Archive for the ‘Participatory Design’ Category

The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

The audience is central to much of what a museum does, and visitor surveys and audience segmentation have over the past decade improved our understanding of the people who walk through our doors.

In terms of the audience being the receivers of a performance or service, ‘audience’ does not seem like the best way for us to describe the modern museum consumer. These are people who live increasingly digital lives, where they are not spectators, but active participants, positively engaged through outreach programmes and projects.

While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ will change, I think it is useful for us to think of the people who choose to interact with museums either digitally or by making a visit as ‘participants’.

Whether you are planning a new exhibition, website or marketing plan, thinking about how you can engage with your museum’s ‘participants’ rather than ‘audiences’ will give you a different mindset.

Marketing for participants

In February 2011, a group of museums and galleries in Yorkshire, England launched a marketing campaign to promote art collections on display in thirty-five venues across their county.

The campaign chose not to shout about how great the art in these museums and galleries was, but instead asked the pubic to participate in the campaign by sharing stories about their favourite painting.

The campaign Yorkshire’s Favourite Painting offered a unique prize, the opportunity to win a replica of a painting that you love, and in six weeks, over 400 people took the opportunity to enter the competition.

The stories about why people loved these paintings were diverse, from a moving account of a mother who had lost her son in the conflict in Afghanistan and was reminded of him by a Lowry painting, to a six year old boy who ‘liked the lovely ladies’ in a painting of mermaids and a lady who wanted to win a replica of an artwork by her famous artist father.

While 400 people wrote stories, many more participated in other ways, sharing stories through social media, leaving comments and voting for stories.

The website attracted tens of thousands of hits, but the campaign resonated further, with online participants becoming real world visitors.

Websites for participants

While museums are creating opportunities for the public to participate online though their use of Facebook and Twitter, most museum websites haven’t incorporated this kind of interaction into their own websites.

Teylers Museum, the Netherlands’ first and oldest museum is one such museum. Their website offers the public all the pre-visit information they might need, but doesn’t seem to give the public the chance to participate in any meaningful way.

However, the Teylers Museum has another website, built using the social networking tool NING which breaks down the boundaries and brings the museum to life in a way their main website doesn’t.

The website invites anyone to participate by joining this mini social network of curators, associates and friends of the museum.

Herman Voogd of the Teylers Museum explains ‘We started to use NING to give all Teylerfans and our staff the opportunity to leave pictures and messages about the museum.

‘We like the idea of having both a traditional museum website and something which is more open. A blog, a photo-album where every member of staff has more freedom. On our NING website it doesn’t matter that the picture is not crystal clear or that the movie is amateurish.

‘The rule is to not spend a lot of time but share a lot of knowledge about the museum or the collections’.

Using NING as a platform gives the public the opportunity to participate not only by commenting on content added to the website by the museum, but also by starting their own conversations and sharing their own perspective on the museum.

Ultimately, I see all museum websites giving audiences the chance to participate in this way. This approach takes more time and effort than a traditional website, and many may worry about the resources that such an online community would require. But if a museum does not have time to participate in conversations with its audiences (even online) then I think it needs to reassess its priorities.

Exhibitions for participants

Another way to involve our audiences as participants is through co-creating exhibitions. I think this is an exciting opportunity which we are only just starting to see museums explore.

This kind of co-creation can take many forms; it could be a history exhibition shaped by the contributions from people who lived through the event, a crowdsourced art exhibition created with the public or asking visitors to write new labels for paintings.

One recent example comes from CCCB in Barcelona, where an exhibition of photography by 20th century Spanish photographer Josep Brangulí is being partnered by a very 21st century project.

Contemporary photographers were asked to respond to the themes of the exhibition (and Josep Brangulí’s work) through an open call which tapped in to Barcelona’s thriving Flickr community to attract over 2,000 submissions in a month.

One picture reflecting each of the exhibitions themes will be displayed alongside the work of Josep Brangulí, while all submissions will be shown in a projection.

This isn’t social media for the sake of a trend, but using technology to make an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.

This kind of participation acknowledges that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute.

In Conclusion

What these forms of participation have in common is that they acknowledge that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute, often making the exhibition better than it could be without the public’s participation.

It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.

Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.

Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of
Europe’s major conference on social media for museums, MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, a creative agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

Participatory design

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

A young woman is strolling down the street in a medium-sized British town. Rounding a corner she is confronted with an altercation between a white man and an Asian store-owner. It is not clear what has caused the confrontation, but the aggression has a palpable racial element. As the shouting and gesticulating heightens, the observer takes out her phone and grabs a couple of photographs, as well as a short, ten-second video, all the while making sure she is out of sight.

Later, as she comes into the city centre, the woman decides to pop in to the local museum to see what’s on and to pass half an hour before a meeting. As it turns out, the museum has just opened a temporary exhibition looking at the history of race relations in the city, offering oral histories, photographs and cultural objects imported to the town by its Asian immigrants. She notices that one section of the exhibition is soliciting visitor input, encouraging people to share their own stories, experiences and images. These contributions will be collected on a special microsite, built to accompany the exhibition, elements of which form part of a constantly updated digital display inside the museum.

