I have chosen this topic to combine a major ongoing topic of this class -participation- with my interest for cultural institutions. The Web is a challenge to institutions. This book demonstrates how Social Media could be the interface that turns museums into platforms dedicated to fruitful interactions.
THE PARTICIPATORY MUSEUM by Nina Simon
In the preface of her book Nina Simon explains the reasons that pushed her to focus on the development of a new strategy for museums.
She starts by making an objective statement: “Over the last twenty years, audiences for museums, galleries, and performing arts institutions have decreased, and the audiences that remain are older and whiter than the overall population.” In other words it seems to be pretty clear now that cultural institutions are no longer very good at fulfilling their educational mission. They would have better to question their strategy and redesign it to attract a broader and more diverse audience.
If cultural institutions do not adapt their strategy they put themselves at risk to be supplanted by the Web: “increasingly people have turned to other sources for entertainment, learning, and dialogue. They share their artwork, music, and stories with each other on the Web.”
Obviously museums have lost their connection with the public. How to retrieve it? In Nina Simon perspective, the Web is not the enemy of cultural institutions, on the contrary she sees it as a great opportunity to “enhance cultural institutions”. Museums should recognize that people are no longer willing to be a passive audience: they expect to have their say in the learning process provided by museums. They want to actively participate.
Nina Simon strongly emphasize on the change in the visitor status: “Visitors expect access to a broad spectrum of information sources and cultural perspectives. They expect the ability to respond and be taken seriously. They expect the ability to discuss, share, and remix what they consume.” This point seems particularly interesting to me as I believe that this is the most challenging requirement, the one that is going to give the hardest time to cultural institutions. Cultural institutions are used to provide people with a discourse full of information and resources but they are not used to be open to question. In other words they are used to the one to many type of communication. They only work with experts and do not consider people’s insight. But this is not working anymore.
Museums have to change to become a place to SHARE.According to Simon it requires three changes in museums attitude:
- To be audience centered that is to say providing a place designed to meet visitors’ expectations
- To let visitors construct their own experience, respect their freedom
- To take into account users’ voice and allow them to provide information and to invigorate the place
As we can see, the main change lies in the role attributed to the visitors. To attract visitors, museums should include them in their activities.
So far so good but how to practically achieve this major change in cultural institutions that are used to traditional practices?
Simon stands for a participatory strategy and argues that museums should rely on the Web to take on the challenge of redefining the role of their visitors. Implementing a participatory approach could help solving five forms of public dissatisfaction in experiencing cultural institutions:
- Museums are often said to be irrelevant in people’s daily lives.
- They are said to never change, to be kind of frozen
- A place where you only get one authoritative discourse
- Not a creative place
- Not a comfortable place to interact with people
Nina Simon explains that her goal with this book is to provide museums with practical tips that will enable them to organize this change.
CHAPTER 5: DEFINING PARTICIPATION AT YOUR INSTITUTION
I have chosen to provide you with an abstract of this chapter because it brings back to the ongoing tensions in the relationships between institutions and networks. The participatory Web has resulted in an increase in the development of diverse networks. Institutions used to be the only authority but now the situation has completely changed and the emergence of networks has generated a power of resistance. The knowledge that cultural institutions offer to people is not only likely to be analyzed but also questioned.
Nina Simon starts by establishing that a participatory strategy can only be successful if the institution stops rejecting the visitor’s input and accept to be open to establish a partnership. She stresses on 3 required principles:
- “Desire for the input and involvement of outside participants
- Trust in participants’ abilities
- Responsiveness to participants’ actions and contributions”
In other words, the institutions have to be in the right mindset. Once these 3 principles are secured within the institution, there is a lot of ways of implementing participation.
The question is: How to chose the best kind of participation for your institution?
- Models for participation
To address the question Nina Simon aims at creating a typology of the different models of participation.
She relies on a comparison between science labs and refers to the scientist Rick Bonney. “In 1983 Bonney joined the staff at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-founded its Citizen Science program, the first program to professionalize the growing participatory practice. Over the course of several projects at the Lab, Bonney noted that different kinds of participation led to different outcomes for participants.” In 2008 Bonney and his team managed to defined three models of participation. In Simon’s perspective these models are applicable to museums as “like science labs, cultural institutions produce public-facing content under the guidance of authoritative experts.” Here are the different levels of participation established by Bonney and one added by Nina Simon:
- Contributory projects = Visitors collect data that are processed by the experts
- Collaborative projects = Visitors collect and analyze data together with experts in a kind of partnership
- Co-creative projects = Visitors are included in the development of the project from the very beginning. Visitors’ concerns are seriously taken into account.
- Hosted project = The institution provides a portion of its facilities to support project developed by visitors
- Finding the right model for your institution
Which model of participation suit you the best?
The answer comes down to the culture of the institution. Is its staff very likely to actually involve participant in the development of the museum? “Institutional culture helps determine how much trust and responsibility the staff will grant to community members, and forcing an organization into an uncomfortable model rarely succeeds.” It is key to understand the institution’s culture and to adapt the participation model to it. To be able to determine which model will suit you the best Nina Simon recommends a set of questions:
× What kind of commitment does your institution have to community engagement?
× How much control do you want over the participatory process and product?
× How do you see the institution’s relationship with participants during the project?
× Who do you want to participate and what kind of commitment will you seek from participants?
× How much staff time will you commit to managing the project and working with participants?
× What kinds of skills do you want participants to gain from their activities during the project?
× What goals do you have for how non-participating visitors will perceive the project?
- Participation and mission
Constantly refer to the mission of your institution and propose projects according to it. “Speaking the language of the institutional mission helps staff members and stakeholders understand the value of participatory projects and paves the way for experiments and innovation.” Be careful to design projects that remain consistent with your institution culture and identity.
- The Unique educational value of participation
Education is the corner stone of museums. In this specific area, participatory techniques have proven to be the more efficient “to help visitors develop specific skills related to creativity, collaboration, and innovation.”
Nina Simon states that “participatory projects are uniquely suited to help visitors cultivate these skills when they encourage visitors to:
- Create their own stories, objects, or media products
- Adapt and reuse institutional content to create new products and meaning
- Engage in community projects with other visitors from different backgrounds
- Take on responsibilities as volunteers, whether during a single visit or for a longer duration”
- The Value of giving participants a real work
While visitors develop their skills, museums can also benefit directly from participatory strategies if they entrust visitors with real projects.
- The strategic value of participation
Participation can enhance the value of your institution in its community. It can improve its image and gain credibility in the society. “Participatory projects can change an institution’s image in the eyes of local communities, increase involvement in fundraising, and make new partnership opportunities possible.” Nina Simon encourages cultural institutions to focus on local communities and be more relevant in people’s everyday lives.