Fill the Gap" was a 2009 experiment in the open storage Luce Center in which visitors were invited to suggest which pieces of art might be used to fill vacancies left when other pieces went out on display or into conservation labs.  This is an object activity that requires visitors to carefully examine objects and to advocate for their inclusion by making arguments in a distributed conversation among visitors and staff.  While this activity is not as personal or as social as that of PostSecret, it is one in which there is a clear utility of visitor responses, and staff really care to hear, consider, and act on visitors' suggestions.


In all cases, it's useful to make sure you have a "Frank" in mind when you design questions for visitor response.  Who will love these responses?  Who will handle them with care?  Who will curate them for mass consumption?  If no one cares, then there's no way for the question to yield discussion.


Getting Personal


The PostSecret question is highly, almost painfully personal.  While not all questions need reveal visitors' deepest, darkest secrets, personal questions allow visitors to enter the social realm through their own unique experiences.  This is yet another expression of the me-to-we concept.   Questions like, "Why is the woman in the painting smiling?" or "What can you figure out about the person who made this object by examining it?" are visitor-agnostic; they are entirely focused on the object.  While these questions may encourage people to investigate the object, they are social dead-ends.  If your goal is to move towards a social experience, you have to start with a personal one.


One option is to ask directly personal questions that are related to the exhibition on display but aren't tied to specific artifacts.  For example, in the Denver Art Museum's exhibition on Psychedelic rock posters from the 1960s and 1970s, an accompanying participatory exhibition called Side Trip offered several personal questions for visitor comment.  Visitors were asked to share stories of "my first concert," "my first trip," or "the first time I saw... (fill in the musician here)."  There was another visitor feedback station asking people to comment based on their personal identity, reflecting on statements like, "I was a roadie," "I was a hippie," or "I was not into it."  These are highly personal questions that related to the overall themes of the exhibition and drew very compelling answers.  They set the tone for a social experience around the exhibition that encouraged interpersonal discussion about individuals' experience with the music, the lifestyles, and the mythology of hippie culture.  It helped that there were couches nearby and an overall design ethos that supported casual, intimate interpersonal interactions in the Side Trip space.


But what about personal questions that tie visitors to objects ?  The simplest kind of social object experience is one between the visitor and the object.  In this case, visitors commune with the object, investigating its meaning and connecting it to their own lives.  Rather than asking generic questions about the objects on display, questions in this category should ask visitors to bridge the objects to personal experience. 


http://finallyfeminism101.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/malegaze-comics.jpgFor example, imagine you are designing an exhibition about sexism, and you want to use a question to encourage visitors to engage more socially with the objects on display.  One of the artifacts in the exhibition is a comic book spread used to illustrate the concept of "male gaze," in which women are portrayed in film and pop culture in a way that focuses on their appeal as sexual objects rather than human subjects.  How would you develop a question to go with this artifact?


If your goal is to encourage visitors to reflect personally and engage in a private dialogue with the object, you might ask questions like: "How does this portrayal of the subject affect the way you react to her as a character in the story?"  "How do you feel when you see images like this?"  These questions are focused on the content of the artifact and may encourage visitors to engage more deeply in investigating the artifact and thinking about their personal reactions to it.  These questions are more personal than questions like, "Who is the intended audience for this image?" or "Do you think the male gaze is more prevalent in some art forms than others?" 


There's a very easy way to ensure that your question is adequately personal.  Try to find the active role for the visitor and the visitor's own experience in the question.  In the first two questions above, the question asks about how the image affects the visitor personally.  In the second set, the question asks what the visitor thinks of the object on display.  Yes, the visitor is given the opportunity to share her unique thoughts, but she is not motivated by the fact that the object, and the relationship between the object and herself, might actually have an impact on her. 


Are there techniques for developing personal questions that are most likely to yield a thoughtful and specific response?  In 2007, Exploratorium researcher Joyce Ma published a formative study on Daisy, a chatbot which engages visitors in computer-based conversation, and the types of interactions that promote "rich conversation" between the robot and visitors.  Daisy is a computer program that has a limited ability to converse with real people by way of learned linguistic patterns.  Daisy has some pre-programmed questions in her repetoire, and Joyce was studying the ways that the type of question posed affect the quality of visitor responses.


In this quick, non-exhaustive study, Joyce found that visitors responded better to Daisy when the computer program asked personal questions about the visitors themselves.  For example, as Joyce wrote, the question, "'How do I know I'm talking to a human and not just another machine?' tends to promote more self-reflection than 'Are you sure that I'm not a real person talking to you by e-mail?  What would it take to convince you?'"


Joyce also discovered that visitors were more likely to provide substantive responses when questions were posed in two parts.  This worked both to encourage visitors to elaborate and to generalize.  In the elaboration case, visitors gave more complex responses to "'Are you usually a logical person?' <visitor response>  'Give me an example.' compared to the single question 'Are you usually a logical person, or do you let your feelings affect your decisions?  Give an example of a recent logical or emotional decision you made.'"   In the generalization case, "'Are there some stereotypes that you believe?' <visitor response> 'Why do you think that?' was more effective than 'Are there some stereotypes that you believe?' <visitor response> 'Why do you think that some stereotypes are true?'"




While this was a small formative study, it's interesting to see that in an abstracted conversation with a computer--a literal social object experience--starting with personal entrypoints led to more substantive and complex visitor responses.  This use of personal entrypoints and progressive questions bore highly complex responses in a very different exhibition at the New York Historical Society in 2005 entitled Slavery in New York (source for all below: Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions).  This incredibly popular temporary exhibition used artifacts, documents, and media pieces to trace the role of the slave trade in New York City's history.  At the end of the exhibition, there was a story-capture station at which visitors could record video responses to a series of four questions about their reactions to the exhibition.  The story capture experience averaged ten minutes, with visitors being given four minutes to respond to each personal, relatively imprecise question about how the exhibition affected the them.  Richard Rabinowitz, curator of exhibition, noted that the progressive nature of the questions yielded increasingly complex responses, and that "it was typically in response to the third or fourth question that visitors, now warmed up, typically began relating the exhibition to their previous knowledge and experience."   A lone "What do you think?" question station is not necessarily enough to elicit the rich personal reactions visitors might have to exhibitions.  Rabinowitz commented that "as a 40-year veteran of history museum interpretation, I can say that I never learned so much from and about visitors."  It was the lengthy progressive response process that turned what is often a series of brief and banal comments into a rich archive of visitor experience.


The visitor responses to Slavery in New York also demonstrate the power of exhibits and questions that deal with personal impact rather than external visitor opinions.  About 3% of visitors to the exhibition chose to record their reactions to Slavery in New York, of whom 80% were African-American.  This representation was disproportionate relative to the overall demographics of visitors to the exhibition (estimated by Rabinowitz at 60% African American over the course of the exhibition), suggesting that more African-American visitors were moved to share their responses than members of other races.  These visitors likely felt more directly impacted by the exhibition, as it was telling a story that was internal, not external, to their lived experience.  While all of the visitor responses were personal, the majority explicitly linked the exhibition to their own personal histories.  "A young woman promised that she would feel very differently about 'returning to work on Wall Street next week, knowing that it was first built by people who looked like me.'"  Another group of young men internalized the exhibition in a relational way, saying "After seeing this exhibit I know now why I want to jump you when I see you in the street.  I have a better idea about the anger I feel and why I sometimes feel violent towards you."  Chris Lawrence, then a student working with Rabinowitz to manage the videos, commented that "this visitor addressed the camera as 'you,' placing the institution as 'white' and to a lesser degree as 'oppressor.'  This sentiment was not exclusive to teenagers, as many African Americans referenced the New-York Historical Society as a white or European-American institution and took the opportunity to speak directly to that perspective."  This was clearly a social question experience, in which visitors perceived themselves to be in dialogue between "me" the visitor and "you" the museum.



