Sunday, July 31, 2016

Design Inspiration: Monstrum

Why play in a playhouse, if you can play in moon rockets, submarines, giant snail shells, clown heads or Trojan horses?

That's the question that motivates Monstrum, a group of designers and craftspeople creating unique playgrounds from their workshop in Copenhagen.  

It is clear that Monstrum's focus on artistic and architectural quality is a key reason that their playgrounds inspire both adults and children.

I've featured some images here to show just a bit of Monstrum's range, but you really should click on over to the Monstrum website to see even more images of their playful and beautiful work.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Humor Me A Moment: The Power Of Humor In Museums

Cara Dodge recently completed her master's work at John F. Kennedy University on humor and museums, and was kind enough to share some thoughts on the subject here on the ExhibiTricks blog. (Cara's entry is also cross-posted  at the JFKU Museum Studies blog site.)

Most museums understand the importance of engaging with visitors, and we are constantly challenged to improve our relations with them. But, why does this have to be such a serious business? Why can’t we joke with our visitors the way that we do with our friends?

Humor in museums is not a new concept. You can find discussions about its presence in, and value to, museums on a variety of platforms (as shown in the three articles herehere, and here). Yet, when someone asks the question, “why did the chicken cross the road?” We don’t all jump up and shout, “to go to the museum!” How unfortunate!

I recently completed a master’s project titled “Humor me a moment: The power of humor in science museums” where I explored some of the current humor applications today, and some potential humor applications for science museums. In my research, I explored academic works from physiology, psychology, sociology, marketing, workplace relationships and education. I conducted a survey on the ASTC General Forum (maybe you saw it?) as well as 21 interviews with museum professionals mainly from science institution backgrounds. I also explored three examples of humor in science museums: the traveling exhibition Grossology, Science World’s ad campaigns, and at the Museum of Science in Boston, The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show.

Humor is one tactic to emotionally engage visitors, and it can be a powerful one, but it shouldn't be approached light-heartedly (pun intended). Science museums understand the importance of engaging with their visitors. Humor can offer visitors a unique entry point into science museum content that otherwise may feel out of reach.

Humor is ambiguous, but can help us learn about visitors

Humor is not consistently defined across disciplines, but everyone seems to have a definition. When I asked interviewees and survey respondents how they defined humor, every one of them gave an answer. However, those answers produced a wide variety of definitions, from the utilitarian, “humor is something that makes you laugh,” to deeper notions on humor’s purpose in our lives. At the outset, this may seem like a challenge to the museum field, but in fact this slight variation and ambiguity can help science museum professionals decipher visitor humor personality.

Coded interview responses to, “How would you define humor?”

In the literature, humor seems to be described most often by three theories: superiority theory, incongruity theory, and relief theory. Superiority theory suggests that humor is a technique that proffers the joke teller (or the wit) to be superior over the joke subject (or the butt). Incongruity theory describes that a deviation from our basic fundamental expectations results in a humorous situation (here is a great study that supports incongruity theory through studying nonsense words). Relief theory focuses more on our physical reaction to humor—namely the laugh itself—and supposes that humor is really an expression of our internal relief that something isn’t want it seems to be.

Any humorous situation could be adequately described by all three theories, and by extension these theories can help museums scaffold their thinking about who visitors through how they are using humor. Superiority theory suggests that when visitors joke, they’re pointing out an imbalance, either emotionally or socially. Therefore, science museum professionals might take note and look into what that imbalance might be. Incongruity theory suggests that, if a visitor finds something humorous, it is because there has been a deviation from what they expect—a useful piece of information for those who want to know what visitors expect coming through the doors. Finally, relief theory suggests a bodily experience, which could be harnessed as another tool in the experience curation we all strive to achieve.

Humor captures attention and helps people feel more comfortable, but it’s unclear if it helps people learn

One of the most interesting results from my research was the clear contrast whether or not humor is helpful in a learning environment. On the one hand, advocates for humor in learning note that humor can ease tension and create environments where people want to learn. On the other hand, critics of humor suggest that it can be distracting from content and in fact hinders learning, and so caution museum educators against its use.

