Chapter 7: Collaborating with Visitors

If contributory projects are casual flings between participants and institutions, collaborative projects are committed relationships. Collaborative projects are institutionally-driven partnerships in which staff members work with community partners to develop new programs, exhibitions, or offerings. Participants may be chosen for specific knowledge or skills, association with cultural groups of interest, age, or representation of the intended audience for the outputs of the project. In some collaborations, participants serve as advisors or consultants. Other times, participants are more like employees, working alongside staff to design and implement projects.

There are four main reasons that institutions engage in collaborative projects:

  1. To consult with experts or community representatives to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of new exhibitions, programs, or publications
  2. To test and develop new programs in partnership with intended users to improve the likelihood of their success
  3. To provide educational opportunities for participants to design, create, and produce their own content or research
  4. To help visitors feel like partners and co-owners of the content and programs of the institution

Effective collaborations are built on mutual trust, shared understanding of the project’s goals, and clear designation of participant roles. Because collaborations often involve prolonged formal relationships between institutions and participants, institutions typically give participants more guidance than is provided in contributory projects. Staff members explicitly and exhaustively explain what roles the participants will be given, what expectations the institution has for the collaboration and its outcomes, and what benefits (education, publicity, remuneration) participants will receive. Many collaboration projects involve an application process, which serves as a vetting both for would-be participants’ motivation and their ability to perform adequately in the collaboration. Participants often make long-term commitments to the project in exchange for institutionally-provided training.

In some collaborative projects, participants are paid or receive school credit for their efforts. Particularly when institutions collaborate with communities with whom there is no previous relationship, providing reasonable compensation helps participants appreciate the value of their work. Payment or school credit also makes participation accessible to people who would like to get involved but cannot afford to volunteer their time. For the most part, these external motivators work well. They professionalize the relationship between participants and staff members, encouraging all partners to do their best and be accountable to each other.

The litmus test of whether a collaborative project truly engages participants is not if they sign up; it’s what happens after the project is over. A strong collaboration encourages participants to connect more deeply with the institution and to assign value to the project beyond the compensation offered. Participants may become involved in other areas of the institution or deepen their involvement with the collaborative project over time. A successful collaboration creates new relationships and opportunities that may span over many years.

CASE STUDY: Engaging Teenagers as Collaborators at the National Building Museum

Investigating Where We Live is a longstanding, successful collaborative museum project. It is an annual four-week program at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. in which thirty local teenagers work with museum staff to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a D.C. neighborhood.

Investigating Where We Live participants perform every step of exhibit development, from conducting research to final installation of their artwork and writing. Photo courtesy National Building Museum.

The program is coordinated and directed by education staff members, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and shepherd the project to completion. Teens join the group via an application process, and they are expected to participate in all twelve sessions of the program. They are not paid, but they do receive a digital camera and school community service credit for participating.

In format, Investigating Where We Live functions like many museum camp programs. What distinguishes it as a collaboration is the fact that the teens create a partially self-directed exhibit for public display. The institution provides the framework—the space, the sessions, the instruction—but the content, design, and implementation of the exhibition are left up to the teenage participants.

Investigating Where We Live has been offered at the National Building Museum since 1996. Many graduates of the program come back in subsequent years to serve as volunteers, interns, or program staff. The blend of participants of different ages and levels of expertise and authority blurs the line between staff and student, and the result is a program that feels truly collaborative.

Consider James Brown, who first participated in the program as a student in 2007. In 2008 and 2009, he returned as a “teen assistant” to staff member Andrew Costanzo. On the 2009 project blog, Costanzo reflected:

Of course, I have to mention my fantastic Teen Assistant, James Brown. This is the second time I have had the honor of working with James in this capacity. He dubbed us “Batman and Batman,” because “there was no sidekick this time.”

Costanzo and Brown had become true partners in the program. This doesn’t mean the teens completely control the program or can unilaterally take it in a new direction. As Brown wrote during the first week of the 2009 session:

I must admit the training and first day the students arrived seemed like the rewind of a bad 80s movie. It was all the same as the year before and the year before that. Every exercise and activity mirrored those I had already done up until the point when people started to participate.

Brown saw the program’s structure as repetitive but valuable. He went on in his post to describe all the skills he’d honed over his time in the program and to call the program “the most fulfilling summer activity I have ever done.” For Brown, Investigating Where We Live was an evolving educational experience, community project, and leadership opportunity.

Two Kinds of Collaboration

Collaborative projects fall into two broad categories:

  • Consultative projects, in which institutions engage experts or community representatives to provide advice and guidance to staff members as they develop new exhibitions, programs, or publications
  • Co-development projects, in which staff members work together with participants to produce new exhibitions and programs

The basic difference between consultative and co-development projects is the extent to which participants are involved in the implementation of collaborative ideas. Consultative participants help guide projects’ development. Co-developers help create them.

Consultative Collaboration

Cultural institutions have a long history of consultative collaboration via focus groups and formal advisory boards. Sometimes consultative collaboration is informal and short-term, as when visitors help test out interactive exhibit prototypes. Other projects require collaborators to engage with institutions on an ongoing basis, providing feedback, advice, and guidance as staff members develop new programs. Many larger museums recruit consultative advisory councils that are representative of special interest groups, such as teachers, teens, or members of local ethnic and racial communities.

In the business world, product design firms like IDEO and Adaptive Path have greatly enhanced the public profile of consultative collaboration, which they call user- or human-centered design. User-centered design advocates argue that consulting with intended users throughout the design process will result in products that are more appealing and understandable in the market. These firms don’t engage users as collaborators to give users an educational experience; they do it to improve their firms’ products.

