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Chapter 5: Contribution, Collaboration, and Co-Design

Page history last edited by Nina Simon 11 years, 1 month ago

THIS DRAFT IS READY FOR REVIEW, ALTHOUGH THERE ARE SEVERAL OUTSTANDING INTERVIEWS TO INTEGRATE.  YOU CAN READ IT IN ITS ENTIRETY HERE, OR IN 5 SMALLER SECTIONS.  PLEASE SHARE YOUR COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS IN-LINE.  THANKS!

  1. Chapter 5, Part 1: Participatory Models
  2. Chapter 5, Part 2: Contributory Projects 
  3. Chapter 5, Part 3: Collaboration Projects
  4. Chapter 5, Part 4: Co-Creative Projects
  5. Chapter 5, Part 5: Co-Option Projects

 

The previous three chapters focused on setting up frameworks that allow museum experiences to be networked, social experiences.  This chapter shifts to visitors and the ways that they can engage in museums as active participants.  So far, we've seen how personalizing the experience, networking individual visitors' actions, and designing objects as locuses of conversation can connect visitors to museums and to each other in a social way.  But those are all institutional actions and designed experiences.  What about the objects, ideas, and creative work that visitors contribute to the museum experience?  How are their interests and abilities supported and valued?  How do we design entrypoints for them to act not as networked consumers but as partners and participants?

 

The first problem here is to simply define the ways that visitors can become active participants in the museum experience. A participant who writes her reaction to an exhibit on an index card is very different from one who donates her own personal effects to be part of an exhibit, and both of these visitors are different from one who helps develop a new museum program from scratch.  I separate the different kinds of visitor participation into four broad (and occasionally overlapping) categories: contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and co-option.  In the contributory model, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally-controlled process.  In the collaborative model, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of a museum project which is originated and ultimately controlled by the institution.  In the co-creation model, visitors and the institution work together from the beginning to define the project's goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests.  And in the co-option model, the institution turns over a portion of its facilities and resources to support programs developed and implemented by external public groups. 

 

These terms come partially from the world of citizen science, where the scientific process provides a framework for clear delineations among different roles and actions.  Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been working for years on expanding the roles of public citizens in scientific research, and  The scientific process has several steps.  Scientists state a problem, make a hypothesis, develop a test regimen to test the hypothesis, gather data, analyze the results, and make conclusions, which may include stating new problems or hypotheses.  In citizen science projects, the public is invited to participate in "real science" by working with scientists on projects that benefit from mass participation around the world.  But most citizen science projects only invite the public to engage in limited components of the overall scientific process.  Most citizen science projects are contributory; participants collect data based on specifications determined by scientists, to help answer questions posed by scientists.  The scientists control the process, steer the data collection, and analyze the results.  Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that these kinds of citizen science projects are enormously successful at engaging the public with science but are not successful at exposing participants to the entire scientific process. 

 

For this reason, some citizen science projects are now moving towards collaborative and co-creative models.  As in the contributory model, In the collaborative model of citizen science, the scientists still determine the research question and the overall data collection and analysis methodology. However, the public is actively involved in multiple steps of the research process, including collecting data, analyzing results, and drawing conclusions.  The scientists and the public participants become partners in the implementation and dissemination of the scientific research, though the research is still led by the scientists.

 

In the co-creative model for citizen science, the public comes up with a question or issue and then works with scientists to answer the question and suggest solutions.  These projects include equal partnership between scientists and participants in all stages of the scientific process, including developing new research questions and regimens for data collection and analysis.  In many cases, these projects are initiated based on some community concern, such as issues around local sources of pollution, invasive species, or unsafe consumer products.  The community-stated need drives the development, implementation, and dissemination of research activities.

 

I've added a fourth model to this citizen science typology, one may be more appropriate to facilities like museums than to scientific organizations: co-option.  In this model, the public uses institutional facilities or resources to develop and manage projects of their own devising.  In some cases, the use of institutional content or facilities is known to the instituion; for example, when a museum allows a community group to hold meetings on the premises or develop their own exhibits.  But in other cases, people may use institutional resources without the institution's knowledge.  For example, programmers may use museum collection database information as the basis for their own software, or game enthusiasts may use the grounds of an institution as a giant playing board for imaginative play.  Visitors co-opt institutional facilities every day for their own agendas, whether to impress a date, bond with family, or work on their photography skills.  In the context of this chapter, I'm limiting my discussion of co-option to situations in which the institution and the visitor or public group enter an explicit relationship in which the museum makes content, facilities, or resources available for the outside group's use.

 

Contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and co-option.  None of these models is better than the others; they cannot even be seen as progressive towards a model of "maximal participation."  Consider, for example, the difference between a project in which a museum sources exhibit material from visitors (contributory) and one in which the museum works with a small group of outsiders to develop an exhibit (collaborative).  If the first project results in an exhibit made entirely of visitors' creations and voices, and the second results in an exhibit that looks more like a "typical" exhibit, which project is more participatory?  What's more participatory, making art or doing research?  Developing exhibits or using them to make new media products?  There is no "best" level of participation for museums and cultural institutions overall.  Instead, I'm interested in the question of how to understand the diversity of options and determine which models and levels of engagement will be most valuable for different projects, at different institutions, at different times.

 

The differences among participatory project types are highly correlated with with the amount of ownership and control of process and creative output given to institutions and visitors, and not every project benefits from the same power structure.  Some of the best participatory projects severely constrain the ways visitors can contribute, and others successfully integrate visitors in all aspects of planning and implementation.  You can have disasters on either side of the spectrum.  Some contributory projects provide too few engaging experiences to attract any participation, and some co-created projects go way, way beyond what institutions desire or value in the outcomes they produce.  In many of the examples we'll explore here, the participatory structure is set up so that visitors can participate with or on behalf of the instituion, but it is equally important to consider participatory models in which visitors are contributing, collaboration, and co-creating for themselves and for each other.  It's also essential to bear in mind the impact of participatory models on non-participating visitors who consume the results of the participation.  We often get overly focused on the experience of the participating visitors, but these people often represent a tiny minority of the people whom participatory projects impact.  If you work with a community group to co-create an exhibit, that exhibit will be experienced by all of your visitors, not just those who were part of the co-design process.  It is not enough to design robust structures to support participants; you must also ensure that the outcome of participation is enjoyable and useful for your greater community as well.

 

Institution, Participants, Audience

 

In this chapter, we'll look at each of the participatory models outlined above from three perspectives.  First, we'll look at institutional goals, considering how the participatory model might benefit the institution and defining situations in which it would be of value.  Second, we'll look at participants' goals, and ways to structure the experience for participants so that roles are clear, activities are attractive, and participants successfully accomplish both personal and institutional goals.  And finally, we'll look at how participatory outcomes can be displayed and shared in ways that are valuable and interesting to the broader museum audience, including both visitors and external stakeholders.  The design process always starts with two simple questions: what will visitors and the institution gain from this participatory activity?  How will the contributions be useful and valuable to both of these constituencies, and what other constituencies or communities might benefit from it? 

 

Some elements of these perspectives are common across all participatory models.  On the institutional side, the key is to identify an activity or resource that is most usefully provided by someone external to the institution.  For example, if you want to "crowdsource" a problem related to the visitor experience and get a wide variety of recommendations and opinions, a contributory model would allow you to receive diverse ideas from your audience.  Or, if you are trying to produce an exhibit that reflects the authentic experience of a local group, a collaborative model would allow you to work closely with members of the constituent group to collect and display their objects and experiences.  You should be able to define the specific way that the participatory project has value for your institution, and be ready to clearly draw a line between that value and your institution's mission statement and bottom line.  It may be valuable for one museum to receive lots of snail shells collected from visitors, whereas another institution may find value is providing a forum where visitors share their opinions on a difficult topic with each other. These values may be as diverse as the goals of the institution overall: to attract new audiences, to collect and preserve unique content, to provide educational experiences for visitors, to produce appealing marketing campaigns, to display locally-relevant exhibitions, to become a townsquare for conversation... the list of potential values of participation is endless. 

 

And yet unfortunately, many museum staff settle for an unambitious value of participation that is not compelling to institutional directors and stakeholders: visitors will like it.  This is not a robust value, and it turns participatory projects into trivialities instead of opportunities to satisfy core institutional goals.  I certainly hope visitors will enjoy participating with your institution, but if you focus solely on participation as a "fun activity," you will do a disservice both to yourself as a professional and to visitors as participants.  Yes, it is fun to help paint a mural or construct a giant model of a molecule.  But these activities also promote particular learning skills, create outcomes that are usable by others, and so on, and the more you think about which of these other mission-relevant goals you want to support, the more likely you are to design a project that satisfies more than visitors' desire to be entertained.  As Geoff Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University, commented: "To be most satisfying,  leisure should resemble the best aspects of work: challenges, skills and important relationships."  Participatory projects can accommodate these interests and are often better suited to providing visitors with meaningful interpersonal work than typical museum experiences.  

 

Of course, some participatory activities, like designing shoes or making stop-motion videos, are rewarding on their own, and visitors may not care what the institution does with the outcomes.  But even these activities are most successful when the institution makes a designed effort to display or share visitors' creations, which helps visitors understand their actions contextualized to the overall institution.  The extent to which museums care for and respect visitors' creations is a reflection of the extent to which museums care for visitors themselves.  While the desire to provide participatory experiences generally is admirable and understandable, it can lead to problematic situations in which visitors perceive that staff are pandering to them or wasting their time with trivialities.  Even if the effort is minor, participatory activities should never be a "dumping ground" for interactivity or visitor dialogue.  And in cases where visitors are actually asked to "do work," that work should be useful to someone.  It's fine to design participatory projects in which visitors produce work that could more quickly or accurately be completed by internal staff (see the Children of the Lodz Ghetto story in the section on collaboration); however, the work should still be of value to the institution ultimately.  If the museum doesn't care about the outcomes of visitors' participation, why should visitors participate? 

 

For potential participants, the key motivator for participation is not perceived value of the activity or outcome but clarity of roles.  Unlike institutions, which have explicit and narrow mission-related goals that presumably dictate what activities are valuable to pursue, individuals have a wide range of personal goals and interests that dictate behavior.  In the chapter on personalization, we talked about John Falk's research into visitors and identity-fulfillment, and the concept that visitors select and enjoy experiences based on their perceived ability to reflect and enhance particular self-concepts. For one visitor, the opportunity to enroll her daughter in summer camp confirms her identity as a good parent and facilitator of others' experiences.  For another, the opportunity to share his own opinions or contribute a piece of an exhibit confirms his identity as a creative agent and community member.  When designing opportunities for visitors to participate, especially when these opportunities are foreign to the standard museum experinece, it is essential for staff to clearly define the participatory roles and opportunities so that visitors can evaluate whether those activities are compelling and in-line with their own identity goals.  Many studies have shown that visitors are already confused about what their roles are in museums and that confusion increases anytime the museum offers an opportunity that is aberrant, or even directly contradictory, to typical museum behavior.  While this may describe the plight of particularly uninformed museum visitors, clear role definition may be even more important for savvy participants.  Visitors who are familiar with creating and sharing content in other venues (especially the Web) are highly attuned to issues of privacy and intellectual property.  What happens to the video I record in your gallery?  Who owns the idea I share with the museum?  Being clear, specific, and honest about participants' roles in participatory projects helps visitors of all kinds know what to expect and evaluate whether an opportunity is right for them.

 

Whether you are asking for a long commitment or a brief encounter, a contribution to research or exhibit development or marketing, clarity and honesty are the key to supporting positive engagement by participants.  In some cases, especially when working with the more flexible participatory models like collaboration and co-creation, roles and activities change over time, and both participants and staff members can break promises, let each other down, and get frustrated.  I've worked in several "fast and loose" collaborations with visitors which are sustained almost exclusively by relationships built on open communication.  As long as visitors feel that they understand what they are being asked to do and can trust that you will use their work respectfully and appropriately, they will engage wholeheartedly.  You can change your mind, make mistakes, and evolve with each other if you are clear and honest every step of the way.  And the more you can express to participants--in actions as well as words--how their work helps the institution or other visitors, the more they will see themselves as partners and co-owners of the museum experience.

 

In the book Here Comes Everybody, technologist Clay Shirky argues that there are three required components for a participatory mechanism to be successful: "a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargainwith the [participants]."  These components define the relationship between institution and participants.  The institution must offer an experience that is perceived as valuable and appealing.  It must be easy and clear how to participate successfully.  And the rules governing participation must be reasonable to participants.  Even if your promise, tools, or bargains have to change over the course of a project, you should always be able to articulate what you are offering and expecting clearly and openly.     

 

But participatory projects are not solely for institutions and participants.  There is another populus constituency, the audience of non-participating visitors.  How will your participatory project produce outcomes for the rest of the museum community that are valuable and interesting?  I'm most interested in participatory environments that are continually open and evolving, so that any visitor could electively become a participant and the outcome and process are intertwined, but very few projects are designed this way.  It is much simpler to say, "you can submit your idea until the end of the year" or "we will work with twenty teenagers from a local high school to develop this project," and for many institutions, constraining the scope of participation is the appropriate way to go.  If only a few people participate, then their experience, no matter how superlative, must be weighed against the experience that others will have with the outcome of their work.  A mural on the wall isn't just for those who painted it; it must bring pleasure to others as an art object as well.  Likewise, the exhibits, research, marketing materials, programs, and experiences produced in collaboration with visitors must be compelling outcomes in their own right.  That is not to say they can't be different from standard museum-created programs; ideally, projects developed using participatory models will have unique value that cannot be achieved by traditional processes.

 

There is no single concept like "mission-relevant value" or "clear roles for participation" that defines what makes a successful participatory project in the eyes of the audience.  This is true for two reasons.  First, audience goals, unlike institutional goals, are diverse and broad.  What's valuable to one visitor is a waste of time for another, and no process is going to change the reality that different museum experiences appeal to different visitors.  But secondly, from the institutional perspective, goals with regard to audiences for participatory projects are also wide-ranging.  In projects in which visitors' contributions are targeted to a very specific and narrow outcome, for example, a research project or exhibition development, the participatory element may be hidden from view of the final intended audience.  In situations in which participation is open to all visitors, such as via talkback boards in exhibitions, the institution may desire for the participatory element to spark conversation or to model active behavior that might encourage reluctant visitors to add their own opinion to the wall.  When we design visitor experiences via traditional techniques, there is little opportunity for visitors to peek behind the curtain or to add their own mark to the content on display.  Participatory projects open up that potential, and so institutional goals may shift from focusing on delivering content experiences to modeling and inciting visitor action in new ways.

 

Whatever your goal with regard to ultimate audience, it is essential to keep these folks in mind throughout your participatory process.  If your goal is to encourage all visitors to see themselves as participants, you will have to design in mechanisms by which participation (even by a small percentage of visitors) is celebrated, encouraged, modeled, and valued in the eyes of the audience.  If your goal is to create a high-quality product that is acceptable to an audience accustomed to a certain level of rigor, design, and content, you have to make sure your process delivers that output.  One of the most interesting things about citizen science programs is the fact that the ultimate audience for user-supplied data is professional scientists, a constituency that demands an incredibly high level of confidence and rigor in the content they will use and consume.  The awareness of this demanding audience forces the people who direct citizen science projects to ensure that their participatory processes will accommodate those end-user needs.  While your average museum visitor may be less demanding than a university biologist, her needs are no less important to bear in mind as you design and implement projects whose results she will consume.

 

 

Contributory Models for Participation

 

Many of the examples shared in this book thus far are contributory models for participation.  This model is frequently employed and is a "big tent" for lots of different types of participatory visitor experiences.  Visitors are invited to contribute their opinions, suggestions, and personal stories on talkback boards.  They share their wedding china, scientific toys, and photographs inexhibits, both while the exhibits are developed and after the exhibits are mounted.  They contribute data in polling stations and experimental interactive exhibits.  They create art objects, perform science experiments, and do historical research both at home and in the museum to share with other visitors on the floor. They share their text, photo, and video reflections on visits on the Web.  In some cases, the public contributes ideas and objects that are used privately to inform internal institutional processes that are typically preliminary to and hidden from public consumption.  In other cases, visitors may offer their ideas and creations in forums that allow other visitors to access and benefit from them.  While in previous chapters, we've looked at various items visitors can contribute, this section looks specifically at these different types of contributory structures and how to successfully select and design the appropriate model for your needs.

 

As is evident from the diversity of these examples, not all contributory projects are identical in the ways that they support visitor-driven content.  There's a big difference between an exhibit that allows visitors to indicate their preference in a quick poll and an exhibit which is entirely built from visitors' creations.  I struggle somewhat with this categorization, because it means that exhibits sourced entirely from visitors (such as those produced by the Denver Community Museum) fall into the contributory model, even though they appear to be co-created (or, effectively, visitor-created) to audience.   When planning contributory projects, staff need to think both about what (and how) you will solicit from visitors, and what you will do with their creations.  Your strategy with regard to the solicitation primarily affects participants, and your strategy with regard to the display affects audience members.  Of course, because contributory projects are often made open to any and all visitors, participants and audience are often one and the same--thus making these strategies intertwined.

 

What's special about contributory models for participation?  These projects are often the simplest for institutions to manage and for visitors to engage in as participants.  Unlike more intensive models, which often accommodate only a small number of deeply committed and pre-selected participants, contributory activities can be easily offered to visitors of all types without a lot of setup or vetting.  The contributory model is powerful when it invites visitors to engage as activities that are easy to understand, require low time commitment, and are accessible to visitors without prior knowledge or skills. Anyone can write on a talkback wall or make a claymation video in the course of a visit.  Contributory projects can function with minimal staff support; many are self-explanatory and self-maintaining.  When they are used to support project development, contributory projects can allow staff to narrowly focus the scope of visitors' participation to give staff exactly what they need (and no more). Contributory projects are also, in many cases, the only type of participatory experience in which visitors can seamlessly move from functioning as participants to audience and back again.  You can write your comment, post it on the wall, and immediately experience the excitement of seeing how you have contributed to the institution.

 

But contribution isn't just for quick and simple activities.  Contributory projects can also be ones that offer visitors the most creative agency, to write their own stories, make their own art, and share their own thoughts.  In the most radical contributory projects, such as the Denver Community Museum, the institution provides only the infrastructure--the rules of engagement, the solicitation for contributions--and then presents what is offered by visitors.  Contributory models are rigid structures that can be designed in thousands of ways, and it is that diversity (not flexibility!) that makes them very useful in participatory design.

 

There are three major factors that contribute to the success or failure of contributory projects: the sincerity and clarity of the ask, the appeal of the participant action, and the attractiveness of the final display.  These factors roughly correspond to the needs of institution, participant, and audience.  For contributory projects to be valuable to institutions, the institution must sincerely and genuinely desire or require the contributions sought.  For these projects to appeal to participants, the contributory action must be clear and compelling.  And for other visitors and audience members to enjoy contributory projects, the submissions must be harnessed or designed into a display that is interesting and of high quality.  This display often is used to model the act of contribution for subsequent visitors, forming a virtuous cycle in which positive contribution informs and inspires further participation.  Let's look at one example of one successful project that exhibits all of these factors superlatively: the World Beach Project.

 

Spotlight: The World Beach Project

 

The World Beach Project is managed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with artist-in-residence Sue Lawty. It launched in October of 2007 with a very simple and understandable idea: to produce a global map of pieces of art made with stones on beaches. The World Beach Project does not exist in the V&A Museum. It doesn't involve visitors coming to the museum at all. It's a project that requires people to do four things that are both simple and complex: go to the beach (anywhere in the world), make a piece of art using stones, photograph it, and then send the photos to the museum via the Web.

 

The World Beach Project is one of very few online museum projects that has truly "gone viral," enjoying press attention and growing participation from people all over the world. In the first two years of its existence (Oct 2007 - Sept 2009), the World Beach Project received more than 700 contributions, including submissions from every continent except Antarctica, and submissions continue to come in each day. Run a quick search, and you'll find references to the project in over 1,400 blog posts, mostly from individuals around the world who love art, or beaches, and who share their discovery and delight in the project with their small networks of friends.

 

What makes the World Beach Project so successful? It's not marketing hype. The project has not had any heavy marketing campaigns or contests associated with it. The artist, Sue Lawty, maintains a blog with her reflections on the project and occasionally celebrates particular contributions, but this blog is fairly contained within the project website and is not a major source of web links. The beach artworks are not on display in the physical V&A galleries, nor will their creators receive prizes. Visitors to the website can't even comment on the photos or mark them as favorites. These are not shareable objects beyond the beachcombers who tread the same shores and the people who light upon this part of the V&A's website. The act of making art, and the recognition on a simple website, are the only rewards.

 

And yet this reward, mixed with an intelligent project design, are enough to make this project attractive to people all over the world. The ask is clear, the activity is compelling, and the display of contributions is simple and inspires greater participation. Let's look at how each of these aspects--the ask, the activity, and the display--contribute to the overall success of the project.

