Monday, April 25, 2011

Answers to the Ten Questions I am Most Often Asked

Note: the title of this post pays homage to Elaine Heumann Gurian's excellent and quite different 1981 essay of the same title.
I've spent much of the past three years on the road giving workshops and talks about audience participation in museums. This post shares some of the most interesting questions I've heard throughout these experiences. I like to use half of any allotted time slot to talk and half for Q&A, so we usually have time to get into meaty discussions. Feel free to add your own questions and answers in the comments!


1. Have you seen attitudes in our field about visitor participation shifting over time?

Yes. Granted, I live in an increasingly narrow world of people who are exploring these topics and want me to work with them, but I still learn a lot from the questions and struggles I hear from colleagues and people who comment on the blog.

The Museum 2.0 blog has been going for almost five years now, and I've seen people's concerns and questions evolve over that time in the following way:
  • For the first couple of years--2006-2007--most of the questions were about the "why" of participation. Why should institutions engage with people in this way? How could staff members justify these approaches to their managers? I've seen this line of questioning almost completely disappear in the past two years due to many research studies and reports on the value and rise of participation, but in 2006-7, social media and participatory culture was still seen as nascent (and possibly a passing fad).
  • In 2008, the conversation started shifting to "how" and "what." In 2008 and 2009, there were many conference sessions and and documents presenting participatory case studies, most notably Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean's book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. I wrote The Participatory Museum in response to this energy--to put together case studies in the context of a design framework so we could talk as a field about what works and why.
  • In the past year, I've seen the conversation shift to talking about impact and sustainability of these projects--how we evaluate audience participation and how we can shift from experimental pilots to more day-to-day implementation.

2. Are there certain kinds of institutions that are more well-suited for participatory techniques than others?

Yes and no. I honestly think the only kind of cultural institution that cannot support audience participation is one in which staff members don't respect visitors or what they have to contribute. I've never heard people say they don't care about visitors, but I've seen it in how they pay attention to visitors' needs and contributions. This anti-participatory behavior is also sometimes manifest within staffs where only certain employees' ideas are recognized and solicited, floor staff are ignored, etc.

But for institutions with a genuine interest and respect for visitors, participation is always possible. It looks different in different types of institutions. Small organizations are often best at forming long-term relationships with community members, whereas large organizations can rally lots of participants for a contributory project. Art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to initiate participatory projects but the most likely to work with artists whose approach to participation might be quite extreme. For more on the differences among different types of museums (with examples), check out this post.

3. A lot of these projects are about getting people to be more social and active in museums. What about traditional visitors and supporters who may not want to participate?

In my experience, staff members are more sensitive to this issue than visitors and members are. I've met beautifully-coiffed ladies in their 70's who are hungry for conversation, and I've met pierced teenagers who prefer a contemplative experience. Most people who really love and support a museum want it to be loved and well-used by the larger community, and many of these folks are thrilled by techniques that engage new people with the organization.

That said, I think it's really important for all these engagement strategies to be "opt-in." It's common in many museums to offer cart-based activities that invite visitors (mostly families) to play a game, try an experiment, or make art. Just as those kinds of activities offer opt-in deeper engagement for some visitors, participatory techniques can offer opt-in social or active techniques for those who want them.

Sometimes, staff will claim that certain engagement techniques are so distracting for non-participants that they should not be offered even on an opt-in basis. I frankly think this is ridiculous. We know from research that people like to engage with content in different ways, and many museums tout the fact that they offer multi-faceted learning experiences. If we accept that sometimes people want to read the long label, sometimes people want to discuss things, sometimes people want to touch, and so on, then we have to offer a diversity of options. If we prescriptively decide you can only talk over here and you can only read the long label over there, we limit the quality and impact of the visitor experience.

4. Do you see any cultural differences in whether and how people like to participate around the world?

This is a really interesting question, and if I had any friends who were international social psychologists I would probably spend all my free time pestering them about this. My limited experience and research has led me to believe that people in every culture want to express themselves and connect with each other--the differences are how they prefer to do so.

Sometimes the difference comes down to preferred tools. In Taiwan, I noted that many more visitors and staff members were enthusiastic about taking and sharing photos than they were writing on a talkback board. In Denmark and Amsterdam, I experienced radical dialogue programs like Human Library, but also a strict formalism as to what happens in galleries.

Other times, the differences come down to social conventions. Some cultures value individual expression, whereas others prioritize the group. At the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (search "Vietnam" here), staff have told me that participatory projects work best when a community of participants is engaged in a group process where they can come to consensus and defer to the group. In contrast, processes that engage individual participants as creators might work in a more individualistic culture like Australia or the US.

I'd love to hear more peoples' reflections on this. In every country I've visited, I've heard a version of this question that starts, "Maybe this works for Americans, but here in X..." After seeing so many varied and inspiring participatory projects from around the world, I can firmly state that this is not an American phenomenon, nor is participatory work even necessarily best-suited to U.S. culture. There are long histories of highly-engaged participatory governance and cultural work around the world, and in many ways, America's obsession with the individual may be more of a hindrance than a help to projects here.


5. Where do you see the biggest resistance to incorporating participatory techniques? What's the biggest obstacle to more of these projects happening?

The first thing you have to tackle is fear of change. This isn't unique to audience participation; it's a reality that any new project or course of action stirs up all kinds of anxieties about organizational change.

