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Chapter 6: Pitching, Managing, and Evaluating Participatory Projects

Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 6 months ago


  1. Chapter 6, Part 1: Pitching Participatory Projects
  2. Chapter 6, Part 2: Evaluating Participatory Projects
  3. Chapter 6, Part 3: Sustaining Participatory Projects


For some institutions, all the case studies and design frameworks provided in the previous chapters just aren't enough to actually make a participatory project happen.  Engaging in participatory projects can be perceived as a risky, resource-consuming endeavor without measurable outcomes tied to the bottom line.  Even for the most innovative museums, doing something new always requires a careful look at how it will impact both the institution and the intended audience.  This short chapter focuses specifically on these questions of how to integrate participatory projects into traditional institutions, how to demonstrate their value, and how to evaluate their impact. 


There's no magic to any of this, but there are some distinctions that may help you frame participatory projects successfully in your professional context.  Like any new, risky endeavor, participatory projects are often looked at skeptically by people who don't have a firm grasp on the value, mission-relevance, and bottom-line potential of participation.  It is your job to help them understand how participation can benefit your institution and further its ability to deliver on mission.  There are least five specific issues to bear in mind when pitching or planning a participatory project:

  1. Participatory projects are most threatening to institutions because they portend a partial loss of control.  While some other innovative endeavors, like technology investment, have heavy resource risks associated with them, participatory projects need not be expensive to develop or maintain.  Instead, they are disruptive to the ways that museum staff and trustees perceive the image, stature, and content of the museum.  To successfully initiate a participatory project, you must confront these fears head-on and engage in dialogue about the ways that participation might diffuse or distort institutional brand and content and the positive and negative outcomes of those changes.
  2. Participatory projects fundamentally change the relationship between institution and visitors.  If staff see visitors as a hazy mass or destructive ninnies, it will take a lot of work to assert the value of integrating visitors' voices and experiences into museum content experiences.  Relatedly, if staff are not permitted to convey themselves personally and openly to visitors, they may not be able to manage community projects successfully.  However, if your institutional mission or goals include exploring relationships with constituent communities, then participatory projects may be a successful entrypoint to deeper engagement with users.
  3. Participatory projects introduce new visitor experiences that cannot be evaluated using traditional museum evaluation techniques alone.  When talking about the goals of participatory projects, you will often find yourself talking about visitor behavior and outcomes that are new to the museum context.  Because outcomes like self-empowerment and community dialogue are new to many organizations, they don't fit into traditional assessment tools used by institutions and funders alike.  Be prepared to educate both your managers and funders about alternative ways to frame the goals and outcomes of participatory projects, and, in many cases, to include evaluative tool development as part of the project development process and budget.
  4. Participatory projects require a different development and operational approach with regard to staff time than typical museum projects.  While many cultural institution projects generate products--programs, events, exhibitions, performances--that are released in a completed state and are maintained for a fixed amount of time, participatory projects are released in an "initial" state and then evolve and grow over time.  For example, an exhibition that includes heavy visitor contribution on the floor is not "done" until the exhibition closes, and content and design staff who might have otherwise moved onto other projects may need to continue to manage the project throughout its public run.  While at the outset, the fear of loss of control feels the riskiest to many museum directors, in reality, the operational challenges of managing participatory projects are more disruptive to the operational function of most institutions.
  5. For some museum professionals, participatory design is an unappealing fad.  The cultural and technological shifts that have brought mass participation to prominence have been rapid, and some people perceive social networking and related activities as overhyped foolishness that will hopefully blow over soon.  This perception is exacerbated by some professionals who have advocated engaging on the social Web and in participatory activities because everyone else is doing it, using threats of impending irrelevance to scare institutions into action.  While their admonitions may have some truth to them, it's never a good idea to bully people into unconsidered action.  I believe in the potential of participatory projects to help cultural institutions better deliver on their mission statements.  While the world of social technology provides many useful case studies that help us understand the ways that people participate in creative and community projects, its popularity is not a sufficient reason for museums to engage. 




Where does participation fit into your institution?


There's no one way to make your institution more participatory.  Whether by inviting visitors to personalize their experience, to connect with each other around objects, or to engage in a participatory design process, participatory platforms support many types of content sharing and redistribution.  Some participatory activities are more risky or time-consuming than others, and as in all new endeavors, the best way to start is with small experiments, which allow staff to build comfort, start to understand the value, and gain confidence to try more ambitious things.  Strangely, I don't perceive the museum field as working this way in many cases.  Because the industry is based primarily on a grant-funding model that requires long leads between conceptualizing and implementing projects, staff often try to plan ambitious projects that are disruptive to institutional standards rather than iterating through progressive experimental attempts.  Evaluation is used as a fixed-time activity at major milestones rather than woven throughout projects.  Furthermore, because museums often rely on consultants and contractors to design their capital projects, internal staff are often being "sold" on new techniques rather than developing them on their own terms.


I encourage you to be the one who makes participation happen with the people (staff and visitors) with whom you work every day.  Instead of selling them on the whole package, the key is to find ways to match your institution's mission and bottom line to a useful participatory model.  Use it as a design technique that can solve unique problems.  For example, recall the story of the MN150 exhibition at the Minnesota Historical Society.  That contributory exhibition project didn't grow out of a "wouldn't it be cool if?" scenario.  It grew out a situation where the exhibition department could not find a satisfactory way to tell the story they wanted to tell with their traditional design techniques.  Going to the public for their ideas of what makes Minnesota Minnesota wasn't a gimmick; it was a potential solution to their problem, albeit, from staff perspective, a risky potential solution.  The exhibit development team took several steps to mitigate the perceived risk of public participation.  They limited public contribution to exhibit topics, constraining both the type and time period for visitor participation.  They made no upfront promises about when they would contact people about their submissions, or if and how they would be used.  They even pursued a parallel "shadow" development process in case the public process fell apart.  They developed a process that incorporated participation in a way that worked for them, and now, bolstered by that experience, they have moved on to more substantial experiments in participatory exhibit design practices.


At a basic level, participation is a design technique like any other.  It is particularly well-optimized for situations in which you want to promote personal relevance, diverse voices, dynamic content, interpersonal dialogue, or collaborative work.  Participatory projects "fit" best when you can find a part of your mission or programs that will benefit from these specific benefits.  For example, when the Science Museum of Minnesota was developing the Race exhibition, they knew that visitors would want an opportunity for dialogue around this contentious issue, and they introduced "talking circle" programs in which trained facilitators lead discussions about race with visiting groups.  Similarly, when the Princessehof ceramics museum in the Netherlands wanted to create a relevant connection for diverse audiences to an exhibition on wedding china, they solicited citizens from around the country to bring their own wedding china and celebratory photos and stories to the museum for inclusion in the exhibition.  And when the Brooklyn Museum of Art wanted to experiment with crowd-sourced curation, they created a collaborative platform in which visitors could do the "work" of evaluating photographs.  Each of these is a design solution to a specific problem.


And so the first challenge is to encourage management and other staff members to value relevance, diversity, dynamism, dialogue, and collaboration as engagement goals alongside quality, educational merit, and other traditional institutional program goals.  Fortunately, many directors are already speaking this language, especially when it comes to relevance, diversity, and dynamic content.  Business books like The Experience Economy and Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions have argued that personalization and personal relevance are key to creating appealing recreational venues in the 21st century.  Contemporary anthropological practice, as well as museum books like Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions have valued diverse voices and visitors' voices as bringing new and useful content to the museum experience.  And several museums are actively working to confront the stereotype that "nothing ever changes at the museum" by adopting content management systems that allow them to more rapidly rotate and distribute new content. 


