Coming up with formulas to encourage the active participation of the public is still a pending issue in many museums. For the staff of these institutions, the presence of Nina Simon in Barcelona provided an exceptional opportunity to discuss this challenge, learn about the participatory initiatives being implemented in other countries and share experiences.
Taking part in the workshop were various members of the Museu Picasso team and also staff from various cultural institutions in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia. Nina Simon began by outlining some of the challenges and risks faced by museums when they try to stimulate public participation. The crucial question that needs to be asked here is: ‘How can the visitors help to improve a museum project?’
‘Be sure you are really interested in the answer to the question you ask the visitor.’ This, according to Nina, is one of the basic principles that determine the success or failure of a participatory initiative in a museum. People understand perfectly clearly whether what is being put in front of them is genuine or not. When we sense that a question has no clear purpose or direction, or is being put to us simply for form’s sake, we tend to refrain from participating. On the basis of this observation, a first activity for the workshop was given: think of a question you really want to get some answers to.
Each workshop participant came up with a question, and then answers were read and discussed.
What do the questions put to visitors need to make them truly effective and generate participation? Nina Simon believes that they should include three key points:
- The question must be personal, it has to engage the visitor directly.
- The question must be speculative, it must make us imagine a hypothetical situation.
- The question must be located in the right place. It has to be positioned intelligently.
The second workshop activity took place in the galleries to answer this question: ‘Where would you place a good question to make it most effective in creating interaction, both inside the museum and online?’ ‘The key to knowing what you should be asking is to be clear about what kind of answers you’re looking for,’ Nina reminded.
The group in the large room which displays Picasso’s variations on the painting Las Meninas, came up with the question: ‘What are you passionate enough about to make 44 different versions?’ and proposed that the public should be invited to respond in situ in the museum or on the Internet, sending in their own ideas for variations via Flickr.
Second activity in the galleries
A second team, which had chosen the large canvas of Las Meninas, suggested that people be asked to reflect on the dichotomy between an authentic work and a copy, original creation and plagiarism. Since they had not formulated a specific question, the other participants suggested some: ‘How would you have made the copy?’ or ‘If you were Velázquez, what would you think of this version of your work?’
A third group, which had been through the rooms devoted to Picasso’s first stay in Paris, focused the question not on a particular work but on a very specific section of the public: teenagers who only visit the museum with a school group or their parents. The question posed was: ‘What would make you go back to the museum on your own?’
The group which chose the ceramic work singled out the plate entitled Black Mask and proposed making a reproduction of it so that visitors could handle it and answer the question: ‘How would you use this object?’ Finally, the group that had been in the ‘Barcelona 1899-1900’ galleries wanted the public to reflect on the fact that the titles of most of the works were not given by the artist but decided on by art historians and museums long after they were made. They thus proposed Couple in an Andalusian Patio as the basis for a game for the visitors: ‘What title would you give to this work?’ They also suggested asking them to think up a dialogue between the two figures.
Thanks to this working session, all of us professionals from different museums were able to experience at first hand the range of factors that need to be taken into account if public participation in museums is to work and be useful. It was a wonderful opportunity to understand Nina’s views and experiences more fully and make the most of her visit to the museum.
Internship in the Museu Picasso as part of his Master’s Degree in Cultural Heritage Management from the University of Barcelona
If you had taken part in the workshop, what question would you have asked in the first activity? And in the second?