Once you get past the fear of change to the specifics of audience participation, you have to separate people's expressed resistance from the actual obstacles. Resistance to audience participation is often expressed as fear of losing control. There's a worry, mostly on the part of content experts and brand managers, that their voices won't be as dominant as they once were when visitors are invited to participate. These fears are well-justified, but they're often predicated on the false conflation of control with expertise. You can be an expert and have a strong voice--a voice visitors want to hear--without being the only voice in the room. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it's something we're comfortable with in news, politics, and other venues... why not museums?

And ultimately, loss of control is not the biggest obstacle to implementing participatory projects. I would suggest that the biggest challenge is the fact that they require fundamentally different ways of operating. If a traditional exhibition project is one in which a team "puts on a show," a participatory project is one in which a team "plants a garden" and then must tend and cultivate it over time. Participatory projects require sustained engagement between staff and community members, and that is not baked into our traditional job descriptions, staffing plans, and project budgets.

6. How do you evaluate participatory engagement strategies?

My simple answer is: evaluate these projects as you would evaluate any new technique or program. If your institution cares about numbers, count participants and impacted visitors. If your institution cares about deep engagement, measure dwell time and survey people about their experiences. If your institution cares about delivering on mission, measure indicators that reflect your core values. This sounds flip, but the reality as I've seen it is that every institution has its own criteria for what makes a project a success. If you evaluate your project by something other than those criteria, you won't be able to make a convincing argument about whether to continue with these efforts or not.

Many evaluations of participatory projects focus solely on the experience for participants. I have yet to see a participatory project in which the direct participants who co-designed an exhibition or contributed their own stories to a program did not have an incredible, often transformative, experience. The problem is that these participants are often tiny in number compared to your organization's overall audience. To effectively and completely evaluate the impact of a participatory project, you have to look at how it affects not only participants but also the broader audience... and staff.

This question of evaluation is still very open. I wrote a chapter in The Participatory Museum about it, but I continue to seek out really good examples of participatory project evaluation. I strongly believe it is through shared evaluations and documentation that we will advance as a field overall in these efforts.

7. What kind of changes do you think have to happen for museums to really be able to embrace and support audience participation, not just in one-off experiments, but for the long term?

This comes back to the idea that participation happens fundamentally in operating, not in designing or developing programs. After a phase of experimentation and pilot projects, I think any organization that is serious about audience participation has to examine how it recruits staff and what their tasks and roles are.

We also have to become more flexible about how we engage visitors as partners on an ongoing basis. For example, I recently learned about the Science Gallery's approach to involving community members. They have a pretty explicit engagement ladder in which someone starts as a visitor, becomes a member, then an "ambassador" who is empowered to put on some programs in collaboration with the institution, and finally a member of the "Leonardo Group" -- an advisory group that meets a few times a year to tackle upcoming creative challenges the organization faces. Rather than having standing advisory committees representing various constituencies, the Leonardo Group is a nimble, diverse crowd of engaged participants who contribute significantly to the Science Gallery's programming and resources through one-off events. This kind of engagement ladder provides a structured framework for participation without overly constraining how people get involved.


8. When you are creating programming explicitly to engage new communities, how do you still satisfy your base?

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year, but it's one that still comes up frequently in discussions with colleagues. I've come to feel that the "parallel to pipeline" strategy is a solid approach. You start by offering a custom, distinct program for new audiences and then find ways to integrate what works for them into your core offerings. The important part of making this work is acknowledging that you do have to make some real changes to the pipeline when you ask that new audience to transition into it. The parallel programs are not a "bait and switch" used to hook new audiences into your traditional offerings. They are a starting point, and a testing ground, from which you should be learning new ways of working that can be applied more broadly and fundamentally to how the organization operates.

9. If so much of this work is about creating personal relationships with visitors, how do we sustain it beyond individual staff members?

This question comes up most frequently when talking about social media. There's a fear that if an individual staff member becomes the voice of the organization on the Web, and then that person leaves, the relationships she built will disappear. Interestingly, I never hear colleagues express the same fear when it comes to individuals who run specific key programs for an organization (even though those membership managers, educators, volunteer coordinators, and others have very personal relationships with many important constituencies).

When it comes to online community engagement, I always turn to Shelley Bernstein and Beck Tench as my luminary teachers. Both of them are very clear about the need to be personal AND to distribute the relationships throughout staff as much as possible. Beck in particular has done an amazing job of working as a partner to other staff members at the Museum of Life and Science to help them develop social media projects that they can manage on their own with only light involvement from Beck. The animal keepers run their blog. The Butterfly House manager shares photos on Flickr. And so on. In this way, engaging with visitors through social media becomes something that many staff members are involved with based on their content and programmatic skills. This leads to diverse projects and relationships--and a better safety net for the institution overall.

10. When you build a relationship with a community for a project and then that project ends, how do you keep those people involved?

This is one of the toughest questions I've been grappling with lately, and I'd love to hear your reflections on it. It's a question that tends to come up only for organizations that have committed to audience participation over the long term. You invite a group of people to co-design an exhibit or co-produce a program, it happens, it's fabulous... and then what? In most cases, those partners were solicited for specific skills or attributes related to those specific projects, and it's not easy to naturally translate those same people to another participatory opportunity. In my experience, many of these people become a special class of members or volunteers, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with a standard membership arrangement. These folks have had a taste of higher engagement and many of them want more. I'm not sure what the most sustainable way is to keep them actively involved as the organization shifts over time.

What are your answers to these questions? What are your questions that should be on this list?

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