Recalling the incident she witnessed in the street, the woman decides to upload the pictures to the museum’s Flickr group, set up especially for the exhibition, where she is able to geotag the exact location of the event using Google maps, as well as the time and date it took place. One of the pictures – a decisive photographic moment – captured the white man’s grimacing face, his first finger rigidly poking towards the anxious looking Asian shopkeeper. Shorn of context, the image could of course have any number of meanings; but the photographer is able to provide a firsthand account of the racist abuse she overheard and which she duly records in the image’s caption.

With this contribution the exhibition has become live and dynamic. The museum has taken a difficult subject, with historical and social dimensions, examined it and opened it to the public for further and ongoing discussion and interpretation. Although focused around the physical exhibition itself, much of this public participation is made possible using online services which are constructed along the social media principles of interconnection, sharing and collaboration – an approach to web-based services encapsulated in the term web 2.0.

But more than this, in planning for the exhibition the museum staff decided to engage people outside the organisation to work through the design process itself. This participatory design sought input from a small number of community groups, local businesses and residents. One of the outcomes of this ‘outside’ contribution was the decision that the microsite, while hosted and branded by the museum, would be maintained and moderated by two volunteers. One of these volunteers works for a community outreach programme which organises events promoting integration and positive interaction between different sections of the community. The experiences and learning derived from these events continues to be fed into the microsite in the form of a blog.

And so on. This fictional scenario, presenting a museum operating on the tricky frontiers of social debate, begins to illustrate some of the possibilities of incorporating participation – by design – into the processes of creating exhibitions, as well as the way those exhibitions engage the public. Of course, engagement and collaboration may well form the backbone of many existing museum programmes without the term participatory design (or indeed design for participation) ever being mentioned. But a conscious decision to build participation into the design process itself and/or into the way users will interact with exhibitions once they are installed is an approach which may yield benefits for the institution and visitors alike.

Nina Simon of US consultancy Museum 2.0 explains: ‘Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process.’

Participation can be as complicated or as simple as deemed necessary, depending on resources, experience and objectives. Engaging and organising people (the public, experts from areas outside the museum, community groups and so on) to take part in a truly collaborative design process is certainly an undertaking, as is inviting visitor contributions and dialogue with the exhibitions themselves. But at its simplest level, participation might be encouraged by asking visitors to caption or comment on objects by sticking Post-It notes around exhibition displays.

An example cited by Simon is The Post-It Project, conducted at Sweden’s Västernorrlands Läns Museum a few years ago, ‘in which visitors were solicited to write down comments – about anything in the museum – and post them wherever they wanted.’ As she suggests, the value and goal here are perhaps too vague to be genuinely useful, but the ‘open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Start-up costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time.’

But for many museums, the catalyst for building visitor contributions into their activities has been the proliferation and mass uptake of online social media services – sites such as Flickr, Facebook and, more recently, Twitter. Flickr in particular is well known, easy to use and allows museums to garner relevant photographic material from the public, not just locally, but anywhere in the world. An event-based extension of this might be to organise a scavenger hunt, as the London Transport Museum has done, sending teams of people into the city to locate and photograph various London Transport related objects. All the pictures were uploaded to Flickr, allowing a vote for the best image to be thrown open to the public and in turn utilising Flickr’s social network aspects to build awareness of the museum’s brand amongst online ‘communities’.

Similarly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s World Beach Project, devised by artist Sue Lawty, asks people worldwide to create sculptures and images on beaches using gathered stones, recording the process and finished art in up to three photographs.

Rather than using Flickr, the images are uploaded to the museum’s dedicated web page and embedded Google world map. Again, the project is conceived specifically to create participation, engaging visitors and non-visitors alike in content generation, while marketing the V&A online at the same time.

These last two examples are competition and art project respectively, so arguably outside a museum’s core public-facing activities, which are delivered via exhibitions, collections and interpretation. But participation can seed exhibitions too.

The Minnesota History Society’s MN150 exhibition and book invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history. This engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach, demonstrating that participatory design need not be technology-led – it is mostly about approach and intent. The result was an exhibition populated with content gathered directly through public input, albeit curated by the museum.

A nice example of design for participation is the National Maritime Museum’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, set up this year so that entries are submitted via Flickr, where they are held in the public domain, while a partnership with allows each image is ‘astrotagged’ so that they can all be combined and compared in a growing photographic chart of the night sky. The collaborative nature of this project – along with the content created by the public – is its strength. And again, it builds awareness of the museum’s activities farther and wider than could have been achieved otherwise. It is competition, exhibition, research and marketing all in one, but would not be possible without public input, professional collaboration and web-based services.

Yet another example is Brooklyn Museum’s Click! exhibition, an investigation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in which artists’ photographic responses to the theme of the ‘changing faces of Brooklyn’ were assessed by the public online. At the final exhibition, held in the museum last summer, the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from this public jury process.

Participatory design, then, can take many flavours. Naturally, not everything will be appropriate for every institution, exhibition or subject theme.

Traditionally, museums have delivered knowledge and learning in one direction: from institution to the public. Although it adds another dimension, participation need not supplant this model. Of course, it is valid to ask whether participation – and by extension participatory design – is actually necessary or beneficial at all. Perhaps one way to answer that is to consider changing expectations. As cultural sector consultant and Flow Associates director Bridget McKenzie notes, a recent flurry of events centred on participatory culture seem to indicate that ‘the public expects to participate’.


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.