What’s Next? Imagining the Participatory Museum

Throughout this book, I have argued that participatory techniques are design strategies that have specific value and can be applied in cultural institutions to powerful effect. These techniques represent an addition to the design toolkit, not a replacement for traditional strategies. Participation is an “and,” not an “or.”

I believe in these arguments. I also believe in the potential for participatory techniques to give rise to a new kind of institution, just as interactive design techniques led to the ascendance of the science centers and children’s museums in the late twentieth century. While today museums of all types incorporate interactive techniques to some extent, most children’s museums and science centers can be described as wholly interactive. Some contemporary leading science centers and children’s museums, like the Boston Children’s Museum, are radically transformed versions of traditional institutions. The Exploratorium and many others were born in the 1960s and 1970s to offer new kinds of visitor experiences. These institutions use interactive engagement as the fundamental vehicle to promote visitor learning, recreation, and exploration.

I dream of a comparable future institution that is wholly participatory, one that uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for visitor experiences. Imagine a place where visitors and staff members share their personal interests and skills with each other. A place where each person’s actions are networked with those of others into cumulative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix. A place where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations. A place where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and content in a designed, intentional environment. A place where communities and staff members measure impact together. A place that gets better the more people use it.

The final result may not resemble today’s museums. It may look more like a coffee shop or a community arts center. It may function with models found today in a co-working space or a sewing lounge. It might feature content based on democratic rather than top-down processes. It might prioritize changing displays over traditional conservation and accession practices, multi-vocal content over authoritative catalogs. It might be owned cooperatively or funded by members. It might allocate more dollars to dialogue facilitation than exhibit construction.

Could your institution become such a place? While imagined participatory institutions may appear fundamentally different from traditional museums, so does the modern Boston Children’s Museum look different from the display of children’s objects that preceded it. That institution shifted from being “about” children and families to being “for” them. What would it look like if it evolved to being “with” them?

This is a question that many institutions are already pondering, and with good reason. The cultural and technological shifts that accompanied the rise of the social Web have changed people’s expectations of what makes experiences worthwhile or appealing. People assume the right to co-opt and redistribute institutional content, not just to look at it. They seek opportunities for creative expression, both self-directed and in response to the media they consume. They want to be respected and responded to because of their unique interests. They crave the chance to be recognized by and connected to sympathetic communities around the world. These shifts will change the way that cultural institutions of all types, from museums to libraries to for-profit “experience vendors,” do business.

All of these expectations can bring cultural institutions closer to their fundamental goals. Object-centered institutions are uniquely equipped to support creative and respectful community dialogue. Interpersonal interactions around content can strengthen relationships among diverse audiences. Participatory activities can provide valuable civic and learning experiences. Most importantly, the idealistic mission statements of many cultural institutions—to engage visitors with heritage, connect them to new ideas, encourage critical thinking, support creativity, and inspire them to take positive action—can be attained through participatory practice.

There are millions of creative, community-minded people who are ready to visit, contribute to, and participate with cultural institutions that support their interests. While many people explore their passions in online communities, there is enormous potential for them to come together in physical spaces organized around stories and objects that matter to them. These physical spaces may be historical societies or science cafés, art centers or libraries. They may be museums of all sizes and types.

When people have safe, welcoming places in their local communities to meet new people, engage with complex ideas, and be creative, they can make significant civic and cultural impact. The cumulative effort of thousands of participatory institutions could change the world. Rather than being “nice to have,” these institutions can become must-haves for people seeking places for community and participation.

How will you integrate participation into your professional work? How do you see it benefiting your institution, your visitors, and your broader audience of community members and stakeholders?

These questions are not rhetorical. I hope that you will join the online conversation about this book by sharing your participatory case studies, comments, and questions. You can comment on any section of the book (including this one) by clicking “Post a Comment” in the upper left.

This book is just a start, a rock tossed in the water. I hope that it will help you in your design thinking and that you will share your ideas and innovations with all of us so we can move forward together into this new, participatory world.