Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How False Conviction Could Help Science Centers Be More Human

It’s not every day that a science center releases an ebook about wrongful conviction in rape and murder cases. Then again, the New York Hall of Science isn’t just any science center. For a long time, I’ve admired their ambitious work, from exhibitions on complex topics like network science to integration of contemporary art into their galleries to incredible dedication to advancing the careers of diverse youth in Queens. Now, NYSCI is experimenting in a new medium, with a very tough and adult content focus. The result is False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt, and Science

I sat down with Eric Siegel, NYSCI’s Director and Chief Content Officer, to learn more about False Conviction. This interview is not really about an ebook. It’s about thinking about science centers and the public understanding of science as a human problem.

How did this project come about? 

I was at a planning meeting for NISE-NET in St. Paul five years ago. NISE-NET is probably the single largest investment that the National Science Foundation has made in informal learning, with the intention of spreading knowledge about nano science. We tried to find ways to make nano science interesting to the public, but it was mostly shiny futuristic potential that seemed to leave people cold. I cut out from the meeting by myself to check out an exhibition called Open House, if These Walls Could Talk at the Minnesota History Center.

I was struck by the mortality, pathos, and sense of loss that pervaded the exhibition. Not that it was sad, but that it was human. Contrasting that rich human narrative with the kind of gleamy tweaky technology narrative that was emerging from the NISE-NET meeting made me realize that generally speaking, science museums ignore many of the aspects of life that are the most resonant--mortality, sex, humor, tragedy, pity, joy. If there was a way to engage these deep emotions in the context of science museums, then there is an opportunity to expand our impact.

Two years later, I met Peter Neufeld, the head of The Innocence Project. Peter started telling me this absolutely fascinating and deep take on the way in which the misunderstanding of science is fundamental to the false convictions that The Innocence Project helps to overturn. On one side is DNA evidence, which was developed through the scientific method, and on the other side are a raft of quasi sciences and unreliable memories. Eyewitness identification is considered the gold standard of evidence to find guilt. And yet the plurality of cases that the Innocence Project has overturned were based upon eyewitness evidence. Even more amazingly, people turn out to be very susceptible to manipulation and frequently confess to crimes they did not commit.

I am listening to Peter go through this litany like the brilliant lawyer he is, and I am thinking that this is an amazing opportunity to put science in a very human context. Like so many chance meetings at conferences, we expressed interest in working together, but unlike most, we actually stuck with it.

I keep in my head a Venn diagram that has three circles--one is passion, the second is funding, and the third is audience. I am always looking for projects in which the intersection of those three circles is substantial. This project had that feel. We engaged with the Sloan Foundation, a leading funder in public understanding of science, who made a first time grant to NYSCI to plan the project. Peter and I brought in two equally passionate partners, Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the NY Times; and Geralyn Abinader, the former head of digital media at the American Museum of Natural History. Finally we engaged Theo Grey, one of the first developers for the iPad who had started a British company called Touch Press. So we had the key players.

I always have a strong feel for the passion and funding part of the venn diagram, but I am less confident of my understanding of our audiences. However, I was encouraged by the popularity of forensic science and the widespread and growing awareness of the problem of false convictions in our criminal justice system. I felt, and our partners agreed, that there was a great potential for a large audience for the project.

Is there a target audience for the project? If so, whom? 

It clearly is a book for adults. When Touch Press was doing their planning, they identified the target audience for the book as "educated and lefty." I like that, though I know that libertarians will find a lot to appreciate as well. My hope is that we can find a way to get it into the science and humanities classrooms in colleges and universities, and I am working on that.

It is a bit too sexual for most high schools, though one high school philosophy teacher reported using it to great effect. One of his students reflected:
Using the interactive iPad book to test my own reliability in crime scenes and investigations was really powerful. Feeling involved and somewhat responsible myself made me take the interactions seriously and I was even emotionally invested and ultimately disappointed at my own inaccuracies. Now knowing how difficult it is to put actual evidence together, not circumstantial or through coerced confessions, I feel more strongly than ever that we have to rely as much as possible on science to do this work fairly and justly.
Teachers and science conference organizers have been very enthusiastic and the sparse reviews on the iBook store has been positive. Anyone we can get to look at it and devote the time to it really seems to love it. But the key part seems to be getting people’s attention for a sustained engagement of 4-5 hours with a deep, rich, and harrowing set of content.

That’s not easy. I was struck by how this is partly interactive, but within a structured, linear narrative. How did you make decisions about how to structure the story? 

