This week, we read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and discussed the myriad of ways museums can encourage visitors to engage, participate, and contribute. Simon’s book is full of rich examples highlighting the different levels of visitor participation. Examples vary from exhibits that allow visitors to rank their favorite objects and artwork to exhibits that visitors can create themselves by contributing personal objects. Simon mostly uses examples from medium to large museums and cultural institutions; at the end of some sections she emphasizes the applicability of participatory practices at smaller organizations. For instance, even a museum with limited space and a small budget can create a profile badge for visitors to choose an answer, “YES” or “NO,” to an opinion poll – one method Simon emphasizes as effective for participation.
For my interview, I spoke with Heather Cunningham, a curator consulting at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton, NJ. Heather and I discussed her experience with participatory exhibits at the Newseum in Washington, DC and at smaller institutions like Morven. One criticism Heather had of Simon’s book was her focus on larger institutions. Although she does consider smaller museums to some extent, Simon neglects to consider the low foot traffic many small museums experience. Can these participatory practices work if there few people to participate? I think Simon would argue that they would still work – participatory exhibits would draw more people in because visitors want to participate. What do you think?
Here are two examples of participatory exhibits Heather worked on at the Newseum. The first (on the left) is an opinion poll on the media’s reaction to Ferguson. Visitors could place a small dot under the answer, “Yes” or “No.” The second (on the right) is a timeline of historic events in the news. Visitors could add post-it notes to the timeline with personal events.