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Page history last edited by Jody Crago 14 years, 7 months ago



    I'm visiting a museum. It's the end of the experience. I'm flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and they are really, really bad. The videos fall into two categories:

    1.    Person stares at camera and mumbles an inane, marginally decipherable sentence. Static.

    2.    Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, "express themselves" via shout-outs and walk-ons. 

This is not the participatory museum experience of my dreams. But I don’t blame the participants. I blame the design.

    When cultural professionals talk about visitor participation in museum experiences, design is not one of the first words that come up. Opportunities for participation are conceived to fulfill visitors’ desires for self-expression and transform institutions from one-way content distribution systems into more conversational spaces. Participatory aspirations are often more conceptual than practical. We want to reflect visitors' meaning-making and make museum [< the alliteration here is killing me! SEE][too many conjugations of "make" in one phrase. JH] content relevant to diverse audiences’ real lives and social networks. We’d like visitors’ actions to activate museum content as dynamic rather than static. [< I think you could cut these last 2 sentences SEE][Agree - I'm not sure what this last sentence means, particularly "activate" JH] We see the potential to bring people together in dialogue around tough issues. We dream of the "town square," the "third place,"[this might be a good place to explain what a third place is - some readers won't be familiar with the concept. JH] [PP: I would disagree with JH. I think that you can infer the meaning from context and I wouldn't clutter up the paragraph with definitions.][I agree with PP that a definition would clutter up this paragraph, however the concepts of town square and third place are foundational principles to those of us interested in civic engagement. I think this is one of the places in the physical book that could benefit from a footnote to touch on these concepts and reference the works that they come from. You write in the same style as your blog (which I love). However your blog benefits from having links to things that you refernce. A reader of the physical book who is new to participatory concepts or civic engagement might struggle in this section. JAC]  the idealized civic community institution.

    But town squares are not born of comment books and talk back ["talkback" used later in paragraph. JH] walls. To fulfill these civic aspirations to turn cultural institutions into essential community spaces, we need to design participatory frameworks that support complex and varied visitor engagement.[ < I think previous and next sentences say same thing, essentially. can cut one. -SEE >] Just as museum experience designers have integrated a wide range of learning styles into the ways that we present visitors with content, we need to consider the diversity of participatory styles embodied by those who create, remix, share, critique, and consume user-generated content. Just as we establish content goals for didactic exhibits, we need to develop concrete participatory goals beyond "giving visitors an opportunity to share their thoughts."[< again, this sentence restates previous one - SEE] Even the most well-worn participatory structures deserve a deeper look. When designing talkback walls for visitors’ comments, we should be asking questions like: How would you design a station to encourage people to interact with each other's comments? How would you design one that is optimized for long, thoughtful comments? How would you design one that would attract teens in particular? [< this kind of example is good, and realy gives reader a concrete idea of the situ. - SEE]

    We[who is 'we'? Maybe define at first?- SEE] have answered these types of questions for many kinds of design in cultural institutions. We know how to write labels for different audiences. We know what kinds of physical interactions promote competitive play and which promote contemplative exploration. And while we may not always get it right, we are guided by the expectation that design decisions can help us successfully achieve content and experience goals.

    Where do we start in developing rigorous design frameworks for participatory museum experiences? First, we need a working definition of "participatory museum experiences." In many ways, the museum experience is inherently participatory. Visitors participate by exploring the exhibits, engaging deeply with experiences that are most appealing, and making decisions about how to use their time and attention in the museum. But there’s more to participation than visitor-directed experiences. [You're making an interesting point that it is all about the visitor's *choices*, but that isn't really coaxed out. Oh! Just noticed that you do mention this in the next paragraph, but I don't really see what the difference in the two ideas is. JH]

    As an analogue, you could argue that the museum experience is inherently interactive[you just said this in para above - SEE], since visitors choose which content to explore and may react to the exhibits as they choose. [I wonder if it would be useful to say something more specific about how we make meaning out of / around the objects we see in museums - we come with our interests and life experiences to date, and seeing an object sparks off ideas & questions; we start thinking and / or talking; and meaning starts to be made. So visitors are doing this anyway; the next step is to make different people's ideas visible, and share them with a wider group of people than the friend they visited with. You use the word 'content' a lot in what follows, and sometimes I think that could be clarified - sometimes you mean 'meaning', which is a bit different. LG - Louise Govier]  - And yet when we talk about designing "interactive museum experiences" we understand that to mean a particular type of exhibit or educational program that deliberately and explicitly affords a two-way interaction. Visitors can "talk back" to exhibits anywhere in the museum, but only interactive exhibits are designed to receive and respond to visitors' actions.