From the beginning, we knew this was fundamentally a book. We want 5 hours of your time to read this book. No website can deliver that kind of sustained attention. Our interactives were carefully designed not to lead one too far or for too long from the narrative. We didn't want people wandering through youtube videos, etc., but rather we wanted the interactive portions to illustrate parts of the narrative. Jim is the author and he is so brilliant and addresses the subject with such clarity and authority that we had a lot of trust in his sense of the structure of the book.

Why are you using the iBooks platform? It seems to limit availability.  

This is our biggest problem right now. When we started the project, we chose to work with Touch Press because of the quality of their work, but also because they had long-standing and deep connections into Apple's digital media group. They felt confident and had some assurances that our project would get a lot of visibility on the Apple iBooks store. It hasn't. Apple has a long history of ambivalence about its forays into education, and right now False Conviction is not getting the kind of exposure we want and need. We have always planned to make a non-interactive version of the book, both for epub/kindle and on paper, so we are working on that right now. Peter, Jim, and I have been doing some science conferences, but we haven't found the right way to get this very compelling project out further. The iBook story is a bit of a mystery and backwater, nothing like the App store, though it seems so similar. So we have learned a lot, and are working on building readership for the iPad version and also creating versions for other platforms.

While the content is really compelling, the audience and format are obviously challenging. This whole project is kind of risky. How do you figure out how to explore a new project like this? 

In the Venn diagram I described above, our certainty about the curatorial passion and funding were strong, but our understanding of the audiences and distribution were more experimental. I have tried to be very transparent with my colleagues and other stakeholders about the benefits of undertaking these experiments, to mixed success.

So it is not so much where I judge to take it, but rather the team's success in demonstrating its value to the goals of the institution. This requires that we be honest about what we have achieved and not assert that something is worth doing solely because we can get funding for it or because one of the program team is hot for the project. We're getting better at this. All that said, man are these brand new approaches invigorating, food for the mind, and great for finding really remarkable and creative staff. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to do this.

How does this project fit into the broader context of NYSCI? 

All of our work is focused on ways of broadening the invitation into science. We want to make projects that have a broad public invitation, that are human and humane, that are brilliantly executed, and that bring new ideas to the table. We want to demonstrate that NYSCI is thinking broadly and energetically about informal STEM learning, and that we continue to be recognized as a laboratory where creative ideas can emerge and be deployed. That is what we are trying to do in all the projects we have been working on, whether Design Lab, Human +, Connected Worlds, or False Conviction.

What are you ultimately hoping to achieve with this project? 

A few things. First I think the power of the image of falsely convicted people spending a couple of decades in prison knowing that they are innocent is a haunting and nightmarish scenario, a kind of Pit and the Pendulum, buried alive horror. Can we leverage the empathy that we have with people who are in that horrific situation to make people think more about how science has a real impact on our lives? Can we re-integrate deeper feelings, more humanity, into how we approach thinking and teaching about science?

There is a 20 minute video--a real video--in False Conviction of a young man confessing that he committed a murder that he *did not* commit. The two detectives interrogating him slowly close the noose on him, and it has the fascination of watching a boa constrictor kill and eat a small mammal. But we are watching a boy ruin his own life, in real time.

I am also really interested in the question of sustained attention, and how we can combine the sustained attention that one gives to a book or a movie with the sense of interactivity and participation that one gets from a good science museum exhibition. This question continues to vex our field as we continue to "design for distraction," piling one experience on top of another.

So from the affect and emotion of the project to the form of the project, I am hoping it helps our field think through some new options.

Ultimately we want to move people with the reality of these stories and the deep way in which science is central to the possibility of preventing or minimizing false convictions. The Innocence Project is a tremendously participatory project, with hundreds of volunteers around the country. Our hope is that this book engenders even more active participation. This is real stuff, with real consequences on real people's lives. More and more cities around this country are re-opening entire classes of cases to look at the possibility of the misapplication of science resulting in the dual tragedy of decades of innocent people’s lives being wasted and real criminals continuing to commit violent crimes. It is as personal and compelling as science gets.

False Conviction can be purchased through the iBook store and read on an iPad or an Apple computer running Mavericks through the iBook program. You can find it here

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Year Three as a Museum Director... Thrived.

LinkedIn has a new feature where people can congratulate each other on work anniversaries. It has some of the same feel as the disconnected affection of people wishing you a happy birthday on Facebook, with professional reflection baked in. Seeing so many cheerful one-liners in my inbox made me think about how different my work situation is today than the last time I reflected on it in public in 2012, at my one-year anniversary.

