Getting stuck into The Participatory Museum (part 1)

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I do some research to get a critical foundation in different approaches to participation in museums.


Nina Simon‘s writing on the subject of participation in museums – and the communities that I have been linked to from it – have been a stimulating influence on my work involving games, schools and more for a few years. Now I’m actually responsible for participatory activities in a museum it seems like a very good prod to get on and read her book The Participatory Museum.

Below are fragments from the book that seem particularly pertinent. I’ve copied and pasted them across to here as a sort of scrap book as I’ve come across them. Sometimes I’ve added notes, sometimes I’ve added italics, sometimes I’ve added nothing. In an attempt at making things easier to find again later, I’ve organised the cuttings under links to the sections of Nina’s book that they came from.

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas[1], objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other[2]. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit[3]. Connect[4] means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

[1] Another reason to do a signtific brainstorm at the start of the residency? (see previous post). Preferably leave it up for the duration, too, so it can keep evolving.
[2] Make exchanges with spaces! 2 way exchange. (Ref Counsel for the Artist.)
[3] Seeing, making… different modes of engagement – provide different ways in.
[4] Makes me think of the “sense of community when it snows” example (see previous post)

visitor co-produced experiences.

Need to do prep-work and have a few ideas in back-up, but mostly focus on providing the platforms that enable the visitors to be creative.

Like schools work! “It’s not your job to be creative”!

This may sound messy. It may sound tremendously exciting. The key is to harness the mess in support of the excitement.

How much mess can we get away with?

But people who create content represent a narrow slice of the participatory landscape, which also includes people who consume user-generated content, comment on it, organize it, remix it, and redistribute it to other consumers.

creators are a small part of the landscape. You are far more likely to join a social network, watch a video on YouTube, make a collection of things you’d like on a shopping site, or review a book than you are to produce a movie, write a blog, or post photos online.

When designing participatory components to exhibitions, I always ask myself: how can we use this? What can visitors provide that staff can’t? How can they do some meaningful work that supports the institution overall?

What happens to the results? What’s the point? How does this translate to 5 days straight in and straight out? Might be about making it relevant to my practice?

If you focus solely on participation as a “fun activity,” you will do a disservice both to yourself as a professional and to visitors as participants.

As Geoff Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University, commented in a Wall Street Journal article: “To be most satisfying, leisure should resemble the best aspects of work: challenges, skills and important relationships.”

Games researcher Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: “satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger.”

Make them just tricky/taxing enough. How to make the museum activities just taxing enough? (esp for all age ranges!)

to collaborate confidently with strangers, participants need to engage through personal, not social, entry points.