Saturday, February 26, 2011

Click: National Zoo

Several weeks ago,  I spent an enjoyable few hours at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  It had been a long time since I'd visited and I was intrigued by the level of exhibitry I found.   And as I looked,  I realized that the engineering of many of the exhibit elements was substantial--to withstand the outdoors,  repeated use by huge numbers of people, and in one case, a design for a fascinating people/animal interaction.   Here's a bit of what I saw.  First, the elephant exhibit--although we didn't see any actual elephants out that day!

A tilt-it, pin-ball like game about dangers in habitats that really encouraged people, even toddlers, to figure out how to work cooperatively in moving a ball through a maze.  
Giant models of dung.  Who wouldn't want to see these! 
I'm not usually a fan of lift-up tabs, but this slider design meant that you had the ability to think about 
 the two choices,  rather than just a random flip-up.  Nice design--and super sturdy.
I found the cell phone trivia game not very exciting compared to both the animals and all the other interactive elements in this section,  but I could imagine, for certain kinds of learners, particularly a restless kid in a group with others, it might really be intriguing.
Throughout the zoo, an emphasis on what we can do to help protect the world's wildlife.  I'd love to know if there have been studies that see whether this kind of signage and education really does encourage citizen action.

Now, on to the Think Tank, an indoor exhibit about how, why and if animals think.  There weren't many visitors inside on the sunny day I was there, and I think the exhibit probably is of greatest interest to visitors other than moms with strollers, of which there were many that day.

I loved that in the section on using tools, the designer used bright red tool chests as exhibit furniture.  And those yellow Post-its?  A design element, not real post-its,  but a great element that most visitors understand as a place to look first.  Here's a close-up.
And finally,  one of the most intriguing interactives I've ever seen.  The visitor could sit on something that looked like a rowing machine and play tug-of-war with the great apes who were on the other side of the glass--but it was totally up to the ape whether he or she wanted to play with you.  They weren't interested in playing that day,  but absolutely almost every visitor to the space wanted to try.   It was just a one-person interactive, but it made it possible for others to watch and consider and the uncertainty was a great element.
But of course, you go to the zoo to see animals.  And seeing 7 young lion cubs out to play trumped all the exhibit elements!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

YES! the crowd WILL fund our project: Kickstarter Lessons #3

On February 1 at 5:00 PM,  Sarah Crow and I closed the book on our effort to fund the Pickle Project on Kickstarter.  We were amazed, humbled and thrilled to exceed our goal of $5000.  119 fabulous backers pledged a total of $5775 to make further research and documentation a reality.

I've written before here and there about some of the lessons we learned along the way but wanted to share some additional thoughts with my readers here.

Slow and steady wins the race
Our Kickstarter period was 50 days and our goal was $5000.  In most Kickstarter efforts there's a jump in pledges at the beginning, they level off, for a long middle period, and then, if successful, jump up again at the end.  We seemed to be a bit of an exception in that we plugged along the entire time, slow and steady.

Figure the Math
We had figured that we needed $100 per day to reach our goal and we kept a pretty close eye on that number.  Good days, we exceeded it, and a few not-so-good days went by with no backers at all.  But what we didn't do, and I think would be useful for anyone embarking on Kickstarter to do, is that math about how many backers at what levels we needed to be successful.  Here's how it played out for us--see the pie chart above.

Fully fifty percent of our donors were at the $25 level and another twenty-five percent at the $50 level, with smaller amounts both above and below those numbers.   I suspect most Kickstarter project developers dream of those big anonymous backers coming through.  We didn't receive any backers at our highest level,  but our two largest pledges were from people we don't know.

And what about people you know and don't know?
Our backers fell into several different categories.
  • Friends and family
  • Museum colleagues (and this including friends I know in person and colleagues who know me through this blog, Twitter or some other means)
  • Peace Corps Volunteers who have been or are stationed in Ukraine
  • Former Fulbright Scholars and Students
  • The Ukrainian community in North America
  • People interested in food and sustainability
  • People who are regular backers of Kickstarter projects
  • And people we don't know at all!
What this list tells me is that we did a pretty good job at putting all of our networks to work.  One single network or only one avenue of approach would not, for us at least, have gotten the word out to enough people.

