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Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 8 months ago

Dear Reviewers: here is the second draft of the introduction, with major changes made to the beginning.  Please feel free to edit it directly by clicking "EDIT" above the title and adding your comments in brackets with your initials.  Thanks!




1. replace MN150 hook with one that is about design for participation, not participatory design.  It's confusing given the first chapter.

2. draw the connections between Bowling Alone and the big money going into online community platform development.

3. suggest that we need comparable physical spaces for community and that there's an opportunity to learn from the web.

4. explain why I'm particularly interested in museums being those spaces, but that these theories and practical exercises may be useful for lots of people interested in participation in real space.




It was 2006 when Kate Roberts first ran into the problem.  A senior exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society, Kate was on the team to plan an exhibition to mark the sesquicentennial of the state.  And so they began to plan the exhibition, starting with the loose concept of showcasing some of the most important events, people, and places of Minnesota's first 150 years.


"At first we thought we’d cover 50 topics, then 150.  And we had to decide: should we pick the topics ourselves?  Present one per year for 150 years? None of that made sense.  What made sense was to put out the public call and find out: what does everyone think is interesting and important?


We know from research that our audience is very interested in taking the next step with us.  They like to draw their own conclusions and express their own opinions.  We don’t spoon feed people information and meaning.  So when it came to MN150, we wanted to do more of this and asked ourselves: how else can we do that?"


How else can we do that?  This book starts with that simple question, and the belief that there are uncharted ways to design exhibitions and museum experiences that draw deeply and authentically on the expertise and interest of visitors.  This kind of design, which I call participatory design, engages community members as partners in the creation and curation of museum content, not only in development, but throughout the life of the exhibition.  


Participatory design is not new to museums, but it has traditionally occupied a small niche and has not been aggressively adopted nor rigorously evaluated. Since the rise of the social Web in the mid-2000s, interest in its potential has skyrocketed, and museum design professionals—like designers in many industries—are seeking intelligent ways to integrate creative, social user experiences into venues that were traditionally designed for passive consumption. Governments, retail stores, and media companies are also struggling to find ways to make their activities more transparent and open to user or customer involvement.  They aren’t doing this just because participatory experiences are interesting or nice ideas.  They are doing it because the social Web is threatening their core business models and making their real world products less relevant and attractive to their target audiences.  The Web hasn’t just changed from a source of content to a source of interpersonal, creative experiences.  It has also changed from a marketing helpmeet to an experience venue in its own right.  The Web was once the service horse of real world media companies.  Now, it’s the competition.


Museums aren’t structured to out-compete other educational venues; instead, they are intentionally situated as part of a diverse learning landscape. Should museums feel threatened by participatory media?  Not if our primary goal is to provide non-commercial, inclusive free-choice learning venues.  If that is the mission of your institution, then participatory design practices are a logical, powerful, and increasingly well-understood set of techniques that can help you deliver relevant, high-quality services to your audiences.  Unlike other content providers, museums are already in the practice of sharing their content generously, with an eye towards supporting user experiences.  The music industry doesn’t work this way. Record companies are in the business of making money by selling records [ES I changd this from "recording studios" to "record companies" but there are no more record companies, there are media or music companies, and they make their money by selling licenses to use music].  They are not in the business of inspiring listeners to become musicians or helping fans understand the songs and artists better.  Museums do that. [ES Interesting point, as the music business is evolving to a point where the relationship between the artist and the fan is becoming a key point of leverage, that the companies invest in in many of the same ways that museums are thinking, through blogs and other two-way interactions.] 


And so while we need not feel threatened by the rise of social media, museum professionals should consider the ways that participatory techniques can make core services more relevant and apparent to visitors.  If we are not able to clearly demonstrate to visitors that we care about their learning and support their creative expression, then museums will be lumped in with other media dinosaurs.  Museums’ existence is not threatened, but as social Web users create their own content and distribution systems, museums must evaluate how they will be part of the participatory learning landscape as well as the traditional one.  


The change from “Web 1.0” to “Web 2.0,” from passive consumption of content to social creation and distribution of content, happened quickly online because the digital tools and design techniques involved are infinitely replicable, easily distributed, and always evolving.  The social Web is a constantly changing dataset from which we can analyze the value of different participatory techniques and analogize relevant design practices that work in the real world.


But change in the real world happens slowly (especially in large institutions).  Fortunately, the evolution towards participatory practices is not quite as disruptive to museums as it is to media companies and other industries struggling with these changes.  Museums have the potential to be leaders as participatory venues in the real world because their paths over the last twenty years have been moving steadily in this direction.  Museum educators and audience advocates have risen as valued, equal members of exhibit and program design process.  Audience research has established the dominance of constructivist learning models and the importance of visitors’ prior knowledge and social contexts to the museum experience. In short, we have slowly been grappling with the consequences of visitors making their own meaning in the museum, and many institutions are ready to employ new design techniques that might support, celebrate, and display visitors’ participation.


