Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture

With the hustle and bustle of life and meetings swirling around us all, it’s a rare occasion that we get to step outside of that pace and reflect on “big issues.” Contemplating an approach for the challenges that face museums given the changes in popular culture can make the difference between an organization that significantly impacts its community for good, and those that simply succeed at keeping the doors open.  Given the economic challenges many museums are encountering, keeping the doors open is – in and of itself – a challenge.  I’m a firm believer that times of challenge can be the best possible times to seize the opportunities at hand and make big changes.

I’m grateful for an opportunity to join a small group of museum and library experts in Salzburg next week for a meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar entitled, “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture.”  I’ve agreed to participate and blog about my experiences from my perspective as a museum executive and a technologist.  I thought that in the spirit of “participatory culture,” I could ask a number of my friends and colleagues their opinions about the biggest challenges facing museums and libraries today.  I’ll bring those ideas and insights to Salzburg with me and represent those thoughts in the discussions there.  Please feel free to join the discussion on Twitter (#museumchallenges) or post your thoughts in the comments here.

The responses I’ve received via email and twitter have been pretty amazing! Several of my colleagues pointed out that museums are still adjusting to a perceived shift in our relationships with visitors.  Museums want to engage visitors and provide a variety of deep experiences, but don’t quite know how to sustain those efforts over a long period of time.

Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology from the Brooklyn Museum of Art asks the critical questions about how museums can build consistency in their efforts of engagement.

“How do we create engaging experiences consistently, so that visitors feel participation is part of the overall culture of the institution?  I’ve seen a lot of one-offs, where there’s a burst of activity around one single project, but the challenge is creating a consistency so that valued participation is always part of the museum experience.  In addition, these projects too often just exist online and not within the walls of the institution when people visit. The challenge is creating an overall experience that works both online and off and one that consistently allows visitors to participate in meaningful ways.”

Rich Cherry, Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, points out that this goal of engagement and interaction with visitors both online and in the gallery carries with it some different expectations from public audiences and funding agencies that make planning for sustainability more difficult on the museum.

“Museums are in a difficult transition phase because of changing media consumption.  While young audiences are consuming social media and online content, older audiences are making that transition more slowly.   Unlike past shifts in media, this one is more interactive and limits the ability to simply re-purpose content.  This creates unique staffing and budgetary issues that are compounded by the recent economic downturn.  Funders are pushing museums to engage these new audience behaviors while not recognizing that a significant audience does not use these new methods and [museums] must support a dual track for some time to come.”

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History Santa Cruz, makes the point in her book about The Participatory Museum that,

“Participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation. They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once they are open to participants. This means shifting a larger percentage of project budgets towards operation, maintenance, and facilitation staff.”

In addition to this fact, when I asked Nina what she saw as the challenges for museums seeking to embrace a participatory culture, she raised an important issue about museums’ strategy for funding these initiatives. Nina asks, “How do [museums] use participatory techniques to support more diverse and equitable use of our resources (as opposed to providing more for the people we already serve well)?

Read the rest on imamuseum.org…

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