What is undeniably interesting is humor’s uncanny ability to capture attention, and that may be where science museums can benefit from its use, despite whether or not it has the ability to teach. In advertising (an industry that spends laughable amounts of money trying to get our attention), humor has become more and more prevalent as a tool for engaging with customers. Super Bowl ads, some of the most expensive ads produced, are often funny. In fact, according to USA Today, 95% of those who watch the ads prefer ads with humor.

Humor can build relationships through increased trust

Humor allows us to bare our vulnerability, whether it is an opinion or fear, which can be accepted or rejected by our listener. If our humor is accepted, we have increased a level of trust between the listener and ourselves—they agree with us! Trust is something science museums should want to build with their visitors. Visitors should want to trust that what they see and experience in a science museum is as close to the truth as conceivably possible. Humor can add a lot of value to this equation by simply breaking down what can be an intimidating and authoritative museum voice. If we take ourselves less seriously, our visitors may find us more approachable and trustworthy.

In addition to creating great relationships with visitors, humor can also create valuable relationships between staff members. Again, being able to share vulnerabilities with one another can form strong bonds and build a more copacetic working environment.

Humor can offend, but why?

Humor doesn’t always have a positive outcome, and in some situations it can cause serious damage. I would venture a guess that we all have heard (or even made) a joke that not only did not land well; one that caused your listener to sit straight up with offense. As I mentioned above, one can either accept or reject your humor, and it can be pretty terrible when it’s the latter.

Part of a Science World ad campaign

However, what really intrigued me was the fact that there seemed to be two situations where humor was offensive. Either the topic was already provocative, or humor was used almost as a defense mechanism. In the former, was the offense totally because of the humor? Did the humor make it worse? In the latter, what does that mean about the role of humor in difficult situations? These questions beg deeper understanding through further research.

In the end, humor needs buy-in

Humor is not something that can be stapled to the wall, propped up against the membership desk, or sent via mass email to the entire staff. Humor, in its most successful form, is part of institutional personality. Restated, humor needs buy-in from all levels of an organization.

Many of the museum professionals I consulted for this project often mentioned that their attempts were first met with institutional criticism, and I’m not surprised. Humor takes on the aura of undermining authority or contrasting the seriousness of an issue, but I believe that these are the places where we have some of the biggest potential to engage with our visitors. As Paul himself noted in an interview with me, “no one wants to come to the museum and feel stupid when they leave!”

Whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot deny that humor is part of our human nature. Our visitors come to our museums with the intention of learning something, visiting with their friends and family, and generally enjoying a visit to the science museum. Humor has the ability to engage with visitors in all three of these areas. The communication gap does not have to be so large between our visitors and ourselves, as science museum professionals, and frankly, that gap can close with the power of humor.

Cara Dodge is currently the Program Coordinator for the Computer History Museum’s new Exponential Center in Mountain View, CA.  Previously, she built her passion for museums over the past 9 years at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. She honed her museum craft more recently at John F. Kennedy University, where she earned dual masters degrees in Museum Studies and Business Administration in 2016. 

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Art of Relevance: An Interview with Nina Simon

I recently read Nina Simon's new book, The Art of Relevance.  I found it an enjoyable (and actionable!) set of ideas on the intersection of museums, relevance, and communities.  So I was delighted that Nina was kind enough to answer a few questions for ExhibiTricks readers about The Art of Relevance, and the experiences that brought it to fruition:

How did you originally get interested in writing your book about relevance?
In the summer of 2015, we hosted two exhibitions at the MAH (my museum) at the same time: one about the birth of surfing, one about the Grateful Dead. On the surface, both projects were highly relevant to our local community in Santa Cruz, but the surf exhibition blew the Grateful Dead exhibition away. They both had high attendance, but the emotional resonance and community impact was very different. I could see the difference in locals’ response, but I didn’t have a way to clearly measure, explain, or diagnose what was happening. I wanted to learn more about what was going on from experts and other practitioners around the world.

