Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Participation through Collaboration: Making Visitors Feel Needed

This summer, I got married. My husband and I moved to Santa Cruz in June, and then spent the next seven weekends having a distributed wedding at our new home. Each weekend we had a new group of folks, a theme, and a related activity. It was our way of having a small wedding and inviting everyone we knew.

It also allowed us to experiment and iterate. As part of each weekend, we did a project. At first, we’d planned for these to vary from fun activities (i.e. Frisbee golf) to manual labor (tree house construction). But after a couple weekends, we learned, strangely enough, that the manual labor activities were far more successful than fun ones. People told us again and again how much they enjoyed smashing concrete, clearing brush, pulling weeds, and splitting wood. Almost every part of each weekend, from the ceremonies (open guided discussion) to the meals (homemade) was participatory. But the most social, energized part—no matter the mix of guests—was the manual labor.

Are our friends and family psychotic closet workhorses? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we uncovered one of the secrets to creating successful participatory experiences: people like to feel useful. If there’s a project to be done, they like to feel like contributors. They like seeing the tangible results of their labor. They like assuming a clear role and performing. And they bond with each other when they are working side by side. Contributing to the discussion about “balance in relationships”—that’s fuzzy. Smashing concrete together is clear.

I bring this up in the context of thinking about how to design exhibits and programs to be meaningful participatory experiences for visitors. Now that the concept of “turning visitors from consumers into participants” is out there, I’m starting to think beyond the soft and fuzzy to the practical. What does it mean for visitors to be participants? How can we do more than just give it lip service?

I think we have to couch participatory museum experiences in terms of collaborating with visitors. Collaboration is only meaningful when the parties involved actually have some stake in and influence over the outcome. Have you ever been part of a fake collaboration, one in which a project leader purported to want everyone’s input but really just wanted everyone to say yes to theirs? Those situations are exasperating at best, and at worst, can make you lose faith in the leader’s (and the institution’s) commitment to the team approach.

The same dynamic plays out when it comes to participatory museum experiences. If we let visitors give their opinion of an exhibit in a video kiosk, but then we don’t follow up, they’re fake collaborators. If we let them build inventions but don’t display or engage with them, their effort is an exercise in futility. These incomplete experiences make visitors suspicious of the museum’s level of interest in their input—which eventually leads to no input at all.

People who are attracted by participatory experiences want them to be purposeful. We would never have asked people at the wedding to move dirt without a reason. Purposefulness serves the visitor (they feel involved) and the museum (getting stuff done, making the visitor experience more engaging).

I’ve always loved Citizen Science initiatives that bring scientists into museums not to showcase their work, but to use visitors as assistants to help further it. Why do a simulation of an experiment when you can get involved in the real thing? Similarly, visitors who may not care to use an art station may get passionately involved in a mural painting. It’s exciting to see yourself as a member of the team and to see the tangible, useful results of your efforts.

I know this is a tall order. “Sheesh.” you may be thinking. “First she wants us to open up discussion about museum content via blogs and other forums, and NOW she wants that discussion to be actionable?”

And I know that collaborating—especially with large numbers of disparate visitors—won’t be easy. But collaboration is a two-way street; we should be doing so in the service of actually learning how to make museums better.

If participatory experiences aren’t actionable, they won’t be taken seriously by institutions or visitors. Every meaningful relationship is based on this concept: that all parties take each other’s contributions seriously. We can’t play benevolent dictator to visitors, parceling out opportunities for them to share comments in some kind of democratic “exercise.” If we want to encourage participation, we have to create new platforms for visitors’ contributions to mean something. We have to stop putting exhibits out as fait accompli. We have to find ways to smash concrete with visitors side by side.

Wedding ceremonies often include some acknowledgement of the importance of the guests as witnesses to and supporters of the commitment between the two partners. This acknowledgement often feels false to me: is the memory of Aunt Elma nodding off in the sun really going to pull you through those tough times? The people who support a project or a commitment are the ones who work on it, care about it, and are rewarded by it. Museums are starting to do a great job holding weddings, acknowledging their audiences, calling their visitors participants. It’s time to dispense with the ceremony and start making it real.

I don’t have the answers on how to do this. Please join me, collaborate with me, to figure it out.

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina-

I've been reading your blog for a while (at Sibley's suggestion), and finally decided to add my two shekels...

Imagine something called Public Lecture 1.0: My wife & I pay $10 each for a ticket to hear a speaker talk for an hour about, oh, Biblical archaeology, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. Then, audience applause... a wave from the podium... and the speaker exits, stage left. On our way home, I talk with my wife about what we'd just heard & seen....

Here's Public Lecture 2.0: We pay $10 each for a ticket to hear a speaker talk for 10 minutes, and then engage in an hour-long Q&A, a good portion of which is sucked up by people "participating" and "collaborating" with their own windy wind-ups & commentary. Their contributions may or may not be interesting, but it's not what we paid twenty bucks to hear.

