Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Are So Many Participatory Experiences Focused on Teens?

Over the past year, I've noticed a strange trend in the calls I receive about upcoming participatory museum projects: the majority of them are being planned for teen audiences. A large number of the collaborative projects of which I'm aware (in which staff partner with community members to co-develop exhibits or programs) are initiated with teens. Even the most traditional museums often manage educational programs in which teens develop their own exhibits, produce youth-focused museum events, or provide educational experiences for younger visitors. And while I enjoy working with youth and consuming their creations as a museum visitor, I'd like to call into question the idea that they are or should be the primary audience for participatory experiences.

Why are teens over-represented in participatory projects? I see four main reasons:
  1. Most participatory experimentation in museums starts in educational departments, and many educators primarily engage (and are funded to work with) students. Teens are a known (and somewhat controllable) entity.
  2. Teens are developmentally focused on social identity-building and may feel more compelled to share their voices and express themselves than others than other visitors.
  3. Teens are perceived as more interested in technology-mediated experiences and more familiar with social technologies in particular than their adult counterparts.
  4. Teens are perceived as an audience that is particularly disaffected and hard to reach, and institutions are continually seeking new techniques that might connect them to core content experiences.
The first of these reasons is practical. The other three are cultural, and I'm not sure how accurate they are. Teens are certainly not the only people who like to express themselves and engage socially through technology. There are plenty of people who don't feel compelled to visit museums, but teens' disinterest may be more immediately evident because droves of students are forced to visit museums on field trips (whereas adult non-visitors are invisible). The challenge of engaging disaffected visitors is not teen-specific, and the potential for participatory techniques to address this challenge need not be limited to this audience.

Here are four reasons I think that cultural institutions should look more broadly at potential audiences for participatory experiences:
  1. While teens are heavy social media users, they may not be the right audience for content-focused social experiences. Teens more commonly use the Web to stay in touch with their pre-existing social groups than to join new communities based on content affinities or interests. As researcher Danah Boyd has pointed out, teens spend time on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks because that's where their friends are. This means that teens are not necessarily more savvy or more interested than other groups in engaging in communities of practice around content experiences. Users active in online social environments based on social objects like Flickr (photography), Ravelry (knitting), and Wikipedia (information) often trend older. Presumably, cultural institutions are more interested in providing opportunities for people to participate with and around content than providing venues for pre-existing friend groups to hang out, and this suggests reaching out to a broader audience.
  2. If your activity is compelling because it involves gimmicky new technology, it's not a good activity. In several instances, I've heard about new gadgets and handhelds that are targeted at teens because of their novelty. While some youth (and adults) may be seduced by sexy technology, is that really the reason you want people to engage with your content experiences? I'm working on one cellphone-based game project that was originally conceived as being focused towards teens because, the thinking goes, teens like using their cellphones. In the end, we've developed a program that uses phones in such a simple way that the client is now talking excitedly about how much fun seniors are going to have playing the game. Complex technology integration may appeal more to some audiences than others, but it's denigrating to suggest that teens will engage just because an experience involves something shiny that beeps.
  3. Teens are already frequently engaged as active participants in museums, and while they are a good starting point, focusing on them may have less significant institutional returns than expanding to other audiences. I suspect that one reason teens are often a core audience is that museums are already comfortable providing participatory experiences to youth in the form of camps, internships, and classes. It's potentially easier and more in-line with standard institutional practice to add a new special kind of internship or camp that focuses on teens contributing or collaborating on production of new content under the guise of youth outreach. For example, the National Building Museum offers an excellent summer program called Investigating Where We Live (IWWL), in which thirty local teens work with museum staff for four weeks to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a neighborhood of D.C. The program is coordinated and directed by staff, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and generally shepherd the project to completion. The program operates like a camp that is co-led by the teens involved. While this program is wonderful, it's very enclosed within the "youth education outreach" activities of the museum, and doesn't necessarily push other staff members in design or curatorial to consider integrating community members into their exhibit development processes. Also, from the teen perspective, while IWWL is a unique and valuable experience, participants may not differentiate it from any other ways they engage with the museum. This means that it may have less impact on their perception of and relationship to the institution overall, as compared to the potential impact on audiences with whom there are no pre-existing collaborative relationships. Imagine if instead of working with teens at the museum, IWWL was conducted as a collaborative project with mixed-age residents of the neighborhoods to be exhibited. IWWL would undoubtably get more complicated (and potentially harder to fund), but it might connect the National Building Museum with a much broader community of locals who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have more varied prior relationships with the museum.
  4. Teens are not the only people with stories to tell. Teens may be particularly drawn to self-expression, but that doesn't mean that their contributions are any better than those of others. Because of their comfort with expressive technologies, teens are low-hanging fruit when it comes to participatory projects, but again, the impact of participatory experiences on them (and on other museum audiences) may be lower than that on participants with less access or ability to share their stories, skills, and memories. I'd like to see more multi-generational participatory projects in which young people are employed as staff or volunteers to help older audiences contribute their own content. Museums are not in the business of giving anyone who wants one a soapbox. Cultural institutions should be deliberate about setting up opportunities for communities of interest to participate, whether those be artists or amateur astronomers, veterans or housekeepers, gardeners or genealogists. The more thoughtfully we design participatory platforms, the broader our opportunities to use them to work with the visitors and audiences who matter most to us.
What do you think? Is it a problem or a great starting point to focus on participatory experiences with teens?