 

The ask is clear...

 

The World Beach Project doesn't have a flashy website or fancy animations. It features three parts: very clear instructions on how to participate, a map of all of the contributions to date, and photos of the contributions. The simple statement "I want to add my beach project to the map" is always accessible and obvious in the upper corner of the map, allowing inspired consumers to quickly transition into participants.

 

While contribution may take many steps, the website instructions are written to make contribution as simple and painless as possible, using phrases like "it is really easy to join in" to convey in everyday language welcome and support for would-be participants. The World Beach Project also uses the classic format of encouraging visitors to the site to browse the content before participating, which encourages people to view model content and further understand how they might be able to contribute. Beach art is democratic, and while Lawty, a professional artist, modeled the activity by making beach sculptures of her own, the artistic endeavor required to be successful is attainable by anyone, and participants didn't need encouragements or instructions to know how to make beach sculptures.

 

Each contributor is required to submit her name, the location of the beach, the year of the creation, a photo of the finished artwork, and a brief statement about how the work was made. Contributors can also optionally upload two additional photos: one of the beach and one of the work in process. The process is well-designed to remind participants what will be asked of them and how to meet the criteria, and the V&A provides participants with legal terms and conditions explaining that you are granting the museum a non-exclusive license to your contributed content. While the terms are written in legalese and may not be understandable to all participants, I appreciate the V&A's placement of the terms out in the open (rather than asking you to agree to something you have not read). Many museums do not provide participants with clear terms surrounding their submissions, and for savvy people (especially artists!) such statements are a must not only from a legal standpoint, but to promote mutual trust and understanding between participants and institutions.

 

The activity is compelling...

 

Contributing to the World Beach Project is not easy, and yet, the Victoria and Albert Museum has received many more submissions than other museums receive for much simpler photo- or video-based online contributory projects. I have browsed hundreds of contributions that are beautiful, thoughtful, and on-topic. What makes the World Beach Project so successful? This is a project in which participants immediately and self-evidently perceive the personal benefits of participation. You aren't trying to win anything; you're just going to make a piece of art on a beach and share it with others. Sue Lawty, the artist who initiated the project, is a textile artist, and she wrote about the World Beach Project being "a global drawing project; a stone drawing project that would speak about time, place, geology and the base instinct of touch." Through her own personal take on the project, Lawty encouraged participants to think of themselves as part of something greater--part of a community of artists and a geologically-connected ecosystem.

 

In their personal statements, beach artists wrote about profound connections to nature. They celebrated structures that disappeared after ten minutes but were "worth it." People shared stories of coming back to visit their creations again and again, seeing how the ocean and other people had altered their designs. The World Beach Project is, in its own small way, important. It isn't about collecting photos for a marketing campaign, or making a quick-e-card to send home. It's about making art, connecting to the earth, and being part of something greater.

 

By asking people to do something that is complicated, Lawty and the V&A express their respect for participants' competence and artistic ability. Yes, many contributory projects succeed by asking people to do something quick and easy - to register an opinion or share a small personal expression. But these are only as successful as the ask is genuine. Visitors, like all people, want the opportunity to show the world (and themselves) that they are interesting, capable, and worthy. Too often, we look at dismal rates of participation in basic contributory projects and assume, "this is too complicated for visitors." But in many cases, visitors may simply choose not to submit a photo for a contest or a thought into a comment box because the request seems insincere, demeaning, or silly. No one likes to have their time wasted.

 

In her research on happiness and gaming, Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger. The World Beach Project accommodates all of these goals for participants. In other words, it's a contributory project that is optimized to make participants happy. And that sets it apart.

 

The display is easy to navigate and inspires further participation...

 

As noted above, the display of the beach artwork is blended well with the ask, so visitors can easily transition from spectator to participant. That said, the World Beach folks recognize that this is a fairly hefty ask--not everyone can get to the beach--and I assume that many people come to the site, like myself, to enjoy the artwork without making their own contribution. The content does not live behind click after click; instead, you can access every submission from the world map. It is easy to move around and zoom in on the map and access contributions directly in the form of photos and text statements. These contributions don't send you to another page; instead, they pop up over the map, encouraging you to surf quickly from one to another. If you want to dig deeper into a particular submission, you can click to see other photos and longer statements from the artists on dedicated collections pages.

 

It is a bit strange that the World Beach Project is housed within the Collection subsection of the V&A website. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, it's a pain to have to find the project hidden beneath the textiles category of Collections (who would think to go there?). And the project might be more attractively displayed on its own site, outside the fairly staid templates of the V&A's overall site design. On the other hand, placing the project within Collections reinforces the idea that these beach artworks are accessioned into the museum's collection, and that the project exists within a larger context of dialogue about what textile art is and can be. The World Beach Project is a gem hiding in a vast space populated by other objects and experiences. Maybe that's where all great museum experiences live.

 

Different Contributory Projects, Different Institutional Needs

 

There are a range of institutional needs that can be fulfilled by contributory projects.  One of the most basic is the project in which visitors' contributions are necessary for the project to function, those in which the project simply cannot exist without contributions.  The World Beach Project is an obvious example of this type--no contributions, no beach artwork, no map, no project.  In cases like the World Beach Project, the need is for creative contribution, and the quality and volume of visitors' creations are directly correlated to the value of the overall project from the audience perspective.  In some creative projects, like the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Ghosts of a Chance game, the audience platform requires only a few successful submissions to function, and the institution can breathe easy with only ten or twenty contributions.  In non-creative projects, such as contributory research projects, the converse is often true; visitors' creativity is limited, but their volume matters.  For example, many citizen science projects succeed in collecting vast quantities of data from participants across broad geographic areas.  This data would be incredibly expensive to collect without participant support, and yet it is the diversity and consistency of the data, not its creativity, that makes it useful to the project.

 

These types of projects can be very high-risk from the institutional perspective.  If participants don't act as requested, the project can quite publicly fail, and there have been cases of video contests with just a couple of entries, or comment boards with one or two lonely notes.  But the fear of failure often also incentivizes institutions to put more thought and commitment into the contributory project overall.  For example, consider the experience of the exhibit developers at the Minnesota History Center Museum who worked on the MN150 project.  MN150 is a permanent exhibition of 150 topics that "transformed Minnesota," opened in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state's founding.  The MN150 team decided to crowdsource the topics, reasoning that "it didn't make sense" for internal developers and curators to decide which were the most important things to the residents of their large and diverse state.   The team put out an open call for nominations on a website, and, more successfully, at the Minnesota State Fair, a huge yearly event that draws Minnesotans of all types from all over the state.  As they were soliciting nominations, one exhibit developer also pursued a "shadow" concept development process in parallel, just in case the community process didn't yield fruit.  Fortunately, the public call succeeded, and the museum team sifted through 2,700 nominations from Minnesotans of all ages and walks of life.  But the MN150 team didn't just cross their fingers and wait for the nominations to rain in.  Once they committed to this process, the team actively sought nominations from diverse residents by reaching out to community leaders on reservations, in small towns, and in immigrant populations.  When the online call only brought in a trickle of nominations, the staff jumped at the opportunity to solicit folks at the state fair, and they energetically staffed their booth and hawked nomination forms cleverly designed as fans to encourage fair-goers to get out of the heat and make a contribution to the museum.  The MN150 team iterated the nomination form to make the ask as clear as possible, and they also published their rules for how the final topics would be selected, so that participants really understood what was being asked of them.  In the end, the team had such success developing an exhibition based on the public nomination process that they reconnected with individual nominees for suggestions and donations of objects to support the exhibits themselves.  Because the MN150 team worked contribution into the serious work of making a "real" and long-lasting exhibition, they created a contributory process that was respectful to participants, made sense to everyone, and was ultimately successful.

 

Of course, not every contributory project relies entirely on the participation of visitors.  In many cases, the institution feels that visitors' contributions, while not necessary, will add a unique and desirable flavor to a project.  For example, the London Science Museum didn't need to invite visitors to share their own toys during the run of the Playing with Science exhibition, but visitors' voices added a personal touch to the story of how people have engaged with scientific toys throughout history.  Nor did the Powerhouse Museum's Odditoreum have to allow visitors to make their own labels for the strange objects, but their inclusion promoted the sense of fun and object exploration that permeated the gallery.  In a marketing example, the Metropolitan Museum ran a photography contest in 2009 called "It's Time We Met" in which the institution encouraged people to share photos on the photo-sharing site Flickr of themselves exploring the Metropolitan Museum.  While several people submitted typical museum shots, a few contributed shots of themselves engaging with the art in humorous, touching, and surprising ways.  The poster shot for the contest was one of a middle-aged couple, locked in a passionate kiss next to a sculpture of figures in a similarly amorous position.  This photo was not necessary to advertise the museum, but its spontaneity and joy conveyed a unique message that would have been hard for the marketing department to manufacture.  These kinds of projects, in which visitors' contributions are seen as a way to personalize and energize more traditional projects, tend to accentuate visitors' creativity.  Unlike projects of necessity, in which institutions often introduce constraints to ensure consistency of contributions, these projects thrive when visitors are given license--and models--to do something a little out of the ordinary.

 

Finally, there are some contributory projects initiated by institutions which perceive the act of contribution as a valuable educational activity for visitors.  I expect these types of projects to continue to increase as more institutions place emphasis on participatory learning skills and new media literacies.  Most of these projects aim to teach skill-building rather than content, though citizen science projects that teach participants data collection skills have also been shown to expose people to new content around the overall science topics and specific specimens with which they interact (PPSR report).  Considering their emphasis on hands-on learning and skills attainment, it is not surprising that science centers and museums are most aggressively pursuing these kinds of projects.  The Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre is full of participatory activities in which visitors can make their own objects to display and share with others, from low-tech constructions like shoes and found object sculptures to media products like stop-motion videos.  Julie Bowen, the director of the project to create the Innovation Centre, was very clear in stating that the purpose of the WFIC is to help visitors cultivate practices of innovation--creativity, collaboration, experimentation--and not to teach science content.  And yet, many institutions are still stuck, because of their own and funders' goals, on teaching content.  In the summer of 2006, 2,400 visitors to the Exploratorium in San Francisco built Nanoscape, an immersive ball-and-stick sculpture meant to represent atoms and molecules at the nanoscale.  Visitors enthusiastically volunteered and learned a great deal about how to collaborate on a big project and put tiny pieces together.  But they didn't necessarily learn about the science beyond the project--visitors were just as likely to describe what they were making as a "building" as they were to reference the atoms and tiny particles represented, and evaluators were dismayed at the lack of overall science learning that happened during the project.  Hopefully, as national education systems move in the direction of "21st century skills" and new media literacies, as described by researchers like Henry Jenkins and others, museums and informal learning institutions will be leaders in charting the ways that we can use contributory projects as an opportunity to teach people important skills that go beyond basic facts.

 

The Magnes Museum, a small Jewish art and history museum in Berkeley, CA, initiated a Memory Lab project in 2008 to invite visitors to contribute their own artifacts and stories to a digital archive of Jewish heritage.  While the emphasis is on "making memories," director of research and collections Francesco Spagnolo emphasizes the concept that participants learn how to use digital tools to preserve, organize, and care for their own heritage.  In this way, this contributory project, which is cast as a personal experience, supports skill-building and appreciation for the ongoing work at the institution.

 

Why Do People Contribute?  Participant Motivations

 

As noted in the profile of the World Beach Project, research shows that people feel happy when they have "satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger."  Good contributory projects can accommodate all of these needs, and at a basic level, people participate in these projects because they make them feel fulfilled.  In particular, contributory projects give visitors satisfying work to do and invite them to join a community of practice.  In the context of a museum visit, these needs are rarely met.  Especially for adult visitors, museums rarely offer challenges that encourage participants to work hard and demonstrate their ability.  Whether creative, physical, or cognitive, contributory projects provide these challenges.  In contrast to the passive ways that many visitors experience museum exhibits, the opportunity to make your mark, share your voice, or contribute an object are distinctive and appealing.

 

Digging deeper, we see that different kinds of projects motivate people in different ways.  In the case of projects that are based solely and directly on visitors' contributions, would-be participants see the opportunity to make a significant impact.  Projects like the Denver Community Museum or the World Beach Project are clearly shaped and driven by the contributions provided, which makes participants feel a great deal of ownership over the whole experience.  People who contribute to these types of projects often experience a small jolt of fame, and they feel proud of their actions and want to share their experience with others. 

 

Not everyone wants this kind of fame; some people cringe in the spotlight.  But that doesn't mean they don't want to contribute.  Projects that have very simple activity requirements or strict constraints may be more appealing to people for whom community affinity is more appealing than individual fame.  As one observer of the Nanoscape sculptures at the Exploratorium commented that they liked the installation, "because anyone who comes could participate, and it makes people feel like they're a part of things."  No one contributor's individuality stood out in the final assemblage of balls and sticks, but the collective power of the group experience made it a powerful participatory output.

 

There are also people who put their voice out there not for fame or community spirit, but to express a deeply felt sentiment that they feel they need to contribute to the conversation at hand.  On many talkback boards, sprinkled throughout the fame-seeking "John was here!" comments, you can read the impassioned arguments of visitors who loved, hated, or just reacted strongly to exhibits on display.  These participants aren't trying to express themselves creatively or to excel at their contribution in a distinctive way; they are trying to join and shape the discussion, in dialogue with other visitors and the institution as a whole.  For example, the Pratt Museum's exhibition Darkened Waters, opened in 1989 in reaction to the Exxon Valdez oill spill, featured comment boards and books that quickly filled with debate and discussion among visitors.  Visitors often responded to each other's comments or addressed the museum directly, feeling that conversation, even asynchronous, was valuable and necessary. 

 

Note that while this typically happens in museums on comment boards, the same critical function could be provided to visitors as a partner to creative contributory projects.  For every visitor who wants to make their own stop-motion video, there may be three or four who would happily rate or comment on the videos made by others.  On the web, the desire to critique, to curate, and to comment is both more common and more valued that content creation.  Why is it more common?  There are more people who feel confident of their ability to critique than their ability to create.  Why is it more valued?  Because critique, when built into a well-designed platform, is what separates distinctive content from dribble.  When we hunt for books, movies, or restaurants online, we use ratings and reviews to guide our choices.  Similarly, platforms like YouTube use critique to organize the vastness of human expression.  While critical platforms are not always designed in line with museum values, good ones can help subsequent visitors consume more interesting content that is more likely to model quality participation.  And just as there are educational skills to be learned by those who create content, there are important new media skills learned by visitors who are invited to participate in critical or curatorial functions. 

 

Finally, going back to McGonigal's list of experiences that make people happy, there are those contributory projects that allow visitors to experiment with and improve at new skills.  Citizen science projects are often promoted to visitors in terms of "try your hand as a scientist," and while this language can be misleading, the motivation to try and do like the experts drives many people to participate in new and unfamiliar activities.  This feeling is often accentuated by projects in which visitors' contributions are on display alongside professionally produced or curated content.  If my label is on display next to the curator's label, I've gotten a chance to act like a curator.  If my portrait is on display alongside other artworks, I've been validated as an artist.  There's a fine line between pandering and genuinely supporting visitors as amateur contributors, and the best projects help visitors attain and use skills that make them feel intrinsically more successful and knowledgeable.

 

All of these are ways to positively appeal to contributory participants.  These folks have turn-offs as well which will keep them from contributing to your project.  As noted above, wasting visitors' time with stupid questions or activities is an obvious turn-off, but there are some more subtle designed elements that can reduce participation as well.  The most important of these is lack of clarity about roles and opportunities.  When it's not clear how a participant can be successful, they feel wary of the activity and may second-guess their ability to perform the requested action.  When the ask is too generic or broad, it can also raise barriers that make people unsure of what will constitute a "good" or proper contribution.  And if participants are unsure of where their contribution will be shared or used--especially if it involves personal data like contact information--they may steer clear of engagement.  If you are designing a contributory platform, don't get overly enamored with the ability to ask for more information or content from visitors.  Keep it as simple as you can, and respect the fact that not everyone wants to share their contact information with their exhibit comment.  Many museums marry together mailing list and visitor feedback forms.  While there are some people who are happy to give both, there are also people for whom an insistence on personal information is very off-putting.

 

Modeling Desired Participant Behavior

 

The easiest way to make participants' roles clear and appealing to would-be participants is through modeling.  When a visitor sees a handwritten comment on a talkback board, she understands that she too can put up her own comment.  She takes cues from the format of other comments--their length, whether they are signed or anonymous--and the models on display influence her behavior and the likeliness of her participation.  Good modeling is not as simple as displaying representative contributions.  The diversity, quality, and recency of the models, as well as the extent to which the platform appears "full" or "empty," significantly impacts whether and how newcomers participate.  Let's look at each of these briefly and how they impact the participant experience.

 

The greater the diversity of contributions, both in terms of participant demographics and contribution content, the more likely an approaching visitor will feel that the contributory platform is open to and inclusive of their experience.  One of the most unfortunate choices made by many museums with video talkback kiosks to to solely feature model content that is professionally produced using celebrities or content experts.  These models are meant to entice people in, and they may successfully attract people who want to watch videos of celebrities sharing their views.  But the level of production and the type of people displayed send a clear message to visitors that their opinions are inferior and are secondary to expert or celebrity perspectives.  If you want to encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to share their thoughts, you should deliberately reflect and celebrate contributions from a range of people, perhaps going so far as to mentally "slot in" a model contribution from a child, in another language, expressing different viewpoints, and so on.  One obvious exception is hate speech; while in some cases expressing highly contentious and provocative views may be deemed appropriate and may promote inclusion, in many situations museums will draw the line somewhere.  Going back to the essential role of clarity in contributory model design, make sure that your expectations and boundaries about appropriate content are clear and available to visitors.  Just as other constraints, such as size of post-its, types of materials, or length of video, will focus visitors' participation, so will clear statements about content that is and isn't considered appropriate. 

 

The higher the quality and topical focus of the model contributions, the more likely visitors are to "rise up" to the level of contributions on display.  This is a delicate balancing act.  As noted in the celebrity example, model content that is of a quality that is impossible for visitors to attain is not appropriate.  If celebrities or staff are included in the models, their contributions should be produced in the same way visitors' content is produced.  If visitors will write in crayon, staff should write in crayon.  This technique was very powerfully employed in the Denver Art Museum's Side Trip exhibition, which was highly participatory.  All of the instructional labels around contributory exhibit activities were written in marker on cardboard.  This design choice fit in with the overall aesthetic of the space, but it also made visitors feel that their content could be of a reasonable quality to blend attractively into the exhibit.  When done well, making design choices that bring everyone to the same production values can make for more appealingly integrated visitor content that enhances rather than distracts from the overall look and feel of the exhibition.  

 

Staff models can also bring the experience down to earth when they express their opinions and creativity in ways that regular visitors can connect with.  In the chapter on personalization, we looked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's inclusion of staff voices in a comment board about making choices to protect ocean inhabitants.  In that case, staff used the board to express how they would change their personal and family lives, conferring respect upon the tough decisions and changes the exhibit asked visitors to consider.  In some cases, staff intentionally descend below "typical visitor" behavior, modeling behavior at a novice level.  This technique has been championed by many radio producers, most famously Studs Terkel, who played up his clumsiness around recording equipment to make his interview subjects feel confident and comfortable in contrast.  One of the best examples of this kind of modeling is exhibited on the NPR show RadioLab, in which two hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, explore big science topics like "time" and "emergence" from a variety of scientific perspectives.  Commenting on their process at an event in 2008, Krulwich said,

 

"I think we both start also as virgins. We don't know really what we're talking about at the beginning--we find out along the way. And we make that very clear. So we never pretend to anybody that we're scholars cause we're not. And we do represent ourselves as novices, which is a good thing. It is a good thing in a couple of ways. First, it means we can say, 'what?!' honestly. And the second thing: 'can you explain that again?' honestly. And then the third thing is, it allows us to challenge these people as though we were ordinary, curious folks.

 

 

We have a show coming up right now about synthetic biology, where engineers are building life forms that are new to existence, new to the history of life. And they're doing it quite... aggressively. And we, we yell at them and we fight with them and we argue with them, and they give right back. But we're trying to model a kind of conversation with important people, powerful people, but particularly knowledgeable people, where we say--YOU can go up to a person with a lot of knowledge and ask him 'why?,' ask him 'how does he know that?' Tell him, 'stop!' Ask him why he keeps going. And get away with it. And that's important."

 

Effectively, Krulwich is saying that Radiolab isn't just a show where the hosts have conversations with scientists. It's a show where the hosts model a way for YOU to have conversations with scientists, a way for regular people to engage with experts rather than deferring to or ignoring them.

To do this kind of modeling, Robert and Jad actively portray themselves as novices. They make themselves look stupid so we don't have to feel that way. They articulate the basic questions and knee-jerk reactions in our own minds, carrying us deep into the content from a common starting place. By humbling themselves in this way, they create a powerful learning experience. Robert and Jad aren't content experts, but they are interpretative experts, skilled interviewers and producers. And those skills drove the cultivation of personae that are wonderfully accessible.

