Advice: Give it, Get it, Flip it, Fxxk it

Topic: Culture Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Nina Simon

Published on June 16, 2009, Modified on June 21, 2011

  • Description and goals

    This exhibition was produced as a class project in a course on Social Technology in the UW Museology program. I challenged the students to create an exhibition with one goal, “get strangers to talk to each other.” There was no content or artifact base, and I didn’t care what the content was as long as they hit that interaction goal.

    The concept team developed these visitor goals:

    • Visitors will give, receive and exchange advise with strangers in a variety of media.
    • Visitors will share past advice, relevant, irrelevant, controversial and comical.
    • Visitors will evaluate advice from different sources, and consider the relation of source/authority to this process (i.e. professional vs. colloquial, friendly vs. unfriendly, for entertainment vs. serious).
    • Visitors will ‘remix,’ ‘flip’ or edit advice furnished by others in the exhibit, transforming individual exchanges into socially-mitigated ones.

    The team defined “strangers talking to each other” as something that can happen in real-time via conversation or asynchronously via shared narrative on the web or in the physical space. Here are the components of the exhibit:

    PHYSICAL
    • a display of visual advice in the form of photographs of bumper stickers, allegorical pictures, comics, and other visual manifestations of advice as submitted to the exhibit Flickr group or found by students.
    • a button-making station where visitors could supply parts of speech for inclusion on a free, Mad-Libs-inspired button
    • a space designated for visitors to both respond to a selection of “classic questions” using sticky notes
    • a space designated for visitors to pose their own “burning questions” and respond to others’ “burning questions” using sticky notes
    • a “Free Advice” booth where self-proclaimed and self-described “advice experts” offered counsel to visitors
    • a continuously-played soundtrack of recorded, spoken advice of participants, interspersed with “advice-themed” songs
    • a simulated bathroom stall door on which visitors could write or draw advice

    VIRTUAL
    • a Twitter account which both broadcast to, and received advice from, off-site participants using a hashtag
    • a Flickr group to which off-site participants could submit images of advice and comment on the images of others
    • a Simple Voice Box account which off-site participants could call and leave a recorded message containing advice
    • a Gmail account to which off-site participants could submit advice in text, photograph, video, or audio form
    • a Tumblr website where select participant content and all exhibit-related Twitter activity was displayed

    You can read more about the individual components and visitors’ participation in each in the evaluation report, available here: http://strangemuse.pbworks.com/Evaluation

  • Development process and challenges

    The team was 13 students with a variety of museum backgrounds. I was not onsite for the exhibit development, and the exhibit was conceptualized, designed, and produced in 6 weeks for $300 by the team.

    We used a wiki, weekly team calls, and individual team meetings to develop the exhibit. You can view the wiki (http://strangemuse.pbworks.com) to dig into every step of the process. I provided the overall framework for exhibit development stages and deliverables (see http://strangemuse.pbworks.com/Project-Plan-and-Deliverables) but then the students took complete responsibility from there on. We did use a series of voting techniques to select the core idea (see initial concepts here: http://strangemuse.pbworks.com/Focus-Exercise), but after that, the small team for each project stage had a manager who was able to lead his/her team by consensus or dictatorship based on the team’s desires.

    I was frankly amazed that the exhibit came together with so little friction (at least from my perspective). People put in different amounts of effort, but we knew that would happen. No one jockeyed to overshadow the content of the exhibit or wrest control from another team. Despite the fact that many students came in with no exhibit development experience, no one expressed suspicion or concern about each other’s ability to get the job done. I think everyone was too focused on just getting the whole darn thing done.

    Challenges? We had almost no time to show the exhibit – it was only up for 3 days at the end of the quarter. We had a pretty lousy space for the exhibit. I opted for a space in the UW student center instead of an art gallery because we wanted to get as much traffic as possible, including random passers-by. The space was a functional, ugly hallway between a lobby and a dining area, and it was sparsely used due to end of the year graduation hijinks. And yet we still had several hundred visitors over three days, most of whom stumbled into the exhibit unwittingly but found themselves captivated for ten minutes or more.

    We held a session halfway through the exhibit run to make some mid-course corrections. This was important to me – I didn’t want us to feel “done” but instead take the uncomfortable opportunity to change things that weren’t working. This was not pleasant for everyone. Students felt like they had worked hard for six weeks to get this thing up and it was not necessarily appropriate to change things that were well-thought-out. The changes also affected the consistency of exhibit evaluation. But to me it was important for us not to just say, “we’d do this differently next time” but to actually try to make it happen. In a 3-day exhibit, this wasn’t really substantively useful, but it did bring up the challenges that always come with treating an open exhibit as still “in process.”

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    I’m going to share my three biggest lessons here (these are also on the Museum 2.0 blog), but I really recommend you check out the evaluation report and scroll to the end to see the lessons everyone on the team learned: http://strangemuse.pbworks.com/Evaluation

    Lesson 1: Structured facilitation supports participation without overshadowing visitors’ contributions.

    When we started this course, I really pushed the students to think about ways to induce unfacilitated interactions among strangers. I love facilitated experiences, but I worry that they aren’t scalable to every visitor. In the end, the Advice exhibit offered four main experiences—two that were facilitated, and two that were unfacilitated. The facilitated experiences were an advice booth, at which you could receive real-time advice from children, money managers, tattoo artists, and more, and a button-making station, where a gallery attendant would help you play a simple game to make a custom button featuring your own advice “madlib” composed of your own nouns and verbs rolled into classic advice phrases. The unfacilitated experiences (discussed in more detail below) involved visitors writing their own pieces of advice on post-its and walls and answering each other’s questions asynchronously.