What if?


Personal questions are a wonderful way to pull visitors into dialogue with objects and museum content.  But what about situations where you want to use questions to encourage visitors to converse with each other?  If your goal is to promote interpersonal dialogue, you have to move people from me to we in a platform that encourages visitors to build on and respond to each other's responses.   One of the most powerful ways to do this is via speculative questions which ask visitors to imagine possibilities rather than describing personal experiences.  Speculative questions let visitors move away from the world of things they "know" or experience and into unknown territory.  That entry into the unknown allows people to comfortably brainstorm with people who are different from them.  I might never engage in useful discourse on the question of whether people should drive SUVs but I might have a great conversation with others on the question of how our lives would change if there were no cars.  The most social "what if?" questions are posed in a way that motivate visitors to collaborate with each other to come up with shared visions of the future or potential situations.


In the previous chapter, we examined the Signtific game and the way that it supports interpersonal dialogue around speculative questions about the future of science.  The Signtific game employs two key design techniques to function as a social experience: the question it asks is speculative and outside the realm of most players' lived experience, and the responses are required to fit into various dialogic forms in which users explicitly respond to each other's answers.  This combination creates a playspace in which people comfortably explore bizarre potential scenarios and build on each other's work.  The platform is optimized to enhance interpersonal play and to encourage users to submit their strangest and most imaginative responses.


Speculative questions don't have to be off the wall to induce imaginative play states.  In 2007, game designer Ken Eklund launched World Without Oil, a collaborative serious game in which people responded to a fictional but highly plausible oil shock that restricted availability and increased cost of fuel around the world.  The game was very simple; each day, a central website published the price and availability of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.  The game website was the hub of an alternate reality in which time moved more quickly (32 weeks of alternate reality compressed into 10 weeks of play) and gasoline became increasingly scarce.  To play, participants submitted their own personal visions of how they would survive in this speculative reality.  People wrote blog posts, sent in videos, and called in voice messages.  Many of them actually created real-world artifacts and documented how the oil shock was affecting their local gas stations, farmer's markets, and transportation systems.  These player submissions--over 1,500 in all--were distributed across the web and networked by the game web site.  Ken talks about these 1,500 contributions comprising a "web" of shared narrative, with various players building on each others' ideas, intersecting, overlapping, and collaboratively (and messily) developing a community response to the speculative situation.  As one player commented: "rather than just getting people to 'think about' the problem, it [WWO] actually gets a large and actively interested community of people to throw ideas off of each other through their in-game blog posts, and the out-of-game Alternate Reality Game community. There's some potential for innovation there, for someone to think up a brilliant lifestyle change for the better that people can start jumping on board with." The link to reality--to real news and real oil crunch experiences--furthered players' interests in the fictitious cataclysmic event, and the cataclysmic fiction spurred real world action. Many players made substantive changes to the way they travel, consume, and function in their everyday lives.  As another player put it, "We hope that the people who play the game will ultimately live some of what they 'pretend' if they don't already. "


That "we" was not accidental.  This player felt that he was part of a community of people who were committed to exploring how an oil shock might affect us all.  And this community, brought together through fiction, still thrives in a world that is increasingly and eerily reflecting that of the game.  When World Without Oil launched, the inciting event was the release of gas prices that were so dramatically high compared to then-average and historical prices that they were clearly a fiction at $4.12/gallon.  One year later, in 2008, oil spiked, and gas prices exceeded the initial World Without Oil figures.  The people who had played World Without Oil didn't just respond to questions about a science fiction scenario.  Their answers, and their lived experience of the game, made them more prepared to thrive and lead in the real world.  


Speculative questions can often seem too silly to couple with serious museum content, which is about typically focused on vetted rather than imaginative experiences.  But there are many questions like the one posed in World Without Oil that are just close enough to reality to offer an intriguing window into a likely future.  


Speculative questions don't have to be couched in a global life-changing scenario; they can also be used to encourage visitors to experience objects in an imaginative light.  In the summer of 2009, the Powerhouse Museum opened a temporary gallery called The Odditoreum which presented eighteen very odd objects alongside fanciful (and fictitious) labels written by children's book author Shaun Tan, schoolchildren, and visitors.  The Odditoreum featured a participatory area in which visitors could "write your own label" to go with the bizarre objects on display.  This component is very successful, in no small part due to the speculative nature of the question at hand.  There are several museums that have experimented with "write your own label" programs, but they tend to involve some programmatic hand-holding to help people get over the threshold fear that they will do it "wrong" in some way. There is no wrong answer to the question, "what do you imagine this thing might be in your wildest dreams?" It is a much easier and less pointed a question than, "what do you think this thing is?"


The visitor-submitted labels appear to be inventive and on-topic. People had fun with this experience, and who could blame them? We make up stories about strange objects all the time--the makeup torture devices in our aunt's bathroom, the weird old statue in the outhouse. We use these stories to try to understand objects and the people who own and use them, and to poke a little fun while we're at it.  Every visitor who wrote a label had to engage socially with the objects deeply to look for details that might support various concepts and develop a story that reasonably fit the object at hand. 


The speculative question partly succeeded in this case because the framing of the gallery was about imagination and meaning-making form objects, not silliness or childishness.  While the Odditoreum was initiated fairly explicitly for children and family on holiday, the Powerhouse didn't message it as something just for kids. The introductory label talked about "strangeness, mystery, and oddity" and commented that, "when things are strange, the brain sends out feelers for meaning." This is a powerful statement that encouraged visitors to really think about the "why" of these objects. It made me recall researcher Sherry Turkle's work with "evocative objects" and her statement that "we love the objects we think with." At the 2009 AAM conference, Sherry struggled to provide us with a good metric for determining which objects are evocative enough to have emotional and intellectual resonance. It appears that the Odditoreum was full of these, and that the framing--both by Shaun Tam and by the Powerhouse--accentuated the mystical power of the objects rather than their ridiculousness.


The Odditoreum was also carefully designed to encourage imaginative play with the objects without overly focusing on the "real" story of each object.  The official labels for the objects featured fanciful stories by Shaun Tam and schoolchildren, and these stories modeled for visitors the behavior requested in the talk back area.  In particular, the presentation of schoolchildren's stories alongside the celebrated author modeled the idea that anyone could be a successful contributor of interpretative content.  And the Powerhouse team dealt delicately with the presentation of the "real" information about each object. As Public Programs Producer Helen Whitty put it: "I didn’t want the fantasy label immediately next to the real information, thus spoiling the approach (’really you thought we were going to fun but really its business as usual’)."  Instead, the museum mounted the real information ("What they actually are!") together on one large panel nearby. It's available, but it's not the point of the whole exercise.


Framing Questions in Exhibitions


The Odditoreum is an excellent example of a well-designed framework for social object questions.  Standing alone in a typical museum gallery, a label like "What else might this object have been used for?  Use your imagination!" might have yielded more trivial results.  But the Odditoreum contextualized the imaginative activity of reinterpreting objects by modeling an experience that supports deep engagement with the objects. 


You don't need an entire gallery to frame a social object question, but you do need to think about how the question or questions will be designed into the experince for maximum impact.  The most common placement for questions is at the end of content labels, but this location is by no means the most effective.  Positioning questions at the end of labels accentuates the perception that they are rhetorical, or worse, afterthoughts.  If you are hoping for visitors to discuss their responses to questions with each other, or to share their answers with the institution, you can't end with the question; you need to also provide a vehicle for answers.