 

Accessibility of model content is important, but so is the showcasing of superlative visitor creations, which are exciting and attractive.  There may be some visitors who produce contributions that are breathtakingly superior to others' submissions, and modeling participation solely via these shining examples is not necessarily conducive to people feeling comfortable adding their own inferior creations.  But visitors are pretty savvy about this, and the energizing benefit of seeing other visitors' really amazing work may be more important than the fear that they can't perform comparably.  It's no shock for me to find out that other people are better at drawing than I am.  I already know that.  When I see a bunch of crappy drawings in a restaurant, I'm never motivated to pick up a placemat and some crayons and start coloring.  But when I see something really unusual, surprising, or appealing in way that clearly shows that someone spent a lot of effort on it, I'm more likely to be intrigued by the experience overall--whether I participate this time or not.  The key is not whether you can display the most amazing contributions ever.  The important thing is offering model content that conveys that participants genuinely care about their contributions and have made a serious effort to produce something that fits the requirements at hand.

 

Recency of model content matters because it reflects the values of the contributory platform and the extent to which the platform is well-tended by staff. Imagine an exhibit that invites visitors to whisper a secret into a phone and then listen to secrets left by other visitors.  If the secrets you hear are several months old, you may have less confidence that your own secret will soon be on display.  Recency of content is most important for contributions that target participants' desires to be famous and engage in active dialogue with others.  If you are inclined to participate because of a promise (explicit or implicit) that your contribution will be on display, you want immediate feedback that tells you when and where your content will be on display, and, if possible, you want it to be on display right away.  Similarly, if your goal is to contribute to collective dialogue, you don't want to drop your contribution into a queue for processing--you want to see it join the conversation immediately.  In platforms for which recency is used as a primary motivator for participation, model content is often entirely or primarily composed of the most recent content.  For example, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has an exhibition called From Memory to Action that features a pledge station and display wall.  Visitors can sit at the stations and scrawl their promises of actions they will take "to meet the challenge of genocide" on special digital paper with pens. The paper is perforated with one section for the promise, which visitors keep, and another section for a signature, which visitors leave at the museum. Once signed, visitors drop the signed paper stubs into clear plexiglass cases that are beautifully lit. The paper "remembers" the location of pen marks on the pledge section, so visitors' handwritten promises are quickly and magically projected on a digital projection wall in front of the pledge kiosks. The digital projection wall displays a dynamic show of recent pledges as well as statistics on how many pledges have been made to date, and the plexi cases provide a powerful physical representation of all the names and promises that have been made. This case full of real people's handwritten signatures is reminscient of the haunting pile of Holocaust prisoners' shoes in the permanent exhibition, providing a hopeful complement to that devastating set of artifacts.  The combination of the physical accumulation of the paper stubs and the dynamic, personal digital projection reflects both the power of collective action and the importance of individual commitments.

 

This pledge wall example is a beautiful demonstration of the ways that aesthetic and functional design of contributory platforms can be mutually beneficial.  Why require visitors to hand-write their pledges rather than keying them in on a keyboard? It certainly would have been easier for the museum to digitize and project visitors' entries if they were typed in, and it wouldn't have wasted so much (expensive, digital) paper. But requiring visitors to sit and think and then hand write their response (to a very hard question!) forces them to slow down. Signing a pledge in your own handwriting ritualizes the experience. Adding your slip of paper to a physical, growing, highly visible archive makes you part of a larger community. I watched several visitors as they went through this process, which ends with your card being reproduced digitally, letter by letter, on the large projection wall in front of the kiosks. People were captivated by the slow animation of their pledges being added to the wall, and that slowness sealed a deliberate interaction.  By rewarding visitors with an immediate display of their own content, and effectively generating model content out of the real-time promises, the pledge wall captivated both participants and would-be participants.

 

One final design consideration--the extent to which the platform feels "full" or "empty"--is often overlooked by designers developing contributory platforms.  No one wants to act alone and be under the microscope, but participants also don't want to be ignored or lost in the crowd.  We all intuitively know the difference between a conversation that feels open to our opinion and one which is already too crowded with voices.  Platforms that have explicit "slots" for content on display, such as comment boards or video kiosks that display grids of videos, can often overwhelm and disincentivize continued participation if they don't clearly illustrate where the current participant's content will be integrated.  I experienced this first-hand in a small project using a tool called Voicethread that allows people to add their own audio comments to slides.  The audio comments are arranged in rows "around" the slides, and visitors to the website can click on any face to hear that person's comments.  Despite the fact that you can explore the content in discrete chunks, later visitors reported being overwhelmed by the high volume of content, and creation of new audio comments steeply dropped off after the first few.  People needed a couple of examples to get going, but once a slide had eight to ten comments associated with it, subsequent would-be commenters kept their mouths shut.

 

One easy way to ameliorate this problem is to give the current participant a clear "position of privilege" in the map of contributions to date.  In exhibits which invite visitors to add their own personal memories to post-it maps or timelines, this position of privilege is self-evident; the newest post-its layer on top of older ones, giving would-be participants confidence that their story will be read, at least for a while.  In digital environments, or ones in which staff are in control of the presentation of contributions and model content, it is useful to provide visitors with an obvious "pathway" or slot for their contribution, so they can see where their contribution will go visually and physically.  This is easy to do in schemes that prioritize recency, such as the US Holocaust Museum's pledge wall, because your promise immediately floats up in front of the digital display.  It is harder to do in systems that have a time delay between contribution and presentation.  Staff may want to include label text like, "Where does your opinion fit into the conversation?" or "Place your creation near others that you feel are connected" to help visitors feel that there is a place for their unique participation, no matter how crowded the field.  Finally, it's important for staff to tend the contributory platform, clearing space for new contributions, replenishing any needed materials, and ensuring a diversity of models on display, so that they activity always looks appealing to newcomers.  This sounds easy, but as we'll see in the next chapter, the challenges of managing participatory platforms over the long term can often lead to their demise. 

 

Curating Contributions

 

There are several contributory art projects that combine necessity with creativity, using a range of curatorial models to embue the contributory platforms with values that perpetuate high-quality submissions.  Postsecret is a well-known example; the project could not exist without the postcards, and yet Frank Warren curates the incoming postcards very tightly for public consumption.  The Postsecret project could easily devolve into a display of the most prurient, grotesque, and exaggerated fears and desires people share, and yet Frank's curatorial touch puts cards with  authentic, creative, diverse voices on display, thus encouraging people to keep their contributions honest and artistic.  There are other examples, like the Museum of Broken Relationships, which collects and displays objects and stories related to breakups, in which the invisible curatorial hand keeps the quality of audience-consumed exhibits high, even as they receive unsolicited submissions on a continual basis.

 

Curating visitors' contributions isn't good or bad, but like all decisions that impact participants, the curation policy needs to be clear to people.  If visitors create something and then drop it into a black hole for staff review, they need to understand how their submission will be evaluated, how long it might take, and whether they will be notified if their contribution is included in some audience-facing display.  This doesn't need to be exhaustive; even a sign that says, "Staff check these videos every week and select 3-5 to be shown on the monitor outside.  We are always looking for the most creative, imaginative contributions to share with visitors." can help visitors understand the overall structure and criteria of curation.  And while very few institutions get back in touch with visitors to let them know that their content is being featured, doing so makes good business sense.  It's a personal, compelling reason to contact someone who may not have visited the institution since making their contribution, and it's likely to bring them back to show off their creation to friends and family.

 

When considering what your curation policy will be for a contributory project, consider whether your goal is to give everyone a voice or to sculpt a high quality audience experience from contributions.  If your goal is to empower visitors' voices or to encourage conversation, your curatorial touch should be as light as possible, and you should spend your design time focused on how to display the contributions so they work well together rather than trying to cut down to a few models.  The Signtific game is a good example of this; instead of developing a curatorial or monitoring system, the designers focused on developing ways to explicitly require players to respond to each other and build arguments together, so that every new voice has a place in the growing conversation.

 

Even inane visitor comments are important to include when your goal is visitor empowerment.  When people write on each others' walls on Facebook or MySpace, they are often just saying hi and asserting their affinity for the other person or institution.  The same is true of the people who write, "Great museum!" in comment books in the lobby.  These statements are a form of self-identification, and while they may not make very compelling content for audiences, the act of expression in a public forum is important to those who contribute their thoughts, however banal.

 

Of course, there are many cases in which creating a high quality output for subsequent audiences is more important than serving the identity needs 

of participants.  Using phrases like, "contribute to the exhibition" as opposed to "join the conversation" can help signal to visitors that their work may be evaluated and used subject to more stringent criteria.  People will not be less motivated to participate if it is perceived as difficult to get your work featured on display.  That perception activates different motivations--the pleasure of competition and the desire to be marked as special.  These motivations can be equally powerful, but they also alter the way visitors perceive the activity and the profile of visitors likely to be drawn to participate.

 

And one quick note on the top issue that most museum staff worry about regarding curation of visitors' contributions: moderation of inappropriate content.  On the web, people who make offensive comments or terrorize other users are called "griefers," and fortunately few museums suffer from participants who use contributory platforms to actively attack other visitors.  But they may use the platforms to share content that is considered offensive from the perspective of the institutional mission.  The US Holocaust Museum is a very interesting example of this, because their highly active online comment boards frequently attract Holocaust-deniers and anti-Semitic individuals.  The Museum devotes significant staff resources to moderation, and prefers to engage directly and quickly with commenters who express views they deem inappropriate or potentially inflamatory.  But the comments are still there, on their site, and that makes some people uncomfortable.  David Klevan, Education Manager for Technology and Distance Learning Initiatives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, reflected on this issue, saying:  “No matter what disclaimer we put up about posters’ views not reflecting the views of the institution, we know that content on our site reflects upon us.  There’s the double-edged sword of wanting to make it a welcoming and safe place for free expression—without making people feel threatened.”

While acknowledging griefers’ detrimental impact to other individuals’ experiences is important, the fear about their impact often outweighs its harm.  Museums already have developed ways to deal with griefers of a different type—the ones who vandalize exhibits and disrupt other visitors’ experiences.  When it comes to people who want to vandalize the community spirit, the same techniques—proactive staff, model users, encouragement of positive and respectful behavior—can prevail. 

 

Interestingly, while staff tend to be most concerned about content that uses curse words or hate speech, these kinds of offensive contributions are usually vastly outweighed by submissions that are inappropriate in other ways: off-topic, devoid of content, or unintelligible.  The best way to tackle all of these types of inappropriate behaviors is to develop asks that are genuine, so that the contributory platform is treated with the same respect visitors confer on other exhibits.  There are also some sneaky placement decisions you can make.  At the Ontario Science Centre, there was a digital comment kiosk in a quiet area that was constantly receiving off-topic content related to body parts.  The staff moved the kiosk to be directly in front of the entrance to the women's bathroom in a very central location.  Once in the proximity of more visitors (and moms in particular!) the bad behavior disappeared.

 

 

Audience Experiences of Contributory Projects

 

Of course, participants aren't the only ones who access and consume each other's content.  There is also a wide body of audience members--other visitors, stakeholders, sometimes scientists or researchers--who enjoy and use contributed content.  What makes a compelling audience experience of a contributory project?  

 

Some contributory projects, like citizen science data collection, are intended for a very specific and non-public audience.  In these cases, there are really two audiences for the data--the scientists who will use the data as part of their research, and the participants and would-be participants who are curious about what happens to their data and what others have contributed. This is also true of any contributory projects in which visitors are contributing as part of institutional research or project development.  In the case of MN150, people submitted nominations of topics for inclusion in the exhibition over a year before the exhibition was opened, so the nominations functionally had two lives: internally for staff to consider, and then (for a subset of winners) externally once the exhibition was open.  When contributions are being worked into a private process, participants need to know where their contributions are going and how the process works.  People are often comfortable "giving up" their ideas as long as they receive basic recognition and some insider information about how the institution plans to use their content. 

 

Interestingly, there are some citizen scientists (and managers of citizen science projects) who are advocating for more access to the data they collectively share with scientists.  As noted earlier, people who only participate in data collection gain skills in a very narrow segment of the scientific process.  Many of these participants would like to be more involved.  For example, birder Eric Gyllenhall has requested that project managers "give people more tools to manipulate the data after it has been collected. Both FeederWatch and eBird allow some of that, but there should be lots more opportunities for data mining, data mash-ups, post-creation projects, or whatever you want to call them."  These are participants who would like to be able to use the data collected in more extensive ways, not necessarily in collaboration with scientists, but as data consumers in their own right. 

 

Data collectors aren't the only people who enjoy exploring and playing with participant-submitted content and data.  In the past couple of years, manipulatable data visualizations have become ubiquitous on the web, and people enjoy fiddling with everything from data on baby names to crime statistics to the frequency of different phrases in internet dating profiles.  From an audience perspective, playing with visitor-submitted data can be a fun and attractive way to explore huge numbers of contributions while learning important analytical skills.  Even the simplest visualization--such as the LED readouts above the turnstiles in the Ontario Science Centre's Facing Mars exhibition--let audiences learn from, enjoy, and engage with visitor-submitted content.

 

In 2008, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam hosted Damien Hirst’s piece For the Love of Godand with it, a visitor feedback system presented contributions in a way that allowed non-contributing audiences to interact with contributions in intriguing ways. The artwork is a platinum-cast skull encrusted with over 1100 carats of diamonds: a hype machine in death’s clothing. Entering the exhibit involved standing in line in galleries full of Dutch masterpieces (mostly ignored) and then emerging into a dark room with guards and the skull terrifically lit in the center. You weren’t sure how much time you were supposed to spend with the object or what to get out of it. There was no interpretative content in the room, and you were not allowed to take pictures. I walked in, self-consciously watched myself watching other people watching the skull, then walked out.

 

At the physical museum, visitors who wished to provide feedback on the skull were instructed to leave the building and walk into a temporary structure that served as both a For the Love of God gift shop and feedback environment. The feedback stations themselves were little closed booths where you could record a video with your opinion about the skull.

 

By positioning the feedback stations outside the flow of the museum (and within a solely skull-branded structure), the resultant videos were more topical and focused than is typical. But the thing that makes this project stand out is the way these videos were shared on the Web. They were displayed on the For the Love of God website, which was created for the museum by an outside vendor, skipintro. The format is reminiscent of Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine project, allowing users to view the videos by country of origin, gender, age, and some key concepts (love it/hate it, think it’s art/think it's hype). The videos were automatically chromakeyed (i.e. masked or cropped) so that each person appears as a floating head, which creates an eerie, appealing visual consistency. The browsing experience is somewhat clunky and the filters are not always accurate, but the overall website is impressive in its display and aggregation of videos. Note that not all of the recorded videos were used on the website; videos were culled for volume, and "harsh and insulting" ones were removed.  Skipintro functionally created an interactive online experience for audiences out of the contributions offered by visitors.

 

This design was also notable for its overall integration into the exhibit experience. The visitors' videos on the website were couched in the same self-conciousness buzz that permeated the exhibit, with a welcome screen informing you that, “never before has a work of art provoked as much dialogue as Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God.’” Oh really? Never?  Whether true or not, the website implies that the visitors’ videos are a justification for this claim, a demonstration of the rich dialogue supposedly surrounding this skull. In this way, the visitors’ videos are integrated into the larger art piece and are arguably as much a part of the skull experience as the posters, the lines, and the guards. The existence of controversy is part of the intentional setting of the skull, and so visitors are encouraged to talk.  Whether you experienced the visitors' videos as evidence of this controversy, or just as a beautiful data visualization, the audience experience of the feedback contributions was immersive, intriguing, and quite haunting. 

 

There are many audiences who enjoy engaging with visitor-submitted content actively.  Many people who are not motivated to create their own content are motivated to critique, edit, curate, and organize other visitors' contributions.  As noted earlier, this is a different kind of participation which can improve the overall quality of visitor contributions and contributory outputs, especially in institutions where staff do not have the time to actively manage or curate contributions. A simple "favorite" or "mark as inappropriate" button can go a long way towards helping audience members feel invested in visitor-contributed content and winnowing out the best and worst submissions.

 

But what about the visitors who are "just looking?"  How does the experience of exploring visitor-contributed content differ from consuming standard exhibits or museum content?   Just as diversity of contributions helps motivate people to participate in contributory platforms, diversity of creations can help some audience members feel more personally included in the institution as consumers of that content.  In 2006, the Art Gallery of Ontario developed In Your Face, an exhibition of 4"x6" visitor-submitted self-portraits.  Over 10,000 self-portraits were submitted, and the portraits were hung in an overwhelming and beautiful mosaic, blanketing walls from floor to ceiling of the exhibition gallery.  Toronto is a very culturally diverse city, and Gillian McIntyre, coordinator of adult programs, noted that, "the portraits noticeably reflected far more diversity of all sorts than is usually seen on AGO walls."  She also reflected that "on several occasions children in visiting school groups from West and East Indian communities enthusiastically pointed out people who looked like them on the walls, literally saying: 'That looks like me' or 'That's me with dreadlocks.'"  McIntyre further commented that these comments represent the extent to which In Your Face helped the AGO be a more socially inclusive place.  Visitors "saw themselves" in the exhibition in a way they never had before.  The exhibition was incredibly popular, attracting significant crowds and media attention.  Another visitor took the experience from personal to collective, commenting that "it's depicting the soul of a society."

 

MN150 has had a similar effect on visitors, despite being a much more conservative installation.  Unlike In Your Face, MN150 was not a direct installation of visitor contributions.  Instead, it displays the distillation of 2,700 visitor nominations into 150 fairly simply designed exhibits.  Each exhibit label includes the text contributed in the original nomination form, as well as a photo of the nominee.  But otherwise, with a few exceptions in cases where nominees provided objects, the exhibits were designed and produced by staff in a traditional process.  In summative evaluation, staff learned that... (COMPLETE IN DEC WHEN EVAL REPORT AVAILABLE)  Anecdotally, staff noted that the video talkback station in MN150 was particularly active. The kiosk invited visitors to make their case for other topics that should have been included in the exhibition.  I assume the display of visitor's voices throughout the exhibition and the transparent focus on the public nomination process motivated more audience members to feel that there was room for their own voice and topics than in a typical exhibition.  While it wasn't tested, my guess is that more people felt encouraged to add their own feedback than they would have if the exhibition had showcased only curatorial perspectives on the top 150 topics that have shaped Minnesota.  Interestingly, the Art Gallery of Ontario's In Your Face exhibition had a similar effect, with many more visitors than is typical visiting a station where they could make their own portraits inspired by the installation.  In this way, these exhibitions of visitor-created or nominated content become a giant modeling machine, encouraging visitors to participate with the exhibition in related but not identical ways.

 

How important is it to visitors to know that an exhibition was created via a participatory process?  Is the focus on the process a reflection of cultural obsession with user-created content, or is it actually useful or compelling to visitors in some way?  In the examples above, we've seen how exposing the process can help audiences feel more socially included both in the content and the participatory experience of the product.  In the introduction to the book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock offer several ways that "visitor-response elements" can enhance audience experience of exhibitions, including "validat[ing] visitors' experiences, knowledge, and emotions," "redress[ing] perceived imbalance in the content of an exhibition," and "expos[ing] visitors and museum staff to diverse perspectives."  These all point to a very simple truth: visitor-contributed content is different from traditional institutionally-produced content.  It is often more personal, more authentic, more spontaneous, and more relevant to human experience than the labels and displays that committees agonize over for months or years.  Just as people are becoming more distrustful of overly packaged marketing messages and news productions in the broader media landscape, visitors see the authoritative voice of traditional museums in a suspicious light.  There are many studies and reports about shifting brand allegiances and how savvy consumers are more likely than ever to trust the opinion of a peer and scorn the message of a traditional splashy advertisement.  In a world of aggressively marketed and abundantly available consumer experiences, people are trying to find the content that is most relevant and significant to their own lives.  I don't believe that visitor-contributed content produces intrinsically better audience experiences than institutional-designed content.  But at least so far, many museum staff members are unwilling to produce content that is as raw, personal, and direct as that which visitors create.  Hopefully, working with and seeing the positive impact of visitor-contributed content will give some institutions the permission they need to transform the way they create and display content as well.

 

Collaborative Projects

 

If contributory projects are a one-night stand, collaborative projects are a controlled relationship.  Collaborative projects are institutionally driven, with staff soliciting outside participatory partners who represent particular communities of interest.   These partners may be chosen for specific knowledge or skills, association with cultural groups of interest, age, or they may just be representative of the intended audience for the outputs of the project.  In some cases, museum staff and participants work hand in hand; in other cases, staff guide a process that is largely participant-determined.

 

Investigating Where We Live is a classic collaborative museum project.  Investigating Where We Live is an annual 4-week program at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., in which thirty local teens work with museum staff to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a neighborhood of D.C.  The program is coordinated and directed by staff, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and generally shepherd the project to completion.  Teens join the group via an application process, and they are expected to participate in all twelve sessions of the program over four weeks.