I've now been the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for three years. I arrived in 2011 with the explicit directive to execute a turnaround. Three years later, we're out of turnaround and into growth mode. Over the past three years, we've tripled our attendance, doubled our budget, and, most importantly, established deep and diverse relationships with community members, artists, and organizations across Santa Cruz County. This year was a year of building, challenging, and strengthening.

I'm open to any questions you want to share in the comments. In the meantime, here are some...

  • Making space for distributed leadership. When I look back at some recent projects that I'm most excited about (like this teen program), I realize that I had very little to do with their conception or execution. What I did was make space for my brilliant staff members to tackle their dreams. I helped them find funding and partners and time to make amazing work happen. We talk a lot at our museum about empowering our visitors, collaborators, interns, and staff by making space for them to shine. I know our organization will keep thriving because we keep expanding who can bring leadership to the table. 
  • Building an amazing team. Of course, space-making works when you respect your colleagues and know they can do killer work. We have an incredible group of people working together at the MAH right now. I've never worked in such a supportive, energized, active environment. We work hard to name and build our culture in many ways. Institutional culture is something I never really understood before and I am now completely fascinated by how it can shape work.
  • Making co-creation sustainable and powerful. Participatory work can be very labor-intensive. We have prioritized opening up to as many partners as possible through collaborative structures that scale. In a town of 65,000, we're collaborating with over 2,000 residents per year: teen punk bands, professional paper-makers, genealogists, food justice activists, and everyone in-between. We've developed program formats and tools that allow us to slot in and support partners without constantly reinventing the wheel. We're seen as a trusted and desirable partner to diverse cultural practitioners in our community. And now, we're investing in strategic outreach to prospective collaborators who come from backgrounds and communities that aren't already involved.   
  • Naming our goals and our culture. We have shifted from a time of explorative chaos to a time of putting down roots. We have a better sense of how we work, what we are trying to achieve, and who we are. A lot of that is institutionalized through naming. We wrote a new mission statement. We wrote engagement goals. We wrote values statements. We're working on a theory of change. These documents help us talk to ourselves and to others about what we are doing and how we can do it better. They aren't intended to force fit our work to aspirational language; instead, they are intended to make transparent that which is existing but ephemeral. When we name what we do and why, we can be more open, authentic, and accountable in our work, especially with community partners.
  • Naming fears, too. As we shift from turnaround to growth mode, I have a lot of worries: that we will lose some of our collaborative magic, that getting bigger will mean getting less effective, that maturing will mean losing touch with what is most relevant. I know that all of these are healthy, creative tensions that come with change and growth. I'm trying to operate from a position of hope and not one of fear. And when I'm afraid, I try to be honest and open about it and to invite everyone on our team to help write our collective future in the most positive way possible.

  • Taking criticism too personally and letting it impact my emotional health too much. I learned this year that really, truly, not everyone is going to like what we are doing. I can't harbor secret hopes that everyone will like it or that I can change their minds with goodwill. Now, when people tell me they don't like something, I try to have an out-of-body experience where I separate the "it" from "me." I find when I do this, I can more rationally examine their critique and whether it is something I should respond to/act on. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. Either way, it helps me stay focused on the work and not on the emotional stress.
  • Letting myself ignore glaring problems that still exist. A donor walked into the museum a few weeks ago, someone who supported me from day one, and she asked me, "why is this lobby still so cold and uninviting?" I jumped in and started talking about how we are designing furniture for it, that we've been focusing on injecting warmth in gallery spaces, that it is energized and peopled during events... She cut in and said, "that's all well and good, but if you are standing outside thinking about whether to come in and you don't KNOW about all that stuff, and all you see is this awful dead lobby, why would you come in?" She is right. We have to change it. In any work environments, there are things that we fix right away, and then there are other things that are just a bit too tricky or unpleasant. And so we wait, and we put them off, and eventually, we pretend they aren't problems. They are still problems. We can't become inured to them. We have to fix them. 

