This week in class we focused on participatory museums. I’ve always had a fascination with exhibits that allow the visitor to get involved. I think that it provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to take an active part in their learning and also allows them to connect with other visitors, making their visit a social experience. I love exhibits that allow visitors to write and share their experiences regarding a certain topic. I always find it interesting to read others’ responses and try to imagine their background. I mentioned in a previous post that I visited the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on human origins in which there was a kiosk that asked visitors to respond to the question of what it means to be human. I stood there for awhile reading answers people had given and wondering what experiences in their life made them answer the question in that way.
I’m not sure what it is about seeing small snippets of other people’s thoughts and stories that appeals to me, but apparently I’m not the only one who enjoys this type of exhibition. I was inspired by the discussion in class to do a bit of searching regarding how visitors respond to participatory museums. I decided to search YouTube for reviews of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, the museum in which Nina Simon (author of The Participatory Museum) is the executive director. Both Nina and the MAH came up multiple times throughout the discussion, so I wanted to see what people were saying about Nina’s ideas applied in the museum. One of the first videos I found was this one which told the story of Sangye Hawke who decided to write a historical fiction novel after participating in the MAH’s Memory Jar exhibition.
I also wanted to see any negative reaction to participation in museums. I found this opinion piece from the New York Times in 2013. The author, Judith H. Dobrzynski, argues that she has seen museums give the public the opportunity to help make decisions about exhibitions, but believes that this responsibility belongs to the professionals because she claims these decisions are their purpose. In response to this I would respond that museums giving visitors the chance to give input on decisions does not take the authority away from the museum professionals. If the public is allowed to choose for instance a local artist that will be featured in the museum, the professional has decided the artists to choose from. She also claims that art museums that add in participatory ideas might lose their identity. While a large part of the experience of an art museum for art lovers is contemplation and reflection, I believe that adding participation doesn’t have to take that away. Instead, it can add to the experience by widening the audience that the museum appeals to and allowing this wider audience to interact with pieces that they might not have interacted with otherwise.
Judith also wrote this blog post after her opinion piece was cited by a critic of participatory museums in Santa Cruz. The post discusses the mission statement of the MAH (seen below), which changed after Nina Simon became the director and implemented participatory experiences.
So does participation have a positive effect on visitors? Do they enjoy participating? I think that it depends largely on the way participation is handled. If participation is forced upon visitors, I think it could have a negative effect, but giving visitors the option to participate is beneficial to helping them learn. It allows them to take control over their learning. As a visitor, I enjoy being able to participate through interactives. I personally don’t think that participation takes away from what museums are or should be, but rather it expands upon what a museum can be.