Supporting interpersonal dialogue and collaboration with visitors is less common, but many institutions are embracing these goals.  At the 2008 Science Center World Congress, delegates from 51 countries signed The Toronto Declaration, in which they endorsed the idea that science centers are "safe places for difficult conversations."  The extent to which this is true is debatable, but the sentiment stood out as a statement of support for the idea of science centers as places of dialogue.  History museums are also actively pursing dialogic goals, particularly as they relate to exhibitions and programs on provocative historical events.  For example, in 2009, thirteen US sites of conscience embarked on a "public dialogue" program to engage visitors in direct interpersonal conversation about historical and contemporary issues around immigration. 


When it comes to collaboration, all types of museums are moving forward, albeit for different reasons.  In partnership with efforts to diversify institutional voices, many history and ethnographic museums engage with co-curators and community members to develop exhibits and programs that authentically reflect the experience of those communities.  Many art and children's institutions provide opportunities for visitors to create artworks directly with artists, either in real-time programming or by participating in asynchronous projects like the World Beach Project.  And science museums, working with citizen science programs and scientists, have been partnering with visitors to collect data and build science- and technology-related skills.  These projects are motivated by educational goals like promoting new media literaices in youth, as well as more motivational and relevance goals to connect visitors more emotionally with the work and products of cultural institutions.


Which of these goals is most in-line with your institution's mission?  Which is mostly likely to impact the bottom line?  If your institution is perceived by locals as elitist, you may want to pursue a participatory technique like personalization that will enhance the relevance of the museum experience to potential visitors' lives.  If your institution is perceived as static, you should consider techniques like floor-based contribution and collaboration to enhance the feeling of energy and change in the galleries.  In some cases, the answer to this question comes directly from the mission statement.  When Shelley Bernstein talks about her innovative work with social media at the Brooklyn Museum, she always couches it within the institution's fundamental mission as a community museum.  All of her efforts are inspired by director Arnold Lehman's vision of the Brooklyn Museum as a place "based on accessibility, diversity, inclusion, and seeking out new ways to explore art so that everyone feels welcome and smart about what they’re doing."  This alignment helps Bernstein get support for even the most experimental projects, as long as they are focused on the core values and goals of the museum.  Arnold Lehman may not be attentive to the ins and outs of every tech initiative that comes down the pipe, but he trusts Bernstein's ability to deliver experiences that enhance the value of the institution overall. 


Mission fit is only one factor in successfully promoting new types of audience engagement.  Just as significant is alignment with institutional culture.  In the OCLC report Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives, and Museums, the authors reviewed several collaborative LAM projects and concluded that there were several repeated reasons that certain projects were not pursued or successfully completed, including:

  • "The idea was not of great enough importance.
  • The idea was premature.
  • The idea was too overwhelming."


Each of these reasons could also be given for not pursuing any project perceived as risky.  Many institutions and institutional leaders feel threatened by participatory design.  It sounds chaotic and erodes the institutional ability to control the content experience.  But by speaking in the language of these leaders' goals and ambitions for the organization, and by demonstrating that these techniques are especially able to produce desired outcomes, you can change something scary into a very appealing project.  By connecting the project to mission, you can demonstrate that it is not just a "nice to have" but a preferred way to solve major problems.  By building on the case studies pursued by other institutions, you can demonstrate that you won't be "going it alone" into a vast new universe.  And by starting small and fitting your project to institutional behavior, you can make the project seem manageable and reasonable.  Institutional culture is at least as important as mission fit in making innovative projects succeed.  If staff are slow-moving and like to have long editorial review processes for developing public-facing content, pursuing dynamic visitor-informed content development processes will meet resistance.  But that same slow-moving institution might be highly amenable to personalized floor experiences or programmatic real-time dialogue.  Just as the project must fit mission and programmatic goals, it must align with the pre-existing patterns at work in the organization.


Breaking the Pattern: New Projects, New Directions


Of course, you can't always take on projects that are so familiar and easy that they affect the institution in trivial ways; nor would you want to.  If you want to pursue a project that may be a true "stretch" for your museum, you need to find deliberate ways to build buy-in, encourage staff participation, and provide continual opportunities for feedback and progressive evaluation.


For example, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has a unique and highly unorthodox approach to institutional transparency on the Web.  Go to their website, and you can access a dashboard that shows museum statistics in real time - how many visitors come from different zipcodes, how many pieces of art are on display, how much energy the building consumes each day.  You can also access statistics that may not always cast the museum in a favorable light, such as the amount of the endowment, the number of staff, and the operating expenses compared to predictions.


When the Dashboard project was initiated, it was part of a larger effort at the IMA to move towards greater transparency and audience engagement through technology and specifically through online efforts.  The Dashboard is a tangible project with several small sub-elements that touch every part of the institution.  Everyone, from the horticulturists to curators to admissions staff to HR have to report their data through a web-based system to update the Dashboard.  Commenting on the process, IMA director of technology Rob Stein noted that they wanted to avoid automating everything on the dashboard because they wanted to build a culture of transparency and participation throughout the organization.  Every time that someone on staff needs to consciously log, upload, and share data, he or she is participating in the broader institutional effort.  While not everyone may like "airing their dirty laundry" on the web, doing so in such a discrete, tangible, and distributed way helps the whole institution become more comfortable with how the museum is changing.  It isn't a project just for the "web team."  It's for everyone.


ROB STEIN SIDEBAR: "One of our goals was for the Dashboard to reflect the institutional priorities of the museum, and to serve both as an information source for the public, but also for a tracking tool for staff at the museum.  If we say energy conservation is important to us, we need ways to track that information over the long term and to monitor whether or not we are being effective.  The way the Dashboard works, staff members from around the museum are assigned dashboard statistics which relate to their area of responsibility.  These are metrics which are a part of their job responsibilities anyways and the Dashboard provides a reminder mechanism to keep those statistics fresh, and in context of previous performance.  I think one of the things we recognize is that automated systems are great in that they save us work from having to remember to update numbers, but I think a consequence is that they make it easy for us to forget about them.  Our Dashboard updates are simple cut-n-paste operations most of the time.  Our goal was to encourage top-of-mind knowledge about statistics we say are important while minimizing the actual data-entry work required to keep up-to-date statistics."


Similarly, many institutions have been adopting policies requiring all staff to spend time on the floor engaging with visitors.  New York's Tenement Museum, which provides public one-hour tours of historically accurate downtown tenements and the immigrant experience, requires every staff member, no matter how "back of house," to lead at least one tour per month.  Some museums promote "floor time" to encourage staff to think more seriously about guest service and understanding and responding to visitors' needs.  For others, like the Tenement Museum, it's about staying connected to the core program that drives institutional goals and growth.  While it isn't frequently used as a way to increase participation, floor time is one of the most effective ways to help staff see visitors as potential collaborators and trusted participants.  YSome content developers and conservators have an adversarial relationship with visitors conceptually, demeaning their lack of attention and fearing their destruction of the venue and artifacts.  By engaging directly with visitors in low-risk situations, talking to them about exhibits and asking them about their experiences, staff can start to build the kind of "radical trust" required to invite visitors to participate more substantively with the institution.


