Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest Post: Weaving Community Collaborations into Permanent Installations at the Denver Art Museum

Earlier in 2013, I was amazed to visit one of the new “Studio” spaces at the Denver Art Museum. The DAM is one of several large art museums that is embracing making in a big way—first, through their event-based programming and open art studios tied to temporary exhibitions, and now, through a 1,200 square foot studio in which visitors can do art projects tied to the permanent collection. In this guest post, Stefania Van Dyke, Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects, tells the story of how the co-creative development and visitor participation in the “Thread Studio” that accompanied their 2013 summer exhibition, Spun, changed her perspective on her own work.

The Denver Art Museum is no stranger to community collaborations, but we’ve been dipping in our toe a little more deeply when it comes to developing permanent participatory installations. This summer’s Museum-wide celebration of textiles, Spun, consists of fourteen exhibitions and “moments” (most temporary, some permanent). Part of our approach to community involvement in planning Spun had to do with necessity; we needed help to pull this off. More important to the Museum’s long-term goals, it was an opportunity to engage creative locals in conceptualizing, programming, and installing in a significant way. As an educator, I know that lessons learned and questions raised from this experience will substantively shift how I think about and act upon our relationship with our local creative community moving forward.

I came on staff in December as the Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects with the immediate task of developing a permanent studioDAM’s term for an exploratory and interactive space—in conjunction with the reinstallation of our textile art collection (the main impetus for Spun). Once we had the basic components and goals for “Thread Studio,” my first instinct was to call upon friends on staff at other museums for feedback and insights. But my DAM colleagues encouraged me also to talk with community members who are intimately involved in the world of fiber and textiles. I soon discovered the enormity of that group: there are dozens of guilds in Colorado dedicated to quilting alone. Who are all of these people? What inspires them? Once we started the conversation, the outpouring of excitement was remarkable.

My colleague Djamila Ricciardi and I shared our concepts for the various components of the studio. Community artists gave their honest feedback, and we crafted a display based on these discussions and their contributions. More than 160 contributors, ranging from nationally known artists to hobbyist crafters, sent us samples, tools, and heirlooms that almost completely populated the 80 cubbies in our dense curio-cabinet-style display. Prompted by our simple questions (“Have you ever made a quilt out of particularly meaningful materials?”), they created pieces imbued with stories—like Amy Gibson, the mother of four who designed and made a quilt block out of parachute material her grandfather brought home from France after serving in World War II. Some community artists even helped install the space.

Visitors Going Rogue

We collaborated formally with community artists to design Thread Studio; once it opened, the participation expanded to museum visitors. Thread Studio contains two embroidery tables with designs printed on burlap and instructions for stitching, as well as a variety of looms on the wall on which visitors can weave with unconventional materials like jump ropes, vines, and bungee cords. Since the studio opened in May, visitors have left their marks there in the most awesome of ways. They’re tagging with yarn.

Now that we’re a few months in, we’re seeing visitors’ confidence and creativity grow. They’re not only contributing in unique ways to the pieces we’ve offered them formally, but they’re also going rogue. Someone expressed her (his? More men are participating than I anticipated) appreciation of the space by leaving a small hand-made lace heart on a chair. Another visitor yarn-bombed the tether on our remote control. Others are coming in to do spontaneous demos in the space. They’re gathering in groups:  in June, visitors stumbled upon members of the Rocky Mountain Lace Guild making both small talk and lace. And I recently got word of a spinning flash mob in the works, with dozens of spinners planning to pull out their wheels and spindles to show their stuff at the Museum.

Sustaining Collaborative Momentum

Now comes perhaps the biggest challenge: How can I, with help from my colleagues, sustain this organic enthusiasm and burst of creativity, as well as these relationships? Looking back at my team’s original goals for the Thread Studio, none of them mention it becoming an ongoing hub of community activity. I didn’t realize it when I started on this project last fall, but that idea has truly permeated everything we’ve done. Our primary goal was to inspire visitors’ own creativity—which we’re seeing in these traces they’re leaving behind and overhearing in visitors’ discussions in and around the space.

But what role does the initial community participation play for general visitors who may or may not care about textiles? Does it matter? Why is community involvement in a permanent installation important to us as museum professionals? What exactly about this space is inspiring visitors and how can we apply these lessons to other collection areas beyond textiles?

