Virtual Visitors: A Community of Clickers and Commentators

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

Isn’t it fascinating how quickly (or maybe it’s not that quickly) our technology has advanced, increasing our sense of interconnectedness? I must admit, for awhile I assumed there might be a backlash of sorts where people would start to feel too consumed and overwhelmed by the extent of such connections. Alas, we are probably safe from all that, at least for the time being.

Innovative web and application programs make it possible for local communities to become more connected as well as the formation and cultivation of new virtual communities which extend beyond geographic borders to encompass individuals with similar interests and values.

Threadless is a “community-based tee shirt company with an ongoing, open call for design submissions.” Participants can create tee shirt designs, solicit feedback, and ultimately win a cash prize if your design is selected. At first I thought to myself, who is the community in “community-based tee shirt company.” To answer my own question, in this case it is the community who rates and comments on the participant’s idea. Anyone checking out the website can score designs. What I love about this is that there are numerous entry points to participating and becoming part of this community. The website also allows for designers who are not sure if their design is “ready” to have a preview of sorts which can be reviewed by the greater community. I know you may be asking…. why is Val talking about tee-shirts anyway…. To respond and to affirm, we can look beyond museums for inspiration.

Such opportunities to submit and evaluate works of art, brings to mind the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2008, Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibit (side note: inspiration for this exhibit actually came from a book). The museum encouraged museum visitors, artists, and the general public to participate in this co-created exhibit experience with web-access to forums for discussing submitted photos, a virtual tour of the exhibit,  a “blurb book,” and a link to the results of the evaluation process (as the selected images were chosen by this community of participants). What was really neat about this exhibit was that the selected works on display were sized based on their votes (i.e. the more votes you got, the bigger your photo).

This notion reminds me of my previous post about the Partners in Preservation project in the Greater Boston area where participants could vote for a historic site to receive funding and another post regarding the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC asking participants to help select the winning design of the new museum. Creating a virtual community by asking others to vote or make a decision empowers individuals, sparks a desire to participate, and allows them to contribute thoughts and ideas. A likely side effect: people will surely buzz about this to their friends.

In another previous post, I asked if/what museums are doing to talk about all these great changes happening within the museum and if the outside word is aware of all the buzz…. perhaps the Smithsonian was listening to me? Check-out the their Call to Action, “Voice Your Vision” YouTube video:

What a creative way to start a lot of buzz about the museum’s (new) outlook and also solicit ideas and thoughts from the public!

From Facebook to Twitter, social networks also offer plenty of opportunities to reach out to, expand, and engage your virtual community (and if you’re wondering why we should care, check out Nina Simon’s recent blog post). With opportunities to create your own social network and emerging Web 4.0 applications such as Thwonk (a pretty wild “platform and community….giving you full access to manipulate and change the social rules of email list communication”) we should challenge ourselves to effectively and authentically engage our virtual communities while embracing all these innovative (and constantly changing) technological advancements.

I recently heard about the New York Hall of Science’s social network called MySci where their program participants receive usernames from the museum to access and interact with fellow museum program participants, contribute to blogs, and dish science. The network is only available for out-of-school-time program participants; a sort of members only approach with a safe space for kids to share openly. What’s really cool is that even after you grow-out-of or leave the out-of-school-time  programs your account remains active.

New website collectives also offer virtual space to grow, inform, and involve community groups about any range of topics. While at AAM, I attended a session entitled, Places and Stories That Matter: Digital Experiments and Community Involvement where presenters discussed ways they are using digital technology to engage audiences and bridge differences. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans to launch (in September 2009) PhilaPlace, an interactive “multi-ethnic web-based resource” that explores the history, culture, and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA. The goal of this collaborative project is to “bridge disciplines, media, and audiences by creating a new model for connecting audiences.”  Throughout the planning and development stages, the Historical Society collaborated with community partners and individuals to obtain stories, memories, photos and experiences.  The sneak peek we got during the session was an eye full; Google maps meets Twitter meets Flickr meets YouTube meets established historic archives meets…. well you get the picture.

