When I first saw the "pastports" I didn't really understand, but after reading what people wrote in them I felt an overwhelming connection to all the words of so many random people. Everyone has something valuable to say, no matter how they appear outwardly.This person is writing about a participatory element (the "pastport") that we included in the exhibition Crossing Cultures. Crossing Cultures features paintings by Belle Yang that relate to her family's immigration experiences.
We did three things to supplement Belle's paintings (installation shots here, peopled shots here):
- We issued a call to locals who are immigrants, or whose family immigrated, to share an artifact and story with us. We mounted those objects and stories alongside visitor-contributed suitcases. Many, many visitors responded emotionally to these stories. They diversified the voice of immigration in the exhibition and encouraged people to share their own histories verbally.
- We created a "pastport" - a small booklet with evocative prompts related to identity and place. Each prompt was tied to a different artwork in the exhibition. In front of each of those paintings, you could stamp your pastport, reflect on the artwork and the question, and share your story. People could take the pastports home or hang them, open to a preferred page, on a clothesline. The clotheslines were always full.
- We created a simple wheel with open-ended questions about identity and place, setting it in a lounge area. The idea was that people would spin the wheel and start a conversation. This element was a dud - it was not as compelling as the rest of the exhibition, and redundant in a gallery replete with juicy conversations.
Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level. The suitcase collaborators contributed to the exhibition for months, through a sequence of outreach, discussion, writing, object sourcing, editing, and design. The pastport contributors were visitors who came and shared their stories in written or drawn form in real time, without staff contact, to be showcased for a few weeks. And the conversationalists (with or without the wheel) contributed to the ephemeral dialogue around the exhibition.
Often when I talk with folks from other institutions about visitor/audience participation, the focus is on one form of participation. Collaboration in the months before the show. Visitor feedback during the event. Response mail art after the visit. The institution picks one form and goes with it.
In my experience, offering many different forms of participation garners more quality interactions. People self-select into the opportunity where they can give and get the most value.
Everyone has "something valuable to say." Some people say it with a poem. Some with a colored pencil. Some with a paella pan. The trick is to invite many voices in many forms. That's where meaning--and empathy--lives.