Enlivening old exhibits

While researching local history, one of my students recently came across an old newspaper article she thought I’d find amusing.  Titled “Old Scenes Take Form At Museum,” it was a piece on a new exhibit opening in the state history museum.

I do indeed find museum history interesting, so I was eager to see how the exhibit was described, what motivated the museum to put it up, and to compare it with the exhibits in the museum today so that I can get a better sense of how the museum’s exhibition philosophies and priorities have shifted.

You can see where this is going, right?

The exhibit featured in the newspaper is still up today, and from the description in the article, it appears it hasn’t changed at all.

The newspaper article was published in the early 1960s.

A cautionary tale

My point in writing this post is not to shame or embarrass the museum in question. (It certainly isn’t alone in having permanent exhibits that are, well, permanent.) As with many state history programs—and, I’m guessing, like many such programs in politically conservative states, where education tends not to be funded as fully as it might be elsewhere—it’s clear even to the casual visitor that the museum doesn’t have the money to mount new exhibits on a regular basis.

Still, it’s important to point out the liabilities of such an approach to exhibitions to underscore the importance of keeping up-to-date with museum theory and practice.


First, it’s not good when visitors say about your museum—as did the students, aged 20-50, I took to this museum last month—”It hasn’t changed since I was a kid.”  The number of visitors who appreciate the nostalgia factor is likely to be far smaller than those who would like to see a new exhibit.  Late last year, Reach Advisors delved into their databases to determine what visitors’ attitudes are to changing exhibits—and whether these attitudes differ among museum members, frequent visitors, and occasional visitors.  Among their findings:

  • Museum visitors appreciate changing exhibits.
  • Museum visitors who expect more change in exhibits but don’t see that change happening are less likely to be satisfied with a museum.
  • “Children’s museums, art museums, and more traditional history museums should still take heed of the demand for changing exhibitions.”
  • “Museums of any type that are specifically seeking to attract family audiences should also bear in mind how important change is to parents.”
The Reach Advisors blog continues:

Changing exhibitions does not necessarily mean huge costs, though costs are certainly a factor.  Of the written-in comments we examined asking for more changing exhibitions, none referred to what we call “blockbuster” exhibitions.  Some suggested small changes to liven things up.  Change might be a “science in the news” area, which changes on a weekly basis but would not necessarily meet design standards for a longer-lasting exhibition.  Change can be delving into the permanent collection and highlighting an artist, or a local history topic, and featuring those items through a new lens (a tactic deployed by many museums during these rough economic times).  Change doesn’t mean an expensive line item, and it doesn’t mean changing over the entire museum every six weeks, though it does mean a commitment of some funds and considerable time.

Funding agencies and foundations

One of the most commonly asked questions on humanities and arts grant applications today seems to be some variation of, “What’s innovative about your project?”  A museum might be able to find a grant writer who could answer that question relatively persuasively about a proposed exhibition redevelopment, but if I were on a grant proposal review committee—and I have been—I would be looking for evidence that the museum has dabbled in whatever brand of innovation its staff wishes to implement. In the case of this particular museum, if I saw that most of the exhibits were 30, 40, or 50 years old, I would wonder about the museum’s capacity to implement best practices in museum education and exhibition—simply because I don’t see many signs in the current exhibits that the museum is even interested in experimenting with, say, interactivity or with exhibit panels of fewer than 300 to 500 words.

Let’s say this museum knows it should implement a new degree of interactivity but it hasn’t. Because authentic artifacts are the traditional history museum’s stock-in-trade, incorporating interactivity may at first seem a challenge because visitors can’t touch the artifacts the way they can interact with objects and manipulatives in a science center or children’s museum. Furthermore, if the exhibition development and education staff of a history museum hasn’t been provided quality opportunities for professional development—and I don’t know if that’s the case with this particular museum, but the museum’s exhibits do not reflect the at least last 20 years or so of theory and practice—then they might not be able to think beyond expensive replicas and the sometimes complex  “recipes” for fabrication designed by science centers like the Exploratorium. Once we can force ourselves to think beyond video kiosks, replicas, and dynamic science interactives, we find many possible baby steps toward interactivity or visitor participation.  It’s easy to add a simple paper-and-pen or token-based polling system for visitors, create laminated cards or brochures that offer alternative tours through the museum based on individual visitors’ interests, or affix QR codes to exhibit labels to direct visitors to more in-depth content on the museum’s website or to additional photographs of the object from angles that aren’t visible to the visitor.

Interactivity can be simple and inexpensive to integrate into an exhibit, and much information is available freely online about how to successfully include interactive components in an exhibit. There’s no longer any good reason a museum hasn’t adopted such techniques, and it doesn’t make sense for a museum to ask for funding for a new, innovatively interactive exhibition if it hasn’t shown interest or capacity in more basic interactive techniques.


