Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Metablog, nothing to see here, move along, please.

The bloggers' civility code: a good idea that's turning into self-serving mush.

I'd rather have seen this same kind of outcry when some of my favorite women of color bloggers were driven into hiding by threats on their blogs, months ago.

The people who make these threats are usually white men. They see nothing wrong with systematically silencing women, especially women of color, who dare to have an opinion about things and speak their minds on the Internet. These same people, when criticized and moderated, cry "freedom of speech."

I am not exaggerating about this, I am not "in hysterics," I am not being oversensitive. This is one example of how the structures of oppression in the real world are bleeding onto the Internet, which used to be hailed as the great equalizer. And here still we see that when women of color are being harmed, most of the world is silent; when a white woman is harmed, more people speak up.

Please do not think I mean to trivialize Kathy Sierra's experiences, or claim that it has been easy for her to move people to listen; she hasn't had an easy time of it by any means. But it is possible for the general public to hear about her outside her immediate blogging circles in a way that it wasn't possible for non-blog-readers to hear about many women bloggers of color who faced the same kind of harassment and threats, only magnified by racism.

Link: The guardian reports on bloggers talking about comments about bloggers, and I blogged about it. Is it a record yet?

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Exhibition Process: Where do you start?

Let's say you're about to start to create an exhibition. Where do you start?

If you're a visually-oriented person, you want to start with the design. What's the space like? What would the exhibition look like in the space? Maybe you want lots of glass and plexi, with floating text panels, arcs of steel, objects suspended, and a backdrop of tone-on-tone ambient text that doesn't have much to do with the content but gives people the sense that they're absorbing knowledge without even reading it. Good, good; fine, fine. Now what are you going to put in the suspended floating tone-on-tone-text-encrusted plexi object cases?

If you're a funder, you want to start with the grant proposals. It's ridiculous to even look at the space without confirmed funding. Who has an interest in funding exhibitions? Here's one, a potential grant from an organization interested in children's health education in underserved communities. All that remains is to make sure our exhibition fits their goals and vision—as well as those of the fifteen other potential sponsors. If we can get some general life science in there, this foundation might fund us too. And so might this insurance company, especially if we plug them. If we add an art history component, we can get something from these folks, and if we add something about American history and politics, the government has a grant program that might apply. Of course, funders like to see well-constructed, focused narratives, so the education department will have to make sure it all comes together.

If you're an education person, you want to know who your audience is, so you can start planning the interactives. Anything that can be handled, probably should—seeing that baseball with Cy Young written on it will not have as much impact as holding the same. People learn from doing things—what were the chorae statuettes for? How about providing clay and letting people make their own to take home? Give people a fountain pen and let them try to forge John Hancock's signature, then some tea and a hairdryer to age the paper. Make an overlay of the real Declaration on transparency to show the differences between the two. These are all great interactives, and participants are sure to learn—something.

If you're a collections person, you want to start with the objects. Fifteen autographed baseballs, twelve foot-high Greek chorae statuettes, a 1798 forgery of the Declaration of Independence, and a series of 16 24x36 beautiful landscape stills in impressive frames. How should they all be protected? How many foot-candles of light can you put on the document? The autographed baseballs—in a case? or risk their handling like the education director is insisting should happen? And if you relent and let people handle them, how much stronger do you need to make the cases for the chorae, in order to withstand an ill-advised 120 mph pitch from a 14 year old would-be baseball prodigy whose teacher turned around just too late? All very good questions. A better one might be what in the world are these objects all doing in the same exhibition?

Part 2: Goals.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I confess...

I have a hummingbird feeder.

Where I grew up, I never saw hummingbirds. The first one I saw was on a summer trip to Maine with my family when I was ten, and although I'd read about the little blighters (somewhere picking up the misinformation that they eat nothing but nectar and never land or perch on anything... I wondered how they laid their eggs), seeing one in real life was a revelation. I hadn't thought of them as real before that, not real like squirrels are real or cats are real, but "real" like kiwi birds were undoubtedly real somewhere in New Zealand, which adults assured me was a "real" place. Now that I live in the Bay Area, even though I see them much more frequently, the fascination continues—enough that I recently bought a feeder and installed it on my balcony.

