Neglecting the Little Guy?

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.

Newseum Opinion Poll                  Newseum Timeline (1)

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14 Responses to Neglecting the Little Guy?

  1. emily_pfeil says:

    I think that participatory exhibits can absolutely still work in smaller institutions. The challenge may be to create exhibits that make sure to cater to their community because smaller museums may have a more specific audience. I really liked the pictures you added to your post. They really show how relatively affordable and innovative participatory exhibits can be!

    • scalje70 says:

      I fully agree with your opinion Emily. Participatory exhibits can of course still be put into smaller institutions, it’s simply harder to accomplish due to a variety of reasons.

  2. shaual96 says:

    I also think it’s very possible for smaller museums to have very participatory exhibits. As Emily mentioned, the challenge may be catering those exhibits to their community. However, this could also work to their advantage. Smaller museums can encourage those community members to collaborate on new exhibits that tell their story just as well as a larger museum. That way, you learn what the community needs from the museum and what they’re hoping to get out of their museum experience.

  3. peytonktracy says:

    I agree. Small museums usually have the advantage of their communities behind them. If the participatory activities appeal to the community and their input, it could garner a lot of response. Some small museums even call upon their communities to contribute to the museum as a whole – my hometown’s museum does an exhibit or two a year that is community artwork or one recent one was Renton’s Best Friends, all about pets in our community, and they had a Pet Night where everyone could bring in their animals and take pictures in a small photobooth studio in the (completely animal friendly) exhibit space. They got a TON of the community to come in and it was a lot of fun too!

  4. mickcr says:

    Creating exhibits in smaller institutions that draw in the community is a fantastic idea, but from experience and working at small institutions, I can see where the challenge is. Lack of foot traffic and interest make participatory exhibits difficult to maintain. Maybe after learning more from Nina Simon, we can bring new strategies to small museums!

  5. armok59 says:

    I agree with the previous comments, participatory practices can absolutely work at smaller museums. Although it seems easier to see how these practices would work more efficiently at a larger institution, it still exists at all levels. Particularly at smaller institutions it is essential to engage with your audience, finding a way for even a few people to get more involved should be seen as a success.

  6. fundmc55 says:

    Participatory exhibits in small museum are an interesting conundrum. Although resources might be scarce, I think Greer has given great examples of low cost, effective ways to get visitors involved and engaged with the materials. However, I do believe that these institutions must have some level of standing within their community to help make a successful participatory experience. I would imagine that institutions would need to be well established within the community as places of open dialogue before an exhibit of this kind could be implemented. To echo Cassidy, this seems an exciting challenge!

  7. corwhe56 says:

    While Simon’s book may neglect participation at smaller museums, that does not mean they are at a disadvantage. The Hanford Mills Museum uses its usually small group size to its advantage. The staff likes only having twenty visitors in a tour because it allows everyone to have a really hands on approach to the different sites through participatory actions and dialogue with the interpreters that would not be possible with a large group size.

  8. scalje70 says:

    The main concern that arrives in my mind when considering participatory exhibits in smaller institutions is funding. Larger and more popular institutions typically have a larger endowment and a larger staff to work with for exhibits such as those, whereas smaller institutions are typically more limited in these areas.

  9. sstrzepek says:

    The two examples of participatory exhibits look awesome! I believe that participatory exhibits can be successful even if small numbers are only participating. The opinions are still impactful, and can possibly inspire other visitors to partake, as well.

  10. jehartman93 says:

    I agree with all of what’s been said. On our field trip we visited the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA, which is a small historic house institution to be sure, but offers a wide variety of participatory public programs catered to the specific interests of their community, including a series of participatory theater experiences staged by a reputable theater company. They also have a participatory exhibit room in which visitors can shift the words of Emily Dickinson’s poetry around on a giant (very aesthetically pleasing) board designed to illustrate the layers of meaning imbued in her poetry.

  11. welceq51 says:

    I actually think smaller museums have even more to gain from participatory exhibits than larger museums. Small institutions have a harder time staying in the public face because they usually have smaller budgets to work with and can’t compete on the same scale as a big institution. But if they can find a way to make their exhibits memorable, even by doing something as simply as a sticky note board to get people’s reactions, it could further their endeavor to reach their community.

  12. peteglog says:

    In regards to a museum’s size, the smaller museums may have more freedom to experiment with exhibit ideas and becoming more participatory than the larger museums. If museums are to become more participatory, smaller museums can move quicker in some ways to break new ground.

  13. joshdtaylor says:

    I feel small museums have a better chance as well. While larger organization have the foot traffic, smaller museums can engage with the community more frequently and build community relationships. The struggle is establishing these connections and making the museum a stable of the area.

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