Review: The Participatory Museum

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon argues that the social web has changed the way that people relate to one another and the world, and makes a case for introducing participatory design to cultural institutions.

I am a longtime reader and fan of Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0 and so I jumped at the chance to review her book. Both Simon’s blog and The Participatory Museum offer compelling real-life examples and case studies of cultural institutions that have adopted new media strategies to help fulfill their institutional missions. These new media strategies do not always (and often do not) take place on the web. Rather, Simon is concerned with gleaning knowledge from web and new media interactions, and apply this knowledge to the real world.

Simon looks for inspiration in unexpected places. The case studies and examples that Simon cites are not limited to the museum world nor even to cultural institutions. She broadens her case studies to include for-profit corporations including Netflix, Nike, and Harrah’s Casinos.

Translating the participatory nature of social media to a museum sounds like a great idea. But as Simon is quick to acknowledge, this process is harder than it sounds. Simon begins her first chapter with an eloquent example of bad design.

It’s 2004. I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum. We’re checking out the final exhibit—a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition. I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and they are really, really bad. The videos fall into two categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.

I am sure that every museum-goer has had a similar experience in the past 10 years. Despite the fact that I am an avid user of social media online, I cringe at the thought of video-taping my response to an exhibit. Yet Simon argues that this is not because people do not want to participate; it is just a case of bad design.

So how can museums design good participatory experiences? The bulk of the book is devoted to answering that question, so I will just briefly summarize some of Simon’s most compelling points.

First, Simon acknowledges that not everyone WANTS to participate. Some museum visitors truly appreciate a traditional museum environment; they visit to learn from experts or to view exhibits. They are  not expecting to add their own voice to the museum and might find this experience off-putting. For this reason, Simon suggests that participatory techniques should only be one of the interpretive techniques used by a museum.

Second, even when people do want to participate, they will participate in different ways. Learning from online audience research, Simon grouped participants into six categories by activity.

  • Creators (24%) who produce content, upload videos, write blogs
  • Critics (37%) who submit reviews, rate content, and comment on social media sites
  • Collectors (21%) who organize links and aggregate content for personal or social consumption
  • Joiners (51%) who maintain accounts on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn
  • Spectators (73%) who read blogs, watch YouTube videos, visit social sites
  • Inactives (18%) who don’t visit social sites

The percentages add up to greater than 100% because many users prefer to participate in different ways. For instance, in this blog post, I am acting as a creator, critic, collector. In order to research this blog post, I also acted as a joiner and a spectator. In order to build a successful  participatory experiences, designers need to consider more than just the creators and find a way to encourage all of these categories of use.

Third, the use of cutting-edge technology is not neccessary to build a good participatory experience. Some of the options that Simon explores are decidedly low-tech. For instance, Simon suggests using entrance stickers or punch-cards to personalize the experience for the visitor and allow front-line staff to recognize repeat visitors, or other data points that are important to an institution. I recently visited President Lincoln’s Cottage  and viewed an exhibit on modern day slavery called, Can You Walk Away? The exhibit featured a wall of postcards with different facts about slavery. I was able to choose my own postcard off the wall, tear it off, and take it home as a reminder of the exhibit. This experience was low-tech, but participatory and effective.

Can You Walk Away? Postcard

This postcard from the Can You Walk Away? exhibit at President Lincoln’s Cottage was a low-tech but effective way to engage audiences with content.

Fourth, Simon argues that new media tactics work best when they are easily integrated into your institutions current practices. Simon uses an example of a library in Sweden that wanted to crowd-source “tagging” of their book collections to contribute reader recommendations to their online catalog. However, the library had a low success rate of users visiting the website and adding feedback. So, the library did something very clever; they added more book drops. Now when patrons returned books, they could chose the drop that best described their review: “good for kids”, “boring”, “funny” etc. The tags were also electronically connected back to the online catalog when the librarian scanned the books back into the collection.

Finally, museums should not pursue participatory unless it is really relevant to their mission. Institutions should only be asking questions that they care about and always, always, always be prepared to listen to the answers. 

Most importantly to me as a reader, Simon is not just talking the talk. She posted her book online creating a dynamic piece of content where users can access her bibliography, review the book, comment on specific chapters, and add their own case studies. Simon is walking the walk by designing a truly participatory reader experience.

Now please excuse me, I am off to share my thoughts with the author and thousands of her closest friends.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Participatory Museum

  1. drdankerr says:

    Excellent review! I’m going to be a collector and bookmark her online version of the book. Were there any chapters that you feel could work in this course? Would you drop it in the good for grads pile?

  2. […] Of course, this book is not a comprehensive guide to creating an online exhibit. As should be expected from a book published in 2001, certain aspects of the book are very dated. There is no mention of social media. The design section, although it provides a great overview on layout and typography, gives very little guidance on usability testing or audience-based design. Kalfatovic stresses the importance of interactive web exhibits, but is years away from the type of participatory practice and shared authority that Nina Simon explores in her 2010 book, The Participatory Museum. […]

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