At first, I didn't see any immediate results—I kept looking outside for hummers and seeing nothing, so I got discouraged. I didn't clean the feeder as often, didn't change the nectar as often, and finally, absorbed in my many other projects and priorities, let it get cloudy. When the hummingbirds finally came by, they found a poorly maintained feeder. They were interested in it for a little while, but soon their visits fell off.

To keep the hummingbirds around, I need to keep the feeder fresh and keep refilling it with new nectar. And to attract and keep any blog readers, I'll need to keep updating the blog.

So, sorry for my long absence. Here's an update:

My class finished our exhibition Life Under Ice: Mission Europa. It had a brief run at John F. Kennedy University's Arts and Consciousness gallery. The exhibition concept was kicked off by the enthusiasm of several scientists and researchers for unmanned missions to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to gather information about the possibility of microbial life in its icy oceans. Our primary research came from a NASA scientist and some folks from SETI, who were very kind to help us out.

We had such a short period to conceptualize, plan, design, and build the exhibition—ten weeks, in all—that we had no chance to research opposing viewpoints: the belief of many scientists that life on Europa is unlikely, or that if there is life on Europa it is likely to be so scarce as to make it difficult to discover. We were able to cover some of the objections to such a mission, such as the utility of space exploration, and the possibility of contaminating Europa's environment.

The exhibition content was divided into three main themes: Europa 101, Life Under the Ice, and Implications. The class was divided into three groups, each assigned one of the themes. We were still in the design process during installation. As a result, it was a bit of a scramble during installation to unify the three thematic areas of the exhibition visually, but still create enough of a distinction to make it obvious how labels were related to one another, and the most accessible way for participants to navigate the space.

The centerpiece of our exhibition was what we called The Big Ball, which was a 7' diameter artistic representation of Europa, lit from the inside and covered in plastic-wrap and glaze. Below this we had a round table where labels explained basic facts about Europa. We hypothesized that visitors would gravitate (heh) to the big glowing ball, read some of the facts, and then head out toward the wall in some direction. The ideal first object for them to proceed to was the telescope which marked the continuation of Europa 101, and I saw many visitors head in that direction. However, on the opposite wall there a television played a silent animation loop of a proposed surface lander, and in a corner nearby, a case displayed a sample of aerogel, and in the other corner on that side a large scale model of a proposed orbiter hung overhead. These things competed for participants' attention, and led many over in that direction, where much of the text assumed prior knowledge.

Design-wise, we benefited from our instructor's expertise. We had the restrictions of very little time and resources, and also the limitation that we could not modify the gallery space. However, our class came up with a clear and aesthetically-appealing design. We ran a band of black paper around the gallery space and created a starfield background. We also made "spectral lines" with colored tape, and used that design element to indicate the thematic areas.

We created opportunities for interactivity, even with our budget and time constraints. Some of these were very ad-hoc—one interactive asked participants to step on a sheet of white paper and observe if they left a footprint behind, in an effort to get them to imagine the possibility of contaminating Europa. Some were made possible by serendipitous finds—the telescope, found on the side of the road by a fellow student, became a way for visitors to practice finding Europa with the aid of a starmap, looking through the telescope at painted constellations hung high on the opposite wall. The starmap was available to take home so that participants could see the real Europa from their own backyards (or another place where the stars are clearly visible). Early feedback indicates that participants enjoyed all the interactives and believed themselves to have learned from them.

I developed a program component in the form of a brochure in which visitors were invited to draw and write their thoughts about the exhibition, with some guiding questions to help. These were collected in a box in the gallery space. I haven't received these back from the instructor yet, but I look forward to using them as an evaluation component.

Since then, my internship with the Museum of the African Diaspora has been keeping me very busy, and I'm finding it very exciting to be involved with a one-year-old museum as they reflect on their successes in the past year and on what they can do to improve. I look forward to participating in their growth in the future, as well.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Installation time!

