Audience participation (or the lack thereof) in the museum world is not a new topic, popping up intermittently like a proverbial bad penny, only to be pushed aside without resolution. Recently, some big-thinkers are pressing the issue again, inviting staffers and museum fans alike to contribute to the conversation.
What is Our Problem Anyway?
Nina Simon’s raison d’être is participatory culture and her recent Museum 2.0 post, “What Are the Most Important Problems in Our Field?” makes the museum geek in me squeal with delight. The question suggests that museums take a proactive stance and reflect on the larger issues at hand. This doesn’t seem like a revolutionary concept until you realize that programs, exhibitions, gallery rotations and the like are usually planned months or years in advance. The clock is constantly ticking, deadlines rush over you like rogue waves and someone is constantly asking, “So what’s next?” The luxury of reflection is something many museum staffers lack in abundance.
Ms. Simon, who serves as Executive Director of the Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, writes that most practitioners in the field cite the hot-button topics of securing funding and addressing rapidly shifting demographics as the field’s most worrisome problems. I agree with her assessment that such answers are self-indulgent, focused purely on survival instead of sustainability, but it is a conditioned response born of decades of forcibly defending your existence. All that being said, how do museums address audience needs while maintaining the bottom line?
What Do We Do When They Finally Show Up?
Rob Stein, Deputy Director for Research, Technology and Engagement for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, addresses the issue of sustaining participation once it is achieved in “Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture.” In this post, Mr. Stein suggests museums must make the ideological switch from being chiefly concerned with just keeping the lights on to being “an organization that significantly impacts its community for good.”
This post assembles keen insights from a variety of museum professionals regarding technology, audience engagement, funding expectations, collaboration, authoritative voice, object preservation, existing power structures and the dangers of blindly chasing the next big thing. After reading, I had many more questions than answers, which is evidence of its thought-provoking nature: Is there value in being participatory in name only? How are other cultural organizations handling these issues? How can museums refine their internal processes to facilitate audience engagement? What voices are not being heard?
How do you define participatory culture? Can museums achieve it?