Although museum professionals know that in most museums only a small percentage of artifacts ever see the exhibition floor, my sense is that few donors to local history museums understand their treasures likely will remain in storage in perpetuity. Donors who wish to see their gifts on display during their lifetimes may be dissuaded by decades-old exhibits or by temporary exhibits not drawn from the museum’s collection.  In addition, speaking for myself, I’d be unlikely to donate my family’s beloved heirlooms to a museum if the institution lacked the creativity and wherewithal to interpret artifacts in ways that challenge visitors to think critically and creatively.


Let’s consider a few ways to update this exhibit relatively inexpensively and thus gain some respect in the eyes of visitors, current and prospective donors, and even funders.

A wringer washer in Wyoming. Image by arbyreed, and used under a Creative Commons license.

First, a description. The “old scenes” mentioned in the newspaper article comprise a kitchen and porch exhibit whose central feature appears to be laundry.  I haven’t paid attention to the exhibit lately, but if memory serves, there is a wringer washer, soap containers, and some other household goods arrayed on a porch.  The article describes it thus: “The porch display. . .will include an old hand-crank clothes washer, ice-box refrigerator, rocking chairs and a stack of wood.”

The exhibit depicts, in other words, a tiny slice of domestic life at the turn of the last century.  My reading of it is as cute and nostalgic in a way that makes me uneasy because the woman who would be using the objects displayed in the kitchen and on the porch is absent; her labor becomes invisible.  So, in this scenario, let’s find a way to make that woman and her labor visible to the visitor.

Assuming visitors can get network reception inside the museum’s building, I recommend adding multimedia content accessible via smartphone, 3G or 4G tablet, or, if the museum is equipped with public wifi, a wireless device like an iPod Touch or wifi iPad.  Having such content available on devices a visitor brings with her, or even on a device that can be checked out from the front desk, means that the museum won’t need to buy, maintain, and update a bulky and expensive audio or video kiosk.  This content might be accessible through a QR code or simply a URL printed at the bottom of the exhibit’s interpretive panel.

Audio content might include the voice of a woman talking about how tired she is after using all these devices or telling a story about how her curious toddler stuck his hand into the wringer when her attention was directed toward another one of her children, and she cranked the handle (audio of child screaming or crying), and the doctor had to be called to examine the child’s hand.  Alternately, the printed URL might take the user to a YouTube video of someone using a hand-cranked washer:

In an underfunded museum such as this one, audio content could be created by interns who undertake research into the use of such machines, then are given free range with Audacity or another free or low-cost audio editing program. Interns also could seek out such video footage of an antique washer, such as I’ve posted above, and embed it onto mobile-friendly pages on the museum’s website. (Of course, best practice for any institution would be to include a link to a transcript of the audio for deaf visitors and a description of the video for blind visitors.)

Or we could tell a different kind of story. This is, after all, a museum with a quarter million objects in its collection, so it has plenty of artifacts it could be exhibiting.  Perhaps we see the open porch at a moment of transition; it’s being enclosed to make a laundry room, and the woman has set her old hand-cranked washer and wringer out in the yard to make way for her new machine, which features an electric agitator. Audio or textual content could describe the woman’s feelings about the new machine at the moment of its arrival, as well as showcase her ambivalence a few months down the road, when she complains about constantly having to repair it, or when she expresses the belief that it’s too rough on her family’s clothes, wearing them out prematurely.

In this scenario, collections and education staff could establish a schedule whereby the laundry machines and interpretive content (text or audio) are updated every few months. Visitors could play a game, made with magnets and laminated photos of old laundry machines, in which they try to place the laundry machines in the correct chronological order.

Or, of course, we could abandon laundry altogether.  It isn’t, after all, the sexiest subject.  Moving away from laundry, however, doesn’t have to mean a complete (and costly) exhibit renovation. The relative openness of the porch exhibit “stage” lends itself to any number of scenes in a way that, say, the built-in cabinets and framed windows of the restored formal dining room in an adjacent exhibit do not. The museum could tell any number of stories about race, class, age, gender, leisure, and labor.

And need I mention that it’s best practice to rotate artifacts?  Changing exhibits allow objects relief from light, vibration, and other damaging phenomena.

Share your thoughts in the comments

I’d love to hear your own stories of

  • permanent exhibits that became a little too permanent, and how the museum resolved the issue;
  • low-cost changing exhibits;
  • inexpensive ways to add or integrate simple multimedia content that enriches an exhibit or shifts its meaning; and
  • old exhibits updated to become more interactive or participatory.

I’m also eager to hear what solutions you’d propose to the particular challenge I’ve shared in this post.  What advice would you give the museum staff?

Between education and curation

(cross-posted from The Clutter Museum)

There’s been a ton of talk over the past year about how participating in social media—whether through blogging, social bookmarking, Twitter, Flickr, or whatever—can be a form of curatorial practice.

And I totally get the appeal of that particular metaphor. In fact, I understand that some people mean to use it in a very literal way, in the sense that they see themselves as imposing a welcome order or useful narrative on a very unwieldy collection of internet artifacts. I’ve seen some people I think are absolutely brilliant using the term this way.

