Nina Simon on the Participatory Museum at Walker Art Center

Nina Simon the author of The Participatory Museum and the Museum 2.0 weblog was in the Twin Cities this week to promote her book at an event hosted by the Walker Art Center. I was already at the Walker to give a public tour and decided to stick around and listen to what Nina had to say which was a good decision.

Simon spoke for half an hour about her work on encouraging participation by museum goers. I enjoyed her pragmatic, design-centric approach to the problems of encouraging participation and collaboration which showed off her engineering background.

She said that the typical museum is visitor agnostic. It is designed to give the same information to a 10-year old and someone with a Ph.D. The labels on the exhibits are the same for both visitors. But does this really make sense, especially in a world where technology and design are capable of so much more?

Simon advocates for three transformations of the museum:

  1. From destinations into places for everyday use.
  2. From trusted sources of information into trusted hosts for social experiences.
  3. From places for seeing and exploring into places for making and doing.

Why don’t maker workshops and hackerspaces take place at science museums? Do the directors of the museums realize that these groups exist? Do the hackers bother to ask the museums for space or support? What about stitch and bitch groups who meet in coffee houses? Why shouldn’t they meet in a museum (or a library)?

I think the most important thing that Simon talked about was the reminder that “to participate socially you have to invite individually.” I can see this having significant repercussions for computer supported collaborative work, open science, and almost any commons based project that is taken up. My own experience from running book clubs, experimental courses, attending conferences, and more verifies her admonition.

She elaborated on all three of her transformations with examples drawn from various museums and libraries across the nation. Simon emphasized the need for design to interact with and respond to the community. An idea that works at one museum may not work at another if the infrastructure and the maintenance costs are not taken into account. If the Worcester City Gallery gets visitors to vote on their favorite paintings the success may be due to the ongoing responsiveness of the museum staff as much as the novelty of using voting to get visitor feedback.

I also liked her overall point that design constraints are sometimes useful. If you give the audience a completely blank page you may be disappointed by the lack of response. But if you constrain their activity in a useful manner you may be surprised by how much feedback you receive. Sometimes people need a seed from which to grow their participation.