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The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries (part II)

In part I of this series, we collected a number of great responses about the challenges and opportunities for museums to consider in light of the rise of participatory culture. This post, follows up on several of those ideas and connects to the ongoing discussions occurring at the Salzburg Global Seminar this week.


The view from our meeting room. An amazing setting to think about the future of libraries and museums.

Having completed the first full day of the Salzburg Global Seminar – discussing the role of museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture – I’m now fully convinced about why such gatherings are so important to the future relevance and impact of our libraries and museums.  Comprising individuals from 24 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, the group has spent its first days considering the evolving impact that participatory culture is having on our practice, and at times returning to the very first principles of what it means to be a library or museum.

For those of you who are interested in the excellent and continuing discussion happening in Salzburg, you should go to check out the excellent work by Michael Stephens on his blog “Tame the Web”. Michael has some great coverage of the proceedings and brings a valuable perspective from libraries to the conversation.

For my part, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight three questions that, as a museum professional,  stood out to me as being important for us to fully flesh out as we consider what museums might become in the next decade.

1. How can museums aid in addressing the socio-economic consequences of a widening technology gap?

A number of participants spoke eloquently about the social and economic consequences that impact marginalized communities who lack the same easy-access to technology that many of us take for granted.  This lack of access means a lack of opportunity to engage with the cultural evolutions of content produced online and critical dialogs taking place on blogs, twitter and cultural websites. The prevalence of information access is contributing to a changing set of skills and digital media literacy that cannot be replaced by other means.  The ability to sift, process, remix, and reformulate thoughts and critical argument is – quite specifically – a new form of literacy that will increasingly determine the opportunities and inclusion afforded to the privileged.

This fact has been well documented in the literature, and for those of you eager to learn more, I would recommend reading Henry Jenkins’ work – particularly his white-paper on “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (PDF).

New to me, was the realization that addressing the technology gap only delays the problem until the next disruptive technology arrives.  While we don’t yet know what that technology is, it’s a safe bet that the privileged among us will have access to it before many in our local communities do.

Since museums, and art museums in particular, posses such rich collections of artifacts, media, and artistic communication, are there ways that we can use those assets to address the underlying issues of media literacy? This opportunity further reinforces the value of museums’ existing efforts to build critical thinking skills into a wide range of programming efforts. Addressing the root skills at the heart of digital media literacy can work alongside efforts to provide comprehensive digital access to begin to positively impact and bridge that gap.

2. Do museums really want to take participatory culture seriously?

After thinking about and discussing the topic for quite some time now, it’s clear to me that the opportunities afforded to us by the changing expectations of participatory culture are resulting in a series of choices that museums will need to make regarding whether or not we will embrace participatory culture as an integral part of our museums.

To be intellectually genuine, it seems that there is scarcely any middle ground.  Either the museum will determine that there is inherent value to the opinions, expertise, and efforts of their invested communities or it will not. For museums that choose to embrace a conversational engagement with their audiences about the nature, origins, and personal interpretations of their collections, what remains to be seen is how the evolution of the authoritative voice of museum experts resolves its place in the discussion.

I, for one, believe that it’s entirely consistent to wholeheartedly pursue the creation of scholarly knowledge about our collections, and at the same time welcome the diversity of interpretation brought to the museum by the general public. As a number of the contributors to part I of this article pointed out though, truly owning up to this decision will have far reaching consequences for the sustainability of these efforts in the long term.  I’m not sure that most museums really recognize how profoundly this might impact their daily operations. Time will tell.

3. Is it possible for art museums to catalyze community conversation and action to addresses issues that matter to our local and global communities?

Lastly, I’m intrigued by the possibility that art museums can begin to leverage their deep collections and the changes in participatory media to promote meaningful conversations with communities about how to deal with a variety of social challenges.

The polarizing effects of politics have destroyed any opportunity for genuine civic discourse, and the educational system is so over burdened with curricular metrics that there is a dearth of opportunity for reasonable and well considered citizens to discuss the important issues of our time with empathy and respect. Artists have certainly been a bellwether for social discourse throughout our past. Is it possible that museums might emerge as a useful venue for this kind of discussion, and at the same time reinforce the relevance of the art in our collections to the daily lives of our constituents?

This is an area that I plan on reading and studying more about myself when I return to Indianapolis. In particular, I’ll be picking up Lois Silverman’s book entitled “The Social Work of Museums”. I’m certain that I could learn a lot from many of you as well, and look forward to thinking together about whether this is a valuable role for museums to play.


Filed under: Musings, Technology

8 Responses to “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries (part II)”

  • avatar

    You don’t mention the word ‘sustainability’ – probably for good reason – but this is essential stored knowledge of past for the future. Museums and libraries are our treasuries. The UN-inspired/UNESCO Earth Charter provides overall rationale, including its emphasis (in the Way Forward) on collaborative participation. I’ve been working with museums since I discovered especially the wonderful human ‘resource’ they provide (the dedicated staff).

    Earth Charter’s is a Declaration of Principles for a just sustainable, peaceful global society. It has much about education, culture, heritage etc. We need to work together.

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Good point Jeffery… Of course, preservation and sustainability is a primary tenet of being a museum in the first place. But, sustainability for what purpose? We’ve stumbled onto this topic in the seminar as well, and it is a bit of a “tree falls in the forest” metaphor. I think it’s fair to say that there is a nuanced process to balance object preservation and facilitating access and experience with collections.

  • avatar
    Ed Rodley Says:

    Boy am I glad you’re there, Rob!

    The challenge of participatory culture for museums is real and it would be all too easy for museums to stick our collective heads in the sand and wait for the new normal to be imposed on us. I’m pretty sure that guaranteed obsolescence lies that way, though. People in the profession are taking the challenge seriously and I’m confident they will be the successful, vital institutions of the coming century that the fearful ones will wind up copying later on.

    Your point about art museums and civic discourse really struck a chord with me. We see the same dynamic at science museums. It is ever more difficult for our visitors to witness civilized civic discourse around a host of topics. Think evolution, global climate change, vaccinations, etc… The mass media, by and large, do a bad job of it, and the proliferation and success of demagogues at hijacking the public debate have made it almost impossible for people to disagree respectfully. And that is an opportunity for us. We see it all the time in our live programs. Visitors, particularly adult audiences, want to be able to explore these topics, without yelling or being yelled at. Where else can they go to do that? If we could be the places where it is safe to explore the important things, to hear different viewpoints, to be critical, that would go a long way to easing fears about declining relevance.

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Thanks Ed,

    You are a gentleman and a poet! Such a great comment to this post… I’m inspired by your addition and can’t believe that I didn’t make the connection for science museums myself! Of course there would be important social issues at stake here as well. Such a good opportunity for museums to play an important role in our communities!


  • avatar
    Adrianne Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your reflections!

    To your second question, what good is it for museums to welcome the diverse participation of the public if that practice is not implemented internally?

    Unfortunately, it is very common for museums to employ ineffective and antiquated models of risk-averse top-down leadership that stifle creativity and collaboration and foster detrimental power hoarding. If that is how museums treat their employees, it is no surprise museums are patriarchal and condescending to their visitors as well.

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