Saturday, February 1, 2014

Slowing Down And Noticing The World: An Interview with Beck Tench

Beck Tench is a simplifier, illustrator, story teller and technologist. Formally trained as a graphics designer at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, she has spent her career elbow deep in web work of all sorts – from the knowledge work of information architecture and design to the hands dirty work of writing code and testing user experiences.

Currently, she serves as Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC where she studies and experiments with how visitors and staff use technology to experience risk-taking, community-making and science in their everyday lives.

Since a new round of Beck's awesome Experimonth project just launched, I thought now would be a great time for an ExhibiTricks interview!

What's your educational background?
I was formally trained as a journalist and visual communicator. I also minored in creative writing.  My boss, Troy Livingston, pretty much summed up my entire educational and career pursuits one day when he said to me, "You've spent your entire career working to better communicate through speaking, writing and drawing. You must've at some point in your life felt misunderstood."

Pretty much, yep. :)

What got you interested in Museums?
Two things: 1) Freedom; 2) Purpose.

When I joined the Museum of Life and Science, I'd been working at other web pursuits in the corporate, non-profit and higher ed worlds.  I wanted freedom to take risks and have autonomy over my projects more than anything else. The museum offered that, and also wanted someone to help change the culture of our institution so that we were more risk-tolerant overall.

The purpose of most museums — slowing down and noticing the world —  sealed the deal.  It's feel good work and never gets boring.

How does working with local and/or online communities to create museum experiences inform your creative process or vice versa?
Digital engagement requires innovation and novelty to be interesting enough to get folks to loan their attention your way.  To create innovative things, you need to create space.  My creative process has changed significantly in that it requires lots of open space in order for me to create new ideas. 

I make space in the morning for writing, in the evening by turning off my internet via a light timer. I make space for getting outside. I work from home instead of at the museum to get a daily dose of solitude. All of these practices give me space to think up, vet and refine new ideas that appeal to online communities (and/or adults goofing off at work).

Why did you originally start Experimonth?
I have a love/hate relationship with New Years Resolutions, and I started Experimonth in 2009 to play with the concept a little bit. I invited friends and family to suggest things I could do, and then vote on them. I mapped the top twelve across the span of the year and invited folks to try them out with me one month at a time. 

The idea didn't turn into a museum project until April of 2011, when we worked with a local researcher, Frances Ulman, to create an Experimonth that collected mood data (we texted participants five times a day for a month and asked the same question everytime: "Rate your mood (1) low to (10) high.")  The project resulted in over 18,000 mood data points for the researcher and impressively high retention (96%) and compliance (82%) rates.  In addition, we learned that the project allowed her to play with data in a way she wasn't afforded in her lab. 

We decided to do more of them at the museum and have hosted several since. The ones we're launching this February are a part of NSF grant in partnership with the Exploratorium called "Science of Sharing."

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about community engagement?
I'd be remiss not to mention that one of the best sites out there for community engagement is from an IMLS grant project we did in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and Michigan State University.  It's called the Facilitation Toolbox and has some great techniques and a framework for facilitating learning using social media.

In doing that work, we realized that sometimes you don't have to create community in order to have a successful group interaction that results in learning.  We call it "groupness." Groupness occurs when participants in a digital experience exhibit behaviors that indicate learning is happening.  Groupness is more attainable than "community" and in some ways may be just as or more meaningful.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing more community input into their exhibitions and programs?

• Ask a lot of your participants. Think the best of them and expect them to be decent and open. Be that way, too. Participate alongside them.

• You don't need to be a content expert to explore expert-level content with an online community. You just need to be curious, ask questions and most of all listen.

• Turn everything into an experiment. Put time-boundaries around it. And give yourself a question to answer in the end.

• Let things die. Each year kill some of what you do online even if it's going well. You have to make space to create new things.

What do you think is the "next frontier" for museums?
The next frontier for museums (and libraries and journalism and healthcare and so on) is experiences for and by the visitor and community your mission situates you (locally or globally or somewhere in between, depending).  We have to let go of fetishizing our objects, stories, phenonmena, and information.  We've all got to be about changing the lives of individuals by understanding how the things we know best are relevant to their lives (and letting go of the things that aren't).    

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I'm not much of a museum person and I hold onto that as tightly as possible to make my work better.  That said, I've had three remarkable experiences in museums, in this order:

The Power of Children exhibit at the Indianapolis Children's Museum moved me and my friends to tears and has stuck with each of us for years.

• I think regularly of the movie I watched in the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore that showed clips of people losing their smiles in the seconds right after their photograph was taken.

• The big NASA telescope mirror at the Exploratorium that allows you to see yourself with uncanny clarity, upside down, face-to-face, blew my mind.

Can you talk a little about the current incarnation of Experimonth?
Right now, we're working with a handful of scientists from all around the world on four experimonths about cooperation, competition, negotiation and trust as a part of that NSF-funded "Science of Sharing" project I mentioned earlier.  The first of the four is called "Frenemy" and it starts on Saturday, Feburary 1st. 

Participants will play a prisoner's dilemma-style game with an anonymous stranger everyday.  We beta-tested this in 2012 and it was super interesting to watch how the games unfold across the day and also read what folks wrote about their participation in the online, also anonymous, confessional.  We'll be launching three other Experimonths after Frenemy. You can read about all of them on the website.

If money were no object, what would your dream museum project be?
I'd give anyone who wanted one, a heart rate monitor to wear for a month. I'd build technology that would autostream the data to a website where they could see their heart rate in the context of everyone else participating.  I'd also build in the ability to geo-locate where people's heart rate rises and falls.  And we'd ping folks with questions about their mood and whether or not they feel they belong. We'd assign them random tasks like doing good deeds or taking small risks.  We'd ping them when rates spiked to find out what was happening.  I'd also buy a big laser projector and project a visualization of the heart rates of the participants across the sky on a cloudy night or on the side of a tall building.

I wore a heart rate monitor for a few days in a row once and was surprised to learn that mine lowers when I'm in a stressful confrontation. I also discovered a crush I didn't know I had!  I think the participants would learn a lot about themselves and the researchers would have more data than they knew what to do with (a personal mission of mine currently).

Thanks again to Beck Tench for sharing her thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!  You can find out more about Beck and her work via her website.  You can also find out more (and join!) experimonths at the Experimonth website.

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