The constructivist learning model [do you define what this means somewhere else? CC]  can be daunting to designers.  Museum designers and educators—especially those who work in institutions that cater to diverse audiences--realize it’s impossible to dictate a singular experience for everyone.  But these professionals run into a more serious problem with the idea that visitors make their own meaning—they don’t have good models for what to do with that reality.  If you acknowledge that visitors are in control of their museum experience, what can you do with that knowledge?  How could you find a way for their context and meaning to be integrated usefully into the museum experience?  When designers can’t find answers to these questions, they sigh, throw up their hands, and revert to the traditional models of exhibit design.  For these well-meaning designers, “visitors making their own meaning” is a problem without a solution.


The participatory museum, in which visitors are invited not just to receive content but to participate in its creation and interpretation, is a solution.  The idea of a participatory cultural venue stems partly from mass cultural changes, accelerated by Web technology, that have allowed mass media consumers to become media producers, critics, and curators in their daily lives.  But the participatory museum also reflects a fundamental goal of many museums to be community gathering places, town squares for the discovery and debate of tough issues of the day.  Most museums that state such goals in mission statements and impact documents do not demonstrate anything but the scantest ability to deliver on their claims to be essential civic meeting grounds.  [EJR Word! And why aren't more of us pissed about this failure?] Like the ability to produce and redistribute your own media, true civic engagement requires not only the intention but specific opportunities to participate, to produce, to share, and to compare.  These are not activities that are supported in the traditional museum.


And so I argue that there are two reasons that museums should care about participatory design.  The first is that these design techniques can help museums match the demands of an increasingly empowered culture in which people expect to spend less time consuming and more time creating and discussing.  The second is that participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process. 


I believe that both of these reasons lead to a pragmatic, essential set of outcomes: participatory design can help museums be more successful as mission-driven institutions and as businesses.  Much as interactive design has expanded the audience at all types of museums to include more families and young children, participatory design expands museum audiences to include self-directed, creative people seeking frameworks for expression and discussion of ideas.  It energizes visitors as participants, and can transform formerly static, “dead” exhibits into dynamic, “just in time” learning experiences.  Participatory design enhances personal relevance and immediacy of museum content, and it explicitly ties the museum experience to social networks.


But enough with the theorizing.  Let’s go back to Kate Roberts and the Minnesota Historical Society.  Armed with the simple question, "how else might we do that?," Kate and her team embarked on a two-year project to design an exhibition based on user-submitted nominations for the top 150 contributions that Minnesota has made to the world.  When the exhibition, MN150, opened in October of 2007, it became one of the first permanent exhibitions in a major museum to showcase the stories and artifacts of visitors--not a pre-selected advisory few, but an eclectic diversity of people who had participated in the process.  The exhibition was high quality.  The nomination process allowed Kate's team to mount the exhibition with confidence that the 150 topics presented really did represent essential, relevant contributions of Minnesota to the world.  Rather than employing the anonymous, omnipotent, dubiously neutral voice of the museum, the exhibition shares the stories of many people, told in their own words. 


The MN150 exhibition provides consumers with quality content about the state of Minnesota.  But it also demonstrates that regular people are worthy of telling their own stories in the museum.  When the exhibition introductory label asks, "What else would you add to the exhibition?," it doesn't feel like a throwaway question.  It's not a single rhetorical bone thrown to visitors’ personal meaning-making.  In the context of one hundred and fifty stories from one hundred and fifty individuals, it opens up the opportunity for any visitor to imagine herself as number 151.  It's an invitation for visitors to discuss the content, to arbitrate on the museum's selections, and in doing so, to become better historians and citizens of their state. 


Are MN150 and other participatory exhibitions better than traditional exhibitions?  No.  They are different.  And in the same way that adding interactive elements to some exhibitions have ushered in new kinds of visitors, learning opportunities, and engagement styles, participatory elements can do the same.  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. 

This book is for people who are interested in developing museum experiences for that last set of visitors.  It is not a book about how to get free labor from visitors or how to create marketing campaigns on Facebook.  It is explicitly a book about design of real museum spaces that encourage and enable visitors as participants.  Participatory design is not “one size fits all.”  Some museums may choose to engage visitors as contributors to exhibit development as the Minnesota Historical Society has done.  Others may choose to design exhibits in which visitors create their own content within the context of a museum visit.  Others may choose to work with community partners as co-creators of new kinds of museum experiences. In this book, you will find design theory, frameworks, examples, and activities to help you identify where participatory design might best fit into your institution. 


While my approach is one of an activist for participation, I see participatory design as a way to solve real audience development and visitor satisfaction problems experienced by many institutions.  I don't think museums should adopt participatory techniques because they "ought" to in some philosophical sense.  I think we should consider these new forms of design because they can make museums relevant to more diverse audiences, including many people who don't currently visit museums.  I think we should consider them because they offer us a way to direct and support visitors’ meaning-making rather than stuffing it under the rug.  The way may be painful.  It may challenge some of the comforts of authority and control that institutions have enjoyed for a long time.  But the pursuit of these new tools is not just an exercise.  It is an opportunity for museums to become more dynamic, essential, civic spaces.  For real. 


