Museums and the Web 2013 in Portland Oregon was an action-packed few days of intense conversations and great food for thought.
Danny Birchall and Susan Edwards have both written great summaries of their experiences at the conference and I recommend both. It’s always fascinating to see how varied people’s experiences of the same event can be, and also how some of the same idea wind up poking through everyone’s sessions.
Games, gamification, and play in museums
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I’m not a huge fan of gamification (ack!). The series of posts I wrote last year have continued to be perennially popular, no doubt due to high frequency of buzzword usage in them. Start here if you want to read them. The gaming session led by Bruce Wyman, Sharna Jackson and Kate Haley-Goldman was a delight to be in. The speakers know games, make them, study them, and they were able to turn a critical eye to the current popularity of slapping badges and leaderboards on anything and everything and separate some wheat from the gamified (ack!) chaff. I was glad to hear people highlight the distinctions between games and gamified (ack!) activities and play, and the back and forth between the audience and the speakers was high-energy and high-quality. This talk was a great grounding for Rob Stein’s excellent update on DMA’s new free membership program, DMAFriends, which seems to be a very successful application of game mechanics to a traditional museum loyalty program. More on that later…
Immersion and affection, or relationship-building
One of the great joys of these events is the extent to which we don’t talk about technology. For me, one of the persistent themes of the conference was connecting with our audiences on an emotional level. Larry Friedlander’s opening plenary, When the Rare Becomes Commonplace: Challenges for Museums in a Digital Age, started off quoting Psalms and Shakepeare before launching into emotional appeals to connect with people in meaningful ways. You should watch it. Dana Mitroff Silvers led off her session on design thinking by saying that a design thinker’s first task is not to understand, but to empathize with who they’re designing for. There’s also a website now for design thinking in museums. Luis Mendes, in his brilliant lightning talk, wondered why there were so many books on anger management but none on what he called affection management. His thesis about the centrality of relationships and building structures to grow them often referenced digital technologies as tools to achieve this, but only as tools. “I do believe these are the days of miracles and wonders, and the signs are popping up everywhere.” Yes, indeed!
This drumbeat of emotional appeals echoed a number of conversations I had about immersive theater throughout the conference. I’ve written about Sleep No More before and alternative models of exhibition development, and I’m no nearer to clarity than I was when I started, but other people are wrestling with the same concepts, which is heartening. And my major a ha moment of the conference came after talking to Suse Cairns about her experience of SNM, which involved stalking an actor, getting dragged off into a secret chamber, unmasked and stuffed in a closet while having poetry spoken to her. It also involved being given a gift – a locket she brought with her to the conference as a token of her experience. I won’t try to do her story justice, suffice it to say that it was deeply meaningful to her and connected her to the action and actors in a way I didn’t experience. And that allowed me to see that I’d been focusing on the wrong part of immersive theater – the immersion – when what was powerful was the emotional connection and the immersion was just a mechanic for encouraging that.
Ending with a bang
I was part of the closing plenary on immersive theater with Seb Chan and Suse Cairns (heaven!) along with Diane Borger, producer of Sleep No More, who joined us via videochat from locked-down Boston, which was another theme of the conference I won’t get into here. Seb did a great job of drawing parallels between how a theatrical event like SNM gets created and big museum traveling exhibitions. It was interesting to compare the per square foot costs of both and how long each took to recoup their initial investment. Sleep No More won. Hmm…
Also, all three panelists, as well as many in the audience had a common experience of having a hard time getting into SNM. This idea of having to work hard to get into something seems kinda crazy and the opposite of how museums function, but I can’t help wonder if building that kind of anticipation has value in our work. Must ponder…
All in all, an hour was went by way too quickly, and I don’t think we did more than launch the opening volley in what I hope will be a much longer, more fruitful conversation. I love the way this cohort is willing to look outside the field for inspiration while retaining a critical eye, and I hope by next year one of you will have something interesting to report on.
What was your experience of the conference, locally or remotely? Were there themes that arose for you? I’d love to hear about them!