    Participatory experiences, like interactive experiences, are distinct because of the visitor behaviors they are designed to support. Participatory experiences are those in which visitors can create content, share content with others [but you can and do share so much more than "just" content. The content is what the museum provides, but then you add to that content when you interact/share/discuss/whatever with others. JH], and connect with each other socially around the content experience. Whereas interactive exhibits are designed for a two-way engagement between the object and the visitor, participatory exhibits are designed for multi-directional social experiences. The participatory object—exhibit, artifact, or program—serves as a "platform" that connects different users who act as creators, distributors, consumers, critics, and collaborators on content.

[CS – It would help me, as a reader, if you introduced the kind of participatory you're discussing in the next two paras in terms of traditional formative evaluation (even if it's an enhanced version of that), and clarify that the end product might or might not be participatory. It took me several reads to realise you were not talking about the process of visiting exhibitions, but about contributing to exhibit development.] [SEE- I agree - need a break/transition here. Perhaps a sub-hed would help?][I agree. Subheading needed. JH]

    In many cases, museums develop participatory practices that invite visitors to co-create future exhibitions or programs. Institutions like the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow have extensive and well-documented community design processes in which staff work closely with community members to develop exhibitions and museum experiences that are highly relevant to that group’s interests and needs. Other museums informally test new exhibit ideas with visitors or focus groups drawn from intended audiences. This work is in the long tradition of participatory design, a product-design technique in which intended users are engaged as partners in the design process. Intended users' involvement may be extensive or slight, formal or informal. But the goal in participatory design is to co-create a more appealing, valuable product [for whom? esp. given following paragraph, I am left wondering "now, who is this process supposed to benefit?" - SEE].

    While there are several examples in this book drawn from innovative museum participatory design projects, my primary interest is in the ways we can design new products--new kinds of exhibits and programs--that invite ongoing participation by users. Community members who are involved in intensive participatory designCh5_pt18 projects [MK - I'm confused here: is it the design process that is participatory, or the resulting experience?] often have transformative experiences as partners in the process, but the ultimate visitor experience of these exhibits isn't necessarily altered by the innovative processes that created them. [CS – that last half-sentence is a bit vague. This might be better, if it's accurate: ", but ultimately, the visitor experience of these exhibits is often quite traditional, and the innovative process of their creation rendered invisible.] {PP: Alternatively, emphasize that the community member and the visitor in the sentence are not the same person, so the involved community member vs. the lay-visitor or some such}  For some museum professionals and projects, this is a good thing--it "proves" that participatory design can yield products that meet institutional standards. But if the goal is to change as many peoples' perception of the institutional relationship to community members as possible, then limiting yourself to a hidden participatory process is insufficient. 

    For this reason, the majority of this book is focused on designing experiences that invite audiences to socially participate around institutional content in the context of a visit. {PP: I got a bit trapped in that last sentence. [SEE - me too!] The construction is slightly awkward (participate around? institutional content in the context?) and because "participate" as a word has become jargon, i get stopped there too. Perhaps try "collaborate" or the equivalent, or if you want to keep the participatory: "...book is focused on participatory experiences: on designs that invite audiences to collaborate with the institutional content during their visit.} [I understand what PP is saying however I would stay away fron using the phrase "collaborating with institutional content." As you introduce later, paricipation is so much more than just collaborating with institutional content. Participation could involve co-creating content with other visitors in reaction to institutional content. Indeed, the institution is only the platform for content. JAC]That means offering every physical or virtual visitor a legitimate way to contribute to the museum, share things of interest, connect with other people, and feel like an engaged and respected participant with the institution. In some of the case studies, institutions combine participatory processes and products. Often, engaging with intended users as partners in the development process improves the likeliness of success on the part of the participatory product. But the [this book? - SEE] book focuses on the participatory products themselves and their impact on visitors and institutions.

