Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Participatory Museum: An "Encore" Interview with Nina Simon

Since Nina Simon recently released her book, "The Participatory Museum" I thought I'd do an "encore" posting of the interview I did with her a while back.  Enjoy!

Nina Simon, the creator of the Museum 2.0 blog, is a one-woman idea factory and independent museum professional based in California. I was able to pull her away from her bucolic workspace (see photo above) to answer a few questions about her work and herself:

What’s your educational background?

I went to WPI, a small engineering college in Worcester, MA with a focus on hands-on learning. I learned to weld and build explosive electronic stuff. I left with a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in math, confident I would never again pick up the phone to hear a friend say, "Nina, come over here with as much metal as you can. I'm discharging a giant capacitor and I just vaporized a fork."

What got you interested in Museums?

I've always been interested in free choice learning. In high school, I got my hands on Grace Llewellyn's book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education and only my obsessive geekiness and the potential of my mom having a heart attack kept me from quitting to pursue my own education. But I did go on to read every book by John Holt and Paulo Friere and spend time on a free school farm in Minnesota.

In college, I taught differential equations and was shocked at how many of my fellow students hated and feared math. I also learned pretty quickly that engineering wasn't a great fit for the creative performer in me. I started searching for a place where I could share my love of math and science without handing out grades, and started working at science museums (the Boston Museum of Science and the Acton Discovery Museums) immediately after graduating.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

I love the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a place I visited frequently as a teenager (and continue to visit whenever I'm back in LA). It's one of the few museums that has a mysterious aura to it--it feels like slipping into an attic or a book you read whenever it rains. I feel changed by each visit and that energizes me.

I loved the James Turrell exhibit at the Mattress Factory (2003) for the same reason--mysterious, dark corridors opening into astounding light, like secrets opened just for you.

I love the Exploratorium, a place that also feels like home for me. Each time I go in I feel ready to talk to strangers and interact with lovely, satisfying phemonena. It brings out friendliness and hope. The City Museum does the same. I don't think the City Museum is successful because of the "danger." I think it's successful because, like the Exploratorium, it assumes that its visitors are people worthy of awesome, unusual experiences.

I was really impressed by the Experience Music Project. I learned a ton. The museum uses technology and media intelligently, tells strong stories, and the interactives are killer. While there are definite negatives to the "single player" music booths, I think Quatrefoil did an amazing job creating experiences where you really feel like you could be a musician. I'm the daughter of a musician and I never felt as comfortable messing around with instruments as I did at EMP.

What prompted your interest in 2.0 technologies/communities and starting Museum 2.0?

My husband runs a software company called The Electric Sheep Company that deals with new technologies and a lot of his employees are hyper-connected, creative people. From them, I started learning about the world of Web 2.0, seeing how it was changing the business and social landscape of the internet. A huge revolution happened--and is continuing to happen--very quickly on the Web. It's the most accelerated media change in history. And I started drawing analogues to museums, getting excited about how we might similarly change our media (spaces, exhibits, programs) to engage visitors in new ways as participants and co-creators. I don't think that museums can or should undergo as dramatic and chaotic change as the Web supports. I think we should watch carefully from the sidelines and reach out and snag the good stuff whenever and wherever we find it. And that requires being engaged as a learner in that world.

Of course, there's a more personal reason I started the Museum 2.0 blog. I'm a free choice learner. I didn't want to go to graduate school, but I did want to pursue my own education in museums and learn enough to have something to say to some of the really smart people I was meeting at conferences. The blog really started as a personal learning device. It continues to be that for me, but now there are more co-learners involved.

Tell us a little bit about The Tech’s exhibit development experiments using Second Life and your role in that?

The Tech is experimenting with a new exhibition department model that combines content experts with community managers. The content experts drive exhibitions conceptually, and the community managers translate those concepts into opportunities for creative folks around the world to design interactive elements and exhibit pieces to address those concepts.

There are two over-arching strategic goals with the project--to tap the brilliance and expertise of the whole world for exhibit content, and to develop exhibits on a very short timeline by working in parallel with many virtual exhibit development teams. I led the initial pilot of this model, developing an online community space in Second Life where creative amateurs could work together to design virtual prototypes for exhibits on the theme of technology in art, film, and music.