Life Under the Ice: Mission Europa is going up. It opens Monday.

I will not be very free to update for the next four days.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

International Blog Against Sexism Day

I'm a feminist.

That means that I believe women are good leaders. That means I believe women exist for themselves, not to make babies or please men. That means I believe that women of color exist for themselves, not to lend legitimacy to the white women's feminism. That means I believe women who are transgender are women who are transgender. That means I will fight anyone who does personal or political violence against women, and I will fight any so-called feminist who fractures and cheapens feminism by keeping certain groups of women down—disabled women, women of color, trans women, sex workers, Muslim women.

I'm also a man.

Let's talk about oppressive religious headcoverings, shall we? A symbol of women's supposed inferiority to men, these garments are enforced in backwards countries, and even in fundamentalist religious communities in the West, as a way to protect men from the potentially corrupting sight of women. Women who refuse to wear these garments are considered sinful and don't have recourse to their countries' religious protections against rape and murder; they may not be allowed to partake of religious services.

See these women here.

It's not the headscarf, folks. It's not the hijab, it's not even the chador. It's that some people around the world think that violence against women is okay, or inevitable. Muslim women's headcoverings have been held up as a reason to bomb their countries in the name of liberating them. We're not bombing the Russian Orthodox Church, Amish schools, or Catholic convents.

What's the impact the 'War on Terror' is having on women in Muslim countries? Well, it's killing them, first of all. The Iraqi insurgents don't conveniently separate out their military infrastructure from their people's homes, schools, and hospitals; whenever you hear on the news that an important terrorist base was bombed into oblivion, chances are good that women and children were killed. It's making it next to impossible for women in Muslim countries to get health care, food, and other necessities. And it's increasing violence against women—whenever a region is in chaos, women there will suffer. So-called feminists who support violent means of overthrowing oppressive regimes—especially when the symbol of oppression they rally around is a piece of cloth somewhat less oppressive than the bombs they think will solve the problem—forget this.

Case in point: In the Congo, women are still being raped in ongoing brutal violence by armed militias, including the Interhamwe from the Rwandan genocides and the Congolese Army. One of the reasons for all this violence is the metal coltan which is a component of every piece of electronic equipment we all use daily. How does the one affect the other? Demand for coltan means that various groups in the Congo are fighting for control of it. Lacking the resources to engage in all-out war on one another, and recognizing that that would leave fewer of their own people able to mine the coltan, they've developed a system of using brutal rape of the other factions' women as a weapon of war. For an understanding of the extent of the problem, read this; for a more detailed explanation of the issues behind the violence, check out Chris Clarke's post from Pandagon.

There are things you can do. Contribute to aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders. Talk about the coltan problem and get it covered in mainstream media. Speak out against the assumption that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is any more oppressed/likely to be a terrorist/deserving of being bombed than a Catholic nun or an Amish woman. And if you're a man and you've set aside a whole category of human rights issues as "women's issues," think again; they affect us all. No one is too far away, too insignificant, too female, too black, too Asian, too Muslim, too transgender, too queer, too disabled, or too poor to fight for.

Here is some of what feminist bloggers have been saying today.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Building Radical Trust: Museums and Communities

For the next two weeks I'll be thinking more about the process of building radical trust relationships between organizations and their audiences.

What is radical trust?

This is a term that has been used in study of online marketing to talk about organizations handing some of the power over to their users. Radical trust is necessary for user-generated content, because otherwise all user-generated content would have to be subjected to so much scrutiny that it would cease to be interactivity.

Radicaltrust.ca says:
In order to build a brand in the future, marketers must radically trust that consumers:

1. are best equipped to determine their own needs, and left to their own devices, are best equipped to get those needs met.
2. would rather be communicated with than spoken to.
3. require freedom of expression, but often require guidelines to create expressions in.
4. will self-regulate communities to a level that the guidelines suggest and that the collective group they comprise will accept.
5. will disconnect with a brand that silences them, and will align with brands that give them a voice.
6. (this one is the hardest) consumers are people and people are inherently good.

