VOX POPS: Crowdsourcing Museum Definition perspectives for Museopunks

As you probably know, the International Council of Museums recently proposed a new definition for museums. Although the vote on the definition was postponed, the conversations that it sparked have been valuable and provocative. On the next episode of Museopunks, we wanted to try to unpack more nuance and perspectives than we can do with any single interview, so we’re crowdsourcing some responses to the following prompts or questions.

  • Do we need a new international definition of museums?
  • How might a new definition affect the sector and/or your work within it?
  • Is this discussion important within your national setting?
  • Has the conversation changed anything for you, or is this discussion a distraction?
  • Was this the right definition?
  • What is a museum? What is your vision for museums?
  • What else should we be thinking about in this conversation?

If you want to contribute, please send me a short (1min-5min) audio recording of your perspectives. In your recording, please identify yourself as you’d like to be represented on the show, as well as noting your country and if you’re an ICOM member.

We’re doing this as a bit of a sprint, so it would be amazing if you could send me your reply by Sunday this week (October 6).

We’ll be selecting a number of responses to go on the episode, but may also release an additional track online featuring other responses if we receive too many to feature on the show. We’d love to hear from people in different parts of the world too, so if you’re somewhere that we don’t always feature via our guests, get in touch!

Social obligation, crowdsourcing, and an experimental lecture

When I was asked to give a lecture on professional arts practice and technology at short notice a couple of weeks ago, I decided to use the opportunity to get a little experimental in my approach. This occurred in two ways. The first was that I reached out to my networks on Twitter, asked for your help here on the blog, and contacted a few specific individuals in the Australian arts community with whom I had a relationship, in order to seek ideas and content that I might not think of. The second was by playing with the lecture format itself in order to move out of transmission mode and take a more discursive approach.

So what worked and what didn’t? The crowdsourcing process was interesting. It yielded many useful responses and results which broadened my perspectives and highlighted issues relevant to the students that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, like Kim’s comment about the cross-over between marketing and IP. I was introduced to new artists too, and received links for useful resources which I was able to pass along to the students. So that was great.

Not all responses were equal, of course. Those links and connections that came from Twitter tended to be shallower and at times less useful than those I received from other sources. The most useful were, in general, those responses that came from people whose specific contributions I sought out. This aligns with what the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England found when they conducted their own remixing/crowdsourcing projects last year. In the first project they ran, which “consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it,” worthwhile responses came from more than half their targetted crowd. A subsequent project was executed using a mailing list and Facebook group, but failed to attract participants and good responses. In this second project, the message was not personalised, and there were many strangers in the groups. From this, the Collective proposed that the factors of success for the first project were that it utilised “pre-existing personal relationships”, had “well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities”, and that these tasks were more detailed than the messages to the broader group. I think my experience reflects something similar.

But crowdsourcing my lecture also led to something of a social dilemma. In the odd case where I received results that were not useful in the context of this particular lecture could I ignore them, or did I owe those people who had contributed the respect of using their links or ideas regardless? The act of reaching out asking for help and receiving it, both from people I knew and from strangers, left me to confront questions around social obligation and reciprocity. It became apparent to me quite quickly that asking for help was not value-free. While it might be appropriate to simply thank someone who’d replied to my Tweeted call for help and fold their response into my written document for the students, doing the same with a longer response on the blog felt insufficient to acknowledge the time and effort that had gone into helping me out. I felt particularly obliged to make good use of the contributions that art writer Sharne Wolff, MCA Curatorial Assistant Kelly McDonald, artist and technoevangelist Fee Plumley, and artist and curator Todd Fuller gave, since I had sought them out in person. These invisible social elements of participation became apparent to me through this process in ways they hadn’t previously.

