Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Simple Outcome of Visitor Participation: Delight

It's funny. I've spent years advocating for visitor participation for all kinds of reasons. Visitor contributions help participants feel connected to institutions. It can provide valuable information for the staff to do their jobs better. It helps institutions leverage the skills and creativity of their communities.

Now that I'm on staff at a museum, I've (re)discovered a more pedestrian value of visitor participation: it's delightful. Every day when I walk by our visitor comment board, I feel like I'm getting little gifts from visitors. The AT&T guy doesn't write poems for me. The budget doesn't produce abstract drawings or suggestions for how we can serve our community better.

I think on some level, we've always known that these handwritten notes, drawings, and missives are charming. Some institutions have even banked on that charm to create compelling ad campaigns featuring visitors' comments. As a researcher and activist for participation, I've sometimes downplayed the value of this charm because it seems like arsenal for professionals who claim participatory projects are frivolous. "Be charming and delightful" isn't one of the bottom-line goals of most museums.

But maybe it should be. For me, a professional who is pushing every day to make a struggling museum relevant and sustainable, I find incredible joy in these simple visitor comments. Scanning the comment board is one of the few activities in my workday when I'm confronted with unbridled creativity and optimism about the future of our institution. The comments provide me with some mental uplift, and they inspire me to keep pushing. And yes, they've served our organization in all kinds of tangible ways--introducing us to new interns, volunteers, and program ideas. But I have a new appreciation for the intangible now as well.

When we have to clear more room for new comments, I move the old ones to my office wall. My goal is to eventually be surrounded by the voices of our visitors--funny, sweet, demanding--so they can inspire me all day long. That may sound sappy, but these are tough times for people working in the arts. I figure we need all the delight we can get.
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