Similarly, City Lore, is a New York-based non-profit that specializes “in the creation of programs and materials for public education and enjoyment.” One of their many initiatives, in collaboration with the Municipal Arts Society,  is Place Matters “a city-wide initiative to identify, celebrate, interpret and protect places that tell the history and anchor the traditions of New York’s many communities.” Places are nominated by New Yorkers through a Census of Places that Matter and for the sites highlighted on the website, viewers have access to read stories, advocate for these places of importance, and learn about upcoming events and programs.  Another City Lore program, City of Memory, also provides access and opportunities for people to share stories and experiences “that happened forty years ago or something that happened this morning” which are mapped out (so virtual visitors can pin-point these locations and  become actual visitors). I definitely plan on doing a bit of my own research to see if my grandfather’s butcher shop is included among the wonderful stories already shared!

These are just a few of the buzz-worthy, web-based resources that connect, cultivate, and engage folks to grow community interest, involvement, and interaction. Of course the question remains, what if you’re being savvy with technology and no one responds!?

  • Well first things first, reach out to your local and virtual communities using a variety of mainstream and creative methods to build an interest in developing technology-based programs.
  • Secondly, use programs that work for you (you don’t need to have a Twitter feed for the sake of it, I actually follow a couple of museums who hardly ever update their twitter- kind of pointless). Think about ways to virtually engage the public beyond your website, but also consider the time and resources you will need to maintain a presence on the Internet. In considering the time constraints  posed on visitors as contributors, check out this interesting Museum 3.0 post by Monika Lechner.
  • And of course, try new things and look beyond museums for inspiration. Depending on your resources and availability, such applications can be just what you need to revitalize your programs and brand while expanding your reach in serving your community.

To my community of readers: Are you vritually connected to your community, if so how? What are some projects or thoughts you’d like to share about connecting with your local community virtually and growing a virtual community? Do you feel virtually connected to museums, do you care to be? Are you an active member of online communities, when do you participate, how?

Matchmaker, Matchmaker Find Me a Museum

I spent the better part of today adapting my post “Riddle Me This: Why Do People Visit Museums” for Network, the e-newsletter for Museum Education Roundtable (and yes, I’m quite excited about this). In thinking about some of the main ideas behind identity-related visitor motivations to museums and in recently reading Julia Kaganskiy’s, “I Search Therefore I am: Envisioning a Search Powered Museum Experience” I’ve been toying with the concept of a website or search engine inspired by the likes of eHarmony and Match.com where the individual completes certain fields (such as mood, type of experience desired, zip code etc.) and a list of museums matching that criteria is presented with blurbs about exhibits, information about hours and directions and “don’t miss” programs. Does this already exist?

What WOULD a search engine for museum-visitor matching look like?

What WOULD a search engine for museum-visitor matching look like?

From personal experiences, it’s challenging and time consuming to stay abreast on all the museum-happenings in New York through individual websites, twitter (it does help to follow museums who are active about their programs and exhibits) and magazine/newspaper listings (I do want to mention nycgo.com as a great resource with a calendar of cultural events happening in the area). In thinking about why people visit museums, perhaps an opportunity for potential visitors to include information about those expectations before the visit i.e.:  a first date, grandparents are in town, or a hankering for 18th century portraits will point these individuals in the right direction and get their experience off to a great start.

I began to think about how such a search engine might work and found connections with my musings and  Julia’s article in which she draws from a number of sources to discuss the concept of customized context in a search engine format  to “access additional information…that is relative to my relationship with and interest in the artwork” during a museum visit to enhance an experience.

Considering the great conversations happening at conferences and other places among museum professionals (in better serving our communities, enhancing programs, and really bringing our visitors and their experiences to the forefront of what we do and how we do it) I wonder if our visitors and potential visitors are aware of all of this buzz. Are we doing the best job we can of breaking down stereotypes, mainstreaming our thinking, and communicating our ideas to our public? Perhaps such a website, connecting museums and individuals may be a good start (Cue: Natalie Cole singing “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”)!

Targeting Your Non-Audience, Shaping Your Museum’s Future

Yesterday I attended the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable Annual Conference, “Are We Listening” (thanks to receiving a Scholarship from NYCMER). Although I will be writing a fabulous webssay for the NYCMER website which will touch on my experience and take-aways from this day-long program, I would like to share a few thoughts that are circling my mind….