  • As we grow, how can we do as much growing as possible outside the museum's walls? We're investing a lot in a public plaza project outside of the museum. We're exploring ways to become embedded in other parts of the civic landscape, ranging from social service providers to public transit. I firmly believe that a community-engaged museum is a web of interactions. We need a strong core, but we also need beautiful, strong radiations and intersections.
  • How do we prioritize social bridging in contexts that privilege bonding? We've pivoted heavily towards a goal of promoting bridging experiences that bring together diverse people and cultural practices across differences. We've gotten pretty good at doing this at museum programs, but it gets more complicated when we are working with a bonded group like a homeless center or a school tour. We want to do the sensitive cultural work of being good guests in others' spaces, but we also want to make sure that our engagement in their spaces creates intersections and bridges across multiple groups. We're going to start doing a lot more rigorous research and experimentation in this area in the months to come.
  • How do we share our bifurcated story as both a place to engage with art and history AND a place that builds community? Obviously, these things are interrelated, but they are not identical--especially when it comes to communication. Right now, we have a double life online. One on side are the conversations we have with our visitors, which mostly focus on engagement experiences. On the other side are the conversations with funders, fellow practitioners, and community partners, which mostly focus on larger goals and experiments. It's clear from visitor and member comments that they are also interested in the bigger picture, but it's not obvious how we can share that bigger picture alongside the "come on Friday night for X" kind of messaging. This is more than just a question of email--it's a question of how we can best involve our energized participants in the deep work that underscores everything we do. 
Here's to another amazing year. I feel so lucky to work in my community. To work for my community. To see change happening because of the work we are doing. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Coming to AAM? Want to Meet People for Real Conversations on Issues that Matter Most to You?

Everyone always says that the best part of conferences happens outside the sessions, in the hallway conversations and one-on-one meetings that aren't on the official schedule. 

This may be true. It's also incredibly frustrating when you are new to a field, at a huge conference, or if you are not a born networker. If the best part of the conference isn't on the agenda, how the heck are you supposed to access it?

Last week, I was talking with some colleagues at my museum about the upcoming American Alliance of Museums conference and asked them what kinds of people they wanted to meet at AAM. Their remarks made me realize two things:
  1. I don't know the people they want to meet.
  2. It's ridiculous to assume that the best way to set up one-on-one meetings is through a conversation with your boss, or a hunt-and-peck through the AAM registrant list.
So my colleague Elise Granata and I set up a very simple LinkedIn group as an experiment. Here's how it works:
  • Join the LinkedIn group (if you are searching, it's called "Hack Your Hello's at AAM"). 
  • Post the question that you are bringing to AAM or is most on your mind.
  • In the "add more details" section, list your contact info and availability during the conference.
  • Contact people who share your interests and set up meetings with them at the conference. (Hint: you can do this even if you are not going to the conference.)
That's it. Easy. Hopefully.
If nothing else, it will be the first time I've ever really used LinkedIn.

We'll also be hosting an informal meetup at 10:15am on Monday, May 19 at the tables outside the general session (we assume there will be tables). If you don't want to go through the trouble of setting a meeting time in advance, show up on Monday and find someone interesting to talk with. 

I personally feel that the scheduled sessions at AAM are also pretty darn good, and the conference mobile app is useful for coordinating your official schedule. If you want to check out a presentation, I'll be speaking:
  • Monday at 12:15pm as the keynote speaker for the Small Museums Administrator's Committee luncheon, talking about why small museums (should) rule the world of relationship-centered museums.
  • Tuesday at 1:45pm in the "I wish somebody had told me..." storytelling session, talking about how I built confidence identifying as an activist.
  • Wednesday at 8:45am in the "Hack the Museum" session, about our MuseumCamp in 2013 at which diverse teams built experimental artifact-based exhibits in 48 hours.
A couple other scheduled events I recommend:
  • My excellent colleague Elise will be speaking on Monday at 1:45pm in the "Advocacy in Practice" session about our work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to engage community members as ambassadors and advocates for our community-based institution.
  • "Mistakes Were Made" on Tuesday at 3:15 is always a fun, honest story-sharing experience if you need a break from the content-focused presentations.
  • The people in the "Future of History" session (also Tuesday at 3:15) include some really incredible innovators who inspire me.
  • The fine folks at Incluseum are hosting a happy hour on Tuesday at 6pm at the Diller Room (p.s. - they want people to RSVP).
Enjoy the conference - or at least the LinkedIn group. I look forward to seeing if this experiment is helpful in matchmaking some fruitful conversations.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Guest Post by Porchia Moore: Performing Blackness--Museums, Mammies, and Me

Kara Walker,
The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18)
This guest post was written by Porchia Moore, a third year doctoral candidate in Library Science and Museum Management at the University of South Carolina. I was first exposed to Porchia’s work in the fall 2013 issue of Exhibitionist. Since then, I have avidly followed her smart thinking on the intersection of critical race theory and museums. In this powerful blog post, Porchia demonstrates both the need and the opportunity for cultural competency to transform who participates in museums and how. 

