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Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture

With the hustle and bustle of life and meetings swirling around us all, it’s a rare occasion that we get to step outside of that pace and reflect on “big issues.” Contemplating an approach for the challenges that face museums given the changes in popular culture can make the difference between an organization that significantly impacts its community for good, and those that simply succeed at keeping the doors open.  Given the economic challenges many museums are encountering, keeping the doors open is – in and of itself – a challenge.  I’m a firm believer that times of challenge can be the best possible times to seize the opportunities at hand and make big changes.

I’m grateful for an opportunity to join a small group of museum and library experts in Salzburg next week for a meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar entitled, “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture.”  I’ve agreed to participate and blog about my experiences from my perspective as a museum executive and a technologist.  I thought that in the spirit of “participatory culture,” I could ask a number of my friends and colleagues their opinions about the biggest challenges facing museums and libraries today.  I’ll bring those ideas and insights to Salzburg with me and represent those thoughts in the discussions there.  Please feel free to join the discussion on Twitter (#museumchallenges) or post your thoughts in the comments here.

The responses I’ve received via email and twitter have been pretty amazing! Several of my colleagues pointed out that museums are still adjusting to a perceived shift in our relationships with visitors.  Museums want to engage visitors and provide a variety of deep experiences, but don’t quite know how to sustain those efforts over a long period of time.

Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology from the Brooklyn Museum of Art asks the critical questions about how museums can build consistency in their efforts of engagement.

“How do we create engaging experiences consistently, so that visitors feel participation is part of the overall culture of the institution?  I’ve seen a lot of one-offs, where there’s a burst of activity around one single project, but the challenge is creating a consistency so that valued participation is always part of the museum experience.  In addition, these projects too often just exist online and not within the walls of the institution when people visit. The challenge is creating an overall experience that works both online and off and one that consistently allows visitors to participate in meaningful ways.”

Rich Cherry, Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, points out that this goal of engagement and interaction with visitors both online and in the gallery carries with it some different expectations from public audiences and funding agencies that make planning for sustainability more difficult on the museum.

“Museums are in a difficult transition phase because of changing media consumption.  While young audiences are consuming social media and online content, older audiences are making that transition more slowly.   Unlike past shifts in media, this one is more interactive and limits the ability to simply re-purpose content.  This creates unique staffing and budgetary issues that are compounded by the recent economic downturn.  Funders are pushing museums to engage these new audience behaviors while not recognizing that a significant audience does not use these new methods and [museums] must support a dual track for some time to come.”

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History Santa Cruz, makes the point in her book about The Participatory Museum that,

“Participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation. They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once they are open to participants. This means shifting a larger percentage of project budgets towards operation, maintenance, and facilitation staff.”

In addition to this fact, when I asked Nina what she saw as the challenges for museums seeking to embrace a participatory culture, she raised an important issue about museums’ strategy for funding these initiatives. Nina asks, “How do [museums] use participatory techniques to support more diverse and equitable use of our resources (as opposed to providing more for the people we already serve well)?

It was a happy coincidence that Nina also covered a similar topic on her Museum 2.0 blog recently (What are the Most Important Problems in Our Field?, October 3, 2011).  I highly recommend reading through many of the excellent comments in response to that article for more great insight on the topic.

Ed Rodley, from the Museum of Science in Boston echoed some similar thoughts in questioning whether museums have really come to grips with the profound changes that we have all experienced in the rise of digital culture and the ubiquitous access to information afforded by the web.

“The digital challenge is that we are still conflicted about how to be citizens of a global information network. When all digital content has the capacity to reach people all over the planet, why are we still building websites based on the 1995 paradigm of “make a virtual simulacrum of the building”? The sway museums could have in this ecosystem is vast, given the breadth and depth of content we sit on.

Digital is ceasing to be a separate thing, and is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) part of the information ecosystem that our visitors use daily. [Museum] practice certainly doesn’t reflect this yet. How can we re-imagine ourselves in such a way that museums not just recognize, but embrace the online and the digital in ways that remain true to our core competencies as repositories for authentic experiences with culture?”

