Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)

Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati
Encountering Space, Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo by Maria Mortati

Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’  A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art).  By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.

Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects.  All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.

How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement?  Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?

“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)

As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:

  • conversation at our sessiomn (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)
    conversation at our session (yes, we exploded the traditional conference furniture layout)

    There is a shift happening.  Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd.  If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.

  • We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other.  It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
  • You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory.  I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE.  Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?!  So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.

“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.”  — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand.  Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper.  We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas.  Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:

  1. What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?

  2. What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?

  3. What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?

  4. What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?

sampling of the 50+ "what if" statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing
sampling of the 50+ “what if” statements that participants brainstrormed for crowdsourcing

Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session.  So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.

>>Click here to see ALL of the “What If” statements<<

I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area.  Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add?  Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?



16 thoughts on “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums”

  1. I love these “what if” questions! I have a little thought to add to help start to answer #2/#3, and that is to check out “Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions” by Kathleen McLean ( It’s an excellent book with lots of handy, adaptable planning and implementation ideas for working cross-departmentally on exhibitions. McLean’s background is in science and children’s museums, so many of her ideas about cross-departmental exhibition collaboration can feel very fresh and even daring to art museum staff. It’s a great toolkit if you want to start dabbling in curator collaborations, even if you just borrow one or two of her suggestions.

    1. Thanks, Chelsea! That looks like a great book connected to ensuring that museums are people-centered and human-centered. I also meant to mention the new book that was published last month from Left Coast Press called “Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making” (2013). Judy Koke is one of the authors, along with Marcella Wells and Barbara Butler. Really exceptional stuff related to interpretive planning, both on a large scale as well as a smaller project-based scale.

  2. I was wondering when this took place, I saw it and printed out a few things to read.. Seems so pertinent to our work.

  3. The event took place at the NAEA conference in Fort Worth on March 9th. But in many ways the richest part of the experience for me was the series of 3 or 4 phone calls the four of us had, trying to nail down what to talk about at the conference. Maybe that’s a strategy……find 3 other people who are thinking about the same things you are – and schedule monthly phone conversations to push us to better articulate our ideas and to share new ones?!?!!

    1. Great idea, Judy! I agree that we should all feel empowered to simply have these conversations, regardless of conferences and the formal structures that tend to bring them together. I always hope that this site can serve that purpose, in part, too.

  4. Mike, I love what you’re capturing here, and how it can increase the discussion circle. About 5 months ago, I was promoted to the role of Director of Education and Exhibitions, and charged with not only managing the work of both areas but evolving it–particularly on contextualizing exhibitions the way we do programs. Interpretation and visitor engagement are a part of every discussion, never seen as mutually exclusive from scholarly research or academic rigor. It’s an exciting proposition. I’ll keep you posted on how it evolves.

    1. Sounds very exciting, Niki (and sorry that we did not connect at NAEA in person). I’d love to hear more about how things evolve there. I also wonder if we could host a Google Hangout sometime later this spring to connect people dealing with these issues very directly (you would be an important voice in that conversation). Let me know if people would be interested in convening a Hangout around this theme?

  5. I wholeheartedly agree that when we entertain “what if” scenarios we open the door for innovation. The shift you write about in this post is certainly taking place in museums. It is thrilling that museum professionals are exploring the possibilities of, what I call democratic viewing, could look like in the museum. Viewers should be encouraged and empowered to interact, participate, and engage with art in a meaningful, people-centered way. (Bravo on the excellent quote by Graham Black too!)

    1. Thanks, Elya! And I’m glad you agree that there really is a shift happening in museums. I that we can continue to bring participatory culture into the core fabric of institutions, and keep creating more opportunities for “democratic viewing” (I like that). And Graham Black’s latest book is pretty inspiring when it comes to changing museums and their role in society/communities.

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