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Crowdsource the Museum?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

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:

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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, an 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…

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  1. I am completely blown away by the concept of crowdsourcing. This is my first time coming across this term and I believe if implemented strategically, it could greatly benefit the nonprofit community including museums. There are many organizations, especially smaller museums, that may not have a strategic plan in place for using the Web to their benefit, and this could be a helpful starting point.

    As with the adoption of any model, each organization would need to determine how to effectively use the idea of crowdsourcing based on the needs, culture, and resources of their respective institution. It seems to be an effective way to use the medium of social networking and the Web to engage constituents, even going beyond geographical barriers. I especially dig Brabham's statement that "broadcasting a challenge online taps far-flung genius in the network and aggregating that talent can, for some types of problems, be just as effective as solving the problem in-house."

    By opening up decision making in an online environment, you still run the risk of excluding the voices of those in the community who, for example, are not plugged into a social network or are even active on Web. Museums/organizations would need to provide easy avenues for getting involved with the institution on this level.

    Thank you for the post!

  2. There have been some libraries that have used Flash mobs to tackle a short cataloging project. i.e. Advertise a cataloging event, get in as many volunteers as possible, set up workstations for them and do it as a group activity. Works best with web based systems which aren't licence based. I'd be interested if any museums have tried this?

  3. It's a little utopian… "traditional public participation models" such as the town hall meeting — or, even more wildly arcane, the local newspaper's Editorial page — have always been successful at attracting individuals with strong opinions and agendas; crowdsourcing is just the digital reincarnation. Any museum with a membership program, a docent team and some computers would quickly find enough voices to digitally chime in on any strategic planning process, yet does crowdsourcing reach a larger public? The occasional visitor, the out-of-town tourist, the less obvious community constituents — perhaps the less biased and potentially more exciting source of opinion and information…

    it's just paying lip-service to 'transparency' and 'inclusion' unless the museum has the institutional philosophy, as well as the resources, to actually (and effectively) implement any publicly proposed ideas. This first requires recognizing the importance of interdepartmental cooperation — incorporating the current staff's voice, in equal measures, into the strategic planning process.

  4. Mon P'tit,

    I agree that crowdsourcing would need a lot of time, attention and resources to be done right. A museum would have to work to recruit the kind of participation it needs from a broad audience. (Seems like all social network tools take more cultivation that is apparent at first!)

    As to whether one would attract only a fringe element with passionate agendas (as the editorial page tends to do) this gets at the my biggest concern about crowdsourcing. I think it will only work with an institution that already has a broad constituency that cares about it passionately, and would contribute heart-share and mind-share, given the opportuntiy. An institution is not going to get robust input from a community that sees it as largely disengaged and irrelevant.

  5. There are a range of definitions, but i think this probably sums it up best "A term that can be defined as outsourcing repetitive or challenging work to a large group of semi-organized individuals (a crowd) via the internet." To this you might want to append "without monetary compensation."

    In this respect Crowdsourcing needn't require a lot of time, attention and resources, especially if you are tapping into existing projects or using existing in-house or third-party knowledge and expertise of enacting a type of crowdsourced project.

    I suppose the real stumbling block for such projects is the concept of the collective intelligence versus academic, but the true advantage I suppose of crowdsourcing is that you can open up, access and dissect collections in new ways as a result of work that can be done by an audience at large.

    Great examples of "crowdsourced" projects to my mind include SETI @ Home and the recent use of the crowd for sifting through the massive collection of MPs expense papers by the Guardian newspaper in the UK, both of which captured the imagination of MANY indviduals.

    A favourite tagline I recenty came across online is "Passion creates community" and of course if you can inspire a crowd, then it can create real benefit to for your institution.

    Is it the be-all and end-all? Most definitely not, but used in an interesting way, beyond merely "curating" exhibitions and providing community feedback, I think museums could get real and practical benefit from the crowd.

    We now just need one to lead the way!

  6. I'm obviously a big fan of deep or wide public engagement.

    I also believe there is a fine balance between the reality of museum planning and the desire to involve the public in the process. It is, after all, usually a "crowd" that develops the project. When you're already loaded down with a board, and community stakeholders to make your new museum, you've already got quite a posse.

    Things move slowly enough in this regard, and trust me, they are very considered, and at my day job, we spend a tremendous amount of time talking to community contributors.

    In the same way that the trend of inviting visitors to engage in the museum is important, it's equally important to direct, guide, or honor their input. In order to do that in museum planning effectively, it has to be carefully developed and managed.

    VSL's point about using Flash Mob's to do a particular, discreet task is an excellent model.

    Developing a museum or museum exhibit is a BIG task for a large group, let alone managing and making meaning out of a "crowd’s” input. I think it needs to be more specific as to what the “crowd” can do that you think isn’t being done already?

    In my experience, there is already a lot of community input…

  7. I always enjoy a walk around the museum, all the historical value makes me feed my knowledge and i feel that i grow up like a person. I like to try what i want to prove. this is when i buy viagra for my husband. whenever i have a doubt, i mus to satisfy my curiosity.

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