Tag Archives: participatory design

Hands-On Learning: Not Just for Kids

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education. 

The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.

This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.

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In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.

For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face.  The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”

This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”

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Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.

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At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.

How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?

As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?

Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.

About the Author

JfuentesJESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art.  Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas.  Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums.  Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries.  In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Design Thinking in Museums: Stepping into the “Continuum of Innovation”

How can I kick off design thinking in my own institution?

This is something I was asked by numerous colleagues after co-presenting a paper on design thinking and launching a new site, Design Thinking for Museums, at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers.

I talked a lot about implementing design thinking inside one’s own institution with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast. And since returning from Portland, I’ve had numerous inquiries from colleagues at institutions around the world about how to get started with design thinking, a human-centered process for innovation.

Image from dt4e.org, Design Thinking for Educators
Image from dt4e.org, Design Thinking for Educators

The museum profession is embracing new ways of problem solving, collaborating, and innovating like never before. And perhaps that’s why the concept of “design thinking” struck a chord at this year’s Museums and the Web conference.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. It can transform the way a museum or cultural institution develops digital or analog offerings, visitor experiences, or visitor services by giving staff the analytical, creative, and intuitive techniques and tools to solve multifaceted problems. In the museum setting, design is usually used in the context of making objects, but design is also a process. Design thinking is a process for framing and solving problems and discovering new opportunities. It’s a powerful protocol that can lead to truly innovative outcomes.

There are many starting points and incremental steps along the way, but there is no single, definitive way to move through the design thinking process. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in “Change by Design” (2009), design thinking is a “continuum of innovation…a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.”

To step into into this “continuum of innovation,” there are some strategies and approaches you can implement to kick-off the process and start infusing the design thinking ethos into your work culture. Some of these are more attitudinal, while others are tactical.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

visitors in galleries
A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMoMA galleries.

The power of talking to real users—from visitors to members to donors—can have a transformative impact on staff attitudes and insights. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live people is incredibly powerful. Spending as little as one hour a day over the course of three days interviewing visitors can lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding about the needs of visitors—and insights around how to meet those needs.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where I worked for over 10 years and introduced and championed design thinking, I led a team of colleagues through in-house trainings on how to interview museum visitors for empathy. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house SFMOMA staff training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available on the Design Thinking for Museums.

2) Set time constraints

The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect” is not uncommon in most organizations, and is especially endemic in art museums, where the notion of the precious, beautiful object has a longstanding precedent. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, lowers the stakes and expectations around tangible products.

For example, if you only spend one hour making a prototype, it’s hard to have the urge to cling to what you’ve designed and become overly attached to it. It’s much easier to change course and make adjustments. Bringing a scrappy prototype to a meeting or a user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and implementation details, and allows them to focus on the concepts.

The notion of time limits applies not only to the development of prototypes, but to all phases of the design thinking process itself. By setting time limits at every stage of the process, the team is forced to keep moving forward and not get mired in details and delays. In fact, the entire cycle can be experienced in 90 minutes, as modeled in a free, open, online “crash course” in design thinking created by the Stanford d.school.

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space
The SFMOMA web team workspace, covered with images of visitors in the galleries.

Saturating your space means filling your work environment with photographs, notes, and stories about the users you have observed and talked with. This makes their stories more genuine and compelling to internal stakeholders, and keeps you “accountable” and true to your users. Being constantly reminded of these real people with real needs through visual cues in one’s work space can inform your every decision.

It’s also a powerful “ice breaker” for getting skeptical colleagues on-board. When the wall outside my cubicle at SFMOMA was plastered with photographs and stories about SFMOMA visitors, I had queries from colleagues in almost every department. (I chose this particular wall because it’s very visible to anyone traveling between the conference room and the restrooms!)

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. In many ways it’s similar to improv in that it’s biased towards action and focuses on building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities, trusting that the process will bear fruit even if the path is not always clear. In many museums it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase, but this is a process that demands optimism and openness.

5) Find a buddy

This is probably the most important tactic for kicking off design thinking in one’s institution. Changing ways of working and thinking inside an organization is not easy, and it’s even harder to go it alone. Finding a colleague who is interested in trying—and failing—along with you can make all the difference. Ideally your buddy can be someone inside your own institution, but if that’s not possible, find someone at another institution with whom you can share stories and ideas.

For more resources and tips around implementing design thinking in your own institution, please see the website Design Thinking for Museums. And to learn more about how SFMOMA applied design thinking to a big challenge, please read the recent Museums and the Web paper, Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design.

