Pop quiz! Which of these descriptions exemplifies participatory museum practice?
- Museum invites community members to participate in the development and creation of an exhibit. The exhibit opens. It looks like a traditional exhibit.
- Museum staff create an exhibit by a traditional internal design process, but the exhibit, once open, invites visitors to contribute their own stories and participation. The exhibit is dynamic and changes somewhat in response to visitors' actions.
Participatory Design means Innovating the Process
There are museums pursuing participatory design for a variety of reasons: to increase the diversity of voices represented in exhibits, to cast wider nets for great ideas on program topics, to engage particular partners in the exhibit design process. I once worked on a project where the main goal behind our community-based participatory model was to make our exhibit process faster and cheaper. Some projects engage a very small, well-defined segment of the community as partners in the process (such as the Wing Luke Asian Museum's well-documented community process), whereas others invite open participation (such as MN150, Tech Virtual, and Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition) from across the world.
But the visitor experience of these exhibits isn't necessarily altered by the innovative process that created it. For some museum professionals and projects, this is a good thing--it "proves" that participatory design can yield products that meet institutional standards. But if the goal is to change as many peoples' perception of the institutional relationship to community members as possible, then limiting yourself to a hidden participatory process is problematic.
The simplest way to demonstrate the participatory process is to expose it, to transparently show off the people and process involved. But that might not make for a better exhibit. Do people really care to learn the intricacies of how the exhibit was made? Does knowing that individuals from their neighborhoods were involved change their perspective of the institution?
Design for Participation means Innovating the Product
Transparency may tell the story, but it won't make drop-in visitors feel that the institution invites their participation. The less simple but more effective way is to create participatory experiences on the floor, to offer every drop-in visitor a legitimate way to contribute to the museum and see their contribution respected and responded to. This is incredibly hard, and very different than changing your exhibit design process. The Ontario Science Centre is doing some of this in their Weston Family Innovation Centre, where visitors every day make and augment physical and virtual objects that are displayed in the museum. The Innovation Centre is an entirely responsive space, designed for people to use each other's work as inspiration and generally to see themselves as co-creators of the space.
But the Innovation Centre is a struggle to manage. It's messy and it always changes. It consumes stuff. There are some people who'd prefer to just stop the action, put the participation-to-date on display, and call it "done." But it's never done. And that's a major monkey wrench in the standard models for how museums operate, staff, and fund their work.
Do you Need Participatory Design for Participatory Experiences?
One of the other unusual--and challenging--aspects of the Weston Family Innovation Centre is that it was designed by a lengthy, expensive participatory process that involved hundreds of prototypes and exploratory activities. It was co-designed by staff across the Ontario Science Centre, teen co-conspirators, and visitors via a series of ingenious brainstorming and making exercises developed by Julie Bowen and her brilliant team. Julie has commented that without this intense, exhaustive participatory process, they could not have designed such a successful, authentic-feeling participatory public space. Engaging in the participatory process also helped the staff transition to imagining their new roles in the eventual visitor experience.
But do you really need a participatory process to produce a platform for participation? Not always. There are fabulous participatory platforms--from community murals to StoryCorps to PostSecret--that are designed without a lick of user involvement. I've written often about the art of designing platforms for participation, and the extent to which designers need to constrain and control the experience to structure comfortable, successful venues for participation.
But an interesting problem arises when a participatory platform feels unresponsive, and users don't feel that their contributions are being respected or valued. Consider the user reactions (ranging from enthusiasm to uproar) to the evolving design of Facebook over time. Users, who see themselves as co-creators (if not owners) of the Facebook experience, reacted negatively and protested when they felt that their interests were not taken into account. From Facebook's perspective, the company was in control of the designed experience and had the right to roll out changes without consulting users. Users disagreed. Facebook is learning how to negotiate this relationship. They need to treat respect users as design collaborators (to some extent) if they want to keep them as contributors.
But how far does that go? Do true participatory platforms need participatory design processes behind them? Or do designers just need to be transparent about how the platform works and how users' contributions feed into the experience?
This question isn't rhetorical; it's something I'm really grappling with as I work with museums that are trying to be more "participatory" overall. To me, a participatory museum is one in which visitors perceive the institution as actively inviting and incorporating contributions from non-professionals. Does that require participatory design, design for participation, or both?