 

In format, Investigating Where We Live functions like many standard museum camp programs.  What distinguishes it as a collaboration is the fact that the teens are creating a partly self-directed exhibit for public consumption.  The institution provides the framework--the space, the sessions, the instruction--but the content, design, and implementation of the exhibition are up to the teens.  Investigating Where We Live has been offered at the National Building Museum since 1996, and many graduates of the program come back in subsequent years to serve volunteers, interns, or program staff.  The blending of participants of different ages and levels of expertise and authority helps blur the line between staff and student, and the result is a program that feels truly collaborative.  For example, in 2007, James Brown first participated in IWWL as a student.  In 2008 and 2009, he returned as a "teen assistant" to staff member Andrew Costanzo.  On the 2009 IWWL blog, Andrew reflected, "Of course, I have to mention my fantastic Teen Assistant, James Brown. This is the second time I have had the honor of working with James in this capacity. He dubbed us 'Batman and Batman', because 'there was no sidekick this time.'"  Andrew and James appear to regard each other as true partners in the program.

 

This is not to say that the teens completely control the program or can take it in a different direction.  As James Brown noted on the 2009 blog in the first week of the program in a post entitled Groundhog Day, "I must admit the training and first day the students arrived seemed like the rewind of a bad 80s movie. It was all the same as the year before and the year before that. Every exercise and activity mirrored those I had already done up until the point when people started to participate."  James didn't see this as a bad thing; he went on to describe all of the design skills he'd honed over his time in the program.  Unlike contributory projects, which tend to focus on the product supplied by participants, collaborative projects often have an explicit educational component for participants.  As a part of the "reasonable bargain" between institutions and participants in collaborative projects, participants often make long-term commitments to the project in exchange for institutionally-provided skill-building and content education.

 

As is evident from the example of Investigating Where We Live, collaborative projects often require much more staff time, planning, and coordination than contributory projects.  They also ask more of the participants, both in terms of time and output.  For this reason, collaborative projects typically involve small groups of participants working with dedicated staff.  Because collaborative projects require more resources than contributory projects, they tend to be tightly tied to institutional goals or core programs.  While institutional needs may still be broad and diverse, the institution typically has a good sense of what they are trying to accomplish throughout the program and what might motivate participants to take part.  There are some institutions, most significantly non-museum experience design companies, for which collaborative user-design processes are an essential part of design practice.  There is rarely a "put it out there and see what happens" attitude towards collaborative projects.  This is positive, because institutions are often more thoughtful in planning collaborative projects and expect more from them at the output.  But it's also a problem, because it makes collaborative projects seem too complicated or resource-intensive to be usable in many situations.  Later in this section, we'll look at some alternative formats for collaborative projects that allows them to be more distributed, informal, and flexible than the traditional approach allows.

 

Because collaborative projects are partnerships between institutions and participants, the roles and needs of each are somewhat blended.  Basic institutional needs that can be fulfilled by collaborative projects include:

  • the need to bring in experts or community representatives to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of an exhibit, publication, or program
  • the need to test and develop new products in partnership with intended users to improve the likelihood that they will be successful
  • the desire to provide educational experiences in which partners design, create, and produce their own content or research
  • the desire to offer in-museum experiences in which visitors can contribute, take ownership over some content creation, or work with the museum in a sustained way

 

As in contributory projects, the motivation for participation in collaborative projects mostly comes from the clarity of roles and the appeal of the participatory activity.  However, in collaborations, institutions also often provide several additional layers of motivation, as well as amplifying these basic incentives with more information.  Participants may be paid or receive school credit for participating in a collaboration.  Because collaborations often involve more formal and prolonged relationships between institutions and participants, institutions are more likely to explicitly and exhaustively explain what roles the participants will be given, what expectations the institution has for the collaboration and its outcomes, and what benefits (education, publicity, renumeration) participants should expect to receive.  Many collaborations involve an application process, which serves as a kind of vetting both for would-be participants' motivation and their ability to perform adequately in the collaboration.  At the beginning of a collaboration, ideally, both participants and staff feel confident of each other's ability to fulfill the roles and functions assigned to them.

 

Because of the tight relationships between institutions and participants, the audience experience of the outcomes of collaborations often takes a backseat.  This is problematic; sometimes a project that only served ten or twenty non-staff participants in its creation will produce an outcome that is only appealing to that small group of people and their friends and family!  Making matters worse, many collaborative projects are evaluated solely based on the experience of the collaboration for staff and participants, and not based on the audience experience of the outputs.  The most common way this problem is ameliorated is by staff developing a collaborative process that will confidently produce an outcome that is considered of a high enough quality to be appealing to wide audiences (such as the process used at the National Building Museum to develop the Investigating Where We Live exhibition).  There is another interesting approach to this problem.  Some institutions will use collaborations as an opportunity to test new modalities for audience engagement or display.  These projects often involve participant-generated content that is treated with different rules and values than institutionally-held content, and so staff are willing to take risks they might not take with artifacts or content in the permanent collection. 

 

In the rest of this section, we will look at collaborative projects from several angles.  First, we'll look at collaboration as a formal design process and how it serves both institutions and participants in the co-creation of exhibitions, programs, and research.  We'll dig into the story of one particularly messy formal collaboration I worked on, and how honesty and open communication held together a world of shifting promises, tools, and bargains.  Then, we'll turn to the lesser-known (and to me, more interesting) world of experiments in collaboration: institutions that use collaboration to test new ideas in museum practice and design.  Finally, we'll look at some collaborative structures that are more informal than these design process, structures that allow visitors to collaborate more flexibly with institutions at commitment levels comparable to those exhibited by contributory projects. 

 

The Collaborative Design Process

 

Collaborative design processes have been documented for use in everything from community planning to software development for at least forty years.  Whether going by the name participatory design, cooperative design, collaborative design, user-centered design, or other terms, the concept is the same. Someone initiates a project or an organization, and then, instead of developing that project on their own, they bring in collaborative partners to work with them.  In recent years, product design firms like IDEO have greatly enhanced the public profile of user-centered design and have argued that integrating intended end-users into the design process results in products that are more likely to succeed in the market and introduces new product ideas that may also be successful down the road.  IDEO isn't engaging end-users to give participants beneficial educaitonal experiences; these product designers are banking that their "audience" will respond better to products designed with collaborative processes.   In addition to helping the bottom line, user-centered design has emerged as a particularly useful technique when moving into new markets.  As companies "go global," designers are being asked to design products for intended users from countries and backgrounds they may have never encountered.  In these foreign environments, partnering with intended end-users is often the most effective way to understand how your product will work in the new market.

 

User-centered design of this type goes beyond prototyping or offering focus groups with intended end-users.  In 2009, IDEO published a free e-book on human-centered design written specifically for non-profits and NGOs working in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In this guide, they offer specific design techniques for how to partner with intended users to do field research, develop project ideas, evaluate prototypes, assess program viability, and deliver pilot projects.  While your goal may not be to improve drinking water quality in Zambia, many of the techniques described in the IDEO book apply to cultural project development processes as well.

 

Early in their book, the IDEO authors state, "The foundation of HCD is a concise Design Challenge. This challenge will guide the questions you will ask in the field resesarch and the opportunities and solution you develop later in the process."  Collaborative museum design processes must also start with a clear and well-understood design challenge or goal.  These challenges are the basis for how you will recruit participants, what you will ask of them, and what you will create in partnership.  Sample challenges might include, "How can we tell the story of the Inuit experience in a way that is authentic, respectful, and compelling to non-native audiences?" or "Can we give teenagers with AIDS the tools to document their own daily experience in a way that supports their creative development, is sensitive to their privacy, and accessible to other audiences?" or "Can amateurs develop interactive exhibits for our music and technology exhibition?"  Each of these questions implies different target collaborators and design processes.  In the lightest collaborations, collaborators may serve as "advisory boards" or consultants with whom staff have occasional design meetings throughout the project development.  At their most intensive, collaborators and staff may work side by side to develop and implement the project.

 

The development of the traveling exhibition Yuungnaqpiallerput/The Way We Genuinely Live: Masterworks of Yup'ik Science and Survival at the Anchorage Museum is a good example of a successful partnership in which the non-staff participants... advisory...

 

When the collaborators are youth (and they often are), institutional goals related to providing participants with educational experiences often become more explicit and essential to the project.  In both the case of IWWL and projects I've worked on, the overall design process typically breaks down into about one-third instructional time, two-thirds teen-driven production time.  Weaving instruction into a collaboration is not easy; you have to develop and maintain equitable partnership relationships at the same time as you reinforce old standards about who is the authoritative instructor and who are the students.  For this reason, it's a mistake to front-load all of the instruction to the first days or weeks of the program; that sets an expectation that the whole program will be "business as usual" with teachers as authoritative leaders and students as followers.  Front-loading can also cause exhaustion in later weeks, especially in intensive programs where participants spend several hours each day working on the project.  Like most people, youth participants can get fatigued if they are constantly "working on the project," and later in the program, instructional sessions can often be fun breaks that help teens shift focus and gather additional skills useful for their projects.  In the best cases, much of the instruction can be dictated by the needs of the youth participants themselves.  For example, when I work with participants (of any age) on projects where they are designing exhibits, objects, or activites that draw on their own creative interests, I try to use the early time period to introduce them to as many unique examples as possible rather than prescriptively showing them a small set of tools or paths to take.  Then, I ask participants to write proposals for the projects they would like to do, and I try to find instructors or advisors who can come in specifically to help those participants with the tools they want to use, working from their particular levels of expertise.  Especially when working with young people and technology, it's ridiculous to assume that everyone is starting from the same base or has the same knowledge and interest in different tools.  Students can improve their skills more significantly when they can receive specific instruction at their level with tools they consider essential to their work.  Guest instructors and flexible instruction schedules also help reinforce the collaboration between institution and participants.  Participants see this kind of instruction as supportive to their needs rather than imposed from outside.  From a relationship perspective, it's useful to bring in guest instructors and experts, as well as using past graduates or other youth as instructors because this allows students to receive instruction while still perceiving the program directors as partners, not teachers. 

  

In 2008, I worked with the Chabot Space Science Center in Berkeley, CA, to develop a new program like IWWL in which teens would design media components for a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics exhibition on black holes.  The teens spent three weeks together in the Black Hole Institute, Monday through Friday during the summer, and were paid a small stipend for their participation.  The Black Hole Institute was a collaboration nestled within a collaboration; the Center for Astrophysics partnered with Chabot to provide the teens, and Chabot partnered with the teens to produce the exhibit content.  As noted in the first chapter of this book, despite what we thought was a crystal-clear design question, teens felt frustrated in the early stages of the development process by a lack of clear criteria for what would constitute successful media products.  The Center for Astrophysics had a very simple design challenge in mind: "Can teens create media products related to black holes that we could integrate into our exhibit?" but that wasn't enough for the teen collaborators.  They wanted specific feedback so that they could fulfill their own needs to produce an excellent product worthy of inclusion in the final exhibition.  While this desire to produce something of high quality was partially fueled by participants' general desire to perform well, it also may have reflected a suspicion that the institution would not hold up to its side of the bargain if the outcome was poor.  The exhibition to which the teens were contributing was at a very early stage of development, and no one was able to satisfactorily explain to either the teens or the Chabot staff where and how the teen media products would be integrated into the final exhibition.  Would they be in the exhibition itself or only on the exhibition's website?  Would they be in a special "teen" area or woven into the general content?  The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics team promised that the media would be included on the exhibition website, but that website is several months from being initiated. There was no initial design, no graphics, and no idea of where the teens' work would fit into an overall structure.  It's not surprising that the teens felt insecure about where their work might be going, and that they responded to that insecurity by asking for as many criteria as possible to ensure that their products would be desirable to include in the final, mysterious result.

 

When developing collaborative projects in which participants and staff work together to produce an exhibition, event, or educational program, it is important to balance the equitable partner relationship with participants' need for structure, clarity, and criteria.  Just as contributors to simpler projects like to know how their work will be evaluated and used, collaborators also want to understand the specific reasons and outcomes of their work.  No one likes to work on a team or committee without a clear goal in mind, and volunteer participants are no different from staff in this regard.  Respect the fact that your collaborators have made a significant committment to join your project, submitting themselves to an application process and dedicating time and effort to the project.  They want to be real contributors, not just screw around.  Of course, you can make their work a more fun version of staff duties (and give them the most fun parts of real work to do), but it's important to maintain the overall stance that their activities are in pursuit of a goal that is valued and needed by the institution. 

 

One of the most effective ways to clarify the structure and goals of a collaborative project is to give participants a client to serve.  At Chabot, we were lucky to have a representative from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics come twice during the Black Hole Summer Institute to review the teen projects and offer her feedback. Having a client to embody the goals can help participants get on the right track, even when those goals are fuzzy. The client need not even be real. The most extreme example of this is the writing programs at the 826 tutoring centers.  At 826, student groups come in for short programs in which they work together to write a book, which must be completed by the end of the program.  The staff present themselves as assistants to a tyrannical publisher, a monster who eats books. The publisher is never seen, but is portrayed by a staff member hidden beyond a door who angrily pounds on the door and shouts out orders and demands.  The staff ask the students to help them write a book to satisfy the publisher.  This sets up an emotional bond between students and staff, an artificial collaborative device that helps the students get motivated and feel connected to the staff.  The invisible publisher is an entirely fictitious device used to create criteria, add drama, and help focus the kids on what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly open creative project. 

 

A Messy Collaboration: The Tech Virtual Test Zone

 

These lessons may sound obvious, but I learned them through a series of projects that were poorly structured with unclear goals and shifting criteria.  I want to share with you the story of The Tech Virtual Test Zone, the collaborative project that taught me about the essential role of clear structure and criteria to co-created projects.

 

The Tech Virtual Test Zone was a project of The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.  In the fall of 2007, I joined the staff of the Tech Museum to help lead an initiative called The Tech Virtual, of which the Test Zone was the pilot project.  The goals of The Tech Virtual were clear.  As a hands-on science museum focusing on technology, the director deemed it inappropriate for us to use traditional multi-year processes to develop new exhibits.  If it takes you two years to develop a new exhibit about technology, the thinking goes, the exhibit is already obsolete by the time it hits the floor.  The Tech Virtual was a project designed to solve this problem in an innovative way: by crowd-sourcing exhibit development to participants all over the world via web-based and virtual world-based collaborative platforms.  We used a virtual world platform called Second Life to invite participants not only to share their ideas in words but to prototype three-dimensional, digital versions of their proposed exhibits.  The idea was for the community to develop many exhibits in parallel virtually, and then for the Tech Museum to select the best of these for fabrication in real life.  In addition to speeding up the process, we hoped that we would attract participants who were content experts or at least passionate amateurs about the content, whose experience and ideas would broaden the limited exhibit development abilities of the staff (the exhibition development and education departments had recently been cut).  On October 31, 2007, I joined the staff as curator/exhibit developer/community manager.  We opened the collaborative digital platforms in December, offering would-be participants training in exhibit development as well as a cash prize for the best exhibit ideas.  Over the next six months, I worked closely with about 200 participants worldwide to develop their ideas, and on June 4, 2008, we opened a real-world 2,000 square foot gallery presenting seven interactive exhibits on the topic of "art, film, music, and technology," all of which originated in collaboration with twelve external partners, ranging from a Toronto bartender to a Manchester accountant to a local music teacher.  While the museum did not do any formal evaluation of the exhibition, the exhibits have been generally well-received by visitors.  Because The Test Zone was a pilot of a collaborative process, we focused less on the audience outcomes of the products than on the participatory process.

 

From an institutional perspective, the desired outcome was clear, but the the collaborative process with participants that took us from December to June was anything but.  The Test Zone was an experimental pilot, and rather than setting fixed goals, participant criteria, and outcomes at the outset, they evolved over the experiment.  In some cases, we changed course based on community feedback, but in many instances, museum leadership dictated changes in schedule, budget, and desired outcomes, and I scrambled to adjust the project accordingly, not always to the benefit of participants. While it's easy to say, "this is an experiment," it's hard to build trusting relationships with people who might be affected adversely by the various changes that every experimental project undergoes.  When we changed something, we were changing it on people.  Fortunately, by maintaining honesty and open communication with participants, the majority were willing to weather the changes and stick with the project.  Much as the 826 tutoring staff use an imaginary authoritative publisher to establish repoire between staff and students, I shared my own challenges and frustrations with the Test Zone participants, honestly sharing the ways that I, like them, felt tugged around by the chaotic process.

 

The Tech Virtual Test Zone was an experiment in crowd-sourced exhibit development.  From the outset, I tried to balance offering participants an open slate for their creativity in terms of exhibit ideas with a highly structured and staff-supported process for turning those ideas into viable exhibits.  We offered participants many resources to support their exhibit development.  On the web, we set up templates for participants to flesh out the big idea, content, look and feel, interaction, and key objects/technology associated with each exhibit concept.  In Second Life, I produced three-dimensional interactive walk-through tutorials on how to design interactive exhibits that are engaging, accessible, easy to use, etc.--a virtual exhibit on exhibit-making.  I worked with contractors and volunteers to design a few simple open source Second Life exhibits on the theme of technology in art, film, and music, which served as working models for participants, many of whom had not spent much time in interactive science centers.  And most importantly, we provided participants with a sandbox, where anyone could build anything at any time, and dedicated workshop space, where individuals could house their projects-in-progress.  The virtual workshop became the homebase for exhibit development and at its high point, was a thriving, active room filled with people working on diverse projects. 

 

Because Second Life is a social environment, users can talk to and work with each other in real time, and we quickly discovered that interpersonal interaction, not tutorials or templates, was the key to motivating participants and encouraging them to develop their skills.  We offered Second Life-based exhibit design classes twice a week, which blended basic Second Life building skills with exhibit thinking.  These classes were a kind of marketing outreach.  They helped promote the project to new people, who may have been enticed by the chance to learn how to create a color-changing sculpture and then found themselves interested in designing whole exhibits.  For the invested participants, we hosted a weekly exhibit designers' meeting in Second Life in which community members sat at a large virtual table to discuss the challenges in their projects, new developments in the Test Zone project overall, and whatever else was on their minds.  These meetings only attracted a small percentage of the community (about 10-15 people per week, compared to about 100 at work in the workshop at any time), but these participants tended to be the most motivated folks who often informally volunteered their time to greet new workshop denizens and help out wherever they could.  Because things kept changing both in their own projects and at The Tech Museum, these meetings became an essential way to keep lines of communication open and address any problems in the system.  Because many participants who attended the meetings were highly networked within the larger Tech Virtual community, they were able both to bring in problems from the community and share information back to less-engaged participants.  There were several times that participants solved their own problems at these meetings; for example, when we needed a better way to delineate the "frame" of each exhibit in the workshop, participants rapid-prototyped sample virtual frames and voted on the best one to distribute to everybody for use.  In their research on public participation in science research, Rick Bonney and others discovered that this model of "core" community members who work cloely with staff, combined with secondary level community members who contribute at a more basic level, is successful for collaborative and co-creative projects. In the case of The Tech Virtual, as in some science research projects, the core group was self-defined, which made them more effective than a group pre-selected by staff may have been.

 

While some participants showed extraordinary community spirit, going so far as to offer their own classes and pitch in with "office hours" in the workshop, the overall collaborative goals were greatly compromised by the inclusion of a contest with cash prizes.  We awarded $5000 to each exhibit design that was translated to real life. Doing so meant we could raise awareness very quickly, which was useful given the short time frame. It also focused the experience. People weren't coming to The Tech Virtual to muse about exhibits; they came to build exhibits on a deadline for submission to the contest. However, the contest also prevented us from legitimately fostering collaboration and community. People were unsure whether they should go it alone (and try to win the whole prize) or team up with others. We had several community discussions about the competition disincentivizing collaboration, and I fielded bizarre but understandable questions about whether participants should try to get involved with as many exhibits as possible to optimize chances of winning, or do only solo projects to maximize potential reward.  The money sent a contradictory signal to all our talk about sharing. 

 

This problem was most acutely felt in our experimental and limited work with teens in the Teen Grid of Second Life.  We focused our efforts in the "adult grid" of Second Life and primarily worked with participants who ranged from their 20s to their 50s (with the majority trending older).  I also created a scaled-down version of the walk-through tutorial and workshop in the Teen Grid of Second Life, but we spent less time working with teens than with adults.  This was partly due to the restricted role of adults in Teen Second Life (most programs need to be teen-led to be successful) and to a late entry into the space.  But we also found that teens were less self- and community-motivated and desired more staff attention than we were able to give.  Unlike the adults, who appreciated connecting with staff on a regular basis but were happy to work on long-term projects on their own, the teens wanted short-term goals, lots of staff feedback, and were generally more competitive (and less collaborative) with each other.  They were obsessed with the contest and the cash.  They also several times expressed that it was not fair that their work was being evaluated in the same pool with adult work; we were surprised by the extent to which they felt themselves inferior to the (often bumbling) participants in the adult grid.  In response to these concerns, we added a special "teen prize" to ensure that at least one teen entry would be honored in the final exhibit design contest.

