The Participatory Museum Review Essay

Several museums around the world have worked to make their data accessible, by providing free access to datasets, applying Creative Commons licenses to digital content or creating APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow programmers to build their own software on the museum’s data.

Detail on distribution of artworks in the Tate collection by birthdate of artists, visualized by Florian Krautli

Last month, the Tate museums opened up their collection database to the world on GitHub, a website where programmers collaborate. The Tate are providing metadata about artworks and artists of their collection – over 70.000 artworks – in a computer language called .JSON, which is commonly used for data sharing and processing. Anyone can download the data and use it for their own purposes, subject to some simple goodwill guidelines. Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of “The Participatory Museum”, found two interesting examples of visualizations created by GitHub from the Tate’s dataset:

The dimension of art, visualized by Jim Davensport

“The Tate’s dataset is very rich and still of a manageable size – writes Florian Krautli. “As a first step, I wanted to get an overview of the distribution of the collection in time. I wanted to get a picture of the most important artists in the collection and their position in time. So I made a sketch in d3which plots the artists as circles along a time axis and sizes them proportionally to the amount of works they have in the collection”.

Florian and Jim’s posts raise discussions and comments among the visitors and Nina Simon observes it’s simply awesome that museums’ data-sharing can cause people to have conversation about artists and artworks, irrespective of whether there are gaps or errors in those data or whether they are more or less interesting. “Opening up data is just the first big step to make it usable and useful – she writes. “These experiments promote new forms of collection, dissemination and analysis. Future iterations of data sharing and use will help institutions and citizen-participants take the next steps to make it meaningful”.

Read Nina Simon’s article 

 

Here’s what cultural professionals have been saying about The Participatory Museum. To add your own review, share a comment via the left sidebar, or better yet, write a customer review on Amazon.com and I will duplicate it here. If you write your review on Amazon, it reaches many more people, for which I would be grateful.

Jump to review by: Sonnet Takahisa in Curator, Mac West in Informal Learning Review, Seb Chan, Kathleen McLean, Daniel Spock, Eric Siegel, Leslie Bedford, Elizabeth Merritt, Bruce Wyman, Harry White, Maria Mortati, Mandi Zanski, Claire Antrobus, Robert Connolly

Curator volume 54, number 1 (review by Sonnet Takahisa):

Simon offers so many good thoughts, challenges, and examples that I found myself wanting to make sure I could go back and find them easily… This is a book that will be well-used by practitioners from all walks of the profession.

Informal Learning Review (review by Robert Mac West):

This is an important book for the twenty-first century museum/cultural organization. Read it–and act.

Seb Chan, Head of Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies, Powerhouse Museum, Australia:

The Participatory Museum is essential reading for all museum educators, designers, curators, program developers and forward thinking directors. Through a well chosen and wide range of international case studies, Nina teases out the implications and opportunities for museums in engaging with a public increasingly familiar with new modes of interaction resulting from nearly two decades of the public web. Refreshingly, she avoids the technical aspects and focuses on how all types of museum can reach out to new audiences and avoid alienating existing ones whose expectations have now changed. She neatly balances the practical ideas for immediate implementation with their broader strategic thinking, making The Participatory Museum *the* go-to recipe book for the coming years.

Kathleen McLean, designer of participatory museum experiences and author of Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions:

This book is an extraordinary resource. Nina has assembled the collective wisdom of the field, and has given it her own brilliant spin. She shows us all how to walk the talk. Her book will make you want to go right out and start experimenting with participatory projects.

Dan Spock, Director, Minnesota History Center:

In readable and engaging prose, Simon provides a multiplicity of practical, real-world examples and strategies for eliciting and enhancing public participation in ways that deliver real value to museum-goers and museums alike. This book will prove essential for any museum seeking to affirm its connection to the public in new ways relevant to the times in which we live.

Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer, New York Hall of Science:

Nina’s confident, enthusiastic, pragmatic tone overcomes any concern that her ideas are just the latest buzzwords, and fosters a sense of possibility and engagement for museum professionals. As I read this book, there were about 20 times when I thought “we should try this!” The Participatory Museum has the resonance of a manifesto and the potential to make a transformative impact on museum practice and visitors’ experience in museums in the coming decades.