In three months, over 250 people submitted about 50 exhibit concepts on that theme. I then led the translation of the best of those virtual exhibits into a real exhibition of interactive analogs. The whole process, from the opening of the virtual workshop to the opening of the real exhibition, took 6 months.

I've written a lot about this project and its challenges and successes on the Museum 2.0 blog under the keyword "Tech Virtual," which you can find on the right sidebar under "Past Posts by Topics".

What are some of your best/favorite examples of both Web 2.0 and Museum 2.0?

There are several different kinds of Web 2.0 and Museum 2.0 projects. The best of these share a few commonalities: easy and rewarding entry point, clear benefits of the networked effects of more and more people participating, high quality experience for the lurking non-content provider (most Web 2.0 users are lurkers, not creators).

My current favorite Web 2.0 services are Flickr, the photo-sharing site, Twitter, the short-form communication platform, and Pandora, the personalized internet radio station. I love Flickr because it gives me access to a huge range of images I could never find through other search engines. I love Pandora because it exposes me to new music in an intelligent way. I love Twitter because unlike blogs, which are soap boxes (and I love my soapbox!), Twitter is a level playing field way to share information with others.

There are also some Web 2.0 services, like and LibraryThing, which I use, but rarely for the social functions. They keep my stuff (websites, books) in order.

On the museum side, I love every example of art museums letting visitors write labels (San Jose Museum of Art in the past, Tacoma Art Museum currently). I thought the Art Gallery of Ontario's In Your Face portrait exhibit was fabulous. I liked how the London Science Museum invited visitors to contribute their own toys to a larger curated exhibition on play. I'm interested in a range of visitor co-created exhibits, including Brooklyn Museum of Art's Click! and the Minnesota Historical Society's MN150.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

I'm working with a few museums to strategize about how participatory design will be worked into their plans, whether for individual exhibitions or programs or for large-scale institutional planning. Some of these have to do with visitor co-creation of exhibits, as at the Chabot Space Science Center, where I'm helping plan a three-week institute in which teens will design exhibits as part of a larger exhibition on black holes. Others have to do with pushing the boundaries of how visitors are engaged in exhibits, as at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I'm helping conceive an exhibit component that encourages visitors to take a social/political action related to global warming.

I'll be teaching a museum grad course in the spring at the University of Washington (Seattle) on social technologies, and I look forward to working with those students on designing exhibits and experiences that intentionally support visitors (strangers) talking to and interacting with each other.

I'm also starting up a personal project with my dad, a podcast show called Museum Hater. He's a musician with a lot of free time, an artsy boomer who never goes to museums. We're going to visit museums and talk about why he (and lots of people) never go to museums. It will be funny, but we're also trying to dig into that essential question: who doesn't come and what keeps them from doing so? We usually approach that question with regard to underrepresented ethnic groups. But there are lots of people of all kinds who don't visit museums, and I think we need confront that and find out why.

How do you think museums will be different 10 years from now?

Not different enough. I think museums will keep dragging their feet on visitor participation, citing technological complexity when the real obstacle is the lack of willingness to give up authority. I hope that collections-based museums will move towards designing exhibits that set up the artifacts as opportunities for discussions. I hope that science and history museums will move away from big attraction-style setups to more open-ended and experimental attempts. I hope that programs and exhibits will fuse into a more holistic form of content sharing in the museum. I hope we can let people sit on couches and eat in the museum. But I expect there to be a gap between these hopes and reality.

What 2.0 technologies/techniques do you think are underutilized currently in museums?

There are two related techniques I think we are most lacking. First is profile power--the ability for a visitor to be recognized and responded to as a unique individual. On Web 2.0 sites, everything revolves around you. Your Facebook page shows you what your friends are up to. Your Netflix account shows you what you rented, what you enjoyed, and what you might enjoy. Even at the library, your card relates you to certain books and fines. But at most museums, even members are faceless. We have so little data about what people like, what brings them in, what brings them back. And that makes for poor audience development both in terms of providing a sticky experience (by making them feel personally valued) and cultivating potential donors.