 

The contest not only caused problems for collaboration among participants in the Test Zone--it also complicated the collaboration between staff and participants.  Staff and participants could not be true partners when one was in a position to judge the other.  As the community manager, I had to maintain positive, encouraging relationships with all of our virtual exhibit designers.  To do so, I had to mask the reality that I was also the primary arbitrator of which exhibits would be selected for inclusion in the physical exhibition.  I couldn't be both the person who cheered someone on and helped them consider how their idea might become an apealing interactive exhibit and the person who told them their exhibit wasn't good enough to win.  So I hid behind an imaginary panel of judges, invoking them to tell participants that "the judges didn't understand this part of your project," or, "the judges don't believe this would be feasible in the real world to fabricate."  Using this device, I was able to keep working with the participants and encouraging them throughout the process as their partner, not their evaluator.  But obviously this is not ideal from a trust or honesty perspective. 

 

The contest caused one final problem that relates to honesty: we could not easily align a clear, fair contest structure with the goal of developing seven interactive exhibits in five months.  As museum professionals know, not every exhibit that sounds like a great idea can actually be built successfully, and conversely, some great exhibits emerge from hazy and unpromising beginnings.  In some cases, such as an exhibit called "musical chairs," our internal team of engineers were able to quickly identify the concept as a winner from a simple one-paragraph description of the concept.  While the participant, Leanne Garvie, who contributed that concept did build a working (and quite fun) virtual prototype in Second Life, it bore little similarity to the real-world version we designed in parallel at The Tech.  Leanne's idea was definitely a winner, but the criteria that made it a winner were different from those that governed other virtual exhibits that only emerged as winners based on progressive work on the virtual prototypes that eventually led us to see how they could be successful real-life installations.  In the end, we gave the $5,000 award to each exhibit that was built in real life, but we also gave lesser prizes ($500 and $1000) for outstanding virtual-only projects.  Our criteria for awarding the $5,000 prize remained consistent throughout the project--top prizes would be given to those people whose exhibits were developed in real life--but once we really started working with participants, it became clear that the underlying criteria used to determine winners was not easily quantifiable to contestants' satisfacation. 

 

In the beginning of the project, the museum director would speak about "copying" exhibits from Second Life to real life. The theory was that we would hold a contest with staged judging, and at each judging point, we would select fully completed virtual exhibits to "copy" to the real museum.  Our fabrication team quickly realized that this was unrealistic, both technically and conceptually. Once we realized that virtual exhibits would not translate directly to the real world, we transitioned to a model where the real exhibits were "inspired by" the virtual. In all cases we chose superlative virtual exhibits in which the core idea was powerful enough to transcend platforms. We maintained that core idea in the real version of the virtual design, and tried as much as possible to retain other aspects of the virtual designers' goals in recreation. 

 

We didn't leave our virtual designers out of the ensuing real-world process, though at that point the Tech Museum staff definitely asserted the upper hand in the collaborative relationship.  The real-world fabrication and design teams were as open as possible with participants.  In many ways, the collaboration became easier for museum staff when we moved to fabrication, because we knew how the process would work and where we could and couldn't integrate input from the participants themselves.  In cases where participants were local, they often came in to check on our progress and even help  put their exhibit together.  For those who were hundreds or thousands of miles away, I shared our real-world progress in virtual meetings, photos, calls, and emails.  Wherever possible, we asked participants to provide their own or preferred content for exhibit artwork, audio, and video.  All final exhibits featured a didactic label about the core art/film/music/technology content as well as a second label about the virtual designer and the collaborative process.  Three exhibits feature original art and music by the virtual designers, and (overlapping) three relied heavily on the technical expertise of the virtual designers. They enabled our engineering and fabrication team to push beyond our in-house capabilities to tackle some exhibit components and or content elements that we could not have produced in this timeframe. We also branched out of the virtual-to-real process to solicit amateur content. One of the exhibits features video of original paintings being created. To produce that content, I put an ad on craigslist and invited artists down to The Tech to be videotaped while creating art. One of these artists, a graffiti artist named Dan, had such a good time that he came back to the shop with friends several times to do more graffiti for us on his own dime.  Dan had lived in the San Jose area all his life, and hadn't visited the museum since he was a child.  He arrived at the exhibit opening with family in tow and was pretty overwhelmed with excitement to see his piece in the museum.

 

Overall, the Test Zone experience was an exciting and frustrating one, for staff and participants alike.  In some ways, this made us great collaborators because everyone was dependent on each other to complete the project in such a short time frame.  But the openendedness and chaotic nature of the project did not make for the foundation for a sustaining community of amateur exhibit developers.  There was no way for participants to rely on each other; they had to rely on me as the conveyor of changing information and criteria for success.  We formed an unhealthy community that revolved around me as the community manager, exhibit design mentor, and institutional representative.  As Richard Milewski, one of the virtual participants commented, "I think we would have welcomed a slightly heavier authority influence on the part of The Tech. As an amateur I was often bewildered as to what the requirements were, and it was only boundless encouragement from Avi (Nina's Second Life avatar) that prevented me from giving up more than once."  When the Test Zone opened in real life, I ended my time with The Tech Museum and The Tech Virtual.  The community did not survive after I left.  We'll explore this issue further in the next chapter on managing and sustaining participatory projects, but clearly, communities that are dependent on one central figure are not sustainable.

 

Finally, The Tech Virtual Test Zone demonstrated some of the barriers that "regular" people feel to collaborating with institutions.  Despite all of our efforts to be as friendly and open as possible to would-be collaborators (and our desperate desire for their participation), many found the idea of working with a big museum overwhelming.  When the Smithsonian American Art Museum ran a game called Ghosts of a Chance that relied on participant-contributed art, staff member Georgina Goodlander was comparably surprised that some people reported being unsure of their ability to "live up" to the standards of the Smithsonian.  In the case of The Tech Virtual, the use of Second Life as an exhibit development platform helped ameliorate some of this threshold fear.  This may seem paradoxical, since Second Life is itself a very high-barrier to entry, hard-to-use software platform.  But many of The Tech Virtual participants were much more proficient in the Second Life environment than I was, and that virtual space was a place where they felt confident in their skills as designers and builders.  Not only was Second Life a comfortable, familiar place for them to engage, it was a place where my authority as the museum exhibit designer came down a notch and we became individuals bringing different skills to the table.  As Richard Milewski, commented, "Second Life is an abstract enough environment that the somewhat intimidating prospect of attempting to collaborate with an institution such as The Tech was made to appear possible. "After all, it's not real! It's just a cartoon on my computer screen and I could always just turn it off." (Not really... but I told myself that more than once). "  Later, when several of the virtual participants came to the opening of the real world exhibition, we offered them a tour of the fabrication shop where their exhibits were made.  While a few people were enthused, several were strikingly overwhelmed or uncomfortable in the shop space.  It became immediately apparent to me that these were not people who would have ever engaged with us as exhibit developers had it required them coming to the actual museum or the staff design area.  By meeting them on "their own territory" in Second Life, we tipped the scales in favor of a positive collaboration.  

 

Collaborating on Research Projects

 

So far, we've looked at collaborative museum projects in which the outcome was an exhibition or educational program.  But what about museum research and co-creation of knowledge?  There are ways to invite visitors and students to collaborate with institutions on research and data analysis projects.  Let's look at two collaborative research projects in which museum users are invited to ... WIkipedia Loves Art and the Children of the Lodz Ghetto.  Both of these projects use web-based tools, but they involve a range of relationships and engagements among participants and institutions.

 

Wikipedia Loves Art was a month-long event in February, 2009, in which fifteen museums (mostly art institutions) partnered with the Wikipedia community to invite people to take photographs of art pieces that could be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles.  While to its many users, Wikipedia is a resource, it is also a thriving user-driven community of people who are passionate about making the world's knowledge freely available to all internet users.  While the user activity in Wikipedia Loves Art was a simple contributory action (taking photographs of objects and uploading them to Flickr), the process was collaborative because the outcome images were for use by the Wikipedia community, not the institutions.  This was in many ways an uncomfortable collaboration.  The Wikipedia community (or Wikimedians, as they often call themselves) are passionate about "liberating" cultural content to be digitized and published online using as open a licensing structure as possible.  Museums, on the other hand, are often concerned about losing control of images of their collections, even those that are in the public domain, for fear that the images will reflect poorly on the objects themselves or be taken out of context.  To make the Wikipedia Loves Art collaboration work, the museums developed careful rules about what could and couldn't be shot, and how participants should upload their images for use by the project. 

 

To avoid a conflict of interest in which museums would "pump" Wikipedia with content of the museums' choosing, the museums asked representatives of the Wikipedia community to provide them with lists of thematic topics that required illustration.  Museums used these thematic lists to develop scavenger hunt lists to distribute to participants so that they might find art objects to illustrate Wikipedia topics like "Roman architecture" or "mask."  The museums encouraged Wikimedians to form teams and created online game infrastructure to support competition among teams participating at different institutions around the world.  In this case, unlike in the case of The Tech Virtual, the competition was a positive motivator that encouraged individual teams to see themselves as part of a worldwide project. 

 

Wikipedia Loves Art was an incredibly decentralized effort, and that led to some confusion about how to participate.  From the institutional perspective, the best way to deliver good participant experiences was to constrain contributions to very specific collaborative platforms and structures (the scavenger hunts and Flickr).  But there were many participants who were confused or frustrated by what they perceived as arbitrary institutional constraints, and some folks found their own rogue ways to upload museum images outside of the project framework, much to the consternation of museum representatives, who saw these actions as causing more confusion, not more opportunities to participate.  Worse, as in The Tech Virtual, the institutions managing Wikipedia Loves Art had to make some changes throughout the process to the scavenger hunt lists and scoring mechanisms, which caused additional confusion and prolonged discussion among participants and institutional representatives on Flickr.  In a blog post reflecting on the experience, Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum commented that they should have "frozen" all the lists, noting that "changes are enough to drive participants off the deep end."

 

The participatory experience was confusing and frustrating for some Wikimedians, but that wasn't the end of the project.  The work for institutions once contributions were received was massive.  Over 13,000 photographs were submitted by 74 participating teams at the fifteen different institutions, documenting about 6,200 pieces of art.  While these 102 photographers had done the hard work of capturing the images, it was up to the institutions to validate, tag, caption, and prepare them for Wikipedia's use.  This was a herculean effort, and some institutions found themselves unable to deal with the data received in a timeframe that also accommodated the participants' desire to see the fruits of their labor.  As Brooklyn Museum data processor Erin Sweeney explained, she had a ten-step process for determining whether an image was a valid contribution.  After determining validity, Sweeney added tags to the images to identify the objects with which they were associated, the number of points the team received for the images, and more.  Eventually, all of the work was completed, but when the dust settled, the overall effort for institutions involved in Wikipedia Loves Art was so great that many saw it as a collaboration that could not continue as it was originally produced.

 

Wikipedia Loves Art is a good example of a collaboration that has all the right elements: a scalable, distributed data collection model, a goal that is appealing to institutions and participants alike, interesting work for participants to do, and an institutionally-managed platform to keep the project on track.  But ultimately, the project was overambitious, and the institutions involved found themselves overwhelmed by the amount of work required to manage what had seemed at the outset like a simple partnership.  The short time frame helped institutions see Wikipedia Loves Art as an experiment and quickly learn from the challenges of the colalboration.  The one-month campaign model allowed this experiment to succeed without causing too many headaches and allowed institutions and participants alike to reflect on what worked and didn't.

 

In contrast, around the same time, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum launched a small pilot of a collaborative research project that was tightly controlled and was being rolled out slowly on an institutionally-driven schedule.  The Children of the Lodz Ghetto, like Wikipedia Loves Art, is an artifact-based project... but the similarity ends there.  For many years, the Holocaust Museum has provided research tools and services that are somewhat accessible for non-academics who would like to access survivors' registries or find out more information about various incidents related to the Holocaust.  Researchers have made specific requests for survivors to offer information or stories related to their experiences, but the majority of the Holocaust's audience are not survivors.  One of the Museum's top priorities is educating schoolchildren about the Holocaust, and the institution has been a leader in the use of educational technologies to connect students to the lessons of the Holocaust.  The Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project is an educational program in which students investigate the paths taken by over 13,000 children who signed a school album in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941.  Using a subset of the online research databases used by professional Holocaust researchers, the students try to find out what happened to individuals in the album by running a variety of searches on different spellings of names of children across many geographic locations and concentration camps.

 

To participate, users must register, and for the first several months of the project, registration was primarily advertised to small groups of university students and teachers, and by April of 2009, there were 145 active user accounts.  Once registered, users could select a name from the album to research or continue on research started by other users.  The database queries are sorted into timeframes (ghetto, labor camps, concentration camps, liberation) so that users can progressively add information about individuals' location and status throughout the 1940s.  Eventually, the goal is to have a record of each child's story, starting from those signatures in 1941.

 

For the institution, the Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project provides valuable information about the children in the album. As the project website says, "Now the museum needs your help."  However, this help comes at an incredible (but acceptable) cost.  Staff vet every entry in the research project, and in the first few months of 2009, only 26% of user-contributed submissions were validated as accurate.  The rest were incorrect or possible, but inconclusive.  However, despite the fact that staff researchers could have done this research more accurately (and more quickly) on their own, the value of researchers engaging in discussion with participants and helping them learn how to be researchers was deemed high enough to make this project worth the low quality of data submitted.  Participants noted in particular how much they enjoyed and learned from commenting on each other's research and receiving feedback from staff and other participants alike.  In an evaluation, one participant commented that, "Having their help made this project less stressful and made it feel like we were working as a team.  Much of the time, our peers allowed our research to continue without any dead ends.  When we were stuck, it was comforting to know that the United States Holocaust Museum and our peers had our backs." 

 

The educational experience for participants in the Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project in terms of research skill-building and content learning has been very high.  Additionally, performing research increased participants' emotional engagement and perspective on the Holocaust, as many commented that they now had tangible, specific people and incidents to connect to the horror of the time. 

 

Museum staff are continuing to tweak the project as time goes on, in particular, to encourage a community of self-motivated researchers to sustain the project on their own.  David Klevan, XXX, believes that the research can improve in quality and the community can effectively self-police entries if they can grow to a sustainable level (which he defines as about 1000 registered users).  Because the project is built to support and integrate peer review and active collaboration on individual research efforts, it is certainly possible that the Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project will grow into one that is self-sustaining and can provide real value to institutional and research audiences as well as to the participants themselves.

 

 

Collaborations for Experimental Audience Experiences

 

So far, we've looked at collaborations that have mostly focused on the experience and needs of institutions and participants, but not audiences.  There are some cases when institutions use collaboratory platforms to push the boundaries not of the participant experience but of the audience experience.  Just as some contributory models give museums license to include more personal voices in institutional content, collaborative models may be used by institutions that want to take a less precious view on museum artifacts and collections.  This section explores two projects from art institutions on opposite sides of the US.

 

The city of Bellevue, Washington, has hosted a bi-annual sculpture exhibition in civic sites since 1992.  Each exhibition is accompanied by a teen project, in which local teens work with art educators to produce their own sculptures on the same theme as the professional exhibition.  In 2008, exhibit developer Seth! Leary worked with the Bellevue arts coordinator and the teens to take their work in a unique direction, using the collaboration as an opportunity to explore what it means to engage with "public" art.  Rather than displaying the teen sculptures at the exhibition site, the teens' creation went on the road, traveling throughout the Seattle area at the whims of regular people who found the sculptures, took them to new sites, and tracked their movement.  Each sculpture had a goal written on a tag, explaining that it wanted to go to the Seattle Aquarium (a whale sculpture), a cathedral (a sculpture of "death in a box"), and other landmarks in the Seattle area.  The tags also stated that the sculptures hoped to return back to Bellevue City Hall by the end of the summer for a final exhibition. 

 

The sculptures traveled and were tracked through the geocaching network.  Geocaching is an activity like going on a treasure hunt; geocachers use GPS devices to track down the location of "caches" which are filled with neat stuff like coins, logbooks, and yes, sculptures made by teenagers.  There is a centralized website at geocaching.com that geocachers use to track the things they have found and planted in the world, and the Bellevue teen sculptures were each tracked on individual pages on geocaching.com.  Hundreds of people handled, moved, and hung out with the sculptures, sharing photos and stories on the web.  Some people even documented time they spent fixing parts of the sculptures that had been damaged in travel.  Taking this approach connected the sculpture program to a new and very different audience (geocachers) and sent art out into the community rather than closing it inside City Hall.  The people who found and traveled with the sculptures engaged with them emotionally and personally, and these were not necessarily people who would have ever visited the sculptures on exhibition.

 

Of course, the reason that the Bellevue arts commission felt comfortable exposing the sculptures to potential damage, harm, and even loss was the fact that they were produced by teens in a city program instead of commissioned by professional artists.  The city staff felt (very reasonably) that they had to protect the professional art in certain ways that made travel impossible, but they didn't feel that way about the art created by the teens.  Fortunately, the teens were aware of the project plan from the outset, so no one was tricked into sending out a sculpture that he or she wanted to preserve, though there were likely teens who were not thrilled when sculptures returned worse for the wear or not at all.  Hopefully, the 2008 teen sculpture experiment helped the Bellevue arts team think more expansively about other ways that they could share art with the public in innovative, flexible ways. (GET QUOTES FROM TAMAR TO IMPROVE)

 

Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition was a collaborative project at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with the ambitious goal of creating an exhibition that was about a data process rather than a collection of objects.  The Wisdom of Crowds, a book by social scientist James Surowiecki, argued that large groups of non-experts could be collectively "wise" if individuals in the group were able to make decisions without overly influencing each other's choices.  Click! was a project meant to test how Surowiecki's theory might bear out in the subjective experience of judging art.  Click! was an open call photography exhibition, in which people submitted photographs on the topic of "the changing face of Brooklyn."  These photographs were judged in terms of quality and adherence to the theme on a sliding scale by citizen-curators using an online platform which was optimized to reduce the influence users could have on each other (no cumulative scores, no comments, a forced random path through the photos, etc.).  In the end, the photos were displayed, both virtually and physically, sized relative to their rank in the judging scheme.  In the physical exhibition, the sizes of the prints were fixed, but on the web, audience members were able to resize the photos contextually by changing data criteria, looking at the photos resized based on geographic location or self-reported art knowledge of judges.  Interestingly, the top ten photos selected by judges of all levels of self-reported art knowledge included eight of the same images, suggesting that "crowds" of people with little art knowledge are likely to make comparable choices to those made by experts.

 

Click! was a collaboration between an institution, crowd theory researchers, local photographers, and museum website visitors/curators.  Its goal was not to find the best photos submitted by photographers; there were no prizes awarded nor preferential treatment granted to top winners beyond the size of their prints.  Instead, the goal was to perform a public research project about crowd-based decision-making.  As Shelley Bernstein, organizer of the show, put it, “it’s a conceptual idea put on the wall.”

 

Conceptual ideas don't necessarily make pretty exhibits in a traditional sense. The Museum's contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai commented that, “[Click!]’s about data, and making the data visual. It’s not really a photography show in the way I would curate a photography show.” Shelley and Eugenie were both explicit about the fact that Brooklyn made decisions in favor of the research and against the most beautiful exposition of the art. All the photos were printed with the same process, and their sizes were determined by the judging process, not aesthetic preferences. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post commented that the resulting show was not that visually impressive, but they were comparing Click! to photo exhibitions, which Shelley and Eugenie would deem inappropriate. It would be more correct to compare it to data visualizations like tag clouds or spark charts.

Click! wasn’t just a research project; it was a deliberate attempt by the museum to test something and present the results, saying, “don’t judge this as art.” Not everybody believes or wants to hear that. Some of the photographers who submitted their work to Click! were not thrilled to learn that they would not be able to control the way their photos would be printed, and some were skeptical about the validity of the public curation platform.  The collaboration was a forcefit to the institutional goals.  Fortunately, according to Shelley, her team's open and clear communication with the artists about the project helped keep the participants feeling positively. And some participants didn't care if their work was being exhibited as data; as one photographer commented, for her, the thrill was about having her photo in the museum.  The various collaborators--staff, photographers, and citizen curators--all got different things out of the exhibition process.  For visitors, the experience in the Click! gallery was appreciably more social than in other parts of the museum, due both to the publicity around the exhibition and the fact that so many people came to see the photos they had helped judge or create.  Click! may have generated dynamic tension between what the museum wanted to present and what participants, visitors, and reporters wanted to experience, but the institutional team stood by their initial goals as a valuable experiment.  Ultimately, experimenting with the questions of how collaborators can be engaged in curatorial process and whether crowds of visitors can be "wise" evaluators of art were the most important parts of the Click! experience from the institutional perspective.

