Sunday, February 15, 2009

What Does Shane Battier Have To Do With Museums??

Shane Battier plays basketball for the Houston Rockets. He “is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars.” His scoring average is nothing special, nor are his other stats. Yet according to the New York Times Magazine article (click title of this post), Shane Battier might be as valuable to the Rockets as Yao Ming. He should be an All-Star. Why? The author, Michael “Moneyball” Lewis says...

“When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways.”

Battier’s problem is that, until very recently, NBA teams have had no interest in measuring what the author calls “the right things” -- the intangibles that produce victory.

So what does this have to do with “The Emerging Digital Museum”? What if....museums could develop an entirely new way of measuring their worth to the community, and these numbers could be used for fundraising and promotional purposes? For example...

• # of guests who developed an enduring (lifetime) interest in the subject because of a museum visit.

• # of guests who shifted career goals because of a museum visit -- perhaps becoming a teacher, and influencing the lives of thousands of young people

• # of people who decided to move to a community because it boasted a such a great museum

• # of guests who formed life-changing friendships, meeting other people as enthusiastic about the museum as they were.

If all this sounds a big silly, so did the ramblings of the brilliant iconoclast Bill James when he began (self) publishing his “Baseball Abstract” back in the early 1980’s. When Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane began using James’s stats, Beane's Oakland team (30 million dollar payroll) often equaled or bettered the New York Yankees (180 million dollar payroll).

The digital world allows museums to measure guest interest in new ways (exhibit visits, time in museum, website hits, Facebook links, blogpost chatter, etc.) Is your museum the “Shane Battier” of the museum world? What statistics could prove that?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What "Digital Natives" Want In A Museum

A “digital native” is someone who has never known a world without networked computers, 279 channels of cable television, video games and text-ready cell phones. And -- I would argue -- one thing digital natives want in a museum is to “go deeper” -- to experience the meaning of exhibits and artifacts, as revealed in stories.

Last week Mark Hayward shared a story about the wildly successful “Titanic: The Exhibition” at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. More than 850,000 guests experienced this breakthrough event. Why was it so successful? Perhaps because people brought two sets of stories to the exhibit -- what happened aboard the actual ship, and what happened in the recent smash hit movie. The Titanic attraction satisfied a public hunger to remember both sets of stories, and to share them with friends and family members.

What if the Smithsonian had brought a modern “digital native” approach to their exhibition of the Enola Gay? The Smithsonian ran into a buzzsaw of criticism as it was about to put the Enola Gay fuselage on display as part of an exhibit, “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War.” Groups like the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to the sympathetic portrayal of Japanese casualties as opposed to the role the atomic bomb had in ending the war. Historians defended the exhibit, but in the end it was canceled. Today the Enola Gay is a major permanent exhibit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, with a purposely bland summary of technical data and virtually no history.

I would suggest that, in the 21st century museum, curators will welcome the “fight” (i.e. struggle to define historical meaning) the Smithsonian is evading. How can guests learn the meaning of what happened at Hiroshima on November 6, 1945 unless they can see it from all sides, and every perspective?

My understanding of those events is shaded by the stories my mother told me. She heard about the atomic bomb on the radio. She immediately knew two things. One, her husband (my father) would not be sent to Japan to fight (and possibly be killed) in a land-based invasion of Japan. Two, the viability of the human race had become more tenuous because of the unfathomable killing power of this amazing weapon.

Imagine an Enola Gay exhibit that included informed, thought-provoking input from the Air Force Association, Hiroshima survivors, military experts, American and Japanese historians, young people who have grown up in the shadow of terrifying super weapons...and my mother.

Might even be another “Titanic.”