Those who know me well know I don’t roll out my Ph.D. lightly. But as an (OK, adjunct) professor of museum studies and soon-to-be assistant professor of public history, I have to call bullshit on this one. As a lover of metaphor and as a poet who embraces all the possibilities of metaphor, I completely expect commenters to tell me to loosen up in this case. In fact, I suspect I’ll come across as a snob. But really, this distinction—what is curating, what very much isn’t—matters tremendously.

Educators with some facility in social media have become particularly fond of the term. But education isn’t curating. Curating isn’t education. In fact, in many museums, curators and educators are, alas, at odds with one another. Traditionally, curators have developed a depth of expertise in a content area over years of study, while educators tend—and yes, I know I’m generalizing here—to be younger folks with less education and experience. Education positions have a ton of turnover, a ton of burnout; curatorial positions come with more prestige and a sense of ownership of a position, sort of like tenure. Curators have at least a master’s degree and frequently a Ph.D. Educators have undergraduate degrees and increasingly, in this era of incredible competition for jobs, master’s degrees.

I don’t mean to imply that curators are above the fray, that they hold themselves at arm’s length from education. But their function is different. Curation is not a process of choosing the best resources to help other people learn. It’s much, much more, and to suggest that social bookmarking, sharing links via Twitter, or using an internet platform’s algorithm to help you determine which songs belong on your internet radio station is curation is ridiculous. Differentiating among things you like and dislike, or resources that you think are good or bad, and then sharing those opinions with people as a collection of internet or educational resources, is not curation.

When people talk about “curating” via social media, they’re really talking about filtering, and curators do so much more than filter. You can’t, I’m afraid to inform Robert Scoble, just “click to curate.” In fact, the absence of talented curators makes a given educational context degenerate, in newcurator’s most excellent formulation, to reality television.

Educators also do more than filter. They translate the curator’s research and expertise into small bites digestible by the general public or schoolchildren. This is a talent unto itself, and—as a former museum educator and exhibition developer—it’s not easy to develop because informal education diverges so spectacularly from what we’re all taught is supposed to happen in formal educational settings.

The conflation of a combination of sharing, digital resource connoisseurship, and online teaching and learning with a form of curation not only devalues the actual practice of curation—and by extension the time, effort, and passion it takes to develop sufficient expertise to become a curator—but also obscures the skills we hone as we navigate sharing on the social web.

We need a new term for folks who are developing (or who have already developed) the depth of expertise that marks curatorial work, but who also practice the distinctive forms of teaching and learning engendered by the social web. It’s not exactly edupunk, and it’s not museopunk.

In my mind, the people—and particularly academics—who occupy this space practice Keats’s “negative capability”: they are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” By this I mean they get the tension—apparent to anyone who has planned a college course or an exhibition—between helping students or visitors develop content expertise and giving them opportunities to think critically and creatively. Doing both of these things simultaneously—cultivating expertise and promoting real intellectual development and discernment—is incredibly difficult to do from a lectern. The social web, like a provocatively interactive museum exhibition, offers new possibilities for this kind of participation in, and service to, the world.

California Academy of Sciences botanical curator Alice Eastwood standing on the scarp of the San Andreas Fault, 1906. Eastwood was both a curator and an educator.

What we call that exciting—and dare I say disruptive?— role is open to discussion and debate. Kindly leave your witty neologisms in the comments.

Update: Just saw this article on the new curators in the New York Times, which in some ways undermines my argument and in other ways reinforces that curating is its own special skill set. An excerpt:

It is also a group plugged in to all areas of museum life. They don’t simply organize exhibitions, they also have a hand in fund-raising and public relations, catalog production and installation. “The old-fashioned notion of a curator was that of a connoisseur who made discoveries and attributions,” said Scott Rothkopf, 33, who is the latest full-time curator to join the Whitney Museum of American Art’s team. “A lot of that work has already been done. The younger generation is trained to think differently, to think more about ideas.”

Professional development in museums

Note: This is a revision of an earlier version of this post.

As an adjunct professor in John F. Kennedy University’s graduate program in museum studies, professional development is frequently at the front of my mind.

By “professional development,” I mean helping students and emerging museum professionals become more thoughtful museum thinkers and makers. I’m talking about learning to think more critically and creatively about both one’s niche within the museum world and the larger system of the museum (or museums). Much of the writing on museum theory and practice can contribute, of course, to professional development, but no number of how-to articles or books contextualizing contemporary museum exhibitions and programming is sufficient in itself.

The difference between learning how to do something in a museum context and developing oneself professionally within the museum field is frequently vast. It’s the difference between reading an article on how to grow tomatoes (and subsequently planting tomatoes) and reading a book like Food Not Lawns and planning a suburban or urban garden that recycles resources via a system of ponds, swales, compost heaps, and seed preservation.

