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.