Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Visitor Voices Part 3: Co-Creating and Control

This week, a look at the third section of Visitor Voices, the excellent book coedited by Kathy McLean and Wendy Pollock. The essays in this section, on “Expressing and Co-Creating,” present projects in which visitors create exhibition content, contribute to its creation, or get a heavy done of meaning-making in their experience of museum content. If talkbacks are analogous to discussions, contributing personal experiences analogous to gifts, then co-creation is about inclusion and control.

Who controls the content in the museum? Who controls the meaning making? Who controls the museum experience? How do we transition to co-ownership with visitors?

Each of the projects profiled in this section offers visitors partial ownership in at least one of these categories. Let's examine each of these questions, and the related projects, more closely.

First, museum content. Several of the projects profiled allowed visitors a hand in creating museum content. There is the Art Gallery of Ontario's portrait exhibition In Your Face, for which the museum solicited and displayed thousands of visitor-created self-portraits. The Exploratorium's Nanoscape project, in which visitors and volunteers built giant walk-through models of nanoscale structures, had a different kind of impact; instead of displaying visitors' unique expressions of self, it displayed the power of collective action by visitors, harnessed by an institution.

What's the control difference between
Nanoscapes and In Your Face? In both cases, visitors felt as though they were part of the final result, yet In Your Face offered visitors more control. In Nanoscapes, visitors own the experience of production, whereas In Your Face participants own the content itself. It's like the difference between helping to paint a community mural and writing your own name on the wall. At the Exploratorium, people felt connected to the museum by their involvement in a group event; At AGO, they connected through personal expression.

Is one of these better than the other? Of course not. But they may attract different people. One of the things that made In Your Face so overwhelmingly successful is people's natural self-interest. People like to talk about and show themselves--that's why MySpace is so popular. In his piece about interaction design for StoryCorps, Jake Barton comments that "for most people the value of the experience will be in making and submitting a story, not seeing it shared with everyone else."

In the above examples visitors were responding to a call by the museum for a specific type of content. More experimental are the projects where the museum sets up a platform for visitor co-creation and then lets the visitors run with it. At Liberty Science Center, exhibits are designed with support for visitor-created "hacks" and improvements in mind. On the Ontario Science Center's 2.0 site RedShiftNow, visitor content not only populates but steers the experience. And at the Ontario Science Center's Weston Innovation Center, the exhibits are designed with visitors--not just tested by them.

In these and other examples (the Walker Art Center's new teen site comes to mind), the museum specifically sets up a site in a way that is not most comfortable, useful, or familiar to the museum staff. They allow visitors, often acknowledged to have different backgrounds from staff, to set the tone.

This is what I'd call visitors "controlling the experience." This is hard and painful work, often requiring exhibit designers to intentionally create platforms that allow ugly and chaotic things to happen. The intentionality is necessary; giving control to visitors without giving them a supportive platform is just laziness, and visitors respond with non-participation. These challenges are complicated by legitimate questions about the value of the output of such experiences. If only 1% of our audience wants to participate as creators (a generous estimate by Web 2.0 standards), does the experience created better serve the other 99%?

This relates to an interesting question: are museum FOR visitors or are they BY visitors? Some people talk about creating "with visitors," which is good tactically, but strategically, I'd argue that "for" is the key. If you lose sight of the "for," then the end result is not compelling. Honest delving into what makes a good experience "for visitors" certainly means doing some "by" and "with." But it also means accomodating those who prefer to receive rather than generate content. To me, involving visitors means getting them on the bus, not handing them the keys and deserting them. We need a spot for everyone, not just drivers.

Which leads to the third kind of co-creation discussed in this section, meaning-making. In some ways, these experiences are the least revolutionary. The two examples in the book, the installation Explore a Painting in Depth at AGO and Question at the Cantor Arts Center, give visitors the chance to insert their own voice--personally or as a broadcast--in the understanding of art.

How is this different from the talkbacks discussed in section 1? Rather than just giving people a chance to give feedback on museum content, both of these installations represented new platforms for visitors to interact with and interpret content. It wasn't the visitor part that changed; it was the museum part. The exhibits supported questions people had about art--what it meant, how it was valued--and allowed visitors to explore art from their own points of reference rather than those of the curators.

These projects may not be as sexy as Exhibit Commons or other visitor-generated experiences. The idea that visitors make their own meaning is hardly new. What makes these examples special is the fact that these exhibitions supported rather than fought that fact. Instead of throwing curators' expertise out the window, the curators in these examples tried to find new ways to welcome and open themselves to visitors' specific interests. In that way, these projects are no different than RedShiftNow. Both seek to meet and support visitors at their own level. The difference is that these meaning-making experiences serve a different audience--the large percentage who prefer a consumptive to a generative museum experience.

Being successful with visitor co-creation requires a great deal of selflessness--a willingness on the part of museum staff to see ourselves as support staff, rather than content providers, for visitors. We have to manage the back end and let the visitors do all the fun stuff. Imagine the Art Gallery of Ontario staff, sorting, hanging, and managing the 17,000 self-portraits they received for In Your Face. They weren't curating. They weren't interpreting. They were just carrying out the will and enthusiasm of their visitors (and I'm sure that was both exhiliarating and dull). Hopefully, we can make the mental transition that makes the reception and management of visitor content as satisfying as the creation of the content on our own. Because ultimately, loving, supporting, and encouraging our visitors is what makes these institutions for them. Not for us.

Next week, some comments on the final section of the book and the book overall.

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