If your goal is to encourage visitors to share complex, personal responses to questions, designing private booths for visitor responses, such as that used in Slavery in New York or in the popular StoryCorps project, is effective.  When you want visitors to spend a long time reflecting and sharing their thoughts, you need to design spaces for response that are comfortable and minimize distractions.


If your goal is to motivate dialogue between visitors and objects, questions and answer stations should be as proximate to the objects of interest as possible.  Visitors can speak more comfortably and richly about objects that they are looking at than objects they saw 30 minutes earlier in the exhibition.


If you want to invite a wide diversity of visitors to respond to questions, it is best to design them into a context where visitor responses are of comparable aesthetics to the "official" museum content in the exhibition.  If a label is printed beautifully on plexiglass and visitors are expected to write responses in crayon on post-its, visitors may feel that their contributions are not valued or respected, and may respond accordingly.  One of the things that makes the visitor stories contributed in the Denver Art Museum's Side Trip exhibition so compelling and on-topic is a design approach that elevates visitors' responses to comparable footing with the predesigned content.  The vast majority of the signage in Side Trip was handwritten in pen on ripped cardboard, which meant that visitors' contributions (pen on paper) looked consistent in the context of the exhibition.  By simplifying and personalizing the design technique used for the institutional voice, visitors felt like they were part of a natural conversation with the institution.


If you want visitors to answer questions collaboratively, whether in real-time or in a distributed manner, make sure your question and answer structure clearly supports visitors building on each other's ideas.  Unfortunately, most talk back walls don't support the grouping of visitor contributions or attempt to encourage conversational threads to develop.  The Signtific game does this virtually by encouraging players to respond to each other by "following up" on other players' entries.  But you could easily imagine doing something similar in physical space, either by using different color paper or pens for different types of questions and responses, or by explicitly encouraging visitors to comment on each other's responses or group their thoughts with like-minded (or opposing) visitor contributions.


If you want visitors to consume and enter in dialogue each other's responses, make sure that the questions are posed in a way and location that makes them most useful to others.  For example, the Santa Cruz public library does an annual summer book recommendation wall, on which patrons can post their mini-reviews of books they've read and enjoyed.  This wall is displayed near the entrance/exit of the library, in a natural place where visitors look for information about books.  The question posed is, "would you recommend this book to someone?" This question is powerful because it is highly functional--patrons understand how it will be useful to others. It is somewhat personal but doesn't ask the respondent to be an authority in describing the book, just in sharing why he would recommend it. There's an implied interpersonal transaction in the offering of this information, which makes the experience feel valuable and personal without pushing face-to-face interaction on anyone.






When describing how successful online platforms promote social object experiences, Jyri Engstrom commented that it is essential that users be able to share the objects of interest.  People have always shared social objects, whether via newspaper clippings, mixtapes, or chain letters, but the internet has made sharing personal and cultural media products easier and cheaper.  In the case of online social networks like Flickr and YouTube, every object has several automatically-generated ways to share it. The objects can be emailed, embedded, linked, and blogged.  In some cases, online sharing of objects is illegal, and users functionally force non-social objects to become social by finding ways around the walls, but increasingly, content producers want users to share their content far and wide.  In 2008, a team led by MIT media researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled, "If it Doesn't Spread, It's Dead," which argues that media artifacts have greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt, and remix them.  He argues that spreadability isn't just a way for marketers to expand their reach; it also supports users' "processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them."


What can museums do to make their artifacts shareable?  There are two levels of “shareability” at work here: the extent to which institutions share their objects with visitors, and the extent to which visitors can share their object experiences with each other.  


There are many designed ways, from exhibits to interactives to programs to performances, that museums share their objects with visitors.  These sharing techniques are largely governed by two goals: offering high-quality object experiences to visitors, and preserving artifacts safely.  Museums must be able to ensure that objects will not be unreasonably damaged or endangered by sharing them.  Typically, this involves housing artifacts in cases, designing mediating technologies for visitor consumption, and storing and caring for the objects off public view when necessary. In some cases, museums create “learning kits” of artifacts or replicas that are considered safe for visitors to paw through, but museums are famous for taking objects that were not previously rigorously protected (for example, farm equipment) and restricting visitors’ access to them.


Are there other options that might enable institutions to share objects a bit more freely?  Clearly public and university libraries make the strategic decision that the value of lending out collection items (books) is more important than conserving them.  Similarly, many university museums lend art for hanging in professors’ offices and student dorm rooms, taking the stance that activating the collection across the institution and the university community is more important than maintaining perfect climate control and lighting conditions.  


One of my favorite examples of an institution making its objects more shareable was the Sculptural Travel Bugs project at the Bellevue Art Center.  In 2008, as part of their annual teen sculpture show, the Bellevue Art Center decided to take a new spin on the concept of "public art" and send the sculptures out into the public rather than displaying them at their home institution.  200 sculptures were tagged with unique Travel Bugs, which are like dog tags for objects.  These Travel Bugs tied the sculptures to a geocaching online social network, geocaching.com.  Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting activity in which people use GPS devices to track down and locate "caches," which are typically obscure locations marked with a hidden object or store of objects.  As Sculptural Travel Bugs project lead Seth Leary put it, Geocaching.com is "MySpace for inanimate objects"--a place to track the discovery and placement of new items and caches.  


In the case of the Sculptural Travel Bugs project, all of the teen sculptures were "released" in a cache near the Art Center.  Geocachers in the Seattle area could retrieve the sculptures and move them to other caches around the area, with the goal of sending the sculptures on a public tour of the region before (hopefully) returning to Bellevue at the end of the project.  Geocachers could use the Bugs as unique identifiers to log the places the sculptures went.  Geocachers took the sculptures hundreds of miles, to other cultural sites, to obscure wooded locations, and even to their homes to be mended on their travels.  While the sculptures mostly traveled through a small community of geocachers, this project was one simple way to push the boundaries of what it means to make art public and to share it with others.


At a conceptual level, the extent to which an institution shares its objects is a reflection of how clearly people will see the institution as a publicly-owned utility rather than a private collection. What museum staff see as protecting and conserving, some visitors may see as hoarding.  Museum mission statements often talk about the collections being in the public trust, but from the public perspective, the objects are owned by the building that houses them.  Visitors can’t visit objects whenever they like.  They can’t take them home or sit with them in the evening.  Museums share their objects parsimoniously, at strict and rule-bound visiting hours, for a fee.  


Given that not all museums can be open 24 hours or allow visitors unrestricted access to objects, how else might institutions share objects with visitors?  Some institutions are aggressively pursuing digitization projects so that digital reproductions and recordings of objects, if not the objects themselves, can be made available for use by people around the world.  In the best cases, these digitized items are situated within platforms that have many social tools which make sharing easy and automatic.  In some cases, this means housing museum content on third party social networks like Flickr.  In other cases, museums build their own platforms with custom functions and design that (hopefully) allow sharing while promoting additional institutional values and digital experiences around the objects.  And in some particularly radical cases, museums share their digital collection content and software coding openly with external programmers, who can then develop their own platforms and experiences around the digital media.


