Push/Pull/Partner: Content Strategies for Community Engagement

How can museums utilize technology to co-create content with the public in ways that feel equitable and rewarding to all parties? Through our digital interpretive practice, Mia has come to view its work in relation to the public in rough terms of push, pull, and partner. We broadcast (“push”) museum-generated content; we commission (“pull”) content from members of the public. And sometimes we share authority over decision-making and content development (“partner.”) This panel will present two of Mia’s digital content partnerships through this push/pull/partner schema. In one case, Mia sought to co-develop digital interpretive materials about traditional Somali artworks with Somali students enrolled in a University of Minnesota course on oral history. This project challenged our assumptions about how and when to use digital tools and the necessity of partnership and shared commitment to see a project through. We will also present our use of Hearken, a digital tool designed for public media newsrooms, to partner with our public on the development of an interpretive strategy for a Buddhist sculpture exhibit. We will conclude with a set of considerations to bring to future opportunities to partner with the public on digital content creation in meaningful and dynamic ways.


Unknown Speaker 00:00
All right, it's 1015. Are you ready? We're ready. Well, good morning. Welcome to push pull partner content strategies for community engagement. My name is Alex borderline. I'm content strategist at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Unknown Speaker 00:18
And I'm Gretchen Halverson, manager of digital engagement and access at Minneapolis Institute of Art as well. We'd like to first welcome you to the session by acknowledging that the land on which our community gathers today is the traditional and unceded territory of the Koumei nation. We want to pay respect to the citizens of the kumbaya nation, both past and present and their continuing relationship with their ancestral lands.

Unknown Speaker 00:43
And can you all hear us pretty well? Great, okay. And as representatives of MIA, we would also like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which Mia resides is Dakota Mako, che the Dakota homeland. And we acknowledged with respect to the diverse histories and cultures of the recorded people of this region, the Anishinabek the Ho Chunk and the Chetty cycle. ween are the seven Council fires. We also acknowledged that those who are unrecorded since time immemorial, and we strive for respectful relationships with all the peoples of this land in the search for collective healing and true reconciliation of settlers unoccupied lands, we are grateful for the opportunity to learn, unlearn, and relearn our ways of knowing today, and henceforth with all of you. Okay, so our presentation is going to be around partnerships with community partners, where digital is implied or as part of that practice. And we'll be presenting two different case studies and then kind of reflect on some big takeaways, we thought we would kind of looks like I've got the wrong page here, we thought we would kind of get grounded by just referring back to our strategic plan, which was written in 2016, and just updated this this year. And they're kind of to, to load stars around which we kind of orbit, especially when we think about the work that that Gretchen. And I do as well as many of our co workers. And those relate to visitor related content content, which is truly puts the visitor at the center of the experience and content creation so that the visitors feel inspired to generate their own meanings, and to question what they see. And then secondly, within the strategic plan is a real mandate towards rethinking the types of relationships that we want to develop with our communities, and kind of fully acknowledges that in the past, those relationships have been transactional in nature kind of predicated upon, well, if you didn't do this for us, we'll do this for you and that sort of thing. And thinking that, you know, this has not been a very functional approach in the past and looking to, to change that. So all of which is to say that the work that we do as a staff at Mia kind of has this broad mandate to put the visitor at the center of what we do, and then also to think about visitors, and people who frankly, don't visit yet, and perhaps, you know, won't in the near term future as actual partners in in what we do at the museum. And so today, as I said before, we'll kind of think about how this has impacted the work that we do and in digital.

Unknown Speaker 03:19
So of course, connecting with community and sort of shifting how that relationship operates is, you know, easy and wonderfully written in our strategic plan, but certainly harder to implement in practice. So we wanted to really kind of think about how it is that we connect with our community. And we all know that technology is a really great tool to connect to each other with our friends or family and and in this case, our visitors. So wanting to really think about how we can use digital as a tool to connect with our community. We've established best practices and guidelines for writing for digital platforms for ensuring that it's an engaged kind of model. However, that sort of those guidelines are really, you know, predicated on this notion that we produce content, and we, you know, send it out to folks, we put a label on the wall. And so this sort of model of just broadcasting our messages, certainly with a lot of forethought, but not necessarily in collaboration with our community. So wanting to really kind of think about how we position our audience and visitors as not only sort of consumers of our information and and our art, but also how can they actually be actual collaborators in the creation of that content? And what does inclusive digital interpretation look like as a process and emphasizing process, which we'll get into but also as the as the end product as well?

