Museums as Participatory Arenas

Those of us involved with cultural heritage collections understand that our institutional holdings constitute a public trust.  Consequently, we must not only preserve the collections but also ensure that they benefit the public in some way.  Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, design consultant, and blogger Nina Simon has written extensively on museum participatory experiences.  She contends that visitor participation fits naturally in a history museum, where visitors can often relate to the familiar objects on a personal level.  Also, because so many cultural heritage institutions are small and community-based, they have great capacities to create meaningful social opportunities amongst their constituents. (Read her discussions on and The trick is finding ways to allow visitor-driven content to infuse the public spaces of the museum.

Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh is one place where participants contribute content for exhibits.

 We are fortunate in North Carolina to have a history museum on the cutting edge of developing visitor participatory experiences.  The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte has won design awards and set a nationwide example with its use of talking circles to spark group discussion and engagement on challenging historical topics like race.  The difficulty for smaller museums in replicating this idea is providing the staff necessary (called “circle keepers” by another museum) to sustain the activity.  Still other participatory experiences at large museums involve expensive technology, such as touch screens, and filming equipment, and projectors.  Although activities involving additional staff and computerized exhibition elements may be beyond the reach of most of NC’s nearly 1,000 cultural heritage institutions, several fairly simple and inexpensive participatory ideas can help to forge stronger bonds between the collection and the communities it exists to serve.

 Here are a few ideas for low-cost participatory museum experiences that encourage visitors to relate to the collections in ways that are meaningful to them and generate social experiences with the collection as a focus:

 1. ballot box:  ask visitors to vote for their favorite artifacts.  Allow space on the ballot for them to explain why.  Create a chart to reflect responses after you’ve collected enough data and print some of the most colorful and/or representative comments in large type for others to read.  A social media program, like Facebook, can reinforce this museum experience.

 2.  photograph album with comment spaces:  this is a suggestion our Historic Sites colleague, Dusty Wescott, made recently to a small historical society.  By setting up an archival photograph storage album as an interactive in the gallery, museums can allow visitors to study the collection and “crowd source” to gather information about it.  Every other album page should be left empty to receive one or more pages of visitor comments (on acid-free paper, written in pencil, of course).  Visitors should be encouraged to add to the provenance of the image and/or simply interact with it by completing a statement like “this scene reminds me of…”  Have volunteers “seed” the album with comments to get the interactive going.

 3. roll imagining/ playing: assign each visitor an identity based on your site’s actual past inhabitants.  Have participants figure out where they would have slept, what type of food they would have eaten, etc. based on their status and demographics.  More organized visitor groups can even engage in roll playing exercises with their assigned identities.

 4. scavenger hunt:  a great idea, especially for groups including children.  This activity encourages visitors to look more closely at objects.  Reward those who complete the challenge with a pencil, postcard (related to your site, of course), or other item.

 What other participatory experiences have worked at your site?  Please share your ideas for low-cost interactive experiences!


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on July 20, 2011, in collections access, Exhibitions and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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