What’s Next? Imagining the Participatory Museum

Throughout this book, I have argued that participatory techniques are design strategies that have specific value and can be applied in cultural institutions to powerful effect. These techniques represent an addition to the design toolkit, not a replacement for traditional strategies. Participation is an “and,” not an “or.”

I believe in these arguments. I also believe in the potential for participatory techniques to give rise to a new kind of institution, just as interactive design techniques led to the ascendance of the science centers and children’s museums in the late twentieth century. While today museums of all types incorporate interactive techniques to some extent, most children’s museums and science centers can be described as wholly interactive. Some contemporary leading science centers and children’s museums, like the Boston Children’s Museum, are radically transformed versions of traditional institutions. The Exploratorium and many others were born in the 1960s and 1970s to offer new kinds of visitor experiences. These institutions use interactive engagement as the fundamental vehicle to promote visitor learning, recreation, and exploration.

I dream of a comparable future institution that is wholly participatory, one that uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for visitor experiences. Imagine a place where visitors and staff members share their personal interests and skills with each other. A place where each person’s actions are networked with those of others into cumulative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix. A place where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations. A place where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and content in a designed, intentional environment. A place where communities and staff members measure impact together. A place that gets better the more people use it.

The final result may not resemble today’s museums. It may look more like a coffee shop or a community arts center. It may function with models found today in a co-working space or a sewing lounge. It might feature content based on democratic rather than top-down processes. It might prioritize changing displays over traditional conservation and accession practices, multi-vocal content over authoritative catalogs. It might be owned cooperatively or funded by members. It might allocate more dollars to dialogue facilitation than exhibit construction.

Could your institution become such a place? While imagined participatory institutions may appear fundamentally different from traditional museums, so does the modern Boston Children’s Museum look different from the display of children’s objects that preceded it. That institution shifted from being “about” children and families to being “for” them. What would it look like if it evolved to being “with” them?

This is a question that many institutions are already pondering, and with good reason. The cultural and technological shifts that accompanied the rise of the social Web have changed people’s expectations of what makes experiences worthwhile or appealing. People assume the right to co-opt and redistribute institutional content, not just to look at it. They seek opportunities for creative expression, both self-directed and in response to the media they consume. They want to be respected and responded to because of their unique interests. They crave the chance to be recognized by and connected to sympathetic communities around the world. These shifts will change the way that cultural institutions of all types, from museums to libraries to for-profit “experience vendors,” do business.

All of these expectations can bring cultural institutions closer to their fundamental goals. Object-centered institutions are uniquely equipped to support creative and respectful community dialogue. Interpersonal interactions around content can strengthen relationships among diverse audiences. Participatory activities can provide valuable civic and learning experiences. Most importantly, the idealistic mission statements of many cultural institutions—to engage visitors with heritage, connect them to new ideas, encourage critical thinking, support creativity, and inspire them to take positive action—can be attained through participatory practice.

There are millions of creative, community-minded people who are ready to visit, contribute to, and participate with cultural institutions that support their interests. While many people explore their passions in online communities, there is enormous potential for them to come together in physical spaces organized around stories and objects that matter to them. These physical spaces may be historical societies or science cafés, art centers or libraries. They may be museums of all sizes and types.

When people have safe, welcoming places in their local communities to meet new people, engage with complex ideas, and be creative, they can make significant civic and cultural impact. The cumulative effort of thousands of participatory institutions could change the world. Rather than being “nice to have,” these institutions can become must-haves for people seeking places for community and participation.

How will you integrate participation into your professional work? How do you see it benefiting your institution, your visitors, and your broader audience of community members and stakeholders?

These questions are not rhetorical. I hope that you will join the online conversation about this book by sharing your participatory case studies, comments, and questions. You can comment on any section of the book (including this one) by clicking “Post a Comment” in the upper left.

This book is just a start, a rock tossed in the water. I hope that it will help you in your design thinking and that you will share your ideas and innovations with all of us so we can move forward together into this new, participatory world.