In the book The Design of Everyday Things (1988), cognitive scientist Donald Norman demonstrated major differences between the ways that designers and users understand objects. Designers working on their own frequently make choices that make sense to them but confound intended users. When designers consult with end-users throughout the design process, they are more likely to develop something that works for everyone.

This is as true for cultural experiences as it is for consumer products. Take a tour of a cultural institution with a new visitor or watch someone try to access information about program offerings on a museum website, and you will quickly spot several differences between how professionals and patrons perceive and use institutional services. Particularly when designing wayfinding systems and informational material, consulting with a range of visitors helps generate outputs that work for diverse audiences.

User-centered design has emerged as a particularly useful technique when moving into new markets. As companies “go global,” designers are being asked to design products for intended users from countries and backgrounds they may have never encountered. In foreign environments, consulting with intended end-users is often the most effective way to understand how a product will work or what other products might appeal to the new market.

Developing programs for nontraditional audiences is quite similar to developing products for foreign markets, and consultative groups can help cultural institutions find useful ways to connect with their communities. For example, Chapter 8 features the story of the co-created Days of the Dead program at the Oakland Museum of California (see page 286). This incredibly successful program was suggested by the museum’s Latino Advisory Council, a consultative group that helps the museum connect to the particular needs and interests of Oakland’s Latino community.

Consultative collaborations suffer when participants’ roles are too vague. There’s no point in having an advisory board or focus group if there aren’t specific projects or problems for participants to address. Consulting collaborators should be given the power—and the responsibility—to provide actionable feedback and input to institutions. Clear goals and specific projects help both participants and staff members feel that collaboration is valuable.

Co-Development Collaboration

When participants function as contractors or employees, collaborations transition from consultation to co-development. Investigating Where We Live is a co-development project. Staff set up the project framework, then worked closely and collaboratively with their teenage partners to produce an exhibition.

Co-developed collaborative projects often involve weeks or months of engagement with participants. These projects require significant staff time, planning, and coordination. They typically involve small groups of participants working with dedicated employees.

Some co-development projects are focused more on participants’ learning and skill building than on the final products they create. Because of their educational benefits, collaborative projects are frequently embedded into internship programs, teen employment programs, and learning programs for communities underrepresented at the institution.

While the learning value of collaborations may be high, focusing solely on providing participants with educational experiences is risky. Co-development collaborations often struggle when they only impact ten or twenty participants. When cultural institutions are under financial pressure, resource-intensive projects that serve such a small number of visitors are often the first programs eliminated.

Collaborations are most valuable for staff, participants, and visitors when they serve broader audiences. From the institutional perspective, it’s easier to justify spending time and money on a small group project if participants produce something that can be experienced and enjoyed by many people. For participants, creating something for a wide audience makes their work more meaningful and connects them more closely to the institution. For audiences, the products of collaboration can present voices, experiences, and design choices that are different from the institutional norm.

Structuring Collaboration

There is no single methodology for coordinating collaborations. Finding the right process requires a clear institutional goal, as well as respect and understanding for participants’ needs and abilities. Collaborative processes are highly culturally dependent. What works for one partnership might not work for another.

When developing a collaborative project, the best place to start is with a design challenge. A design challenge is an institutionally-developed question that helps guide decisions about who to engage as participants, how to structure project development, and what the collaboration will produce. Here are three sample design challenges:

  • How can we tell the story of children’s immigrant experiences in a way that is authentic, respectful, and compelling to immigrant and non-immigrant audiences?
  • How can we give people with disabilities the tools to document and share their experiences in a way that supports their creative development, is sensitive to their privacy, and accessible to other audiences?
  • How can we guide amateurs to successfully develop interactive exhibits for our music and technology gallery?

The more specific the design challenge, the easier it is to develop a process that is likely to address it. When collaborating with schoolchildren, staff members should develop a process that fits students’ curricula and schedules. When collaborating with participants spread across geographic distances, Web-based communication tools may be the best way to facilitate participation. Defining the structure and scope of participation can help cultural institutions develop collaborative processes that work well for all involved.

CASE STUDY: Community-Based Video at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

In 2006, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME) opened an exhibition called Subsidized Times (Thoi Bao Cap) about everyday life in Hanoi under the strict post-war rationing policy from 1975-1986. The honest, critical exhibition included many contributed voices and artifacts, as well as documentary videos that were produced with Hanoi residents about their experiences. The video production was a collaboration among VME staff, Hanoi residents, and an outside community exhibit and video consultant, Wendy Erd. The design challenge was simple: “How can we share the stories of real people in Hanoi during the subsidized times so younger people can connect to and understand the challenges of their elders?”

