The Participatory Museum: Creating Dialogue through Participation

The modern museum is consistently looking for new ways to enhance the visitor experience, especially understanding why people visit a museum, what draws them there, and how to get them to return. In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon discusses the methods by which participation can be used to create more meaningful experiences for visitors, viewing them as “cultural participants” instead of “passive consumers.” One big idea Simon focuses on is the fact that “visitors construct their own meaning from cultural experiences,” since at the crux of it all, visitors are the core of the museum experience, and can offer a unique perspective to museum programs, if given the opportunity.

Simon suggests ways that a museum can enable visitors to “construct their own experiences” by adopting a “me-to-we” design concept in order to “enhance interactions with others.” So, museums can start moving beyond the visitor’s personal experience by expanding the range of opportunities for social engagement by harnessing collective information. This is done through the Network Effect “which translates individual actions into community benefits” in three steps:

  1. Individuals have personalized interactions
  2. An internal algorithm makes connections among the individuals
  3. The networked content is displayed or provided back to the individuals

The Stages of Social Participation

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The “me-to-we” design concept allows museums to engage visitors in activities and dialogue with each other, so they feel like they are contributing and developing a deeper understanding of the overall exhibit theme. This design allows visitors to own their experience, since they get to choose which role they play during their experience, the listener or the contributor. This design also takes some weight off of staff to guide and manage participation. The museum staff cannot be everywhere but visitors’ interactions with content can enable them to enhance each other’s experiences via connecting socially around content. While people of the twenty-first century will eventually become bored with participation, they will never tire of having the opportunity to talk and share their opinions on relevant topics.

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8 Responses to The Participatory Museum: Creating Dialogue through Participation

  1. carlyfaison says:

    I think your last sentence is very interesting. You say that people of the twenty-first century will eventually become bored with participation. Do you mean to say they will become bored with face-to-face interaction or that they would rather share their own opinions than listen to others? Perhaps museums should focus on teaching people to listen as well as to participate, therefore creating a place where meaningful discourse can occur.

    • kimnmccleary says:

      I believe that visitors will become disinterested in participation if it is the only thing museums have to offer them day in and day out. In the same way many visitors have become bored with the traditional museum setting. I completely agree that museums should focus on teaching visitors how to participate and listen, a balance between the two, to create more meaningful dialogue in the museum.

  2. maolsen13 says:

    You mention that people will become bored with participation. If museums stay relevant and the participation changes do you really think they would become bored? I think this speaks more to not letting exhibits, or anything for that matter, sit for too long. If you keep updating it I think it will continue to engage visitors and increase museum visitation.

    • kimnmccleary says:

      In “The Participatory Museum”, Nina Simon mentions the range of visitor participation. Visitors level of participation ranges from full immersion to not wanting to participate at all. I think that many visitors can become bored with participation, based on the belief that visitors need a break every now and then from the demands of participation. If the museum stays relevant and continually changes its methods of participation I believe that visitors will stay engaged to a certain point. I do not want to discount the fact that visitors mood, goals, and range of participation changes every visit based on their own personal needs. So, the museum may become boring to some visitors if it has nothing else to offer to its visitors. But, I cannot agree with you more on the fact that exhibits should not sit for too long and that the contentious update of relevant exhibits will increase museum visitation. Surely, participation will help engage these new visitors; but will continuous participation in every exhibit help keep them or do some visitors need a break sometimes?

  3. emilykp47 says:

    The concepts in The Participatory Museum are really intriguing, and I love the idea of helping audiences connect to each other as well as the exhibit itself. However, how can museum professionals help make this happen? We’ve all seen museums that try to be interactive but fail to engage their visitors. As students in the museum field, how can we help museums to be more participatory?

    • kimnmccleary says:

      I agree that “The Participatory Museum” is intriguing and I strongly believe that Simon offers emerging museum professionals an immense amount of ideas on how to make museums more participatory. Her book presents different techniques to help museums invite visitor participation while promoting institutional goals. Simon, defines “participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content”. So, as emerging museum professionals I believe that we can help make museums more participatory by allowing visitors to contribute their own ideas, create dialogue, remix exhibit content, and connect with staff and other visitors.

  4. caitlinmccaffrey11 says:

    I wonder if there could be a backlash to the overly participatory museum. As you said people may tire of constant requests to participate. I also wonder about the me-to-we design. As a museum goer wishing to learn from historians and museum experts, I’m not sure that I would want to constantly see exhibits in a museum interpreted and put together by members of the community.

    • kimnmccleary says:

      Yes, I completely agree with you. I think that museum need to great a balance between museum created exhibits and community created exhibits.

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