The Participatory Museum: “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.”
“I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.” -Nina Simon, Author of The Participatory Museum
Visitor studies tell us that museum visitors bring their own knowledge, experience and values to the museum. By inviting visitors to participate in the interpretation of objects by creating meaning-making experiences, we open the door to partnership, collaboration, dialogue and innovation. We empower our visitors to make the museum their own; to take control of their learning; to become co-creators and to become life-long learners.
The Nissley Gallery, not only serves as the museum’s permanent collection gallery but also serves as a laboratory for museum staff to collaborate with faculty, staff, and visitors to explore the permanent collection. By experimenting with how objects are displayed and interpreted, we invite audience participation, stimulate conversation and and promote collaboration with the campus community.
In the October 2011 dedication of the Nissley Gallery, Director Eliza Reilly proclaimed the museum’s mission as ”… a laboratory…. and a uniquely un-hierarchal and participatory one, at that. In a museum exhibition, no single person’s vision, from the youngest visitor to the most seasoned scholar, prevails. Our museum has in a short time become that rare place where students, faculty, and professional staff, collaborate WITH audiences and the public to create new knowledge and to offer it to the world.”
The current installation “Collections Dialogues” juxtaposes objects, such as an unlikely pairing of Andy Warhol’s Jimmy Carter with a 19th century portrait of Anne Lawler Ross to invite visitors to explore both continuity and change in portraiture over time and to spark conversation. It groups together a classical bust of John Marshall, a history painting by Jacob Eichholtz and a 19th century sofa to visually demonstrate the permanence of classical forms throughout Western Culture. Visitors are invited to use observation and draw their own conclusions as to how the objects relate to one another and to consider how these forms prevail across time and place.
Viewing the work of contemporary abstract artist Bill Hutson, visitors are invited to explore the blurred lines between “painting” and “object” in post-modern art. Is an object that is painted a painting or an object? Is a painting that has found objects mounted to the canvas an object or a painting? Visitors are encouraged to decide for themselves and engage in conversation using the twitter hashtag #youdecide. By using various forms of exhibition design techniques such as those described above, The Phillips Museum is making an attempt to socially engage our audience through the interpretation of objects.
The most recent installation, The Protest Tree, was inspired by a tree on campus in which students voiced their discontent between the 1950s and the 1970s. The space acted as a podium for students to express their concern with a desired involvement in both campus and world affairs. Posters displaying items such as political satire or criticism of faculty were hung anonymously for all of campus to see with the intent to spark discussion and increase awareness of the issues raised.
We invited students to participate in a roundtable discussion to help shape The Protest Tree. In drafting the question for this participatory element, we took Simon’s advice for basic motivation in asking visitors questions:
1. encourage deep and personal engagement
2. motivate interpersonal dialogue among visitors
3. provide feedback for staff
So we posed a question that encompassed those motivations, and left sticky notes and pencils out for visitors to easily participate in the activity. We hope to encourage active engagement with The Protest Tree by providing the freedom for our visitors to express their opinions. We invite you to come into the museum, explore our collection, share your point of view and engage in dialog. Make the museum your museum. Later in the semester, we will be asking you, “what issues do you want to talk about on the protest tree?”
This post was a collaboration between Brittany Baksa and Maureen Lane.