I’m spending the summer reflecting and trying to get a handle on these questions and their answers, trying to harness the momentum that we’re experiencing and to learn from it. DAM staff has been talking a lot lately about being seen as—or actually being—a contributing part of the local “creative ecosystem.” I recognize that we’ve started heading in that direction with Thread Studio and don’t want to lose it. As someone who has only ever worked on more traditional exhibitions of capital-A-art, this has been a challenging and unpredictable project. I did not enter this project thinking about the importance of co-creating a permanent space with our community, but now that I’ve seen it through this way, my work will never be the same.

Stefania will respond to your comments and questions here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: The Magic Vest Phenomenon and Other Tools for Talking to Strangers

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. This post was requested by a long-time reader. Every time one of my staff members dons his or her cape for a program (really), I'm reminded of this post. Originally posted in February of 2009.

I've been thinking recently about how I originally got interested in talking to strangers in museums. I am not a person who is fundamentally good at talking to strangers. I love playing host to friends, but I clam up in big crowds, never go to happy hour, and don't know how to flirt. Working in museums as floor staff cracked open the social stranger door for me. My first museum job was working on the floor at the Acton Science Discovery Museum in Massachusetts. Like floor staff everywhere, I wore a vest that identified me as a staff person. It was blue. It was polyester. And It was a magic vest.

What made it magic? When I slipped on the vest, I was suddenly identified as someone who was safe for strangers to talk to. I could approach a kid and ask him a question or put a tuning fork to her elbow without any parents getting suspicious. I could jump in with a perplexed family and help them make the pendulum work. I was sought out and could initiate conversations. I could even tell dumb jokes or get people to sing songs about science with me. Magic.

Some days, I'd leave the museum to go grocery shopping, and I'd forget that I'd taken off my magic vest. I'd ask people questions in the produce aisle, bend down to talk to a small kid about what she was having for dinner. Sometimes this worked out, but more often, I was perceived as an intruder. Without the vest, I wasn't able to engage in the way that worked for me at the museum, and I didn't have any fall-back way to connect with strangers. So I stopped trying.

Over the years, I've learned to put on an imaginary magic vest when I go to museums, and I've gotten more comfortable starting conversations without it. But the physical vest is still better. When I told this story to a friend of mine who's a fire fighter, he immediately agreed--he feels like his uniform is also a magic social object. In uniform, he's someone who is perceived as a helpful source of information and a safe and enjoyable person to talk with. Out of uniform, he's just another guy on the street.

Of course, there's no single social object that projects a universal message of openness and willingness to engage. A person in a cop uniform may be inviting to some, threatening to others. I think of my dog as an amazing social object, but I'm also aware that for some people, dogs are scary creatures to be avoided. Every piece of apparel or physical extension of oneself invites others to pass judgment. The trick is to find the things that encourage others to judge you as welcoming and worthy of positive interaction.

I wouldn't be the person I am today, one who is genuinely interested in others' opinions and jumps into participatory museum experiences, if not for my time on the museum floor in the magic vest. I believe that everyone deserves to have a magic vest experience, and that for socially inept people like myself, having an opt-in way to signal your interest in interpersonal communication can be a great social tool to mediate the experience. There are some safety concerns--we wouldn't want people impersonating fire fighters--but there should be some "magic vests" that come laden with positive interest and intent rather than authority. Many science museums offer kids lab coats to wear during programs, which affects their self-perception and modes of expression. What if we offered all visitors coats, vests, hats, etc. to express their interest in engaging in particular ways? I've written before about the idea of offering visitors stickers or buttons that say "ASK ME WHAT I THINK" so they can have their own social experiences facilitated by apparel, and I'm looking for more options.

Why does talking to strangers matter? Every time I do it, it improves my ability to empathize and understand other people. It brings surprising and delightful experiences into my life. My default is to feel phenomenally lonely in large social venues like museums and conferences. Finding the right tools to enable social engagement lets me leave my own shell and connect with and enjoy the rest of the world.

