Participatory exhibits

We’re now reading The Participatory Museum (by Nina Simon) for my class on Maker Spaces. This book (freely available! and you’re encouraged to read participatively, too!) advocates for innovation in creating truly valuable participatory experiences for museum visitors. That means going beyond a comment card or a build-your-own-X to first ask questions like:

  1. What would the visitor personally gain by participating? (personal)
  2. What would the visitor gain by having other visitors participate? (social)
  3. What would the museum gain by having visitors participate? Does it align with the museum’s goals or is it just entertainment? (institutional)

In retrospect these seem obvious. But how often are they employed?

Developing a participatory experience, Simon argues, “doesn’t require flashy theaters or blockbuster exhibits. It requires institutions that have genuine respect for and interest in the experiences, stories, and abilities of visitors.”

I was struck by this comment. I think it often happens that interactive exhibits are viewed as eye candy or entertainment, something to draw people in but perhaps not as serious or contentful as a static, traditional display. This view equates interaction with condescension, e.g., “You’re not smart enough or serious enough to focus on the real stuff, so we’ll entertain you instead.” This statement turns that around by instead equating interaction with respect, e.g., “We want to get your input because it will enrich what is already here.”

I also appreciated Simon’s discussion of how not everyone wants to participate by being a content creator (creating a video or a poster or an essay or…). She identifies five ways people can participate: creating, critiquing, collecting, joining, and spectating. She is also quick to assert that there is no moral hierarchy in these different modes of participation. Some people are driven to create, while others prefer to spectate. Your desired role likely changes depending on the topic and venue. And that’s okay.

She notes that content creators are in the minority, for a variety of reasons that you can probably guess off the top of your head. But she makes a strong case for the importance of other kinds of contributions. You may personally have benefited from movie, restaurant, or book ratings by previous consumers; from connecting with old friends on Facebook even if they do not post daily status updates; or from having an audience for your blog, whether or not the audience leaves comments.

There is some pushback against the transformation of the traditional static, hushed environment of the museum into something more participatory. Dobrzynski argues that museums will lose their current identity and that participatory experience will change “who goes to museums and for what”. Simon addressed this point as well: participatory experiences may only appeal to some, but traditional museum experiences are similarly focused on only a sub-population. The most successful museums will integrate elements of both.

So how do you create a meaningful participatory experience? Simon suggests that constraints are your friend: they lower the barrier to entry. Nothing is more daunting than being asked to write a story on a blank sheet of paper. But anyone can do Mad Libs (and it’s fun!). The motivational effect of a constrained art form has been celebrated from the haiku to the sonnet, and it applies here too. Finally, Simon emphasizes the importance of giving participants feedback. How will their contributions be used? Displayed? Shared? Can you send an email when their work goes “live”?

I’ve mentioned the Idea Box before as an example of participatory creation, but it bears another mention here.

I’m finding this book to be engaging and exciting. It makes me want to go out there start participating… maybe by creating my own participatory event. Like a soldering workshop for Kids Building Things. :)