To address this challenge, Erd worked with the VME staff to develop a collaborative process by which Hanoi residents would share their stories and work collectively to edit two documentary films. This was their process:

  • VME staff members formed two three-person teams. Each team included two curator/researchers and a videographer. Each team would produce one documentary with a group of outside participants.
  • VME staff teams selected outside participants to work with. One team solicited contributors from a previous project about the Old Streets of Hanoi, who helped them find elders in the Old Streets who were interested in participating. The other team sought participants through friends and family. In general, staff reached out to people who had been adults during the subsidized period, though they also included a few younger people for a different perspective.
  • VME staff teams met with the participants to introduce the seed idea and discuss the overall project concept and structure. The participants offered their feedback, shared stories of objects they connected to the time, and helped staff members identify “storytellers” for video interviews. All participants were paid for working with the VME. This was a necessity for many participants, who could not afford to take time off work uncompensated.
  • VME staff teams went to participants’ homes and interviewed them individually. Rather than ask a fixed set of questions, Erd trained the staff to engage in responsive dialogue with participants, listening carefully and addressing what was important to them. Interviewers started with a few basic questions, including: “How did you overcome the difficulties of the Bao Cap?” and “What did you dream of at that time?” VME staff then followed the threads of individuals’ stories and memories.
  • VME staff members reviewed the tapes, looking for common themes and clips where participants spoke powerfully from the heart. They organized these clips into about two hours of content for each documentary.
  • Participants came to the museum for a two-day session to provide feedback on the rough cuts and the structure of the films. The VME staff teams facilitated the discussion, asking participants to help determine the title of the film, where it should start, what themes were most important, and which clips should be included in each theme. Participants used logbooks to record notes and share them with the group. The VME staff members encouraged and listened to the participants but did not express their own perspectives. Throughout the two days, staff would reassemble the clips and play them back, prompting more participant discussion.
  • Based on the participant consultations, VME staff members assembled draft films that were reviewed by the participants for authenticity and final comments. The completed documentaries were presented in the exhibition. Staff members and participants also made presentations about the process and their experiences to the broader community of museum professionals, anthropologists, documentarians, filmmakers, and journalists.

A lighter moment during a collaborative editing session at the VME. Photo courtesy Pham Minh Phuc.

The two films and the overall exhibition had an incredible impact on participants, VME staff members, and wider audiences. Participants felt ownership and pride in their work. One participant, Ong Hoe, commented:

Wendy and VME staff gave us people responsibility. We listened to others. Also the staff knew how to listen. I felt very open and proud. When people talk and others listen the speaker feels very confident. This encouraged me a lot. From Wendy and others wanting to listen led to the success of this project. The progress was reasonable from beginning to end and will give a strong feeling to the audience. Now I’m tired. But I feel useful to work in collaboration with VME.

Another participant, Ba Tho, simply said: “This film is the true story and true people of that time. I told the truth.“

The VME’s collaborative process respected participants’ abilities and needs, treated them as meaningful partners, and generated a powerful result for all involved. After one of the two-day collaborative sessions, a VME staff researcher, Pham Minh Phuc, commented:

We all live in the same community. All of us have listened to each other’s ideas. The younger people could talk and be listened to also. This is the first time we have tried this way of making a video. It is strange for us too, so please forgive our learning moments. We want and appreciate your help and collaboration.

Visitors responded enthusiastically to Subsidized Times and its authentic stories of the era. The exhibition attracted huge crowds and was extended by six months to accommodate the demand. The authentic, personal stories of privation, hardship, and creativity helped young Vietnamese visitors understand their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences. A university student, Dinh Thi Dinh, commented: “I just cannot believe that a bar of Camay soap was a luxury at that time. This exhibit has inspired me to study harder to deserve the sacrifices of my parents and my grandparents.” Another young man who met Wendy Erd in Hanoi effused about the exhibition, showing her photos of it on his mobile phone and explaining that it helped him understand his mother and her experiences.

The collaboration with community members inspired the staff to continue integrating participatory approaches into subsequent community video projects. Starting in 2007, VME staff members and Erd collaborated across cultures with indigenous teams in Yunnan China in a multi-year project to produce six community-based videos. Their continued work in this direction is based on their responsive facilitation skills developed during the Subsidized Times exhibition.

Staff Roles in Collaborative Projects

There are four basic staff roles in collaborations. Staff members may function as:

  1. Project directors, who manage the collaboration and keep the project on track
  2. Community managers, who work closely with participants and advocate for their needs
  3. Instructors, who provide training for participants
  4. Client representatives, who represent institutional interests and requirements

While these roles are often blended, collaborations work best when they remain distinct. Participants have specific relationships with each of these staff roles, and these different relationships help make collaborations feel fair and equitable.

It’s particularly important to separate out instructors and client representatives from other project staff. Instructors and client representatives are authority figures, not partners. It’s much easier for project directors and community managers to collaborate with participants if they do not also have to play these authority roles.

Weaving instruction into a collaborative project requires careful planning. Collaboration requires equitable partnerships, whereas instruction often reinforces unbalanced power relationships between instructors and students. When you separate the instructors from the project directors, participants can connect with the project directors as partners or facilitators, not as teachers. Bringing in guest instructors, or employing past participants as instructors, can also help participants learn without feeling inferior.

It’s also helpful to spread instruction throughout the duration the program, especially when working with young people. When the beginning of a program is focused on instruction, it sets up an expectation that the program will be “business as usual” with adults as authoritative leaders and students as followers. Front-loading instruction can also cause exhaustion in later weeks, especially in intensive programs where participants spend several hours each day working on the project. Instructional sessions later in the program can serve as diverting breaks that help participants shift focus and gather additional skills to enhance their projects.

In optimal cases, most instruction is dictated by the needs of participants themselves. When working with participants on projects where they are designing exhibits, objects, or activities that draw on their own creative abilities, I use the initial stages to expose them to as many unique examples as possible rather than prescriptively offer a small set of tools or paths to take. I ask participants to write proposals for the type of projects they would like to create. Then, as a project director, I try to locate instructors or advisors who can specifically help participants learn how to use the tools they need to create their project, working from their particular levels of expertise. Particularly when working with young people and technology, it’s extremely unlikely that everyone has the same knowledge of and interest in different tools. Students improve their skills more quickly and significantly when they receive specific instruction at their level with tools they consider essential to their work.