    This leads to an obvious question: does every visitor really want to participate in this manner in cultural institutions? No. Just as there are visitors who will never pull the lever on an interactive and those who prefer to ignore the labels, there are many visitors who will not choose to share their story, talk with a stranger, or consume visitor-generated content. There will always be visitors who enjoy static exhibitions conferring authoritative knowledge. There will always be visitors who enjoy interactive exhibitions that allow them to test that knowledge for themselves. And there will always be visitors--perhaps new ones to many institutions--who enjoy the opportunity to add their own voices to ongoing discussions about the knowledge presented.

    Many museum professionals argue that people don't visit museums for a social experience and that there are some visitors for whom exhibit experiences that prompt dialogue might be entirely off-putting. [really? I thought there was lots of evidence that most people visit museums with friends and family and are looking for a social experience? Visitor studies in my museum have shown this. Or, do you mean 'social experiences' outside socializing with those people that visitors came to the museum with? If so, maybe clarification is needed. - SEE] [I don't know that it's true that 'many' still argue this, but some still do, probably because of some anxiety over encouraging multiple meanings to be made - I think by 'social' those museum professionals (and perhaps Nina here?) mean 'discursive'. By 'prompt dialogue', you mean discussing what you're looking at in an open-ended way, as part of that connective, sociable activity, don't you? - LG]  This is true, but the converse is also true. There are many people out there who engage heavily with social media and are incredibly comfortable using participatory platforms to connect with roommates, volleyball buddies, and dates. There are people who prefer social recreational activities and avoid museums because they perceive them as non-social, non-dynamic, non-participatory places. Just as interactives were introduced in museums to accommodate the presumed educational needs and active desires of young audiences, participatory elements may draw in audiences for whom appropriation, social connection, and redistribution of content are preconditions for cultural engagement.

    In 1992, Elaine Gurian wrote an essay entitled The Importance of “And” to address the necessity in museum practice to accommodate many different and potentially conflicting goals, including scholarship, education, inclusion, and conservation. She commented that we too often think of different institutional goals as oppositional rather than additive, and that “complex organizations must and should espouse the coexistence of more than one primary mission.” While the addition of new pursuits to an institutional plan does force some either/or decisions around policy and resources, it need not inhibit the ability to deliver on multiple promises to multiple audiences.

    Participatory museum experiences are another "and" for the museum professional's toolbox. [I like this. Very vivid. SEE] They are tools that can be used to address particular institutional aspirations to be socially relevant, dynamic, responsive, community spaces. While the ardor with which museum directors speak of these aspirations may have grown in recent years, the goals themselves are not new. They are embedded into long-standing institutional mission statements about support and responsiveness to audience needs and aspirations. [CS – indeed – these statements have been prevalent since the early 1990s, especially the Karp et al collections – I can give you other references here too if you like]

