Elaine is considered one of the pioneers of the doctrine of inclusion in museums, pushing designers, curators, educators and museum directors to make their spaces open and meaningful to as many kinds of people as possible. In the introduction to her book, she says, "In some sense, all the essays in this volume seek answers to a single question: 'Why do railway stations have a broader spectrum of users than museums, and could museums, if they did everything right, welcome the same demographic mix through their doors?'"
Elaine commented that museums only have two things going for them as essential civic spaces:
- Museum are civil spaces where strangers can safely go and see each other.
- Users have access to real experiences via tangible evidence.
What does this mean? Initially, I wasn't impressed by the first one--after all, strangers are everywhere. What's so special, or important, about just seeing strangers if you don't engage with them? Elaine pointed out that there are many places in this world where space is so segregated and inter-factional relations so strained that few such "safe congregant spaces" exist. She told a story about planning a museum project in
Why go to the zoo with strangers at all? Because unlike shopping or eating or educating kids, which many societies successfully self-segregate, the zoo features tangible evidence that isn't available elsewhere. So do museums.
But this isn't enough, Elaine says, for us to pat ourselves on the back. After all, train stations bring in all kinds of people. The supermarket and the park are both full of tangible evidence that is interesting and somewhat unique to those locations. The way that we build on our tangible evidence and our inherent safety/civility is what defines the value of museums.
In the Q+A, Elaine touched on some of these ways that we can design to keep museums essential. She has whole-heartedly embraced web 2.0 and talked about the fact that this is “the wild west of the web—the golden years before the fence posts go up.” She talked about museums becoming “service organizations” that anoint visitor voices from all backgrounds. And while Elaine continues to believe in the value of tangible evidence, she said, “in the keeping of things, museums think they have the information about what to say about them.” She advocated for a wider scope of object interpretation, including more multi-sensory, narrative, and emotional parts of the design palette.
The more I listened, the more I wondered: What’s the difference between inclusion and 2.0? Is there a difference between a visitor who is included and a visitor who becomes a user?
One of the important aspects of inclusion is that it considers different kinds of users—both current and potential—and their needs, entry points, and abilities. Web 2.0 doesn’t necessarily do that, for a couple reasons. First, the assumptions that web 2.0 applications make about their users—somewhat tech-savvy, happy to give up privacy for access—are often non-negotiable. While web 2.0 designers want maximal participation, they aren’t writing grants and coming up with different programs tailored to open their content to underserved users. The expectation is that the users are the ones who will tailor, and that the software is maximally flexible.
Second, and perhaps more importantly in contrast to museums, web 2.0 applications don’t exist in a physical, designed space. How you feel in a museum or bank or train station is largely dictated by how the space is designed. Does the architecture welcome you? Is it imposing, confusing, inviting? On the web, inclusion depends much more on the content (are people respectful to each other on this bulletin board?) than the over-arching design.
At her talk, someone asked Elaine, “who is the ‘we’?” to which Elaine replied, “the we is all of us.” It’s a great sentiment, and one that I believe requires both the lessons of inclusion and those of 2.0 (and probably a few others as well).
2.0 is about the FUNCTIONS we offer users. Inclusion is about the USERS who feel enabled to function.
From the inclusion skeptic, there’s the question: Which wes are we excluding when we design particular functions? And from the 2.0 skeptic: Which functions are limited when we try to design for the universal we?
The first chapter of Elaine’s book is called The Importance of “And.” She talks about the idea that there is no “right” answer—that the existence of multiple, potentially opposing answers informs and enriches museum experiences. Inclusion and 2.0 are not identical, nor are they opposing. What do you see in the “and” between the two?