14 comments, add yours!:

Perian said...

One thought is that it's an outgrowth of younger educational programs.

Another thought is that by attracting teens, you build in future audiences. Adults will come, it is thought, because they are already invested through more static interests. Teen interests are fluid and you're more likely to engage them with your content.

Not saying that's actually true, but I've seen that perception elsewhere amongst various education staff.

Nina Simon said...

I just got a great and somewhat snarky response on Facebook from Colin Rankine, "To keep them busy." I wonder how much truth there is to it.

Maria Mortati said...

I agree with Perian- it is about building future audiences. We're working on a similar thing at Gyroscope (so yes, something is in the air) for one project.

Think the biggest challenge in the museum is creating the space that feels like it's for "them". So far, technology has by evolution fostered that feeling more for them than for their parents. Think that's also because while their interests are fluid, so are the delivery mechanisms.

Love what Colin said! Having 2 teens myself, keeping them busy with something excellent to do is great. It can be scary at this stage, and having smart or challenging places for them to go are not easy to come by.

Kelly C. Porter said...

I recently sat in on a design meeting at the Science Museum of London for a new interactive exhibit focused on teens and adults without kids. As we poured through the audience research to create profiles for these two types of visitors, we actually found a significant amount of overlap in critical behaviors, interests and views-- in fact more overlap than disparity.

In my (unstatisitcally supported)opinion, I think that the notion of 'teen outreach' is very related to the 'give them something to do' or 'keep them off the streets' thinking so prevalent in funding initiatives for these kinds of programs. There is a somewhat misleading notion that teens are, by nature, 'at risk,' and we need to do whatever we can to coax them away from other recreational alternatives (always imagined to be dire).

In many ways creators of participatory museum experiences, especially those seeking to fund the purchase or development of high-tech features would do well by way of grant-writing to portray themselves as serving this living cliche of the bored 'at risk' teen with nothing constructive to do. And I think that often the pitch isn't any more sophisticated than the thinking you've picked up on, Nina, "they sure do like to play with those iphones."

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for such a well-articulated comment. While I mostly agree with you, there are also several examples of programs in which tech outreach to truly "underserved" teens has enormous positive impact (for example, Youth Exploring Science at the St. Louis Science Center). In these programs, teens are often paid (instead of participating for a fee or as free interns), and the museum provides the technology (instead of relying on participants' own devices). These programs are less flexible than some other kinds of participatory experiences because of the often significant infrastructure costs, and they promote thoughtful focus by institutions on specific communities of interest.

Heidi Glatfelter said...

I agree with everything said here - that teen programs can both keep kids out of trouble/give them something to do, and that they can build future audiences. However, I think museums can also look to teens as a great resource to help in the growth of museums... College-bound teens are always looking for ways to strengthen college apps and participating in museum exhibit development - whether through technology or more traditional means - can be a great learning activity for the student while also benefiting the museum. Additionally, museums can partner with schools in programs such as National History Day to reach students on more of a one-to-one basis. Admittedly, grant-making organizations like to measure impact by "# students impacted", so this type of program won't be a grant-getter, but can still be beneficial, especially to museums who could use a couple of extra competent hands. Plus, you are helping to inspire and educate the next generation of historians, curators, and museum professionals.

Maureen said...

I agree that keeping teens busy with good stuff is worthwhile and that it could pay off in the long run for museums in terms of growing their audiences. These reason may be good enough to justify creating teen participatory exhibits, but for me the take away from Nina's post is that museums ought to be trying to do the same for adults.

After all, the primary asset of a museums asset is its content (and lots of it, in the form of its collections, spaces, staff's knowledge, information in various media). Since oldsters tend to have longer attention spans and more hunger for content than youngsters, it follows that museums -ought to be trying to deliver their content in participatory ways. Both in gallery and online.

Of course this challenge is not easy. Oldsters tend to be less open and playful than youngsters, not to mention cooperative, and many have tended to be late adopters of technology (a tool for participation). At Open Museum, we are reminded of these facts repeatedly as we try to develop a content-rich, participatory site for adult museum goers.

The jury is still out on our particular project (Adult museum participation may be an oxymoron!), but I think it is safe to say that meaningful participation will become a baseline criteria for adequate museum exhibits in the future.

Aaron Goldblatt said...

Bear with me, as this is only now forming in my head, and may end up having little or nothing to do with the question you ask.

