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Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?

 

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Crowdsourcing in the Art Museum

“Crowdsourcing poses a tantalizing question: What if the solutions to our greatest problems weren’t waiting to be conceived, but already existed somewhere, just waiting to be found, in the warp and weave of this vibrant human network?”

-Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

How many times have you been facilitating a learning experience with a group of teachers, docents, or public visitors in the galleries, and the best ideas or questions come from someone in the group?  This is a pretty regular occurrence for me, as visitors and students bring new noticings, insights, and wonderings to the process of experiencing a work of art.  But I wonder how many times we neglect to solicit the ideas, thoughts, and questions of visitors and learners in museums.  Are the “solutions to our greatest problems” simply waiting to be found in the crowds of people that enter our doors every day?  What are some ways we might tap into the “power of the crowd” to drive forward our work as educators?

So what is crowdsourcing anyway?

There are several definitions of “crowdsourcing” out there, but the popularity of the term seems to have originated in an article written by Jeff Howe in Wired Magazine back in 2006 called “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.”  The use of the term — and the concept — has exploded since then, with cultural and corporate phenomenons such as American Idol, Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, and even the New York Times using crowdsourcing strategies to create, organize, share, filter, judge, or sell their content and products.  Check out 4 great examples of the most recent social crowdsourcing projects.  At the core of most crowdsourcing is an open call to a diverse, heterogeneous group for their involvement in a task, inviting them to bring their experiences, what they already know (the ‘wisdom of the crowd’), and their likes & dislikes to the process. Customers, consumers, and audiences now become potential partners or creators — part of building something new.  With the internet and social media making it easy to gather a ‘crowd’ of millions online at no cost, the strategy of crowdsourcing has become largely based on technology.

Here is a succinct video from Jeff Howe that helps define crowdsourcing (from his perspective):

Several art museums have utilized various crowdsourcing strategies to allow the public to curate and plan exhibitions.  The most trail-blazing example is probably the Brooklyn Museum’s Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition, which involved an open call for people to submit photographs, an online audience evaluation of those images, and then finally an exhibition in 2008 of the crowd-curated photographs. Nina Simon praised this project on her Museum 2.0 blog as “what museum innovation looks like.”  During the run of the exhibition, she wrote:

“A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.” (Museum 2.0)

Other art museums have also recently engaged in the crowdsourcing craze, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s somewhat controversial “The Art of Video Games,” the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection” and the Walters Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Public Property” (a title selected by the public through their crowd-curating process).  So it appears that several museums have taken up the torch to further explore these participatory strategies, and I know there are many I’m not listing here.  Museum visitors are, to use Jeff Howe’s words, beginning to “participate meaningfully in the process” by which their experience is created, and they are in a way becoming the “people formerly known as the audience.”

How can we bring crowdsourcing into museum teaching?

crowdsourcing during a high school tour

As an educator, I have been more interested in the ways that we might bring crowdsourcing beyond curating and into museum teaching and learning experiences in the galleries.  I first got to play with crowdsourcing in the galleries when my work with the CoLab began a few years ago. Working with groups of teachers to envision and prototype transformative learning experiences for the museum and their classrooms, we have used some crowdsourcing strategies to allow the ‘wisdom’ and experiences of the group to bring certain questions and ideas to the surface.  I’ve used this strategy with docents as well as teachers, and it has been a fun and effective teaching tool.  Here is one easy crowdsourcing exercise you can try out (since the groups are small, it’s probably not officially “crowd”-sourcing, but let’s not split hairs):

Generate some data: Engage your participants (students, teachers, visitors) in a brainstorming process focused on a single task. For example, you might ask a group of visitors on a tour to come up with as many questions as they can about a work of art we have been exploring. After each individual generates a list of interesting and creative questions, they get into groups of three to share their questions and decide on the three best questions from their group. Each group writes these questions down on individual slips of paper.

Crowdsource it: Now you have some data to be crowdsourced … let the craziness begin!  Each participant should have a slip of paper in their hand with a question written on it.  The group stands in the middle of the gallery, and they are asked to rapidly exchange their slips of paper (emphasis on rapidly).  After the facilitator says “stop,” people pair-up, read the questions they have, evaluate them, and then each pair works together to assign points to their questions.  We usually ask each pair to assign exactly 7 points to their two questions (meaning that if one question gets a 5, the other gets a 2; or one can get a 7, the other a 0).  We do this rapid exchange and scoring for several rounds, adding some fun twists to the exchange process (participants might be asked to dance as they exchange slips of paper … something to keep it silly is always good).

See what surfaces: After several rounds of scoring, participants add up the total score, and now you can see how the group filters, organizes, and evaluates the data they were provided.  People can stand in a line according to the total score of the question they have, and we begin to see what are the most important ones to bubble to the surface that day.  Present the top three or top five items to the group.

Act on the results: It is important not to stop there.  Do something with the results of this process.  If you uncovered 3 really juicy questions about a work of art, bring those questions to the work and spend some time thinking deeply about how you might respond to them.  During a recent teacher institute at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we asked a group of educators to crowdsource some prototypes for new ways the museum could engage its community, and we then focused on the top three ideas and envisioned how they might be enacted through a more extensive process.  I always feel like the success of any participatory strategy hinges on whether it goes anywhere or leads to something new.  For public crowd-curating, I think much of the success depends on people having the benefit of seeing their input manifested in the product or exhibition itself.

Have you experimented with any crowdsourcing in the galleries?  What are some things we might learn from crowdsourcing tactics, both in-person and online?  Are there ways we can push these strategies into more public, social learning experiences in the museum (other than exhibition curation & design)?  Stay tuned for updates as I experiment further with crowdsourcing in the art museum.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

UPDATE: I wanted to add a link to this post through the Center for the Future of Museums in which guest bloggers Wesley Hsu and Vivian Haga tell us about the My Gallery Interactive project:

Integrating Collaboration and Technology to Create a Crowdsourced Experience