“Often I set up a platform and ask a question, in one way or another, and then invite people to come in. It’s a conversation, a call and response.”
-Keetra Dean Dixon, interview by authors (2010)
Museums are often all about control — controlling what visitors see, controlling the information presented about objects, controlling the ways in which visitors can create meaning, and even controlling the types of technology or devices we can use to access their collection or extended resources. A “well-curated” exhibition or gallery passively delivers a specific message to a targeted, restricted audience. But, as the authors of Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content offer, “participatory design turns this idea on its head.”
While focusing on the profession and field of design (which is actually a broad field that obviously has so much overlap and integration with museums), the ideas forwarded in this book resonated with me in terms of how museums are struggling to engage in more participatory acts. The mantra I take away from the authors text as well as their interviews with a wide range of innovative designers is this: “participatory design replaces monologues with conversations” (25). This not only resonated with me, with seemed to ring true with all the the future-of-museums talk going on these days to find ways to harness the massive engagement with Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Vimeo, YouTube, and Twitter that has conditioned the public to contribute, connect, and create.
How does participatory design work?
In her introduction to Participate, designer and writer Helen Armstrong defines the best participatory design as soliciting content from users and then translating that into something greater than the initial contribution.
“The initial contributions are simple, easily carried out by the user: a photograph, a sketch, a doodle, a word, a movement, a vocalization, a touch. But when put into the context of a larger participatory project, user content flourishes in unexpected ways.” (12)
I love to be reminded that the seed of a good participatory project is really something very simple (and doable), encouraging broader involvement. Sometimes it is so easy to get wrapped up in some multi-layered, complex idea that sounds cool to us, but that no one in their right mind would actually take the time to participate in/with. I will always remember one of my design professors in college who harped on about KISS … Keep It Simple Stupid! This “less is more” dictum never fails, though, when looking to museum visitors for contributions.
For museums, like designers, relinquishing control means celebrating process-oriented work that is not ‘complete’ until visitors or audiences participate, and celebrating the unpredictability this process brings. I would even say that we need to be open to entirely new types of participation that might simply end with social interactions or conversations — something we often think will get us somewhere, but we need to recognize that sometimes we are already there.
“Content is not king — contact is.”
The book does make the necessary connections with museums. In the chapter on modularity and providing structures for these largely open-ended undertakings, they quote Nina Simon saying, “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity” (Simon, Participatory Museum, 13). Even though we find ourselves ‘breaking the rules’ and removing restrictions to get participatory work done in museums, any participatory process needs rules, constraints, and parameters to prevent it from descending into muddled confusion. Even just making the structure of your project and process transparent to your participants and contributors can help keep to the plan.
Participate also rightfully spotlights some of the recent identity, branding, and promotional campaign designs at the Walker Art Center, including a great interview with Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator at the Walker.
Overall, I think there is great value for museum educators in engaging with the field of design and design thinking, especially as we work toward similar goals of empowering 21st-century audiences to contribute, interact, and become makers and doers. I’ll be following up in the next several weeks with some of my own nascent attempts at making this site a bit more participatory in various ways. Stay tuned…