What to think of the Weber World Café?
Usually I would not write a review on the format of an event on this blog, as the connection to museums and sensitive objects seems weak. However, I was invited as a science reporter to do just that, and initially I was planning to write on the topic of the event – which would have fit – but after giving this some consideration, I decided to concentrate on the style which I found rather more important (although it does not fit my usual topics). I would like to thank the Max Weber Stiftung, the Forum Transregionale Studien, ArtHistories and the Staatliche Museen Berlin for this opportunity to take part in a very special experience that has provided me with a lot of “food for thought” over the last weeks. I am still not entirely sure what to make of this and will share a few of my thoughts here.
Originally world cafés as a format were developed by two business consultants. The idea was to create a form of workshop that would allow, for example, staff members of different departments of a certain company to exchange their perspectives on certain problems as well as their different solution approaches in a safe environment. By ignoring hierarchies and usual peer groups, its aims were to foster wider cooperation, find common aims and hitherto unknown connections, discuss topics and thus ultimately find creative solutions to real problems the company would be facing. By including everyone, paying attention to all staff members alike and bringing them together in unexpected ways, it was also often tried to increase personal engagement with the company and open participation in structural or personal changes the company would have to engage in. How can this be transferred to a more open format as it is used in the Weber World Café?
In practice a world café is formed by several tables all of which have their own moderator. Participants walk from table to table – similar to speed dating – and have a certain time at each table in which they can discuss a topic (guided by the moderator) until the time is over and they have to move to a different one. Each table has a paper table cloth on it and participants are invited to write and draw their ideas and associations.
In case of the Weber World Café that took place in Berlin on 11th June 2015 the general topic was “Museum, Power, and Identity” – broken down into eight table topics (you can see more on the moderators and topics of the table here). As a participant you would manage to see four of these, so you either had to decide early on what interested you most – or you just let yourself drift. I voted for the first and visited the four tables that caught my interest: ‘Cultural Heritage, Belonging and Ownership’, ‘Decolonizing knowledge’, ‘Object biographies’, and ‘The Archive and the Unconscious’. All of these topics entail an ocean of knowledge, they could each be considered headlines for long-term scientific debates with entire libraries written about them – how can they be broken down to a table topic? Sadly my very personal and subjective answer is: they cannot. Whereas some discussions started off promising, they usually ended rather sudden – either by people having to leave the table, a comment by someone not really related to the previous discussion and thus cutting of the line of thought, a question for clarification that led into a different direction or by the realization of some experts (not necessarily the moderators) that it was just impossible to explain the topic in a reasonable way within a few minutes only. Some discussions were too basic for some while too scientific/theoretical for others, some moderators started off with a small presentation, others with an initial question, but especially in the third and fourth round it was noticeable, that they had given that question or the presentation more than once already and were not completely eager to engage with it again. I think the original idea would be to just continue where the previous discussion group left, but at least in case of my tables this was not followed through. In general, I guess that most of the moderators were new to the format and were trying to do their best – but they lacked the experience how to actively moderate such a form of half repeated discussion and direct it into new ways. I talked to a few of them later and some admitted they had been curious to the format but not entirely sure what to expect – in the original format the moderators would need to be the most experienced ones and would usually require a lot of preparation (in particular with regards to the right questions that would spark interest and start a discussion). Many participants I observed also never said a word and left the discussion to the “loud ones” – much as you know it from high school.
All this being said, there were still some interesting thoughts and connections being made – even on topics that I am very experienced with – so I can see how this is supposed to work and I assume that it DID work for many participants as well. The interesting part about the world café format is that everybody will naturally experience it very differently as nobody follows exactly the same “stream” through the room and has the same knowledge, background, ideas about topics than someone else. So this is some very subjective criticism that I have to offer and I am sure many others would have had a much more positive experience. The fascinating part for me was, though, how many people you got to know in a rather personal way via the constant changes and in the aftermath I had many notes of names and topics I wanted to check later or find out more about. In general, there was an amazing amount of very interesting people from all disciplines, backgrounds and many national origins and I do have to congratulate the organizers for bringing together such an eclectic mix of fascinating people. I do think that from a networking and connecting people perspective, this is a very successful format. I would however question its validity when really trying to discuss a more complicated topic like this one – museum, identity and power is huge, and I think it might serve the format better if a somewhat smaller topic would be chosen that could actually be broken down into several table questions. In its richness, this topic was too diverse and confusing. Originally the world café was also initialised to work towards concrete ideas, creative solutions, processes etc., but in this case the café just ended. Although there was a wrap up session in which people tried to sum up what had been discussed at the tables, in the back of my mind I still had the nagging question: so why did we do this?
However, I would still love to try again next time – maybe with a topic that I do not know so much about? I think this format has the potential to give you a perfect and interesting overview on perspectives about any topic – but maybe it needs to be a topic that actually really has not had much resonance in your brain yet? Or you need an audience (like in a company) that forms an actual group? Or you need at least something of an aim?
Bring the next one on. I am not done with this quite yet.
All Images: Sarah Fründt, Berlin, 2015
Other people have written on the Weber World Café and they have come to some very different conclusions, thus underlining my argument that this is a very subjective experience. So for the full picture, check out their reviews, too!
Kristina Engels: Scientific Serendipity and the Museum Without Objects – The 3rd Weber World Café in Berlin Dahlem
Damián Morán Dauchez: Wozu denn das Weber World Cafe 3?
Also interesting: the organizer’s perspective:
Gesche Schifferdecker: World Cafés – auch was für die Geisteswissenschaften, Reflections on the WeberWorldCafé