And while these exhibitions were catalytic in getting the project started, in truth, I’ve been on a quest relevance for years. Five years ago, I started working at the MAH at a time of radical transformation. We turned around the institution, greatly expanded and diversified our audience, increased community connections… and disappointed some longtime participants along the way. Five years into this work, I wanted to dive in and really understand why we did this, why it matters, and why it frustrates some people.

What’s one of your favorite examples of relevance from the book?
I was genuinely surprised and provoked by Odyssey Works, a theater company that creates immersive experiences for an audience of one. It sounds so impractical and ridiculous. But fundamentally, making work relevant is about really understanding the people you seek to engage—what they are open to, where they want to go—and then unlocking doors to deeper meaning and new surprises on that path. It’s easy to get hung up thinking about the complexities of being relevant to multi-faceted communities of hundreds or thousands of people. By focusing on an audience of one, Odyssey Works provides an extreme example of what it means to focus on the humans in communities rather than groups as abstractions.

How has being the Director of MAH changed your views of relevance?
One of the big things I learned from this book project is compassion for insiders. I’ve led the MAH as a champion for inclusion of people who have historically been outsiders to museum experiences—people who don’t know that a museum might be relevant to their lives. I always thought, naively, that inclusion is for everyone. I thought that people who were against inclusive practices were elitist, classist, or ungenerous.

But that’s not the full story. If you are an insider to a place or an experience, and then someone comes in and changes that experience to let in a whole bunch of new people with different expectations, that is threatening. It’s dislocating. The change can be a real loss for insiders. It doesn’t mean insiders are elitist if they don’t like the changes.

I spent my first few years as the director of MAH trying to win over insiders and writing off the ones who rejected our new ways of engaging new people with art and history. I didn’t spend enough time being compassionate to insiders’ feelings of disruption and loss. I still stand by the work we did and continue to do to make the MAH a place that matters more to diverse people in our community. But I now better understand the tradeoffs and tensions involved when navigating relevance to insiders and outsiders.

Similar question --- how has becoming a parent changed your views of relevance?
Becoming a parent made me freshly aware of how situational relevance is. The activities that are relevant to me now are different than those that were relevant three years ago. I don’t think I’ve fundamentally changed, but my priorities, needs, and constraints have changed. And that changes the choices—especially recreational choices—I make.

Sometimes, nonprofit workers get so organizationally focused that we forget that people decide what’s relevant to them in their context, not ours. Becoming a parent reminded me of the extent to which externalities (like kids) dictate what we deem relevant to us.

Why do you think it is so difficult for many museums and cultural institutions to be relevant in their communities?
I think many people who work in cultural organizations are focused internally. We spend our days working with our colleagues, in our offices, in our walls. We spend our nights out in the community—and we consider that time to be off the clock. We need to flip this mentality to be more relevant. Not necessarily spending all our work time out of the office (though it helps), but spending as much work time as possible talking to and collaborating with and learning about the interests and values of our diverse communities.

You bring up the idea of “insiders” and “outsiders” in your book.  How do you think about finding balance between those (often) competing constituencies?
I think it depends on the institution. A young institution needs to cultivate insiders. You need to build a cohort of supporters and participants to whom you are relevant.

An institution that is thriving with insiders can do so for as long as they like—maybe forever. But if the institution is not thriving—if insiders are opting out or moving away or are not the desired insiders—you need to cultivate outsiders. You need to invite them in.

These constituencies are fluid. Every insider was once an outsider. There are insiders of every age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, and religion. The primary difference is that insiders are in the know and outsiders are not. Sometimes, ignoring outsiders is a good thing. It encourages focus. It helps create a unique institutional personality. It can be ok.

The thing that is not ok in my book is pretending to invite in outsiders while reassuring insiders that nothing will change. Maybe nothing will change—to the frustration of outsiders and their allies. Or maybe things are changing—to the confusion of insiders. I think we have to be honest and courageous when we make decisions about who to cultivate and why.