The second thing is the right to a personalized visit. There's this weird bias in museums, especially collections-based ones, against confronting the reality that visitors like some exhibits and artifacts more than others. We don't make it easy for people to express their preferences and receive custom content (i.e. other exhibits you might like) based on that. Again, Netflix isn't offended if you rate a movie poorly--in fact, that information HELPS them serve you better. We need to turn our heads around to a model where we understand that we can provide overall better museum experiences if we respond to visitors' likes and dislikes.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

Hm. Two dreams. First, I'd like to build a place that operates as a bar but also provides social interactives--objects and experiences that encourage people to interact with each other. But since this is a dream I'm hoping to realize in the next five years, let me tell you about another one.

I'd like to work with a collection-based museum to create an entirely networked visitor experience. By this I mean that the museum tracks data about the visitor in every way--which artifacts they visit, how long they stand in front of each piece--and responds to the visitor constantly to provide new content and opportunities of interest. Conceptually, this means treating every visitor as a unique individual, offering the exhibits, the programs, and the other visitors that might interest that person as they move through the space. This is as much related to gaming as it is to social media. Games (and Web 2.0 sites) store what you've already done. They give you new challenges and rewards based on your previous actions.

How do you decide on topics for your Museum 2.0 blog?

I keep a running list of things I "should" write about--projects that come up, interesting articles people send me. I am vigilant about posting 2-3 times a week, never less than 2, even if I'm working overtime on other things. I focus on four main areas of interest: relevant projects (social media, games, art) happening outside museums, experiments happening inside museums, theoretical arguments about the future of museums, and explanations/demystifications of technologies. I try to balance these within a given week so that I don't post twice in a row about Web 2.0 tools or any other specific element.

I spend about equal amounts of time weekly learning about new things (reading, interviewing people, visiting exhibits) as I do writing about them. It really is an educational experience for me.

Are museums good forums for 2.0 interactions and communities?

YES! This is why I'm so excited about the whole idea. Web 2.0 doesn't mean that the real world is obsolete. In fact, most active users of Web 2.0 sites are frequently scheduling meetups in-person to connect live. And there is no ideal place for those meetings--no real world analog to the community spaces popping up on the Web. I think museums have a huge opportunity to become those analogs, to become physical places that experiment with ways in which regular people can create and share content with each other. We already have congregant spaces. We're trusted places about content. We have stuff. Now all we need is the desire and the trust to make it happen.

2.0 and Green Design are two of the hottest topics right now in the museum biz. Do you see any connections between the two?

Both get more lip service than action. Both sound expensive. I'm glad to see that much of the green design discussion is moving to include our practices (cradle to cradle exhibit production, for example) and not just "ideas we share with visitors." The same thing has to happen with 2.0--it can't just be a talkback wall. It has to be part of how we do business to be legitimate.

I think it's interesting that both 2.0 and green design are in large part reactions to visitor pressure. Kids are the greatest champions of recycling in America. They expect it from their families, their schools, and hopefully from their museums. Likewise the ability to judge, comment on, and remix content.

This is a good thing. The more we feel the need to respond to visitor cultural expectations, the more relevant we will be to their lives.

What’s it like to live “off the grid” in the shadow of Silicon Valley?

Awesome! As an engineer at heart, I love living with systems that are easy to master and fix without a specialist. It's elegant in a scrappy, rustic way. We compost our human waste for fruit trees. We get our power from the sun. We don't have fancy Dwell magazine-style green systems--it's more like summer camp in the country. It was interesting to move here and realize which things we didn't need (like flush toilets) and which were necessary (hence a major winter project to move from dial-up to high-speed internet). And we've met several other hippie/techies living similarly in this area.

My partner's work involves much more computer time than mine, and when we lived in the city, he was always working. Here, things are different. I love living in a place where it is so easy and compelling (and on cloudy days, necessary) to unplug. We spend our free time building tree houses and wandering in the woods. It keeps my life balance healthy.

Thanks again to Nina for taking the time for our interview. Check out Nina's interesting and enthusiastic musings at the Museum 2.0 blog.

Know another "big thinker" inside or outside the museum biz that you'd like us to interview? Drop you suggestions into an email or the Comments Section below.

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