    At any time, there were two facilitators in the exhibit—one for the advice booth, and the other for the buttons. This might make Advice sound more like an educational program than an exhibit, or like a failure on the unfacilitated front. But the exhibit team did something novel. First, they replaced staff with volunteers—some entirely spontaneous—at the advice booth. Like the Living Library project, the advice booth was a platform that connected strangers with strangers—not just staff with strangers. One eight year-old enjoyed the advice-giving experience so much that he came back the following day for another shift in the booth!

    Maybe more importantly, the facilitators were not the center of the Advice experience. They were roped to very specific locations and activities. Because they were a part of the experience rather than the focal point, they could impart an air of friendliness and participation without making people feel that they had to participate. They reminded me of street vendors or great science museum cart educators, imparting an energy to the space without overwhelming it. I know that floor staff are expensive, but they really make a space come alive (see this post). And in Advice, the activities for staff were interesting and specific enough that a really eclectic mix of volunteers could perform them successfully.

    Lesson 2: Post-its are compelling on their own.

    The most successful part of Advice was the post-it walls. The setup was simple: the exhibit team 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 different shapes and colors of post-its, as well as pens and markers, for people to write responses.

    The engagement in this part of the exhibit was very high. Random passers-by got hooked and spent twenty minutes carefully reading each post-it, writing responses, creating chains of conversation and spin-off questions and pieces of advice. It’s worth noting that the exhibit space was not exactly optimal—it was a hallway separating the lobby of the student center from a dining hall. The previous exhibit in this space was a very provocative art exhibit about sexual violence, and yet in our brief site survey in April we saw almost no one stop to look at the art. Not so for the post-its. The Advice exhibit hooked maintenance staff, students, athletes, men, women—it really seemed to span 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 post-it that asked, “should my 17 year old who is going to college in the fall have a curfew this summer?” That post-it received 9 follow-up post-its, including a response from another parent in the same situation. Others stood and copied pieces of advice (especially classes to take and books to read) carefully into their personal notebooks.

    It might seem surprising that people would take the time to write up questions on post-its when there is no guarantee that someone will respond, and very low likeliness that someone will respond while you are still in the gallery. The exhibit experienced low traffic overall in an odd area of the UW student center. But the impulse to participate was high and the threshold for doing so was very, very low. The post-its 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 post-its, point out new developments, laugh, and add their own advice.

    People felt very comfortable not only adding their own advice but also critiquing others’. We saw many instances when someone would write “lol” or “love this” directly onto a previously posted post-it. People also asked follow-up questions. For example, one person recommended “grappa and Bessie Smith records” as a cure for a broken heart, to which another responded, “Who’s Bessie Smith?” The query was answered by yet a third person, who wrote, “Uh, only the greatest singer of the 20’s ‘I need a little sugar in my bowl.’”

    Do I know if the second person ever came back to find out who Bessie Smith is? No. But I know that the resultant conversation provided information to many subsequent visitors to the space. It’s like following blog comments. Not everyone comes back to read the evolving comment stream, but the aggregate is always valuable to the next visitor.

    Lesson 3: Offer many ways for visitors to give feedback.

    When the student team inserted a “bathroom wall” component into the exhibit plan, I didn’t really understand it. If visitors could write on post-its anywhere in the exhibit, why did they also need a place to scrawl with marker on an actual wall?

    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. And while the content on it was not as directed and compelling as that on the post-its, it served a valuable purpose. There was not a SINGLE off-topic or inappropriate submission on the post-it 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 sharpies.

    The Advice team also offered a guest comment book (sparsely used) for people to offer comments about the whole exhibit. There were also multiple ways to follow up or submit content online or by phone. All of these ways together constructed a landscape of visitor participation that supported a large number of people participating in ways that felt most appropriate for them.

    This is a good lesson for museum talk-back design. If you only offer one place where visitors can contribute their thoughts to an exhibition, they are likely to use that opportunity to share their thoughts on all kinds of things. I’ve visited many exhibitions that ask focused questions at the end, and visitors respond with more general thoughts about the entire exhibition or museum. These contributions are valuable, but they erode the focus of the topic at hand.

    In Advice, there were many forms of talk-back: the post-its, the bathroom wall, the book, the phone, the website. Each of these took pressure off the others as a visitor participation outlet, and the overall result was a coherent, diverse mix of on-topic visitor contributions.

Latest Comments (1)

gave me ideas for getting visitor feedback

by Dave Stroud - February 17, 2010

Thanks for sharing this! I have thinking about guest feedback lately.

We have a survey form and box and we actually get a fair amount of feedback from this. But I think we could get more, better responses by following the idea of offering more ways and places for guests to share their thoughts.

It makes sense to place appropriate methods for collecting specific information about specific items adjacent to those items. It also makes sense to provide more than a single method for this collection.

I have had success in the past with Post-its myself, and agree that there is something compelling about this format. Perhaps some Post-its may find a home in my current space. I find the bathroom wall strangely appealing, but doubt this specific device will appear.

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