Both formats have their merit, of course, but they serve entirely different purposes. In 1.0, the presenter has something to say, to transmit, to share; I attend 1.0 to enjoy what someone else has to offer -- expertise, advice, insight, a story, perhaps. Whereas 2.0 is a group exercise, a collective creation. 1.0 is a traditional dinner party that requires me to prepare an entire meal; 2.0 is a pot-luck that requires less cooking, more coordination.

Put another way: Wedding 1.0 has guests bearing witness to the creation of a covenant, and then joining in the celebration; whereas Wedding 2.0 is more of a group effort, a communal project that sounds like it shifts the responsibility for the success of the covenant from the couple to the community. I don't know if you did the "for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, til death do us part" riff at your wedding, but if you did, it was your pledge to Sibley, and Sibley's pledge to you; your friends and family will certainly help support you both whenever possible, but in the end, it's your marriage, not ours.... isn't it?

Another take: In a traditional Shabbat sermon, the rabbi tells you what Maimonides thinks about this week's parsha because Maimonides was a very smart guy who had something important to transmit about Judaism (among other things). Whereas in Shabbat Service 2.0, I use the parsha to interact & participate, and share my feelings about how this week's portion reminds me about my unresolved relationship with my brother. Interesting to me, perhaps -- but let's face it, I'm no Maimonides.

People go to Museum 1.0 because they're looking for the Hillels & Maimonides of the art world. They want to be inspired. They want wisdom, insight, beauty, and truth -- but in my experience, that's not something everyone is capable of delivering.

I'm sharing all this because I get the feeling you want traditional museums to engage visitors by getting them to "participate" instead of just watching or listening or absorbing -- which is mostly what I've been doing on your blog: Enjoying your performance -- and it's quite a show! You're insightful. You write well. You make me think. But the reason I'm down here in the comments section, and your up top in the main performance space -- well, this is your blog, your stage, your gallery, and visitors come to hear from you, not me. You're the artist here, I'm the visitor -- and I'm quite happy with the arrangement. Aren't you?

all the best,
Alan M. (an AS member back in MD)

Nina Simon said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Just as there are good and bad sides to 2.0, there's good and bad to 2.0. As a performer and storyteller, I don't think everything should be 2.0. I do think that most exhibits, performances, and lectures should be audience-centric--focusing on the needs and interests of the audience, not of the presenter.

I bring this up because the 1.0 speaker or exhibit doesn't always do a good job engaging the viewer/listener. And studies are showing that people primarily go to museums as a social/recreational experience. If you are there to be social, why not engage people socially?

I'd offer that the 1.0 synagogue experience is people up front zooming through the service, not telling the congregation what page they're on, not giving opportunities to participate. It's easy to sleep through such a service. When Sibley and I first came to Adat Shalom, we were skeptical of the "discussion" part of the service. But we were immediately converted by the depth and insight of the participants. At those services, people are bringing their expertise in politics, international affairs, law, etc. to bear on the question at hand. Maimonides was not only a wise man, but someone in a tradition of people questioning and debating the meaning of the text. AS is one of the few places that debate is still alive and well.

While most of this blog advocates for participation, at the core I am doing all this to grapple with the same essential tension you are bringing to light. In what circumstances does 2.0 make things better? When does it make things worse? To me, our wedding projects, the potluck, the farmer's market--these are all better for their 2.0ness. Open mike poetry... maybe not.

I think this is the problem we have to solve--how to blend 2.0 in as a new design tool (not a trump card) in intelligent ways to make all of what we do more engaging for guests.

And yes, the blog is fundamentally push technology. But I always love it when you push back.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina -

Thanks for your response. I was particularly interested to learn that "studies are showing that people primarily go to museums as a social/recreational experience." That explains a great deal -- about the focus of your blog, and about why museums are changing so much. I've often wondered what's driven the evolution of the Smithsonian -- the massive gift shops, the IMAX theaters, the ride simulators, and so forth. And the answer is: It turns museums into a "social/recreational experience." I'm not arguing against having a good time with friends & strangers when you go to a museum. But I do wonder if it reflects what some cultural critics have called a "loss of civilizational confidence." That is: We no longer know what we should impart to the next generation. We're no longer comfortable saying what's most important, and what's trivial. As cultural curators, we are totally lost. So instead, we will let our museums become a forum to let you, our valued customer, make the call. Just be sure to bring your buddies, have fun, buy a poster... and come back again next week!

As for providing people with a satisfying "experience" -- I find myself thinking about two examples: the Holocaust Museum & Yad Vashem.