The most effective professional development takes place within systems and networks.  In my experience, the best professional development frequently happens spontaneously, in the form of “a learning community assembling itself on the fly.” I borrow this phrase from Gardner Campbell’s talk for the University Continuing Education Association’s 2009 conference.  Campbell emphasized the importance of catching a thought and pushing it along via conversations and networks–in Gardner’s example, by tweeting  and retweeting on Twitter. “It’s a very playful way to interact,” Campbell said. “It’s purposeful, too. And you can’t control it. You shouldn’t try to shape it too narrowly. There are other things we can do for that. The term paper is not going away. The research project is not going away. . . Pushing the thought along actually lends a kind of vividness, a kind of energy, a sense of shared purpose to whatever you’re doing in a learning situation. It’s quite remarkable.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t directly addressed this topic in previously in a blog post. I spend 40+ hours a week in the University of California, Davis, teaching center, trying to get faculty to be, in my mentor Jon Wagner’s phrase, more thoughtful about teaching undergraduates. I also help graduate students be more effective instructors, and I’ve founded a professional development consultancy. In short: I “do” professional development. I also teach museum studies graduate students, inculcating them into the field via an introductory history and theory seminar and by overseeing their master’s theses. I have quite a bit of experience and expertise in what works and what doesn’t in professional development in academic and nonprofit contexts; I’ve just never synthesized those experiences in writing.

In this post, I’m going to look at some best practices in professional development as well as look at the learning communities that are sprouting organically or intentionally from various social media platforms.  By looking at these phenomena, I’m confident we can plot a more deliberate course–and yet one customized for each individual–for the professional development of our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.

Seven best practices in professional development

1. Professional development must be anchored to learning objectives.  Professional development is not about “training” or just being polished and well-informed.  A professional within the museum field is someone who can demonstrate knowledge of the field, yes, but also someone who is an experienced and open-minded learner, someone who

  • cultivates broad networks within and across institutions,
  • communicates well verbally or in writing,
  • is a savvy and generous collaborator,
  • exhibits an extraordinary degree of resourcefulness, and
  • balances critical and creative thinking.

The challenge comes when we try to specify the desired outcomes of these objectives, when we translate them into behavioral objectives on a professional development plan.  These behavioral objectives will vary depending on the individual’s interests, institutional needs, and the size, focus, and scope of the museum.

For example, specific and measurable learning objectives in a year-long professional development plan as stated by an emerging museum professional who is in education at a small textiles museum but who has an interest in moving into curation at some point in the future might include:

  • Determine which research emphases textiles are in demand (either at her museum or in the field more broadly), pick one, and read at least six books and exhibition catalogs, as well as multiple recent journal articles, on those textiles and the cultures producing them.
  • Contact relevant journal editors and volunteer to write reviews of recent books of interest.
  • Establish a collegial, and preferably a mentoring, relationship with an expert textile cleaner or restorer.
  • Start a blog that educates laypeople about specific textiles’ origins, significance, and/or conservation.  Curate a resource page of links to, and a bibliography of, materials on the subject.
  • Attend a museum conference that textiles specialists are likely to attend.
  • Join relevant associations or research groups in the museum field or textile industry.
  • Research undergraduate courses and/or graduate programs that offer hands-on experience with textiles.

2. Conversations are essential to professional development. If you’re working at a small museum, you may find yourself without many people to talk to about what you’re working on. So, for example, if you’re a museum educator who is looking to find more thoughtful methods to interpret a new exhibition, you should be talking to someone who has interpreted an exhibit in a way that intrigued or inspired you, and engaging with the teachers who will be bringing their students to the museum. These aren’t just sound practices in exhibition interpretation; they’re opportunities for you to learn more about what’s going on in other museums and what teachers feel their students aren’t able to get from a traditional classroom experience.

3. Effective professional development stimulates more creative and critical thinking
.  By critical thinking, I mean analytical thinking, the ability to break down a scenario or information into its constituent parts and immerse oneself in studying and critiquing the details. By creative thinking, I mean synthesizing information from diverse sources to create something new and interesting. That means, of course, that the best professional development opportunities offer specific case studies for participants to study and address as well as particular problems for them to solve.

4. Professional development allows individuals to create their own networks by introducing them to network nodes in their areas of interest.  A node is someone who is well-connected in their field or across disciplines or genres of museum participation. We all know people like this in our own workplaces, the people with 500 Facebook friends or 2,000 authentic followers on Twitter. These nodes draw on the expertise of their networks with a simple query via Twitter, blog, or e-mail, and connect individuals with one another.

5. The best professional development has both online and face-to-face components. Professional development is local and national and international. Museums should pool resources and collaborate with other institutions in their region for the mutual improvement of their staff members. We see this beginning to happen with the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership’s formation of the Balboa Park Learning Institute. Here’s a description of the project from the IMLS website:

The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a collaborative organization comprising 24 diverse museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, will establish the Balboa Park Learning Institute (BPLI).  Over the three year project period, BPLI will design a professional development program targeted to the 2,500 professional staff members, 500 trustees, and 7,000 volunteer staff members in the park’s museums.  As BPLI expands, the classes will be made available to museum colleagues and volunteers outside the park. BPLI will develop and present 66 workshops to build knowledge and skills in core museum competencies. Professional evaluation and assessment throughout the
project will prioritize learning needs and refine program delivery techniques. Three symposia will also be offered, bringing together
staff and volunteers from park institutions and beyond to learn about and discuss best practices in museum management and leadership.

