This week’s readings focused on community participation which is a topic I am very passionate about. The readings and websites this week were extremely engaging and piqued my interest as to how to push the limits of audience participation in a museum setting. The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon was a great read on this subject. Part 2 of the book (chapters 5-11), was especially intriguing as it focused on how to involve visitors in museums in a participatory setting. The case studies noted in these chapters worked well to show how the implementation of these interactive features work with visitors, staff, and the community. Simon gives examples such as Investigating Where We Live at the National Building Museum which invites local teenagers to create an exhibit about their neighborhood and The Tech Virtual Test Zone at The Tech Museum, while unfortunately frustrating for the participants and the staff, it invited participants to use Second Life to create a museum exhibit that could be built in the museum in real life. These examples, plus the multitude of others mentioned throughout the book, show how well, and sometimes frustrating, the implementation of participatory elements in a museum setting can work. While the inclusion of visitor participation might not always be the most efficient or the best way to build museum exhibits, the participatory element helps make the visitor feel included and valued throughout the entirety of the work. Children of the Lodz Ghetto in the Holocaust Museum is a great example of this. Visitors were invited to help research what happened to the children of that ghetto. While only one third of the data collected was viable and the work may have been done much quicker by museum staff, the work helped the volunteers to feel included in the museum and helped them feel emotionally engaged in the history of the Holocaust.
I have always felt that the best museums are the ones that invite guest to be a participant in the exhibits they are viewing. Just walking through museums and reading signs is a very cold interaction that makes the visitor feel more like they are in school than in a social, educational, and inviting environment. Allowing guests to participate in what they are viewing and learning helps to engage them on a deeper level and allows them to feel more included in what they are seeing; more engaged and less lectured to. Websites like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and DIY History invite people to become a participant in the history. I love sites like these because it encourages visitors to participate and provide content of their own. I spent a considerable amount of time on these sites and, having worked in archives in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed transcribing parts of the documents. Participatory physical and digital exhibits are essential to museums and history. Engaging visitors and allowing them to provide content is the best way to help the public feel at home in a museum setting.
I think the examples were also the strongest part of Simon’s book, and really illustrate the variety of ways and settings in which participatory learning techniques can be used. My favorite chapter was Ch 3 however, as it ended with the robotic arm-wrestling, and made me really see the museum as not just a place for learning, but for play (sometimes stupid play!).