Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yes, Visitors Can Help You. But You Have to Let Them.

Two weeks ago, two of my staff members came to me with a problem. They were planning a wall mural for our classroom. They planned to paint the outline of Santa Cruz County, print out photos of a series of important landmarks or icons throughout the county, and then paint those items onto the map. As part of our monthly First Friday community event, they would invite visitors to draw some of the icons, and then the drawings would be the basis for what would be painted on the mural.

The problem? It was Friday, a few hours before the drawing activity, and my colleagues were worried that it would be too challenging for people to draw the icons and landmarks selected. They were afraid that visitors would get frustrated or that the quality of their work would not be good enough to translate to the mural. We often avoid drawing as a community art activity because visitors can get really judgmental of their own abilities, and our staff just felt that this might be too hard.  They wanted to drop the activity.

I asked what plan B was if visitors didn't draw the items. They said that they would draw them or translate them from photographs in some way. These are both busy people, and while they are very artistic, neither is a crack drawer.

I encouraged them to go ahead with the community activity as planned. It seemed to me like we had little to lose and a lot to gain if visitors could in fact make some good representations of the icons. I figured this was a classic crowd-sourcing activity; while not everyone can draw well, it seemed a heck of a lot more likely that we'd get some good drawings from a few of the 800+ people at the event than we'd get if we never asked.

Visitors rose to the challenge and made some incredible drawings. It turned into a pretty wild evening in the classroom, filled with, "Whoa! You drew that?!"s, visitors pouring over each other's work, and impossible decisions about which drawings would be used for the final mural. We were all surprised by the quality of the visitors' work. We selected final drawings for the mural based on drawings by young kids, teenagers, and adults. This Friday, a new set of visitors will paint the drawn icons onto the actual mural.

This experience reminded me of how much confidence it takes to say yes to any new activities (this isn't limited to participatory projects) because of unfamiliarity with the process. My colleagues are smart, generous people who love involving visitors in our work. But when the work gets complicated or difficult, it's easy to get nervous about visitors' ability to perform.

A participatory project is one in which visitors/users can actively contribute to make the institution better. That's only possible if we let them try. We're probably all self-censoring opportunities for community members to make significant contributions to our work. How could visitors improve your institution, and what do you need to let go of to help them do it?
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