 

 

Collaboration on the Floor

 

We've looked at several examples of collaborative projects in which participants work with institutions in the context of innovative exhibition, research, and design processes.  But all of these are process-based, which lead to a couple of undesirable outcomes.  First, the focus on process often leads to diminished attention to the product.  We worry more about the participant experience than the audience experience, because the active collaboration is where all the "work" happens.  Second, processes are time-limited by design; they progress through time towards an eventual product.  This means that participants can only be engaged for a limited amount of time, and some kinds of participation (for example, judging photographs for Click!) are confined to a short, fixed time period.  In Click!, the Brooklyn Museum found that citizen curators spent an average of 22 seconds evaluating each image, compared to a span of 3 seconds spent examining artworks in the physical museum.  Despite the fact that the participatory function may have enhanced visitors' engagement with the artwork, the participatory process had a well-defined beginning and end, which prevented subsequent visitors from experiencing Museum artwork in the same engaged way.

 

But what if the museum integrated this participatory activity--judging artworks--into the regular visitor experience?   What if regular visitors could, in the course of their visit, collaborate with the institution to co-create new knowledge about the artifacts on display?  Integrating collaboration into public-facing museum experiences ameliorates both of the process challenges explored above.  It makes collaboration available to anyone, anytime.   And because floor experiences are explicitly and directly audience-facing, it forces the institution to design collaborative platforms that are more appealing to spectators.  Just as the contributory platforms described in the last section often promote a virtuous cycle by which participants are enticed out of passive spectating into action and then model that experience for others, on-the-floor collaborative platforms can have the same effect.  I believe that these kinds of collaborative projects are the most fruitful for visitors and institutions alike, as long as they can be sustainably managed as they evolve over time.

 

On the web, Wikipedia is a good example of this kind of evolving, "live" collaborative platform.  At any time, non-contributing users can access and use the content for research purposes, while behind-the-scenes, authors and editors collaborate to improve the content on display. The collaborative workspace is a click away from the audience-facing content--close enough to observe and join in on the process, but distanced enough to keep the spectator experience coherent and attractive.  The ideal collaborative floor experience is comparable: appealing to visitors, with a thin and permeable division between collaborating and spectating. 

 

Sometimes putting collabortion on the floor is as easy as bringing your process out into the open.  When the Ontario Science Centre was developing the Weston Family Innovation Centre, they went through an extensive and prolonged prototyping phase.  They developed a technique called Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) in which teams of staff would physically build ideas for exhibits, programs, mission statements, and more out of junk in a matter of hours.  While the RIG started as an internal process, the team started to show off the final prototypes on the floor, integrate visitors into their building teams, and ultimately, to hold entire RIGs on the museum floor in public space.  The RIGs were highly collaborative, often bringing together executives, designers, floor staff, shop staff, and visitors to design things in an open-ended, team-based format.  By bringing the process onto the floor, the staff became more comfortable with some of the core ideas behind the Innovation Centre (in which visitors would be encouraged to make crazy things all the time) and shared their work with visitors in a format that was structured, creative, and highly enjoyable.   

 

In other cases, collaboration can be baked into the visitor-facing product, the exhibition or program itself.  In 2009, I worked with a group of graduate students at the University of Washington to design an exhibition that would be entirely collaborative as a visitor-facing experience.  The exhibition, called Advice: Give it, Get it, Flip it, Fuck it, was developed using a highly protracted but standard exhibit design process that did not include participants outside the class.  But the product was a platform in which visitors could give each other advice in a variety of collaborative formats, including both facilitated and open experiences.  Advice was only open for one weekend, but during that time, we observed (and measured) the ways that visitors to the University of Washington student center in which it was housed co-created a large volume of interpersonal content.

 

The Advice exhibition offered four main experiences--two that were facilitated, and two that were unfacilitated. The facilitated experiences were an advice booth, at which you could receive real-time advice from children, money managers, tattoo artists, and more, and a button-making station, where a gallery attendant would help you play a simple game to make a custom button featuring your own advice "madlib" composed of your own nouns and verbs rolled into classic advice phrases. The unfacilitated experiences (discussed in more detail below) involved visitors writing their own pieces of advice on post-its and walls and answering each other's questions asynchronously.

At any time, there were two facilitators in the exhibit--one for the advice booth, and the other for the buttons. This might make Advice sound more like an educational program than an exhibit, or like a failure on the unfacilitated front. But the exhibit team did something novel. First, they replaced staff with volunteers--some entirely spontaneous--at the advice booth. Like the Living Library project, the advice booth was a platform that connected strangers with strangers--not just staff with strangers. One eight year-old enjoyed the advice-giving experience so much that he came back the following day for another shift in the booth!  These facilitators were collaborators with visitors, talking with them, listening to them, and playing with them.  Because they were a part of the experience rather than the focal point, they could impart an air of friendliness and participation without making people feel that they had to participate. They reminded me of street vendors or great science museum cart educators, imparting an energy to the space without overwhelming it. And in Advice, the activities for staff were interesting and specific enough that a really eclectic mix of volunteers could perform them successfully.

 

While the facilitated experiences pulled many spectators out of their solitude and into participation, the unfacilitated post-it walls were the place where visitor-to-visitor collaboration thrived.  In Advice, the setup was simple: the exhibit team came up with a few seed questions, like "How do you heal a broken heart?," and put them up on signs behind glass. Then, they offered different shapes and colors of post-its, as well as pens and markers, for people to write responses.  While this is a basic contributory activity, I consider Advice to be collaborative because the contributions steered and redirected the content of the entire exhibition.

 

Post-it Interaction

The engagement with the post-it walls was very high. Random passers-by got hooked and spent twenty minutes carefully reading each post-it, writing responses, creating chains of conversation and spin-off questions and pieces of advice. It's worth noting that the exhibit space was not optimal--it was a hallway separating the lobby of the student center from a dining hall. The previous exhibit in this space was a very provocative art exhibit about sexual violence, and yet in our brief preliminary site survey we saw almost no one stop to look at the art. Not so for the post-its. The Advice exhibit hooked maintenance staff, students, athletes, men, women--it really seemed to span the range of people passing through.

 

There were 230 responses to the nine staff-created seed questions, and in a more free-form area, visitors submitted 28 of their own questions which yielded 147 responses. Some of the advice was incredibly specific; for example, one person wrote a post-it that asked, "Should a 17 year old who is going to college in the fall have a curfew this summer?" That post-it received 9 follow-up post-its, including a response from another parent in the same situation. Others stood and copied pieces of advice (especially classes to take and books to read) carefully into personal notebooks.

 

It might seem surprising that people would take the time to write up questions on post-its when there is no guarantee that someone will respond, and very low likeliness that someone will respond while you are still in the gallery. Collaboration is not guaranteed, especially in a low traffic hallway in an odd area of the UW student center. But the impulse to participate was high and the threshold for doing so was very, very low. The post-its and pens were right there. The whole exhibit modeled the potential for someone to respond to your query, and as it grew, the sense that you would be responded to and validated grew as well. We saw many people come back again and again to look at the post-its, point out new developments, laugh, and add their own advice.

 

People felt very comfortable not only adding their own advice but also critiquing others'. We saw many instances when someone would write "lol" or "love this" directly onto a previously posted post-it. People also asked follow-up questions. For example, one person recommended "grappa and Bessie Smith records" as a cure for a broken heart, to which another responded, "Who's Bessie Smith?" The query was answered by yet a third person, who wrote, "Uh, only the greatest singer of the 20's 'I need a little sugar in my bowl.'"  The evolving collaborative content stream created a growing story that became progressively more valuable over time.

 

Finally, it's worth noting that offering a range of contributory activities can be useful in motivating collaborative participation overall.  In Advice, there were many forms of talk-back: the post-its, the bathroom wall, the book, the phone, the website. Each of these took pressure off the others as a visitor participation outlet, and the overall result was a coherent, diverse mix of on-topic visitor contributions.  My favorite example of this was the "bathroom wall" component, in which visitors could scrawl with marker on what appeared to be a bathroom stall door. At first, I didn't understand why this was necessary. If visitors could write on post-its anywhere in the exhibit, why did they also need a bathroom wall?Advice Exhibit Bathroom Wall

 

But the bathroom wall turned out to be a brilliant exhibit element. It was a release valve that let people write crude things and draw silly pictures. The bathroom wall was "anything goes" by design. And while the content on it was not as directed and compelling as that on the post-its, it served a valuable purpose. There was not a SINGLE off-topic or inappropriate submission on the post-it walls. They were totally focused on the questions and answers at hand. I think the bathroom wall made this possible by being an alternative for those who wanted to be a little less focused and just have fun with sharpies.

 

The Advice team also offered a guest comment book (sparsely used) for people to offer comments about the whole exhibit. There were also multiple ways to follow up or submit content online or by phone. All of these ways together constructed a landscape of visitor participation that supported a large number of people participating in ways that felt most appropriate for them.

 

By baking a collaborative platform into the exhibition, the Advice staff were able to reduce their ongoing management role to organizing the post-its in appealing ways and highlighting visitor content they perceived as particularly compelling.  While this was a small experimental project, I believe it is a model for the potential for museums to pursue collaborative floor experiences that can be highly distributed, available and appealing to visitors, and low impact from a resources perspective.

 

Co-Creation Projects

 

Co-creation or co-creative?  Which sounds right?

 

The line between collaborative and co-creative projects is blurrier than that between contributory and collaborative projects.  The chief difference that distinguishes co-creative projects is that they are originated in partnership rather than based on institutional project goals.  A community group may approach the museum seeking assistance to make a project possible, or the institution may create a platform that invites outside participants to propose and work with staff on a project of mutual benefit. Rather than the institution saying, "we want to do an exhibit on potato farmers, please come and help us make it happen," the institution says, "hey potato farmers, do you have an idea for an exhibit you'd like to make with us?" or the potato farmers approach the museum on their own accord.  Beyond this initial project framing and development, co-creative projects progress very similarly to collaborative projects.  Staff and co-creators work closely to achieve their shared goals, which represent the expectations and desires not only of the institution but of the co-creators as well.  The process itself may be more heavily influenced by the preferences and working styles of the co-creators than in collaborative projects, and co-creators tend to feel more ownership overall over the process and the final products.

 

While co-creative projects bear great resemblance to collaborative projects in implementation, they are often rooted in a fundamentally different and radical concept of the institution's role with relation to its community.  The initiators of co-creative projects are often interested in the idea of institutions as community-based organizations in service to the needs of their consituents, rather than as providers of services that are perceived by the institution as valuable.  Co-creative projects are "demand-driven" in the most rigorous sense of the term, and they often require institutional goals to take a backseat to community goals.  As we'll see in the example of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, a museum that pursues a comprehensive co-creation model operates very differently from a traditional cultural institution.

 

Co-Creation as a Way of Life at the Wing Luke Asian Museum

 

The Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, WA, has a well-documented long-standing commitment to co-creative exhibition design.  Their community process is based on a dedication to empowering community members to tell the stories that are most meaningful to them, and community members are engaged in every step of the exhibition development process, from exhibition conception to content development to design.  The Wing Luke has been recognized both for its achievements in participatory exhibition development as well as exemplary exhibition products; in 2002, the community-directed exhibition If Tired Hands Could Talk: Stories of Asian Pacific American Garment Workers was named best exhibition by the Western Museums Association.  Former director Ron Chew's unusual background of journalism and community activism led him to initiate this unique exhibition model that focuses on oral history, hot issues, and personal stories instead of curatorial or authoritative content.  As Chew put it in 2005:  "There has always been an assumption that the work that we do should be guided by the community here and now. There is an assumption that the museum is a portal for reflection for the outside world rather than a fortress of knowledge that people enter. There has been an assumption that change and the development of the relationships that we need to do our work will take a long time. We are not about stuff and projects but about relationships and stories that rise up from the community. The story is more important than the stuff. The museum is more a place of dialogue than stated facts."  The result is an institution that has become "a people's museum" in the words of Velma Veloria, the 11th District state representative.  As Velma put it, "Ron has given me a lot of pride in being Filipino. He's put forward the history and contributions of our people. We're no longer just a bunch of these people who went to the canneries every summer . . . we helped build this country."  For Velma and others, the Wing Luke is an essential community institution, and its co-creative exhibition model is at the heart of that sense of belonging and ownership.

 

The Wing Luke community process is simple to understand and hard to implement. As their handbook puts it, "The work is labor intensive.  The work requires flexibility.  We willingly relinquish control."  Staff put relationships with the community at highest priority, and exhibition projects involve extensive and sometimes contentious deliberation as community members from diverse backgrounds come together with staff to turn their stories into visitor experiences. The process begins with an open exhibition proposal model.  Anyone can propose an exhibition, and these proposals are reviewed yearly to select those that will be initiated.  People proposing exhibition topics are asked to describe the topic, explain its significance and goals, and demonstrate how the concept relates to the museum's mission.  Once exhibition topics are selected by staff and community advisors, a long (2-3 year) development process commences.  The exhibit team is composed of staff, a core advisory committee (CAC) of 12-15 community members and more informally recruited participating community members.  Staff recruit CAC members for their experience with the museum, diverse backgrounds and perspectives on the exhibition project at hand, and ability to form relationships with other potential contributors from the broader community.

 

The CAC and staff have clear roles in the development process.  The CAC is "the primary decision-making body within the Exhibit Team, and are charged with developing the main messages, themes, content and form of the exhibition and its related components."  The CAC recruit other members of the community to serve more informally as participating community members, who may contribute artifacts or stories, perform research, or do outreach and educational programming around the exhibition.  The museum staff are the support mechanism for the exhibition process, serving as technical advisors, project administrators, and community organizers.  Staff use their experience and connections to support the CAC's goals and to provide access to specific research and design resources. 

 

The exhibit development process is facilitated by staff but steered by the CAC.  While the Wing Luke staff have a generalized process through a series of meetings, the content, timing, and decision-making approach of each process changes based on the dynamics and needs of the particular community with whom each project is developed.  The staff experience is highly labor-intensive, and staff can be pulled in multiple directions by the demands of different community and staff members.  Staff strive to maintain positive community dynamics that encourage all to participate, which means they are often managing interpersonal relationships as well as shifting project schedules.

 

The CAC is led by a community member, not a museum staff member.  Once the CAC feels confident of the direction, message, and educational goals of the exhibition, they focus their energy on research and outreach with participating community members.  Exhibit design and fabrication is performed by museum staff, with CAC members offering input and curatorial direction over artifact selection, multi-media story creation, and general design to ensure it remains in line with exhibition goals.  CAC members are invited to drop by at any point during fabrication and installation, and are occasionally asked to help install particular artifacts or elements.  There are special opening events for all participating community members, and community members are solicited both formally and informally for evaluation on the exhibitions.  Community members often develop and lead educational programs alongside volunteers and staff during the run of each exhibition.  The museum performs summative evaluation on all exhibitions, measuring audience numbers and impact as well as growth and impact of new community connections.  As noted above, the Wing Luke's exhibitions have been consistently praised for design and content, and their public-facing programs and exhibitions are well-regarded both by visitors and industry professionals.  Because the co-creation process is the only way that exhibitions are developed at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the audience experience is not differentiated from that of other types of exhibits or programs.  The audience is considered in exhibition design insofar as the co-creation process is set up to deliver a product that is meaningful and relevant to a range of diverse communities.  The participating community members who contribute to the design process also serve as liaisons to other potential contributors and audience members, and the community experience of the exhibitions as creators and spectators is highly blended.

 

Because this co-creative exhibition model is so tightly integrated with the overall goals and strategies of the institution, the evaluation of participant experiences at the Wing Luke Asian Museum extends beyond summative exhibit evaluation to the overall criteria for success in the institution.  The museums overall indicators of success include:

  • We observe significant community participation in museum programs.
  • Community members return time and time again.
  • People learn and are moved through their participation in museum programs.
  • People see something of themselves in our exhibits and event.
  • People become members of the museum.
  • People contribute artifacts and stories to our exhibits.
  • The community supports the museum’s new capital campaign.
  • Community responsive exhibits become more widespread in museums.
  • Constituents are comfortable providing both positive and negative feedback.

 

Relatedly, the institution lists the following as critical to success:

  • Developing deep relationships project by project with our community
  • Assuring that the museum’s work is guided by the community
  • Having a unified vision among key leadership
  • Having staff continuity within the organization
  • Transmitting knowledge and experience within the organization, advancing the mission
  • The community-response approach, which keeps the museum close to the grass roots and relevant
  • Dialogue, a practice that enlivens the organization and its constituents
  • The involvement of multiple generations — necessary for the work to have depth
  • The recognition that community-centered projects take more work
  • Hiring staff for their relationship-building skills, not just subject-matter expertise
  • Creating museum programs that are relevant to today’s issues and needs
  • Treating diversity as an asset that strengthens the organization
  • Making sure young people rise to leadership
  • Investment in long-term relationships

 

These goals clearly demonstrate how differently oriented a wholly co-creative institution is from a more traditional one.  While many museums espouse several of the above goals, few use criteria like "relationship-building skills" to make hiring decisions across departments.  At the Wing Luke Asian Museum, co-creation and community partnership is a way of life, and it infiltrates all aspects of their work, from exhibition design to board recruitment to fundraising. 

 

Co-Creative Educational Programs

 

While there are few institutions that integrate co-creation into as many functions as does the Wing Luke, there are several museums where co-creative practices happen in pockets, and these tend to reside in the education departments.  Education staff members are more likely to be hired in part for their ability to be responsive to and collaborate with community partners and program participants.  Several institutions run robust youth programs that are essentially co-created, in which teens are empowered as staff (often paid) to contribute to and participate in museum projects.  For example, the St. Louis Science Center's Youth Exploring Science program (YES) is a community-based program in which 250 underserved teens, recruited from community partner organizations, are employed by the museum to participate in science learning, professional development, and service back to the community.  This program is physically separate from the rest of the museum and is housed in the Taylor Community Science Resources Center, a place with a related but different mission and constituency from the overall museum.  Employees of the YES program work in partnership with their students, and while they definitely provide some formal instruction, they do so in a co-creative environment which is frequently teen-led.  For example, in one YES program called Learning Places funded by the National Science Foundation, teens in St. Louis (as well as teens associated with the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul) designed, installed, and staffed interactive science exhibits and activities for local community children's organizations (Girls Inc., Head Start, Boys and Girls Clubs).  In an echo of the discussion of staff roles at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, a Learning Places community evaluation report reported significant staff time and attention was spent communicating with community partners and mediating interpersonal and cultural issues among teens and community partners throughout the process. 

 

When a co-creative project is run in one pocket of a museum, it can often clash with other parts of the institutional culture.  In the case of the YES program, for example, YES teens are empowered to manage their program's digital presence by blogging, sharing photos on Flickr, posting videos to YouTube and Blip.tv, sharing links on Delicious, and posting their own "how-to" guides on Instructables.  Because YES staff have a co-creative approach to relationships with YES participants, there are fairly loose guidelines for what teens may post, and participants share everything from reflections on their science learning to photos of themselves dancing.  In the context of YES, these activities are not only appropriate but desirable because they promote technology skills and help YES participants feel ownership of their program.  But the marketing department of the St. Louis Science Center does not necessarily want YES teens and their experiences to be the face of the institution to the wider online audience.  The YES website is not integrated into the overall Science Center website, and accessing it via the museum's website requires some concerted effort.  While the YES program powerfully fulfills the museum's mission "to stimulate interest in and understanding of science and technology throughout the community," it is not presented as a flagship to audiences that are not already in the know.  

 

For some institutions, this tension can take the whole museum in a new direction.  The Oakland Museum of California has a long history as a community-focused institution, reaching back to its roots as a radically democratic museum in the late 1960s and 1970s.  In recent years, however, audiences have dwindled, and in 2008, the museum began a major redesign process with the goal to reinvent all major galleries in an effort to reconnect with their community roots.  The museum has ambitious goals for increasing visitorship, and specifically, for increasing the number of local visitors and visitors who are demographically representative of their highly diverse neighborhood.  To accomplish these goals, the museum has drawn inspiration from a long-standing co-creative museum projects: the Day of the Dead exhibition.  The Day of the Dead exhibition, a project of the museum's education department, has been running annually since 1994.  The museum partners with local artists, community members, and curators as guest curators, and these guests assemble diverse artists, school groups, and community members to build shrines, or ofrendas, as offerings to the dead.  The shrines are mounted in a dedicated exhibition space within the museum, and they range from funny to heart-wrenching to political in tone.  The exhibition typically is open for two months surrounding the Day of the Dead (November 2) and features regular gallery talks and tours by participating artists.  The museum hosts a community celebration on a weekend-day before the Day of the Dead, a free party that includes crafts and demonstrations, live music and dance performances, a market (mercado), and a ceremonial procession into the museum gardens. 