The variety of responses that I received from this approach was, in part, what led to the experiment with lecture delivery. With only an hour with all the students in a single room, it feel like I had too little time to cover a topic as massive as “art, technology, and professional practice” in any real depth, so I wanted to get the students thinking and talking about the pros and cons of being online as an artist, and the impact such choices could have on their careers. I started with ten minutes or so giving a general lay of the land about some ways that artists were using the Internet in their work and what some of the issues were, and then opened up the floor to conversation, maintaining faith that I would be able to live-mix in examples from the responses I’d received from the crowdsourcing experiment.

The approach seemed to work quite well in some ways, but not others. The discussion in the room was great, with many students contributing and almost all appearing to be engaged in it. We were able to cover some interesting theoretical ground, and I did have ready resources at my fingertips for most of the ideas that came up. However, while there were definitely some bright eyes and eager students – those excited to have technology on the agenda and to share their experiences with me and the class – many others seemed to lack confidence, both in regards to individual platforms like Twitter, and about digital experimentation itself, and I don’t know that my approach would have equipped them with many practical takeaways.

So would I take these approaches to either lecture delivery or lecture sourcing again? Delivery yes, but not on every topic. The approach seemed to work well for the particular subject, especially given the time restrictions, but I don’t think it would be appropriate in every situation. By opening up to a more dialogic teaching method probably also meant that it was close to impossible to have predictable outcomes, inviting the risk that important issues could be overlooked. So although it was effective for engagement, it wasn’t necessarily effective for all types of teaching or all subjects.

What about lecture crowd-sourcing? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t do it again, or not without more forethought about how to seek involvement, what sort of involvement to seek, and how to incorporate the responses that I received. I’d want to develop better feedback mechanisms or ways to acknowledge contributors because in some ways it felt like I was taking more from contributors than I could give back. Inviting participation can be great, but should ultimately benefit both parties, and I don’t think I thought enough about how it might benefit those who gave feedback.

Both parts of this experiment helped me better understand some of the complexities around participation; about the social obligations it engenders and the importance of designing such projects well in order to benefit all participants. Now that I’m on the other side of the experiment, the takeaways seem so obvious. But I suppose that is part of learning too, that it is often from doing that we gain insight.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with these sorts of projects. Have you encountered similar issues from those I came across? How have you dealt with the invisible social elements of participation?

And, of course, thank you to all those who did participate in my crowdsourcing experiment. It was appreciated.

Crowdsourcing a lecture on arts practice and the Internet

I’ve been asked (in a fairly last minute way) to give a lecture on Monday to a bunch of Creative Arts students, on professional arts practice and technology. Rather than coming up with a highly prescriptive lecture that pushes a particular position about whether artists should or should not be online, I thought I’d source some different perspectives (curatorial, artist, arts writer) about art and technology. And I was hoping that some of you might be willing to contribute, in either a personal or professional context.

We know of countless musicians who have built their careers through their digital efforts. Is the same true of artists, or is the online art market a myth? Any feedback that I can give to the students, so that they can hear from voices beyond mine, would be appreciated. I’d also love any suggestions for artists from around the world who are using digital technologies well, either in the creation of work itself, or in the promotion of their work. It’s a small secret fantasy of mine to crowdsource every example I use in the lecture, just to show the power of networks.

Are you an artist whose career has been affected by the Internet (for better or for worse)? Or are you a curator, museum educator, or museum tech person? Maybe an arts writer or an academic? If so, how does an artist’s digital presence (or lack thereof) impact your work, or your interpretation of their work?

Thanks for your help.

Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

There must have been a collective intake of breathe from museum professionals around the world last month when Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal put the call out to build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, inviting donations and support via Indiegogo.  The crowdfunding project has now raised more than $1.2million, with the city of New York promising to match $850,000 of that money. Imagine that. More than 30,000 people have pledged money towards an as-yet-nonexistent museum/science centre. Science! Nerds! Money for a museum! How totally rock and roll.

