(This is an abridged version of the full Arts Policy Library writeup.)

Summary

Published in 2011, The Participatory Museum presents Nina Simon’s social web-inspired approach to museum exhibits and partnerships and serves as a handbook for museum professionals for engaging in participatory projects. The Participatory Museum looks at how audiences participate in online platforms such as YouTube and Flickr and extends those principles to visitor participation in a museum. The first section of the book presents the theoretical framework for participatory design, and the second lays out practical tips for designing participatory exhibits and programs including types of projects, evaluation tips, and advice on how to build institutional capacity for participatory projects.

Four main ideas make up the theoretical part of the book:

Scaffolding places clear parameters through design into an exhibit that help frame the visitor experience and the range and nature of responses generated. Scaffolding guides visitors and keeps requests for participation from being too open-ended.

Me to We Design, a recasting of Simon’s earlier hierarchy of social participation, guides visitors through personal entry points to make connections with content, and ultimately to other individuals. Those connections take many forms.

Social technographics are a concept borrowed from Forrester Research’s 2008 “social technographics” tool, which categorizes audience profiles in social media engagement, audience profiles are based on types of activity and include creators, spectators, critics, joiners, collectors, and inactives. Good design considers how the actions of each audience type can enhance the experience of others.

Social objects function as a conduit for participation allowing visitors to “focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.” Giving objects a social dimension can involve making design tweaks, physically altering objects, or reworking interpretive tools to make objects more personal, relational, active, and provocative.

In the second section, one chapter each is devoted to four types of participatory projects—contributory, collaborative, co-creative, hosted—three of which come from the Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) project of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). Simon added a fourth type, “hosted,” to accommodate projects that are done by outside groups within the museum. The participatory models range from less to more control on the part of the participants but needn’t be attempted in any particular order. She even demystifies choosing among models through a handy chart.

Analysis

At first, I was skeptical of the book’s wide applicability. Would it work well in the field regardless of museum type, location, or resources? As I read, however, Simon seemed to anticipate my objections, and The Participatory Museum succeeded in allaying most of my questions.

  • The Participatory Museum is dense in practical information. Tips are peppered throughout the book. Simon reinforces her points with numerous case studies that illustrate both successful and unsuccessful attempts at encouraging participation.
  • The examples are diverse, featuring organizations from several countries, of many kinds and sizes, and at different points on the participation spectrum
  • Between the examples in the text, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues, it was clear that participation, as a tool, is useful in building engagement across a wide spectrum of audiences.

The theories underlying The Participatory Museum appear to be sound even if not originating in or having been formally tested in a museum environment at the time of publication. Simon translates what assessment does exist into practical advice, and even lays out a blueprint for what good evaluation could look like. The Participatory Museum gives every indication of being directionally correct, and an excellent guide to incorporating participatory design into an institution.

Implications

Simon’s book has had an undeniable impact on the museum field, reigniting debate over how to breathe life into decaying institutions. In the four years since its publication there has been a shift—or at least public perception of a shift— toward more participation. And even within the field, participation and the principles laid out in the book have become the focus of conferences, institution-wide training sessions, and professional development workshops. Though participation does seem to be where the field is headed, the principles have met with some resistance from proponents of the more traditional museum experience and design and the absolute control and authority of the institution.

At the end of the day, are audiences more engaged and are institutions meeting their missions more effectively through participatory design techniques? The Particpatory Museum’s usefulness ultimately rests on the answers to those questions. We will need closer study of participatory work to fully understand the implications of the broader trends the book catalogues and appears to be ushering forward. What do we gain from participatory exhibits or institutional cultures of participation? What do we lose? The good news is that the success of The Participatory Museum and the speed at which its recommendations have been adopted should provide a wealth of material for researchers to begin answering these questions with more specificity in the years ahead.