The Participatory Museum

The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon
MLM Reflections

Oh, how I wish I had read this book years ago for interpretive work and the museum projects I have been involved in! I know Simon is a consultant, and the book is part of her larger business, but her advice stands tall when the real-life case studies demonstrate the principles Simon is professing.

I agree with Simon’s perspective that traditional techniques and spaces need not be thrown out the window totally – just follow her “and” argument! Participatory elements can add to the structure and not be an exclusionary “or” prospect. Her thoughts about information flow “between,” and not “to” participants was also solid. Lastly, her advice follows earlier readings remind us that it’s always better to speak “with” your audiences, not “to,” which ultimately leads to more memorable experiences that may encourage return visits and solid supporters of your institution.

I couldn’t help think of my beloved little Basque Museum and opportunities for increasing participation during Jaialdi, with Basques and non-Basques alike. I also considered advice I received from Jeff Johns during our public history career interview a lot more cogently. A few of Simon’s points especially resonated with me:

– “Scaffolding”
This made so much sense. It’s so important to provide sideboards – my word, (she says “constraints,” which I didn’t like). These help people function within reasonable bounds, and may actually encourage creativity and interaction. It can also prohibit mass confusion with participants by adding clarity of purpose. Of course, to scaffold means to plan, not just fly off with first ideas without vetting amongst a diverse planning group to find the right sideboards.

– Thanks, follow-up, and “perks”
This should be a matter of fact, but her thoughts about staff thanking visitors after their visits, and following-up somehow with personal touches was simple but really relevant. Especially today, with so much emphasis on the bottom dollar, numbers of attendees, and fiscal security, maybe it’s time to just get back to basics: we want you to visit, we want you to participate and join with us, we value you, and by the way – thank you. This is setting expectations that we want you back, and it may be a good way to follow-up which would encourage repeat visitation. The time-delayed cards idea was pretty good, and I appreciated her comment that you can not “delete” a mailed card as easily as an online follow-up. Regardless, how you get personal information for visitors (email or street address) can be difficult – and it can reach far into privacy issues. What do you all think about incentivizing visitorship? Are perks from punch cards, special rates, loyalty programs, “frequent flyers,” good to encourage visits? (They sure work for commercial ventures!) Maybe we need to approach public history more like BUSINESS, with customer satisfaction-type goals and efforts?

– “Creators and Consumers”
Participation inequality is not really the way I would have described this, but the thought that we need to address possible barriers to projects upfront, realizing some will be on board 100% with participating and some will not, so intermediate, balanced approaches are the best.

– “Me to We”
Another very simple, but so true concept! Designing meaningful experiences, personalized so as to connect with individuals but yet reinforcing a community experience is the intended outcome. How it’s done requires careful thought, again.
I desperately want to do a take-off of the “Shards of Happiness” Dutch Princessof ceramics exhibit! That was very cool, so “me to we,” participatory on many levels.

I was very uncomfortable with this section…maybe I am hyper-sensitive to commercial tracking online or by businesses, but the thought of a museum tracking how often I visited, how much I spent in their gift shop, and then ask me to wear an identity ID/badge/color-keyed card to single me out or group me in a larger group was not something I would ever advocate. I think if people want to engage with one another, there are many other valid ways to encourage this– and seemingly less invasive. I also do not support the Apartheid “Two Doors” approach – singling out very personal beliefs can lead not to dialogue, but uncomfortable experiences. Although, the Facing Mars exhibit participation didn’t seem to be as invasive – topic areas are critical. Self-identification. This made me think more about how thoughtful we must be in setting up our group “Common Grounds” community conversation.

Cell phones, sticky-notes, and “simple” tools versus flashy, expensive exhibit design, technology and social networking
If we are using simple objects almost universally, let’s use them in the participation! Simplicity sometimes connects with more people, I think. It’s less exclusive. I keep thinking about Jeff Johns, who led million-dollar projects to low-budget projects, noting that the public often does not want the glitter – they just want good experiences. Pencils and crayons, anyone??? Using common tools, though, including social networking, can help lay out guidelines, provide platforms, and share thoughts (without encroaching on intellectual property). I a not sure I agree with her “power to promote” through these platforms, and that it is a way to present preferred behavior. Anonymity of social media is a concern – it can prompt negative actions as much as present positive values. Again, balance.

Back to the Drawing Board
Exploratorium redesign of project – yes! If it does not work , do it again or differently, if you can. Question: Do comment boards really help with feedback? Can negative information really influence re-design? Budgets, staff time, technology all seem to get in the way of genuine responses: we are moving too fast, too superficially.

Pg 191 – chart is really good.

My favorite case studies:
Shards of Happiness
Denver posters
Adirondack Wild Center Climate Conference
Harrah’s loyalty program – ahem, yes
Worcester City Museum Top 40
Iraq conversation with bombed-out car
Brooklyn Museum 1stFans

Last Thoughts
I liked the “contributory, collaborative, co-creative and hosted” sections.
This was full of gems, even in skim mode.
Relevance: Where would our Common Grounds conversation night fall?
Hosted? Co-creative? Collaborative? Contributory?
And what can we add to that experience based on Simon’s book?
I think we definitely need a visual aspect of it beyond the video that night as documentation…
-What about a follow-up photo exhibit across town?
-Key questions for each table posted across town before the night, as banners or pop-up type “tags” to pique curiosity?
-What if we got businesses to join us?

2 thoughts on “The Participatory Museum”

  1. I am glad that you also are uncomfortable with a hierarchical system for “rating” visitors according to the money they have given the institution. Good public relations should apply to all.
    I worry that this type of system will further alienate low income families and therefore perpetuate the idea that museums are for an elite segment of society.

  2. With a little more careful reading, Simon mentions that the Brooklyn Museum is tracking users that come in during the “free nights” for the purpose of giving them the extra perks, so that tactic can eliminate economic segregation. But, I am still wary of the tracking system. Maybe it is just another uncomfortable and unavoidable aspect to museum work that we just need to get used to.

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