Unknown Speaker 04:45
So I'll credit ghost aggression for coming up with the words push pull partner, we kind of, we've been thinking about how we can talk about some of our work and how we can reflect upon it through this this kind of I don't know A model or filter of push pull partner and kind of you know, in all in all transparency, we are museum media has been really involved in a kind of movement called Museum of sight of sight for social action or mass action. And a lot of our thinking is very much informed by other thought leaders in our industry. push pull partner and the boards we're going to use, derive immensely from an essay by Christine Lusha. And Evelyn Arantes called sharing authority creating content experiences, it's actually chapter six, in the mass Action Handbook, if, if you're unfamiliar with this resource, it's freely available as a downloadable PDF at WWW dot ATT museum action.org I highly recommend that essay as well as all of them, I think it'll be really, you know, it's shows us the future. Okay, so Gretchen kind of touched on this already. But but the kind of traditional method of, of content creation and distribution is this kind of push model or broadcast model, you know, we museum workers create content through traditional modes of intellectual and creative production, such as academic research, standardized museum education, practices, etc. And the public is really seen as kind of a, you know, an end user or consumer of those products.

Unknown Speaker 06:21
The other sort of model in which we often communicate is by pulling information from our community members. So we may have an event or exhibition that we're planning, and we reach out to community members as a means to sort of shape the end product, but really the that product and and the contributions of community members is also often filtered through the lens of the museum. So it sort of goes through this chain. While it might involve community, you know, what, what actually ends up on the walls is really most likely has been created specifically and authored by the museum itself.

Unknown Speaker 06:58
So kind of like selectively solicited input, which brings us to, you know, kind of a holy grail for us, which is, you know, a true partnership. And so, you know, we defined that, as community members and museum stuff, develop a product together, what's this look like, in kind of real terms? Well, you know, and basically, the, the project is defined not simply by the museum, and then we look for a partner. In fact, we, we have, we build relationships with community partners, and then work together on defining that product, or I should say that project, and decisions and ideas are created jointly. And that, you know, this is kind of key that, you know, if there is a finished product, that community voices are very much apparent in the in the final outcomes.

Unknown Speaker 07:45
And I would also emphasize sort of authority is shared in terms of decision making power as well.

Unknown Speaker 07:51
And there should be cats. Come on, that was a joke. Thank you. Thank you. All right.

