Transcript of the talk-back walls at the Museums and Civic Discourse colloquium.
Thank you to Susan Spero for providing this document, which is organized by the color of the dot on people's nametags when they arrived at the session.

To return to the Museum 2.0 blog, please click here




How do museums let go of needing to be the authority on topic being explored?    
If we can accept that the process of engaging our audiences & encouraging inclusion of other opinions beyond our “authoritative”  one that’s a first step.

Who’s the expert? What makes them qualified?
Is visitor feedback about what is “right” or what they believe, their opinion?

Open door: Opportunity

Expert/Novice (nice yin/yang drawing)

Relative Weight of different opinions -----→ Authenticity

    Museums can express multiple points of view, for a start
    But not just for a demonstration—all “opinions” are not equal about     science

Everyone needs to be given an equal voice
    How do you know what is authentic “true” i.e., evolution-religious     fundamentalism

Story—view keeps changing

Mystery—enriched by different understandings
    Ground discourse in material artifacts that people understand, e.g., quilts,     (Gee’s Bend)

Interests of Funders vs. Risk Taking
    Be ready with an elevator speech

Importance of Risk Taking
    - Children’s Museums

Who is/Isn’t Discoursing
•    People with a lot to say
•    Everyone is talking – We are just not privy to their conversations in part because we are not listening in part because we haven’t earned their trust
•    But what is resulting from “everyone talking?” Is change happening?

    Race/Class/Immigration/Ethnicity/Gender, Education level, Generations
How do you get people to join?
Invite them…the topic has to be important to them
How do we bridge youth and elders modes of conversation?

Different Rhetoric Language and Culture

Rules/Taboos?  -→ ID’ing Where

How controversial can we get?
    Good question—I don’t know. Let the community take the controversy to a deeper level.

So many possible issues obstacles
Role of museums dealing with Assumptions/Visitor Expectations

Who is directing Dialogue? 
    For now what needs to change?
    How will it evolve for whom?

Letting Go—Let Community Talk
    - Removing Hierarchy

Introduce New Topics Subtlety …Sneak them in
•    Do adults, for matter children, want to be surprised about difficult topics? I don’t think so.

Common belief that “Because it is in the museum, it must be true!”

Internal Debate about what/how we choose to present info/objects. Outreach Transparency of process (Yelp, Facebook). (To who, people who have computers)

Process, How do we set the stage?
By meeting people where they live—e.g. my local supermarket butcher labels fish w/red yellow and green labels to indicate sustainability (or not). Starts a conversation between employees and customers, and between customers too.

Who are They?
    Who are we?
Museums building skills in new ways
Using Different Media
On-line live feed
Other spaces

How can we connect beyond the museum?
    At home, family dialogue first
Looking at how other fields approach this.

How can museum open Fair discourse?
Who is to judge the fairness of discourse? Discourse is like a sand dune_- constantly flowing from place to place, some particles on top; some on the bottom never are they always in the same position. The weight of a voice is strong and supported at times; at others it comes from one person. Where does fairness fit into this idea?

What is the end Goal?
    Different goals may need different methods

How to better diversity internally?
(We’re not reflecting our communities accurately)

High Tech tools

How does discourse interface with Mission?
Is it really ok to host any local group, or must they be “on Topic” or in agreement with our values?


Are we having a discussion or a discourse? 
    Is a discourse necessarily elevated above a discussion?

What is the goal of the discourse?
Is it? Less clear in a museum context as opposed to say, a political caucus?
Understanding & focus on a complex or controversial issue is the first step to action. It doesn’t have to result in immediate political action, it’s about providing people with the chance to learn more, ask questions & grapple with an important topic. People make everyday decisions that affect the environment.

Skepticism cultivating this discourse as a way to get people talking.

What is the role of museum in advocacy?
(Libraries? Schools?)

Get them to talk Kitchen conversations @ Tenement Museum
    Informal format

Are museum pre-selected for certain issues?
Depends on the issue and the museum. Could anything be relevant in an art museum? Children’s?

