Doin’ It: Museums

In my last couple of posts, Doin’ It and Doin’ It: Vocabulary, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations as well as some ways to begin thinking about categories of such experiences. In my next two posts I want to focus on examples of both the practice and practitioners of this type of work.

Interactive exhibits and exhibitions are becoming increasingly common in the museum world. From relatively low-tech “response walls” (attendees comments on an exhibit) through a variety of technologically intermediated options–e.g., real-time Twitter-based Q&A, location-based support (like GPS in the museum), interactive video, and virtual reality, the visitor experience is becoming more participatory.

Beyond “simple” interactivity, much work is being done to make community members a vital part of the development and production of what takes place in the museum. There is no greater authority on participatory practice in museums than Nina Simon. Her blog, Museum 2.0, is “the gospel” on the topic; her work as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is one of the primary “poster children” for both community engagement and participation; and, of course, she literally “wrote the book” on participation: The Participatory Museum. I can simply get out of the way and let her speak for herself and point us to some other valuable resources.

Ms. Simon’s commitment to participatory practices is an outgrowth of her dedication to community engagement. In Does the Most Powerful Work Lie Onstage or Behind the Scenes? she says:

The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we’ve balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with–to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls–are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an “onstage” experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.

Ms. Simon’s museum practices what it preaches. “We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids.” (Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?) The museum actively encourages community input on exhibitions and programming and invites feedback on all exhibitions. To be sure, they have guidelines about what they will and will not support in programs suggested by community members. They have gotten good at structuring feedback mechanisms to improve the results.

The number of examples at MAH-SC is almost too big to do justice in pulling out just one. Their pop-up museums feature considerable community input. One of my favorites was a women’s history display from a few years ago: “Celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day with a Pop Up Museum on Her Story.  Bring an object from or inspired by an important woman in your life and leave it on display in MAH’s atrium.” Community members brought objects and photographs illustrating the contributions of women in the area over time.

Ms. Simon’s blog pointed me to another example, the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project, designed to involve area residents. “Launched in 2010, the Object Stories initiative displays personal perspectives and related physical objects on a single theme. The perspectives combine audio and still images into video interviews which are installed on iPads next to their corresponding objects in the gallery.”

This post is not intended to be a thorough review of participatory practice in museums. That is well covered by Ms. Simon. It is simply an attempt to highlight some of the work going on in the museum world for people who might not be aware of it. Here are a few more resources for the curious:

Just A Few Examples & Resources

As Ms. Simon and Mr. Visser make clear, the design of participatory experiences must be well thought out. Haphazard approaches will yield, at best, haphazard results. At worst, they can be institutional and public relations disasters. Nevertheless, the need to get more people involved in the work we do is so great that it is important that we begin to learn how to do this well.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by IslesPunkFan

Civil Rights Museum

CivilRightsMuseumImagesAfter attending the Americans for the Arts Convention in Nashville last month my wife and I went on to Memphis to explore another city that we had not visited. As part of that trip we went to the National Civil Rights Museum. (On a personal note, I had not registered the museum’s subtitle “At the Lorraine Motel” so when I arrived I had the breath knocked out of me seeing “the balcony.”) Coming so soon after the conference session I discussed in The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity, I was primed to consider issues of race and class.

It’s my understanding that the museum has just re-opened after extensive renovations. I’ll say I was very impressed. It handles the history and legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, the intense era of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Dr. King’s assassination. I was particularly struck by the inclusion of contemporary justice issues. No museum could possibly cover all the territory that “civil rights” implies nor could one satisfy everyone, but it was one of the most riveting history museums I’ve ever seen.

The moment (beyond seeing the sight of Dr. King’s assassination) that will most stay with me was seeing an older African-American woman in the area displaying the conditions in which slaves were kept on the ships from Africa to the New World. She was crying–not just sobbing–and attempting to hide that fact. I have had powerful moments seeing the realities of my Norwegian ancestors–both in Norway and the Midwest. But those were simple historical facts of hardship, probably some desperation, and courage. They are nothing, nothing like what that woman must have been experiencing.

