The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

February 25, 2014

Reflection: Crowdsourcing comes to a museum near you

Crowdsourcing didn’t become a part of my lexicon until recently, and I realize I’m a bit late to the game.  I’ve since learned that Jeff Howe is credited with coining the term in a 2006 article in Wired magazine and ultimately wrote a book entitled Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Peter Linett interviewed Howe about the book as part of a panel at the 2009 AAM annual meeting and has written about crowdsourcing previously here on this blog

Wikipedia—an example of crowdsourcing itself—defines crowdsourcing as “a portmanteau of ‘crowd’ and ‘outsourcing;’ it is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work comes from an undefined public rather than being commissioned from a specific, named group.“ 

The widespread use of social media has made it possible for crowdsourcing to occur on a mass scale with little to no cost and proliferate across numerous sectors. I recently found a few examples of museum curating via crowdsourcing. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston used crowdsourcing to determine which paintings would ultimately be shown as part of a special impressionist exhibition entitled “Boston Loves Impressionism” that opened on Valentine’s Day. People were able to vote for their favorite works, with a new theme provided each week, and over the course of several weeks, 30 paintings (from an original list of 50) were selected to be part of the exhibit. I voted one week and enjoyed feeling that I had a small part in the creation of an exhibit at the MFA—though I have yet to visit the museum to see the exhibit. 

Another recent example of a museum crowdsourcing curatorial work was the Chicago History Museum’s Chicago History Bowl. The museum asked the public to submit ideas via Facebook or an online survey for an exhibition they would want to see at the museum. “No cultural or historical moment is too big or too small for consideration” they said. Experts at the museum were to select 16 from the total number of submissions, and then the public got to vote again in a series of single-elimination brackets—a la “March Madness”—until they reached a “final four.” The final round of voting was left to the public again, and “Chicago Authors” eked out a win. It’s unclear whether the museum will ask the public again for help on specific exhibition items.  

Both of these examples of crowdsourcing still involve a fairly high level of expertise and curatorial input. For instance, a curator decides which 50 pieces of impressionist artwork the public will vote on and how to organize the pieces into weekly themes thereby ensuring that there is variety in the final exhibition.  In the Chicago History example, the public is given the opportunity to suggest the topic of an upcoming exhibition, but experts from the museum are the ones who winnow down the suggestions to a set of ideas that get voted on and then ultimately selected by the museum. There have been other examples of crowdsourcing that are a bit more directly participatory for the museum visitor.

For instance, a 2013 blog post on WestMuse spotlighted an exhibit at the California Historical Society that involved crowdsourcing to develop the exhibit content. Curator Jon Christensen created an exhibit of the San Francisco Bay’s environmental history, but also encouraged people to contribute their own stories and photographs to help “bridge informational gaps in history.” The exhibition guide said “through crowdsourcing, we now can include everyone who wants to participate in contributing, collecting, and caring for historical materials, crafting stories out of these materials, making histories and making history, in public, as co-curators.” Perhaps most interesting is the description of the exhibit being “less about telling strict facts; rather, it encourages and makes room for individual interpretation.”

As a researcher, I’m fascinated by how museums are already using this method for engaging their audiences. While museums seem to be using crowdsourcing in a variety of different fashions these days, I’ve not noticed an uptick in research on its use within the museum world. I’m curious about how the public perceives crowdsourcing. What motivates people to participate?  Are participants more likely to visit the resulting exhibition?  If they do visit the museum how is their experience similar or different from those who did not participate in the development of the exhibition in some way? If the experience is different, how is it different?

On a personal level, I look forward to more opportunities to be involved (even tangentially) in the creation of something that is meaningful to me and others.   I’d be interested in hearing from people in the comments below about whether you have participated in some sort of crowdsourcing activity (museum related or otherwise) recently and what motivated you to participate. Also, does anyone have more “extreme” versions of crowdsourcing curatorial work than the ones I’ve highlighted here that they would want to share?

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Categories: crowdsourcing, general public, popularity
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