Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Will They Play in Pyongyang? Culture, Geography, and Participation

The objections started in Texas. During a workshop on museum visitor participation, someone spoke up and objected: "this might work in California, but it will never work in Texas."

Then in Australia: "this might work in America, but it will never work in Australia."

In New Zealand: "this might work in Australia, but it will never work in New Zealand."

For years, I've heard some version of this refrain. For the most part, I discounted it. I saw how participatory techniques were working in diverse museums around the world. I felt and continue to feel that everyone, everywhere, wants to be heard in some way. This is a human desire. It is not culturally-determined. There is no country or city or institution where visitors don't want to make a connection.

What may be culturally-determined, however, is HOW people want to participate. In different countries, I've noticed broad trends in how people feel most comfortable sharing their voice. For example:
  • American museum visitors often feel comfortable sharing their own opinions/stories/creative expression. We have a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of self and individuality, and it shows in a million post-it talk-back walls in museum exhibitions.
  • European museum visitors appear more comfortable engaging in interpersonal dialogue and social games with strangers. While they may not be as comfortable as Americans with "me" experiences, they are much more up for "we" activities.  
  • In Asia, I've noticed museum visitors are willing--enthusiastic, even--to take photos with strangers. To pose with them. To find favorite artifacts together and say cheese. I've never seen that kind of openness with strangers and cameras in the US or Europe.
Cultural differences can play out on local levels as well. What plays well at one museum may fall flat a few miles away. What works for one visitor may feel uncomfortable or inaccessible to someone from a different cultural background.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of cultural inclusion. Here are two observations about visitor participation:
  1. Participatory activities invite people to engage in new ways that may disrupt traditional norms of interaction. In this frame, any kind of participatory activity could work, anywhere. Why restrict people to barriers based on cultural norms when the whole point is to create opportunities beyond them? The way visitors engage--or don't--should not limited by culture or geography.
  2. Participatory activities work best when people feel comfortable and confident getting involved. In this frame, cultural starting points matter a lot. Is that activity an opportunity or a threat? Am I sharing my voice or being exposed? The way visitors engage--or don't--may have a lot to do with their cultural starting point. 
These two tenets are almost always somewhat contradictory. When we are presented with a new opportunity, it often feels like a challenge. The question is whether the challenge feels appropriate or impossible, appealing or demeaning. My suspicion is that culture has a lot to do with the answer.

Consider a simple activity that invites people to describe their identity using a simulated passport. For many people, it's empowering to name oneself as a person of a certain background, ethnicity, interests, etc. But for others, it can feel like unwelcome exposure, a reminder of the frustrations of legal status, or another nudge of how they don't fit into society's boxes. 

I try to be attentive to whether an activity systematically excludes certain people in the nature of how or what it invites... and in my current work, to especially focus on participatory activities that empower people who lack voice in other venues.

Here are the questions that help me think about this:
  1. Who do we most want to empower to participate in this activity?
  2. What invitation to engage will feel most compelling to our target participants?
  3. How might that invitation exclude or turn off other prospective participants?
  4. Are we ok with that?

How do you think about this question of culture, geography, and participatory experiences?

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