Maxie Jackson, Senior Director Program Development at New York Public Radio and our morning keynote, spoke candidly about his experiences moving from “producer-driven” to “audience-driven” radio programming. He highlighted the need of targeting and reaching  non-audiences, potential audiences as well educating those who are currently served by expanding program efforts and initiatives for the wider community. A total side note: I think it is great on the part of the conference committee to bring in a speaker who does not work in museums to discuss broader challenges and issues that we in the non-profit world are facing.

Jackson provided practical resources and outlined his process towards growing an audience via diversifying offerings. Jackson’s four steps towards diversity include:

  1. Program mission: Creating and managing a mission to fill the void of what is currently missing from offerings.
  2. Research base when developing program concept: Reach out to the emerging audience by working with organizations who already serve this community and meet with them, make that human connection. In doing this, find the balance between the expectations of this group and where your core audience thinks you can go.
  3. Staff resources for authentic engagement: Include job postings through a variety of channels to create a diverse pool of applicants with diverse experience and exposure to strengthen inclusive program ideas and program development. As an institution open yourself up to analysis: Do you speak with authority? Are you providing authentic engagement? Are you willing to hold yourself accountable?
  4. Audience engagement: By participating in information gathering you can be educated by your community. Stimulate the “American conversation,” perhaps by first focusing on a specific emerging audience and expanding along the way while super-serving your core audience. Communicate with your core audience that you are “doing them a favor of broadening the world around them.”

These methods are intensive which is probably why his results are so fruitful. I really took to heart Jackson’s call to extend beyond niche programming to develop offerings that are relevant to audiences not served. Applying these ideas to museums, considerations for authentic engagement via inclusive programming for current and emerging audiences will provide countless benefits but may also provide challenges in shifting mindsets, ideas, and goals.

In thinking about Jackson’s keynote,  I’m also mulling over a recent article I read in the May-June 2009 Museum, “Deliberately Unsustainable” by Nina Simon which considers the nature of museums to survive through cautious and calculated measures and calls upon these institutions to consider benefits of taking risks and pursue mission statements “foolishly, rashly or successfully – in our activities every day.” In her article, Simon states, “Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren’t structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They’re made to plod along…..The problem arises when the desire to sustain overcomes the desire to be superlative and more resources go to surviving than succeeding.” Simon encourages museums to “make it” by surviving and succeeding via offering “core services that people depend on” and “services you provide that make you awesome” (how you support your community).

I find connections between these ideas and Jackson’s remarks, which I am still processing. In an effort to sum up my thoughts (I promise, no more direct quotes), it’s not enough to narrowly serve your core-audience with niche programs nor is it enough to provide diluted experiences for emerging audiences. With rapidly changing demographics, neither is sustainable. We are at a point and time where museums can cultivate new audiences through exciting programs with zest and ambition. Therefore, a commitment to reaching out to non-audiences and working with core audience members in the development of more inclusive, meaningful programming needs to be prioritized and sought through creative perhaps risk-taking approaches (consider it cutting edge  programming). For museums to remain relevant we need to bring core, emerging, and non-audiences into a shared conversation so we are all present and all listening. This will bring to surface the problems, concerns, opportunities, and solutions to new programming ideas awesome for all.

Riddle Me This: Why do People Visit Museums?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience? Photo taken from: http://www.pbase.com/jlkemper3/image/30074351

“Visitors may not be sure why they are there and we don’t give them a clue.” John Falk made this statement during the AAM, Annual Meeting session on Identity-Related Visit Motivations: Tools for Supporting the Museum Experience.

It’s true….consider your last visit to a museum. Actually, rather than put you on the spot, I will share my last experience at a museum which was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York on a recent Friday evening.

5:30 pm: Read an interesting article from Time Out New York indicating that a couple of comedians were going to take a tour of the MET and offer some humor. That was my hook. I’ve been to the museum before, but not terribly recently and not on a Friday night AND not to listen to a couple of comedians….humorize art.