And this leads to the other side of shareability, the side that Jyri Engestrom was after: users should be able to share objects with each other.  The most basic way that visitors share museum objects with each other is through their photographs.  Taking photographs is a way for visitors to memorialize their experiences, add their own personal imprint on the cultural artifacts, and share their memories with friends and families.  The social web has ushered in an era of highly active cultural self-documentation, and there are many people taking photos and videos of their pets, meals, and daily experiences to share with friends and social networks.  In 2009, the Current TV program "Viral Video Film School" documented the extremely popular phenomena of YouTube-based self-documentation of objects, in which people produced videos of themselves showing off their  purchases, tattoos, boats, and dorm rooms.  When visitors take photos in museums, they aren't (for the most part) trying to capture the essential essence of an object, or to create its most stunning likeness.  Most people are taking photos of each other with artifacts, making social commentary on the experience, and generally marking their path.  When people share these photos and videos with each other, either personally via email or in a more distributed fashion via social networks, it's a way to express themselves, their affinity for certain institutions or objects, and simply to say, "I was here."


Many of the network effect activities described in Chapter 3 can serve as the basis for social sharing experiences.  For example, if you develop a recommendation system, you are functionally enabling visitors to share their favorite objects with each other. The same is true for talkback walls, which are ways for visitors to share comments and reflections with each other.  Some museums are experimenting with high-tech social platforms that invite visitors to send in photos and text messages to a central institutional account, which then shares visitors' messages and images both onsite on screens and on the museum website.  For example, visitors to the Mattress Factory can send a text message to a single number from anywhere in the museum (or in the rest of the world).  Those text messages are then shown in real-time on a screen in the museum lobby.  The goal of platforms like this is to network the personal acts of text messaging or sending photos so that they can be shared with a larger audience.


But there's a problem with this approach.  Many of these platforms experience low participation, even in insitutions where visitors are text messaging and snapping photos all over the place.  One significant reason these platforms struggle is that visitors are not effectively networked to the institution via their own personal entrypoints.  When a visitor sends a message to her own friends or social network, the "me-to-we" principle is at work.  She is motivated to send out a message, because she is sending it to her own personal network.  If museums want to become platforms for social sharing across their objects, they need to first establish personal relationships with visitors, so that visitors feel that the museum is part of their own personal network.  Once visitors see the museum as part of their personal networks, they perceive the larger museum community as one with which they want to share their content.


Gifting is a closely related social object activity to sharing.  In his examination of how to design good social object platforms, Jyri Engestrom notes that "invitations should be posed as gifts."  On the web, this principle has been applied ad nauseum, and most of us cringe when we receive another "gift" of an invitation to join a new social network.  Many people are more confused than pleased to receive the gift of a virtual taco on Facebook.  But the core principle of gifting is strong.  Like sharing, gifting is a powerful participatory mechanic that brings people together socially.  


Most gifting is personal, both in real life and on the web. I give my friend a cookie. My dad sends me a NYTimes article. Personal gifting makes for powerful participation because you are directly interacting with another individual. But it's small-scale and typically occurs between people with a pre-existing relationship. We aren't culturally comfortable giving gifts directly to perfect strangers.


Objects in social networks can mediate gifting experiences between stangers by taking the pressure off of the direct person-to-person contact.  For example, consider my friend Leo, who had a thrilling experience in 2008 when a perfect stranger ahead of him in line at a tollbooth paid Leo's toll in addition to her own.  It would be extremely strange to walk up to someone's car window and offer them $2.50 for the toll. They might be offended. They might be suspicious. But by giving this gift through the toll booth operator, you shuttle the unsafe personal transaction through a safe transaction venue. It's semi-anonymous: the receiver can perceive the giver and his little blue Honda, but neither party is threatened by the requirement to actually engage with the other. And rather than impacting two people (giver and receiver), it impacts three (tollbooth operator).

The tollbooth enables personal giving between strangers and brings a third person into the experience. Arguably, three people who would never have met now get to share a nice experience and memory of generosity.  And while the money is the gift, the object that mediates the social experience is the tollbooth itself.


The problem with the tollbooth is that it is not situated in a platform that accentuates its potential as a social object.  It is only by force of personal initiative that people pay tolls for the strangers behind them. But imagine if the Toll Authority decided that promoting social gifting was a goal they wanted to focus on.  How would you redesign tollbooths to promote gifting?  Maybe you'd add a sign that tracks the number of gift tolls paid each day.  Maybe there would be a discount or a special perk for people who pay for each others' tolls.  There might even be a special fast-track lane for gifting, where each driver takes a gamble that she might either be a gifter or giftee depending on the lineup.


This sounds silly, but think about the potential benefits to the Toll Authority.  Cars would move through lines more quickly because some would be paying for two.  Rather than seeing toll operators as collection agents, drivers might see them as transmitters and facilitators of good will.  And the whole experience of going through the tolls would be generally more exciting.


Could museum admission comparably be transformed into a gift (where the social object is the museum experience)?  I once worked at a museum where student visits were free and largely subsidized by memberships and paid admissions.  At one point, the director suggested that we change the general admission policy so that paid visitors would purchase "free tickets" for students rather than paying for their own visits.  This would not have been a change in price, but it might have changed the way visitors perceive their contribution to the institution.  The Bronx Zoo implemented a version of this idea with their Congo Gorilla Forest, which costs $3 to enter.  At the end of the visit experience, visitors approach computer kiosks at which they can explore different Congo-related conservation projects and select a project to receive their admission fee.  In this way, the Zoo transformed admission into a gift.  This makes visitors feel generous and changes their understanding of how their money is used by the zoo.  But it also introduces a huge range of visitors to the idea that they could be donors and activists in support of worldwide conservation, an important message that would be challenging for the Zoo to convey as effectively with a sign and a donation box.


What other museum objects could be turned into gifts or invitations into a social experience? Many museums have interactive exhibits in which visitors can produce simple media pieces (photos, audio, video) to email home or to a friend.  In most cases, these products are thought of as mementos of the onsite experience, and visitors are rarely prompted to think of a recipient for their actions before they start producing their bit.  But it would certainly be possible to encourage visitors to actively think of a friend or family member who would enjoy a given exhibit or object.  The institution could provide standardized ways for visitors to share object experiences with others, either through low-tech devices like postcards or digital interfaces.  In the mid-1990s, many bars and restaurants began to feature racks of free postcards promoting advertising messages.  Imagine if, instead of a free catalog sheet, each exhibition offered free postcards of objects in the galleries within, pre-printed with messages about the show?  Visitors could pick their favorite postcards and mail off invitations to friends to visit the object on display right from the exhibition hall.  Or, similarly, visitors could visit a computer kiosk to personalize an e-card to friends that features the objects or experiences they perceive as the greatest potential "gifts" to their associates.   


Once you support a gifting mechanism, there are some compelling designed objects you can create to amplify and socialize its value.  Marini's ice cream and candy shop in Santa Cruz, CA, takes an innovative and instructive approach to the gifting experience. Marini’s is a locally-owned store with a friendly, funky atmosphere. In summer, when the store is busy, they put up a chalkboard-style “gift board” next to the menu board. When you buy a gift certificate for someone at Marini’s, the purchase is an (opt-in) public act: the staff member writes on the gift board, “Nina gives Julia a hot fudge sundae” or “Ben gives Theo a double-scoop cone.” When you come in to use a gift certificate and claim your gift, the message comes off the wall.


Readers familiar with Facebook and MySpace will spot the relationship between this ice cream gift board and the interpersonal exchange-based interactions on social networking sites.  Social networking sites have turned gifting into a public act by enabling people to send gifts (virtual tacos, messages on walls, snowballs) and broadcast their gift-giving on public profiles. In this way, a traditionally private interpersonal exchange becomes a collective experience by which the generosity of the gift-giver and the worthiness of the receiver can be witnessed and acknowledged by others.


