October 26, 2010

Crowdsourcing the next great science museum exhibit — Yes! (But…)

My colleague Sarah noticed this little bombshell in a recent e-newsletter from the Museum of Science, Boston: the museum is holding an Innocentive contest to dream up a large-scale science or technology exhibit. Think fast, though, because the deadline is tomorrow.

If you’ve heard the term crowdsourcing, you’ve probably also heard of Innocentive, the online matchmaker between “seekers” of solutions to technological, scientific, commercial, civic, or other kinds of problems and “solvers” with bright ideas to share. The company believes that “breakthrough thinking can come from anywhere,” and that the future of innovation is open, distributed, and untethered from traditionally-defined professional and scholarly domains.

Since it was founded in 2001, Innocentive has posted more than a thousand challenges, more than half of which were successfully met by a community of 200,000 solvers from 200 countries. The awards have ranged from $5,000 to a million bucks, but the vast majority are on the low end of that scale: the average is about $8,000, which is the amount that the Museum of Science (MOS) is offering.

As someone who’s been thinking about innovation and its discontents in the museum field for several years, I’m excited about this. The MOS team are clearly a forward-thinking, energized bunch who understand that, these days, authority works best when it’s shared. (Check out the museum’s Creativity and Collaboration Center and its current exhibit, which is based on stories from users.) ...

The contest is a brave acknowledgment of something that many in the cultural sector are reluctant to accept: that no institution, indeed no field, has all the answers anymore (if it ever did). MOS’s education chief Paul Fontaine puts it as politely as possible in the museum’s press release:

"The science museum community has many ideas for exhibit topics, but we seek to tap the interests and experiences of a broad swath of the non-museum community for different perspectives that will diversify our thinking and identify original concepts."

(Fontaine is also interviewed about this in Paul Orselli’s blog.)

So I’m not surprised to hear skepticism and even a little disdain about the MOS contest from other museum people I’ve spoken to. Professionalism was hard won in the museum field, and exhibit developers and curators are understandably loathe to let just anybody create exhibits. What’s at stake is the whole notion that a museum exhibition is driven by a topic or set of objects that the museum knows a lot about and wants to share with (teach to?) its visitors. That notion will fight for its life, but it’ll be a losing battle, in part because no closed society of similarly-trained professionals can compete on creativity with a much larger and more diverse population of laymen who have never been told “that won’t work” and who have little to lose if it doesn’t.

My own skepticism lies on the other end of the spectrum. I worry that the laymen’s creativity may be dampened by the rules the MOS has laid out for this contest. The requirements page on Innocentive starts out with a call for “creative, original concepts.” But what follows is a primer on the standard modes and methods of science museum exhibits. It embeds so many of the usual assumptions that I began to wonder how anything truly innovative could emerge.

The exhibit has to appeal to essentially everyone: national and international audiences, young and old alike. It has to be based on four clearly defined educational goals and a “clearly articulated theme.” It has to include at least 20 hands-on interactive experiences. It can’t have too many artifacts. It ought to connect to national K-12 STEM curricula. And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with constraints; they can be an important spur to creativity. The problem is that these constraints suggest that the MOS team hasn’t fully thought through the relationship between “best practices” and new ideas. They’re asking the solvers to think like museum insiders, but hoping that the resulting concept will be different from what the insiders tend to come up with.

The most provocative museum literature and practice of the last decade or two has challenged some of the assumptions here, such as the notion that exhibit design has to be tightly coupled to intended learning outcomes, or that museum exhibits need to appeal to everyone.

The MOS contest doesn’t engage with those challenges, which gives it an odd hybrid character. The crowdsourcing competition is a progressive leap, but the vision of what counts as “professional” lags a few steps behind. I would have loved to see the museum throw out the rulebook and see what people dream up. The entries might not be as practical, but they might have other qualities we urgently need.

Let’s see what the museum does get...and what it picks as its winner.


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