The client representative is the other staff role that is essential to keep separate. This client rep should be someone who has institutional authority over the direction of the project and may be different from the staff member who works with participants on an ongoing basis. The client rep helps hold participants accountable by giving specific feedback that may be more honest (and potentially uncomfortable) than that offered by other project staff. She also provides external motivation for participants and is the ultimate audience for their work.

Client representatives need not even be real. The 826 writing tutoring centers across the US provide popular field trip programs in storytelling and bookmaking. Student groups work together to write a book with the support of three staff volunteers—a writer, an illustrator, and a typist. These volunteers are community managers, and they work for a fictitious, tyrannical publisher who represents the client. The publisher is never seen but is portrayed by a staff member hidden in a closet who angrily pounds on the door and shouts out orders and demands. The beleaguered volunteers ask the students to help them write a book to satisfy the cranky publisher. This sets up an emotional bond between students and staff and helps the students stay motivated. The invisible publisher is a fictitious device used to create criteria, add drama, and help focus participants on what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly open creative project.

CASE STUDY: A Complicated Collaboration at The Tech Museum

Clear design challenges and delineated staff roles aren’t just “nice to haves.” Consider The Tech Virtual Test Zone, a project that demonstrates the essential value of clear structure and roles in collaborations.

The Tech Virtual Test Zone was a project of The Tech Museum in San Jose, CA. In the fall of 2007, I joined the staff of The Tech Museum to help lead an initiative called The Tech Virtual, of which the Test Zone was the pilot project. The design challenge was clear: to crowdsource exhibit development by collaborating with participants all over the world via online platforms. By inviting creative amateurs and content experts to share and prototype many exhibit ideas in parallel, we believed we could design and deploy more diverse, high-quality exhibits faster than had previously been possible. The goals for the pilot were to launch the collaborative platform, recruit participants, and build a prototype gallery in The Tech Museum based on their ideas within seven months.

The original plan for the Test Zone included all four staff roles. I was the project director, leading the collaborative exhibit development and fabrication of the real-world exhibits. Volunteers would serve as community managers, helping participants develop and prototype their exhibit ideas virtually. Tech Museum engineers and designers would serve as guest instructors, providing virtual workshops about interactive exhibit design. A curator would be hired to serve as the client representative, setting the criteria for what would be included and excluded from the final exhibition.

We set up a collaborative workshop in the virtual three-dimensional world of Second Life. Rather than overwhelm participants with a completely open-ended environment, I produced exhibit design templates and interactive walk-through tutorials to help participants learn the basics of exhibit design and structure their ideas in a viable direction. I trained other staff members in the basics of Second Life design tools so that they would be able to guide and assist participants. We set up a roster of virtual classes in exhibit design, marketed the opportunity throughout Second Life and to a broad audience of creative professionals, and quickly began collaborating with new partners.

Because Second Life is a social environment, users can talk to and work with each other in real time. We quickly discovered that interpersonal interaction, not tutorials or templates, was the key to motivating participants and encouraging them to develop their skills. We offered Second Life-based exhibit design classes twice a week, which blended virtual design skills with exhibit thinking. For invested participants, we hosted a weekly exhibit designers’ meeting to discuss participants’ projects, new developments in the Test Zone project overall, and community concerns. While these meetings only attracted a small percentage of the community (about 10-15 people per week, compared to about 100 in the workshop at any time), these participants tended to be the most motivated folks who often informally volunteered their time to greet new community members and help out wherever they could.

Participants frequently got together to brainstorm and build ideas together in the virtual exhibit workshop in Second Life.

The use of Second Life as an exhibit development platform helped level the playing field between staff and participants. This may seem paradoxical, since Second Life is a complicated software platform. But many of The Tech Virtual participants were much more proficient in the Second Life environment than the museum staff. Second Life was a place where my authority as a museum exhibit designer came down a notch and we all became equal individuals bringing different design skills to the table. As participant Richard Milewski, commented,

Second Life is an abstract enough environment that the somewhat intimidating prospect of attempting to collaborate with an institution such as The Tech was made to appear possible. “After all, it’s not real! It’s just a cartoon on my computer screen and I could always just turn it off.” (Not really… but I told myself that more than once).

Later, when several of the virtual participants came to the opening of the real world exhibition, we offered them a tour of the fabrication shop where their exhibits were made. While a few people were enthusiastic, several were strikingly overwhelmed and uncomfortable in the shop space. It became immediately apparent to me that these were not people who would have ever engaged with us as exhibit developers had it required them coming to the actual museum or the staff design area. By meeting them on “their own turf” in Second Life, we tipped the scales in favor of a positive collaboration.

As the collaboration proceeded, three challenges arose. First, our staff infrastructure collapsed. The Tech Museum never hired the curator who was to serve as the client representative of the Test Zone. Senior executives also decided it was a waste of time for engineers and designers to spend work time as guest instructors in the virtual workshop and forbid their participation. That left me and several volunteers to manage the entire exhibition project. I was frequently torn between my responsibilities as the de facto client representative—to select the best exhibit ideas for creation—and my role as the community manager—to support and cheer on participants. It was impossible to be both the partner who helped participants learn and the authority figure who told them that their exhibit wasn’t good enough to win. So I hid behind an imaginary panel of judges, invoking them when I needed to tell participants that “the judges didn’t understand this part of your project,” or, “the judges don’t believe this would be feasible in the real world to fabricate.” Using this device, it was possible to keep encouraging the participants throughout the process as their partner, not their evaluator.

