Monday, April 09, 2007

Inclusion AND 2.0 AND Elaine Gurian

Last week, I went to an event at the National Museum of the American Indian to support the publication of Elaine Gurian's new book, Civilizing the Museum, which comprises 22 essays written over 35 years of experience developing and leading museums around the world.

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:

  1. Museum are civil spaces where strangers can safely go and see each other.
  2. 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 Jerusalem three years ago. Elaine sat down with members of the Arab, Jewish, and secular community and asked: is there anywhere in this city that everyone can go? They thought and replied, the zoo. At the zoo, you can stick with your own family, but you still see other people. They have picnic tables, so you don't have to eat food prepared by someone else (who might want to do you harm). Being in the presence of strangers can be itself a kind of reconciliation.

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?

3 comments, add yours!:

David K said...


This is a little tangential, but I think relevant, to your discussion of inclusion and Web 2.0.

I noticed that you describe folks as "users." It's an interesting choice of words since I tend to think of Web 2.0 as enabling folks to be "creators" and "constituents." The language is important because Web 2.0 is supposed to facilitate a different kind of "inclusion" -- one in which people join communities and exercise ownership (even leadership) in the community.

Different museums may foster communities with different ratios of inclusion:functionality. My guess, however, is that if the rewards of "functionality" are great enough, then you will not have to worry about inclusion.

Chris said...

There are two connections that strike me regarding inclusion and Web 2.0. First, Elaine Gurian has in the past written about museums not charging admission in order to have a better chance of achieving the railway station type of visitorship. Web 2.0 is, in most repects, a free way of extending your museum visit and extending your meaning-making experience (thus cost-averaging down the admission you may have paid!) I think both ideas share that sense of democratization. I'm sure you've had to struggle with that in a city with so many other museums that are free.

Second, I think both museums and Web 2.0 can be imposing. While brick & mortars have to deal with exhibitry, architecture, interior design, signage, cost, etc., I feel Web 2.0 sometimes assumes that there are no barriers to inclusion. But, as a former radio producer I kind of felt like starting this entry with, "Hi Nina. Long time listener first time caller." I've been reading a variety of blogs for a while now and although I've had opinions and wanted to chime in, it was hard for me to make this first post. For whatever reason, I was intimidated. As wildly popular as caller-driven talk radio has been over the last 20 years (which in some ways is a predecessor to Web 2.0), typically less than 5% of the listeners ever talk on air and usually less than 10% ever even attempt to call in. So, in some ways, I think museums and Web 2.0 both have to look at what their potential barriers to entry might be.

There. I did it.

Nina Simon said...

Chris and David,

The juxtaposition between your comments is really interesting. The "rewards of functionality" are only available to those who don't feel a "barrier to entry." Both of these are valid points--and I think we need to design both for those who cheer for David and who feel Chris' wariness. I know that I'm both of those people at different times.

And on a separate note, yay for you, Chris. At poetry open mics, "virgins" are announced and get extra applause to support their entrance into a potentially scary situation.

I wonder about how to foster an environment that is most conducive to comments. I suspect that more people "call in" to talk to the host than to talk to each other. Talking to the broadcaster can be intimidating. How can comments be a forum for substantive discussion among users? My favorite web example of this working well is Edward Tufte's moderated forum on information design. People have quality contributions and Tufte serves as a benevolent overseer, not just the teacher.