Leslie Bedford, Director, Leadership in Museum Education graduate program, Bank Street College:

Simon is an excellent teacher; she gently leads her readers through what is likely to be new and intimidating territory. She articulates a useful set of intelligent principles, grounded in research and theory, of the sort that promotes reflective and effective practice…  This is the convincing marriage of theory and practice that good graduate programs and professional development efforts espouse and will welcome to their reading lists.

Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums:

Nina Simon’s new book offers practical advice on how museums can become forums for discussion of the crucially important issues of our time. Drawing on lessons from sources as diverse as the publishing industry, casinos and Nike, as well as from innovative museums around the world, this essential guide helps museums break down barriers to cultivating new audiences. I predict that in the future this book will be a classic work of museology.

Bruce Wyman, Director of Technology, Denver Art Museum:

In a blur, I imagine Nina racing into the workroom imploring us all with, “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot.” The tone and enthusiasm of this book engages and empowers a new generation of museum professionals to reinterpret how we interact with our visitors. Included throughout are thoughtful case studies, interviews, and personal experiences which guide us along a new path of participatory design. This book intrigues, delights, and kept me coming back for more.

Harry White, Science Centre consultant, Cardiff, UK:

This is a field report from the cutting edge of modern museology. Nina sets out the case for participation in a clearly structured distillation of her wide experiences, including lots of case studies which are backed up with more detail on the linked website.

I read the book on holiday and came back fired up with new ideas to try. Can’t recommend it highly enough, if you’re in the business, just add it to your basket now, you won’t regret it.

Maria Mortati, Exhibit Designer and founder of the SF Mobile Museum:

After years of providing insightful, tactical and creative posts on museums, web 2.0 and participation, Nina has put together a clear case for fostering visitor participation. She provides compelling case studies from around the world in museums, libraries, and other industries. All done with her signature smart and fun approach.

If you want to understand the world of participatory design and it’s possibilities for your institution, this is an excellent resource.

Mandi Zanski, Exhibit Design graduate student, Fashion Institute of Technlogy:

As a student of Exhibition Design at FIT in NYC, I found Nina’s book to be a must read for anyone who is interested in creating meaningful and personal cultural experiences. The book serves as a guide for understanding exactly what visitor participation can be, can look like, and how it can be evaluated. The organization of information and the numerous case studies used help the reader to digest the otherwise complex task of empowering individuals in cultural institutions. Everyone is talking about “interactive, social” exhibit environments, but Nina Simon actually describes ways that this can be achieved successfully. An inspiring read that I will refer to for the rest of my career!

Claire Antrobus, Independent Curator and Arts Manager, York, UK:

If you want to know what participation could offer your museum, art gallery, library or cultural organisation then this book is for you. It’s packed full of inspiring examples and practical advice as well as a very clear framework for helping arts professionals understand what participation offers, and which approaches and models might work best for your institution.

Participation is a hot topic, but also one which is poorly understood and feared in some quarters. This book unpicks some of the myths around participation and provides a very clear and simple framework for understanding the benefits and models of participation. It also makes a strong case for why participation is important and how it’s helping museums and arts organisations become more relevant and sustainable.

The main audience will be those working in the design and delivery of museum displays and exhibitions, but the book also has much to offer those involved in managing and leading cultural organisations – with a clear focus on management implications (and useful chapters on evaluation and sustaining participation). It’s well-written and easy to navigate – with great indexing and references for anyone interested in following up the ideas.

Essential reading for anyone interested in increasing participation in museums and arts organisations: from students, to specialists in design and learning, curators, managers and leaders of institutions.

The book combines inspirational ideas with down to earth examples from many different types and scales on institutions and makes you just want to just start doing it!

Robert Connolly, Director of the Nash Museum and Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Memphis:

As an avid reader of Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog I was quite pleased when she announced she was writing a book. Now in hand, my initial read of The Participatory Museum lives up to my expectations. Ms. Simon is clearly on the cutting edge in the practical, hands-on, applied end of Museum work. I particularly enjoy her outside the box thinking that is firmly grounded in practice. The volume is an excellent resource to kick start creative thinking from conceptualizing through to implementing and evaluating visitor participation appropriate for the monster and miniature museums alike. The Participatory Museum is a welcome addition as an assigned text for my course offerings in Museum Studies.

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