Participation is Political

Prompt: Nina Simon recently posted a five year retrospective about how her feelings have changed since The Participatory Museum was published. Did it change any of the conclusions you initially took from the book?

Nina Simon’s recent post really helped to solidify some thoughts I’ve had in the back of my mind over the last few weeks, and sums up what I think I was trying to explore in my last few blog posts. That sum of those thoughts is — as Simon writes —  participation is political.

I took a “Participatory Museum Exhibit Design” course a few years back on a whim. It was an interesting class, taught by an interesting professor who had years of experience running her own museum exhibit consultation and design firm, a woman who had worked with loads of museums and other cultural institutions in various capacities. In the class, we used a similar kind of textbook and plotted out our ideas for getting people to participate and interact in a variety of museum settings.

Everyone in the class was a white, American, graduate student, except for one man. He was not American (if I remember correctly, he was from Uganda), he was a bit older than everyone else, and he repeatedly had to remind everyone that not everyone was a white, American, graduate student. Working with him was an eye-opening experience, in terms of better understanding how conceptualizing participation and channels of participation can definitely vary when you consider the perspectives and experiences of people other than just white, American, graduate students.

Simon writes in her recent post that she used to conceptualize “participation as a design tool–a wrench that could be turned to reach certain goals in a cultural setting. As a designer, I wanted to present participation as ‘value-neutral'”. I saw this thread running through The Participatory Museum. That was rather the central focus of this other class too: how do we use exceptional design to effectively engineer a museum exhibit/setting in which all people, regardless of background or circumstance, will feel so emotionally or intellectually overcome that they will be compelled to participate or interact with said exhibit/setting? There was little discussion of the huge possibilities of variability due to cultural differences or actual values surrounding participation, except for when our wonderful classmate helped steer our boat in the right direction. Then we would have some wonderful discussions.

When you value diversity of thought and opinion, effectively “challenging the traditional assignment of knowledge authority”, as Simon suggests, you open up a can of worms: a can that could be incredibly liberating for some people and incredibly uncomfortable for others. Thinking about why and how the chance to participate is either offered or refused to a visitor might be a bit more complex than just considering design elements. A visitor might feel like she has the right to participate, or she might not; she might be comfortable with the setting and tools at her disposal, or she might not; she might feel that there are no repercussions to her participation, or she might not. As it’s been said, museums (and other cultural institutions) do not exist in apolitical vacuums. The discrimination, privilege, perspectives, and values we experience and perpetuate outside of the museum walls get carried in right alongside us when we step through those doors. Staff members, institutional culture, and design elements hold up a mirror to the politics of our lives; the museum itself is a political body that can “advocate for empowerment and social bridging” or do none of the above.

Reading The Participatory Museum, I feel like I was slowly slipping again into that “design is power” mode of thinking that Simon points out as somewhat exclusionary, yet trying to harmonize those ideas what I had learned about the power of politics and perspectives in museum exhibit design. Offering someone a pad of paper to write with is a political choice; offering someone a digital camera to operate is a political choice; offering anonymity is a political choice; offering publicity on a website is a political choice; offering the museum up to the community as “advocate” is a political choice. Using the word “inclusive” is a political choice. Identifying a particular mission statement and a particular reason why you want to encourage participation in your space, on your time, for your purposes, is a political choice.

The dynamic of power relationships between communities and institutions is political. Personal experience, lived and defined, is political. Participation is political.

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