Opportunities—Libraries— Huge in this arena already. Opportunity to cross-pollinate. And they are free. Also, public policy organizations opportunity to experiment. Bars. Coffee Houses. (Re coffee houses: some already have community tables reserved that that ;-))


Issue of bringing a more diverse group of people, to find a focal point for this group

Where do museum let go of being the “expert” and allow public to participate in forum, text labels, curriculum.
RE: expert:
•    How/why should a science museum be comfortable with visitors posting incorrect science?  How do we maintain visitor’s trust? Currently museums are one of the most trusted sources of information.
•    How is scientific accuracy maintained?
•    Museum Wikipedia pages/censored/monitored by museums?

Radical Trust?

Diversity—Experience pitfalls in the 90s of Diversity “campaigns” in museums. Let’s look at evaluations to see how inclusive museum/programs really were. Don’t repeat them.

Web 2.0 what kind of model is it? Web and physical presence
Is a virtual community inviting to everyone?
Are some conversations easier virtually?
Collective and Connective-Nina Simon is doing very good work at bring web 2.0 techniques into the physical museum. Check out her blog.

Do we have a “romantic” attachment to bring in a museum physically? What does this mean?
    We have an attachment to the “authenticity” of a museum, perhaps due to the objects & scholars within.

Some visitors don’t want us to talk about social issues. What do we do with this?

    Acknowledge that first then see what happens.
    Maybe they’re not read to talk – so let’s plant the seeds.

What is opportunity now in 2008 as compared to the past/good old days?
    Someone should research the Chautauqua movement in the American Midwest in the 1940s—public meetings of civic dialogues-this is historical basis of today’s leadership on civic dialogue in the Midwest.
Or the Salon movement.
        Who funded it and why

All communities do dialogue look at why this.

Audience—that “don’t come” Civic discourse—offers huge opportunity to reach them.
    Especially if discourse happens outside museum bldg.
    Really? Isn’t our  “rental” space a bonus for bringing potentially     antagonistic views together?

+ Different frames of reference offers more opportunity for legitimacy —or constructive— the “real people” (Bowling Alone, Putnam)
    Art/collage verses words for discourse universality less intimidating for some

Value diversity in museums not al need to do the same things the same way.

More interested in talking about personal issues within the social issues. Goal might be to form relationship with someone you don’t know or wouldn’t normally relate to a challenge

    This is another form of interaction

May be smaller groups that can talk to each other can be brought together with different groups.

Have museum be more provocative and more social
    Controversy be design not by accident
    Real stories often more controversial but “sanitized” for public floor

Visitors unsure of interaction/dialogue opportunities

Who do people trust?  --government/museum
Museum --is circled in red with this response: Currently museums are one of the most trusted sources of information. What would put that at risk?

Should museums be organizing exhibitions to stimulate dialogues?
They do whether they intend to or not—how forward they are and intentional—go toward it.

How do museum set-up/moderate environments for equal (and civil) exchanges? 
    Need special training
Museums need credibility (besides being experts) within the community to facilitate these discussions.  Community people must feel trust and that they will actually be heard.

Destination Museum → position themselves as co-creator of issues

Institution versus Community
“Institution should ideally be part of the community and not separate from”
Activity and openness is very connected to leadership, without it efforts will be spotty.
         Control               ← web →         Open
(editing censoring)                           (not monitored, uncensored)

Train (all) staff (guards too) in new methods of facilitating dialogues
    Bring in skilled facilitators who aren’t stuck in the museum mindset (yes!)

Visitors who want to look/observe/ contemplate not talk
    Provide forum for them too –online (shy people should be welcomed too)

Visitors utilize museums in their own way/have their own motivations

Digital divide generational experiences
    Tense cultural issues

Forums/dialogues may be intimidating → need for experimenting

Too much info? Are people overwhelmed?

Societal level opportunities interest in deeper conversations
    Provide models for having deeper conversations

Museums as “spark” for further dialogue/discussion → take into web 2.0 and Internet
But then we need to take responsibility to be sure the conversation is continued in other venues program coordination
Museums as places of public trust

Spontaneous conversations (instead of traditional modes of receiving information)

Provide  (safe) opportunities to have dialogues
[Series of notes attached to the word safe]. 
What does that mean?
Safe for different viewpoints to be voiced.
I think that museums are safe places in an urban context.