This article was adapted from a post originally published on www.designthinkingformuseums.net.

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?

 

What Do You Customize? OMCA’s we/customize project

The we/customize project at Oakland Museum of California explores the Bay Area perspective on the popular cultural activities of hacking, remixing, tailoring, modding, mash-ups, kit bashing, and customizing. The connecting spark in each of these spheres of activity is the shared impulse of the maker to radically alter the familiar to personal standards.

we/customize was born of a conversation about custom motorcycles, and grew into something akin to adulthood as the consequence of friendship and collaboration.

As non-participants in this part of our culture, Carin Adams­ (Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture) and I (as the Research and Experience Coordinator) were trying to find the kernels of interest connecting us to choppers. This lead us to observe how people form communities focused on the radical alteration of objects, how these groups self select themselves, and develop identity by means of their chosen activities. To round out the team and help us think about connecting disparate groups, Carin and I asked Evelyn Orantes (Senior Experience Developer) to join us to create our curatorial trio.

To create an exhibition around the activity of customization and the associated communities, we set out to develop the project differently than through the traditional museum approach. Our goal wasn’t to create a new working model for museum exhibitions, nor would we necessarily recommend the particular path we took. We wanted to have fun putting the project together while finding a means to exhibit the content we felt was the most exciting. This subject matter lent itself to be sifted out of conversations and by building relationships with these communities. Our process of content development, did however, reinforce the changing role of the museum as a forum for living cultural activity.

To build the exhibition in conversation with audiences – we made our initial public foray on two fronts. First by going out into the public at Oakland Art Murmur and asking people on video – “What do you customize?” The second, we hosted a panel discussion at OMCA, with Johnny Chung Lee, Jesse Hernandez, and Daniela Rosner about their work and views on customization. These conversations became the basis for how we framed our research, and the public interviews remain part of the content.

To further the dialog, we began with our interviews and panel discussion, we decided to continue going out into the public to build the content for the exhibition. This decision either allowed or forced us to divide the public side of the project into three main phases.

PHASE I: September 26–December 22, 2012

Photo by Ryan LeBlanc
Photo by Ryan LeBlanc

Using the Oakland Rover—a Might-E Truck by Canadian Electric Vehicle, customized by designers Martin Sprouse and Dan Rosenfeld for Oakland Museum of California, we traveled throughout the Bay Area engaging communities in creative projects that explored how people modify objects to serve their own needs. From toy hacking to airbrushing, sound remixing and bike modification— Oakland Rover programs led to rich interactions with the public, who contributed their projects and ideas. These “missions” featured customizers who brought the public a variety of workshops, demonstrations, and participation in the conversation about customization.

The first phase of our project also saw the launch of our social media campaign to continue our conversations with the public online with our blog (wecustomize.org) and on Twitter (@OaklandRover). These exchanges gave us valuable feedback shaping the second and third phases of the project.

PHASE II: December 22, 2012–January 28, 2013

The Oakland Rover’s missions ended when it rolled into OMCA’s Great Hall on December 22. The exploration of customization continued with the transformation of the gallery itself. With paint still on the walls from the previous exhibit, we filled in the space with findings from the Oakland Rover missions as well as visitor input. Starting January 4, guest customizers began on-site demonstrations of their work and invited visitors to join their projects. From scraping out bikes to toy hacking to clothing customization, visitors helped us prototype the Customizer-In-Residence Series and develop interactives.

Photo by Johnna Arnold
Photo by Johnna Arnold

PHASE III: February 9, 2013­–June 2, 2013

The final phase of the we/customize project is the exhibition, exploring the many forms of customization. The weekly Customizers-in-Residence Series will activate the space through live interactions with people from a variety of customization groups. Through the four months of the exhibition, the space will continue to build, with new projects by both our audience and our Customizers-in-Residence living in the space.

Photo by Johnna Arnold
Photo by Johnna Arnold

While planning the project we realized a tradition opening celebration was out of context with our intent. As the exhibition transforms over time – as a consequence of customizers on site and the objects we’re accumulating – we realized the exhibition wouldn’t be complete until the show closed. With this in mind, we’ve planned on brining all the Customizers-in-Residence as well as museum staff together for a final closing party. Not only as a celebration of the conclusion of the project but our final attempt at igniting that initial spark, within each of these spheres of activity, in a culminating experience.

“What do you customize?” – Join the Conversation

The we/customize project began when we asked ourselves how we connect across communities. We launched the project by asking the public “What do you customize?” While we’ve refined our questions as the project developed, we still want to know – What do you customize? What do you start with? What tools do you use? and Why? Where is the boundary between a customization and an invention?