I was curious about what the potential overlap between these issues might be for libraries and museums.  In many ways it seems that some of the challenges addressed here are similar for both kinds of institutions and others are more unique.  I asked Martin Kalfatovic, Associate Director for the Digital Services Division of the Smithsonian Libraries for questions he would like to ask at the forum.  Martin asks,

“How can libraries, museums, and archives more effectively collaborate to cross-pollinate their collections? (i.e. a museum object with the associated printed text and archival materials that led to its collection). Can participatory culture (crowdsourcing) be used to help make links or show relationships that are not otherwise possible?

He raises an interesting issue about potential areas of collaboration that exist between these organizations that are as yet, unexploited.  These institutions have recognized relatively recently that many of the challenges faced by one kind of organization are faced in some way by all the others.  Collectively these “memory institutions” face questions about the changing role of authority, scholarship, and access in an age that offers vast amounts of information at the click of a button.  As Martin points out,

“How does the role of the museum library, particularly in the area of reference, change when museums begin to bring in crowdsourced content? Can the library play a knowledge management role for this content and perform the same information curation that is done with traditional print and archival sources?”

Rodley also touches on the new challenges of being source of authority in our current culture.

“Participatory culture doesn’t do away with the need for authority, but it will privilege a different kind of authority, a more transparent, more engaged one.  I believe people still want a trusted voice they can listen to, particularly in the digital realm.

… [Museums] must be less like the Great Oz, hiding behind our artifice and erudition. That doesn’t mean that we abandon our position, but it means we have make being questioned, being challenged, being called out, even being heckled part of what it means to be a museum. To be an authority in the current century will require a level of engagement that we can scarcely imagine.”

The pervasive nature of the web and information changes the game for museums and libraries. What is the relevance of an object in our collection, or a book in the stacks, if the information about that artifact can be accessed from the phone in my pocket?  This is not a trumped up argument about whether or not people will come to museums if we put great images of our collection online, but a more substantial concern about the pipeline of knowledge management that defines the collections we care about.

Kalfatovic continues,

As increasing amounts of library content becomes information online, where will the museum of artifacts and the museum of books as artifacts merge/overlap?”

It seems that the very nature of the artifact, or the object that is collected is changing.  What will this mean for museums and libraries who – in addition to creating new knowledge – are dedicated to preserving artifacts of history and culture?  Cherry points out an interesting conundrum,

“The changes we are witnessing in technology and culture are the ways cultural institutions work together. One seemingly benign artifact of this current age is going to cause enormous headaches in the years to come: email.  30 years ago when a museum director, or curator worked with an artist/collector/dealer/estate on an exhibition; that correspondence was captured on paper and was likely to be physically archived.  Today that correspondence is taking place in email and is unlikely to be archived effectively, if at all. The amount of information that is lost in that process is terrible for future researchers.  Museums and libraries need to research this problem on two fronts:  1) finding cheap effective ways for museums to create long term archives of electronic messages and 2) developing software capable of mining these messages to collate information about significant events in an organizations historical record.”

A litany of challenges to be sure! Ultimately, there seemed to be consensus among everyone I talked to that the place in our culture reserved for museums and libraries is changing to be one that is more integrated and important to the lives of the communities we live in.


“Making museums places that you go to in order to be an active citizen is something I’d love to see more museums attempt. That means making space available, making time available, and making our ears available to hear what matters to our constituents. Rephrased as a question, I’d say ‘How can we re-shape our buildings, staffs, and offerings in ways that support our local communities, not as temples where visitors come to consume culture, but more like agoras – meeting-places where our visitors can come to exchange ideas and culture?'”

For many of you that work in the field of museums, libraries, and archives, I’m sure that much of what I’m saying is repeating a familiar refrain.  I’m very impressed by the level of conversation that I encounter from my peers when we talk about these topics.  With very few exceptions, most of my colleagues understand that museums and libraries face a relevance issue to demonstrate the continued and enduring value of what we do in the face of changing cultural norms and expectations. The inherent value of museum and library collections is not a sure thing.  As Nina points out, it’s a garden that we tend through lots of hard work towards a set of common goals.