The Holocaust Museum attempts to encapsulate 30 years of European/German history (1920s-1940s) by telling the "story" of the Jews in Germany, and by adding certain interactive twists. I haven't been to the HM in years, but from what I remember: When you enter, they give you a card with the photo of a victim, along with his/her age, place of birth, etc. Then you take an elevator to the top floor, and descend through the decades.... The 1920s: Post-WWI rumblings in Germany... The 1930s: Hitler's Rise to Power... The 1940s: The crematoria... WWII... the Allies liberate the camps... Israel is re-created... Then, you enter a light-filled room to reflect on what you've seen & decompress from all those ghoulish photos & videos.... then the gift shop... a snack bar (?) ... and then you're outside, you grab a Sno-Cone, and it's off to the Air & Space Museum. .... This "experience" turns the Holocaust into a self-contained "story" with a beginning, middle, and end that somehow encapsulates the horror, and, as a result, distances you from it. The museum makes the Holocaust feel more like the TV mini-series of the same name and less like the historic horror that it was... and still is.

Yad Vashem, on the other hand, displays life-sized black-and-white pictures of people who died in the camps... some eternal flames... and not a lot else. You confront the horror of the Shoah: millions of innocent people, brutally slaughtered ... and then walk out into the sunlight & heat of modern Jerusalem, where history's Story is still underway. .... At the Holocaust Museum, whatever Evil it was that fueled the crematoria was soundly defeated... just a few rooms before the book shop. Whereas at Yad Vashem, the Story remains a lot more open-ended. More... interactive, if you like. The message of Yad Vashem: "You're not watching this Story, you're living inside the next chapter. What happens next? G-d only knows...."

The irony here is simply this: The museum that doesn't attempt to "engage" its visitors in a 2.0 fashion manages to awaken you to the drama & danger & possibility of life; while the museum that attempts to immerse & engage its visitors in 2.0 style fails miserably, by turning a historic event into an "experience": Walk through a cattle car, just like the ones they used to transport Polish Jews to Auschwitz! Ugh. What's next? A t-shirt that says: "I SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST museum" ? ... Put another way: Sometimes a 1.0 presentation, when done right, can have 2.0 effects -- and vice versa.

Good design matters, and 2.0 is a powerful tool. The problem, of course, is that 2.0 tools are frequently used to cover up lousy 1.0 material. The question, for me, is not how to improve the design; the problem is finding content a community still cares about. Unless, of course, the whiz-bang buzz we all get from Our Tools is really The Point.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

wow. thank you both for these very thought-provoking posts.

I agree with Alan (on many fronts), but in particular, in terms of my fear that 2.0 tools are being used to cover up mediocre content.

And the difference between distinguishing the important and the trivial is right on the money - at what point can the user's opinions move from insightful to solipsistic?

What I have to argue though Alan, is that, while this is Nina's blog, and you've been mostly absorbing, I'm glad you decided to participate. Your comments were equally provocative. And how many similar cases can we point to in our museum lives where the q&a period turned out to be as interesting, if not much more so, than the lecture itself? (the Center for Jewish History in NYC seems to be particularly good at this). Granted, it's unpredictable and completely serendipitous, but lovely when it happens. Too bad we can't engineer its happening more often.

Anyway, a quick comment that I've heard James Chung of Reach Advisors speak on this topic of museum/non-profit visitor participation, and especially how successful efforts also tap into social responsibility - designing activities for groups and families that bring them together to work for a greater good. certainly better than just buying an exhibition poster and hanging out with buddies!

Jonathan Cooper said...

Alan gave an illustration in the form of two scenarios:
1. attending a one-hour lecture by a renowned expert in a field (e.g. Biblical archaeology), followed by a ten-minute Q&A, and...
2. attending a ten-minute lecture by the same expert, followed by an hour of questions and comments by people in the audience.

The assertion seems to be that, just as scenario 1 would be better value for the participants (or at least for Alan :-) ), visitors to museum websites are often better served by content prepared by experts than by large collections of (mediocre) community contributions.

I think there are at least three significant characteristics or assumptions in this illustration:
* The speaker is a skilled presenter, as well as a renowned expert
* The audience must experience the content (i.e. the lecture) sequentially and in real time>; skipping or random access are not possible
* One must choose between the two scenarios.

[A few general comments before I talk about the web: In my own experience (e.g. at a recent conference) the speaker's presentation style may not be particularly clear or engaging; it is sometimes only in Q&A time that various interesting points become apparent.]

However, on the web:
* Different scenarios can be offered simultaneously - from scholarly essays to collections of public commentaries and reflections.
* Different scenarios can even be gathered together or linked.
* Visitors can choose - in their own time - which scenario(s) they prefer.
* Expertise can also be exercised in the selection and/or sorting of public contributions. E.g. myVirtualGallery (which I manage), in the approval process and the "Featured Exhibitions" section.

As Nina said, there is room for both 1.0 and 2.0 (to which I would add: there's even more room on the web!). :-)