Unknown Speaker 08:00
Always cats. So starting with one of the case studies for us, was a project we were reinstalling, a gallery dedicated to Buddhism. The gallery, reinstallation was a collaborative process internally. But we realized that we really wanted to understand what our public thought about Buddhism, what they wanted to know what they were curious about, and wanted to make sure that the gallery really was informed by those perspectives. We were also mounting a larger exhibition on Buddhism in the coming years. And so wanted to use this as a sort of pilot for reaching out to community in a specific way. We leverage a tool called hearken. Hearken, is a online platform that is primarily used by news organizations to really ask their public, what they're curious about what questions they have, what news stories they might want to have that organization look into, it acts as a sort of module for which is sort of embedded module that can be placed on any sort of website or into social media posts so that it seeds questions, it gathers those questions and those questions can then kind of be manipulated can be coded can be responded to in a really robust way. That's what the tool Harken is really great at. It's great at sort of synthesizing all of these questions, so that your organization is able to listen to those questions, and then hopefully create reciprocal relationships, which I'll get into in a little bit. These examples from NPR are really good in that they they sort of demonstrate that they're listening to their, to their public and want to actually get information about what they care about. They want their input, they want their responses. So this model seems really, you know, intriguing in the sense that we might actually be able to get direct questions from our visitors and hopefully in a manner using technology that would help kind of facilitate the conversation. So we had a team And that I think in this case was really we we were lucky enough that we were able to collaborate with both our media and technology teams for which I am a part of our audience engagement, sort of social media communication strategy, as well as curatorial affairs, so that we could connect with the experts in that field. In developing a communication strategy to really reach out to our audience and say, What are you curious about as it relates to Buddhism? What questions do you have about Buddhism, we took a couple of different approaches to make sure we were able to gather that information, in some specific ways, one of those with social media. So we were able to directly reach out to our social media followers and say, you know, again, what questions do you have about Buddhism, or doing this show, we really want to understand how you might want to engage with this exhibition. And we really want your input. The other method we took was sort of more directed communication with our affinity groups related to our Asian art collection. So folks that have already opted in, they're already sort of going into programming, they might be donating in a bigger way to those collection areas. And so wanted to make sure we were engaging that group two, because we knew they were engaged, and we knew they'd probably be a reliable partner and actually offering some input. I think these two different approaches, one, kind of reaching out to maybe like the the super fans, as it relates to the email, correspondence, but then also relating or reaching out to our sort of maybe just general superfans of the institution, not necessarily our Asian art collection. So having this sort of two pronged approach. We also had the opportunity to ask folks while they were in the gallery itself, so prompting with an iPad in the sort of cube to say, Do you have questions about Buddhism? And having folks actually ask a question while they were on the iPad in the gallery, and then we were also able to display the answers that our curator was able to provide to those questions that were asked. So we'll get into that. We had a really wide range of questions that were asked of, of our curator and, for example, this very kind of sophisticated question about Buddhism. It reads in the Buddhist faith, is there a belief or differentiation between heaven and hell as dominated in the Christian faith? So that feels like a pretty, you know, they might, they seemed pretty interested in how this might pan out. And our curator was able to answer the question from Katherine and sort of really get into the nitty gritty of this, noting the ways in which heaven and hell play prominent roles in the Buddhism practice. We also had some more general questions like where do Buddhas come from? We were able to answer this question to noting, from our curator that sort of depends on who you ask. The term Buddha is a title that describes an awakened being and goes on to sort of really dig into that

Unknown Speaker 12:56
question a little bit more, again, really directly directly engaging with Yun. And I should note that as these questions come in, and as folks submit them, they were also really prompted and encouraged to add their email address and their contact information name. And email was kind of the primary information we were looking for, so that we could reach out directly to them. So as those questions came in, and we were able to answer them, having that really direct, sort of, I would say, emails, a little kind of an intimate moment, I think, for us to be able to really reach out directly from the institution to that person who asked the question. We also had fun questions like this, when will I get a girlfriend, I think probably caused maybe didn't necessarily anticipate answer back. But we really wanted to be able to engage with our visitor, no matter the sort of level of question, and in this case, our curator, Aaron was able to respond with a really wonderful essay or sort of response about the role of love in Buddhism. So again, I think that, you know, we were able to engage in a sort of really sophisticated manner in terms of some of these questions, and really provide a nice response. But I would say, I would also argue that that question, in response to When will I get a girlfriend was equally sophisticated, and perhaps a really wonderful moment to delight that visitor. Again, we wanted to demonstrate that we were actually making that connection. We weren't sort of just taking in these questions and not having, you know, sort of a bottomless pit of of questions, not necessarily getting answered. So we were then our second communication strategy was then to push those answers out. So you asked and we answered, demonstrating our commitment to our visitor and really responding to the questions that they might have. So overall outcomes, we had 24 questions asked and answered over the course of about a month, maybe a couple of weeks that we were embarking on this pilot, in the email communication that we sent out we really had higher than average open and click right through in that email than our normal emails, the time spent on the site both where the questions were answered. And also where you could input your own question was four times the average in terms of dwell time on that site. And, you know, we were ultimately able to have that really direct communication with our visitors. Again, I think it's interesting to think about email or social media being a direct connection. But I think it's important to, to actually acknowledge that that really can be a positive tool doesn't necessarily have to be this really deep discussion. Although, Alex, we'll get into how that can that can work, too. So did this actually really impact that installation? In our Buddhist gallery? I think it did. I think it was, as our curator was having to read through these questions as our interpretive planners were having to really see the the questions and the types of questions that were being asked. I think it definitely folded into the way our interpretation ended up in on the wall. So that interpretive scaffolding was really informed by those types of questions, often impacting the assets that were produced like this map, how can we demonstrate the spread of Buddhism, it also impacted a digital component we had in the gallery, which is our digital map, which we really provided a sort of Buddhism one on one in this in this digital format, you know, who was Siddhartha? What is his story, how, how had Buddhism developed, and then demonstrating the breadth of our collection. And that spread of Buddhism, which was the real kind of key message we were trying to demonstrate within that gallery. And finally, as I mentioned, we were mounting a larger exhibition dedicated to Buddhism, which is forthcoming, and we held a symposium dedicated to developing content and developing perspectives on how we should approach that exhibition. And this small little pilot was certainly still able to inform how those conversations unfolded. And I think probably the breadth and scope of how folks were thinking about that exhibition and how it might unfold.