When Marini’s decided to transform their gift certificate program into a gift board program, they capitalized on the same design strategy that social networks use in making gifts public. There are benefits for gift-givers, who look generous, and gift-getters, who are publicly adored. It also introduces a casual storyline to the store. Will Julia redeem her sundae? Why did Theo deserve that double-scoop? The store positions itself as part of the emotional life of its patrons in a public way. Stores always tell you that gift certificates are a great way to show people you care. Now, Marini’s is showing the value of gift certificates, and receiving benefits in the form of higher certificate sales. Perhaps there's a way for visitors to publicly memorialize the "gift" of artifacts to friends and family in a similar way. 


Live Interpretation


One of the most frequent ways that objects are activated socially in museums is through staff performances, tours, and demonstrations.  For the purposes of this book, I am not focusing on the many fabulous ways that live interpretation helps people understand and experience the power of museum objects, but instead, looking solely at the ways that interpretation socializes the experience.  In the previous chapter, we looked at ways that staff can transform one-way content delivery into more networked pathways for conversation and learning.  In this section, a brief look at the ways that staff can socialize experiences around objects, in many cases by accentuating the content as personal, relational, active, or provocative.


What does it take to make a good live interpretation experience a social one?  There are some obvious answers.  Demonstrations that involve "guests from the audience" or encourage small groups of visitors to engage personally with objects allow visitors to confidently connect with objects in a personal way.  In some programmatic experiences, visitors are invited to act as guest experts, or to compete against each other to use objects creatively to develop new ideas or meaning around them.  These kinds of experiences don't just use visitors as a prop but engage them personally and actively in connection with museum objects.  Relatedly, staff who ask meaningful questions, give visitors time to respond, and facilitate group conversations lead unique and powerful social experiences.  Unfortunately, many museum theater programs are moving towards more highly produced shows, designed more to "wow" visitors than to engage them socially.  The more theatrical the overall experience, the less visitors feel like they have a voice in the matter, and the less likely the show is to accommodate dialogue. 


There are some museums experimenting with interpretative practices that are deliberately and explicitly social.  In the world of art museums, the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) interpretative method, developed by museum educator Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen in the late 1980s, is a constructivist teaching technique used to encourage visitors to learn about art by engaging in dialogue with the art itself.  VTS is simple on the surface.  Staff use three basic questions: "What's going on in this picture?" "What do you see that makes you say that?" "What more can we find?" to facilitate discussion.  Staff neutrally rephrase visitors' comments to validate the interpretations, and use the questions to keep the conversation going.  This simple set of questions keeps visitors focused on the art object itself, while supporting the value of different visitors' interpretations.  Unlike traditional museum art tours, VTS facilitators do not provide historical or art historical context for the art that is discussed; in most cases, they don't even give basic information about the artist and the piece.  The point is not for the staff member to confer knowledge, but to encourage visitors to think openly, vocally, and socially about what art means and how it works.  By encouraging visitors to talk through their observations, VTS models a kind of dialogue that visitors could continue to employ outside of the facilitated experience.


The Exploratorium has been experimenting with a related group inquiry technique in which staff teach visitors a simple game that encourages them to explore scientific phenomena in an inquiry-based method which visitors are then intended to use on their own throughout their visit.  There were two goals: to help visitors develop inquiry learning skills, and to provide visitors with some support that could help them improve their group experience at the museum.  While visitor behavior in hands-on science centers and art museums is quite different, the perceived educational value of visitor-driven inquiry and group dialogue is shared.  After experimentation with different game types, the Exploratorium team settled on a game called Juicy Questions.  Here's how Juicy Questions works.  Visitors play with an interactive exhibit in small groups, and after about a minute, the facilitator asks each visitor to come up with a juicy question--an unanswered query that could be determined through use of the exhibit.  Juicy questions often take the form of "I wonder..." or "What would happen if..." or "How come..."  The group then selects a juicy question to pursue, and uses the exhibit to try to investigate and answer the question at hand.  Then, as a group, the visitors would explain what happened and what they had discovered.


Through their research, the Exploratorium team was able to confirm that compared to a control group, families who were taught the Juicy Questions game made more interpretations of the exhibits, built their explanations more collaboratively, and conducted more linked investigations, pursuing a series of increasingly sophisticated and related inquiries.  The team was able to "teach" families the Juicy Questions game in about 20 minutes, after which visitors were sent out into the museum with simple cards to remind them of how to play the game.  In follow-up studies, the team found that the game format was memorable, and some Juicy Questions families reported using the game throughout exhibit experiences as well as in their regular lives (for example, to engage in group inquiry about how a bridge on the commute home was built).  But so far, the Juicy Questions technique has only been tested with a facilitated entrypoint, and the staff introduction to the game seems like a necessary element of its success.


When it comes to museum theater, while many museums are building black boxes for "4-D" highly produced experiences, others are finding ways to integrate theatrical experiences into exhibition spaces, more naturally connecting visitors to objects in low-key, potentially social environments.  One of the best examples of this I've seen is in the Power of Children exhibition at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.  This exhibition features the stories of three famous courageous children throughout history: Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White.  There are three spaces in the exhibit that can transition from open exhibit space to closed theater space via a couple of strategically placed doors. There are several 10-15 minute shows in the exhibition per day, each of which features a single adult actor. We watched one of the Ruby Bridges shows in an exhibit space designed to simulate the classroom in which Ruby took her first grade classes alone. Ruby is the black girl immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting walking to school between two US marshals. She spent a year going to school by herself because all the white parents chose to remove their children from school rather than have them contaminated by an African-American classmate.


In the show I watched, a male actor portrayed one of the US marshals, reflecting back on his time protecting Ruby as she walked to school. The piece was incredibly written. He bridged past and present, fiction and reality, in a way that allowed the experience to feel emotionally powerful but also respectful of our intelligence. There was some interactivity, and he used historic props (photos from the time, artifacts in the room) and questions to connect us with the story and the real person. It was the most gentle, elegant piece of theater I’ve ever experienced in a museum. I spent about half of the time with tears in my eyes.


Yes, this museum theater experience was emotionally powerful.  But it was also a distinctly successful social object experience.  The choice to use an adult actor who was both a fictitious "insider" to the story and an outsider like the rest of the audience enabled him to facilitate personal connections among all of us as a community of observers to the story.  We could relate to the personal conflict he was expressing, and he treated us as complicit partners, or confessors, to his experience. Visitors weren't asked to BE Ruby Bridges—instead, we were treated like citizens of her time, scared, confused, uncertain.  We also connected to the objects increasingly through the show because we were sitting in the set--the classroom desk chairs facing the blackboard.  The whole show allowed us to live in the imaginative space of the set.  What if I was a student alone in my own classroom?  What if people were yelling horrible things at me on my walk to get here every day?  Rather than breaking the fourth wall, the show let us onto the stage, to share it with the actor, the objects, and the story at hand.  And when the show was over, we got to stay onstage.  The fact that the room was both an exhibit space and a theatrical space meant that the show was situated in a space that I could continue to explore on my own. I could layer my own meaning onto the artifacts and props in the space in greater detail before and after the show without being rushed out, and there were opportunities to discuss the experience further with both the actor and other visitors. 


In contrast, I've experienced many painful museum theater experiences that seemed to willfully ignore visitors' desire to engage with each other socially.  At the National Constitution Center, home to some very popular large-scale theater experiences, I joined a small group for a museum theater piece about the real-life situations and issues behind major constitutional questions like the illegal immigration, search and seizure laws, and students' rights.  Four actors presented a series of vinettes, and then concluded by asking us to vote by raising our hands to indicate how we would have decided in each of the cases.  There were only ten of us in the audience, and as we raised and lowered our hands, it was painfully obvious that there was an opportunity for some really interesting facilitated dialogue about our different opinions on the issues.   Instead, we were thanked, given surveys, and shuttled out.  As a small group of adults, it felt condescending and almost bizarre to sit silently through a long show by four actors when they could have easily broken out opportunities for discussion.  But the educators were actors, not facilitators, and our experience was disappointingly one-way.