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  1. […] Harjumaa Muuseumis (Keila mõisas). Lugeda on jäänud peatükid 10 ja 11 ning lõpupeatükk “What’s next?“. Seekordne kokkusaamine pikniku vormis. Kaasa selleks vajalik. Tulemisest võib teada […]

  2. By Referències I « projectesinterdisciplinaris2 on October 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    […] I amb la voluntat de renganxar els escrits que ens va passar l’Eugènia sobre la Nina Simon i el museu Picasso m’he plantejat la pregunta següent: Què esperaven que faria un visitant […]


  1. Nicole Ferdinando

    Nina, you alluded to the fact in the Epilogue of your book and in your discussion with Seton Hall’s Museum Technologies class (October 4th, 2010) that not every museum will or can be a participatory museum. First, I wanted to know what your favorite museum was in terms of collection, content or thematic program, etc. Does this particular museum exhibit some of the the qualities enumerated in your book as being an example of a participatory museum. If not, does this particular museum have the potential to be a participatory museum in the future? Second, which type of institution (size, focus, location) seem the most resistant to adopting participatory activities?

    Posted October 18, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  2. @Nicole Ferdinando: My favorite museums as a visitor are driven mostly by nostalgia and pleasure in institutions that take big risks. Some, like the Wing Luke and the Oakland Museum (see chapter 8), are definitely participatory, but my long-time favorites–Jurassic Technology, City Museum, Visionary Art–are more notable for the singular (and strange) vision of their brilliant founders. That said, each of these institutions treats visitors generously, as partners in crime if not in co-creation.

    But if we’re talking favorite museums from a professional impact perspective, it’s places like COSI (Chapter 5), Brooklyn Museum (chapter 3), and Glasgow Open Museum (chapter 4), which are really changing the way communities and museums interrelate.

    With regard to your second question, check out this blog post, which focuses on just that topic of how participatory opportunities vary by institutional type.

    Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Kurt

    I want to say that I LOVE the fact that you created this website. One of the points of your book is that we need to get past the old fashioned way of museums, the early styles such as Peal’s Museum and become more interactive and participatory. By creating this website you are truly practicing what you preach. Instead of just writing a book the old fashioned way where the reader reads the book and reflects to themselves, you have created this entire, interactive experience where the reader can participate with the author and raise questions, concerns, and comments. I think it is a great idea!

    Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  4. Ellie Burhans

    Perhaps I am being narrow minded or even old fashioned, but I don’t want museums to look like a Starbucks. There are times in which I want a private moment of reflection while having a private and personal connection to an object. As a lover of history, I sometimes have deep, and some might say, irrational emotions when it comes to events that came before my family even came to America. The first time I saw the blood soaked dress of the woman who sat next to President Lincoln while he was shot at Ford’s Theater was a deeply emotional moment that I do not think would have been as powerful had it been in a different sort of space. While I was visiting the museum with family, they had wandered off to look at the cannon, and I glimpsed the bloody fabric. Emotions welled up and to be honest, I cried just a little bit. Quite frankly, I would not have wanted at that time to discuss why I had those feelings. It was a deeply moving moment to be sure, but one that had the pseudo-privacy of being alone. There was no expectation to engage with anything but the object, and that can be a powerful thing that perhaps could be overlooked with focusing so much on participation. I went back to that museum again, and while the emotional surge wasn’t so strong the next time, it has driven me to return many times.

    Posted April 16, 2014 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  5. ninaksimon

    I think your experience is completely valid and important. But I also think we have to be really careful not to assume that we (any one of us) is the prototypical visitor. There are many kinds of visitors with different values, needs, abilities, and interests. The challenge, I think, is to provide experiences and platforms that support that diversity. I’m not arguing that ALL museums or ALL museum experiences should be participatory or social–just that we need to add these tools to our toolbox to diversify the experience.

    Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  6. Yu Xiang

    Hi, Nina. I’m Yu Xiang, a graduate student from Zhejiang University, China. We’ve talked about your book before via email. Actually, I’ve read your book for several times and I’m all for your ideas. But I still have one question which is about the future development of museums. You said in this chapter “These shifts will change the way that cultural institutions of all types, from museums to libraries to for-profit ‘experience vendors,’ do business.” But museums are considered to be non-profit organizations by most of museum professionals, and they are generally not permitted to do business. Since the participatory museums you advocate are to provide unforgettable experience to visitors and local residents in the context of competing with other cultural industries like movie theatres, theme parks, tourist attractions and even TV shows, the information highway, books and the like. I guess what you meant was to commercialize museums to some degree. Am I right?

    Posted September 27, 2014 at 12:22 am | Permalink

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