And how did we get the word out?
One great thing about Kickstarter is that it made it easy for others to help.  If you became a backer, it was easy to share the link on your Facebook feed and/or email it to others.  So great backers were also great boosters, encouraging others to join them, even going so far as to offer home-made pickles to backers in one city!

The layout of the Kickstarter site also provides a very professional, welcoming and accessible aesthetic (see above) that lends additional credibility to the effort.  The Pickle Project already has a well-developed social media presence but the Kickstarter site might be particularly useful for efforts that do not have good information online. (and it always made me smile to see Treadwell, population 250, listed up there with cities like New York and San Francisco in the Cities bar for project locations)

You can follow the Pickle Project on Twitter (@PickleProject) and midway through the project we began tweeting (using twitpic) a Pickle Pic of the Day, which we also posted on Facebook.  We heard from a number of people who really enjoyed seeing that picture, of food, of people, of a place, every day and it's something we'll try to keep up.

I came to appreciate the value of Twitter as numerous backers and other tweeters  took up our cause.  Everyone from PoPinDC and ArchivesInfo (museum colleagues both) to Ms. Marmite Lover, from London, who shared our work with her almost 7000 followers.

We of course, continued to blog and to share updates on Kickstarter.  This kept our backers engaged and made it easier for them to share our work with their circles as new information came in.  The support of other blogs was also great.  Melissa Mannon offered me a guest spot on her Archives Info blog,  and blogs such as Brooklyn Baba, Brooklyn Brine and the blog of the Agricultural and Food Law Program at the University of Arkansas each gave the project short features, raising the project's profile.   Sarah did an interview on Nash Holos, a Ukrainian focused radio show from Vancouver and I appeared on Simona David's show on WIOX here in the Catskills.  The Watershed Post did a great feature where we talked about the similarities between the Catskills and rural areas in Ukraine.

In short, every single day of those 50 days, except for Christmas, we did something--and usually more than one something.   And we used old media, new media, and everything in between.  An unexpected bonus is that this concentrated effort expanded our audience in the long run.

Why did people back us?
The answers to that are as varied as our backers--and backers, if you're blog readers here, we'd love to have you weigh in with your thoughts.  Some cared about Ukraine, some cared about food, some cared about us (thanks Moms!) but we think most importantly,  people were excited to back a passionate idea,  an idea about something new, that we managed to convey that in all of our efforts.  A project like this is a risk, and we're honored by the trust and confidence all our backers have placed in us.

Is Kickstarter Right for Your Project?
That's something only you can answer.  About 50% of the thousands of Kickstarter projects have been funded (remember, it's all or nothing).  We can guarantee that the money just won't come pouring in--but I think, with my museum hat back on,  that it could be a tremendous platform for some types of museum projects:  exhibits,  efforts to engage new audiences,  mobile apps--but only if the museum/history organization is willing to push hard for backers--that's no different than any other kind of fundraising!   I also think it's potentially a great vehicle for history-related projects that don't have an institutional base, but rather, represent more individual passions and interests.

Was It Right for the Pickle Project?
Absolutely.  Just in case you missed it,  here's our Kickstarter video to see what we hope to do.  And our thanks go out to all our tremendous backers from around the world--we appreciate you all!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Word from 8th Grade: That was Awesome!

The term focus group often seems scary or off-putting to some groups I work with--but really, it's just a term for listening to what visitors--and potential visitors--have to say.   Last week,  as part of a new IMLS-supported project at the Ontario County Historical Society,  staff members and I spent two days listening to community members talk about the museum and about the concept for the new exhibition, "Greed and Other Human Desires:  The Early History of Western New York."  You can check out the project blog here to learn more.  

Much of the visitor research work in the museum field focuses on larger institutions as those museums have the funds to commit to full-scale evaluation. The work by Reach Advisors, particularly their survey of Connecticut cultural consumers,  begins to bring audience perspectives from all kinds of museums, including small ones, into the picture.  So I was interested to see what our groups had to say both as it related to larger contexts as well as our particular project.