But there are several museums eschewing museum theater altogether in exchange for facilitated dialogue.  In 2004, the Levine Museum of the New South mounted a temporary exhibition called Courage about the early battles for school desegregation leading up to the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision.  Courage was accompanied by an unusual programming technique: "talking circles" in which visiting groups would engage in facilitated dialogue about the issues raised by the exhibition.  These talking circles were designed for intact groups--students, corporate groups, civic groups--and have become an intrinsic part of how the Levine Museum supports community dialogue and action based on exhibition experiences.  When the Science Museum of Minnesota mounted their Race exhibition, they also used the talking circle technique with intact groups to powerful results for local community and corporate groups.



Activity: Picking the Right Social Tools for Your Object

This section covered many different design techniques for creating social platforms around objects.  Pick an object--or better yet, a small exhibition--and brainstorm how you might activate it as a social experience by using: juxtaposition, instructions, questions, sharing, and live interpretation.



Do-It-Yourself Social Objects 


The above sections focus on exhibit platforms that are designed to socialize pre-existing artifacts.  But what about platforms in which the social objects themselves are designed from scratch?  In most science centers and children's museums, the object of the experience is not an artifact but a designed exhibit component.  And many history museums are exploring ways to integrate visitors' own personal history (and related objects) into the museum experience.


Me-to-We Social Object Design


In some cases, exhibits explicitly require two or more people to play the game or work the device.  In 1998, the PISEC study showed that family learning in science centers is enhanced when multiple people can get their hands on an exhibit, and many science centers have developed exhibits that allow visitors to interact together.  Their actions, however, can be disruptive to each other, as in the case of the Exploratorium's "spinning blackboard" exhibit, in which visitors can make patterns in a spinning disc of sand.  In the original version of this exhibit, visitors were able to easily and unthinkingly mess up each other's patterns, which led both to confusion and frustration.  When the exhibit was redesigned, the disc was split into several co-located discs, so that visitors could create their own sand patterns without physical disruption while remaining in discussion range with other pattern-makers.  This redesign resulted in a significant increase in number of patterns created, presumably because people were less frustrated by disruption and more able to fulfill their exploratory interests.  (source: http://www.exploratorium.edu/partner/pdf/Interacty_article3_finweb.pdf)  That said, the redesign also effectively made the exhibit less social by reducing the need for visitors to work together to support each others' learning.  In a chaotic environment like the Exploratorium, it may be too much to expect strangers to coordinate their actions, and the potential for social engagement around objects may be reduced. 


So how do you build an exhibit that is social without being disruptive to individual learning?  Remember the me-to-we concept.  The challenge with the spinning blackboard exhibit is that each individual enters on her own but finds the interactions of other individuals disruptive rather than additive to her experience.  Each visitor's "me" experience is ruined rather than enhanced by the platform that networks individual actions in community.  The spinning disc of sand is a good physical metaphor for a poorly designed network platform, in which instead of building on individual actions, individuals' contributions are muddled and eroded by the network.  Imagine a dog park in which you instantly lose your dog, or an online social network that keeps mixing up your content with that created by others.  It's not appealing.


To fix this problem, the Exploratorium reasserted the primacy of the "me" experience by separating individuals' interactions with the spinning disc by giving each visitor or family group their own disc.  The question is how to retain the communal component as well.  One of the simplest ways to do this (which the Exploratorium employs successfully) is to put exhibits out in the open at tabletop height and let people crowd around them from all angles.  Visitors get to safely engage from their own personal space, but no one has a "better" position relative to the interaction than others.  This low-tech principle is also at work in some of the most successful multi-touch table installations in museums.  When well-designed, multi-touch tables promote both personal exploration and interpersonal play.  People feel comfortable crowding around these tables and engaging with each other, because each person can control their zone of the table with their own hand.  No one can take over "your spot," but there are often opportunities to work collaboratively to beneficial group result.  Everyone comes to the exhibit equally, and it's easy to look up from what you are doing to check out what's going on at another station or talk to another visitor.  By entering via your own safe space, you are more willing to engage with others. 


The Tech Museum of Innovation houses of the strangest implementations of this concept in their Netpl@net exhibition.  The exhibition features an installation of the three-dimensional virtual world Second Life across eight computers.  This area is incredibly popular, and the computers are always occupied.  It sounds like a social nightmare; a bunch of kids, staring at individual computers, engaging with each other virtually in Second Life via pixelated avatars.  But surprisingly, it's a highly social exhibit.  The computers are placed in a ring, with each visitor seated in front of a monitor in a circle.  Kids lean over and talk to each other about what's happening onscreen.  They yell across to each other, and they burst into laughter together as someone's avatar falls into the water or floats into the sky.  By entering the social environment through distinct, personally controlled portals, what looks like an isolationist exhibit becomes a highly social space.


Another fascinating social exhibit is the Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit, which has installations in six science centers in the US.  This exhibit allows people to virtually arm wrestle with other people who are not physically co-located.  When you sit down to use it, you grasp a metal arm (meant to simulate your partner's arm) and are connected to another visitor at an identical kiosk.  This visitor may be a few feet from you or hundreds of miles away at another science center.  You are given a "go" signal, and then you start pushing.  The metal arm exerts a force on your arm equal to the force exerted by your remote partner on his own metal arm.  Eventually, one partner overpowers the other, and the game is over. 


What makes Internet Arm Wrestling incredible--and a bit bizarre--is the extent to which strangers feel comfortable socializing around this game.  Each player watches a webcam feed of her partner as they play, and early on, some of the science centers removed the audio functionality of the webcams because kids were yelling obscenities at each other through the cameras.  And while theoretically the exhibit can be played by visitors who are in different science centers, the realities of time zones mean that you are more likely to play against someone in the same museum as you than somewhere remote.  At the New York Hall of Science, I once watched piles of kids use this exhibit.  In some cases, multiple kids would gang up on one kiosk and literally try to sit on the arm to exert force on it.  And the interaction between the two kiosks, separated by several feet, was fascinating.  Kids would push on the arm as hard as they could, then turn their heads to look and laugh with their opponents, then turn back and shove on.  In other cases strangers, adults and kids, would stick out their tongues at each other in the cameras or make funny faces to try to distract their opponents from the task at hand.


Think about how unusual this is.  Strangers, adults and children, engaging in highly familiar social behavior through a set of metal arms.  Would I ever challenge an unknown child (or adult, for that matter) to an arm-wrestling match in a museum?  Would I ever challenge a stranger to an arm-wrestling match unprompted, ever?  The Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit is a social object that connects people in a social experience that would almost never happen without the object involved.  The object makes the people more social rather than the other way around!


There's a multi-player online game called Just Letters that operates on the same principle.  Just Letters is an online version of refrigerator magnets in which you use your cursor to move around letters to make words. There's no particular goal or scoring mechanism: what makes Just Letters special is the social experience. Just Letters is a multiplayer activity; log on, and you are shifting around letters with 20 or 30 strangers. Sometimes it's collaborative, but more frequently, you'll find yourself exclaiming the game's tag line: "Someone keeps stealing my letters..."


And that's what makes it unpredictable, lively, and fun. The online interface enables strangers to do something that would be considered rude in person--to steal and swap without asking. If you encountered a similar experience in a museum--a giant magnetic poetry wall, perhaps--it's likely that people would interact with the wall singly or in their pre-determined groups, reading and creating their own poems. But I doubt that visitors would often interact real-time with other users of the wall--even to ask nicely if they could borrow a word. The social barriers to interaction among strangers are too high.


