15 January 2015 // Thoughts

Trends in Design 2014: The Art of Breaking Down Barriers, by Shawn McCoy

Part One – Conquering Role Barriers Through Crowd-sourced Creations 

As we have for the past four years, this past November, Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe and I presented on the latest trends as part of the 2014 IAAPA ExpoMuseum Day. Whereas in previous years I’ve provided a whirlwind tour of recently opened (and incredibly cool) theme park, attraction and museum projects, this year, I really wanted to focus on case studies that were not only interesting, but could be more easily applied to museums in some way. While some of these projects are over a year old, they still represent trends that are continuing to evolve.

Image credit: Center for the Future of Museums

A big shout-out goes to the American Alliance of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museumsand their Trendswatch 2014 report, which served as a resource for many of the projects I list below. Not only does it list many more projects and trends than you’ll find in this post, it all provides insights on how these trends can be applied to your museum. Be sure to check back on the JRA blog in March as we do our annual “deep dive” into each of the report’s 2015 trends.

As I researched my presentation, I started thinking about the relationship between cultural institutions and the public, and how much effort museums put toward having a better connection with their guests. Unfortunately, there are a lot of inherent barriers between museums and their audience, be they role barriersphysical barriers, or social barriers. The good news is that in the following four posts, I’ll offer a number of examples on how you can use exhibits, programs and technology to break down these barriers and make better connections with your audience.

Selecting Content

Let’s start by examining how traditional roles between the guest and curators are slowly starting to blur – where the general public is having a direct effect on the creation of exhibitions, from influencing their development to actually helping to create the experience.

We’ll begin with crowd-sourced exhibitions, which have been taking place over the past few years. As a reminder, crowdsourcing is where services, ideas and content are created by a large, non-traditional group, especially online, rather than by traditional sources (such as curators). To put this into context, as many of you know, a lot of times new exhibitions are planned without regard to what the public might actually be interested in, or might feature artifacts that they might not really care about. That’s where crowdsourcing comes in, as it can provide you with better insight as to what your audience wants.

Chicago History Museum recently organized a crowd-sourced competition, called Chicago History Bowl, where the public could suggest themes for the museum’s next exhibition. Thousands of responses were tallied and narrowed down to 16 topics (ranging from The Great Chicago Fire, to Chicago in Pop Culture to Chicago’s women, neighborhoods and labor). A bracket system (a la the NCAA basketball tournament) was created, and the list got narrowed down to its Elite Eight, Final Four and eventual champion, which was Chicago Authors. Based on this recommendation, the museum is now formally developing the exhibition. According to Gary Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum:

You spend a fortune hiring people to help you figure out what people want. We live in a world where you can find out directly what they want. In the old way of things, museums were sort of about authority. The spirit of the age is different today. It’s a collaboration between our resources and what the public is interested in.

Image Credit: Chicago History Museum

The public can also be called upon not only to suggest themes, but also to select specific content. For example, curators at the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston recently invited members of the public to go online and vote for their favorite paintings from the museum’s Impressionism collection, with the top vote-getters earning a spot in a special exhibit called “Boston Loves Impressionism”. The crowdsourcing event drew a great deal of public feedback, with more than 10,000 people voting in the final round. The exhibition opened last February with 30 paintings selected by the public, 10 of which were marked as Boston’s favorite. While critics might deem this effort a simple popularity contest presided over by a largely uninformed public, the Museum’s director, Malcolm Rogers, noticed a deeper by-product: “the thing that interests me is it’s getting people to express affection, their love for objects. “They are choosing the way a curator would and finding out how difficult it is.”

Image Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

So we’ve seen how the public can select exhibition themes and specify content. But what about the public actually creating content? We’ll visit examples of audience-created content in tomorrow’s post.