Workshops and symposia should emphasize not just content coverage but conversations and connection. These connections and conversations can continue in an online forum, either one specifically set up to further the conversations started at the specific event or a more common tool like Twitter or Flickr.

The platform you choose is important. For example, in my experience, people aren’t going to contribute to a wiki set up for a one-time event, but they might visit a site that aggregates filtered content from their individual Twitter streams or blog feeds. (Select and promote a hashtag (e.g. #aam09) that people can use in their tweets or a tag to use in Flickr and on blogs.) If you have an ongoing project, a group blog or wiki (see, for example, the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy wiki) might be a better place for everyone to contribute. Or, you might partner with a forum like Museum Professionals to expand the learning that takes place at your professional development events beyond your institution(s) and encourage your participants to engage with professionals from outside your institution.

6. Professional development should be viral.
In addition to finding a space for conversations to take place via forums, photo streams, or microblogging, arange in advance with museum blogs to have your staff write about your professional development event in guest posts on others’ blogs. In this way diverse but informed voices can join the conversation.

Similarly, if you missed a conference–say, the American Association of Museums conference or Museums and the Web–be sure to search Twitter for the appropriate hashtag, for example the 2009 AAM hashtag, #aam09. In such conference microblogging streams, you’ll find a wealth of information about what’s going on at the conference, links to conference content, and discussions taking place among attendees–which you should feel free to join in, even if you aren’t at the conference. Many times I’ve been at conferences where the conversations were enriched by people “attending” remotely via Twitter.

7. The best professional development makes space for evaluation. Let’s look back at our hypothetical emerging museum textiles professional in #1.  How shall we go about evaluating the professional’s success in meeting her objectives?  Measuring collegiality, for example, is difficult.  This is a huge topic to address here, but you can expect to see it addressed in a future log post or in one of my museum professional development newsletters.

Ready for more professional development recommendations? Part II of this post, which will focus on social media, is coming soon.

10 lessons museums can learn from Twitter

These days, it seems everyone is going gaga over Twitter, a microblogging platform that functions in many ways as a customizable group instant messaging client.

If you’ve never seen Twitter, when you first visit the site, you may be overwhelmed by all the junk–in so many languages–on the home page. Don’t let that distract you. The point of Twitter, from a reader’s perspective, is to “follow” the “tweets” of interesting individuals and organizations, as well as to participate in multi-threaded conversations. Currently, I follow 65 people, and there are 56 people following me.*

Because many of the people I’m following also follow one another, I’m privy to some very interesting conversations. In fact, I recently attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference, where attendees used Twitter as a back channel for discussion of the sessions. People asked questions of one another, highlighted good points, and even offered critiques of the speakers’ ideas while the sessions were underway. For some people, such a channel is a distraction, but it enriched the conference for me; it also served as a handy form of networking, because I could initiate a conversation with folks from other institutions by referencing one of their tweets. Our conversations have continued, weeks after the conference.

In short, I’m a bit addicted to Twitter because I’ve fallen in with a good crowd.

But what can museums learn from Twitter’s popularity?

1. People like information in small chunks. Yes, we already know most people don’t read labels, but Twitter limits each post to 140 characters. When you read someone’s tweet, therefore, you’re not committing yourself to much text. But Twitter provides a nice number for us to work with: 140 characters. What can you say about an artifact or phenomenon in 140 characters? (Try it. It’s not easy.)

2. People like the challenge of communicating in brief. It’s fun to post updates and ideas in 140 characters or less. Where in your exhibits or on your web site might you ask visitors to contribute? How can you make these small chunks useful to your institution, to contributors, and to their fellow visitors?

3. People like to have a customized information stream delivered directly to them. As museum marketers, we already may target our audience with direct mail or e-mail that matches what our relationship databases tell us about them; we can segment our audiences, for example, by membership levels or events attended. But. . .

4. People like to choose what is in this information stream. Unlike in traditional nonprofit marketing efforts, in Twitter, the customer opts in to a very particular and very personalized stream. No one user’s Twitter stream is like any other. Best of all, if someone’s tweets fail to interest me or otherwise become irrelevant, I can simply stop following that person with two clicks of my mouse.

5. People appreciate ideas and humor. The Twitter users with the most followers appear to be those who are witty or who ask thought-provoking questions and provide thoughtful answers.

6. People like relying on their perceived peers as resources. On Twitter, it’s common to ask a question and get several answers–including links–in response.

7. People like to serve as resources to others–and not just to their peers. In my Twitter stream, there’s a lot of geek speak. Educational technologists and faculty at various points in their careers jump in to help one another at times of frustration and crisis. There’s a good deal of satisfaction to be had from helping out someone you perceive as more advanced than you–or at least further along in his or her career than you may be.

