Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Gender Differences in Participation: The Pocket Museum Example

This morning, I checked in on the Pocket Museums on our museum's ground floor. This simple participatory project invites visitors to contribute their own small objects in little alcoves in our bathrooms. We piloted it last year as part of a "behind the scenes" event, and we brought back last month to coincide with a thematic exhibition on collecting and identity.

Here's the strange thing. I walked into the women's bathroom and saw what I expected to see--a bunch of quirky objects on display with stories written on post-its.

Then I walked into the men's bathroom. No objects. A couple stories. And a lot of screwing around.

After I took down all the "kick me" and "kick it" post-its covering the Pocket Museum title label in the men's room, I realized that this is the perfect example of an A-to-B test for gendered response to a participatory museum experience. The men's and women's bathroom got the same prompts and the same supplies in identical spaces. But people have participated in completely different ways.

I'm not drawing any major conclusions from this, but it was incredibly interesting--especially since the behavior in the men's bathroom deviated sharply from the range of participatory response we see throughout the rest of the museum. We have seven participatory elements in our current exhibitions on three floors, ranging from voting to talkback walls to an in-depth "make a memory jar" craft activity. The participation is almost 100% on-topic and appropriate. We don't see much screwing around here. People like participating, we take them seriously, and they take us seriously.

But not so much in the men's bathroom. Here are three possible explanations for this gender divide:
  • Men and women use bathrooms differently. A women's bathroom has a slight social function, whereas a men's bathroom does not. Given the chance in a more private, male-only space, men might be more likely than women to mess around. 
  • The Pocket Museum activity could be more appropriate for women, many of whom carry bags or purses. If the activity is not as relevant to men, they might use the tools provided to do something else.
  • Maybe women are the lead participants throughout the museum, and they create a normative set of seed content that encourages men to behave comparably in exhibits (but not in bathrooms). I would be surprised if this is the case given my direct observation of visitors in the galleries; however, the Dallas Museum of Art's Ignite the Power of Art study DID show a much higher incidence of participation among women at that museum (62% vs 38% for men, more information here). 
I'm sure you have many other ideas about why this might be happening... and I hope you share them in the comments. What I think is interesting is that this is noticeable at all. It makes me curious about what other techniques we could use to test differences in participatory response. In general, we try to encourage multi-vocal participation, deliberately ensuring that the seed content represents diverse approaches to the activity or exhibition. We want a broad range of people to feel that there is a place "for them" in the exhibition and to feel connected to diverse participants through the activity. 

This bridging effect is really important to us. The last thing we want is to become the kind of place where one demographic group participates while another stands back and watches (a problem common to science and children's museums when it comes to kids and adults). Maybe A-to-B testing can help identify some of the subtle differences among our visitors and improve our approach so that we keep making sure that our invitation to participate rings true for our diverse community.

And in the meantime, we'll try to get some better seed content in the men's room... or maybe we need a different activity in there. This may be the first time I advocate for gender-segregated exhibit design. What would you do?
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