Just Letters is mediated by two layers of social objects: the letters, and individuals' computers.  The fact that individual users engage from the safe dominion of their own computers empowers them to play games together, debate each other on discussion boards, and connect on social networking sites. Plus, the anonymity of the web decreases the chances for social stigma and judgment. Of course, there's a downside to these technology-based interactions; the same disassociation that makes users comfortable enough to share with one another makes them comfortable enough to "flame" each other with cruel remarks that would never pass muster in the real world. However, when the context is respectful and/or the interaction limited, most experiences are positive.


It's interesting to think about how the same trick that makes Just Letters work could be employed in museums to help people overcome discomfort in interactions with strangers. There are many interactives in which multiple inputs from different visitors can affect the output; however, it's rare that the input of strangers is construed positively. Usually, you're just staring frustratedly at that kid who's "screwing it all up" by interacting in a way that doesn't support your vision or goal.


But there are some examples that work, and they usually work by encouraging visitors to interact with one another through the lens of technology. Consider, for example, robots. If you put a bunch of visitors in a pen and asked them to try to grab the most balls, few would aggressively steal balls from others. But give those same visitors remote controls for robots in a pen, and all bets are off. The robot, like the online persona, serves as an "extender" that imparts your energy and motivation without making you or other visitors uncomfortable.


I'd love to see more interactive design that focuses on promoting social behavior, whether collaborative or competitive. Imagine a real world version of Just Letters where there are two magnetic walls, back to back. They look disconnected, but as soon as you move a word on one side, a word on the other side moves too. Suddenly, you start peeking around the wall, wondering what the heck that other person is doing. The literal barrier between you creates a social environment for play, a bridge for stranger-to-stranger interaction.


One of the most powerful designed, highly repeatable social object experiences I've seen of this type is in the queue for the Mummy ride at the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida. As people shuffle through an eerie, Egyptian-style abandoned movie set, there's a point at which visitors occasionally scream and jump as they are hit by a blast of air from the floor (an active, provocative social object).  The blast of air is not run by the ride system; instead, it's controlled by guests further along in the line.  Those guests can covertly watch people approach the air-blaster, and can shoot it off at just the right moment to elicit an exciting reaction.  The activation of the air blast is a transitive act that connects the blasters to the blasted in a highly physical, provocative, and personal way.  The physical separation of the two activities means that each group can enjoy the social experience on their end without feeling mean-spirited or intimidated by the other group. 


Not all mediating social objects are successful.  A notable example of objects that may reduce, not enhance, social experiences are overly human-like active objects (robots, puppets, dolls).  I'm not talking about Roombas or robots that move around soccer balls; I'm speaking of humanoid objects that chat with you at cocktail parties and in some technology museums.  While people are mostly comfortable and emotionally responsive in a positive way to explicitly non-human intelligent objects like the robotic baby dinosaur Pleo (and most pets), objects that attempt to engage in human-like interpersonal discourse can be off-putting or downright creepy.  This uncomfortability is caused by the "zombie effect," otherwise known as the "uncanny valley," in which people respond with revulsion to objects that are too similar to humans without being human themselves.  Roboticists have been studying this effect since the 1970s, and have documented its impact on everything from the way people respond to physical robots to the way they respond to computer-generated characters in films and video games.  People are happy to respond emotionally to explicitly non-human objects, but when you slide into the grey zone between human and non-human objects, things get too uncanny for comfort.  I raise this issue not because I expect robots to take over museums, but to point out that there are ways that designing social objects can go too far for its intended purpose.  Just as you can imagine ways to create something too personal, too provocative, or too active to be appealing to visitors, it is also possible to create objects that are too social to succeed.


Activity: Barriers as Benefits

Objects and technologies can be used as intermediaries that help people interact socially in otherwise awkward situations.  Think of an activity or interpersonal engagement that you would like to make possible in your museum.  Write down the ways that visitors would have to interact with each other directly to be successful.  Now, brainstorm what objects or designed platforms could mediate those interactions to increase visitor comfort with the activity at hand.



Visitor-Generated Social Objects


You don't have to develop exhibits that are social objects to promote social object experiences in the museum.  While it takes some careful planning, inviting visitors to share their own personally-relevant objects can often be the most powerful way to encourage people to experience content socially.  In some cases, this means opening up exhibitions to the inclusion of visitors' objects.  The London Science Museum did this in a very simple way for their temporary exhibition of science-related toys called Playing with Science (2006-2007).  Playing with Science displayed the history and importance of toys in scientific learning.  As part of the exhibition, visitors were invited to bring in their own toys to add to a few vitrines at the end of the exhibition.  Each contributor was photographed with their favorite toy and wrote a short statement about the value of that toy.  The photographs were cataloged, and on the exhibition’s website you can flip through dozens of funny, evocative images with accompanying statements like: "Bunny was made for me by my sister when I was born and has been well loved over the years,” and "I like making girls do boy parts because I am a tomboy."  These visitor contributions personalized the exhibition and may have helped non-contributing visitors connect their own lived experience to the objects on display by triggering their own memories of playing with science-related toys.  It also introduced a dynamic element to an otherwise static historical display, thus creating a context for a light and evolving conversation among visitors, the institution, and the objects themselves.  This simple and delightful addition to Playing with Science didn’t require computers or elaborate design, just a willingness to support visitor contributions. 


In some cases, visitors' contributions aren't just given a small slot but are the basis for entire exhibitions.  In 2009, the Dutch ceramics museum, Princessehof, hosted a visitor co-created exhibition of wedding china, in which people from throughout the Netherlands lent their wedding china, wedding photos, and stories to the museum.  As in Playing with Science, these personal stories prompted heightened levels of dialogue among visitors about their own family stories and the stories on display, and the Princessehof engaged in extensive onsite and online programming to promote community conversations and sharing of wedding and wedding china-related experiences. 


Are these visitor-contributed toys and ceramics intrinsically more social than museum-held collections?  No--but they do have some advantages.  Both personal and museum-owned objects can be powerful or dull, but the platforms constructed around them are often optimized for different kinds of visitor experiences.  Consider the difference between the toys in Playing with Science contributed by the museum and by visitors.  The museum objects were well-mounted with proper curatorial labels written in the third person.  The visitors' toys, however, were displayed alongside photos of their owners and personal first-person statements about the objects' relevance to the owners' lives.  These labels were more personal and active than the institutional ones.  The photos, the handwriting, and the first-person stories allowed visitors to connect directly with individuals who had used and loved the toys on display.  By unapologetically offering up their personal stories, these visitor/contributors modeled a different kind of engagement with the objects than the museum could.  The museum modeled descriptive, informational content about objects.  The visitor-written labels modeled personal meaning-making and relationships between people and objects.  In this way, the visitors' objects reflected a more dialogic experience than the museum collection could. 