At the very great risk of trivializing an unspeakably deep response to incomprehensible human evil, the point in the context of this blog is to be aware of how different the life experiences of those around us, whose background and cultures we do not share, are. The arts can certainly provide opportunities for healing or reconciliation, but developing the relationships that will allow those opportunities to be developed requires humility, respect, and serious efforts to understand.



Museum Entrance Photo: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by glennia
Museum Lorraine Motel Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by (aka Brent)

UX Design

DosMacLoginI recently learned a new concept: User Experience Design. (Thanks Devon Smith and Barry Hessenius–Barry’s Blog Interview with Devon Smith.) Once again I find that a product development/management concept from the information technology world resonates with community engagement work. (I mentioned the idea of “community manager” in How to Engage.) The essence of UX Design is fairly self-explanatory. How can the experience of the end user of the product be enhanced?

This concern in the IT industry goes way back and is likely rooted in an early realization that computer programmers were less than proficient in explaining software use to the layperson. Technical jargon needed translation into the vernacular. The transition from DOS (Disk Operating System) commands to GUI (Graphical User Interface) fueled the explosion in use of personal computers. (The number of people who could–or rather would–learn the arcane commands for DOS was limited. Icon-based “point and click” made the computer accessible to many, many more people.)

Contemporary approaches to user experience (UX) design focus on what it is like for consumers to interact with a system. Consumers include “regulars,” the old hands who know the ropes, as well as novices. In the arts, where the need exists to significantly expand the base, special attention should be given to the newcomer. How does it feel to buy tickets, arrive at, and enter the venue; find the restrooms; find a seat, negotiate intermission, and understand the sometimes-arcane rituals of applause (if a performing arts event); and get to the exit at the end? All of these are issues that have been addressed by arts marketers concerned with the user experience, even if they did not use that terminology. In addition, the nature of the arts experience that comes between these steps is, of course, crucial. Successful engagement must have “UX design”–especially considering the uninitiated–as a central consideration.

It appears that the museum world may be a bit ahead of the performing arts here. (Thanks to Elizabeth Merritt and the Center for the Future of Museums–again–for the following. Interpreting the Future of Art Museums) Several decades ago, museums began to use teams to develop exhibitions, though this was more true in science and history museums than art museums. This trend emerged out of concern that more voices needed to heard and represented in exhibition design than had been true in the past. Today art museums are adopting this model in greater numbers (ca. 30 by the beginning of 2014 according to the Center for the Future of Museums) and adding to it a new position, Interpretive Planner. This position serves the function of UX Designer, ensuring that needs and interests of the “end user” are addressed.

All of this falls under the heading of “Taking the Community Seriously” and seeking to become meaningful to it.



Holiday Gift

Few people are really spending time investigating professional reading at this pre-New Year moment. However, for anyone who stumbles across this, here’s a Holiday gift.

In November I had the opportunity to hear Nina Simon’s keynote address at the NAMP conference in Charlotte. While several others (notably Ian David Moss in Createquity) have already pointed to her presentation about the transformation of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, it is worth duplicating here if you have not seen it. The video is of Ms. Simon’s TEDx Santa Cruz Talk, a version of what she did in Charlotte. In it she presents two basic principles that have supported the transformation of the MAH. First is inviting active participation. Not just comment cards but meaningful, substantive contributions to the work of the museum. Second is viewing the museum’s artifacts as “social objects”–means of stimulating conversation (and eventually relationships) among museum visitors.This need not simply be a museum-specific phenomenon. Works of performing art can also be contextualized to foster communication among audience members before, after, and occasionally during–think “twitter seats”–performances.

I would argue that an underlying value that makes these two principles work is respect for those who come into the museum. It also appears to me that Ms. Simon is making practical application of the construct developed by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center of the museum as Container, Connector, Convener, and Catalyst for community improvement. The video is good fun, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Take a look.

Enjoy . . . and engage!