8. People like to eavesdrop. One of the benefits of Twitter is that I can listen in on conversations and brief exchanges to which I might not otherwise be admitted. I want to know what other people and thinking and saying about what they’re experiencing in an exhibition.

9. Conversations carry over easily into other media. Frequently tweets prompt blog posts or even video responses–to which people tweet in response, continuing the cycle. When I see something worth talking about in your museum, where can I continue the conversation? Do you make it easy for me to connect with like-minded visitors? Do you have an RSS feed set up that will alert you that I’ve posted something on my blog that references your institution by name? Will someone on your staff respond to that post within a day or two?

10. People want their information delivered in the fashion they choose–and many like it piping hot. Twitter allows people to receive updates via Twitter’s own web interface, via cell phone or handheld, or via software developed specifically so that users don’t have to continually hit their browsers’ refresh buttons in order to see the latest updates. I must admit I’m a bit chagrined when I post an update or question to Twitter, then hear a coworker’s cell phone buzzing because she’s signed up to receive my tweets in that format.

So yes, a lot of this you already knew from experience and from all those books and articles you’ve read about audience engagement. But all that stuff you learned the hard way doesn’t necessarily carry over into a networked, web 2.0 world. And yet some of that old learning can be expanded very fruitfully into new virtual spaces.

In my next post, I’ll show you some ways museums can use Twitter intelligently and meaningfully. I’ll also, as usual, point you to what some really smart people in the museum blogosphere are saying about Twitter and what they’re already doing with it.

*You can follow me at http://www.twitter.com/lesliemb. My updates are protected, so you’ll need to get permission to follow me. Please send me an e-mail at leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com to introduce yourself, and then I’ll be happy to add you as a follower. I also automatically follow everyone who follows me, so be sure to provide me with some Twittery goodness in exchange. :)

Just-in-time learning

In my former job as an educational technologist, we talked quite a bit about how best to reach faculty who were too busy (or reluctant) to use technologies that might genuinely prove useful to them or their students. Eventually, we figured out that faculty don’t want to hear about technology until they need it–and then they want to learn about it immediately. It’s what I’ve seen described elsewhere as the “What I Want, When I Want It” (WIWWIWI) syndrome.

I definitely have WIWWIWI-itis when it comes to information and knowledge. On the one hand, I inherited my father’s incredible patience for the bricks-and-mortar world. I can wait in line without complaining, as long as no one cuts in front of me. I can wait for packages, and I don’t tend to complain when they’re a few days late. But all that patience goes out the window when it comes to learning. I’ve been spoiled by the Internet and by my university’s extensive online databases. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan is agonizing to me. If I want to know something, or learn something, my first stop is Google. Even though (and maybe because!) I earned a Ph.D., I have little tolerance for the tortuous prose of scholarly articles in the humanities. Give me an abstract, stat!

I suspect I’m not alone. (No, really!)

My museum-going hangups

This combination of real-world patience and my insistence on WIWWIWI when it comes to learning makes museum-going a wee bit dangerous. I’m an unpredictable visitor. I can stand in front of an African-American quilt for 20 minutes, lost in the pattern, hearing jazz in the improvised shape of each piece. In such situations, I feel additional information would be intrusive. I know something about quilts, enough to satisfy my visual consumption of such a piece. But place me in front of a contemporary painting, and I’m flustered. Regardless of whether I think I “get” the piece or not, I want some quick information. How have other people–amateurs and experts–interpreted this work? I want to absorb multiple interpretations, and I want them immediately.

When I walk into a science center, I want to try the manipulables. And I’m happy to read the labels’ explanations of the phenomena on exhibit. But often I also want to find out more about a phenomenon while I still have the manipulable in front of me. The best way for me to do this would be an Internet search or a chat with a very knowledgeable explainer. But docents and explainers tend to have a superficial knowledge of the phenomena on exhibit–because that’s all many visitors need–or they have a scripted explanation that I find tiresome. (This is true of history museums as well as science museums.)

WIWWIWI on the exhibit floor

How do we deal with people like me? I suspect all visitors experience this frustration from time to time.

The answer is not, I suspect, simple or singular. But I’ve heard of some innovations and I’ve brainstormed a few (though I suspect they aren’t truly new). So here’s my list of just-in-time learning aids that might be tested in your institution. I’ve tried to include tactics that benefit your institution through increased goodwill and greater contact hours with patrons (and potential donors).

Give me WIWWIWI materials.

