I got hooked by the title of this blog post–Get Ready to Participate: Crowdsourcing and Governance—energized by a momentary leap of hope that it was going to be about nonprofit governance. It’s not, but it’s still really interesting. Daren C. Brabham offers his thoughts about potential public applications for crowdsourcing—the process of opening up problem solving through online participation. The “crowd” (a large number of unregulated contributors) both generates potential solutions/designs/ideas and rates/vets those of others. This has turned out to be a very, very useful and powerful tool in the for-profit sector, and in his post Brabham talks about some projects that take crowdsourcing into the realm of government. Patent review, for example, and the design of municipal bus stops.
But what about the potential for crowdsourcing in the nonprofit realm? Museums are past masters of the community meeting, advisory groups and open forums to get input on various decisions. But, as Brabham points out, such formats actually often involve relatively few voices in the decision-making process. And many people feel inhibited, in such settings, from speaking up and contributing their best ideas. (Or they are drowned out by people who feel no such inhibitions.)
Some museums are already experimenting with crowdsourced design. Here is a project to crowdsource the design of merchandise to sell through museum stores. Most of the examples I know of, though, are in the realm of exhibit development. The Minnesota Historical Society’s MN150 exhibit was partially crowdsourced. They held open nominations for the 150 people to be featured in their sesquicentennial exhibit, but the final selection was by committee. The only entirely crowdsourced exhibit I know of is Click from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In that exhibit, an open call for photographs was followed by crowdsourced jury selection and installation of the work according to their relative ranking in the juried process. Brooklyn approached this as a research project, however, as much as an exhibit, and the photos were presented as data, not art per se. (I encourage you to read this thoughtful commentary by Nina Simon on the exhibit.)
So, what are other processes in which museums might productively employ crowdsourcing? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Institutional Planning. If an organization wants to serve the community, what better way to find out what the community wants it to do than to ask? Provided with some basic background information (mission, financial snapshot, overview of challenges and resources) it would be very interesting to see what kind of plan would be created by a community of users interested enough to weigh in.
2) New building/expansion design. Often the museum is asking the community (both as individuals and through government support) to help build these structures. Why not let them participate in designing a structure that would fit their needs? It might be challenging to figure out how to brief crowdsourcers on the programmatic needs of the building. Then again, could it be much worse than trying to get a “name” architect to pay attention to these needs?
3) Collections planning. Museums that exist to document their community’s history too often end up documenting a narrow version of that history that reflects the backgrounds and inclinations of the founder(s), governing body, staff and volunteers. If this group is not broadly representative of the community, the museum is in danger of spiraling into irrelevance. What would community members suggest the museum collect were they asked? Perhaps they could be invited to create, critique and curate a virtual collection representing the stories and heritage they feel are worth preserving, and the museums could then build the real collections around that framework. (The flip side of creating a virtual collection that mirrors the existing real collection!)
What museum decisions or processes do you think are amenable to crowdsourcing? And do you know of any museums that are already doing this? Please do tell…