Continued Musings on Participation…

The academic library where I work has no interactive or participatory spaces at all. Not a single one.

The art museum where I volunteer has no interactive or participatory spaces either. There is an iPad for visitors to view photos of items on display in front of them because the display is visually insufficient for viewing the items adequately (don’t get me started on this one…) However, you can’t do anything but click on the image on the screen. Can’t zoom in, even.

One of the biggest takeaways for me from reading up to this point in Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum is the idea that planning a participatory experience in a cultural institution shouldn’t just be about whether or not people like something, or whether or not it will be fun, or make them laugh or cry or whatever. Or whether you can really consider something “participatory” when you install an iPad with a few still photographs on it.

A visitor used their finger! They participated, right?

How many people touched that iPad? Which pictures did they click on? How long did they look at the images? Did they say anything to their neighbor when they clicked on it? Did they have any questions about the item they viewed?

We don’t know.

This expanded perspective on what constitutes participation has really had an impact on me. So often I’ve thought of participatory experiences has having limits in a way —

yes, but no one will do it if it isn’t fun
yes, but we should do this just because it’s trendy or it’s provocative?
yes, but people won’t do it at all or will do it “wrong” (yikes, there’s some bias for you)
yes, but we’re going to have to deal with the trolls or the people that ruin it for everyone else
yes, but it’s going to cost money to build and maintain and eventually take down when no one does it anymore.

It already sounds depressing and more effort than it’s worth when you frame it like that. Who wants to participate in something that already sounds so… ugh?

Simon suggests that crafting participatory experiences should also really be about capturing what visitors can offer that you cannot offer or cannot create on your own. Playing a game shouldn’t just be fun. Writing an answer to a question with some cool markers on a big whiteboard shouldn’t just be fun. It should be meaningful. It should help people to learn. It should the cultural institution and staff and larger community to learn. Learning outcomes are important.

Moment of honesty here: I hadn’t thought much about participation in cultural spaces from such an equitable viewpoint before. I’d thought about possible benefits for the institution and possible benefits for the visitors, but never really about both as existing in a sort of real-time, symbiotic relationship. Institutions and people need each other! And they need to work together for things to happen. Many of the trends discussed in The Library of the Future report are looking towards a future where this symbiotic relationship not only grows, but is supported and nurtured.

So now you as an institution have all of this additional information supplied by the people that decided to come visit you. While you’re putting out new markers by the whiteboard every other day, are you thinking about whether information that you’ve collected meaningful? Does it matter? Does it have some end purpose? How will you use it to enhance and enrich your space, your mission statement, or your outreach? Because otherwise what are you collecting it for? Additionally – what is the payout for the visitor? What does your visitor get out of it and you can offer her in exchange for the content/opinion/effort she is offering you?

In thinking about one of the prompts this week: “What makes a great reflection question? Think of some questions you’d like patrons to your library to answer”, I suppose those sorts of questions could be asked of visitors, in a way. If I should choose to participate in something, maybe I should be asked what I got out of participating or why I chose to do it in the first place. Often when I’ve offered a response to something, like “fill out this questionnaire about what you liked about the exhibit and stick on the corkboard! Great, thanks, bye!” I’m not asked why I decided to even offer feedback at all. Don’t you want to know what tipped me over the edge to decide to participate, to get involved?

I filled this out because the exhibit was so powerful I had to say something
I filled this out because your marketing campaign was really annoying and I had to come see it for myself because I couldn’t escape seeing ads for it everywhere
I filled this out because I think my opinion matters
I filled this out because I think that YOU think my opinion matters and you’re going to do something meaningful with it that will have meaningful consequences for me, this institution, and the larger community

What would I say? I’ve never been asked.

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