The Museum of Life and Science (MLS) in North Carolina is part of a very interesting IMLS-funded project called Take Two, which is intended to study the effect of Web 2.0 style practices on internal institutional attitudes and behaviors.  The MLS hired Beck Tench, a web designer, to lead their efforts under the grant, and Beck has taken an expansive view on her work at the museum.  She approached individual staff members and stakeholders to see how they might want to use participatory technologies, and she set up small experiments across the institution to help staff get their feet wet with online sharing.  For example, in the Flickr Plant Project, a horticultural staff member uploads a single image of a rare plant to Flickr once a week along with information about that plant, and then encourages other individuals on Flickr to share their own images and comments of the same plant.  Over the first six months of the project, staff uploaded 23 images and the project enjoyed 186 user contributions, 137 comments, and 3,722 views.    The project respects the staff member's desire to produce very little content while opening up dialogue with people around the world about plants.  In contrast, the MLS animal keepers were enthusiastic about producing more content, and they have created their own blog, which they update several times a week with reflections and images on their work with the museum's living collection.  In addition to these online efforts, Tench interpreted participatory activities broadly and hosts a weekly happy hour for staff at a local pub, bringing together four to six staff members each Friday for brainstorming, networking, and relationship-building.  In 2009, she also ran a personal project called Experimonth in which she chose a monthly goal (i.e. eat only raw foods, do pushups every day, share a meal with someone every day) and encouraged others--co-workers and friends--to experiment and share their experience along with her using online tools.  These activities all contribute to a growing sense of the MLS as a participatory place to work, even if individuals only opt in to a few discrete opportunities. 


These are all fairly positive scenarios, but there are also some institutional environments and leaders who greatly hinder the potential for participatory work.  Institutions with hawkish PR departments that attempt to strictly "control the brand" are not places where experimentation with personal voice and transparency to audience can thrive.  Institutions that are highly siloed, in which departments work separately and are sometimes at odds with each other, are not conducive to interpersonal dialogue among staff, let alone visitors.  While it may sound like I am describing clearly dysfunctional organizations, most staff have some programs or content about which they are highly protective.  For example, I worked with one very traditional museum that was trying to start experimenting with participatory engagement with visitors.  I gave them a wide range of starting points, and we quickly discovered that participatory experimentation on the Web were acceptable to staff, but giving post-its to visitors to "mark up" the museum with their questions was not.  Despite the fact that the post-its would have taken a fraction of the resources that the online experiments did, the curators were uncomfortable with the idea that the post-its would visually degrade the exhibits and that visitors might ask and answer questions incorrectly and therefore receive bad information within the museum.  They felt this way despite the fact that the museum had very low visitation and more people were likely to see the websites than to see the post-its. 


In this kind of situation, starting with a tactic that is comfortable to staff can get the conversation moving in a participatory direction, but it's not enough.  At the museum in question, I believe that starting on the web let staff feel like the participation was happening "somewhere else" and not in the hallowed ground of the galleries.  Our discussions revealed how dedicated they were to creating and controlling the visitor experience in the galleries, and it became clear that it would take concerted effort and a clear strategic vision to motivate staff to feel otherwise about the in-museum experience.  And when it comes to truly changing institutional culture, you can't just rely on a groundswell of energetic staff like Beck Tench at MLS or Rob Stein at IMA.  While in many cases motivated staff members can lead the charge on promoting participatory culture, these efforts typically require the support, if not the participation, of institutional leadership. 


Participation from the Top: COSI and The Wild Center


If you want to engage museum directors and trustees in the conversation about making museums more participatory, you have to be able to couch your arguments in the context of strategic value to the institution as a whole.  Participation isn't just about enhancing the visitor experience.  Just as participatory techniques can make museum content more relevant to individuals, they can also make institutional goals more relevant and compelling to communities, and by extension, to the civic and community leaders who have great influence over the success and support the museum enjoys.  While some leading-edge institutions have received major media attention for their participatory efforts, for most institutions good press is not as useful as establishing strong and sustaining community relationships.  You don't need to be a big museum, or a radical innovator, for participatory techniques to positively enhance your institution's strategic community value.  Let's take a closer look at two institutions that have done just that--COSI Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, New York. 


COSI Columbus is an interactive science center in the middle of the US that is using participatory techniques to quite literally embed themselves into the city as an essential community hub of science and learning activity.  Their participatory strategy grew out of crisis.  In 2005, a bond measure to support the institution failed, and voters essentially refused to support the struggling institution.  As then-new CEO David Cheseborough put it: "We had to readdress our value proposition and start raising serious money immediately. Historically, COSI had been really focused all on attendance, and everything was skewed in that direction. But I was out there in the community raising millions, and to do that, we had to be putting forward a community-focused value proposition, demonstrating that COSI was a valuable community asset and investment."


How did Cheseborough's team demonstrate that "COSI was a valuable community asset and investment?"  They embarked on a broad slate of collaborative and co-option projects meant to establish stronger ties with the city's science-oriented academic, business, and learning sectors.  With academics, COSI established research centers directly in the galleries to give child development and physiology researchers the opportunity to study visitors and work with them on citizen science projects.  COSI also used a co-option model to rent 12,000 square feet of gallery space to the local public TV and radio station, WOSU, which now broadcasts and holds public programs at COSI.  WOSU and COSI have partnered to host social media meetups, tech events, and other events that bring together technologists, non-profit groups, and digital media enthusiasts.  COSI has become a literal, physical hub for the growth of new startups and entrepeneurial technology endeavors, and their partnership with WOSU makes them a powerhouse on the airwaves, with the mayor, and with the future engineers of Columbus.


Finally, Cheseborough empowered his staff to engage with visitors and Columbus residents directly in new participatory ways, both on the web and at the museum.  In the museum, along with their new partners, COSI staff have offered new opportunities for visitors to engage in dialogue about tough topics like science and religion and to contribute to real scientific studies.  On the web, COSI provides social networks for both casual visitors and program participants to get and stay connected to each other. COSI exhibits staff authored a blog for over 18 months about the development of their 2009 Lost Egypt exhibition, openly sharing the stories of their research, concept sketches, and the five year process required to bring the exhibition to life.  COSI staff are also encouraged to actively engage online and in the Columbus community as authentic, individual representatives of the msueum.  And COSI's new connections to social media aren't just motivating visits; they have also brought in a new cadre of enthusiastic volunteers.  As Kelli Nowinsky, manager of public relations, explained, "The main goal of all the social media tools is that we want to engage more people with our mission, people who might not have had a touchpoint with COSI before. For example, a guy I met through Twitter asked me to meet in person. At first, I was skeptical because I thought he wanted to talk to me about the COSI website. When he expressed he just wanted to talk about ideas he had for COSI, we met for coffee. He pulled out this notebook with all these ideas and asked, “how can I help with the innovation showcase?” I was blown away. He did not want anything in return. Here I am sitting with this person who is a young professional without children, someone who would never have engaged with COSI before we got involved in social media. Now we are building a professional relationship and talk all the time about how he can help us in our social media efforts and help us reach out to the tech community."


COSI used strategic co-option of facility resources, collaboration with aligned, new partners, and energetic engagement with Columbus residents to turn around their position in the city.  None of these actions were ground-breaking, but collectively, they changed the value proposition of a museum that just a few years ago was seen by voters as irrelevant to life in Columbus. They found ways to engage new participants and partners, and now, they are relevant not only to their core family and school audiences but to a much wider audience of young professionals as well.


The Wild Center's story didn't start with the same dire straits that plagued COSI Columbus, but with a strategic goal to engage with community members around a specific issue of concern: the effect of climate change on the Adirondacks.  The Wild Center is a new natural history museum which opened in 2006 with a small indoor exhibit and 31 acres of trails with interpretative material. It is open seasonally and is mostly visited by summer tourists and part-time Adirondack residents. But the Wild Center staff were not content to be a once a year attraction; instead, they wanted to be a leader and central hub for action on issues of human coexistence with nature.  Its mission is to "Ignite an enduring passion for the Adirondacks where people and nature can thrive together and set an example for the world," and staff believe that igniting passions and setting examples cannot happen passively.  The Wild Center staff, led by director Stephanie Ratcliffe, have taken on climate change in particular as an issue they felt was not receiving the local attention it deserved from both a business and environmental perspective.