Schools don’t teach civic discourse (democratic concepts) any more→ museums can be a great venue for exploring ideas.
In response to democratic concepts— trying to do this will be trickier than it seems, as lefties & right-wingers have very different conceptions of democratic especially regarding history, ethics and morals.


People hungry for meaning!
    People are making their own meaning all the time
    Some want it given to them, some want to share their own.


How to teach anyone to ask “thoughtful/ “right” questions. 
    Are there right questions, right for whom?
    Refining the substance of a question?

How to make topic relevant/everyday
How to start a conversation on an issue that might not be in the news or on the public radar yet?
Can ask for feedback from visitors, community advisors
Yes, start with community don’t tell them what they need to know—let them set the agenda—and help them through the process of identifying priorities

How do you include children?
There have been many stores in the news lately of elementary teachers covering topics such as global warming or the Iraq war and encouraging research and reading and classroom (discussion?) with amazing results —Foster City/Coasts impacted public policy in the city re: solar panel fees and the process empowered the children.

How to reach those that don’t identify with an organized community (find the angry people)
    Get them involved, use that energy.

Why? The Knowledge is already there…..

How to create a conversational model.
    Look to models in the museum world that are successful
Remember you may not talk the same talk as your ancestors. How do people converse in today’s world?

How making an audience who may be resistant open-up and be interested in conversation over lecture/authoritative model
Isn’t this still assuming we are the ones who do it right?  What if they’re not engaging because frame museums place on topics doesn’t feel welcoming/relevant/alive?

Tools for discussion

Agent of change: museum vs. community—where to we make that jump (Blog, Web 2.0, Wikipedia)

Low hanging fruit—preaching to the converted
    Relevance to our/their lives
    Are we trying to convert? To what?
Figure of speech.  Dialogue with those who are already engaged it’s about introducing new groups to engagement
    The topic has to matter to them

When does it become discourse?

How do you keep museum indelible in memory?

How to reach those that don’t identify

Constellation of people to serve as coordinators/facilitators within the community
# of organizations devoted to training facilitators

Does the audience want that dialogue? Do museums want to facilitate?
    Yes museums are a social place----do they know how?
(Does it tie to the individual mission?)
That’s an important ?  I think museum visitors have been trained to be quiet and listen to what they are being told

Do we need to re-write our mission statements to include intention to foster civic dialogue/discourse?

Museums as respite [interesting]
    can’t we keep this in some way, while still allowing for these guys? →
The new generation is noisy, thoughtful, opinionated and not afraid to show it.      

Temple versus forum

Connections to community foundations
    Partnerships are key for input
        Partnerships are not the usual suspects

What really is the discourse?  How do we want to get past the surface? Meaningful exchange.
    What are the goals?  For whom, with whom?


Small towns versus large towns
    Are we complacent?
    Do we assume someone else is doing it?
        Yes, how do we get out of the box?
        Maybe we have to start with expanding the box first
Why is it always a box, and is it always a barrier/negative to be in one. Your box may be your strength.

Shift from public understanding of science to public engagement
    —validation: everyone has a perspective and contribution

Tech museum engaging museum through second life
    — thinking outside the box, developing museum content
But many folks see SL as having too high a bar to entry—e.g. difficult to move avatar or navigate to find “the good stuff”
I agree, who has that kind of time to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time

What came first?
    1. Social issues
    2. Dialogue

Original issue: Is democracy still alive?

When everyone has an equal voice are we drowned out?

Museums as facilitators?

Courage Exhibition
    Conversations with community leaders exhibition as catalyst
        Need to overcome cowardice about confrontations
Need for advice for how to engage people when the issue isn’t “hot” like race or politics.

Temporary exhibition → longer life
    Issues of RACE

Playing it safe e.g. CODE PINK

Do museums need to take a position?
    —they already do— transparency please

Send letters to mayor: Chabot feedback boards
    Empower visitors with ideas for action they can take

Idea that museums should be neutral = myth
     {Evolution is fact, climate change is facts}
         ---- facts or myths?

We take positions without claiming ownership
    Offer forums for other perspectives/groups to speak for themselves

Public Investigative Journalism

Curators/Journalists feel uncomfortable relinquishing control   to public

How does expert become facilitator in dialogue with public?
Do we consider others to be the facilitator? Would an outside person be more neutral?