 

The Day of the Dead program is enormously successful for the Oakland Museum.  It is literally the only time of the year (and to a great extent, the only day of the year) when the museum teems with local visitors speaking many different languages.  On the day of the celebration, 3,000 to 5,000 people come to participate, and throughout the run of the exhibition, it enjoys about 1,000 visitors per day (mostly student groups).  As project director Evelyn Orantes noted, the project's co-creative community roots have played a big role in its growth and success.  Day of the Dead wasn't conceived by museum staff but by the institution's Latino Advisory Council.  The museum had come to these community leaders and asked what they could do to connect with a greater Latino audience.  The Council came back and suggested a Day of the Dead program.  Day of the Dead is one of the most important traditions in Latino Mexican culture, but it also plays a major role for activists of many stripes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Day of the Dead celebrations became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a way of reclaiming culture and being politically active, and a lot of the early festivals took place in San Francisco.  Why, asked the Latino Advisory Council, didn't the Oakland Museum become the home for Day of the Dead in the east bay, where many latinos live?

 

While the Day of the Dead program does attract a lot of Latino and Mexican visitors, it also attracts other new audiences to the Oakland Museum.  This is a co-creation project that yields a very powerful audience response.  The exhibition enjoys high visitation from health industry groups, support groups for families with relatives in hospice, groups of terminally ill patients, people dealing with grief, and grief counselors.  The student audience isn't uniform either; Headstart programs bring preschoolers to learn about art, elementary and high school students come to connect with cultural heritage, and university Spanish and ethnic studies classes visit as well.  As Evelyn noted, "the topic of death transcends culture or ethnicity.  It's something we all grapple with. And here is an educational institution providing you a safe way to gather tools to grieve, which is so polar opposite of anything we learn from western culture about death and the grim reaper."   The Day of the Dead project isn't just for a specific demographic community; it's for all people who desire a more personal and emotional connection to cultural experiences.  Again, Evelyn says, "the exhibition has a real intimacy that you get right away - about your mom who died, or your child.  The instant level of intimacy from the subject adds this whole other closeness between the museum, participant, and the viewer.  It's a program that makes people feel like this is their place, their museum, and there's a sense of ownership."

 

While the Oakland Museum staff are working to incorporate this kind of co-creation and its positive audience response into other programs, they have a long history of understanding the tension that comes when a traditional museum engages in a co-creative project.  It's no accident that Day of the Dead is the only exhibition produced at the Oakland Museum by the education department as opposed to the curatorial art, history, or science departments.  The co-creative process, like that at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, is highly deliberative.  Everyone involved in Day of the Dead from the staff side, from educators to preparators, needs to be able to engage with guest curators and artist participants in a "constant conversation," providing feedback and support as needed.  The Museum freqeuntly employs professional curators, artists, and community leaders as guest curators, and each of these groups has a different required learning process to work well with the museum's rules and goals.  Evelyn commented that working with professional curators is easiest because those guest curators required little instruction in exhibition design and development--the project morphed into a kind of co-option model in which the curator can take their knowledge and connections and make the exhibition happen on their own.  But Evelyn also noted that the years in which the guest curator was an artist or community leader have led to more provocative installations. 

 

Reflecting on the highly integrated and collaborative way that Day of the Dead is developed, executed, and received by visitors, Evelyn said, "In some ways, it's almost like having a community center in the museum.  And I hesitate to put Day of the Dead in that box because it will be devalued.  People will say that the artists that we bring on aren't 'artists,' they are 'community artists.'  This is a program that challenges the basic ideas about how art is displayed. We take an egalitarian approach, merging artists, community members, and school groups, so you will often see the work of an established artist right next to an installation of glitter-covered macaroni.  And I think some museum people don't know what to do with it."  As at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Day of the Dead's co-creative approach is a radical diversion from the way things are typically done in a traditional museum, and Evelyn and her cohorts are still struggling to define what that means for the Oakland 

Museum's overall path forward.

 

 

Platforms for Co-Creation

 

Like collaborative processes, co-creative projects can be highly resource-intensive for institutions, and, as we've seen, can require different overall staff skill sets and institutional goals to succeed.  Is there a way to build mechanisms to support co-creation on a more flexible basis?  Just as there are ways to design collaborative platforms that can support ongoing and flexible collaboration by visitors and community members, there are also ways to develop platforms to support open co-creation. To some extent, this happens in the Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre, where the institution provides materials for visitors to build their own creative expressions.  Some of these are in the context of more directed activities (and were described in the section on contributory platforms), but there are also highly open-ended parts of the Centre in which the museum provides little more than tools and intriguing raw materials, with no instructions about how visitors should engage or what goals they should attempt to achieve in their work.  These components of the Innovation Centre run on a steady stream of materials donated and salvaged from waste distribution facilities.  But they are also enabled by staff who encourage visitors to think for themselves, be respectful of others, and experiment joyfully.  Finally, the designers of the Innovation Centre were very careful to delineate the open-ended co-creative stations in ways that encourage preferred user behaviors.  For example, the electronic take-apart station features tools like screwdrivers, scissors, and pliers, as well as many small parts and sharp objects, but this station is designed in a way to encourage visitors to face inward towards the tools rather than wielding them into higher traffic areas or carrying them to other parts of the room.  Also, by separating this station and having it face inward on itself, the designers encourage visitors to spend as much time as they like exploring and experimenting without being overly distracted by the many other sounds and moving lights in the room.  There are many small design touches like this that help visitors naturally gravitate towards participating alone or in groups, for a short or long period of time, despite the overall lack of instructions and fixed experience paths.

 

One of my favorite co-creative platforms is a non-museum project, a "collaborative production game" called SF0.  SF0 is a game in which people create and perform creative tasks in the urban environment.  Tasks tend to be short, evocative, and a bit transgressive, such as "distract the mailman," "reverse shoplifting (insert an object into a store)" or "create a permanent and visible neighborhood tattoo."  Some are personal, like "make a sound portrait of yourself," and others encourage people to explore new places or learn new skills.  The players are the game creators (designing the tasks), the players (performing the tasks), and the score-keepers (assigning points to others' documentation of their task-fulfillment).  They are also the audience for each others' tasks and attempts to complete the tasks.  All of this is managed through a website at http://sf0.org, which was created by SF0's initiators, a group of three young game designers who call themselves the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society.  When they described the origins of SF0 to me, they explained that in college, they had spent a lot of their free time designing complicated puzzle games throughout the city of Chicago.  While they knew that people enjoyed playing the games, they realized that the real fun, at least for them, was in making up the puzzles and game challenges.  So they decided to develop a game that would let people make their own games, and SF0 was born.  As artist Greg Niemeyer put it, "If there is such a thing as open source games, sf0 is a beautiful version of it."

 

Like all the successful platforms we've looked at, the SF0 game has several very specific design elements baked in that reflect the values and goals of the project and the community of participants.  The designers combine a mixture of open tools with capricious fiats.  Anyone can submit a new task, but the tasks are reviewed by a mysterious internal board which decides which will be available and what their point value will be ("Scores for tasks are assigned based on a complicated algorithm developed by the military.").  Each task has a basic description, a base point value, a level, an associated group, and a number of participants.  The designers explicitly encourage collaborative multi-person tasks and award these more points because, "real people working together is a wonderful thing."  The group structure is another way to encourage players to see themselves as aligned with subsets of other players.  The group are absurd and broad, related somewhat to different types of tasks (i.e. "nihilistic intent" and "aesthematics").  Their function is mostly to help players self-identify relative to the game and to connect their personal experience to that of other players "like them."  Finally, the levels parse tasks and players, helping people find tasks that are suitable for them and letting advanced players enjoy some exclusive tasks and content.  The designers' comment about this is a straightforward commentary on motivating deep participation: "These tasks aren't available until you reach a certain level because SFZero wants all players to experience character-building and forward progress."

 

Beyond these designer-specified elements, there are also components of SF0 that have been intentionally designed to encourage particular kinds of co-creation by players.  Tasks are clearly split into those that have been completed and those that are in progress, and higher status is given to completed projects.  This both incentivizes sign-up, as it is easy to click and say that a project is in progress, but motivates people to carry through to completion, or praxis, so that other players can see what they have accomplished.  Once a task is completed, it can receive votes and comments, which add to a player's points for completing the task.  While the designers assign each task a fixed number of "base points," individuals can award each other bonus points by voting for their tasks, which is comparable to flagging favorites.  The more tasks you have completed, the more points each of your votes is worth.  In this way, a player may receive "15 + 89" points, which means they were awarded the base 15 points for completion, plus an 89 point bonus awarded by the community.  Clearly, community-proferred points have a greater impact on overall score than the base, designed value.

 

Because SF0 is so heavily community-directed, the community of players feel an incredible sense of ownership over the game.  This can lead to a kind of cliqueiness, where advanced players create increasingly esoteric tasks that are appealing to them but may be overwhelming to new players.  To mitigate this, the SF0 designers try to manage community relationships to welcome new players and encourage experienced players to be community leaders in their own right.  In their new player guide, the designers make several statements to help newbies feel comfortable not just performing tasks but creating them.  As they write, "Don't be intimidated by the task completions of other players. No task is ever completed so well that it doesn't need to be done again by you, in a novel way."  They encourage new players to "friend" other players whose work they like or who might be good collaborators for them.  And they also try to lower the barrier to task creation, giving several reasons that new players might like to create tasks: "Think of interesting things you've always wanted to do, or things you'd like to see someone else do, or personal actions or experiences you feel other players would enjoy doing or having. SFZero is at its best when you're not only playing it, but also creating it. Plus, think of how excellent it will be when a stranger completes your task!"

 

When considered from the perspective of managing a healthy community, SF0's wacky and sometimes blatantly capricious design scheme makes sense.  The design team is effectively saying to players, "we love you and want you to enjoy taking this wherever you want.  We are going to give you more features that you want.  But we are also going to retain some controls that you may or may not care about that we think help keep the game thriving."  Perhaps the strangest of these controls is the "era" system, by which the designers periodically reset the game (about once a year), zeroing out players' scores, changing the slate of tasks, and introducing new technical and game-related features.  The designers explain the eras this way:

"Every so often, the game is reset, to make room for new tasks and new players (or old players who have nowhere to go but up to the top of the Tower). And to make it important to do those little, special level 1 tasks again.  At the start of a new era, everyone's score is reset, and all active tasks are retired. New (or not-recently-active) tasks are added to the list.  Era changes bring significant changes to the game's mechanics, updates to the super-custom SFZero software, and adjustments to way the game's meaning is articulated. Previous changes include player-submitted tasks, teams, new forms of group membership, and various changes to the voting mechanism."

 

While it might be incredibly frustrating for some players to zero out their scores, the SF0 designers make clear that the era changes in pursuit of something more important: the continued improvement and evolution of the game.  Because SF0 is managed online, the community relationships and dynamics are quite different than in programs like Youth Exploring Science or institutions like the Wing Luke.  The SF0 designers can adopt roles that are mysterious, even mythic, and that enhances the experience for co-creators.  In some ways, the kooky elements of SF0 help co-creators feel empowered to make their own suggestions and lead the game in the directions of greatest interest to them.  SF0 is a true community of game creators, and, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum's exhibitions, its projects are developed by, for, and with its constituent community.

 

What does it take to design a successful platform for co-creation?  In many ways, it's identical to what is required to develop good collaborative platforms, with one significant difference: you must be fundamentally motivated by a desire to serve the needs and goals of the community with which you work.   Many people working in the world of the participatory web talk about the concept of "radical trust" and the idea that institutions and project leaders must trust the users who work with their platforms to do so in a respectful and appropriate manner.  Radical trust has been extended to mean everything from trusting users not to use profanity to trusting their ability to perform complex creative or technical tasks to trusting their ability to engage with other users in positive ways.  Co-creation projects are, in many respects, the ultimate version of radical trust.  To execute a successful co-creation project, you have to not only trust the competencies and motivations of your participants but deeply desire their input and leadership.  I suspect this is the reason that there are so few co-created projects in the museum (and many institutions) space; it requires an institutional mission that is totally in service to community goals.

 

Co-Option Projects

 

Co-creative projects may require too intimate a relationship between institution and participants for some museums to manage reasonably.  Far more common are co-option projects, in which the institution turns over a gallery or a program to an external partner.  This happens professionally in the context of formal partnerships frequently; for example, whenever a museum takes on a traveling exhibit from another institution, an artist is in residence produces installations or programs, or an independent tour operator books a group visit to the museum.  In the context of this discussion, I'm focusing not on these formal relationships among vetted professionals but situations where the institution is used or repurposed by amateur groups and casual visitors.

 

As noted in the introduction to this chapter, visitors co-opt museums for their own purposes every day.  They come for a nice backdrop to a date.  They come to use the collection for their own hobbies and pursuits.  They come to use the bathroom, the internet, and the cafe.  They come to learn, to socialize, even to sleep.  If inclusion is a top interest, then flexible co-option sounds like a great idea.  From the institutional perspective, it is a way to support visitors feeling welcome and invited to use the museum for their own purposes.  From the participant perspective, co-option is a way to derive specific personal value from the venue and the content of the institution.  Unlike the other participatory models discussed in this chapter, in which the institution needs to somehow motivate and convince visitors that they would like to participate, co-option requires no coercion--just an open platform in which visitors can do what they like.  The complication comes when institutional and participant perspectives on what is mutually valuable diverge, and this tends to happen when staff perceive that participants are making the environment unfriendly to other audiences or unsafe to the objects on display.  From an audience perspective, co-option can be a blessing when it makes new kinds of programs and experiences available to visitors.  But co-option can also alter the feel of a museum in a way that may be unappealing to other visitors. 

 

Is a farmer's market at a museum a distraction or a value added?  Should visitors be invited to conduct personal business from museums, as they might in coffeeshops or libraries?  Or what about the folks who conduct creationist tours through natural history museums, reinterpreting the scientific record to fit their own ideology?  Co-option project participants are likely to regard audiences very differently from how the institution sees them, and those differences may be a delight (when they make new audiences comfortable in the venue) or a mess (when they alienate or confuse existing visitors).  In some cases, these participant co-opters are only serving themselves and their own constituency without benefit or detriment to the institution and broader audience. But in other cases, co-option makes a significant imprint on the museum experience as a whole.

 

For example, there is a blog called Jumping in Art Museums featuring photos of (you guessed it!) people jumping in museum galleries. These are people who co-opt art museums as places to jump, take photos of themselves, and later post them on the web.  The woman who started the Jumping in Art Museums blog is an artist named Allison Reimus based in Washington DC, and she's motivated by a desire to "jump for joy" when engaging with some pieces of art.  Reimus encourages others to share their joy as well, and she posts photos of art jumpers all over the world.  The audience for the Jumping in Art Museums blog is other art enthusiasts, many of whom are probably museum-goers.  This audience overlaps with, but is not identical to, the visitors who spectate as others jump in art galleries.  Some of those visitors, like the blog followers, are probably delighted by the jumping.  Some staff, like those at the Belgian FotoMuseum, were so excited by the idea that they got involved and took professional shots of visitors jumping (see image).  But others, including museum staff and security guards, might be annoyed or concerned by jumpers' actions.  

 

The extent to which an institution promotes particular kinds of co-option reflects staff values towards different kinds of activities.  Co-option models are most useful to institutions when they seek to enable visitor experiences or behaviors that staff do not feel able to provide on their own. For example, a science museum might not want to initiate its own citizen science projects but would be happy to provide space and material support to local amateur scientists looking for a homebase for their activities.  Some kinds of co-option are wholly endorsed; for example, museums tend to welcome large groups, even if their presence can make the museum feel crowded or chaotic to other visitors.  Similarly, many museums rent their space for private events and must measure the relative benefits and negatives of policies like early closure to accommodate co-opting revelers.  But there are other kinds of co-option that are more casually endorsed or proscribed.  Basic design affordances, such as the amount of comfortable seating, hours of availability, ticket price, and policies towards external recording equipment all affect the things visitors assume they can do in the space. 

 

Unfortunately, there are also often unwritten rules that may be unclear to visitors and staff alike and cause confusion about what is appropriate visitor behavior.  I once wandered an art museum with my father and an audio recording device, intending to record our conversation for a podcast about how regular people talk about exhibits.  We were immediately stopped by a visitor services representative, who asked us to stop but could not give a reason why.  We went to the main desk, where we inquired about the policy, and we waited while the person behind the desk called the PR staff member to ask.  She left a message and instructed us not to record again until she got back in touch.  20 minutes of clandestine recording later, we learned that it was okay for us to record ourselves, but we could not record any sounds emanating from the artworks (which might be copyrighted), nor could we interview other visitors (reason unknown).  Needless to say, we felt that our desire to create an audio piece at the museum was unsupported, and we left.  No wonder people use apply the term "rogue" to podcasts and tours led by individuals who are not museum staff.  In many institutions, even if these activities are not explicitly against the rules, they violate unwritten expectations about how visitors can and should use the collection. 

 

Pragmatically, not all aspects of the museum are open for co-option.  But there are many useful and valuable ways that museums creatively support and pursue opportunities for co-option.  The most frequent forms of these are partnerships with artists (art museums), in which artists provide activities or programs for public consumption, connections with local hobbyist groups (history and science museums), in which groups use the museum as a meeting space, and more informal offerings to the community (all), such as community rooms for rent, daycare programs, and social functions.  Art museums have moved aggressively into the space of co-option when it comes to educational programming, which was traditionally managed by internal staff (in contrast to art exhibits, which have often involved outside curators and artists).  SFMOMA is offering "Pickpocket Almanack," an experimental school of classes taught by museum outsiders, largely with classes held out in the San Francisco community.  In Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle (among others), art museums are hosting monthly large-scale parties geared towards young professionals, often featuring collaborative art-making activities run with outside groups, including communal knitting, social games, and screenprinting.  The Denver Art Museum's program Untitled also features "detours" led by non-art professionals, from Jungian psychologists to zookeepers, who share their reactions to and observations on the art on display.  The late-night Remix program at the Seattle Art Museum includes a tour component featuring outsiders called, "My Favorite Things" which is comparable.  Interestingly, these programs are not dissimilar in content from unsanctioned co-option like rogue art museum podcasts, but they receive special status as partners selected or solicited by the institutions working with them. Both of these institutions are looking for ways to expand their amateur tour program to encourage visitors, not just selected guests, to offer their own tours, but motivating casual co-option is much harder than inviting specific individuals to participate.

 

In cases where visitors don't naturally see cultural institutions as venues for their own co-option, institutions need to specifically reach out to people to make it clear that they are not only welcome but will receive unique benefits by using cultural venues as opposed to other locations for their activities.  Co-option models are most useful to participants when the institutional venue can offer something that adds value to an activity that is already appealing.  For example, knitters may not perceive museums as good venues for their meetups, because they don't commonly offer the comfortable accommodation provided by, say, coffeeshops.  But when the New York Public Library reached out to knitting groups in 2008 and offered them a comfortable setting in which to knit and a special tour of knitting-related resources and collections held by the library, the library became a very attractive venue for co-option by the knitters. This is a simple example of an institution identifying a participant base of interest whose activities were perceived as adding value to the institutional experience (for staff and visitors alike), offering specific resources for co-option, and reaping a positive result.

 

Using Co-Option as a Launchpoint for Deeper Engagement

 

As noted above, in many cases co-option is already happening in cultural venues.  Some museums take advantage of this fact to recognize, celebrate, and encourage the co-opters, thus forming relationships with engaged users that may lead to deeper connections.  For example, in 2009, staff at SFMOMA, noting that some visitors like to come and sketch the art in the galleries, started hosting informal sketching hours in the lobby.  The staff didn't provide drawing instruction or programmatic content during those hours, but they provided approval and social support for the activity, explicitly welcoming and celebrating an activity they hope to encourage.

 

In 2009, I started working with the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum (EMPSFM) in Seattle, WA on a project to enhance teen engagement with the museum.  Like the Oakland Museum and the Day of the Dead celebration, EMPSFM has a flagship program which embodies to them the best of their engagement with teen audiences.  This program, called Sound Off!, is a battle of the bands for musicians aged 13-21.  Each fall, youth bands submit applications for inclusion, and twelve are selected to participate in a series of four concerts in the spring.  These twelve bands receive mentoring from industry professionals, lots of press attention, and the opportunity to perform and compete in front of screaming fans at the museum.  When I first met with EMPSFM staff, they commented that Sound Off! is an amazing program, but that they felt that the teens who participate and come to spectate really just see the museum as a venue for a cool rock concert.  They were concerned that these teens were only coming for Sound Off! and didn't see the museum as a place with other appealing or worthwhile experiences, and staff were interested in finding ways to capitalize on teens' love of Sound Off! to get them more engaged throughout the institution.