Let's get started.


A Note on Technology


This is not a book about technology, or, more precisely, this is not a book about how museums can use the Web.  It’s a book about designing physical spaces for participation in cultural institutions.


You will, however, find the Web sprinkled throughout this book.  The terms social media and Web 2.0 describe a set of online platforms that are highly relevant to designing participatory experiences, and I often reference platforms like blogs and wikis when describing the models and design frameworks for participation.  In all cases, you will find links to the relevant websites, but I assume a basic level of familiarity.


If you are looking for more information about these online platforms, I recommend the book Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernhoff.  It is written in a business context and is a highly readable book about social technologies and their impact on institutions and corporations.  You will also find a lot of potentially useful background material on my blog, Museum 2.0.


Comments (7)

Maureen Doyle said

at 10:28 am on Mar 5, 2009


In Paragraph 5, you write:

"There are two reasons that visitors making their own meaning is problematic from the designer’s perspective. First, designers are control freaks. .... But these designers run into a more serious problem with the idea that visitors make their own meaning—they don’t have good models for what to do with that reality..."

I would add another problem (at least), a structural one, perhaps beyond the direct influence of the designer, but nonetheless to be kept in mind: the degree to which the institution itself is proprietary (i.e. what is its stance vis-a-vis the public, as expressed in everything from its security to its policies concerning photographers).

This is really interesting and great fun.



Nina Simon said

at 7:13 am on Mar 6, 2009

A friend who I respect wrote to me privately to suggest that paragraphs three through five are condescending and should be dropped or altered. I'm going to take his advice and augment in some way so I don't start sounding like a jerk. I encourage all of you to edit/comment honestly when you see something you think is really bad. The critical comments are the most important. (But thanks for the encouragement, too!)

Hadas Zemer said

at 8:36 am on Mar 18, 2009

A note on the Minnesota case and structures of knowledge: As I am a great supporter of the initiative of turning to the public in order to produce what might be considered as the first democratic historical narrative, this might also be the place to highlight the importance of combining both democratic and hierarchy-based systems of knowledge in the museum domain. I don’t think anyone truly believes nor wishes that the museum will turn into a democratic wiki where all voices are equal in importance and power to influence the final product. Coming back to the MNHS, even if there is a professional editing committee to chooses the final items, shouldn’t it also add to the proposed content pieces that might be forgotten by the public but the museum as the visionary educational authority finds influential and important?

Nina Simon said

at 1:25 pm on Mar 18, 2009

Hadas, In the MNHS example, the answer is no--they actually excluded themselves from the nominations because they felt they were overly biased. The exhibit developer in charge (a very visionary educator) lobbied for a pet item and then realized that that was inappropriate, that "sticking to the rules" was essential to making the project work. MNHS mostly features exhibits created by visionary educational authorities in the form of staff... MN150 is one place where their voices don't rule. So I think the balance is there, but it is on an institutional, not exhibit, level.

Chris Castle said

at 10:32 am on Jun 18, 2009

Nina, are you going to provide footnotes in this book or is that not the sort of book it is? Some of what you are describing has been written about by other people in the museum field, too, esp. Falk & Sheppard.

daniel.spock@... said

at 11:22 am on Dec 15, 2009

I would second what Chris is saying. Even though footnotes can seem like an antiquated academic device, they can help persuade those who pay attention to authoritative sources, but they also are the old analog world equivalent to links on a web page. The curious will appreciate it and will even follow up. I still think you have a bigger number of skeptics out there than you may realize!

daniel.spock@... said

at 1:47 pm on Dec 15, 2009

Thinking more about this intro, there's some clarification about constructivism that may be important in this context, what it really means and how that should influence practice. Once museum people learned that people in museums are liable to attend to whatever they want to, and draw disparate conclusions too, a lot of museum pros interpreted that fact to mean that the museum profession is helpless to create meaningful frameworks for learning (or participation.) But this is a mistaken interpretation. Just the opposite is true. If you have learned that people have idiosyncratic ways of using a museum, the next step is to understand those idiosyncrasies on a more granular level so that you can frame a program (or platform to use your term) that is in harmony with, and responsive to, how disparate groups of people are liable to use a museum idiosyncratically. This necessarily moves the spotlight from what we think is important to what groups of users think is important or more engaging. Constructivism doesn't mean that we throw up our hands, it rather means that we have to study our public even more assiduously and tune our tradecraft to be more sensitive to the variations we find. In particular, we have to evaluate giving weight not merely to the kinds of behaviors and learning we want to see, but also put some evaluative weight on how participants are finding the experience useful or meaningful by their own lights. Web 2.0 is interesting in this respect because it has been adapted precisely this way. Platforms are created, but success is predicated by the degree of engagement that participants themselves determine.

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