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Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum is an incredible resource, another jewel provided in our Museum Informatics course.  She writes on her Museum 2.0 blog how she wrote this book on a public wiki (reminds me of our use of the wiki in class), how she vetted public editors, though she found most participants were only involved during the formative parts of the book.  She practiced what she preached about participation: “So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use.”

I focused on reading Chapter 1:  Principles of Participation.  In this write-up, I’ve sprinkled numerous quotes from Nina Simon because they are so good and they speak for themselves.  I couldn’t believe what excellent advice and information was jam-packed in just one chapter.  Of course, some of these chapters are length (45+ pages), so she also offers the option to purchase the book.

She brings up the fact that sometimes museums want to just create any participatory activity or application, yet can run afoul by making a poorly-designed participatory experience.  She highlights a poor one immediately in the first paragraph:

A Poor Participatory Design:  An Anonymous Chicago Museum

“I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum.  We’re checking out the final exhibit – a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition.  I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and there are REALLY, REALLY BAD.

The videos fall into 2 categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.”

Results: Unsuccessful.

Why unsuccessful:  Museum only issued mandate to create without providing “scaffolding.”

Simon offers the wonderful quote from Orson Welles which puts it aptly: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Now, let me compare this to an example she gives of a good participatory design…

A Good Participatory Design:  Denver Art Museum – 2009 “Side Trip” Gallery for The Psychedelic Experience Exhibit

In the exhibition space highlighting psychedelic rock music posters, visitors were encouraged to make their own rock music posters in the Side Trip gallery:

“Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers (and reaching a narrow audience of self-motivated creators)… visitors were offered clipboards with transparencies attached.  There were stacks of graphics – cut-out reproductions from real rock posters on display… could place under transparencies to rearrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing.”  Posters took approximately 25 minutes to create.When completed, the visitor gave to a staffer who made a composite by copying it on color printer.  Then, the visitor was given the final poster and provided with option to post a copy in the gallery.

Results:  Out of 90,000 attendees, 37,000 posters were created.  That verges to nearly 45% participation from total number of attendees!

Why successful:  Visitors didn’t have to start with a blank slate.  They were provided “scaffolding.”


Nina Simon stresses the critical importance of scaffolding to participatory design.  We have seen in class the example of a good one in the Victoria and Albert Museums “Make an Arts and Crafts Title.”  We don’t have to create from a blank slate.

What exactly is scaffolding?  Simon elaborates on this and its formation from “instructional scaffolding” with its roots in education and contemorary learning theory.

Some good quotes about scaffolding:

  1. Instructional Scaffolding is where “educators or educational material provides supportive resources, tasks and guidance upon which learners can build their confidence and abilities.”
  2. “The best participatory experience are not wide open.  They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engagin the the activity.”
  3. Example of an open-ended, non-scaffolded experience: “What if I walked up to you on the street and asked you to make a video about your ideas of justice in the next three minutes?  Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?”
  4. An open-ended, non-scaffolded experience can “feel daunting to would-be participants.”

Another juicy gem is her presentation of the 5 stages of social participation…

The 5 Stages of Social Participation (from Me to We):

Stage 1:  Individual Consumes Content

Stage 2: Individual Interacts with Content

Stage 3: Individual Interactions are Networked in Aggregate

Stage 4: Individual Interactions are Networked for Social Use

Stage 5: Individuals Engage with Each Other Socially

Simon applies these 5 stages wonderfully in the case study of the successful incorporation of all 5 stages in Nike’s product Nike+, a combined iPod/Shoe product to track one’s running.  It is too good to highlight and I’d suggest if you have the time to read it.  It illustrates the five stages and is directly applicable to designing the participatory museum experience.

Other good gems from this article is how she describes how YouTube is a successful participatory experience and the real reason it is successful, that encourages “diverse forms of participation.”

These diverse forms of participation are elaborated in her discussion of what participation looks like:

1. Creators

2. Critics

3. Collectors

4. Joiners

5. Spectators

6. Inactives

What is quite fascinating is that only .16% of YouTube visitors upload a video and only .2% of Flickr visitors post a photo.  Wow!  She stresses that although the quantity of creators are small, participation (and why social media, YouTube, Flickr, etc. are popular) and mini-creation takes place in the form of collectors, joiners, critics, and even spectators.

Attribution: Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

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