What Kind Of Collector Are You?

In the nature of a favorite post written earlier this year, I wish to share the behind the scenes on our current almost-museumwide exhibition at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz Collects. This exhibition showcases collectors from throughout Santa Cruz County–people with choices from animal skulls to dryer lint to priceless historical flags.

The content focuses on the question of WHY we collect and exactly how our collections reveal our specific and community identities. We used a more participatory design process. Our earlier big exhibition, All You Need is Love, was highly participatory for visitors but minimally participatory in the development process. Santa Cruz Collects is dependant on collections and stories from people throughout our county. That meant months of searching for leads for people with interesting collections and working with them to build up a procedure for showcasing their objects that were cohesive while honoring the diversity of their experiences. Some cash was acquired by us.

4,000 on materials for participatory elements in this exhibition. This shift was largely because of a give from the James Irvine Foundation, which provided funding for a key component–the Memory Jar installation. A million thanks to them. We concentrated more on design. While the Love exhibition was popular, it was our first attempt at full integration of interdisciplinary content on a huge human idea, interactivity, and involvement. The effect had not been as cohesive or attractive as it might have been aesthetically.

Coming off that experience, we wished to prove that people could have great design AND great participation in this show. We caused an unbelievable intern and staff team to press it to another level, both by enhancing the overall visible aesthetic of the show and by focusing in on fewer, more developed interactive components. Santa Cruz Collects has garnered rave reviews visually from a few of the same people who had been dismayed by All You Need is Love.

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We’re including visitor services and volunteers more intentionally in facilitation. This is the first time we’ve had an ongoing activity with a great deal of materials (Memory Jars). There are Legos and fake flowers and fabric scraps and fine sand and many more. Rather than having our exhibit team walk and fix things up every once in awhile though, we wrote facilitation plans for the Memory Jars and other intensive participatory elements. Our visitor services team is responsible for managing, replacing, documenting, and in some cases, enhancing these elements they are live on the floor now.

Without further ado, here’s what we did to help make the exhibition participatory. You can here find several more photos. I am hoping there’s something in here you may use. As always, I welcome your questions and responses. We collaborated with community members to source content and develop the show. That is an exhibition built from community associates’ stuff. A string was done by us of call-outs to find interesting enthusiasts.

Sometimes, we’d listen to something vague in regards to a man with great branding irons or a lady who showed wild stuff at the state fair. We tracked down as many folks as we could and developed a large spreadsheet so we could evaluate the opportunities. We wanted diversity along several axes–stories, types and sizes and scales of collections, belief of value, the age group of collector, gender, and geographic home foundation of collector.

We caused volunteers and interns again to make soundscapes that focused on collecting. One volunteer captured tales at the flea market; another asked people on the road about the remembrances they would keep (to come with the Memory Jars). We made a huge mobile for the guts of the museum out of origami birds folded from visitor comments received in the past calendar year. Our community programs personnel worked with people to make the birds vote on a final design, and suspend the mobile over a series of evening events preceding to starting. As before, we prototyped all interactive and participatory visitor experiences at museum events in the months leading up to the show.

The prototypes were all simple, cheap, and extraordinarily valuable in shaping the final product. Memory Jars installation. Our first floor Lezin Gallery is small–about 300 square feet. We prefer to use it as a participatory introduction to the exhibition, to front load the concept that you visitors are invited to actively contribute to the exhibition at hand. This time, instead of offering lots of little experiences, we devoted the gallery to one experience: making Memory Jars.

We released donated craft materials and colored pencils and invite visitors to bottle up a memory to increase the collection. This activity originated after several prototypes intended to explore the idea that a few of our most valuable collections aren’t physical in any way. We tried to collect dreams, collecting smells or noises or tales, but memories were most resonant.

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