Difficult to decide when to take a position
    Which values do we choose?
     (when issues cross over: science & religion)

Biases against subject matter (creation museum)

Atomic Testing Museum, Las Vegas
—period pieces or propaganda?
    Promotes dialogue

So many issues, how to choose
How do you get museums representing different controversial topics to create discourse i.e., the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Wansee Museum is where the final solution was developed.
—    must stay unique to mission
Why isn’t public discourse a part of your mission?
—    exhibitions + great catalyst for dialogue

—        How to create dialogue on the floor without programming
Good architecture & design can help foster a comforting and engaging place for people to discuss meaningful issues in a safe environment
This is a key question
Can with be done w/out facilitation? Can visitors self-direct in this case?   See Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

“Touchable” stories – Richmond
—    Interviews people on stories in their community, hires artists to create installations on community.  Shannon Flattery

Making something temporary and provocative: Burning man model

Stanford show “Question”  (Darcie Fohrman w/Michael Brown)

Getting preparations to let exhibitions be messy — allows people to feel comfortable and have dialogue

Brooklyn Museum
    Examples on Graffiti people creating graffiti, putting images on the web

Public ownership of Museum
—    people feel they own the museum
        Can museum ever be free of charge again to accomplish this?
—    talk online, sharing photos and ideas

   — Museum inserted itself into forums where audiences were communicating

 — In Monterey, where I live, people often refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium as our Aquarium.  That sense of ownership stems from a deep civic pride and a shared sense of values, even through we charge admission.


What can museums offer that others cannot?
    Authenticity the real thing—tie discussion to real articles/objects etc.
    Education, memories, ways of thinking about old ideas
Specialized knowledge of their subjects matter and the trust of communities

Limited number of places where people can/do congregate
    Physical places, the number of spaces feels infinite online

How to put focus on Discourse instead of institution?

Does the museum appropriate the discussion for its own ends? Membership?
    Building community?

Is the museum the right kind of setting?
    Too formal?
    They can partner with other places in the community (e.g. pubs)
    We have objects so we are unique.

Museum professionals need to be reminded that their visitors are often more educated than they are.

A pub is neutral territory. Can museums truly duplicate that free environment?
    Who is on their board?  Is there full representation?

Many institutions already have an established point of view
    Time for change
    Mission can change with desire
    Could be a starting point from which to expand and grow

Engaging the college community classroom discussions and civic discourse
    In what sense?  Compared to lectures, discussions are active learning
    Passive learning, segregated by discipline, the bubble, town vs. gown
The key is to assign projects that engage staffs with community in mutually interesting research.

Why do this at all? Is it that we are desperate to be relevant? Or desperate @ the thought of being irrelevant
To be blunt, our older audience is dying off. If we are not relevant to new audiences we will die too.

Can we bring enough institutional buy-in to create staff positions (e.g. facilitator) change the environment (bean-bag chairs), etc.?
    Why does it have to be mediated by a professional?

Guerrilla Museum activity at pub in Ontario

Is it harder for art museums to do this than for other types of museums?
or easier, do they hold onto expert authority or value alternative interpretation?

What does it take?
Do museums have a “structural conservatism?”
If they do have a structural conservatism what can be done to circumvent this to do this kind of programming?

Fear of offending someone—losing your job.
    Like donors?
    Need to carefully frame the presentation/goals so as to minimize this….
Where is the line between offense and provocation and how do we find it?
Need the director behind this goal or mission.

Is there a commitment at the top level?
    Leadership is important

Community needs to be able to trust the institution
    What about surveillance/patriot act?

What specifically can museums bring?  What role can collections play?  How about intellectual capital?  Our expert knowledge?

Plus, we have a history and interest in interpreting our knowledge for others—but does that compromise our role in the dialogue?
    No if interpreting is open ended for the visitor

Whole idea of Web. 2.0 is that you don’t have to be an expert to contribute to the dialogue—can museum professionals “get out of the way” to allow this to happen?

Knowledge builds a basis for caring about an issue—this is the role of “expert” in the dialogue.

Expert brings passion for the topic
Expert may bring more information but others can have passion for the topic.