    Again, I come back to the analogy to interactive exhibits. Interactive design techniques are additive methods that supplement traditional didactic content presentation. Interactive exhibits, when successfully executed, promote learning experiences that are unique and specific to the two-way nature of their design. And while there are some institutions, notably children's and science museums, that have become primarily associated with interactive exhibits, there are other types of museums, notably art and history museums, in which interactives play a small role. [CVA - This begs the question as to why some types of orgs have embraced interactives and others haven't. It's not as if art and history museums don't also seek to attract younger and family audiences. My suspicion is that in art museums curators would feel interactives are inappropriate and would detract from the 'spiritual' experience in a gallery to which some visitors aspire. This might not be an argument you want to get into here (and I'm not sure what the answer really is) - but by saying some types do and some don't it raises a question for me that should be addressed] [SEE - I agree sith CVA. Yes, art museum curators often do argue that the interactives 'detract' from the art. This, many art museums have segregated such intereactives to online spaces and special rooms for this reason. But this is also changing as curators see the power of participatory designs to enhance the in-gallery experience.] [MK - Is there a status/security dynamic here? Adults aren't generally threatened by children, and scientific experts aren't generally threatened by laypeople, but fields like history and art that trade more directly in subjective interpretation might find the existence of alternative interpretations threatening.] [absolutely! my experience in art museums is of fear of multiple interpretations, anxiety over perceived responsibility to present 'accurate' interpretations, as well as a huge fear and dislike of 'visual clutter' that 'interferes' with the viewing experience. The violence of some museum professionals' reactions to the look of the displays in Kelvingrove is testament to the strength of feeling here - LG] ,There are some institutions that can be called "interactive" museums {PP: how are these "interactive' museums" different from "museums primarily associated with interactive exhibits"? Structurally they feel like two distinct things, but I don't actually know if you mean them to be. Also, is this sentence necessary? I think it reads more clearly without}. But the introduction of interactive exhibits does not require an entire institutional shift, and in most informal learning institutions, interactive exhibits are just one of many interpretative techniques employed. [I don't agree for art galleries - see above - it's a huge shift to put interactives in many art museums, and telling them that it's not a big deal won't change their minds. They tend to get round it either by putting interactive stuff in their virtual spaces, or making it temporary - something that is facilitated by learning teams in the actual spaces of the museums, and then goes away leaving the supposedly nice clean spaces made of walls, pictures / objects, and labels that are as unobtrusive as possible. For them, it may well be a big deal - but one that they need to make to survive with future generations of visitors. For these institutions, it's about them working out with their audiences ways to do it that they can all be comfortable with, at least some of the time. LG]

    Relatedly,[< I think you can cut that word - see] I believe the majority of museums will integrate participatory experiences as one of many types of experiences available to visitors in the next twenty years. There may be a few institutions that become wholly "participatory" and see their entire institutional culture and community image transformed by this adoption. But in most cases, participation is just one design technique among many, one with a particular ability to enhance the social experience of the institution.

    Whether a small or large part of your institution’s focus, participatory elements must be well-designed to be useful. [last phrase is empty - kind of a 'duh' statement - see] Poorly designed participatory experiences such as the video talkback station mentioned at the beginning of this chapter do little to enhance anyone's experience. Before we dig deeply into specific techniques for designing participatory experiences, we need to address their two core constituents: visitors and staff. If participatory engagement is intended to be a multi-vocal conversation, it must involve both parties [MK - I  don't think "multi," n>2, pairs well with "both," n=2.]. And for it to be a great conversation, each party has to feel supported, acknowledged, and that they are getting something positive from the experience.


Let’s start with the audience side of the conversation.



{PP: Not sure if this is of interest to you but the RISD Museum in Providence, RI recently had an exhibition of very traditional prints (1500s-1700s) where they provided magnifying glasses to the visitors so they could see the gorgeous detail. It was an excellent interactive, not participatory. Really got people talking, showing each other things. Will tell you about it ad nauseum upon request. Might be a good case for your argument that there's a shift towards the participatory even in the more resistant types of museums}




Continue to the next section, or return to the outline.



Comments (10)

Cath Styles said

at 8:03 pm on Nov 4, 2009

Nina, I disagree with the point that participatory experiences are additive or supplementary, in that I regard their presence as a recognition by the museum of a new politics of museums and communities – a radically new practice of authorisation. Perhaps the reason 'interactive' and 'participatory' has had greater take-up in science museums is that the science is generally less contestable than social history or culture (especially art). It's easier for science museums to welcome non-professional voices, because they are unlikely to destabilise the authoritative voice.

Nina Simon said

at 8:23 pm on Nov 4, 2009

Cath, interesting. Can participatory experiences be additive and shift politics partially but not totally? A talk back board is only slightly destabilising... right?