In 2008, The Wild Center hosted a series of climate conferences that focused on economic models for local businesses and governments not just to survive but to succeed in a world of climate change. These events used the Adirondacks themselves as a kind of social object around which broader dialogue about environmental impact could occur.  These were dialogue events that brough together academic and industry leaders in science policy and sustainable business with local politicians, business owners, and builders.  Yes, they talked about the gloom and doom, but they focused it very locally on the Adirondacks and the ways that positive action on climate issues could improve town function and business efficiency. The conferences have become a core part of the Wild Center's strategic efforts to accomplish their mission to present the Adirondacks as a model for human integration with nature.  The events helped established The Wild Center as a national player, and equally importantly, as a local community resource. A local blogger celebrated one of the green building events, saying: "Two years ago I was lamenting that no local public leaders were stepping up to the plate on trying to understand what global climate change would mean for the Adirondacks (and its ski-tourism industry) - thankfully, that has changed. The Wild Center in Tupper Lake has taken on the lead role of informing their neighbors about the potential impacts of global warming (such as the impact on amphibians), showing local builders what they can do to mitigate those affects, and organizing scientific meetings to discuss and assess the progress of climate change in the Adirondacks."  Participating in this highly strategic way with community members in the Wild Center's geographic area and in spheres of interest has enabled this small, young institution to become a voice of and for its constituents.


Activity: Mission Fit Madlibs


It’s not always easy to focus on the mission when you are experimenting with new design and audience engagement techniques. You may not be sure exactly where visitors' participation will go or how it will affect the bottom line.  Additionally, some staff or board members may be seduced by participatory techniques (particularly those that use new technologies) without a clear mission-related reason. This is problematic for two reasons. If your work is not tied tightly to the mission, it is expendable, and your job is at risk. But more disturbingly, if you are not mission-driven, then you will not be seen as core to the success of your institution. You will not be in a position to influence the institution’s direction if your work is seen as tangential to the primary goals of the organization.


Going back to the participatory design process, you should be able to write a sentence in this form:

“We should try to integrate X into our exhibition/program/initiative/institution because it will enable us to carry out Y aspect of our mission by Z.”

This sentence will help you talk about the project with decision-makers across your institution.  It will demonstrate that you understand their needs and that you are taking a new approach because it will meet those needs, not because it's the latest and greatest thing.


Evaluating Participatory Projects


How can you say with confidence that a participatory project will enable you to carry out some part of your mission or accomplish a program goal?  When it comes to traditional institutional programs and activities, we're comfortable making statements about their utility for two reasons.  First, we are familiar with these activities--what they cost, what they do, and what kind of impact we perceive them to have.  Second, hopefully, at some point traditional activities have been evaluated, so there is some hard data behind our presumed outcomes.  


When it comes to experimental or new activities, familiarity isn't an option.  In fact, many of these new initiatives are so unfamiliar that even reasoned arguments about their potential cannot overcome fear of the unknown.  In these cases, people look to evaluation as a way to "prove" projects' value and outcomes. But evaluation is not a silver bullet.  There are too many different ideas of what "success" looks like for institutions, participants, and audience to conclusively evaluate a project's value.  For some people, the evaluation question is "can you demonstrate that this participatory project will bring in more paying visitors?"  For others it's more important that a project engage people in a particular kind of engagement or learning.  Here's the ugly truth: if your institution's leadership is opposed to visitor participation, no amount of evaluation will change their minds.  In some art museums, participatory spaces that attract huge crowds of energized and dedicated art-makers are denigrated as "petting zoos" by those with a more controlling curatorial mindset.  There will always be history museum leaders who see multi-vocal exhibitions as overly relativistic, or science museum directors who don't believe that engaging visitors in the process of doing science is as valuable as showing them the accomplishments of scientific greats throughout history.


This doesn't mean that evaluation is not important or useful.  On the contrary, evaluation is an essential (and often neglected) practice that allows us to assess and improve projects.  Lack of good evaluation of participatory projects is probably the greatest contributing factor to their slow acceptance and use in the museum field.  Currently, many participatory projects are framed as experiments and are not integrated into standard project cycles that involve full formative and summative evaluation.  These projects need to be evaluated, but they also require new evaluative techniques specific to the unique nature of participation.  These projects introduce new evaluative questions.  What does impact look like when visitors are not only consuming content but helping to create it?  How do we evaluate both the products of participation and the skills learned in participating in the process?  If a project is co-designed by an institution and a community group for a general audience, whose vision of success should the project be evaluated against?


To answer these questions, we need to start with the goals of the institution and the projects rather than adapting pre-existing evaluative techniques.  In theory, every evaluation tool is developed to measure the extent to which a project has achieved its goals, but in the case of familiar project types like exhibitions, project goals are often written interchangeably, with evaluators measuring new content in familiar contexts.  Participatory projects are different contexts.  Recall the various wide-ranging metrics the Wing Luke Asian Museum uses to evaluate the extent to which it is achieving its community mission.  When it comes to their participants, they assess the extent to which "people contribute artifacts and stories to our exhibits.  With regard to audience members, they consider whether "constituents are comfortable providing both positive and negative feedback" and "community members return time and time again."  Institutionally, they evaluate staff "relationship skills" and the extent to which "young people rise to leadership."  And with regard to broader institutional impact, they even look at the extent to which "community responsive exhibits become more widespread in museums."  Some of these may sound entirely qualitative, but there are quantitative measures that could be gleaned from each one.  For example, the metric around both positive and negative visitor comments is one that reflects their specific interest in supporting dialogue, not just receiving compliments.  Many museums solicit comments from visitors, but I suspect that few, if any, code the comments for their diversity of opinion. 


If one of your goals is to, for example, become a "safe space for difficult conversations," how would you evaluate your ability to do so?  The starting point for most institutions is to host exhibits or programs on provocative topics likely to stir up "difficult conversations."  But offering an exhibition about AIDS or racism does not ensure dialogue nor the feeling of a safe space.  Programs like the Science Museum of Minnesota and Levine Museum of the New South's talking circles, or the Living Library project, provide explicit, facilitated venues for the conversations, which allow these institutions to more fully evaluate the emotional impact of dialogue relative to the content at hand.  Museums interested in this goal might also evaluate their projects by coding the frequency, length, content and tone of visitors' comments on talk-back boards, or they might follow up with visitors by phone to ask specifically about what kind of dialogue (if any) the museum experience sparked. 


If you have clear goals for your project, you can likely derive effective evaluative tools from those goals.  But many participatory projects, especially small experiments, don't start with goals; they start with a hunch or an idea.  Many people don't know what the possible goals are for participation, because they see the techniques as new and potentially untested in the museum environment.  While I hope the frameworks and case studies in this book have helped you better articulate the participatory goals that might drive your next project, I don't want to discourage anyone from trying something because you think it might be fun or valuable, even if you can't articulate exactly how at the starting point.  This is how experiments get started, with broad goals, hazy guesses, and a lot of trying things out.


If you want to freely experiment with small participatory endeavors, it's useful to develop a framework in which the experiments will be evaluated relative to each other over time.  At the Museum of Life and Science, Beck Tench developed a honeycomb diagram to display the seven core goals that she felt the MLS was trying to achieve with their forays into social participation.  For each experiment, she and other staff members shade the cells of the honeycomb that represent that experiment's intended goals.  While this is not a robust evaluative technique for assessing the extent to which a project has accomplished its goals, it gives the staff at MLS a language for contextualizing the goals they might apply to participatory projects, and these can then be used to develop more exhaustive evaluative tools to measure the extent to which the goals were met.  Like many participatory projects, Tench's honeycomb tool is adaptive.  It is a simple framework that can be applied against an evolving project, and it is accessible and usable by team members of all levels of evaluation experience and expertise, including visitors and community participants. 


Developing Evaluation Tools for Participation


If you want to develop an evaluative tool for measuring participation at your institution, you need to be able to articulate your goals (either broadly or specifically) and identify what mechanics of the visitor experience will be measurable against these goals.  Here are some things to think about that distinguish participatory projects as unique when developing evaluation tools.


