April 25, 2007

Learning from the learners

Of all the arguments for taking a participatory approach in museums and online, I think the most compelling are rooted in recent research on informal learning and audience behavior in museums. It is conventional wisdom - at least in my workplace - that too often the way visitors use our products (exhibits, Web sites, etc.) and what they learn from them does not meet our expectations. A hard look at what is known about how visitors DO use museums, what they want from us, and the kind of learning that takes place is enlightening.

Below are a few guiding principles gleaned from writings by Lynn Dierking, John Falk, George Hein, Jay Rounds, and Daniel Spock:
  • Visitors do not view museums as classrooms for learning so much as smorgasbords of content from which they construct their own meanings. We fear this reality but we should not discount it.
  • Museums provide unique environments for engaging with ideas, sparking the imagination, and inspiring further inquiry.
  • Rather than presenting a single version of "truth," visitors may be best served when museums facilitate informed discussion incorporating multiple points of view.
  • "Minds-on" interactivity is even better than "hands-on."
  • Social interaction with group members, fellow visitors, and knowledgeable mentors is a crucial part of museum learning.
  • Successful museum learning is about making connections - social, emotional, intellectual...
To sum up, learning is more likely when a museum's approach "has realistic overlap with the audience's behavior, attitude, and expectations" - something that can best happen when the audience is involved at every stage of the process (Informal Science Learning: What the Research Says About Television, Science Museums, and Community Based Projects, ed. Valerie Crane, p. 67). I plan to do some more brainstorming to see how we might better put these principles into practice on our museum's Web site.

April 19, 2007

Trust in museums, trust in the audience

The issue of trust comes up frequently when discussing visitor involvement in museums, and can be viewed from a couple perspectives. First is the trust that audiences have in museums. A “brand” such as the Smithsonian, where I work, commands a great deal of authority. Most museums play trusted roles in their communities, or aspire to do so. Some feel that inviting users to participate in substantive ways diminishes our ability to be authoritative – and in a way is an abdication of our duty.

An experience I had recently illustrates this point. My staff and I were talking to a group of interns here at the museum, explaining our program which oversees the Web site. We thought it would be good opportunity to toss around some ideas for the future of the site with this group of young, smart students who undoubtedly all had their own Facebook profiles and were otherwise immersed in the world of Web 2.0. However, when it came to notions of user-contributed content on the site, all we got were blank stares. A few of them explained to us that as users, they would be looking for authoritative information from the Smithsonian, not input from other users or opportunities to participate. This group of aspiring museum professionals may not be a representative sample, but it definitely provided food for thought.

The flip side of the coin is the ability of museums to trust their users to be collaborators and co-creators. Bloggers have been talking about this point for some months now – see for example posts by Jim Spadaccini, Seb Chan, and Jennifer Trant. One of the interesting points they make is that loosening institutional control over our content, while it may have distinct benefits, also entails risks. To invite the possibility of someone posting mistaken, misleading, or offensive material under our banner is a big step to take. Other collaborative online spaces have been grappling with these issues for a while now and have come up with a variety of self-regulatory mechanisms that can serve as models.

I’ll explore this issue further in future posts – but meanwhile, I’ll throw these questions out there: if museums were more collaborative ventures, how would that affect mutual relationships of trust? Is user participation counterproductive to our mission, or essential to it?

April 16, 2007

Museums and Web 2.0

The term “Web 2.0” is thrown around a lot these days but it is difficult to pin down a single definition. There are some good attempts to describe it here and here (including thoughts from Tim O’Reilly, one of the term’s inventors). For our purposes I would boil it down to a shift, both in technology and use patterns, from thinking of the Web as a collection of pages passively accessed by users to thinking about it more in terms of building connections between active participants.

Some museums have begun experimenting with the tools of Web 2.0 – blogs, social tagging, social networks, and various forms of user-contributed content – and many others are contemplating doing so. On this page we have begun accumulating a list of interesting museum Web sites and other projects built around the concept of user participation. If you have favorite examples, or know of exciting new projects in the works, share with the group! We’ll add to our link list.

April 12, 2007

Can museums allow users to become participants?

Thanks for visiting Museums Remixed. We are excited to present a couple of panel discussions at this year’s American Association of Museums conference on the subject of participatory museum experiences and user-contributed content. All the panelists have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and putting it into practice in various ways.