I'm curious what "magic vest" experiences you've had--whether in museums or elsewhere--and how you think wearable social objects fit into participatory experiences with strangers. What's your magic vest? Where do you wear it, and what superpower does it have?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Guest Post: A New Role for Science Museums--Playground for Scientists

One of the greatest gifts of my babymoon is the opportunity to share the Museum 2.0 author's desk with brilliant colleagues who inspire me. First up is Beck Tench, a "simplifier, illustrator, story teller, and technologist" working at the Museum of Life & Science in Durham, NC. Beck is the brain behind the risk-taker/space-maker paradigm I've shared here in the past. In this post, she writes about Experimonth, an intriguing set of crowd-sourced projects that connect scientists with research participants in surprising ways. 

As a person who works for a science museum, I work in an environment that supports play. But at my museum, the support doesn't stop at our visitors.  I'm also given the space to take risks and to play as my work. It's resulted in some of my favorite work ever: games like #namethatzoom, projects like FeederSketch, adult-only Ball Pits, and most importantly, the creation of Experimonth, which is what I'd like to blog about today.

Experimonth started out as play. Back in 2008, I devised a plan to outsource my New Year's Resolutions. I tweeted and Facebooked a request for friends to suggest things I could resolve to do over the course of 2009. Once compiled, I also asked folks to vote on them, promising to do whatever the top twelve were.  I charted them across the year and pledged to try one each month, inviting others to do them with me and blog about the experience.

Thus began a year of play. That is to say, we engaged in each Experimonth for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than any real serious or practical purpose.  I met many new people and learned a lot about technology and community, but the learning wasn't the point, enjoying the resolutions was.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I'm taking a shower one morning and thinking about a talk a colleague recently gave about the placebo effect and I thought to myself, "we could probably do an Experimonth about that at the museum." I'd just met a local researcher and I thought she'd be a great person to talk to about it. I came to her with an idea I called "Gut Sense." A way to explore doing a blind study on one's self. I imagined people weighing themselves everyday without looking at the scale and then also guessing what their weight was. After a month, they'd compare the numbers to see if there were any correlations between what they sensed and what was quantifiable.

The project didn't go far due to the sensitivity most folks have around numbers and their weight, but it did launch a conversation with the researcher about mood and emotion that ended up becoming the museum's first official Experimonth, Experimonth: Mood. We recruited folks and designed software that texted them five times a day for thirty days, asking one question, "Rate your mood 1 (low) to 10 (high)."

The project blew away our expectations. We retained 96% of our participants throughout the month. They were 81% compliant with texting back their mood. And we generated over 18,000 mood data points for our researcher, Frances Ulman, Ph.D. The most surprising thing to me, however, was what she had to say about the experience:
Experimonth is like playing for scientists.  A critical part of the scientific method is the development of a hypothesis, which can then be tested with well controlled research.  The rigorous and fast paced setting of academia can rarely provide a sort of experimental scratch pad that is ultimately generative for new hypotheses and methods of inquiry. Experimonth can provide this generative experience for scientists, where the flexible interaction with participants allows for potentially new hypotheses and ideas to form.
If the lightbulb had already gone off, it certainly got brighter for me at this moment.  Experimonth had the potential to generate new scientific knowledge.  All of a sudden, I looked at my town as a place teeming with scientists in need of play.  And my museum, and this new model, as a space for them to do so.

We ran with it and have since generated data about decision-making, cooperation, competition and negotiation for scientists (and also some artists) to play with. For example:

  • We worked with a local psychologist to create an implicit associations-based game called "Smart, Hot, Honest or Not?" as a part of Experimonth: Race. Using facial morphing software to change a player's avatar to a different ethnicity, we fed the game with hundreds of photos that were judged in a "hot or not" type interface and gave players a view of how intelligent, attractive, and trustworthy others perceived them to be as two different ethnicities. 
  • We worked with a neuroscientist studying cooperation and competition to develop Experimonth: Frenemy, a prisoner's dilemma-based game where players decided to friend or enemy an anonymous opponent based on one piece of information.  We generated nearly 10k data points and hundreds of text-based confessionals that he's already successfully used to model cooperative behavior and is considering publishing on it.
  • We worked with a social scientist studying the power of being able to walk away from an uncooperative environment to develop Experimonth: Freeloader, a public-goods game where players decide whether to invest in their group or freeload.  She'll have enough data from this that she can compare actual human behavior to what she's only been able to simulate via modeling software so far.
  • We worked with an anthropologist studying the evolution of coordination to develop Experimonth: Do You Know What I Know You Know?, a game where you only get points if you choose the same thing as everyone in your group but you don't have any way of communicating with them about your decision.  He'll be able to watch how certain activities evolve into coordination and what kinds of histories the people who most easily coordinate have in common.
  • We also developed Experimonths about trading objects, matchmaking and electronically racing across the country, where the data and/or purpose are less defined -- but we trust it will surely teach us something, even (or especially) if it fails.
There's something magical about the cognitive surplus most of us have at this point in time and then applying that to the challenge of doing something for 30 days.  I wholeheartedly believe it has the power to advance science (and art and cultural heritage) through the power of play. I invite you and your museum to join me as we conceive, launch and complete new Experimonths. In fact, we'll be hosting Frenemy, Freeloader, and Do You Know What I Know You Know? this fall. Sign up to indicate your interest or contact me directly to play a part.