  • Provide docents or explainers that not only know the exhibit script, but who are truly passionate about the pieces on which they’re elaborating. Assess your front-line staff’s and volunteers’ interests to be sure they’re in the best place for them. Use “mystery shoppers” to help you determine where individual staff and volunteers perform best.
  • Similarly, provide docents with notepads so they can take notes about visitor interests and jot down visitor contact info to marketing or education so they can follow up with specific visitors. If I can’t learn something right now, at least reassure me that you can–and will–point me to further resources. I’ll be grateful, you’re getting my e-mail address or phone number, and you’ll have an opportunity–and permission–to make further contact with a patron.
  • Docents might use these same notepads to write down titles of books, URLs, names and contact info or sister institutions, or other resources for visitors. Tear off the sheet of paper and hand it to me, the happy visitor.
  • Alternately, place little pieces of paper and golf pencils throughout the exhibit. Let me take notes and take the paper with me or leave comments for you in a dedicated box.
  • Give me access to a kiosk where I can learn more about a specific work. These kiosks should allow touch-screen browsing, as well as provide me with a place to enter my e-mail address so that your institution can send me more information on subjects of interest to me–but only subjects I indicate are of interest.
  • If your visitors are the kind who carry PDAs, then be sure they can access the Internet (or at least a museum intranet) so they can enrich their own learning.
  • Provide mobile-phone-friendly web sites for your visitors so they can learn more by browsing on their phones. Give them numbers to call to learn more about specific artifacts or works of art.

Combine WIWWIWI materials with resources for further learning.

  • Give me a way to get additional information on specific pieces or activities in your exhibit–whether that be a series of web pages, a resource list I can pick up in the exhibit, an audio tour, or via a series of follow-up e-mails.
  • Host an adults-only discussion café once a month where visitors can meet and greet and discuss the exhibits. Let your marketing and development people circulate among the groups to hear what people are saying and to encourage further involvement with the institution.
  • Set up a del.icio.us account for your museum so that visitors can browse–and even subscribe to–the tagged pages your exhibit team might have used while researching the exhibit. Encourage visitors to return the favor by using the del.icio.us “for:” tag to send interesting web-based resources your way.
  • Give me a list of terms I can use to search the Internet. Sure, it’s nice when you provide me with a list of specific resources on residential restoration in my region. (Enough r’s for you there?) I’m happy to explore carefully selected websites on the particular challenges of restoring a Craftsman or Victorian home. But I may also want to know how to incorporate some of those Craftsman- or Victorian-era pieces into my 1970s ranch house. Tell me to search for “architectural salvage.” Give me a few fish, but also teach me how catch them myself.

Let me contribute.

  • Next to a particularly interesting or popular exhibit or artifact, place a keyboard and screen where visitors can type their comments. Once the comments are screened by staff, the comments can rotate on the same screen between visitor entries or you can have select, particularly moving phrases projected onto the wall. If I’m in an exhibit about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, for example, I’m probably itching to tell you that my disabled great-grandmother, then a very young girl, had to be carried from the rubble as my great-great-grandparents fled the ensuing fire. It’s a small anecdote, but I’d feel better having shared it, knowing that I’ve contributed some knowledge to the larger institutional project.
  • Solicit (multimedia) reactions from me. Let me draw, ask me for family photos or artifacts for an upcoming exhibition, let me record audio. Provide me with a venue to share my insights or expertise with other visitors. If they want to listen, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. But there should be unobtrusive ways to hear other visitors’ thoughts. It’s the same phenomenon I’ve observed in my university classrooms: I’m more likely to share my own thoughts if I already know what someone else thinks. That’s why I have my students blog–and comment on one another’s posts–before class discussion. Students already know what others think, and they come prepared to engage with them–they’re a couple steps beyond where they would be if we went into the class “cold.” The same might apply to your visitors. Let them download particularly interesting audio from other visitors both before and after their visit to your site, or incorporate such visitor reactions into your audio tour.
  • Let me have a vote on future exhibits. I’m more likely to come back for another visit if I get a sense of what might be on your docket for the coming year(s).

What are your thoughts, both as a museum-goer and as someone who works within an institution, on just-in-time learning (and its follow-up)?

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part V

Note: This is part V of a series. Read part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

All right. . . Now that we’ve taken a whirlwind tour of some of the web’s most popular social networking sites, let’s take a moment, sit back, and enjoy a cup of a favorite beverage. (In the 100+ degree heat we’ve been experiencing here lately, I assure you that for me, it’s not coffee.) Let’s pretend I’m a good hostess and for those of you in cooler climes, I’ve put on a pot of coffee to, well, percolate.

As I said in part I of this series, museums’ participation in social networking sites should allow museum content to percolate, to recirculate and gain flavor as that content is passed among Internet users and, we hope, among visitors to museums, who then return to the Web to post their thoughts–and thus museum content persists. Which of the sites I’ve discussed are most successful in allowing for percolation?

1. Flickr: Flickr is a flexible site who usefulness to museums is limited only by museum professionals’ imagination. Best of all, museums’ Flickr projects may be driven by users rather than by museum staff.

2. Twitter: Twitter is labor-intensive in that it requires staff to post frequent “tweets.” But it doesn’t take a lot of staff time, and there’s no learning curve to speak of. And if you did take the time to plan out a marketing campaign, Twitter would allow for a good deal of creativity–and keep your institution in front of Twitter users. Imagine, for example, the tweets of a charismatic and quirky (or, even better, well-recognized) historical figure. Robert E. Lee posts from Gettysburg. Harriet Tubman from the Underground Railroad. (Who wouldn’t add Harriet Tubman as a friend?) The folks at Plimoth Plantation share their daily trials and joys, all in their particular dialect.

