What does the word "participatory" mean to you? This isn't just a rhetorical question. The various definitions of participatory projects can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. A participant who writes her reaction to an object on an index card is very different from one who donates her own personal effects to be part of an institutional collection, and both of these people are different from one who helps develop a new program from scratch. How do we define and talk about these different kinds of participation? Fortunately, science has a (partial) answer.
Earlier this year, a group of informal science researchers, led by Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, published an extremely useful report on public participation in science research (PPSR). In this report, the authors describe three specific models for public participation: contribution, collaboration, and co-creation. They provide detailed case studies of projects in each area, including project descriptions, informal science education goals, participant training techniques, and evaluation outcomes. While the evaluation component of the report is focused on the extent to which these various projects promote science learning and behavior change among participants, the rubric of participatory models introduces a language that can be useful to many kinds of institutions and projects.
Models for Participation
Here are the three PPSR models (plus one more I've added):
- In the contributory model, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally-controlled process.
- In the collaborative model, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of an institutional project which is originated and ultimately controlled by the institution.
- In the co-creation model, visitors and the institution work together from the beginning to define the project's goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests.
- I would add a fourth model, tentatively called co-option. In the co-option model, the institution turns over a portion of its facilities and resources to support programs developed and implemented by external public groups.
Participation in science research is a good basis on which to develop a framework for participatory models because it is based on a consistent scientific process with many steps. Scientists state a problem, make a hypothesis, develop a test regimen to test the hypothesis, gather data, analyze the results, and make conclusions, which may include stating new problems or hypotheses. This table from the report shows how the different models correlate with participation in different steps of the process.
In citizen science projects, the public is invited to participate in "real science" by working with scientists on projects that benefit from mass participation around the world. But most citizen science projects are contributory; participants collect data based on specifications determined by scientists, to help answer questions posed by scientists. The scientists control the process, steer the data collection, and analyze the results. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that these kinds of citizen science projects are enormously successful at engaging the public with science but are not successful at exposing participants to the entire scientific process.
For this reason, some citizen science projects are now moving towards collaborative and co-creative models. As in the contributory model, in the collaborative model of citizen science, the scientists still determine the research question and the overall data collection and analysis methodology. However, the public is actively involved in multiple steps of the research process, including collecting data, analyzing results, and drawing conclusions. The scientists and the public participants become partners in the implementation and dissemination of the scientific research, though the research is still led by the scientists.
In the co-creative model for citizen science, the public comes up with a question or issue and then works with scientists to answer the question and suggest solutions. These projects include equal partnership between scientists and participants in all stages of the scientific process, including developing new research questions and regimens for data collection and analysis. In many cases, these projects are initiated based on some community concern, such as issues around local sources of pollution, invasive species, or unsafe consumer products. The community-stated need drives the development, implementation, and dissemination of research activities.
I've added a fourth model to this citizen science typology, one may be more appropriate to facilities like museums than to scientific organizations: co-option. In this model, the public uses institutional facilities or resources to develop and manage projects of their own devising. In some cases, the use of institutional content or facilities is known to the institution; for example, when a museum allows a community group to hold meetings on the premises or develop their own exhibits. But in other cases, people may use institutional resources without the institution's knowledge. For example, programmers may use museum collection database information as the basis for their own software, or game enthusiasts may use the grounds of an institution as a giant playing board for imaginative play. Visitors co-opt institutional facilities every day for their own agendas, whether to impress a date, bond with family, or work on their photography skills. But there are policies that museums control--from open hours to photography rules to digital access--that significantly impact the kinds of co-option that are possible or institutionally supported.
Contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and co-option. In the scientific sphere, these models are progressive since they are based on the number of steps of the scientific process in which participants are involved. Because most PPSR projects are currently contributory, the authors encourage more project leaders to integrate collaborative and co-creative components to increase overall scientific process learning and impact for participants. Wisely, they recommend adding higher-intensity components to existing projects rather than initiating new entirely collaborative or co-creative projects. They point to successful hybrid models of "peripheral participation," in which there is a core group of highly involved participants who work collaboratively with staff to develop new research questions and methodologies and a secondary group of participants who contribute on a more basic level.
In the case of The Tech Virtual, as in some collaborative and co-creative science research projects, the core group of super-participants was self-defined based on personal inclination, which made them more effective than a group pre-selected by staff may have been. However, in at least one collaborative science research project related to forest harvesting, the scientists explicitly recruited a group of non-inclined core participants (harvesters) so that they could connect to a largely inaccessible community of interest. The project had fundamentally different outcomes for these participants, for whom impact ranged from science learning to increased social capital. When projects effectively address pressing community needs, scientists can work effectively with new audiences who may not previously have seen themselves as participants in science.
Applying the Models to Cultural Institutions
When we move to participation with cultural institutions from science research, these four participatory models can no longer be seen as progressive towards a model of "maximal participation." Consider, for example, the difference between a project in which a museum sources exhibit material from visitors (contributory) and one in which the museum works with a small group of outsiders to develop an exhibit (collaborative). If the first project results in an exhibit made entirely of visitors' creations and voices, and the second results in an exhibit that looks more like a "typical" exhibit, which project is more participatory? There are many contributory projects, such as the World Beach Project, that produce entirely user-determined outputs, and some professionals might consider this kind of project to be "more" participatory than a collaborative program like The Tech Virtual, in which users' roles were broader but the outputs more institutionally-defined. And when it comes to co-option, the connection to the institution can often be so light that it is hard to determine whether the participants are engaging "with" the institution at all. For example, in the case of the YouTube meetup at the Ontario Science Centre in 2008, Kevin Von Appen commented that "I'm still wrestling with how the interactions of participants - mainly drinking, dancing, gossiping and shooting video of same squares up with our mission to engage people directly with science and technology..."
What's more participatory, making art or doing research? Developing exhibits or using them to make new media products? Working with the museum or using the museum as a platform to do your own thing? There is no "best" level of participation for museums and cultural institutions overall. Instead, I'm interested in the question of how to understand the diversity of options and determine which models and levels of engagement will be most valuable for different projects, at different institutions, at different times. The PPSR rubric is a great starting point for this conversation.
One last thought on evaluation. The PPSR report is focused on the participant experience and the extent to which participating in science research changes people's understanding of and attitudes towards science. From a museum perspective, I'm more interested in evaluations of the audience experience of participation. I think we are all fairly comfortable with the idea that direct participation enhances participants' connection to institutions, content, and builds skills. The real question is how participatory projects' outcomes impact the broader visitor/consumer experience of the content. In the scientific world, the coherence and quality of participatory outcomes is essential, since most of these projects are based on the premise that participants can contribute data or work of a quality that can be included in professional scientific projects and publications. But in museums, we have no such standard for participatory outcomes, whether for professionals or for wider audiences.
We often get overly focused on the experience of participants, but these people represent a tiny minority of the people whom participatory projects impact. If you work with a community group to co-create an exhibit, that exhibit will be experienced by all of your visitors, not just those who were part of the co-design process. It is not enough to design robust structures to support participants; you must also ensure that the outcome of participation is enjoyable and useful for your greater community as well. I hope we will soon see more institutions evaluating the extent to which participatory projects create outcomes that are valuable, educational, and possibly, differentiable, to broad audiences of visitors.