Unknown Speaker 17:08
Thanks, Gretchen. So I'm going to talk about a very different type of project that involves a different structure and a different partner. And this was a digital exhibition on the arts of Somalia that we had planned to produce in timing with a physical exhibition of the arts of Islamic Africa. The the exhibition, and by extension, this project had been funded by a NEH planning grant. And then we ultimately also received an implementation grant. And for various reasons that we'll get to, we kind of had to do a hard stop on both projects at some point. So this is kind of a not really cautionary tale, but a useful example of where we didn't actually meet our stated goals. But we learned a lot along the way. Some of you may know, but many of you may not that the Twin Cities is home to one of the largest communities of Somali Somali expatriates in North America, we value this community immensely, in some ways between cities are surprisingly, surprisingly diverse, and which which we welcome and see enormous value

Unknown Speaker 18:27
and my phone's ringing sorry about that, everyone. No, you're right. I think as Doctors Without Borders, actually, what's kind of cool.

Unknown Speaker 18:38
So we, we've always been very interested in partnering with this community and had been looking for ways to do so. And this was this was one opportunity that we really felt like you know what, we don't do it now. When are we going to do it? And so what we came up with is in with our, with our partners, I'll talk about in a second a, a kind of community based and very collaborative knowledge creation and curation process, that would that would, essentially be based in intergenerational intergenerational dialogues between young Somali Americans and their and their elders about kind of cultural heritage. And we had a couple really compelling models upon which to build upon which to think about our own project, and I'll just name those in case you're interested in looking them up later. One is called gray sack, which is an acronym for the great rake Great Lakes Research Alliance for the study of Aboriginal arts and culture. It's largely based out of Canada. Another one is Sierra Leone. heritage.org. And in both cases, it's a it's a collaborative of traditionally trained academics as well as keepers of knowledge from from indigenous communities. Keepers of expertise in combination with collections of material culture artworks artifacts, that are from museums, collections and other types of collections both kind of in Canada and North America generally, as well as elsewhere in the world. So it kind of, in a way a digital aggregation of diaspora of objects, and a group of individuals who in combination create a basis of knowledge around around those objects in those in those cultures. And our projects similarly sought to reconnect objects both within me as collection as well as within museums worldwide, with our local Somali American community, as a kind of conversation starter to get into questions about about material culture and cultural heritage more generally. It was a two phase project. And I have to kind of say outright that we did not create this roadmap at the beginning. This is kind of a retrospectively created roadmap, I wish we had done this at the start, it would have made things clearer for all of us. But this gives you a sense of the overall structure and the ways in which we sought to, to partner with organizations as well as communities. Phase one, started in 2014, and ran through 2015. This was a partnership between the art museum as well as the University of Minnesota and Somali students at the University of Minnesota and elders, to whom we reached out just a note that the this is the Somali flag, it's a blue Bluefield with a white star that that's there just kind of represent Somali American communities and individuals in the Twin Cities. And so you can kind of walk through the different phases of this, of this project, and who kind of who was involved at those various stages. And the first part of of the project was really an attempt to kind of develop a knowledge base through interviews, that would then be turned into kind of compelling, digital stories. And we'll talk about that. And we'll we'll kind of see what that looks like in a second. The second phase began about a year after that. And that was a content development partnership between the museum and this really kind of compelling and dynamic new community based museum called the Somali Museum of Minnesota. And in that case, the goal was to create kind of web, sorry, web ready content that could be hosted on both of our websites. Okay, so phase one. This, the individuals that you see here, Vicki Kaufman, Sido, Mohamed, Sayed Ahmed, those are individuals who are all faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota, you know, the grocer's is our curator of African art at, at Mia, those four people plus me, we're kind of a core team that really sought to structure this project, to finding outcomes and so on. And basically, what we decided to do was that we would, we would kick this project off largely as kind of a an undergraduate level course called the use of oral traditions as resources for history. And in our planning process, we came up with a curriculum, there is gonna be a practicum portion where students actually did interviews with with elders, we co developed a set of 43 Somali objects, as well as an interview protocol. And just kind of thought through the mechanics of, of how these conversations between elders and students would happen. And this is kind of what it looks like in a sort of more flowchart approach.