7:30 pm: Met up with my husband on the steps of the MET. The tour was to begin at 8 pm so we went through ticketing and decided to do some independent exploration.

7:45 pm: We were both a bit tired and walked around different gallery spaces talking about everything but what we were looking at. Given the time of day for our visit, we were more interested in food options at the museum than anything else so we passed the café a couple of times, contemplating our dining options. I found a bench and sat for a spell (highlight of my visit). The museum was pretty crowded, a bit too crowded for me and I was a bit tired at the end of the day.

7:55 pm: Feeling a bit more rested, we left the museum. We saw a large group forming outside of the museum and assumed this must be the tour with the comedians. We decided that food was more important at that moment, reasoning that we can “actually visit the museum another day” and left the museum.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent under a half hour in a museum before! Our motivations for visiting the museum were unique; we were curious about dining at the café, about an experience involving comedians as tour guides, but in the end, too tired to do either- recharging our batteries was the most successful part of this visit.

Essentially people visit museums for a variety of reasons, some which may overlap and be of interest to the visitor simultaneously. As such, expectations for experiences are also likely to vary with each visit. Considering this, we have the opportunity to re-consider visitor motivations in order to ultimately impact and improve visitor experiences. John Falk offered a new vocabulary which complements his recent research (you can read about his findings in his new book) to highlight identity-related motivations:

  • The Explorer: motivated by personal curiosity.
  • The Facilitator: motivated by/because of another person (such as a parent bringing a child to the museum).
  • The Experience Seeker: motivated to see and experience places. (such as a tourist visiting a new city).
  • The Professional Hobbyist: motivated by specific knowledge-related goals.
  • The Recharger: motivated by contemplative/restorative experience.

Research supports the claim that the majority of museum visitors can be categorized as visiting for one or some combination of these five related reasons. Some museums are already building on these ideas and reflecting these considerations in their layout, exhibits, programs, and staff training.

For instance, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California Jim Covel, Manager, Guest Experience Training & Interpretation  worked with his staff to present different types of visitor motivations and a series of responses including activities and exhibits that relate to the visitor’s intentions. The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada incorporated these types of motivations into their exhibit design and building layout with ambient music in spaces for rechargers, lectures for professional hobbyists, and a café area in the middle of one of their galleries intended for the experience seekers on-the-go (this area, which includes huge windows that overlook the city has become a favorite dwelling place for many visitors).

It is important to keep in mind that the same visitor may have very different motivations on a given day or may have multiple reasons for wanting to visit a museum. Although it may seem obvious, it is also important to note that there is no hierarchy of motivations. In my example, my visit started out with intentions, however these motivations changed during the visit.

Here are my two cents:

For museum visitors: You can come to museums for any reason! It’s okay to want to relax, to want to feel absorbed by artifacts, to have a social outing….come, come often and enjoy!

For museums: Embrace these varying motivations and challenge yourself to incorporate opportunities of interest with these different motivations in mind- be creative with it and have fun!

For me: Eat and rest before going to the museum! I consider myself passionate about museums and even I have my limits!

Garbage Museum To Be Scrapped?

Trash on exhibit? That’s not someone’s opinion. At the Garbage Museum in Stratford, Connecticut, the trash on exhibit is trash – literally! Developed and maintained by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA) this museum, which first opened its doors in 1993,  serves to educate and explore “the many challenges and solutions of waste management,” while also highlighting the importance of recycling through education programs and tours for children and adults. According to a recent Associated Press article by Dave Collins (found in the Staten Island Advance, 4/19/09), “…the truckes keep dumping trash and the school buses keeping dumping children.”

Upon reading the above mentioned article entitled, “It’s always Earth Day at trash museum,” I was surprised that I was not (yet) familiar with this museum, nor was I aware of it’s sister museum, the Trash Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Although the museums boasted reported a combined visitation of over 57,000 people last year, the Garbage Museum is facing money problems. It is interesting that while some museums struggle to reflect and defend their relevancy to the public, with the growing popularity of “being green,” recycling, and using sustainable and environmentally friendly products, the Garbage Museum is struggling to keep its doors open. Unfortunately, the Museum received its funding from one source (the Southwest Connecticut Recycling Operating Committee, SWEROC) and between contracts being up and the global recession, SWEROC is no longer in a position to cover the museum’s operational costs (approximately $225,000 annually), leaving the museum to “scramble” to find alternative financial support. If this is the case, I may not get the chance to meet Trash-o-saurus, a dinosaur made from a ton of trash (representing the amount of trash an average person throws away in a year) on display at the museum.