Despite the attention that has come to it since Inman’s involvement, the project isn’t a new one. The Tesla Science Center (formerly known as the Friends of Science East, Inc.) has been formally active since February 14, 1996, so although the Tesla Science Center has now come to the fore with the crowdfunding project, it has not simply appeared out of thin air. This has been a long-burning campaign that has just undergone a radical shift in prominence. From being a pet-project and passion for the TSC, something that must at times have seemed no more than a pipe dream, the Tesla Science Center now holds potential to be real. What a colossal shift in the course of a month.

The shift in attention, prominence, and possibility brings with it all kinds of interesting questions. First, let’s assume that the FSE does acquire the property (there are other bidders, like Milka Kresoja). What then? Are the Board of Directors for the TSC in a position to capitalise upon their sudden rush of funds and support? Is the museum actually feasible? And how will those thousands of people who have contributed to the project feel when it starts to move from months into years before the Tesla Museum becomes real?

This is one of the as-yet-untested aspects of such a big crowd-funding project; can a project built on hype and excitement, which invites emotional and economic investment (some of it significant) from people all over the world, continue to hold attention, to live up to its own build up? Or is there an inevitable backlash when projects change, adapt, or even fail?

Back before I dedicated myself to solving the many mysteries of museums, I worked in the music industry, so hype is something I have a fairly keen interest in. I have watched indie bands pick up buzz as early adopters gathered around and invested in them; knowing that they were in on something secret and special; a band with the compelling allure of potential. Once that buzz starts, capitalising upon it relies on timing and maintaining momentum. A band full of potential that waits too long to impress and live up to their early promise may all too soon be written off as a casualty on the hunt for the next big thing. Hype, buzz, potential – whatever word you want to use for it – can be all too fleeting, particularly if the return on investment is a long time coming.

Marketing company Gartner uses hype cycles to help characterise what happens following the introduction of new technologies. The hype cycle follows five phases, being a trigger in which “Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven”; a peak of inflated expectations; a trough of disillusionment, when “interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver… Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters”; a slope of enlightenment; and finally a plateau of productivity, in which “Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.” Although the methodology is intended for technology adoption, such a cycle can likely also apply to this situation.

Gartner Hype Cycle

It is in this space that the Goddamn Tesla Project will prove to be an interesting test case. Mark Walhimer estimates that it takes between 5 and 10 years to start a museum, but if comments on The Oatmeal’s post like this one –  “Good luck Matthew! This Goddamned Tesla Museum needs to happen. RIGHT MEOW!!!!” – give any indication, then the slow-burn from now to then might indeed cause supporters of the project to fall into the trough of disillusionment.

On the Indiegogo fundraising site, it is acknowledged that:

Even if we raise the full amount and end up with $1.7 million, this isn’t enough to build an actual museum / science center. But it will effectively put the property into the right hands so it can eventually be renovated into something fitting for one of the greatest inventors of our time.

Similarly, on The Oatmeal’s FAQs about the project, Matthew Inman has written:

If this is a success, can you build a museum right away? What happens next?
The property the laboratory is on is a bit of mess. It needs to be cleaned up, restored, and there’s a ton of work to be done to actually turn this into something worthy of Tesla’s legacy. The money we’re raising is simply to secure the property so no one can ever mess with it and guarantee that it’s a historic site. It opens up years and years of time to figure out how to build a proper Nikola Tesla museum.
However, I would love to have some kind of Nikola Tesla festival on the property on July 10th of 2013 (Nikola Tesla Day), and have some kind of zany Tesla-coil-BBQ-cookout.

The short-term goal of a Tesla Festival may be enough to satisfy those who have invested in the project to see it as being worthwhile. Such an event would give a sense of culmination and momentum; both important for capitalising upon early hype and potential. But we aren’t likely to get real perspective on whether crowdfunding a museum from scratch can prove to be a rewarding model for either the museum or its funders for many years. In this way, the Goddamn Tesla Museum is likely to prove an interesting test case. It might be here that some real questions around museum innovation can be answered.

What do you think? Can interest in a project like this one be sustained over time, or is it inevitable that those enthusiastic geeks the world over will become disillusioned as the Museum takes years to move from idea to actuality?