The key question then, is whether or not we are ready to do that hard work of authentic engagement? Or, are we instead seeking the ‘quick-hit’ payoffs to be gleaned from the current crop of cultural fads? Nancy Proctor is Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives for the Smithsonian Institution and puts the question in context:

“The move towards a more participatory culture in museums has been underway for a couple of decades now, and seems finally to be impacting daily practice among museum professionals on a wide scale. However even as we achieve greater openness, transparency, and collaboration among museums and “the people formerly known as the audience,” I am increasingly wondering if we are truly changing the fundamental structure of museums within society, or simply putting new faces into power in the old system? It won’t take us far if, to use a simplistic shorthand of stereotypes, “old guard” academics, curators, directors and other power-holders in the existing hegemony are simply swapped out for perhaps younger, more social media-savvy, museum “rock stars.” This may offer a temporary “revolution,” but is not a truly sustainable radical museum practice and will last only until the next group of upstarts overturns the establishment in their own turn. Modernism and capitalism of course depend on this kind of illusion of “progress” through revolution, because each depends on a constant supply of fresh “innovation” to fuel the markets. But I think we need to be very suspicious of the fetishization of the new in this period where there is a constant stream of shiny new toys to dazzle us with the promise of starting over in a Brave New World. Let’s make sure we don’t deceive ourselves, like Columbus discovering America, but rather undertake the much harder, less sexy, but ultimately more sustainable task of radically restructuring our museums and practices even as we work within those very institutions.”

Thanks to all my friends and colleagues for chiming in on the topic!  I’m very much looking forward to continuing the conversation with you all in the comments, on Twitter (#museumchallenges), and in Salzburg next week. Stay tuned for new posts and insights as the conversation progresses!

Filed under: Interviews, Museum Community, Musings

20 Responses to “Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture”

  • avatar

    Huge thanks Rob, for such a good summarizing so far.
    May I suggest you include some European museums view as well? 😉

    Museums need to be “de-institutionalized” and become more personalized!
    And the shift must be far more extended than just offering a more participatory museography: it needs to reach the mentality and attitudes of the whole staff. To be not just started but maintained and increased, participatory culture can not be a matter of a motivated small team or a visionary director. It has to permeate the whole organization.
    We certainly need (long for?) more engaged visitor/users, but we first need to experience a deep internal renovation towards more open attitudes.

    Museums and heritage are a public sphere, let’s interpretation, experience and enjoyment be appropiated and shared by all too.

    I’m looking forward to following #museumchallenges discussions you’ll have in Salzburg!

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Of Course! We’ve had a number of good responses from friends around the world on twitter.

    I agree with the sense of your comment in pointing out that to achieve a consistently engaging environment for visitors will require the buy in of a large percentage of the museum’s staff.

    I think that this is possible, but is probably one of the reasons why this conversation is important to continue having within our institutions. I’m eager to understand better the kinds of structures and methods that museums can put into place that reinforce this conversational engagement with visitors as a matter of practice – and not something that’s overly exceptional or a ‘special effort’. I think that normalizing the expectation of museum staff and visitors that museums are a place to discuss as well as appreciate objects is part of the process.

    Thanks for a great comment Conxa!

  • avatar
    Koven Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Rob, and for giving all of us a chance to think about this (and a forum for discussing it).

    While I certainly see the value in adopting a more participatory stance (particularly where doing so cements museums’ digital identities by inviting questions and criticism, as Ed says), I’m wary of employing “participatory culture” as the panacea that cures all museum ills. It’s an important tool, to be sure, but it’s an additive tool, rather than a transformative one. It’s a good thing to do, but doing it doesn’t automatically make museums relevant and awesome. Nancy absolutely nails it when she asks if we’re simply putting new faces into power in the old system. This is the right question to ask.

    Museums need to be bad-ass. To a certain extent, I believe that means pursuing unique individual goals that might lead either to glory or extinction. We need to be involved with our concentric community circles, no doubt, but I don’t think that we can hand over our agenda to those communities. If we base what we do on the perpetually elusive goal of “what the community wants,” we have sacrificed our ability to set our own agendas, and our ability to be bad-ass. We’ll be chasing that tail forever.

  • avatar
    Adrianne Says:

    Rob, thanks so much for kick-starting this conversation!

    I agree with Conxa that change begins at home. Often, ambitious plans for establishing participatory programs fail because those charged with delivery are excluded from the goal-setting process and do not fully understand their roles in outcome achievement. Expressing a desire for inclusion and engagement is worthless if museums consistently cling to outmoded internal power structures.