All the conversations were fascinating, but I was particularly struck by the comments of two groups of 8th graders.  These were students,  chosen by their social studies teacher, with a particular interest in history:  many of them were History Day participants and all were headed towards AP history courses. Here are some of their thoughts on what museums do.
 On labels
  • Kids don't really like reading.   [but then some disagreement from several others who did like to read.]
  • They had like the artifact and a small description—not too small, but not like a history lesson.
  • I had to go on a field trip that I liked up until my teacher told me I had to be reading a lot because if I wasn’t reading I wouldn’t learn.  I’ve learned more from museums than having to read right off a wall.
  • Part of a museum is seeing it, otherwise it would be a library.
On computers
  • If you go somewhere with your family, you don’t want to be stuck at one computer screen, you want to be able to pass it around and talk about it.
  • I don’t like them that much.
  • It’s weird that it’s dirty. [this was a conversation about germs]
  • I feel like with the computer—it’s only one answer you can get.
  • At a museum, you clicked on a computer and read about it—it was a cartoon, Ice Age and seemed kind of boring…clicking.
  • There was 100% agreement in both groups that computers were the least interesting part of a museum visit.
On Hands-On Interactives
  • You could get to feel like what they were doing and how they were doing it and what went through their mind.  You get the sense of “whoa, that was hard for them!"
  • Pops out more in my memory when you’re actually holding stuff
  • It’s easy to forget words and pictures;  easy to remember when you’re actually doing stuff;  touching.
They all felt that the use of reproductions for interactives was critical, as it was important to touch and feel.
On the Power of Imagination, Immersion and the Individual Story
  •  Like with the Holocaust, you know that people died, you know these things happened, when you focus on one person, like Anne Frank hiding and stuff, it makes it real.
  • I always find it interesting when I see pictures of a long time ago, to imagine—how things used to be.
  • Being able to go in, see what it was like.
  • The longhouse—that was awesome [at Ganondagan State Historic Site]
  • I like real life examples—if you’re telling about how they dressed,  they had mannequins—the visual was really cool.
  • You can find different answers if you look around.
  • I always like it when an expert can tell you something about it.
Several comments highlighted what's often a shortcoming of local history museums.  The students very much wanted to understand local events in the context of a larger picture,  to understand, as one put it, "More the quieter events during a larger period of time."   That's something many local museums can be better at.

Most boring museum?
For one, it was an art museum.  “The most boringist thing I’ve ever gone to—they’re hanging on the wall.  Art is art.  You stand around with a whole bunch of people, it’s quiet, you can’t even talk to your other family members,  don’t talk, and don’t scuff your feet.”   For another, a sports hall of fame.  "My dad made me go. I just didn’t think anything was interesting. You just stand there and read."
 On the role of parents and museum-going
  • My parents have never really gone anywhere of their own will, actually.
  •  Went to Albany for basketball tournament—and went to state museum. She [my mother]  was really was interested—They [parents] don’t have as much time.  When we want to go, they go, so they just go too.
  • There are some adults that are just naturally interested in history.
  • My dad likes things in the advertisement, that say you can do something.
And how could the museum let you know what's going on?
  • I don’t read the newspaper
  • Facebook, my home page
  • Posters and flyers, because kids go around town;  some kids don’t go on Facebook,  just coming to school you see posters
Facebook generated a fair amount of discussion.  They didn't quite see why a museum would be on Facebook or why they would want to like a museum there.  However,  they were more interested in the idea of seeing historic photos of where they live on Facebook and were most interested when we told them, if their parents granted permission, their group photo would be on the museum's page.  Said one boy, "You should make those blogs and facebook things more known! "

Our conversation also included their thoughts on the topics of greed, survival and ambition--the subject for another post.  But what I hope my readers take away from these great students (aside from the thought that parents have no lives of their own) is that these conversations are easy to do--and that they can easily become a part of a local history museum's work.  

And the how-to:  check out the resources at the Committee on Audience Research as a starting point.  It's critically important to be clear in your own mind about what you want to know and design questions that reflect that.  And it's even more important to LISTEN!  The goal in these sessions is to hear from the group, not to share what the museum's up to or the problems you have.   An evaluation professional can be immensely helpful in the process, but these simple conversations are something a museum of virtually any size can undertake on its own and still learn a great deal of useful information.

All of us on the project team agreed that we all learned some surprising things--and that these students now have a connection to the new exhibit.  It's a terrific two-way street that benefits all.  These simple conversations are just one way to prevent local history museums from becoming those dinosaurs.   Thanks, 8th graders for teaching me something new!