Authors/Project Collaborators:

seanSean Olson is the Research and Experience Coordinator at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. An artist and an educator, he has an MFA from Mills College. He has taught at Diablo Valley College as well as Mills College. Sean lives and rides his bike in Oakland. Look for the guy with the custom dress shoes with SPD cleats.

CarinCarin Adams is the Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture at the Oakland Museum of California and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. She joined OMCA in 2006 as curator for the off-site exhibition program at Oakland International Airport. A resident of Oakland and the mother of two, Carin has an endless supply of toys to hack. She has BFA from California College of the Arts and a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.

evelynEvelyn Orantes is the Senior Experience Developer at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. With over a decade of museum work at OMCA under her sparkly belt, she delivers meaningful moments of honor, discovery, memory and inclusion for visitors, from the annual Días de los Muertos special exhibition to programs stimulating the minds of all ages. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she is the queen of California culture mash-ups, dishing the authentic complexities of California, one exhibition or program at a time.

Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.

Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.

Explore more than 1000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org
Explore more than 1,000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org

The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.

• • • • • •

In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.

Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.

How Object Stories works

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.

The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.

A new platform for community collaboration

Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.

Big impact with room for growth

The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.

We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:

  • In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
  • What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
  • How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
  • And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?

Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.

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

Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content

“Often I set up a platform and ask a question, in one way or another, and then invite people to come in. It’s a conversation, a call and response.”

Keetra Dean Dixon, interview by authors (2010)

Museums are often all about control — controlling what visitors see, controlling the information presented about objects, controlling the ways in which visitors can create meaning, and even controlling the types of technology or devices we can use to access their collection or extended resources. A “well-curated” exhibition or gallery passively delivers a specific message to a targeted, restricted audience.  But, as the authors of Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content offer, “participatory design turns this idea on its head.”

While focusing on the profession and field of design (which is actually a broad field that obviously has so much overlap and integration with museums), the ideas forwarded in this book resonated with me in terms of how museums are struggling to engage in more participatory acts.  The mantra I take away from the authors text as well as their interviews with a wide range of innovative designers is this: “participatory design replaces monologues with conversations” (25).  This not only resonated with me, with seemed to ring true with all the the future-of-museums talk going on these days to find ways to harness the massive engagement with Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Vimeo, YouTube, and Twitter that has conditioned the public to contribute, connect, and create.

How does participatory design work?

In her introduction to Participate, designer and writer Helen Armstrong defines the best participatory design as soliciting content from users and then translating that into something greater than the initial contribution.

“The initial contributions are simple, easily carried out by the user: a photograph, a sketch, a doodle, a word, a movement, a vocalization, a touch. But when put into the context of a larger participatory project, user content flourishes in unexpected ways.” (12)

I love to be reminded that the seed of a good participatory project is really something very simple (and doable), encouraging broader involvement.  Sometimes it is so easy to get wrapped up in some multi-layered, complex idea that sounds cool to us, but that no one in their right mind would actually take the time to participate in/with.  I will always remember one of my design professors in college who harped on about KISS … Keep It Simple Stupid!  This “less is more” dictum never fails, though, when looking to museum visitors for contributions.

For museums, like designers, relinquishing control means celebrating process-oriented work that is not ‘complete’ until visitors or audiences participate, and celebrating the unpredictability this process brings.  I would even say that we need to be open to entirely new types of participation that might simply end with social interactions or conversations — something we often think will get us somewhere, but we need to recognize that sometimes we are already there.

“Content is not king — contact is.”

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed (2010)

The book does make the necessary connections with museums.  In the chapter on modularity and providing structures for these largely open-ended undertakings, they quote Nina Simon saying, “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity” (Simon, Participatory Museum, 13). Even though we find ourselves ‘breaking the rules’ and removing restrictions to get participatory work done in museums, any participatory process needs rules, constraints, and parameters to prevent it from descending into muddled confusion. Even just making the structure of your project and process transparent to your participants and contributors can help keep to the plan.

Participate also rightfully spotlights some of the recent identity, branding, and promotional campaign designs at the Walker Art Center, including a great interview with Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator at the Walker.

Overall, I think there is great value for museum educators in engaging with the field of design and design thinking, especially as we work toward similar goals of empowering 21st-century audiences to contribute, interact, and become makers and doers.  I’ll be following up in the next several weeks with some of my own nascent attempts at making this site a bit more participatory in various ways.  Stay tuned…