3. YouTube: YouTube is fun, and used properly–for contests, to hype exhibits, to add extend exhibit content and concepts–it could be a useful tool. Look around to see what other museums are doing–and then call their marketing departments to gauge their understanding of their YouTube campaigns’ success–before you invest in the hardware and staff training (or expensive video consultants’ fees) necessary to produce quality serialized video.

4. MySpace: Edgier than Facebook, MySpace can give museums an online presence among a younger crowd. But it’s not clear to me how MySpace will keep your institution’s name regularly in front of MySpace users.

5. Facebook: Facebook is a good way to connect with existing communities–for example, to pull together a group of docents–but it’s probably not the place where your museum is going to take off among the younger set.

6. LinkedIn: Little percolation here, but lots of possibility for back-room dealings among donors and muckety-mucks who, used strategically, might raise the profile of your museum. I’d use LinkedIn to open a dialogue with key players in museum- or technology-related fields.

So. . . the salon is open in the comments. What are your thoughts?

Additional Resources

There’s a ton of good writing and thinking out there about museums and the social web, including social teworking sites and mashups. Here are a few that deserve further mention, along with some quotes from each article or post.

There’s an International Museum Professionals group on Facebook. (h/t: fresh + new)

electronic museum’s thoughts on Facebook:

So….should museums be on Facebook? Yes, probably, if that presence does something interesting and motivating for users. Should museums be on Facebook just because it’s there? Obviously not.

Via the above post at electronic museum, we learned about a discussion on Facebook on the Museums and Computer Network listserv. Here’s an excerpt from a posting by Mike Ellis:

Maybe museums would be better off developing some simple Facebook apps –
for example to let users search (and use) their images. See Photobubbles
as one simple idea (http://apps.facebook.com/photobubbles) – if you let
users add captions and bubbles to a selection of images from your
collection you’d be immediately capturing a young and viral audience.Just creating a group “Museum of ****” probably wouldn’t cut it, except
with the same old audience you already had, or people you already work

At roots.lab, there’s an excellent post that claims to be “Social Web 101 for Nonprofits, Or, How the ‘Live’ Read/Write Web Can Help Your Organization Achieve Amazing Things.” An excerpt:

The social web is about:expressing identity. The social web allows individuals to share aspects of their lives with friends, family, or anyone at all, via easy-to-use online tools. It allows people, whatever their motives — and the motives of a MySpacer, a business blogger, a “wikipedian” and so forth are surely very different — to reveal a tangible sense of who they are and what they’re interested in.

relationships and trust. The social web makes it easy to find and start talking with others who share your interests, whose ideas you like, who make pictures, videos, writings that you find appealing. Enjoy a few positive interactions with this sympatico person you’ve found, and trust will begin to ensue. People develop authentic bonds with others through the social web.

user-driven websites. The social web makes the little guy important — anyone can post videos to YouTube, engage in back-and-forth with the authors of widely read blogs, or help write and monitor wikipedia. It also makes the online behavior of the little guy important — each click matters, when giving the thumbs-up to an article on Digg, watching YouTube videos, or even using Google, and figures into these sites’ ranking of content. The social web allows users to be active, empowered participants in the production and distribution of media, the word-of-mouth reputation of a business, the grassroots support for a political candidate, and other tides that course through our culture.

From ProjectsETC, information on user-generated content and cultural activity:

Allowing users to generate their own content can also benefit those with different social, cultural and digital experience or expectations. With hard-to-reach groups, learning how to use these resources can be as important as the end result. At a time when museums and galleries are challenged to demonstrate their social relevance and inclusiveness, such content can be particularly helpful.

Ideum posts on Flickr mashups and interestingness and Mashup of the day and other thoughts.

At Past Thinking, news of Historyscape, a heritage mashup.

At 24 Hour Museum, a post by Nick Poole, “Are Museums Doing it Right?” An excerpt:

The first market for museum websites is the direct user community. These are the people who regularly visit both museums and museum websites, and who make use of their online databases to carry out detailed research into the objects in their collections.The second, much larger group, is the indirect community of millions upon millions of people for whom the Internet is both an information resource and a kind of hyper-connected valet, able to cater to their whims, needs and wishes 24 hours a day.

So far, the majority of our services have been targeted at the former. But who are these people? Do they really exist outside a small number of academic research institutions? Ask the majority of people about the information they want from a museum and they are likely to want to know things like where it is, when it’s open, and whether there’s somewhere for them to have a picnic with the kids. So why is it that we have spent so much time and effort delivering complex searchable databases of catalogue records?

As always, feel free to share your own links to resources in the comments.

(Original percolator-lamp photo by Gary A. K., and used under a Creative Commons license)