 

This desire led to an audience engagement process that is fundamentally different from the traditional ways that we plan exhibits or programs. Rather than designing a program and figuring out how to motivate teens to engage with it, we started from a very clear vision of who the teens are who love Sound Off! and the kinds of other experiences that might appeal to them.  Because they are co-opting the museum for their own live music experiences during Sound Off!, we had to make sure that whatever we offered the teens was a natural extension of their pre-existing, intrinsic interest in Sound Off!  We couldn't sell them something new; instead, we had to demonstrate that other parts of the museum could be useful settings for other kinds of co-option.   Because their entrypoint was through live music, we decided to pull that thread through other museum experiences.  We set up an online social network for Sound Off! enthusiasts and bands to connect with each other and learn about other live music shows and venues in the Pacific Northwest.  We worked with teens who were already engaged with Sound Off! as youth advisory board members and former competitors to produce content for and promote the online community.  We asked the twelve semi-final bands to create content that will be embedded into components of permanent galleries, so that teens can pursue their interest in these bands into the museum itself.  And finally, we drew clearer lines among the different music-making and performance-oriented educational opportunities at the museum, so that teens could more effectively pursue paths to and from the Sound Off! experience.  This is a multi-year process with a planned goal to end up with programs that are teen-led and reach a greater number of participants than were engaged in the original top-down program.

 

If you want to engage co-opters more deeply in your institution, you have to start from the activity or experience that they already enjoy doing in your venue.  If they use your museum as a place to take photos, then ask if they'd consider playing paparazzi at an upcoming event.  If they use your museum as a place to work, suggest a quiet spot or an exhibit that's particularly good for inspiration.  If they come with friends and give their own well-informed tours, invite them to volunteer with school groups or other visitors.  If they make out in a dark exhibit, well, those people you might not want to encourage. 

 

 

Making Space for Co-Option: Community Galleries and Programs

 

Even when institutionally supported, co-option projects can quickly move in directions that may not be seen as in line with institutional standards for content or quality.  A classic example is the community gallery model, in which museums (typically history institutions) provide a space for community groups to present their own exhibitions.  Unlike the Wing Luke Asian Museum's co-creation model, these community galleries are often set up so that the outside community group or exhibitors manage all aspects of content development, exhibit design, and fabrication, within some broad guidelines set by the institution to ensure visitors' safety.  Community members propose exhibitions in an application process, and selected outside exhibition developers enter formal contractual relationships with the museum in which the outsiders are responsible for developing and implementing their proposed exhibitions.  While these exhibitions often reflect topics of keen interest to niche audience groups, they are not always at the quality level of the rest of the museum's profesionally produced exhibitions.

 

Both the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Detroit Historical Society manage community galleries of this kind.  In Detroit, the 1,500 square foot community gallery was iniatiated in 2006 "for use by community non-profit organizations and institutions of higher learning that raise awareness and appreciation for metro Detroit’s communities and cultures."  Exhibitions are presented quarterly and are often organized by small community groups; for example, the Friends of Belle Isle group produced an exhibition in 2009 about the history of the Belle Isle Park.  In a presentation at the American Association of Museums conference in 2009, Director of Exhibitions and Programs Tracy Irwin commented that while the community gallery is allowing the institution to reflect the unique and diverse stories of Detroit's citizens, the quality of design is highly varied.  She shared images from a timeline presented during an exhibition on Detroit's Chinatown that featured panels overladen with text at a range of heights and font sizes not optimal for reading.  While the museum staff had the knowledge to avoid these kinds of design choices in their own galleries, the community gallery was co-opted by the partner group, who had the freedom to design the exhibit as they saw fit. (MORE FROM TRACY INTERVIEW...)

 

TRACY INTERVIEW:

"I was talking with our designer today, we're working on an exhibit right now called Bath City USA - another example of something that we need put in our "do not allow" clause... we are constantly learning.  This is not something that's just done all the time.  We all do it a little bit differently.  We work collaboratively with outside organizations.  Right now, we don't work with individuals, but we do often work with individuals who are the point person in the organization.  They are the curator or the person putting together the story.  And they have a very strong viewpoint on what they want done.  And in this particular exhibit, they had a powerpoint they want developed into an exhibit, and we just can't translate that.  There's only so much you can do with that.  You can't blow it up, the letters tend to fall apart.  And so we tried to have them give us the images and text and mash it up for them.  And we kept going back and forth for months- there was some communication problem.  How could I have said it differently?  And it basically came down to hours of work spent by my designer recrafting that powerpoint.

 

The materials are supposed to be designed by them, but this time we had a miscommunication.  They needed the help and we did it.  Our position is that we are a free space, that we will help them if they need some design tips, some advice.  Normally we'll hang the exhibit for them, given them some creative input, make suggestions about design and printing, and we'll give them as much input as they want.  But it's supposed to be in their hands.  If they want me to read the story, I'll read it, but I'm not going to change something.  We had one situation where a date was incorrect related to the 1967 riots, and that's a big issue locally.  That was an early exhibit, we were very green, and it was a big deal - we got a lot of phone calls on that one.  In that same exhibit, there was a story of a civil rights leader who was killed by the KKK, and they had a KKK robe, which was very sensitive, but it turned out to also be quite powerful.

 

We did recently have a congresswoman who wanted to do an exhibit here, someone who is up for reelection.  And I just had to be honest and say, we can't really do that as a non-profit, city institution.  We can't play politics.  I offered other suggestions of where she could go and show her exhibit, or maybe an exhibit that showcases all of the candidates--we can do that.

 

The exhibits seem mostly to be about nostalgia and history of certain organizations and places.  We are actively calling organizations around the metro Detroit area and letting them know that this opportunity is here for them--that this is a venue that they can take advantage of.

 

We'll meet with the organization five to eight months out. I would love to work a year out, but we're not there yet.  Then they're pulling together their story, and a lot of times we'll meet 3-4 times, with marketing, programs, planning 2-3 partner programs like author events or panel programs.  And if all goes well, we'll hav 2-3 other discussions about the exhibit, and then phone calls.  That's what we try to shoot for.  But there are other groups who will suck the life out of you--every day we're having discussions. 

 

We give them a general timeline, very loose--we don't want to dictate how many text panels or anything like that.  But we give them dates for things to submit the very first time we meet, and then we double-check throughout the other meetings. I haven't had anyone not meet a deadline yet.  I think worst case scenario, we would just step in and do it--but we haven't had to do that yet." 

 

 

The Brooklyn Historical Society introduced the Public Perspectives program in the Independence Community Gallery in 2006, which focuses on showcasing community-curated exhibitions that are both visually compelling and relevant to the institution's overall mission.  The exhibitions have ranged from cultural retrospectives to artistic representations of Brooklyn's history and relevance to contemporary audiences.  The gallery is small - about 350 square feet - and applicants are expected to present a draft installation plan along with their content proposals.  In general, the exhibitions have involved flat content on the walls.  Because the space is smaller than in Detroit and the installation options more limited, the exhibitions tend to have a more consistent quality level--but co-opters are also limited in their ability to play with three-dimensional designs.  As in Detroit, the community gallery serves the purpose of reflecting the voice of diverse community members in a museum context.  By avoiding the long hours of work that the Wing Luke Asian Museum staff put in to manage a co-creative process, the resulting galleries are as good as their creators--the co-opting community curators.  

 

One of the wise and not necessarily obvious choices of both the Brooklyn and Detroit Historical Society's are to limit the time duration of the community gallery.  By setting an expectation that the co-opted exhibition would be on display for a clear number of months, the institutions both support lots of rotating voices and mitigate the adverse effects of a particularly poorly executed community project.  Why does this matter?  Sometimes the best-intentioned partnerships turn out problematic results.  In one unnamed museum, there was a project to invite local members of an underserved ethnic group to produce their own exhibit about their cultural experience of the city.  The resulting exhibition was considered "creepy" by staff and visitors alike (of diverse backgrounds), but staff didn't feel they had the political ability to alter or mediate the exhibition without incurring the ill will of the community members' whose work they had ostensibly supported.  Years later, the exhibition remained, marginalized in a corner, an embarrassment and source of confusion for visitors who did not know what to make of it.

 

When it comes to co-option models for educational programming and events, many of the same mission fit challenges can arise.  Particularly in attempts to reach underserved, teen, or young adult audiences, many cultural institutions offer events that are more focused on bringing that audience in the door and making the institution feel familiar and comfortable than providing an "on-mission" experience.  Consider, for example, the use of video games in libraries.  Many American libraries host game nights geared towards kids and teens, in which visitors can use library computers and specially-set up consoles to play multi-player online and digital games.  While these are institutionally-run events, I consider them a kind of co-option because the library is effectively empowering teens to co-opt the library for their own purposes--playing games, running around, yelling.  In 2005, Oregon librarian Aaron Schmidt managed several gaming nights at his library, and he was careful to provide secondary opportunities for kids to do things while waiting that were useful to the library--producing audio reviews of books they'd read, offering feedback on the program, even, in some cases reading.  In 2008, Skokie, Illinois librarian Toby Greenwalt hosted a family game night, and several kids made comments like, "This night is the best night at the library ever. I had so much fun." and "this place is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!"  Another librarian who led a program like this said, "The kids had great fun and we saw plenty of fresh faces in the library. Anyone who did not have a library card already was signed up for one and many of the new kids have come back again the use the library 'for real'."

 

What's going on here?  Is it any surprise that kids had SOOOOOOO much fun playing video games?  Is this co-option substantive, or does it give kids a false sense of what the library is about?  The librarians who run these programs argue that gaming in the library is very clearly on-mission when it comes to their institutional goals around community outreach and engagement.  For example, Skokie Public Library's vision statement reads, "Skokie Public Library is essential to a vibrant and diverse community where individuals of all ages and families freely engage in lifelong learning and discovery, and enjoyment of popular culture and the arts. Residents have many opportunities to become well-informed, with their intellectual freedom and privacy protected, to benefit from cultural diversity, and to actively participate in the life of the community."  Game nights clearly support the sense that the library is a vibrant community space dedicated to family discovery, enjoyment, and learning, just as making space available for PTA meetings or Ecuadorian Pride meetups fulfills the library's commitment to community and cultural diversity.

 

This kind of co-option helps people understand how their identity goals might be fulfilled at the institution.  In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk argues that visitors come to museums to satisfy certain aspects of their personal identity--as a curious learner, say, or as someone who likes to be spiritually refreshed.  He suggests that all people share common identity goals when it comes to leisure, but only some people identify cultural institutions as good places to fulfill those goals.  When a library fulfills a kid's goal to challenge herself and be social, she starts to see the library as a positive and useful place that she can contextualize into her recreational choices, and she may begin to look more broadly at what it offers.  My local library hosts a "Mozart lunch hour" once a month in which people bring their lunches and listen to Mozart played on a grand piano.  In this way, the library fulfills peoples' need for refreshment and introduces them to the idea of the library as a place for a mental recharge.  Whether by offering games or Mozart, these activities bring new audiences to the library for whom the core services have not been contextualized in an appealing, useful way.

 

That's not to say that all of the kids who come to game night (or the PTA parents, or the Mozart retirees) will show up to use the core resources and functions of the library on a frequent basis--or ever.  The Skokie Public Library vision statement doesn't feature any value judgements about the right way to provide "lifelong learning and discovery" experiences for its patrons.  If the staff truly embody this vision, then there is no conflict in having some patrons who only use the library for a limited mission-related purpose--whether to play games, listen to music, or even read.

 

Co-Option Gets Complicated: The 888 Case Study

 

When co-option programs are small and inexpensive to manage, the desire for audience development can quell concerns about mission fit.  But what about co-option projects on a grand scale?  On August 8, 2008, the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) hosted a meetup for international YouTube users, called 888.  888 was expensive and complex, and its outcomes for the institution were mixed. 

 

888 emerged as a program idea out of the Ontario Science Centre's very successful forays into online video-sharing.  The OSC has a high profile on YouTube and other video-sharing sites, and several of their videos (mostly short, staff-produced excerpts from demonstrations and outside speaker presentations) have received tens or hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.  The staff member in charge of video production and sharing, Kathy Nicholaichuk, had become deeply involved with the online community of individuals producing popular videos on YouTube, and she suggested that a meetup would be a good way for the OSC to demonstrate its commitment to the YouTube community, and to bring creative, energetic, young videographers to the science centre.  Kathy and other YouTube enthusiasts promoted the 888 meetup via YouTube and other social media tools, with many YouTube users creating videos excitedly talking about the Ontario Science Centre before ever setting foot inside.  About 460 people showed up for the actual event, a massive party in the science centre, featuring talent shows, play in the exhibits, food and drink, and lots of cameras.  While participants came from all over the world, over 75% were local to Toronto or Canadian.  About half were under 19, and another quarter were 20-25 years old.  More than one-third had never visited the OSC, and the majority attended with friends or family.  About 1,000 videos were made at the event, and the OSC received about 2 million impressions from print, radio, and TV coverage.  The videos themselves received millions of views and tens of thousands of comments on YouTube. 

 

These numbers are incredibly positive.  The OSC has a commitment to promoting innovation, and like most science centers, struggles to attract older teens and young adults alongside core family and school-age audiences.  As associate director of daily experience operations Kevin Von Appen noted, "[Teens] explore technology and they innovate.  Those are exactly the kind of skills, attitudes, and behaviors we're trying to grow in our visitors."  The 888 meetup clearly portrayed the OSC, to young adults and their own social networks of friends and followers, as a cool place to hang out and an attractive context for social experiences.  And yet the vast majority of videos made and shared from the 888 event were social in nature, focusing solely on participants' excitement at meeting each other, partying, flirting, and hanging out.  While several videos did feature or mention the OSC as the location for the social activity, there were only a handful of videos in which 888 participants used exhibits or tried to communicate science in some way.  In other words, 460 young people produced 1,000 videos of themselves having a great time at the science centre.  And the question is: what is that worth?

 

From the participant perspective, the experience was incredibly valuable.  Several participants made comments like, "The best time of my life!!... I will never forget it," though this YouTube user is probably referring to the incredible social experience, not the museum itself.   The meetup was well-designed to support YouTube users' needs, and they felt fully able to co-opt the venue for their own social and creative purposes. 

 

From the institutional perspective, the experience was mixed.  The OSC spent about $74 (US) per participant to promote and host the event, and they had hoped that more participants would use the meetup as an opportunity to engage with the exhibits and produce videos reflecting experiences that were educational in nature.  But the meetup also brought local young adults to the science centre who otherwise weren't visiting, and it may have encouraged some of these Toronto-area YouTube users to see the OSC in a new light.  The YouTube users are the kinds of people that the OSC wants to attract with its innovation-focused exhibits and open-ended programs.  Like the Experience Music Project's experience with the Sound Off! program, the 888 meetup was a starting point that established the Ontario Science Centre as a relevant and appealing venue for teen and young adult experiences.  The trick is to find a way to shift that co-option into more substantive relationships among the YouTube users and the institution.

 

Perhaps the most interesting and complex perspective on this is that of the audience for the 888 meetup.  The videos from the meetup were viewed by thousands of YouTube users over the weeks and months following the event.  While some of the videos, especially those promoting the event before it happened, feature the OSC and its exhibitions prominently, the majority are social in nature, and several are entirely focused on the voices and performances of YouTube celebrities.  While savvy audiences who are familiar either with YouTube community culture or the Ontario Science Centre should be able to correctly interpret the videos, many others see what is on the surface: people goofing off and making connections at a party.  Everyone is having a good time, and no one is doing anything offensive, but the activities shown in the videos are not representative of typical OSC visitor experiences, nor do they communicate the venue experience well to potential visitors.  On one level, this is to be expected; the YouTube users co-opted the museum for their own purposes.  But on another level, it's problematic, because large numbers of YouTube users are introduced to the OSC online as the venue for a party, not as an educational facility. 

 

While the OSC team considered the 888 YouTube meetup to be a valuable experiment, they elected not to host a followup 999 meetup in 2009.  Kevin Von Appen commented, "..."  As for the institutions managing the Wikipedia Loves Art collaboration, the Ontario Science Centre felt that this participatory project required more institutional resources than they were able to handle, though they are actively seeking less intensive and costly ways to support the kind of young, technologically creative co-opters who came to the 888 event.

 

 

 

Activity: Picking the Participatory Model that is Right for You

 

We've now looked at five major participatory models, and by now you have a good sense of what each is used for and in what context.  But to pull it all together, I've made this chart to help you figure out what models you might consider for your next project based on known constraints.  In many cases, there are several models that could effectively satisfy your audience engagement goals, and the decision comes down to external institutional and resource factors.   While every model has outlier innovative projects that circumvent some of these factors, I've tried to distill the basic differences among the models here. Ask yourself these nine questions and circle the answers that work for you.  You'll find your most likely model wherever the most circles lie.

 

  Contributory Collaborative Co-Creation Co-Option
How much control do you want over the overall participatory process and product? A lot Some Some As little as possible
How much staff time do you want to commit to managing the project and working with participants? We can manage it lightly, the way we'd maintain an interactive exhibit.  But we mostly want to set it up and let it do its thing. We will manage the process, but we're not willing to let that process be altered or extended beyond our capacity. As much time as it takes to make sure participants are able to accomplish their goals. As little as possible - set it up and let it go
How do you expect to communicate with participants about their work? We will give them clear rules for participation and reward them for participating (perhaps in an automated way), but we won't be having many personal discussions with participants about the project. We will communicate our goals and requirements openly with participants and will try to make institutional processes clear and connect them to participant goals. We will be community managers, supporting and connecting individuals on a continual basis and getting them the information they need to be successful. We will communicate our rules openly with participants and may encourage or reward their actions.
Who do you want to participate and what kind of commitment will you seek from participants? As many visitors as possible, engaging briefly in the context of a larger museum experience. We expect some people will opt in casually, but most will come with the explicit intention to participate. We'd like to work with people who are intentionally engaged and are really dedicated to seeing the project all the way through. We'd like to empower people who are ready to make the commitment to manage and implement their project on their own.
What kinds of skills do you want participants to gain from their activities during the project? Creation of art, collection of data, or sharing of personal expression.  Use of technological tools to support content creation and sharing. Creation of content, curatorial and program development skills like selecting, organizing, refining, and designing content.  Though not every participant needs to be part of each step, each should have the opportunity to learn and experience every part of the museum program design and delivery process. None that the institution will specifically impart, except perhaps around program promotion and audience engagement.
How do you see the institution's relationship with participants during the project? The institution requests content and the participants supply it, subject to institutional rules. The institution sets the project concept and plan, and then staff work with the participants to make it happen. The institution gives the participants the tools to lead the project and then supports their activities and helps them move forward successfully. The institution gives the participants rules and resources and then lets the participants do their own thing.
How much control do you want over the audience experience of the final product? A lot A lot, but participants can contribute to visions of how the final product should be conveyed. Some, but participant goals and audiences are just as important as institutional ones. Not much - as long as participants follow our rules, they can produce what they want.
What kind of audiences do you hope this project will engage? Our regular audience, especially people who are interested in interactive and creative activities and personal stories. Our regular audience, especially those who are interested in behind-the-scenes content. Our regular audience, as well as audiences reflective of the communities with whom we are co-creating. New audiences who might not see the museum as an obvious place for them.
What kind of commitment does your institution have to community engagement? We're commited to supporting the community of visitors with whom we engage. We're commited to deep partnerships with some target communities. We're commited to supporting the needs and goals of some target communities, contingent on relevance to overall institutional mission. We're interested in being a community place, even if that means promoting activities outside our typical program offerings.

 

 

 

Comments (4)

Mariana Salgado said

at 2:55 am on Oct 1, 2009

I am still reading the chapter, but just two quick comments now. It looks really great. In this table, that I would add at the beginning of the chapter instead of the end because it is very useful to understand the whole idea. What about adding some examples to this table? I know that the examples are embedded in the text, but just to make it more clear, if you are aiming for this, you can do this and this.
Another point was to add something about the participation of staff members (you might have it in another part of the book and I might not have read it, then forget it). I found that sometimes it is difficult to motivate participation in members of the staff that are not part of the the "participative project". You mention the importance of the staff contribution in Monterrey Bay Acquarium. I would like to hear more about the strategies for this contribution, in this example, or in others.
It's getting very robust! Good work!

Nina Simon said

at 6:03 am on Oct 1, 2009

Mariana, great comments. I didn't want to be too reductive by putting the table at the front, but you're right - it's a great mental organizer.
And yes, I woke up just this morning thinking: "I should contact the Indy Museum of Art and the Museum of Life and Science about their awesome staff participation programs." I think this will end up mostly in the last chapter, about getting buy-in and managing projects, but you are right - it's very important. And I'll ask the Aquarium folks about that one story too.

Mariana Salgado said

at 11:00 pm on Oct 1, 2009

Yes, I think is good to start simple and then develop, so for me the table at the start would help. Another suggestion: as you have many examples of projects and you are making interviews with the developers, what about if on some of them you show an extract of the interview. For example in the Word Beach Project you can have a small section where there is picture of Gail Durbin and some 5 sentences of what she thinks about the project (like in the magazines, beside the main text). May be your book will get very long, but I just thought that would be nice to have "other voices" and in this way make the book more participative ;-). It might be too much work to add, don't know...

Nina Simon said

at 6:07 am on Oct 2, 2009

Mariana,
Ed Rodley recommended the same thing. You're right, it would be great. I'll try to find a way to integrate at least a few direct interviews assuming people are willing to have their photos in the book!

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