Make sure you are measuring for the unique behaviors and outcomes that participatory projects present.  For example, many participatory projects introduce opportunities for audience and participants to learn skills and behaviors that are not within the traditional set of institutionally-evaluated metrics.  If your standard summative evaluation of an exhibition is about the extent to which visitors have learned specific content elements, switching to an evaluative tool that allows you to assess the extent to which visitors have exercised creative, dialogic, or collaborative functions is quite a leap.  There are several documents out there, including Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century and Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills, that list participatory skills and explain how each has relevance to 21st century learning environments.  These documents may help you articulate the skills you hope your participants to learn, as well as helping you identify how these skills relate to institutional goals overal.


Set evaluative goals not just for participants, but for all members of the participatory experience.  Many participatory projects are currently evaluated solely from the perspective of participants' experiences and learning.  However, the institutional and audience experience of these projects are equally important.  For each project, you should be able to articulate goals not only for the participant who actively collaborates with the institution, but also for the staff who manage the process, and, most importantly, for the audience that consumes the participatory product.  In some cases, the audience evaluation may be identical to a standard program evaluation (if, for example, a participatory process has created a fairly standard exhibit product), but in cases where the audience and participants are the same people (for example, in on-the-floor comment boards and participatory opportunities), the audience evaluation will differ.   In addition to evaluating the experience for each group, you may want to evaluate the extent to which certain individuals are inclined or disinclined to participate in different ways.  Are there any similarities among the visitors who elect to write a comment and those who choose to read silently?  Can you identify your creators, critics, and consumers, and does altering the design strategy alter the profiles of these groups?


If you are engaging in a process-based participatory project, plan for incremental and adaptive evaluation.  If you are going to work with community members for three years to design a new program, it's not useful to wait until the end of the three years to evaluate the overall project.  You need to be able to evaluate as you go, and ideally, to find ways to involve participants in the evaluation.  This can be messy and can involve changing design techniques or experimental strategies along the way, which, as noted in the stories of The Tech Virtual and Wikipedia Loves Art, can lead to participant frustration.  But these projects are not static; they evolve over time.  And continual evaluation and redirection can help complex or new projects stay aligned to their ultimate goals while making the project work for everyone involved.


Continual evaluation can also give you a useful feedback loop that provides new design insights that can ultimately lead to better visitor experiences. Consider the humble comment board.  If you have one in your institution, consider changing the material provided for visitors to write on or with and see how it changes the content and volume of comments produced.  Change the prompt questions, add a mechanism by which visitors can easily write "response cards" to each other, or experiment with different strategies for staff curation/comment management.  For example, in the Advice exhibition, we learned (through evaluation) that participants wrote very different pieces of advice with markers on a fake bathroom stall than on post-its on gallery walls.  We learned that using multi-colored post-its of different sizes, instead of just one type, created a more appealing visual audience experience.  We learned that people were more likely to respond to each others' questions if the questions were marked in some way (in our case, written on bigger post-its).  If we had only offered one of these options, we might not have learned (through evaluation) how different contributory frameworks affect the extent to which visitors comment on each other's work, ask questions, and make declarative statements. 


Finally and most importantly, you need to find ways to measure not just the outputs of the participatory project but also its outcomes.  We are very used to measuring quantifiable outputs--how many people visited, how many comments logged, how many sculptures made.  But how does the number of comments on a comment board relate to the impact of the comment board, both on those who write comments and those who read them?  While it can be time-consuming, adopting evaluative techniques that focus on the specific content of participatory contributions or actions can yield more useful information about the impact of projects.  For example, if you embark on a personalization project with the goal of creating more long-term, deep relationships with visitors, you must be able to measure not just how many people use the personalization mechanism but how frequently those visitors return and what they do when they return.  You should also measure how well staff members are able to identify and be responsive to frequent visitors.  If there are true relationships being formed, staff and participants should know each other's names and express an interest in getting to know each other better in the context of the institution. 


Science Buzz, an online social network managed by the Science Museum of Minnesota, is the subject of an extensive evaluation study by researchers at Michigan State University as part of the IMLS Take Two project.  Science Buzz, a National Science Foundation-funded project, is a multi-author blog community website that invites both museum staff and online participants to author, share, and comment on articles related to contemporary science news and issues.  Science Buzz also includes physical museum kiosks in several science centers throughout the US, but for the purposes of the Take Two research, researchers focused solely on the discourse on the Science Buzz website.


Science Buzz is a complicated beast.  Since 2006, staff and visitors have posted and commented on over 1,500 topics, and the blog enjoys high traffic from an international audience.  But the Take Two project wanted to go beyond basic numbers (how many posts, comments, registered users, and views) to tackle a few more basic and profound questions.  They are focusing their study on four big efforts: describing the online community who use Science Buzz, describing the nature of discourse on the site, evaluating the extent to which Science Buzz supports "knowledge building" activities for users, and assessing how the practice of managing Science Buzz affects institutional culture and practice.  The first two of these are descriptive and are focused on better undrestanding the user profile and the dialogic ways that people engage with each other on the website.  The last two are about impact outcomes--both for participants and for staff.  Note that there is no research question about impact on non-participating audience members, those who consume but do not contribute content to Science Buzz. 


To evaluate the "knowledge building" impact of Science Buzz, the Take Two researchers coded individual statements in blog posts and comments for 20% of posts with fifteen comments or more, grouping them under "building an argument," "exploring new ideas," "building a writer's identity," and "building a community identity."  By coding individual statements, the researchers were able to spot patterns in rhetoric used on the site and to identify shifts over a given conversation that might represent individual and or interpersonal knowledge-building.  They were also able to explore the extent to which Science Buzz might fulfill individuals' personal scientific learning and argumentative goals versus interest in building a community around science learning. 


It's no accident that the Take Two team worked with researchers of rhetoric to design an evaluative tool for Science Buzz.  The evaluation of participatory projects may have more in common with research from outside the world of cultural institutions than from within.  Whether your project requires support from the field of motivational psychology, community development, or conflict resolution, there are researchers in these related fields whose work can inform participatory projects in museums.  In particular when it comes to studying online participation, there is a growing volume of industry and academic research available on everything from who participates to how and why.  By partnering with researchers from other fields, museum evaluators can have their own participatory, collaborative learning experiences to the mutual benefit of all parties.


Because participation is diverse, no single technique is best-suited to its study.  In the case of Take Two, the rhetoric-based approach is by no means perfect nor the only way to study Science Buzz.  It treats users across the site as anonymous particiants, ignoring the heavy and unique role of staff voices on the blog site as well as the frequency with which users return to make subsequent arguments or posts over across different topics on the site.  It also does not track the profile of the non-registered consumer versus the registered consumer versus the registered commenter versus the registered author, all of which could be seen as rungs on the ladder of participation.  Fortunately, informal research activities, like research staff blogs and Beck Tench's regular public evaluation presentations, have supplanted the formal research to examine some of these questions.  But the published Take Two research focuses explicitly on building science knowledge through online discourse, and they picked the evaluative tools they believed would help them address these questions in the Science Buzz context.  Part of the challenge of the project was simply developing the analytic tools to study a familiar question (science knowledge-building) in a new research environment (online social network). Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, the Take Two research team was not able to be as flexible and transparent with their work as the projects they studied, but the research is a first step in the right direction.  The team focused on mission-driven questions, found reasonable tools to answer those questions, rigorously applied those tools, and is publishing the results.  I am hopeful that many future teams will approach the question of evaluation with a comparable level of rigor when considering what and how we might measure participation and how it might relate to overall goals for a project or institution. 


