Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest Post: Jessica Shoemaker reviews Nina Simon's "The Participatory Museum"

Jessica Shoemaker contributes the second essay in a series of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. As we draw nearer to the end of this fall term, each of my students will present her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonates with her.

Guest Post by: Jessica Shoemaker
A Review of Nina Simon' s book, The Participatory Museum

The modern museum is focused around the visitor experience, especially pertaining to why they visit a museum, what draws them there, and how to get them to return.  In her book, The Participatory MuseumNina Simon discusses the methods in which participation can be used to create a profound experience for the visitors. Several important aspects of the participatory experience discussed in the book include principles of participation, visitors as contributors, social objects, evaluating participatory projects, and managing and sustaining participation. Simon uses examples and case studies to illustrate her points on different aspects of successful participatory experiences.

Simon begins by presenting three fundamental theories regarding participation. She suggests that the museum should be “audience centered,” while “visitors construct their own meaning from cultural experiences,” and “users’ voices can inform and invigorate both project design and public-facing programs,” (ii). It is essential for a modern museum to use these theories to appeal to audiences of today. Visitors are at the heart of the museum experience, and can bring a unique perspective to a museum program if given the opportunity. These theories are effective methods that should be developed by many museums today. 

The first chapter, “Principles of Participation,” includes information on how participation works and what an institution should do in order to create thriving experiences for the visitors. Simon mentions “many museums are fixated on creators,” (12) but this only applies to a small percentage of museum visitors. Most visitors go to the museum but choose not to participate in the activities. She uses the example of the Denver Art Museum (DAM) exhibition The Psychedelic Experience featuring rock music posters. Side Trip was an “interactive space” that accompanied the rock music poster exhibition and featured an activity that allowed visitors to create their own posters. They were given transparencies to create their own design, and the constraints of the transparencies were integral to the success of the activity.

As well as encouraging participation, the museum needs to ensure that their contribution is worthwhile to the visitor. She states, “Staff members need to offer participants something fundamental: personal fulfillment,” (18). Revealing the importance of ensuring a valuable experience for visitors is a necessary inclusion and Simon did not disappoint. She claims, “First, the institution should clearly explain how and when visitors will be rewarded for participating. Second, it should thank visitors immediately for participating, even if their content will now go into a holding pattern. And third, the staff should develop some workable process to display, integrate, or distribute the participatory content—and ideally, inform participants when their work is shared,” (19-20). Guaranteeing the task is worthwhile to a visitor is essential in their participation. If they feel that their time is going to be wasted on something that doesn’t do any good, then chances are they are not going to participate. Adding the incentive of a little thank you gift from the museum store is helpful too. People enjoy receiving free stuff even if it is just a pencil. Making the participatory activity a social experience is another effective method of creating a deeper meaning for the visitor as Simon described.

This first chapter describes how participation works and what methods can be used in order to create successful and meaningful experiences for visitors, which they will remember for years to come. Simon effectively lays down the basics for the rest of her book on how to develop and expand the audience participation outcome.

“Visitors as Contributors” is an important concept, which Simon addresses throughout her book. Simon believes it is necessary to have an exhibition that solely relies on visitor contributions. I do not believe this is essential. People can be unpredictable and Simon has already stated that only a small percentage of the visitors actually participate in the activities held by the museum. Simon states, “Visitors contribute to institutions by helping the staff test ideas or develop new projects…Visitors contribute feedback in the form of verbal and written comments…personal objects and creative works for crowd-sourced exhibits and collection projects. Opinions and stories on comment boards… Memories and photographs in reflective spaces on the Web,” (203). She suggests there are three approaches to contributory projects: “Necessary contribution, in which the success of the project relies on visitors’ active participation. Supplemental contribution, in which visitors’ participation enhances an institutional project. Educational contribution, in which the act of contributing provides visitors with skills or experiences that are mission-relevant,” (207). 
Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum.
Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0, 2010.

Simon discusses the need to keep the participatory experiences simple. She used the example of an exhibition where visitors were asked to place memories into a bottle for display. This exhibit relied entirely on visitor contributions and it was very successful and memorable. Nina Simon seems to take the stance that necessary contribution is the best form of participation for visitors. I have to disagree with her on this aspect. Although I believe contribution is a significant feature of a visitor’s experience, they can still receive a meaningful experience if they participate in a less dramatic way.

Social objects are beneficial to attracting visitors to a museum. Popular social objects include the Hope Diamond and Balto the dog. They bring in crowds of people and create a shared experience and dialogue between strangers. Simon stated, “Social objects are the engines of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversation happens,” (127). Simon discusses the benefits of social objects. They are icebreakers and allow people to talk to one another while focusing on the object. She said, “Most social objects are Personal, Active, Provocative, [and] Relational,” (129). Simon discusses what each of these entail, giving examples of each as she goes along.

It is important to include social objects in participation because they are often what draws people to a museum and inspires visitors to share the experiences that led them to the museum. There is a point that Simon missed when discussing the importance of social objects. Although there are many positive aspects of social objects, they can be distracting when it comes to the rest of the collection. Visitors may skip over other exhibitions to find the object they are looking for. People also become very upset if the object needs to be taken off of display.

Evaluation is necessary in determining if a participatory activity was successful and worth the time to recreate. Simon declares there are specific techniques in evaluating the projects, “Participatory projects are about both process and product. Participatory projects are not just for participants. Participatory projects often benefit from incremental and adaptive measurement techniques. Sometimes, it is beneficial to make the evaluative process participatory in itself,” (302). She suggests methods for developing evaluation techniques. Establishing effective evaluation techniques is a necessary step for concluding a participatory project.

Managing and sustaining participation is just as important as creating and implementing the project. If a great project is created but there is poor management, the project will not receive the attention that is deserved. Managing a participatory project can have its problems as Nina Simon mentions. It takes a great deal of the staff’s time, which a museum may not have available to allot to the task. It is helpful to read this chapter when beginning participatory projects. Not every museum may know how to present these kinds of projects to the staff, or how to implement them. Simon mentions that most of the projects discussed throughout the book were only one time experiences. She tries to convey how museums can change to having successful projects over an extended period of time.

The Participatory Museum is a great learning tool for museum professionals when they are trying to find way in which to better connect with their audience. Nina Simon’s book is a comprehensive tool for establishing participatory experiences, connecting with the visitors, and inspiring people to participate. However, she should have included strategies on how to keep the visitors coming back after their successful experience. Overall, the book is successful and I recommend that museum professionals strive to read it. The book has a great deal of information that can assist in creating new experiences for visitors. Simon’s examples, drawn from a variety of museums and projects, aided in her discussion.

I agree that successful modern museums are visitor-focused. Museums should try to engage visitors in activities, so they feel like they are contributing and developing a deeper understanding of the exhibit. However, I do not believe that participatory exhibits need to be the only kind displayed. Visitors need to play different roles during their experiences, as the listener and as the contributor. The same way people of the twenty-first century became bored with going to a museum to read and learn; they will eventually tire of always being asked to participate. This could lead to moving away from the mission of the museum and closer into edutainment. Regardless of whether one concurs with her completely, the book is an effective guide on the participatory experience. 

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