With a modest admission price of $2, the museum offers interactive experiences of walking through a giant compost pile and “watching what happens to recyclables in a ‘sky-box’ view of the tipping and sorting process.” As the Garbage Museum is connected to its regional recycle center, such experiences beautifully intertwine the purpose and mission with its programming and offerings. As the museum is open to the public on select weekdays it may be difficult to plan a visit, however do make a point to visit as the museum soon, as it may only be able to stay open thru the end of the summer.

I do want to note some creative measures the museum is taking in reaching out to the public for support; including a link on the CRRA website to donate to the Garbage Museum, become a  fan of the museum on Facebook, and a link to the Save the Stratford, CT Garbage Museum blog. With regard to the blog, of particular signfiicance is the mention of local high school students who created a video helping to “spread the word” about the importance and current struggles of the museum.

Doodling: Sparking Creativity & Cool Collaborations

While most of us use the Google search engine website to Google (searching for relevant resources and websites); Google is now doing the searching. In an effort to “encourage the next generation of designers and artists” Google partnered with the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum to launch Doodle 4 Google, a competition inviting children and teens to design a Google logo with the theme “What I Wish for the World.”

"Friendship Around the World" by Miriam Elizabeth Lowery of Covington, TN (age: 5). Her statement: "My wish for the world is that everyone would get along and treat one another in a nice and loving way. We could all be friends!"

"Friendship Around the World" by Miriam Elizabeth Lowery of Covington, TN (age: 5). Her statement: "My wish for the world is that everyone would get along and treat one another in a nice and loving way. We could all be friends!"

The homepage states, “Both our country and the world are undergoing significant change. At Google we believe in thinking big, and dreaming big, and we can’t think of anything more important than encouraging students to do the same.” What I think is encouraging is this great partnership between the Cooper-Hewitt and Google, a creative collaboration that I’m sure pleases the likes of educators and marketing museum folks, among others.

Although the submission dates for this year’s competition passed, you do have the opportunity to select the National Finalists by voting for your favorite logo, now thru May 21st. Wishes range from quirky and heartfelt to imaginative and inspiring; all are definitely worth checking out!

A-HA! Design Inspiration (It’s All Around Us)

I was one of the many eager AAM session-hoppers to sit-in on: Eye On Design II, a wonderful session that brought together an eclectic group of professionals to discuss where they draw their inspiration.

Hearing from other professional talk about their connections and inspiration taken from gardens, graffiti, play, children TV programs, and other imaginary and realized spaces, sparked a curiosity from within prompting me to ask myself: Well what about me? Where do I get my inspiration from? Often, I get so wrapped up with an idea or project, I do not realize or consider the connections between what inspires me and the product of that inspiration.

Happening vs. Performance

So naturally, since it’s more fun to ponder such thoughts aloud, I talked with my favorite concert-going pal. We were watching a Flaming Lips concert on TV and began to talk about our experiences at their live performances.

While some bands will perform on stage, give you good music, and maybe even some chit-chat in between songs, the Flaming Lips brings the audience into their performance; it’s about the music but it’s also bigger than the music. As so many people would agree, their concerts are more like happenings: where individuals are constantly connecting, feeling, experiencing, sharing and participating. While it may seem a bit chaotic, it is also invigorating and enlightening. The idea of a performance does not seem as powerful when compared to the thought of a happening. There is no separation between musicians and audience, rather all are participants.

This idea of happening as changing, continuous, and perhaps unpredictable inspires me.

While some projects such as community-created exhibitions and interactive exhibit components are great examples of prompting visitors to participate, is it the same as a shared happening? Do happenings happen in museums? Have you experienced a happening in a museum? What does it look like?

As such conversations were sparked during the lively AAM session, I hope you’ll share your thoughts and musings here too!