The second challenge that arose was that the museum’s leadership shifted the design challenge itself, making frequent changes to the budget, schedule, gallery location, and desired outcomes for the project. I scrambled to adjust the project accordingly, which was not always to the benefit of participants. While it’s easy to say, “this is an experiment,” it’s difficult to build trusting relationships with people who are adversely affected by the changes that every experimental project undergoes. When we changed something, it wasn’t an abstract project change. We were impacting real people’s work. Fortunately, because we maintained honest and open communication with participants, most were willing to weather the changes and stick with the project. Much like the staff in the 826 tutoring program (see page 265), who use an imaginary authoritative publisher to establish rapport with students, I shared my own challenges and frustrations with the Test Zone participants, which helped us bond and deal with the chaotic process.

The third challenge that plagued the Test Zone collaboration was the fact that the entire project was a contest with cash prizes. At first, we thought a contest was a useful way to promote and accelerate the project. We offered a $5,000 award for each exhibit design that was translated to real life. Doing so helped us raise awareness very quickly. This was useful given the short time frame for completing the project. This cash prize also helped participants focus on producing finished prototypes. People didn’t visit the virtual workshop to muse about exhibits; they came to build exhibits on a tight deadline for submission to the contest.

However, the contest prevented us from fostering meaningful collaboration among participants. People were unsure whether they should go it alone to try to win the whole prize or team up with others. We had several community discussions about how the competition discouraged collaboration. I fielded bizarre but understandable questions about whether participants should try to get involved with as many exhibits as possible to optimize chances of winning or produce only solo projects to maximize potential reward. The money sent a contradictory signal to all our talk about community.

The contest not only caused problems for collaboration among participants in the Test Zone; it also created ethical challenges for the staff. The staff found it challenging to align a clear, fair contest structure with the goal of developing seven interactive exhibits in seven months. In the beginning of the project, the museum director spoke about “copying” exhibits from Second Life to real life. The theory was that we would hold a contest with staged judging, and at each judging point, we would select fully completed virtual exhibits to “copy” to the real museum.

Our fabrication team quickly realized that this was unrealistic, both technically and conceptually. In general, we chose winning exhibits based on what seemed engaging, educational, and relevant to the exhibition theme. But we also chose based on practicalities of space and time and our professional instinct for what would succeed. In the case of an exhibit called Musical Chairs, our internal team of engineers was able to quickly identify the concept as a winner from a simple one-paragraph description of the concept. While Leanne Garvie, the participant who contributed that concept, did build a working virtual prototype in Second Life, it bore little similarity to the real-world version we designed in parallel at The Tech Museum. In the end, we gave $5,000 awards to each exhibit that was built in real life, but we also gave lesser prizes ($500 and $1,000) for outstanding virtual-only projects to acknowledge participants who contributed excellent work in good faith without winning.

We continued to include participants in the exhibition development after the virtual contest was over; however, at that point the staff asserted the upper hand in the collaborative relationship. The collaboration became easier for staff members when we moved to the fabrication phase because the staff knew how the fabrication process worked and where we could and couldn’t integrate input from participants themselves. In cases where participants were local, they often visited to check on our progress and even helped put their exhibits together. For those who were hundreds or thousands of miles away, I shared our real-world progress in virtual meetings, photos, calls, and emails.

Wherever possible, we asked participants to create or select content for exhibit artwork, audio, and video. All final exhibits featured a didactic label about the core educational content as well as a second label about the virtual designer and the collaborative process. Three exhibits featured original art and music by the virtual designers, and three relied heavily on the technical expertise of the virtual designers. The participants enabled our engineering and fabrication team to go beyond our in-house capabilities to tackle some exhibit components and content elements that we could not have produced in that short a timeframe.

Jon Brouchoud designed this virtual exhibit on harmonics, called the "Wikisonic."

Brouchoud (background) enjoying the "Wall of Musical Buttons" exhibit adapted from his virtual exhibit.

A year later, many winning participants reflected effusively on their experience with the Test Zone. Several described how the project gave them pride in their work and opened up new cross-disciplinary opportunities. Jon Brouchoud, a Wisconsin-based architect who designed an exhibit on harmonics, commented:

The Tech Virtual offered an opportunity to think outside of my own profession, and venture into other fields of interest (music) beyond just architectural practice – something I’ve always wanted to explore, but never had the chance.  Additionally, the emphasis on cross-disciplinary collaboration opened doors to working with other team members who were each able to contribute their own unique knowledge and skill-set toward making an otherwise impossible dream become a reality.

Another participant, UK-based artist Pete Wardle, reflected:

Having our work installed at the Tech gave me confidence to enter my work as submissions to other institutions. Since the exhibit at the Tech I’ve continued to build projects in Second Life and have recently returned from giving a talk at University of Nevada, Reno as part of their Prospectives09 conference (which I wouldn’t have dreamed of prior to working with the Tech).

