The book is intended to be a practical guide to participatory museum experiences focused on design strategies, case studies, and activities. I believe that demystifying participatory design and encouraging professionals to try it is the most important step towards its evolution as a museum practice. I presume most people who read the book will be practitioners who are already on some level interested in participatory design and are looking for useful design frameworks, techniques, and examples to develop and refine their practice.
However, I know that that leaves out the majority of museum professionals who are not aware of or sold on participatory design. The WHY of participatory design is really important. But I have two challenges dealing with it:
- I don’t want to bore readers who are already convinced and are ready for action. I want them to get good, meaty techniques, not just more inspirational talk. The more time spent on “sweeping institutional change,” the less energy is left to do the experiments that incrementally make that change happen.
- I’m not sure that those who are unconvinced would pick up the book, and if they did, what would convince them. I don’t think participatory design is THE way for every museum, but I hope it can become a way that many will consider.
Unfortunately, I do know there’s no silver bullet on the WHY of participatory design. This work is experimental enough in museums that there aren’t many robust evaluations to use as the basis for argument. There are many good and useful translations of Web-based design patterns, but in the museum world, this is still an emerging practice. There are some self-described “success stories,” but most rest on anecdotal perception of success. And then there’s the problem of finding the right metrics for evaluation. Participatory design often opens up dramatically different opportunities, audiences, and activities for museums, and it’s hard to evaluate the value of those outcomes relative to standard museum making. If you’ve never successfully attracted teenagers before and now they are coming and participating, how much is that worth? How do you compare it to your traditional activities?
I’m going to try, in the process of writing this book, to learn more about and work on evaluative techniques for participatory design. In the meantime, here are the primary WHY arguments I feel confident making:
- Participatory design can help museums match the demands of an increasingly empowered culture in which people expect to spend less time consuming and more time creating and discussing. We’ve known for a long time that visitors “make their own meaning.” Participatory design gives us a way to support and integrate that meaning-making into the larger museum experience.
- Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process. The “cultural town square” is more likely to come out of the models of the social Web than the city hall meetings you don’t attend.
- Participatory design can bring in new audiences from the “creative leisure class” of adults 18-40 without children. These are people who are highly engaged in cultural activities, but are doing so through non-museum venues like Maker Faire, Burning Man, blogs, activist groups, knitting circles, coffee shops, and online communities. Most of these venues are event- or Web-based and their users are in need of open, flexible locations in which to express and share their interests.
- Participatory design can convert "underserved" audiences who do not feel welcome in museums into passionate advocates and partners. This only happens when the participatory model involves deep connection with these audiences in an ongoing relationship, but it is notable and significant.
- Participatory design is supported by a new staff/business model in which the museum brokers ongoing relationships rather than supplying fixed experiences. While this new model may prove more expensive in operation, it is more flexible and low-cost on the experience development/capital side.
- In a sociological climate that values personal perspective and relativism, participatory design platforms can serve as an engine for intelligent, well-designed multi-vocal exhibits and programs. Note that institutional subject matter affects the extent to which perspective is valued; your opinion on the history of your tribe is more likely to be engaged than your opinion on the history of the universe.
But is that enough? Is it weak to rest on, “if your mission includes X, then you should consider participatory design as a way to achieve those goals?” I can’t offer anyone double-digit attendance or donation increases, but I’m not idealistic enough to suggest that we throw those metrics out the window. What would you want from an argument for participatory design in the context of a book like this? What do you need me to say, and what can you teach me to help me say it?