I was standing in an elegant room of a historic house museum with 25 museum professionals from across my southern state on a bus tour of local museums as a part of our annual museum conference. We crowded into a tiny room adorned with heavy drapery, high-backed chairs, and gilded frames of Civil war-era paintings above marble-topped fireplaces. And then things fell apart.

As the tour guide summed up his brief intro, he turned, pointed, looked at me, asked me my name, and told me not to worry. That “in the end, it all worked out” for me and my people. In fact, to dramatize how wonderful things worked out, he would give me the opportunity to wave a flag at the end of his tour signaling the end of the war and the end of slavery (and presumably all its ill effects). I folded my hands behind my back, smiled, and prepared to take the most meaningful museum tour of my life.

 The tour guide--let’s call him Henry--peppered every other sentence with slave references while pointing or deferring to me. Thus: “Porchia, you are going to like this” as he told me about the enslaved peoples who worked in the home, including many happy, well-adjusted “mammies” that lived and worked in the very room where we stood. I wondered with amusement if Henry really thought that I was going to wave a flag.  Should I grab it and with the thickest, most vile accent shout loudly, “thank you ‘Massa!”? Henry clearly wanted me to perform his notion of Blackness that day.

As he kept asking us to gather closer around him, I began to retreat so that soon I was almost in another room. Perhaps, if I moved out of his line of sight, we could turn this tour around. Too late.
“What do you think the slaves ate[…pause] What did the slaves eat, Porchia?” 
Shoulders shrugging….mumbling “I have no idea…” 
“Come on, Porchia,--hoecakes!” 
He slaps his leg and smiles as if to chastise me lightly; fingers almost wagging as if to surmise that of course, I knew the answer and was just being shy.

Yes, this is a true story. It happened last year.

After that last exchange, one of my fellow museum professionals abruptly ended our tour as everyone else looked on in horror and disbelief. I was extremely grateful for that interruption. Some people were angry. Others embarrassed. A few were not sure what to make of what just happened.

The Case for Cultural Competency 

I acknowledge that my experience is extreme. It took place in the Deep South. Henry is a man of a certain age. But these are not reasons to excuse what we all endured that day. I share my story because I hope that it makes you uncomfortable.

Henry is not the typical museum professional. Henry had been contracted for years by local government to give us a tour. He is regarded as both a noted historian and consummate professional capable of executing interpretive work at a historic site and museum.

 This story drives home my belief in the power and potential of cultural competency in museum settings. I believe cultural heritage institutions are the best suited to think critically about cultural competency and the language of cultural competence because that language inevitably fosters inclusion and participation.

 Henry was making a genuine attempt at building rapport. Part of me is happy that Henry wanted to connect with me, the lone person of color in a group of all white museum professionals. But there is another part of me that could not imagine being so disconnected from cultural competency that I would try to connect by being racially offensive and thereby speaking a language of exclusion even as I intended to be inviting and inclusive.

Instantly, I began to think about how cultural heritage institutions might be replicating Henry and his behaviors daily in much more subtle and inadvertent ways. When we “invite” the Other into the museum, we inadvertently send the message that inclusion is not inherent. Invited participants are given Welcomed Outsider status. The discourses of diversity are often wrought with language that sends mixed messages by placing the majority-minority outside of the museum. The sentiment is correct, but the language is flawed. I advocate co-creation as the language of inclusion because it promotes genuine active participation—the kind that cultivates a desire to become a vested stakeholder.

I had entered that tour excited about the complex narrative surrounding the objects and the people who owned the home. I had a kind of macabre enthusiasm about performing Blackness as a “diverse” new participant in that space. In my mind, what cultural competence would have looked like for me that day is partly about language: the proper use of terms such as “enslaved person” instead of “slave,” knowing that the use of the term “mammy” is inappropriate. Furthermore, I wish Henry had felt comfortable enough to speak about slavery in a way that anchored it in statistics, facts, and complex narratives that made the tour fun, memorable, and powerful without being overly-conscious of my presence as a black woman in the room.

Two of the many barriers to participation for people of color in cultural heritage institutions are assumptions of identity and the burden of expectations of the performance of race. While visitors of color want to be assured that there is equity in the exhibition, marketing, and programming, we do not want to perform race either--especially when we are fully aware that the very act of our participation might have originated in response to a call for diversity. When executed poorly, this kind of invitation does not illicit co-creation but rather feelings of exploitation.

There is no single Black experience. Henry had no idea if I were born and raised in the US, the UK, or even if I was a native English speaker. He was too busy asking me to perform his version of me to allow me to participate fully as the black woman that I am.