As John mentioned in his post, we are serious about the “discussion” part of panel discussion – starting with this blog. We want YOU to participate as much as possible by raising issues and questions, sharing experiences, and pointing to resources or examples that shed light on the subject. We hope the conversation will include not just the already-converted, but educators, designers, curators, and others who are essential to the museum-public dialogue and who may have questions or even concerns about the issues that will be raised here.

After the Part 1 session opens up the world of possibilities for visitor-authored experiences in museums, the second session which I’m chairing, “Museums Remixed Part 2: Can We Allow Users to Become Participants?” will take a deeper look at participatory Web sites and how previous notions about passive online “users” are being upended by the Web 2.0 phenomenon. Though the panelists will draw on their experience with a number of case studies, we are eager to move the conversation beyond show-and-tell and dive into some of the thorny practical and philosophical issues that arise when we talk about ceding greater measures of control to our constituents.

In the coming weeks we will be raising additional topics for discussion, pointing to examples, and taking your comments. Whether you will be attending the conference or not, please join the conversation as we engage this important topic.

April 11, 2007

"Let them Come and They Will Build It?”

This is my first blog entry. Here I am outlining why I elected to chair an American Association of Museums conference session on this topic.

As an independent designer focused on creating visitor experiences, I want to engage in a conversation regarding the effectiveness of visitor authored experiences in the museum setting. The question is, can we open the way to more effective design processes and more engaging visitor experiences by making the user a participant, by both open sourcing the design as well as the experience itself. Specifically, there seems to be great potential for this at the intersection of three ongoing goals in the interpretive design field:
• Creativity in the Design Process – how the user can be a wildcard creative force during the design process.
• Depth of user interaction – how the user’s presence and interaction completes the mechanism of interactivity and focuses the experience on the user’s personal characteristics.
• Adaptability of visitor experiences – how exhibits can continue to evolve once they are in place offering new perspectives each time a visitor returns to use it.

Creating Engagement
Related to these goals is the ongoing desire to have a higher level of engagement with our visitors. Does the visitor authored approach point to ways in which the user or visitor could be more engaged in the museum setting? The expectation is that the three goals above can be better fulfilled by empowering users to do the following:
• engage in the problem solving process regarding the design of an exhibition,
• contribute content and/or organizing frameworks,
• participate in a real time, two way conversation with the institution and other users.
These three forms of empowerment are characteristics of visitor authored experiences.

How can we stage these forms of visitor engagement? What positive outcomes could we expect? Are there any good examples out there and what can we learn from them? These are some of questions we wish to explore at the American Association of Museums Annual meeting in Chicago, during the Museums Remixed Sessions.

For Part I, the first session, speakers include:
• Wayne Lebar, Vice President of Exhibitions and Theaters at the Liberty Science Center who has created the Exhibit Commons website that seeks to engage the public in the design of exhibitions.
• Ray Shah, Principal of Think Design who has produced a web-based product for museums that permits visitors to curate their own exhibitions.
• Eric Stuer, Creative Director for Creative Commons, the organization founded by Lawrence Lessig that seeks to ease the way for copyrighted material to be more accessible to the public. In his role as Creative Director, Eric has seen many forms of Open Source Design implemented.

We are interested in what you think. Equally important, we are interested in how you wish to explore these issues, for via this blog, we hope to elicit comments and questions that will help us tailor these two sessions to your interests - the user.

Finally, I’d like to thank Matthew MacArthur, session Chair for Part II of the Museum Remixed Sessions, for setting up this blogsite. I would also like to acknowledge Tina Glengary and Graham Plumb for first exposing me to the potential of visitor authored experiences.

April 9, 2007

Exhibit Remixing at Museums & The Web in SF this week

Just wanted to let any interested parties know that I will be presenting a workshop entitled Remixing Museum Education through Online Participatory Learning and a paper entitled Remixing Exhibits: Constructing Participatory Narratives With On-Line Tools To Augment Museum Experiences at the Museums and the Web conference in San Francisco this week. I hope to come back with lots of great feedback on the concept of remixing exhibits that I plan to share here as soon as the dust has settled. In the meantime, if anyone is going to be there, please stop by our Night Kitchen booth in the exhibitor hall and say "hello".