Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hack the Museum Camp: Making Space for Creative, Generous Risk-Taking

Here in Santa Cruz, we're brushing off our tents and lining up the counselor whistles for Hack the Museum Camp, a 2.5 day adventure that starts today. We have 75 campers here from around the world who will be working in teams to develop exhibits based on artifacts from our permanent collection that challenge museum conventions and traditional exhibit design practice. The campers are about half museum professionals, half artists, architects, and designers of all stripes.

This project is a big, audacious risk for everyone involved. For the campers, there's the stress that comes with trying to design and execute an exhibit idea in 48 hours. For me, there's the uncertainty that comes with turning our museum's largest gallery over to a motley crew of risk-taking campers.

But as we work out all of the kinks, I've come to realize that my biggest fear is that the projects won't be risky enough. That even when given the space and opportunity to push boundaries, most of us will settle into our traditional comfort zones of doing it "right," not "screwing up," and playing it safe.

As the camp director, I've been spending a lot of my time thinking about what we can do to scaffold this experience to really encourage creative risk-taking. For me, this comes down to two big areas: how we create space and support for risk-taking, and how we orient the risk-taking towards work that will excite and energize visitors.

Risk-Taking Requires Space-Making

On our staff team, the most important tool that encourages risk-taking is our organizational culture. We can talk all we want about being experimental, but what really matters is the kind of cheerleading, coaching, and love that staff and interns get when they take risks. As Beck Tench has beautifully expressed, every risk-taker needs a "space-maker" to clear the way for true experimentation.

I am asking all of our Hack the Museum counselors and our staff team to think about how we can be those space-makers for campers, focusing not so much on how the projects can be executed but how the campers can really pursue their risk-taking passions. I feel lucky that one of our camp counselors, Kathy McLean, spearheaded the incredible "No Idea is Too Ridiculous" project at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage - and I'm hoping she and others will be able to bring some of the energy from that work to our campers this week.

Taking Risk-Taking Beyond Provocation

Assuming that campers are ready to take risks at Hack the Museum Camp, the other big question on my mind is how we encourage teams to do so in a way that is about opening up new possibilities instead of shutting down old ones. One of the things I've noticed in working with students in particular is that many risk-takers want to jump directly to confrontation. They see risk-taking as a way to give the finger to the establishment.

While confronting traditions can be a useful starting point, confronting visitors can be lead to unpleasant experiences. Instead of confronting, I always encourage risk-takers to think about how they can approach their work in a way that is "generous" to visitors. It can be just as subversive to hand someone a flower as it is to slap them in the face--and they are probably more likely to be receptive to your larger message. Some of the most powerful risky work I've experienced has started with an invitation, not a confrontation. Our museum's mission to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections." I believe that we are most likely to achieve this mission if we invite people into the unexpected in with experiences that radiate generosity and possibility.


I'm not sure what we are going to get out of this week. I am very, very excited to find out (and to share it with you). You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram via @santacruzmah and #hackthemuseum. We'd also love to hear how YOU would hack a museum exhibit if given the opportunity. Happy hacking!

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