Cath Styles said

at 9:06 pm on Nov 4, 2009

mmm, yes; perhaps the point is that they *can* be more than additive. Fantasising about a museum that achieves authority by relinquishing control...

hadrasaurus said

at 5:59 pm on Nov 5, 2009

Is "Relatedly" a word? Even if it is I suggest rethinking its use here.

jseves@nf.aibn.com said

at 4:46 pm on Nov 6, 2009

Nina, I see a few core differences between the participatory design process and participatory experiences.

Building on the comments above, perhaps the core difference between the two is power. In the participatory design process, the power to assign meaning and value still rests with the institution. An advisory group may contribute knowledge, but ultimately, how that knowledge is shaped and presented is controlled by the institution. In truly participatory experiences, power rests with the participants. They determine what content has value and shape it according to their own needs.

Secondly, the participatory design process is product oriented. Yes, the institution engages with its community, but the ultimate goal of that engagement is the development of a product - an exhibit, public program, etc. Truly participatory experiences are process oriented. Their goal is the engagement of visitors in a process - conversation. The exact content that process produces, while important, is ultimately secondary to the act of communication.

Finally, truly participatory experiences involve a high level of ambiguity. There is no way of foreseeing or controlling how visitors will respond or what they will contribute. That's what makes them exciting. That's also what makes them scary for many museum traditionalists.

Nina Simon said

at 5:58 pm on Nov 6, 2009

J, I absolutely agree with you. This comes out heavily in chapter 5, but perhaps it needs to be more clear early on. Seems like Cath had some confusion about how that part was written, too.

heidi@marketearlyamerica.com said

at 10:21 am on Nov 9, 2009

I find the opening here hard to understand. Here is the transcript of my thoughts as I read it the first time: "Are you at the museum as a visitor? Or as a museum professional? What type of experience have you just completed? Why are there videos? How are you flipping through them?" Maybe cut those first few sentences and start with the two different types of "bad" videos - that part is humorous and a more interesting hook.

I am a relative museum newbie and I had a lot of trouble following the discussion in the first few paragraphs. The text below CS's first comment in orange seems to flow very nicely and is easy to understand, but you may consider re-working the first few paragraphs, and watering it down for your readers who may not have any experience in the participatory exhibit arena.

Also, I disagree with your statement that history museums aren't very interactive. Living history museums that utilize costumed interpreters are very interactive and encourage participation on a variety of levels. Colonial Williamsburg's Revolutionary City is a prime example. But perhaps I am not clear on your definitions of participatory and interactive...I will revisit after I read some more!

claire@claireantrobus.com said

at 1:25 pm on Nov 9, 2009

I disagree with heidi (respectfully). I'm not a museums person and so as i was reading the first few paragraphs i was thinking 'oh i never knew that about designing interactives etc' However, I didn't have trouble following the analogy.

I was pleased to see an anecdote/ example opening this section though - shame it's a negative one. Would be nice to have a succinct story of a succesful experience early on as part of the scene setting (in this section or even before). I think it would help readers who are not specialists get a quick grasp of the types of experiences/ parameters you are discussing. Sure one comes up soon (I'm writing this as I read it so not sure what comes next!)

Susan E Edwards said

at 11:10 am on Nov 14, 2009

I agree with both Heidi and Claire (and I am a museum person). I agree that there's a bit of a light-bulb-going-off effect here about necessity of designing interactives (maybe you should capitalize on this here?!). But I do think the first few paragraphs are a bit confusing just because there is a lot of repetition. I think you have one, maybe two, points you're making there (1. Museums want to create true interactive dialogue but don't go deep enough to really think about how to create environments that encourage this. 2. Design is part of the solution, but we need new frameworks for participatory experiences.) But you seem to re-state them over and over in different ways - beating around the bush a bit. I think you can edit this down to clarify your point in just a few strong, to-the-point sentences.

Nina Simon said

at 5:53 pm on Nov 14, 2009

Thanks for all the great comments - I've been working on my own edit on the side and am heavily cutting this section down in line with Susan's comments about redundancy. I want to keep the same draft here so it isn't confusing to you, but I really appreciate your clear ideas on what the core points are.

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