Participatory Culture in Museums- Smooth Sailing or a Bumpy Ride?

Writing this blog for six months has introduced me to all kinds of fascinating conversations found in other museum-related blogs and tweets. There’s a whole new world out there of ready-to-hand (but how make it ready-to-mind?) information about:
·         museums
·         participatory culture
·         new uses for technology, especially social media
But how are all of these related?  And aren’t they sometimes confused and conflated? About one out of every two tweets or blogs I read contains a link to some other article or discussion.  I used to be an inveterate clipper of newspaper articles. Now my electronic clipping and filing skills are being tested to the limit. How to make sense of all of this?  Here are some thoughts about sorting through these discussions, and some resources I’ve found extremely helpful.
Beware of “museums of the future” that look a lot like the past.
A number of presentations and blog posts I have read recently describe myriad new technologies in use in a “museum of the future.”  As these accounts envision visitors moving through a museum landscape, however, linking to (and being tracked by) technology in the museum, the words used to describe the physical surround sound pretty old hat –objects, artifacts, cases, screens on walls, linear displays, etc. If all this flat stuff in cases is what visitors are exploring on their smart and social technology, what is the point? Not much transformation of the basic structure of the museum or its exhibition formats here.
And the experiences described are virtually social but physically individual, each visitor using his or her smartphone or tablet to link with Facebook friends who like the same exhibition or tapping into further information about an interesting object.  Most of the exhibition developers and visitor researchers I know are working to make museum experiences more social, more whole-body, more conducive to questions and discussion, more engaging and accessible to the multi-generational/family audiences that are the bread and butter of museum visitation. Are they working at cross purposes with IT departments that are focused on a single experience — Bret Victor’s memorable term “sliding pictures under glass“?  Certainly smart devices have many engaging uses within the museum context; and visitors are going to find all kinds of creative uses for these devices on their own.  But which of these technologies museums choose to support and sustain with their limited resources should be guided by larger questions of accessibility and inclusiveness.  It’s in these areas that I think reports like the ones discussed below can inspire and inform museums thinking about the long term and not just what’s new. A recent survey on the blog MuseumMinute indicates a growing interest in museums as commons or forums. While this survey doesn’t have the substance of some of the other resources discussed here, it’s a good example of the “culture of participation” that appears to be growing all around us.
It’s easy to equate participatory culture with social media but it’s important to distinguish between them.

In a White Paper sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Henry Jenkins of MIT clearly states the case for focusing on the growing culture of participation rather than exclusively on the interactive technologies that support it. Jenkins defines this culture of participation as one


  1.  With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2.  With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3.  With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4.  Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5.  Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Although writing about media education, Jenkins’ caution is good advice for museums:  understanding the growing forms of participatory engagement that are changing the total culture is key: interactive technologies can assist museums in making the most of this cultural shift, but these technologies’ rapid development and proliferation can distract from the more fundamental issue of the thoughtful development of more inclusive and participatory museum infrastructure.  Jenkins states, “Rather than dealing with each technology in isolation, we would do better to take an ecological approach, thinking about the interrelationship among all of these different communication technologies, the cultural communities that grow up around them, and the activities they support.”

It’s important to think about new technologies within context and over time.
A recent publication that takes this contextual approach is the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report 2011: Museum Edition. Complied through a wiki involving some 40 leaders in museums and new media, the report analyzes “six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use” within the next five years.  The technologies discussed are:
  • mobile apps and tablets, already in use in a variety of contexts, including museums;
  • augmented reality and electronic publishing, predicted to be in wide use in two to three years;
  • digital preservation and smart objects, with a four to five year projection.
If your curiosity is piqued about these terms, the report explains them clearly and discusses each in terms of its potential impact on museum education and interpretation; exhibitions and collections; and marketing and communications.  The Executive Summary is just a few pages, and the entire report is  clearly written and extremely well organized, with specific examples and suggested readings a part of each chapter.  Well worth a read.
Darting beneath a calm sea
As I digest these thoughtful documents, while at the same time trying to absorb and save what’s useful in blogs and tweets on museums, technology, and the future, I’ve developed a metaphor for the experience.  The world of reports and white papers, whether in print or online, is a relatively tranquil sea of reflection and the longer view.  Beneath it dart and swirl dozens, hundreds (thousands?) of tweets, blogs, ideas, observations, often rising to the surface and breaking the calm.  If you’re going to set sail you need to consider both the waters above and what’s going on beneath.  Here’s wishing you Happy Holidays and hoping for a bit of a bumpy ride in 2012.

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