Overall, the Test Zone collaboration was an exciting yet frustrating one for staff and participants alike. In some ways, the chaotic nature of the project made us good collaborators because everyone was dependent on each other to complete the project in such a short time frame. However, the chaos did not foster a sustaining community of amateur exhibit developers. There was no way for participants to rely on each other. Instead, they had to rely on me, the project director, as the source of changing information and criteria for success. This created an unhealthy community that revolved around one person who was forced to function as the community manager, project director, and client representative. After the Test Zone opened in real life, I ended my involvement with The Tech Museum. Unfortunately, the community did not survive after my departure. While The Tech Virtual Test Zone succeeded in producing a gallery of interactive exhibits designed with amateur collaborators worldwide, it did not lay the groundwork for an ongoing collaborative exhibit development process as The Tech hoped.

Is it possible to make this kind of collaboration work? Absolutely. Had we maintained distinct staff roles, pursued a consistent design challenge, and eliminated the contest, The Tech Virtual could have become a sustaining, viable approach to collaborative exhibit development. Here are a few techniques I learned from this project and have applied to subsequent collaborative initiatives:

  • Find activities for participants that are meaningful and useful both for them and for the institution. The staff found participants’ exhibit concepts incredibly diverse and useful, but their virtual prototypes rarely helped the exhibition design move forward. We could have prevented a lot of frustration for both staff members and participants if we had understood sooner what kinds of contributions would be most valuable.
  • Let participants use the tools that they know, not just the ones the staff develops for them. It was a stroke of luck that we chose to use a software platform in which participants were more expert than staff. Their expertise made the collaboration more equitable by placing an unfamiliar activity in a comfortable context. Particularly when working with technology, supporting participants who use the tools they know or are interested in is more successful than training them to learn only your system.
  • Don’t rely solely on words to communicate with participants. Another surprise of Second Life was the benefit of working in an environment that encouraged people to build virtual prototypes of their ideas. When you build something, it serves as a launch point for discussion about what’s missing and where to go next. It allows people who aren’t verbal to share their creative abilities, and it can make collaboration across language barriers possible.
  • A strong collaboration requires both structure and mutual trust. The Tech Virtual participants worked incredibly hard to meet the shifting demands of the institution. While participants were able to deal with a certain amount of flux, every change caused new confusion, frustration, and fears to pop up. Everyone felt most confident and positive when we were working together towards a clear and well-defined goal.

Collaborating on Research Projects

For some cultural institutions, it is easier to involve visitors as collaborators on research projects than on creative projects like exhibition or program development. While collaborative exhibition projects support creative skill building and story sharing, research collaborations support other skills like visual literacy, critical thinking, and analysis of diverse information sources. Creative collaborations are often personally focused, with participants reflecting on and sharing their own personal knowledge and experience. Research collaborations, on the other hand, are institutionally focused, with participants working with and adding to institutional knowledge. When well-designed, research collaborations help participants feel more connected to and invested in the institution as a whole.

In collaborative research projects, participants typically collect data, analyze it, and interpret results alongside institutional partners. Staff members design research collaborations to support participant learning and engagement while at the same time generating high-quality research. In the best collaborative projects these goals are coincident, but it’s not always easy to construct a research project that exposes participants to a diversity of skills and experiences while maintaining consistent results.

CASE STUDY: Conducting Research with Visitors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In early 2008, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched a pilot collaborative research project called Children of the Lodz Ghetto. The project started with a single artifact: a school album from the Lodz Ghetto, signed by more than 13,000 children in 1941. The research project is a “worldwide volunteer effort” to reconstruct the experiences of those children during the Holocaust. Using a subset of the online research databases used by professional Holocaust researchers, participants try to find out what happened to individuals in the album by running a variety of searches on different spellings of names of children across many geographic locations, concentration camps, and government registries. The database queries are sorted into timeframes (ghetto, labor camps, concentration camps, liberation) so that users can progressively add information about individuals’ location and status throughout the 1940s. Eventually, the goal is to have a record of each child’s story, starting from those 13,000 signatures from 1941.

For the institution, the Children of the Lodz Ghetto research project provides valuable information about the children in the album. As the project website says, “Now the museum needs your help.” This help comes at an incredible (but acceptable) cost. Staff members vet every entry in the research project. In the first year of the pilot, one-third of user-contributed submissions were validated as accurate or potentially accurate. The rest were invalid. However, despite the fact that staff researchers could have done this research more quickly and accurately on their own, the learning and social value of the project was deemed high enough to make the project worthwhile from an institutional perspective. Staff researchers engaged in ongoing discussion with participants and helped them learn how to be researchers themselves. As project director David Klevan put it:

I hesitate to refer to any data as “bad” because each time a learner submits “bad” data, they receive feedback that about the submitted data that hopefully helps them to learn more about the history and become a better researcher.

In the first 18 months of the pilot, the museum engaged approximately 150 university students and teachers as participants and evaluated their experience both for usability and impact. The educational experience for pilot participants in terms of research skill-building and content learning was very high. Additionally, performing research themselves increased the participants’ emotional engagement and perspective on the Holocaust. Many commented that they now had tangible, specific people and incidents to connect to the horror of the time.

One of the most popular design features of the pilot research portal was the emphasis on collaborative research. The portal was set up to encourage users to help each other, review each other’s work, and work together to trace the paths of individual children. Participants noted how much they enjoyed and learned from reviewing each other’s research and receiving feedback from staff members and other participants alike. In an evaluation, one participant commented:

Having their help made this project less stressful and made it feel like we were working as a team. Much of the time, our peers allowed our research to continue without any dead ends. When we were stuck, it was comforting to know that the United States Holocaust Museum and our peers had our backs.