I could get into a philosophical debate about "people" and "good" and "inherent" and "are" here—for instance, I think it's more likely that what we call "good" is inherently "people". But the effect of holding these beliefs is to persuade for-profit companies that it is in their best interest to devolve some of the power to their customers, creating more equal relationships.

That is radical for corporations. But it's also radical, and useful, for nonprofits. Darlene Fichter has this to say:

Library 2.0 =
(books 'n stuff + people + radical trust)
x participation

Libraries have always been about books 'n stuff and people. The notion of radical trust and applying this to online library activities introduces a new dimension to the work that we're been doing in libraries.

You'll also notice that the scaling up factor in this simple formula is based on participation. Without the first three ingredients you can't start to scale rapidly and create new wealth(richness) and value for participants.

But radical trust, for libraries, and also for museums (who are as usual my preoccupation here), is a two-way street. There may be a limit to how much radical trust corporations can ask of their users, who are aware that the purpose of every interaction with them from the corporate perspective is to convince them to give more of their money to the corporation. But users interact with museums and libraries to learn and to participate in a community—and most realize that the museums and the libraries have identical goals. The potential for two-way radical trust is much greater.

In museums, the terror lies with the idea of devolving some responsibility for the content to people who are not directly responsible to the organizational structure of the museum. It's one thing to hire a guest curator for an exhibition or for a year of thematic programming. It's another entirely to invite five community leaders in and say "We'd like to build an exhibition with you. What would you like people to know?" And this is the direction I see museums heading in now. So, trusting that there are people out there in the community who, although not responsible to the organizational structure of the museum, are responsible to their own compatible mission and values, who can be valuable collaborators, is radical trust.

And it can't exist without radical trust in the other direction. Probably everyone has some reason not to trust museums. Maybe it's that your ancestors' bones have been stolen and are resting in a museum somewhere that refuses to give them back without first desecrating them a little more. Maybe it's more like you've been to modern art museums and there's nowhere to sit and no one to talk to who speaks in anything like a language you can understand; just incomprehensible objects floating in white rooms. Or maybe you've had a bad experience in a museum and given feedback that no one acted upon. Or maybe you've thought about going to museums, but you are certain that museums are not welcoming places for people like you. If you aren't involved in a museum in a way that creates a sense of ownership, you probably don't trust the museum to do the following things:

1) Represent things that you care about.
2) Include the perspectives of people like you.
3) Speak in a way that you can understand.
4) Hear and respond to your feedback.
5) Be responsible and ethical in interacting with your community.

In order for a museum to create that trust, an institution must do these things. Then it must show people that it's doing these things. But it's no good trying to do these things if you don't know how to do them—what your audience wants, what community members think, what their needs are. So from the beginning of the process, there needs to be a way for the museum to hear its community. Not coincidentally, the process of giving feedback and seeing action taken in response creates a sense of ownership and participation, which is a fast-track to trust. And for museums to respond effectively to community feedback, they must first trust that their communities know what they're talking about and what their own needs are.

So giving trust is necessary to build trust in return. And the people to make the first step will have to be people involved in museums.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Starting (over) Points

I've had a nasty habit of drifting from one blog to the next for years. Unlike paper journals, there seems to be a call for coherency in a blog. Write fiction in one, informal blather about daily frustrations in another, health and fitness in a third, politics in a fourth, academia in a fifth. Gods help you if your prospective employer tracks you from your academic blog to your self-indulgent fiction.

This coherency is artificial. It's not a reflection of my life's natural unfolding to have equal proportions creativity, desire for connection, analysis, and research at all times. So there's also a tidal quality to my interest in my blogs. When my creativity wanes, oneliners on LiveJournal take precedence over anything requiring more thought and effort. After a few weeks of this, I'm in danger of never getting back in the habit of writing detailed posts in the blogs I once considered primary. I've drifted.

So, okay, another birthday on the horizon, another new effort. KerrPlunck, The Serious Blog™. I'm not making an ambitious start—just a commitment to post something about something that's made me think, twice each week.