Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Power of Symbolic Participation: A Story from the Skirball

Imagine you want to invite people to meaningfully engage with a serious topic in an exhibition. How would you do it? What forms of content delivery or participation might induce someone not just to read/look/listen but to care--and hopefully, to act?

Museums have been grappling with this question for years (here's a 2007 roundup of such projects), most aggressively in zoos and natural history museums where staff hope to inspire conservation and in history/concept museums that focus on civic engagement and activism. It's a particularly tough problem because of the multiple psychological steps required to shift someone from ignorance or disinterest to action. Too often, we jump immediately to offering visitors a way to act without first helping them care passionately about the issue at hand. You have to care before you want to act, and caring--about the earth, about civil rights, about art--is not a given. As environmental educator David Sobel has written, "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it."

I was reminded of this "care, then act" framework when I saw a recent story about a student's experience at a powerful issue-driven exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, Half the Sky. This exhibition about oppression of women worldwide is based on the book by the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn. It's a hard-hitting show about women who are suffering from and rising out of human trafficking, unequal access to education and health care, and cultures that treat them as disposable property. The exhibition, like the book, is intended not just to tell stories of doom but to encourage visitors to act to help transform the lives of women worldwide.

No small task for a museum exhibition. I was involved in early planning for this project, and we were all struck by the enormity of the challenges, our strong desire to make change, and the reality of what might be practical and possible.

When I visited the exhibition in November, I saw many participatory opportunities for visitors to act. Some are very specific and useful--postcard petitions to sign and send, a "click to give" campaign run in partnership with a corporate donor. Visitors can share what inspired them in the exhibition and what they plan to do after leaving the museum (similar to the Holocaust Museum's interactive about confronting genocide today).

But the most beautiful participatory elements are mostly symbolic in nature (and designed by Karina White, a very talented person). The largest was a "wish canopy" that hangs above the entire gallery. Visitors can "share a wish for a woman or girl" or "share a wish for a woman facing a difficult situation." The wishes are then added to the ceiling installation over time, creating a "sky" of wishes for women.

The strangest participatory element was a wall full of dots--20,000 of them, representing just a slice of the 60 million women who are suffering worldwide. There was no specific instruction with the dots. Visitors had colored them in, written tiny messages in them, and used them to make designs.

I didn't really understand what the dots were about. To me, they seemed like an activity without a reason--purely symbolic, and weak symbolism at that.

My perspective on the dots changed when I read a short blog post about a visit by a young visitor named B.J. (age/gender unknown). B.J. described Half the Sky this way:
The area was huge and completley white. They had little areas where stories of women suffering and the good they had done. They also had activities. 
One was where you wrote a wish for a woman you know and for a struggling woman out there. The other was were you colored in a dot with any color, saying you supported women. There were 20,000 dots. 
I knew I couldn't do the wish. What was I going to say? Sorry your life isn't awesome! Hope it gets better! That was what everyone would write and it was completley pointless, to me. 
So i did the dots. 
I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot,I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. 
When we left I was kind of stunned. While the other kids were talking about what was happening at school, changed but wanting to temporaily forget about anything really important, I sat their in silence, thinking. 
I thought about the women who tried so hard and suffered so much. I thought about the dots. And I thought about how many I would have colored, given the time. Maybe a thousand. Supporting a thousand.
This account fascinated me for several reasons. B.J. clearly was moved by the exhibition and didn't know how to respond. B.J. was not ready to do the concrete action of sharing a specific wish for a woman. B.J. didn't see that as a meaningful way to engage. But  B.J. did see the dots as meaningful.

I don't think that B.J. thought that filling in dots actually meant s/he was taking useful action. But it was a way for B.J. to express a newfound concern for women in need. It made me realize that symbolic participation might be a way for us to help visitors take the first step toward action by allowing them to express an emotional reaction. It's not practical to imagine that every visitor is ready to sign a petition or express his/her intention to change or act in a specific way. The dots provide a kind of scaffolding, allowing someone like B.J. to show s/he cares. And that's not weak or useless at all.

Just as there are scales of social and creative participation, maybe there are scales of civic participation as well that we should be considering as we design these kinds of activism-oriented projects. Anyone have a good model or relevant story to share about the pathway to action?

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