Museum staff members are continuing to adjust the project as time goes on, and once it is open to the public (expected mid-2010), they hope to encourage a community of self-motivated, more skilled researchers to sustain the project on their own. The staff vetting is the unscalable part of this project, and if the project gets flooded with bad data, it may not be able to grow easily. But Klevan believes that the research can improve in quality and the community can effectively self-police entries if participants stay involved and the institution can find ways to reward them for improving their research skills. Because the project was built to support and integrate peer review and active collaboration on individual research efforts, it has the potential to get better the more people use it.

Collaborating with Casual Visitors

What if, in the course of a normal visit, visitors could collaborate with the cultural institution to co-create new knowledge about exhibits and programs on display? Integrating collaboration into visitor experiences makes participation available to anyone, anytime. Because on-the-floor experiences are explicitly audience-facing, these collaborative projects tend to be designed with both spectators and participants in mind. Contributory platforms often promote a virtuous cycle in which participants are enticed out of passive spectating into action and then model that experience for others. On-the-floor collaborative platforms can have the same effect. These kinds of collaborative projects can be fruitful for visitors and institutions alike, as long as they can be sustainably managed as they evolve over time.

On the Web, Wikipedia is a good example of this kind of evolving, “live” collaborative platform. At any time, non-contributing users can access and use the content presented while authors and editors continue to improve it. The collaborative workspace is a click away from the audience-facing content—close enough to observe and join in on the process, but separate enough to keep the spectator experience coherent and attractive. The ideal collaborative cultural experience is comparable: appealing to visitors, with a thin and permeable division between spectating and actively collaborating.

Collaborating on Internal Processes

Sometimes bringing collaboration onto the floor is as easy as bringing your process out into the open. When the Ontario Science Centre was developing the Weston Family Innovation Centre, they went through an extensive and prolonged prototyping phase. They developed a technique called Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) in which staff teams would physically build ideas for exhibits, programs, and strategic initiatives out of junk in a few hours. The RIG started as an internal process. The team would occasionally show off the final prototypes on the floor in casual consultation with visitors about the ideas. Eventually, the staff began to integrate visitors into their RIG teams, and eventually, hold public RIGs on the museum floor in public space. The RIGs were highly collaborative, bringing together executives, designers, front-line staff, shop staff, and visitors to design things in an open-ended, team-based format. By bringing the development process onto the floor, staff members became more comfortable with one of the core ideas behind the Weston Family Innovation Centre: the concept that visitors would be encouraged to design and create things all the time. This also allowed staff members to share their work with visitors in a format that was structured, creative, and highly enjoyable.

CASE STUDY: Real-Time Visitor Collaboration at the University of Washington

Imagine designing a gallery with the goal of inviting casual visitors to collaborate with each other. What would it look like? In 2009, when working as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington, I challenged a group of graduate students to design an exhibition that would get strangers talking to each other. They produced an exhibition in the student center called Advice: Give It, Get It, Flip It, F**k It that invited visitors to collaborate with each other to give and receive advice. Advice was only open for one weekend, but during that time, we observed and measured many ways that visitors to the University of Washington student center collaborated with each other and with staff members to produce a large volume of interpersonal content.

Advice offered four main experiences—two facilitated, two unfacilitated. The facilitated experiences were an advice booth, at which visitors could receive real-time advice from other people (both visitors and staff), and a button-making station, where a staff member helped visitors create buttons featuring personalized adages. The two unfacilitated experiences involved visitors writing their own pieces of advice on sticky notes and walls and answering each other’s questions asynchronously.

While many of the activities offered were contributory, Advice can be characterized as collaborative because the contributions steered the content of the entire exhibition. Visitors didn’t hand in their contributions to be processed and then presented. Instead, visitors worked with staff members to add new content, reorganize it, and prioritize what was meaningful to them.

At any time, there were two staff members in Advice. The staff members were not there to guide the experience, but to give visitors a friendly, encouraging introduction to the participatory elements of the exhibition. For example, at the button-making station, staff members played a simple Madlibs-style game with visitors to create a new, often silly piece of advice. Staff would ask visitors for two words and then work them into a traditional piece of advice, yielding buttons that read, “A frog in the hand is worth two in the pickle” or “Don’t count your monkeys before they bicycle.” The facilitators collaborated with visitors, talking with them, listening to them, and playing with them.

While the facilitated experiences pulled many spectators out of their solitude and into participation, the unfacilitated sticky note walls were the places where visitor-to-visitor collaboration really thrived. The setup was simple: the staff came up with a few seed questions, like “How do you heal a broken heart?,” and put them up on signs behind glass. Then, they offered sticky notes in different sizes and colors, as well as pens and markers, for people to write responses. The engagement with the sticky note walls was very high. Random passers-by got hooked and spent twenty minutes carefully reading each note, writing responses, creating chains of conversation, and spinning off questions and pieces of advice. The sticky notes hooked maintenance staff, students, athletes, men, and women—it spanned the range of people passing through.

There were 230 responses to the nine staff-created seed questions, and in a more free-form area, visitors submitted 28 of their own questions, which yielded 147 responses. Some of the advice was incredibly specific; for example, one person wrote a note that asked, “Should a 17 year old who is going to college in the fall have a curfew this summer?” That note received nine follow-ups, including a response from another parent in the same situation. Some visitors stood and copied pieces of advice (especially classes to take and books to read) carefully into personal notebooks.

In general, visitors to Advice wrote questions on large sticky notes and used smaller ones to give advice to each other.