There are many potential designed platforms to amplify visitors' objects as social objects.  In the case of the examples above, the platform was based on visitors contributing personal objects along with first-person stories and photographs.  In 2008, the Brooklyn Museum developed an extensive online and onsite platform for a temporary exhibition with clearly defined opportunities for and limitations on the capacity for objects to be social.  The Brooklyn Museum developed a temporary exhibition of visitor-submitted photographs called Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition which coupled visitor-contributed objects (photos) with a public curation platform that allowed anyone to judge and select the photos for inclusion in the exhibition.  Click! started with an open call for photographs that represent the "changing face of Brooklyn."  Once all submissions were in, the Museum opened an online tool where visitors could judge the photographs both on their artistic quality and their relevance to the exhibition theme.  The Museum team, led by director of technology Shelley Bernstein, made many design decisions about the online judging platform that intentionally limited its sociability among users.  Judges could not skip to their friends' photographs or send favorite photos to their own social networks.  They could not see the ratings and comments of others during the judging phase.  These restrictions were intentional choices meant to limit a particular kind of social engagement that promotes expressing preferences based on social influence rather than object value.  By forcing people to focus on the objects, with no access to social outlets and forums, the platform encouraged people to enter a mental dialogue with the photographs about their value.  Users spent an average of 22 seconds looking at each photograph and deliberating on its value, as opposed to the "six seconds" the Museum's photography curator, Eugenie Tsai, claimed is typical for visitors exploring art in the physical institution.  Tsai also commented that visitors spent much longer than she herself spends examining each image, suggesting that visitors were engaging in a deliberative process that was more prolonged than that employed by curators.  


Click! also spurred conversation among participants not just about the photographs' value, but also about the ways that institutions might appropriately engage the public as participants.  While users were prevented from seeing each others' ratings and comments during the judging stage, there were several energized discussions on the Museum's blog and other sites about how the photographs were being presented, how it felt to be a photographer in this project, and how it felt to be a user/curator.  Once mounted, the exhibition was a highly social space.  The community of people who had been involved in making it--photographers and judges alike--came to share the experience with each other and with their own networks.  The Museum made digital images of all of the photos accessible on the Web along with the related ratings and comments.  Users continued to make new comments, energized by the seeded content from the judging phase.  Online, the photos were sortable by the self-designated art knowledge and geographic location of the judges.  Visitors could also surf the images that were "most discussed," which promoted ongoing dialogue around the photographs.  Finally, the online platform allowed visitors to compare the relative ratings of different photographs--a flexible opportunity for visitors to practice juxtaposition on their own.  Visitors could even view photographs that enjoyed the greatest "divergence of opinion" among the different self-defined geographic and art expertise groups.  This prompted yet another discussion about the relative abilities and prejudices of different groups of people in determining the aesthetic value and relevance of images to a broad public.


The next chapter focuses exclusively on ways to invite visitors to contribute to, collaborate on, and co-create museum experiences.  Not all forms of participation result in social object experiences.  But when you invite visitors to participate as contributors, consider how their objects might be presented in ways that offer entrypoints to social experiences that are otherwise challenging for your institution to support.


Activity: Finding Places for Visitors' Social Objects




Comments (9)

Maria Mortati said

at 1:01 pm on Aug 17, 2009

Wow, what a fantastic chapter. I'm blown away. From my experience, I prod museum folks to use the power of juxtaposition, but it's always a hard sell. Guess it's due to the structure of curatorial expertise- they don't want to step on toes type thing? Not sure. The best part for me is the questions section. I think that is an area that is so rich- from the exhibit development side all the way through to evaluation. Evaluation questions often (in my mind) make for great exhibit prompts too.

This is going to be a fabulous book that people will refer back to over and over again. So glad you are sticking with it.

Maureen Doyle said

at 8:49 am on Aug 24, 2009

Ditto! I enjoyed this chapter and love this topic.

If you're interested in some more books on giving:
Marcel Mauss's early study on giving, The Gift : <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gift_(book)>
Lewis Hydes' two books on the Gift Economy <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gift_(book)>.

Ben and Jerry's is another example of an organization founded with a mission of giving. Its founders had a three part mission, product, economic and social. Free cone day is one of the longest running examples of this tradition. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_&_Jerry's>. Several years ago B&J's was acquired by Unilever and became a multinational corp.

Nina Simon said

at 9:09 am on Aug 24, 2009

Hey, thanks! Maureen, I will definitely check those books out. I've heard great things about Lewis Hydes' book but haven't gotten there yet!

Chris Castle said

at 1:24 pm on Aug 25, 2009

I agree that this is really coming together. Thanks for sharing it at this early stage - interesting process in itself! A few random thoughts -(1) the section on questions is reminiscent of docent training - all the different types of questions and how to use them. I've done some work with docents and found it useful to put the questions into a framework so that there is some kind of relationship amongst them - a progression of sorts. I use Kolb's learning styles to frame the questions - so that they reflect the experiential learning cycle. I'm not suggesting that's the only way to do this. (2) I recognize you can't be all things to all people but if there's any way to bring in more historic site references I'd love it.I think this is an underappreciated segment of the museum community and could inform your work. (3) Any chance you could carve these chapters into shorter segments on the site? I find it a lot to consider in one go. Hope these help. CC

Nina Simon said

at 2:45 pm on Aug 25, 2009

Chris, thank you for your comments, which are always useful! Kolb is a good suggestion and is an influence - I will add in the reference.
With regard to the chapter length, I went to this longer version because I thought it would be easier for people to read, but I'm happy to chunk it again - easier for both of us!

Nina Simon said

at 6:15 am on Sep 10, 2009

really great piece, though I could not finish to read it all. I read a part after a long pause and it is amazing how it grew. Just a few comments. I hope it is of some use to you.
About format: you refer to Jyri but in other cases you refer to authors in their last names, as Wilson. I don't know if you have a reason, but it just pick my attention.
As you have written about several of this examples in your blog: would you consider to add the link to your blog post as a footnote?
Also, in some cases I would like to have a short description of the whole exhibition as a footnote, or may be you will do a list of exhibitions at the end. For example in the case of Race exhibition.
I think it would be nice to have for example a picture of Fred Wilson's exhibit for juxtaposition, and may be also a picture of the Art of participation, mp3 experiment and PostSecret cards.
I would add to the sections of juxtaposition /instruction etc... a final paragraph with your open questions (how would you create juxtaposition that ...? Or something more general, not to finish the paragraph with the example.

Nina Simon said

at 6:15 am on Sep 10, 2009

bout the content:
You ask about if it should be share objective or share object. I would stress in the sharing. People is interesting in sharing, sometimes are objects and sometimes is the immaterial. But when there are objects the practice of sharing is facilitated, because the objects work as boundary objects that allow memorizing and remembering what it is that we are sharing. This boundary object concept is in the book by Sherry Turkle "Evocative objects" (that if I do not remember wrong, I think you recommend it. BTW, I like a lot the book, thanks for the recommendation).
Transitive objects, could also be "connectors" ?
When you ask what about historic sites of museums? I think there is a nice experiment done in the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland by Luigina Ciolfi in which they ask the visitors to talk about some historical mysterious objects and guess their possible use.
In the section "Designing Platforms for social objects" you have some characteristic for experiences, I would add also: intellectual and emotional as types of experiences.
After reading part of the section on questions, I was thinking how to add something about other posted visitors contributions? May be, a section on sparkling material. I saw that most of the people before participating see/read/explore what others have been doing before, and probably they get ideas or shape their own way of giving shape to their participation based on previously shared contributions.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to comment and please, do not pay attention to the comments if you think that are confusing. It is a pleasure to see how your work evolve.

Nina Simon said

at 6:17 am on Sep 10, 2009

Responses to Mariana:
1. I will improve the notation to be consistent - thanks for that.
2. I will reference that much of the content comes from the blog, probably in an introduction.
3. Maybe a list at the end of exhibitions, or just a good index?
4. I'd like to do as many photos as possible but am not sure how good they will look in black and white printing.
5. Thanks for all your great content suggestions! I have Evocative Objects but have only read part of it (I didn't love it...) so I will go back to it!

sebchan said

at 7:46 pm on Sep 29, 2009

Hey Nina . . . in the Odditoreum example the author is Shaun Tan (not Shaun Tam)

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