Unknown Speaker 23:31
We put together these these notebooks full of pictures of of our of objects, that that students would take with them as well as digital recorders. To interview Somali elders who had been identified and were and signaled their willingness to be to participate in this project. We had over 20 interviews. So more than 20 hours worth of worth of audio, that then Seto and Saeed translated it and transcribed a massive amount of work as you can imagine. And then it was kind of incumbent upon me to go through those transcribed interviews and as proof of concept, kind of construct some digital stories, which is what you see on the right side of the screen. This was built in a platform that we had developed in house for digital storytelling that was then called Grieux. We've reconceived that now as an open source platform called loom. If you're interested, Gretchen is the person to talk to about that. It's really great. There's a lot of opportunity there. At any rate, the desire really was to have those those voices kind of come through in the end product in in in ways that that make it very clear who's talking and whose ideas are being presented here. So I'll just read an example. One elder named Mohammed Hamid Omar said this is a loo a slate to write on students of the Koran use it when learning the writing can be washed out When the boy learns that part of the versus by heart thing gets the next lesson to be written on the slate, each learner will always keep one slate, which is crafted by the Somalis. So just give you a sense, as I say, we created seven of these draft digital stories. And the idea was to basically draft these stories largely kind of serve as a as a starter in a conversation about what the end product would look like. And to involve Seto and Saeed in crafting, you know, many, many more stories, probably about 715 to 17 of them. Well, at that point, our implementation grant, we canceled our exhibition, the arts of African Islam. And, and so the implementation grant funds that we had, that we were relying upon to kind of take this next phase, we had to, we had to return essentially, so we couldn't actually compensate pseudo and see it for the time that they would take on this project. So we felt at that point, we better just kind of put a hold on it. The next phase was, as I mentioned before, with the small youth Museum of Minnesota, and this was a way not necessarily of reinvigorating the first phase, but a way of kind of taking what we learned and, and produce outcomes that seemed more manageable. And so here, the idea was to recognize what each what resources each partnership would each partner brought to the table. In our case, we have, you know, great, you know, studio photography, skill sets, videography, skill sets, as well as the equipment and the staff. And the smaller minutes small Museum of Minnesota had a great permanent collection of Somali artworks as well as strong connections to the larger Somali American community in the Twin Cities. And so we could offer for example, documentation of their permanent collection with you know, really high resolution studio photography, as well as videography services. And they recruited Somali elders and other practitioners to kind of talk about Somali cultural heritage on camera, we got amazing footage, we got really great footage. And, and all the interviews are in Somali, and that actually is kind of where things got a little tripped up for us, because at that point, we kind of maxed out what we could commit to in terms of in terms of our staff time, and the Somali Museum of Minnesota didn't have video editing skill sets among their employees. So we kind of had, like literally a language barrier that we had to work through. At that, realizing that we the next step for us was to basically write a grant, a grant proposal to fund a Somali language speaking video, you know, video editor, who could then take these raw footage and edit them into into shorter video pieces that could appear on both of our websites. And unfortunately, we didn't get that grant. And we'll talk kind of what we learned from those delays experienced in the second, I think, just just to start that conversation, we want to kind of pull back and look at kind of a bigger picture in terms of who our partners were, and how we engage them on an organizational level, which is to say, kind of, in our day to day operations.

Unknown Speaker 28:18
We're talking about our Somali community partners, you know, the honest truth is, we don't engage them that much, and hence, our relationship strength is quite low. Whereas with the Buddhism project, the people who as Gretchen said, the people who that we were reaching out to our people who've kind of already opted into the life of the museum, they are members, they are followers on Facebook, and other you know, other social media channels, their people have already kind of raised their hands. So high engagement level, and high relationship strength.

