When we talk “participation” what are we actually talking about?

hoods harbour 2Giving a paper at this week’s Visitor Studies Group conference called From #myspace to #sharedspace: Has tech changed our relationships with visitors? Having now reflected on my (somewhat over-ambitious!) abstract, visiting museums in Berlin and London and having thoughtful chats with museum folks far and wide, got me wondering When we talk “participation” what are we actually talking about … and does tech help?

Participation (and collaboration) is not new
Tapscott and Williams (2006) introduced the idea of ‘Wikinomics’, a process where businesses outsource a project via a process of mass collaboration and cooperation to solve a problem or improve their work processes, which we know better as ‘crowdsourcing’. In conducting research into the origins of crowdsourcing at the Smithsonian Institution, Bruno (2011) noted the Smithsonian’s “… longstanding tradition of involving volunteers in its mission to ‘increase and diffuse knowledge”. The Meteorological Project was one of the first crowdsourcing (collaborative) projects, started by the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry:

In 1849 he set up a network of some 150 volunteer weather observers all over the country. Within a decade, the project had more than 600 volunteer observers and had spread to Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The amateur weather enthusiasts submitted monthly reports that were then analysed by James H. Coffin, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and finally published in 1861 in the first of a two- volume compilation of climatic data and storm observations based on the volunteers’ reports.” (Bruno, 2011).

What has changed in the twenty-first century? As Tapscott and Williams note “Digitisation means information can be shared, cross-referenced, and repurposed like never before. Knowledge can build more quickly within networks of firms and institutions that cross seamlessly over disciplinary boundaries” (2006, p.153-154).

  • Bruno E. (2011). Smithsonian Crowdsourcing Since 1849! Smithsonian Institution Archives Blog.
  • Tapscott, D. and Williams, A. (2006). Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio: USA.

As is widely acknowledged, technology has fundamentally changed the way we approach audiences across the physical, online and mobile contexts museum operate within, as well as forcing us to re-think our practices, jobs and skill sets.

Participation – some case examples

So, what is participation and who are the participants? I feel these questions are best illustrated by the following four interesting examples.

Gallery One, Cleveland Art Gallery

Gallery One is a ground-breaking concept, solidly informed by both audience research and theoretical enquiry, culminating in experiences that ask visitors:

… a question to engage them in their experience: (1) What is it, and what do you see? (2) How is it made? (3) Why was it made? This approach privileges inquiry-based techniques for exploring the collections, and seeks to open new perspectives on the visual arts by moving away from the conventional, art-historical narratives as the central, overarching portal into the collection. (Alexander, Barton and Goeser, 2013).

Gallery One demonstrates the innovative use of technology to enhance and engage audiences (under a CYOD model) without getting in the way of their personal and social gallery experiences.

Dallas Museum of Art: DMA Friends

The DMA Friends program is an innovative way to encourage visitors to become active participants with the museum through an ongoing, personalised relationship – something often overlooked in both friends’ programs generally (which are often as much about revenue-raising as anything!) and in the development of digital products. Similar to Gallery One, the program is based on a deep understanding of both audiences and the learning literature, yet adding a gamification element. Stein and Wyman (2013) note that:

While the practice of audience engagement in museums has become increasingly sophisticated, the heart of any successful engagement is the individual human connection that can happen in the museum. In large museums, this individual attention can be difficult; therefore, this project sets its focus on building an institutional infrastructure that can support many kinds of participation without getting in the way of a great museum experience. (Stein and Wyman, 2013).

One of the exciting ideas here is the inclusion of gamification to encorage a longer-term relationship, repeat physical visitation and a lot of fun too!

#HoodsHarbour, Australian National Maritime Museum

#HoodsHarbour installFinally, a physical exhibition that comes from an online project, not the other way around! In the words of Nicole Cama, Digital Curator:

Showcasing a small selection from our Samuel (Sam) J Hood collection, #HoodsHarbour pays homage to the work of a group of individuals we call our ‘super sleuths’. Thanks to their efforts on our Flickr Commons page, we were able to solve the mystery behind the image that formed the inspiration for this exhibition – the lovely Hera Roberts. The story of this discovery symbolises the way that our followers have enriched our collection, unearthing its secrets and finding its hidden stories. Hood’s photograph of Hera remains the highest viewed and most favourited on the museum’s Flickr Commons photostream to date. More than 80 years after it was taken, Hera continues to captivate and inspire our audiences.

The added value to the exhibition is to encourage these ‘super sleuth’s to visit the Museum’s physical site – I’m wondering if, seeing them “in the flesh” so to speak, their favourite image changes? Something to watch further!

The Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools – a partnership with a difference, Australian Museum

popup imageOver the past ten years the Australian Museum worked with students and teachers from the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools to advise the Museum on the development of exhibitions and programs, how to design learning experiences tailored to their needs, as well as how the Museum can best use the digital environment to showcase research and collections. The Coalition consists of around 20 public and privately-funded schools across New South covering the spectrum of years from Kindergarten (aged five years) to Year 12 (aged 17-18 years), as well as representing a broad range of socio-economic circumstances and geographic locations. These consultations came to be known as Kids’ Colleges and, to date, five were held – 2006 (exhibition development), 2007 (digital learning), 2008 (climate change), 2009 (Teachers’ College), 2010 (exhibition text) and 2011 (objects – Pop-up Museum). The benefits of participation can be best summed up by one participant, when asked what was best about Kids College, stated that:

The whole thing I thoroughly enjoyed! I love all of it and getting the chance to have my say. If I had to choose a favorite part of it all I would most definitely say being taken on a tour of the Museum and just being able to state our opinion with meaning.

This year, students who were involved in the 2010 text project (now in year 12, aged 17-18) have been asked to reflect on their experiences four years ago – fascinated to see what comes of that.

Participation and audience research

To conclude, taken together these projects have as their basis a willingness to work closely with audiences, are based within solid research and are coupled with an open attitude to embrace novel and iterative ways of collaborating, whether based in the digital realm (as the first three examples) or the physical entity (as in the Coalition work). Finally, Nicole from the ANMM sums up participation nicely:

… this is an exhibition that has been chosen by and for the people.

I realise that there are a myriad other examples and look forward to hearing more at the conference and also from you – feel free to leave a comment below.


5 thoughts on “When we talk “participation” what are we actually talking about?

  1. nicolecama says:

    Wonderful post thanks so much Lynda! What’s interesting to note, particularly about the article that appeared on the Daily Telegraph website, was that it exposed the collection, but more importantly, the work of our Flickr sleuths to a much greater audience than what we have achieved so far through social media. Our stats on Flickr went through the roof overnight. I’ll be really interested to see if it inspires new sleuths to comb through our collection. I also saw comments online that were inspired by the hard work of these individuals, noting that a visit to the museum is now in order!
    Another thought, what the exhibition has also ironically showed, is that we don’t just do exhibitions or events. We are sharing our collection online and the community is contributing to it every single day.
    I love the Coalition, and that you’ve gone back to the same students years later and followed through. Looking forward to seeing the results!

  2. lyndakelly61 says:

    Thnx Nicole. Looking forward to getting back home and finally getting to see #hoodsharbour in the flesh!

  3. lyndakelly61 says:

    Got this email and set of links from Jane at the NMM.

    “Lovely to meet you last week. I really enjoyed your keynote and found it very inspiring. Got me thinking about lots of things and new ideas. Here are links to the blogs we wrote about the Flickr project at the NMM. Participants also made their own blog which we link to as well.
    Hope you had a safe trip back to Australia. Looking forward to following what your up to on the blog.”

    Thanks Jane – will look into those links!

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