It might seem surprising that people would take the time to write questions on sticky notes when there was no guarantee that someone would respond and very low likelihood that a response would come in real-time. Collaboration was not guaranteed, especially in a low traffic hallway in an odd area of the UW student center. But the impulse to participate was high and the threshold for doing so was very low. The sticky notes and pens were right there. The whole exhibit modeled the potential for someone to respond to your query, and as it grew, the sense that you would be responded to and validated grew as well. We saw many people come back again and again to look at the sticky notes, point out new developments, laugh, and add new ideas to the wall.

While the sticky note walls were the most popular, Advice offered many ways to talk back: the notes, a bathroom wall, a comment book, a call-in voicemail box, and various online interfaces. Each of these interfaces took pressure off the others as a visitor participation outlet, and the overall result was a coherent, diverse mix of on-topic visitor contributions. My favorite example of this was the “bathroom wall” component, in which visitors could scrawl with marker on what appeared to be a bathroom stall door. At first, it wasn’t apparent why this was necessary. If visitors could write on sticky notes anywhere in the exhibit, why did they also need a bathroom wall?

The “bathroom wall” gave visitors a place to screw around and let off creative steam. They clearly understood that the bathroom wall and the sticky note walls were for two very different kinds of participation.

But the bathroom wall turned out to be a brilliant exhibit element. It was a release valve that let people write crude things and draw silly pictures. The bathroom wall was “anything goes” by design. While the content on it was not as directed and compelling as that on the sticky notes, it served a valuable purpose as a relief valve. There was not a single off-topic or inappropriate submission on the sticky note walls. They were totally focused on the questions and answers at hand. I think the bathroom wall made this possible by being an alternative for those who wanted to be a little less focused and just have fun with markers.

By designing a collaborative platform into the exhibition, the Advice staff members were able to reduce their ongoing management role to organizing the sticky notes in appealing ways and highlighting visitor content they perceived as particularly compelling. While this was a small experimental project, it is a model for institutions that wish to pursue collaborative floor experiences that are highly distributed, available and appealing to visitors, and low impact from a resources perspective.

Audience Response to Collaborative Projects

Like audiences for contributory projects, visitors to collaboratively-produced exhibitions or programs may not be aware of or particularly interested in the unique design process that generated their experience. While the labels in The Tech Virtual Test Zone that explained the collaborative process were interesting to some adult visitors, most people focused on using the interactive exhibits as they would elsewhere in The Tech Museum. In the case of the Test Zone, the collaborative process was explicitly developed to produce exhibits comparable to those in the rest of the institution, so this outcome is not surprising.

When collaborative processes produce outcomes that are different from the norm, however, the impact is often quite significant. Like contributory projects, collaborative projects can incorporate new voices that can make exhibitions and programs feel more authentic, personal, and relevant. For example, many young visitors to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology’s Subsidized Times exhibition said it helped them connect personally with the elders in their own families who had lived through the period of privation. Collaborating participants are also more likely to take ownership of the projects they work on and to share their enthusiasm about the exhibitions with their friends and neighbors, potentially bringing new visitors to the institution.

When visitors are invited to actively collaborate in the context of their own visit, as in exhibitions like Advice or Top 40 (see page 117), they frequently demonstrate high levels of social engagement and repeat visitation. Top 40, the Worcester Museum exhibition that ranked paintings based on visitor votes, drew record numbers of repeat visitors, many of whom who came back weekly to see how community actions impacted and altered the relative rankings of the paintings. Similarly, because the content in the Advice exhibition kept growing as more people added sticky notes to the walls, many visitors came back to see what questions had been answered and what new questions were open for their input. Even the Click! exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (see page 126), which showcased a collaborative process but did not provide new opportunities for participation, generated a high rate of repeat visitation and discussion among visitors who explored and debated the photographs that collaborators had selected for inclusion in the show.

Finally, collaborative processes affect the ways that staff members at cultural institutions perceive visitors and community members. When staff members see visitors as partners instead of consumers, they start treating people differently both in the design of projects and in casual interactions. Asking, “What do you think?” shifts from being a throwaway question to a sincere request. Staff members who work on collaborative projects frequently gain new skills in facilitation and responsive dialogue. These new skills and attitudes change the way that staff members ask visitors questions, manage educational programs, and conceptualize new exhibits. All of this helps foster a sense of ownership and inclusion in the institution.


When staff members form collaborative relationships with community members, they often gain new respect for participants’ abilities, interests, and desires. At some institutions, this can lead to projects that are initiated and conceptualized not only for participants but also with and by them. When institutions partner with visitors to co-develop projects based on community members’ ideas, they enter into co-creative relationships. Co-creation is the subject of Chapter 8, which explores ways for staff members and participants to develop institutional projects to achieve both community and institutional goals.

Chapter 7 Notes

[] For a list of the goals of Investigating Where We Live and its benefits to participants, see this site.

[] Read Andrew Costanzo’s August 2009 blog post, Final Thoughts: U Street.

[] Read James Brown’s July 2009 blog post, Groundhog Day.

[] Read the January 2007 Associated Press review of Subsidized Times here.

[] Read Richard Milewski’s entire comment on my June 2008 blog post, Community Exhibit Development: Lessons Learned from The Tech Virtual.

[] The Children of the Lodz Ghetto project is still in progress as of this printing and can be accessed here.

[] For more details and an evaluation report on Advice, visit the documentation site.

[] See page Chapter 3 for more detail on the advice booth (and a picture).

[] Madlibs is a game in which players write silly stories by filling new words into blanks in a pre-existing narrative.