What are some additional books or online resources about relevance that influenced your thinking while writing your book?
So many.

Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s paper Relevance Theory was essential as a research grounding for the book.

Michelle Hensley wrote a beautiful book about Ten Thousand Things theater, All the Lights On, which is a fabulous resource about their innovative process for making theater for nontraditional audiences.

Relatedly, Cornerstone Theater has an excellent guide to their process of co-creating theater with nontraditional audiences. These two theaters are both amazing for very different reasons.

The story of the Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot people came to me from Bob Janes, who shared Gerry Conaty’s wonderful book on the topic, We are Coming Home. The book is available for free online. It is a riveting story of repatriation and intercultural dialogue.

Lynn Pasquarella’s essay “The Ketchup’s in the Bag and the Check is in the Mail: The Humanities and Social Justice” awakened me to the specific challenges that academics in the humanities are grappling with in the age of STEM and STEAM. I ultimately decided not to include academic examples in the book because the relevance of the education system is a book in itself, but I found it very interesting.

Online, the Visitors of Color blog, Betty Reid Soskind’s blog, and several religious blogs were helpful to me. I became completely fascinated with the intersection between religious institutions and cultural organizations when writing this book, and I treasured every blog post I read about pastors and rabbis working to establish relevance in their communities.

Also, I’ll note that I did more extensive fact-checking on this book than I did on The Participatory Museum. I had incredible, intense conversations with almost everyone in the book about their experiences and how they interpret the meaning of their work.

What do you hope people get from reading (and acting on!) the ideas in your book?
Most of all, I hope people enjoy reading the book. I freely admit that this book is less of a “mission” book for me than The Participatory Museum. It felt more like an exploration than a thesis, and that allowed me to focus on making the writing as clear and appealing as possible. People often say The Participatory Museum is “readable.” I hope and think that The Art of Relevance is a lot more so.

For that reason, I hope people share the book with friends and family beyond their professional worlds. I believe that the quest for relevance is as useful personally as it is professionally. I would love to have conversations with readers about how you see these ideas applying to your community beyond your institution.

Finally, I hope that readers will use this book as an opportunity for dialogue and action on how and why our work can be meaningful, delightful, and powerful for our diverse communities. I believe there are a million ways to make our work more relevant to more people. It is our challenge—and our glorious opportunity—to do so.

Thanks again to Nina for sharing her thoughts here on the ExhibiTricks blog.  To find out more about The Art of Relevance, or to purchase a copy, click on over to The Art of Relevance website.

AND if you'd like a chance to win a FREE copy of Nina's new book, The Art of Relevance, all you have to do is post a comment about how you are working at your institution or organization to be relevant. Post your thoughts in the Comments Section at the ExhibiTricks blog site.  We will randomly choose one of the commenters on July 30th and mail them their book. Good luck!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Raising Up Little Voices: Girl Museum

In response to a recent ExhibiTricks post about "small but mighty" museums doing things a bit differently than the "mega-museums" in the world, Tiffany Rhoades from Girl Museum reached out and offered to share some information and insights based on her experiences there --- first as an intern, and now Program Developer. 

Tiffany has worked on amazing projects that are pushing the boundaries of museums. Today, she’d like to share with ExhibiTricks readers what Girl Museum is, what they’re been working on, and tips for success in engaging with communities.

Girl Museum is…

Girl Museum is the first and only museum in the world dedicated to celebrating girlhood.  We research, preserve, and present the history of girls from all cultures and time periods, with an emphasis on letting their voices and stories shine. 

“But wait, isn’t that just a women’s history museum?”

Well, no.  While we do talk about women’s history a lot, Girl Museum is different because we intentionally focus our gaze on the experiences of females from birth through the age of 25.  Our work crosses into women’s history – because the voices and records of girls are largely lost to us.  We have to dig for them, but we know the girls are there because we’ve already found so much.

And all of this is accomplished by a volunteer team (not even our director is paid!), on a shoestring budget, and put online so it is freely accessible by anyone, anywhere, anytime. 

