Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Making Participatory Processes Visible to Visitors

Let's say you spend a year working with a group of teens to co-create an exhibition, or you invite members and local artists to help redesign the lobby. How do you acknowledge their participation in a way that helps subsequent visitors connect with the passion and hard work that went into the process?

Community processes are both exciting and time-consuming. In many cases, once the final project is launched, it's hard to detect the participatory touch. The exhibition or program is of high quality, and from the visitor perspective, it may look like museum as usual. There might be a plaque listing names or a group photo of participants, but that's about it.

In some ways, this is a good thing. Not every participatory process has to scream "look at me!" to create a successful product. But it's a shame when visitors can't experience the energy that went into the making of a participatory project--when the product of a living process is a dead thing. The challenge is for designers to find a way to showcase the participatory process in a way that enhances the final product rather than just feeling like a behind-the-scenes geekfest.

Last week I saw a powerful example of this at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg in their exhibition for children under five. The exhibition includes a large display of objects from the Museum's ethnographic collection selected by small children. The artifacts are eclectic and intriguing, but it's not obvious that children selected them, nor are there labels to help you understand why these particular objects are there (see picture at top).

An interactive changes that. In the middle of the gallery, there's a touchscreen in front of a larger projection wall. The touchscreen features a grid with all of the artifacts in the space. Touch an object, and the projection comes alive with video of small children standing behind the object, wearing conservator's gloves, explaining what they like about the object and why they picked it. I couldn't understand the videos--they were in Swedish--but I was charmed by the kids' spontaneous, infectious energy. After each short video, there was a single screen featuring a curator's comments (in text) about the importance of the object from his or her perspective.

This interactive provided context that helped me appreciate the artifacts and understand the process that had put them on display. A gallery that otherwise would have felt dead came alive with the children's voices, laughter, and antics. And even without understanding their words, I looked at the objects around me in a whole new way. I understood that the artifacts meant something to the kids I saw onscreen. It was like "staff picks" at the bookstore, but with (presumably) richer content.

How can you make the product of participation as engaging as the process itself?
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