Beck will be checking in to respond to your comments and questions here. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: I Am An Elitist Jerk

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. This is a personal and crowd favorite--and one of the scariest posts I ever wrote. Originally posted five years ago, in August of 2008.

It’s true. I went to Wyoming and learned that I am an elitist when it comes to national parks. I like my parks hard to access, sparsely populated, and minimal in services. It’s an uncomfortable truth which is forcing me to examine my arguments for inclusivity, access, and populism in museums.

I visited two parks last week: the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. In the Tetons, I had a highly exclusive, hard to access, fabulous experience. I carried a 40-pound backpack up and down mountains and across snowfields for four days with friends. It’s an experience that requires permits, maps, physical ability, gear—a long list of barriers to entry. Few people go for it. That’s part of why I love it.

Yellowstone, on the other hand, was an access dream—and my nightmare. You could drive right up to the geysers. There were wide, flat, paved paths between the natural features. There were benches to sit on, interpretative signs to read, ice cream to eat, and trinkets to buy. There were people and trashcans everywhere. I hated it.

I realize that I have more frequently advocated for Yellowstone-style museums than Grand Teton-style ones. I believe in lowering barriers to access and creating opportunities for visitors to use museums in diverse ways. On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful. For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now. I felt it at Yellowstone.

Understanding what it feels like to be the elitist jerk helps me have a more nuanced perspective on inclusivity and access. Yes, I am a jerk—but only when it comes to my own experience. I and my outdoor values are in the minority. The national parks do not solely, or even mostly, belong to me and my backpacking friends. They belong to the millions in RVs who make the trek to Yellowstone and Yosemite every year. Providing services to support and encourage their visitation makes good sense. They are the great big public, and giving them comfort and access makes national parks a valid and worthwhile alternative to theme parks and resorts.

And while I may have had a day of frustration, supporting their experiences ultimately doesn't hinder mine. I don’t need Yellowstone; I have hundreds of remote, gorgeous mountains to climb in my life. For the people who will never engage at that level, Yellowstone is a necessary, useful option and an entry point that may inspire a few folks to increase their outdoor prowess and join me off the beaten path.

As an experience consumer, I have the luxury of being a jerk. It’s acceptable for me to only respect the parkgoers and services that reflect my values. But if I were a parks interpreter, an experience provider, that attitude would be reprehensible and highly derogatory towards guests.

And herein lies a reason (one which previously eluded me) inclusivity is looked at skeptically by some museum leaders. They are elitist jerks! Museum directors love museums so deeply and are such sophisticated users of them that they want to protect the kinds of experiences they would choose to have as visitors. I feel fortunate that when it comes to museums, I am more similar to the bewildered, skeptical public than the sophisticated few. I don’t feel the pain elitists feel—I feel the pain that the vast majority of visitors feel.

And so I look back on the thousands of people who streamed by me in the Yellowstone parking lot with revulsion—as a jerk. But I also identify with them and look at them with hope and excitement. They are at the park. They didn’t have to be there, but they perceived something of value there and they came. They drove thousands of miles, and they deserve to roll along flat paths in their wheelchairs and strollers. They deserve ice cream with their geysers. As an elite park user, I have plenty of resources at my disposal, from maps to rangers to well-maintained backcountry trails. The Yellowstone visitors, who account for a hugely larger percentage of park visitors, deserve great resources as well. And it’s okay if I don’t care to use them.