Girl Museum does…

In the three years I’ve worked with Girl Museum, we’ve produced projects that have reached new audiences and highlighted marginalized groups:

Surfer Girl looked at the history and contemporary culture of women in surfing, and was entirely contributor-led. It included videos on surf history by students, oral history interviews with female surfers of the 1950s and 1960s, and stories showcasing how surfing is giving girls better opportunities and a platform to advocate for equality.

Heroines Quilt 2016: Girls of World War II showcased the real women and girls who were impacted by the war, both at home and abroad.  Utilizing our blog as a platform for engagement, we invited visitors to discover a new story every day during Women’s History Month, and dive deeper through photo essays and our podcast series.

STEM Girls showcased the history of women in STEM fields, as a platform to explore how we can get more girls interested in STEM.  This exhibition was one of our most well-received to date and proved that exhibits can be platforms for changing the world.

Gamer Girl invited female gamers around the world to discover their long (and surprising!) history and advocate for better treatment and representation.  It featured contributions from well-known gaming professionals, while also giving a voice to girls around the world with our Why I Game participatory quilt – making it our largest and most popular exhibition to date.

This year and next, we’ll introduce exhibits focused on girls’ history, including Kindertransport and Ancient Girls.  We’ll also combine history with pop culture in our explorations of what it means to be a Warrior Princess and how girls have impacted music in Alternative Girls.  And there’s so much more in the works – including fashion, art, girl groups, more historical periods, and mythology.

Tips for Success

Though we’re entirely in the virtual realm, the lessons I’ve learned from creating these projects are integral to making museums more relevant and engaging to our communities. 

1. Let Your Community Guide You
When producing Surfer Girl, I started with only a rough idea of what I wanted.  I researched a lot, but what I couldn’t find was the actual voices of girls.  So, I put aside my notes and reached out to surfers, surfing companies, and academics for advice.  What I got were contributions from around the world that showcased exactly what I wanted: surfer girls’ stories, told in their own words.  My job was simply to put these stories together and provide transitions along the way. 

The result was an exhibition that engaged new audiences with our museum, used a variety of multimedia, and had other underrepresented groups emailing in to discuss possibilities.  We also made connections that have proved vital to keeping our museum funded.

2. Embrace Social Media
We live and breathe social media.  It’s the primary way we connect with our audience – sharing stories we find interesting, highlighting girl-related news, and connecting with people who can help bring our ideas to life.  We use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and a blog on a daily basis. 

In late 2014, we put together a Social Media Strategic Plan.  Within one year, we nearly doubled our social media following – and it’s still growing. 

3. Infuse Everything with Passion
Every project our interns are assigned is given to them because either (a) it was their idea or (b) they absolutely love the topic.  By empowering every member of our team to pursue what inspires and motivates them, we produce projects that tap into the hearts of our audience.  (Bonus: Many of our interns stay on as long-term supporters, advocates, and contributors!)

As a museum, our job is to inspire people – and passion is the key to doing that.  We tell every exhibit like a story – one infused with real voices, real experiences, and real questions.  When we invite contributions, we make a point not to edit more than grammar.  When we produce a project, we ask how it is relevant to today – and we aren’t afraid to stand up, put in a call to action, or ask our audience the hard questions. 

In Kindertransport, we’re doing just that – showcasing the experiences of girl refugees during World War II, linking it to the refugee crisis today, and asking, “Are we willing to stand by and watch another genocide?  Or are we going to do something about it?”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.
We’ve failed – epically.  Several of our projects never go viral.  But no matter what, we keep trying.  We haven’t figured it all out yet – our budget alone could tell you that – but we’re not giving up.  Because what we do is important.  Because we know that we can change lives.  Because girls – from throughout time and space – deserve a museum entirely their own.  Because museums matter, now more than ever.

Tiffany Rhoades is a public historian and emerging museum professional, specializing in exhibitions, social media, and digital public programs.  She volunteers as Girl Museum’s Program Developer, and currently makes ends meet as an independent consultant for museums and museum-related organizations.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)