Activity: From Goals to Outcomes to Measurements

Write down your goals for your participatory project for the institution, participants, and audience.  For each goal, brainstorm five outcomes that you would expect to see if that goal was achieved.  For each outcome, determine how you might measure its incidence.  Consider the overall blend of measurements, and work in the opposite direction, making sure that together, the proposed measurements will allow you to comprehensively assess your ability to reach your goals.  Over the course of your project, your understanding of appropriate outcomes, indicators, and measures may change, but your goals should stay constant. 



Managing and Sustaining Participatory Projects


As noted in the beginning of this chapter, managing participatory projects can be difficult and potentially disruptive to organizational policies and traditional work flow.  There are three main components to this challenge: integrating participants' needs into theproject flow, training and supporting staff members as community managers rather than product developers, and maintaining institutional support for projects that require ongoing resources post-opening. 


Meeting Participants' Needs 


Most of the time, we think of visitors as the consumers of institutional products rather than their co-creators.  In the case of participatory projects, visitors' needs are more complex.  While other chapters provide many examples of ways to design platforms specifically to support users as participants and motivate active engagement, this section includes a few thoughts on managing projects in a way that will support growing and sustaining participation.


The most common question people ask about attracting and sustaining participants is, "how can we get people to engage with this amazing experience we have designed for them?"  This is, as you may suspect, the wrong question.  It sets up a false dichotomy between us and them: we the intelligent experience designers, they the culturally devoid masses in need of external sources of fulfillment.  While I am a strong advocate for the intentional and thoughtful design of participatory experiences, I also believe that these experiences are rooted in healthy relationships among people.  If you start a new relationship with a sense of entitlement or disdain for others, with the intent to deceive or to coerce them into action, you are unlikely to build strong and sustainable bonds.  Yes, professionals have expertise that they should absolutely bring to bear in designing participatory experiences to best support the abilities and interests of users.  But they should do so in a way that is respectful of users' time and abilities.  The best participatory projects don't require cash prizes to motivate engagement; they succeed because users feel genuine value in the activities and relationships made available to them.  Recalling Clay Shirky's words in his book Here Comes Everybody, designers must offer users a compelling promise, a clear tool, and a fair bargain for participation. This "promise, tool, bargain" concept corresponds roughly to three basic stages of institutional relationships with participants: the initial description of the project, the way that users will engage, and the outcome for them and their respective audiences.  Let's look more closely at each of these stages and the participant needs inherent in each.


Make the Activity Clear and Compelling


In a museum or library context, the promise must be not just compelling and relevant to the institutional content but must also be inclusive and welcoming to the diversity of users sought.  How you design the promise reflects who will participate and how they will perceive the project.  Promises in the form of contests can convey urgency and excitement, but, as described in the case study on The Tech Virtual, can also hinder community development.  Promises in the form of community development may appeal to highly engaged members but not to casual visitors.  Family audiences may care deeply about how their privacy will be protected as they participate, whereas artists may be more attentive to the intellectual property and ownership questions around their contributions or efforts.  Make sure that your project is framed in a way that is attractive to your target audiences' interests, aware of their hotspots, and communicates the opportunity clearly. 


Give Participants Meaningful Work


When it comes to designing a participatory tool that will serve users as participants, the most important value to uphold is respect for your users.  If you are trying to support participation with children and families, your tool should be comfortable for people to use in groups and should make clear how or if participants' privacy will be protected.  If you are working with artists or makers, your tool must address concerns about intellectual property rights and content ownership.  This list goes on, and while all of these aspects are to some extent appealing to all user groups, choosing what to accentuate and what to ignore will help users understand what is valued in the context of a particular project.  You don't need to exhaustively offer every feature and every specification.  Recall how the designers of the ScratchR community intentionally focused on some tools, like remixing other users' projects, while eschewing others, like ratings.


One of the easiest ways to foster respectful two-way relationships between users and institutions is to design projects that support a real need on the part of the institution.  In the best participatory projects, users' actions are intrinsically linked to institutional goals.  There would have been no interactive exhibits in The Tech Virtual without the community exhibit designers, no portraits in the Art Gallery of Ontario's In Your Face exhibition without creative visitors, no gameplay in SF0 without design-minded players.  When you give people real work to do, you hold them accountable.  We usually think of this as onerous for the worker, but it is also a sign that the institution cares what you do and how well you do it.  The Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project at the US Holocaust Museum features a clear statement on its website: "Now the museum needs your help."  This website clearly communicated that the project was real, meaningful, and dependent on users to succeed.


Well, sort of.  As noted in the case study, the Lodz Ghetto project was actually a less efficient research project because of its participatory approach.  When I mentioned to project lead David Klevan how much I liked the straightforward "Now the museum needs your help," he made a face.  As he pointed out, the museum didn't REALLY need visitors' help, and in reality, their help was resource-intensive and riddled with errors.


How do you reconcile this issue?  There are many cases where designers, quite appropriately, develop participatory experiences offer a small slice of "real" work--possibly too small to really be useful.  Or, in cases like the Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project, the work is real but simplified, and more resources are required to support participation than would be to do the work in-house.  Georgina Goodlander of the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum reflected on this irony with regard to a project called "Fill the Gap," in which visitors select and advocate for objects to fill vacant spots in the museum's study storage.  This crowdsourcing proved a popular activity, but not one that saved staff any time or effort.  Goodlander said, "To do this staff had to first select a pool of objects for people to choose from. We posted a printed image of the gap, and people could play around with the different artwork choices (on laminated bits of paper) and select their choice. We also asked them to explain or justify their choice. The object with the most votes was then installed in the gap. This was hugely successful, with many people participating and commented on how much fun it was to 'be a curator.'  BUT it was no longer a real project and actually required quite a bit of work from us to set up - more work that it would be for us to just choose the artwork ourselves." 


This last sentence reveals two faulty assumptions that underly this question of the value of participation.  First, Goodlander comments that it was not a "real" project because the experience was constrained by staff and visitors weren't truly doing the "real" work of selecting objects for display.  Of course, visitors aren't curators.  They don't have the expertise or the time to hunt through the entire collection for the items that will physically fit into a study storage location.  I would argue that Goodlander's approach--offering visitors a small set of objects from which to choose, and then focusing the activity on picking one and arguing for its inclusion--represents good design, not a fake experience.  She appropriately identified that the valuable experience is that of arbitrating among objects and making an argument for a preferred one, and she designed a platform that supported those experiences. I strongly believe that in most participatory activities, we should give away the fun part of our jobs, offering experiences that are exciting, enjoyable, educational, and skirt the dullness that often surrounds the creative moments.  After all, participants aren't paid employees, and they deserve work that is likely to bring them pleasure.  Just as we use other interactive techniques to spark visitors' interest in content, participatory activities should be enjoyable to perform and should lead naturally to deeper experiences with the content.  I'd rather see visitors arguing for their favorite artifact than sorting through catalogs reading measurements any day.


The second question here is whether a participatory project's value is diminished if it takes more work to set up the user experience than to just get the work done by staff.  In most cases, the point of participatory projects is not just to produce an output; the goal is to change the relationships among staff and visitors, and to engage visitors with the institution in new ways.  These outcomes are not possible to produce if you do the work in-house.  The "true value" of a participatory project is not equivalent to the amount of time and money it would take staff to do the project work; it also includes the value of building community relationships and supporting skill-building experiences for participants.  Consider, for example, the experience of cooking with a child.  Under no circumstances is it easier or faster to bake a cake with an eight year-old than to do it yourself as an adult.  But doing so is an activity that builds your relationship with that child, empowers him as a maker, and supports mutual enjoyment of the co-created output.  