I recently read a lovely essay by Csikszentmihalyi called "Why We Need Things." It has much to do with museums and our collective acquisitive needs. Granted, many of the experiences you cite - and science museums generally, are not so centered on objects per se. But ... he frames some important developmental differences between teens, adults, and older adults. How we tend to relate to objects, why we chose what we choose to express who we are. Teens tend toward objects that express their current concerns, much less so objects that point to the past or the future. Their focus is often on objects involving action of some kind (an iPod, skateboard) and they are less likely to keep objects expressing relationships (slight surprise to me there).

So ... I'm wondering if there is some fodder here for how these kinds of projects, within object-rich environments (museums), can take some cues from teens' tendencies in the "objectified" world.

Anonymous said...

I was just planning our 2010 outreach schedule and immediately gravitated toward teens.

Here are my somewhat unsophisticated thoughts.

When you're planning a little kids' program about portraiture, you have the kids make their own portraits. For a program about life in colonial America, you have the kids make their own cornbread. The good old "make your own ___" formula allows the kids to personalize the experience and relate to it on their own level. They care about themselves and their own families first and museum professionals cater to this. Later on, they might care about community or society or a larger concept. But for now, let's stay at the "make your own ___" level.

When you plan a teen program, you know that "make your own ___" will work but that you'll be extra fancy if the teens work together to make their own exhibit, tech project, etc. Most of what we know about teens seems to have to do with identity building, developing a voice, etc. So we get in the habit of only engaging with them in this one particular fashion.

I think both the kid and teen models of educational programs need to change... but I'm just not sure how.

Also I'm half afraid that if I do invite middle aged gardeners to curate their own exhibit about the power of letter writing in their lives or the importance of music in their community... that it won't be edgy. Or that I'll lose control. Or that they'll do something more ambitious than I can handle.

I'm a 26-year-old museum educator. Teens I can handle. Adults actually seem more difficult...

Unknown said...

Perhaps the question should be, “Why do museums not design participatory experiences for adults”?

I would suggest that in many cases the audience comes first rather than the experience type i.e. most museums probably do not deliberately set out to create a participatory experience and then afterwards, determine which audience it should engage. Probably those museums that have run participatory projects for teenagers started with teenagers in mind and then created an experience that they believed would engage them (rightly or wrongly).

Kelly C. Porter said...


I liked the St. Louis Science Center program you linked to, there's also a really great teen 'internship' program at the Chabot Space Center which has participants designing multimedia content for exhibits. There are certainly places that do teen participatory experiences well, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. I do think, though, that the visitor profile of the 'typical teen' is not infrequently an un-useful cliche.

Nina Simon said...

The St. Louis YES project rocks, as does the Career Ladder at the NY Hall of Science. These were both products of the same grant in the 1990s-Youth Alive-which touched many science centers.

I helped develop/lead that Chabot program, and wrote about it here...

Mauricio Estrada Muñoz said...

The issue about teenagers in museums has triggered our desired to open a teen gallery at Centre Pompidou. This gallery is planned to open in 2010 and the scope is to be a venue devoted to teenagers that emphasizes exchange with artists, a multidisciplinary platform that showcases forward-looking artistic and aesthetic trends.

I agree with Maria Mortati and what she said about creating a space “that feels like it’s for “them””. That’s why we have commissioned Mathieu Lehanneur to design the teen gallery. Another key point for us is to address this gallery to “individuals”, not to schools. At the core of this choice is the belief that teenagers will easily appropriate a space they discovered in their spare time, which is not associated to school programs, with parents. A space where they can gather together, where they can meet artists, manipulate, create, a place where they can start a conversation with modern and contemporary art.

As for the content, we are creating a program tailored to teenagers’ specific concerns, a program that encourages teenagers to explore and discover modern and contemporary art in a participatory way. The program will connect contemporary creation with a large array of topics ranging from street art to video games, music and art, performing arts, mangas, sustainable development, and so forth. Additionally, the program will encourage teenagers to discover the rest of Centre Pompidou’s rich program, its permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, performing arts, cinema, etc.

In order to understand our audience, we commissioned a survey to Ecole du Louvre. The results have shown that teenagers do want a space devoted to them where they can meet artists, where they can take part to activities, where there are workshops tailored to them. That is what we are going to offer.

Nadja said...

Nina, this comment is coming a few months late! I am a budding museum professional currently studying the "visitors experience." I am "designing" a program for the older teen/young adult in the 18-22 age range, ones who have just graduated high school and are either in college or joining the work force. My daughter is this age (as are her friends) and what seems obvious to me is that they are really curious! They are into exploring on their own, some are breaking out of the usual routines that they developed in high school, and they are trying to figure out who they are now as adults. They are not "yo-cos", they don't have tons of money, or all have iPhones, or jobs for that matter! I think they are also realizing that there is more to life than what they learned in high school. What museums can do is to show them the connections between say history and art and science, and help them to poke around a little and guide them to really interesting stuff that they can relate to (political and social movements, fashion and musical trends, expression in visual art, solutions to health issues, etc.) I think this group is overlooked. They are not generally coming to the museum with a school group or their parents, but could be "lured" there with programs that feed this curiousity and need for exploration. It's not all about clicking through to the next screen either! What do you think?