    Koven’s comment also rings true, highlighting the futility of trying to become everything to everyone. Museums definitely suffer from Ivory Tower syndrome, but you cannot trade one pair of blinders for another. Community engagement and collaboration is key, but these relationships must be entered into with a clear vision and strong sense of cultural identity so that the organization is enhanced by the effort, not made unrecognizable.

  • avatar
    Ed Rodley Says:

    I second what Koven says. More badass! Nancy’s reminder to be suspicious of the fetishization of the new is right on target. Incorporating participatory design into our repertoire is just that, adding another way of doing whatever it is we do. It isn’t a substitute for having a clear vision, though it can distract one from realizing that one lacks a clear vision. To be badass, I think you need to know what you’re about, and therefore what you’re *not* about. And a museum’s ability to be badass will be measured in terms of how clearly it can articulate that to its participating audiences. My opinion is that those institutions which can do that will be the ones that become (or remain) authority figures, because they’ll have a clear vision and be able to demonstrate their unique ability to embody that vision.

  • avatar
    Mike Says:

    It seems like a lot of this conversation is about control. There are many of you that like the idea of participatory culture but believe without an authority that the community cannot participate. Like photography, many people have become enthusiast digital content creators. The fear of opening the museum to the public for their own interpretation must be terrifying to a lot of content creators already within the museum. So the bigger issue maybe what is the role of museum staff. We have an authority in curators for the facts about the work and to put an authority perspective on the objects. That would always be a necessity. But what about other perspectives? Could the role of the staff be to facilitate access to the collection for the patron to then create their own connections/perspectives to the objects? Or should it be guiding audiences to the connections the museum wants them to make? Perhaps they could even be given the freedom to use their own media tools to create original content or a delivery system. For me it would be refreshing to see our patrons with more of this type of freedom. For the museum staff to be invested in fostering the creativity and perspective of the community. And one easy way to start would be by letting the community know that the museum is a place to be used to create free discourse. Thoughts?

  • avatar

    Rob- thanks so much for opening this dialogue. It’s essential.

    I agree with Mike that this is a conversation about control– who has it, who wants it, and who cares? The ‘who cares’ is the real question.

    I feel like there’s a lot of concern, conversation, and confusion about being community-led versus community-informed. This isn’t different than the concern, conversation, and confusion about about being visitor-led versus visitor-informed.

    If we want museums and culturals to keep living, breathing, and existing (in any form) we need to be a part of and not separate from.

    Inviting, hearing, and really listening to ‘the voices outside’ doesn’t mean we have to be all things to all people or that we lose our missions, or focus, our identity, or even our ‘authority.’ It means we acknowledge that we are a small part of a much larger dialogue. It’s time we stop being so glaringly naive to the fact we’re a part of the world around us. This doesn’t have to be as hard as museums often make it. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be so removed. We should be reflective of the world outside our doors. Sadly, this is rarely the case. And so we pander, one-off, apologize, tokenize, and make a great mess of things all too often. If we remain separate, no one cares. No one but us.

    Conxa and Andrianne, I so agree! Internal renovation and change at home has to happen.

    I also agree with my Denver neighbor and badass friend, Koven, about the current fetishization (thanks, Nancy!) of ‘participatory.’ Whenever I hear about ‘participatory’ anything in the museum world I can’t help but wonder how institutions themselves plan to participate. Why do we never talk about what that looks like? On the other hand, I disagree with Koven about community at a somewhat base and fundamental level. It shouldn’t be elusive and it shouldn’t be tail chasing. Again– if we are part of and not separate from, this becomes who we are not just what we (say) we do.

    Ed made a similar point so well above, so I’ll repeat his fantastic question: ‘How can we re-shape our buildings, staffs, and offerings in ways that support our local communities, not as temples where visitors come to consume culture, but more like agoras – meeting-places where our visitors can come to exchange ideas and culture?’

    No more Great Oz. And a hell of a lot more badass.

    Nancy’s right. It’s time for ‘radical restructure.’ And yes, Koven, you’re right too. It’s absolutely the right time for ‘pursuing unique individual goals that might lead either to glory or extinction.’ I would just argue that our goals aren’t as unique as we museums often think they are!

    This post makes me feel pretty excited about what’s to come. (And incredibly happy to have such opinionated, critical, and inspiring friends! You all are pretty badass.)

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