The other element to consider when designing participatory tools is how the platform will support diverse types of users and levels of engagement.  Participants need not engage with the same project in a uniform way.  Recall the Wing Luke Museum's structure, in which a focused group of community advisors work as highly active exhibit team members whereas other community members provide occasional contributions or support.  Because participants are not employees, there is no need for institutions to create one set of expectations for what constitutes adequate engagement.  You may not want your staff coming in whenever they feel like it, but flexibility is an asset when it comes to participants--you want them to be able to engage when and how they are most able.  Online, many researchers have documented a power law curve to participation, in which there is a small group of super-participants trailed by a long tail of occasional participants.  The greater the ask, the fewer participants are active.  For each person who is motivated to create original content, there may be a hundred who are willing to comment on it and a thousand willing to view it.   
This dynamic conflicts with a widely-held desire in cultural institutions to produce experiences for "everybody."  If only 1% of visitors are going to make a comment on an exhibit, is that an underperforming activity?  Yes and no.  Every museum experience only reaches a subset of visitors.  The fact that few visitors read exhibit labels doesn't stop museum professionals from perceiving them as a useful way to convey content.  In this way, participatory experiences are no different from other activities that draw in some visitors and are unappealing to others. 
On the other hand, most participatory experiences are currently designed in a way that overly restricts the type of participation supported, and that does make them underperform relative to their potential.  Most projects that focus solely on creators and spectators can be expanded to involve other visitors who would like to participate by offering commentary, critique, or in some way organizing or curating the content produced.  For example, consider the simple act of making a video in a museum to share a story. Most video-sharing exhibit platforms allow people to make videos and to watch them, but not to comment on them, select favorites, or sort videos by content or tone.  Adding these activities to the mix can make an exhibit more inclusive and inviting to a diversity of visitors, thus encouraging a greater percentage of visitors to engage with it.

Reward Participants Appropriately


The final participant need that must be addressed is the need to provide a good bargain--to value visitors' contributions and work in a meaningful way.  This doesn't require giving every visitor a gold star for participating.  In many cases, if the promise is compelling and the tool is clear, then participation can be its own reward.  But in most cases, the feedback loop that energizes and sustains participation involves an output that is visible to and shareable by participants.  If you contribute something to the museum, you want to see it integrated in a timely, attractive, respectful way.  Too many participatory exhibits have broken feedback loops, where the ability to see the results of your participation are stalled by opaque and slow-moving staff activities like content moderation or editing.  In some cases, it is completely acceptable to have a lag between participatory action and output for intermediate processing, but if that delay is required, it should be communicated clearly to participants.  This can even be turned to the institution's advantage; for example, the museum may send an email to a visitor days or weeks after the visit to inform her that her sculpture is now on display or her story integrated into an audio tour.


Regardless of the timeline, rewarding participants involves three steps that should remain consistent.  First, you should clearly explain how and when visitors will be rewarded for participating.  Second, you should thank visitors immediately upon participating, even if their content will now go into a holding pattern.  And third, you should develop some workable process to display, integrate, or distribute the participatory content--and ideally, you should inform participants when you do so.


Here's how these three steps play out in two examples: one simple, one complex.  At the simplest level, these three steps are immediate, automatic, and obvious to visitors.  Consider for example the XX children's museum, which includes an area where visitors can build sculptures or toys out of found objects.  Visitors then place their creations on a conveyor belt that moves throughout the museum for all to see.  In this case, there are no labels necessary.  Visitors see what will happen to their sculptures when they put them on the belt, and they have some personal understanding of how that might fulfill their interest in sharing their work with the immediate community of fellow-visitors.  


For a more complicated example, consider the crowd-curated Click! exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Click! offered two basic ways to participate--by submitting photos in the open call, and by judging the photos via an online curation system.  In both cases, the Click! team was very specific about both the responsibilities and potential rewards for participants.  Participants were not in total control of their content; photographers couldn't dictate the size or printing process for their images, and citizen curators couldn't choose which photos to judge and which to skip.  The museum team carefully explained their reason for each restriction and engaged in frequent dialogue with confused or concerned participants.  The online system was highly responsive to visitors' actions, storing each entry and thanking participants for their actions, but participants understood that their work would only be released in a particular format on a well-articulated schedule.  Managing this complex balance of participants' expectations required consistency and open communication, and in the end, participants felt appreciated, rewarded, and respected as co-creators of the final exhibition.   


Staff Strategies for Managing Participation


As noted in several stories throughout this book, managing community projects requires a fundamentally different skill set than managing traditional institutional projects.  Community managers need to good at building relationships with diverse participants, motivating participation from inclined audiences, and supporting participants' growth with the organization.  Unlike a project manager, who is responsible for keeping track of the budget and schedule of a project, community managers are responsible for keeping track of and supporting people in a project.  For this reason, community managers' abilities and unique personalities often have a heavy effect on the makeup, attitudes, and experiences of participant populations.


The ideal community manager is not a person who interfaces directly with all participants across community projects at an institution but someone who connects diverse staff and visitors to each other in diffuse communities of interest.  When community managers are the sole masters of visitor engagement, two problems arise. First, their efforts are not fully integrated into the overall work and focus of other staff, which can lead to conflicts between institutional and community needs. And second, the communities they manage often become unhealthily centered on the managers' personalities and abilities, causing problems if those community managers ever choose to leave.


I've been this community manager and know these problems first-hand. When I was at The Tech Museum developing and leading the Tech Virtual community, I tried to involve a wide range of staff members in the online exhibit development community, so that we could spread out the interactions and relationships built between amateurs and experts. But The Tech's director decided that spending time in the online community space was a "waste of time" for staff whose role was not explicitly focused on that community, and the engineers and fabricators who had enthusiastically engaged early on were forbidden to continue participating. Left on my own, I put on my friendliest, most dynamic face and cultivated a couple volunteers to help manage a growing community of amateur exhibit designers. The project was a chaotic experiment in several ways, and because things kept changing, the community had to keep relying on me as their sole source of information about how things would move forward. We started to form unhealthy relationships in which I was the cheerleader, coach, and point person to all community members. While my energy and enthusiasm as a community leader held the group together, once I left at the end of my project, the community fell apart. While subsequent museum staff have kept the project going, the community had connected with me as the focal point, and there has not been a new person who has been able to comparably rally the community to high levels of activity.


I don't tell this story with pride; I tell it with shame. It was partly my fault that the Tech Virtual community did not thrive beyond my tenure. I was a good community manager, but the system we set up to perform that management and cultivate the community was ill-considered. The project looked good--I kept attracting new members--but it was not sustainable.  It's a warning sign when community members make comments like, "it was only boundless encouragement from Avi (Nina's Second Life avatar) that prevented me from giving up more than once." This is a participant who was one community manager away from leaving the group. It may be easiest to quickly rally a community around one dynamic or charismatic person, but that doesn't make for a healthy, sustaining project.


Why does this happen in the first place? There are two good reasons that organizations tend to focus community activities around a single individual: it consolidates resources spent on a particular strategy, and it simplifies the interaction for community members. Let's look at each of these briefly.


Institutions are accustomed to associating individual staff members with specific projects and associated resources. But community managers, like floor staff managers, are responsible for interacting with a vast and varied group of people who engage with the institution. In one way, they are like development officers who cultivate small, targeted sets of individuals via personal relationships. But they are more importantly the face and voice of the institution to everyone online, a floor staff army of one. This is a problem. If you only had one person who worked the floor of your museum, and he was incredibly charismatic and quirky, you'd appreciate that his personality puts a unique and specific stamp on the onsite experience, one that attracts some visitors and repels others. The same is true for online communities. The more voices there are in the mix, the more the community management team can effectively welcome community members of all kinds. The Science Buzz blog, which is managed by a team of exhibit developers, science writers, and floor staff at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is a good example of diversified community management that models the inclusion of a range of voices and opinions. The Buzz staff even argue with each other in blog comments, modeling a kind of healthy scientific debate that would be impossible for a single community manager to hold (unless she is schizophrenic, which is not a recommended solution to this problem).