Unknown Speaker 28:50
So then, when thinking about the actual project, and what's required to ensure the success of that project, you really have to kind of think about so if the relationship strength is really low, as in the case for the Somali digital exhibition, what would then be required by Mia would be much higher engagement level to ensure that that was a successful project. And in in the case of the Buddhism exhibition, we had, you know, quite a high relationship strength in terms of people who had already opted in, they were members, they were followers. And so the amount of sort of support we needed to provide or handholding or connection points was much lower. And so, you know, we were able to be a little bit more hands off have a much lighter touch, because we already had such a sort of strong relationship with those, those contributors. So what is what does this tell us? I think, we've learned a lot along the wave of these totally, you know, kind of different projects, but one was that it really requires a project champion or dedicated staff person to ensure the success of a project. So in the case of Buddhism, you know, it really required a technology expert, not necessarily because the tool was Harkin was so sort of complicated, but it did require, you know, setting up web pages to host the curiosity module that they call it, which was an embedded sort of module that would allow folks to ask questions. It required also really, you know, close connection with our social media teams. And that was a strong relationship we'd already forged. Also understanding what skills or relationships are required by that champion or leader. So in our case with those Somali exhibition, again, we mentioned that language barrier and skill set in terms of video production was was a barrier for for this project, so ensuring that that the right people are sort of on the team and, and dedicated to pushing something forward really important.

Unknown Speaker 30:47
I just want to acknowledge that we're at times we beg your indulgence, we'll we'll wrap up quickly. And if you do have questions, you know, we can take them outside the room, maybe to live next group. And so building on Gretchen's point, you know, frankly, organizations demonstrate their commitments to their communities through how they budget, right. And so this is kind of key ensuring that the funding approach that you're taking is compatible with the partnership strengths and objectives. Grant funding often is meant for things with discrete and definable timelines and a discrete and definable end product. You know, relationships don't always work that way. And especially if you're building a relationship, look to other funding sources, look to the discretionary funds, look to existing existing roles at the museum that are that are funded through their operating budget, not through grant funds. Think about existing programs and how they can be leveraged, in other words, try to not peg your relationship building to a kind of granting cycle, because that often, it certainly didn't work in the case of arc Samadhi partners. And then equally, you know, don't play such an emphasis on product process is really important to you know, from the perspective of MIA, perhaps we didn't meet our objectives. But I think if we, if one, were to ask our other partners, you might get a different answer. I mean, the reality is that there were true tangible benefits that came out of these processes that have benefited all of us from the perspective of asset creation, to just overall recording of knowledge, you know, all those transcribed interviews, they're still there, they'll still be resources, all those digital images, they're still there, there'll be great resources. In fact, I know, the small Museum of Minnesota is using them for for publications. The the students, you know, received credit towards their, their degrees. So there were clear benefits for everybody involved. And I think it's important to, you know, when when, when you're making the case for partnerships to think along those lines as well.

Unknown Speaker 32:43
And then understanding the best way that that you want to engage with that partner, again, thinking about what that partner's interest level and capacity for engagement is, and then ensuring that your collaborative collaborators, expectations aligned with your own, I think those things were really important, again, emphasizing the fact that where are the relationships? Have they already been forged? And then therefore, what is that engagement need to look like? What is required to ensure its success?

Unknown Speaker 33:08
You know, and then finally, you know, think hard about digital, right? I mean, technology can be a doorway, but it can also be an obstacle and just ensure that an emphasis on digital doesn't create an imbalance that can't be addressed. You know, strong partnerships rely on complementary resources, including skill sets and knowledge bases, and think about how digital falls into that, you know, as is often the case, you know, well funded museums with digital capacity, will, by default, be the caretakers of whatever those projects wind up being if they're digital. So think about that, you know, understand that's going to be your role to you know, maintain to support, host and maintain those digital resources. Well, after the the partnership period kind of ends if there's sweet ending to it. Those are our thoughts. If you have any questions, we'd love to take them. Oh, thank you. That's how you can reach us via email. Yeah, thank you so much for coming.