But this leads to the concern that diffusing the community "voice" among multiple staff members can generate confusion and frustration for visitors. This is a valid concern, especially on social sites that are not tightly aggregated. On Buzz, for example, every author is part of the same overall blog, so it is not hard to conceptually manage the idea of multiple institutional authors. But on Twitter or Flickr or across multiple blogs, it can be very hard for visitors to understand who exactly they are connecting with. Many museums are attacking this problem by hosting a central "community" or "social" page on their websites (see COSI's or the Brooklyn Museum's) that aggregates all of the Web 2.0 activities managed by museum staff so that visitors can understand at a glance what is available and who directs it.


Many organizations focus on a single individual as the point person for community engagement for clarity. If you do this, make sure that this individual is devoted to the institutional mission and not their own empire-building. If your community is focused around one person, you must plan for succession and think about what will happen if that individual leaves. Even the most well-intentioned community managers may not be able to transfer their unique personality and style to new staff. Imagine the most popular person in a friend group moving away and anointing a new, unknown person to take her place in the social network--it's nearly impossible.


The best community managers are people who effectively manage networks, not celebrity. They help other staff members understand opportunities for connecting with communities of interest, and they provide support and training so that many individuals across the institution can work with their communities in ways that are sensitive to staff abilities and resources. Consider Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science, who has helped staff across the museum start their own participatory projects, including everything from science cafes to animal keeper blogs to exhibits that incorporate visitor feedback. While Tench tracks and supports all of these projects, she's not the queen of any of them from the visitor perspective.


The ideal community manager is more like a matchmaker than a ringmaster. He points visitors to the networks of greatest interest to them and helps staff connect with communities that they want to serve. She is energetic and passionate about serving the needs of the institution's community. It's fine to have a community manager who is the "go to" person, the face of all of the projects, as long as that person is ultimately pointing visitors to other venues for engagement. After all, you don't want everyone who visits your institution to have a relationship with just one person. You want visitors to connect with the stories, experiences, and staff that are most resonant to them. A good community manager can make that happen.



Sustaining Participatory Projects


The hardest aspect of managing participatory projects isn't pitching them or staffing them; it's sustaining them.  Participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation.  They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once open to participants.  For example, in the Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre, visitors can use found materials, scissors, and hot glue guns to design their own shoes, which they can then display informally on a set of plinths throughout the gallery.  This shoe activity requires the museum to provide an ongoing stream of materials, to clean up the detritus and hardened glue that accumulates, and to roughly manage the display and rotation of visitor-created shoes.  This is not an activity that is "done" at some point; it is renewed every day. Even a simple comment board requires ongoing moderation and organization of visitor content.  And these are just the maintenance duties.  For institutions that are intent on doing research, manipulating and aggregating content to a designed effect, or digitally redistributing or sharing participants' actions, project management takes on a whole other level. 


Sometimes, a museum decides it can only go so far.  For example, in 2008, staff at the San Jose Museum of Art wanted to produce an element for their upcoming Road Trip exhibition that would both promote the exhibition and add an interactive element to the physical gallery. They decided to solicit postcards from real people's road trips, to be displayed in the exhibition. They created a quirky video promoting the postcard project, put it on YouTube, and waited for the postcards to roll in.


What happened? For the first eight weeks, not a lot. There were about 1,000 views of the YouTube video and 20 postcards submitted by August 15, at which point, something strange happened. Director of Technology Chris Alexander left work that Friday afternoon having noticed the YouTube viewcount on the video suddenly rising. By the time he got home, 10,000 new people had seen the video. After some puzzling, he realized that the video had been featured on the homepage of YouTube. The mysterious unseen gods of YouTube had anointed the Road Trip video with top billing, which shot the views way up (over 80,000 to date) and sent comments and video responses pouring in. The comments, which were previously unmoderated, suddenly were overloaded with opportunists who wanted their voice to be heard on the YouTube homepage. Alexander spent an exhausting (but rewarding) weekend moderating comments and taking control of the video's newfound fame.


The attention from being featured on the homepage of YouTube motivated an energized burst of postcards from around the world. Overall, the museum received about 250 postcards. The team had expected more, but the contributory ask was fairly high--go to an attraction, buy a postcard, write something clever, mail it in. I'm impressed he got 250 in such a short time frame--these projects often take months to build. Many of the postcards are gems that provide powerful connections to strange people and places. They are featured in the exhibition in a little sitting area along with the video and will be kept in the museum's interpretative archive at the end of the project.


This was a relatively quick, easy project that generated a lot of positive publicity and participation for the museum. But there are some places where it falls short. The SJMA team could not afford to scan or transcribe the postcards, so they are only viewable in the museum, not online. This was a one-shot approach--put out the video, collect the postcards. The people who sent in postcards don't have a way to see their content as part of the collection (unless they visit in person), and they aren't recognized for their contribution in a place online where they could both spread the word and enjoy a little fame. This is not a project that will take on a life of its own beyond this exhibition (probably). It doesn't launch new relationships.


From a management perspective, the Road Trip postcard project team made clear decisions about how far they would take their engagement with the postcards.  They received, organized, and displayed them, but didn't digitize them.  Even with this self-designated budget-related constraint, they still ran into management surprises.  Alexander gave up a weekend to manage the onslaught of online participation and spam that arrived with the YouTube homepage feature.  This combination of controllable design choices with pop-up opportunities is common to many participatory projects.  If you use social platforms to promote or share your project or you empower community members to take partial ownership of the project, they are likely to generate both management crises and opportunities.


Sometimes, particularly in co-created or co-opted projects, community members may take the project in a direction that differs from original institutional intent or goals.  Consider the SF0 game described in the previous chapter, in which creative players develop game-like tasks for others to complete and document.  New tasks are introduced through a moderated pipe that is controlled by the game designers, who only allow a small percentage of submitted tasks to be uploaded to the game.  This curation allows the designers to keep the game diverse and open to a wide range of player interests rather than flooding the system with, for example, hundreds of game tasks involving taping things to chickens (yes, this is a real example).  Because the game designers have a vision for how the game should evolve, they've struck a balance between completely designing the tasks on their own and flinging the doors wide open to players' desires.  This balance requires their active participation as managers.  After several years of this structure, in 2009 the SF0 team embarked on a new project to create two versions of SF0-like platforms: one that is entirely open and community-managed, and another for institutions that is highly constrained and moderated.  This bifurcation represents different management strategies for different goals.  With the open system, the game designers are hoping to reach a broad enough audience that no one player will be able to easily overwhelm the system with his own nefarious chicken-taping desires and no moderation beyond user-flagging and rating will be necessary to manage the platform.  With the closed system, the game designers are planning to focus on delivering consistent institutional experience goals and to reduce players' ability to engage as co-creators. 


When it comes to selecting a management process that works for you, consider your institution's and staff values and pick the battles that will make your project successful.   For example, in the case of the Minnesota History Center's MN150 exhibition, exhibit developer Kate Roberts commented that the staff were able to manage citizens' nominations of topics for the exhibition... but not much more than that.  They didn't let visitors vote or join in on the topic selection process.  Instead, as Roberts said, the team "locked ourseives in this room with the nominations.  We as a team then winnowed based on our criteria--geographic distribution, diversity of experience, topical distribution, chronological distribution, evidence of sparking real change, origination in MN, exhibit readiness, and quality of nomination.  We did it with a lot of talking."  A few months later, they emerged with a list of 150 topics and went back to the nominators to congratulate them and solicit objects.  In contrast to this formal and limited participatory engagement, the Tech Virtual project involved continual communication among participants and staff, featuring deep and changing relationships as well as a whole lot of direct community management.  Neither project is better than the other; each was made possible by unique and different institutional and staff cultures.


Activity: Developing a Management Plan


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