e-interview with Nina Simon by Museu Picasso

I first met Nina in Indianapolis at the Museums and the Web 2009 Conference, but I had been reading her instructive and witty blog, MuseumTwo, for quite a long time then. Precisely for her blog she won an Award at the MW09 Best of the Web. As we have been disseminating, we are happy to welcome Nina at our museum, where she’ll give a talk on Wednesday 17th November 2010.

Nina just published her first book a few months ago, The Participatory Museum. You can read a review on a recent post we wrote. I had the opportunity to interview Nina as a prologue to her coming to Barcelona. Here you are:

Which do you consider are the main features of a Participatory Museum?

A participatory museum is an institution that is eager to discover ways for visitors and community members to contribute and help make it a better, more effective place. It is a museum that respects visitors as people with useful things to offer. It is a place where staff are very thoughtful about finding the best ways to incorporate visitors’ creativity, expertise, and experience toward institutional goals.

Museums are starting to transition from being object-centered to audience-centered. This evolution doesn’t go with some frictions on its way. What strategy would you recommend for a smooth internal process in museums planning to open the institution to a more engaging / participatory performance?

Many museums require every staff member—accountants, curators, executives, everyone!—to spend time working on the floor with visitors. If you are audience-centered, you should be thinking about audiences all the time as you are making decisions that will affect them. The better you understand your audiences (and ideally, the more you care about them), the more successful you can be at working with staff members to accomplish shared goals around creating an audience-centered experience.

Tate Modern, London. Photos: Conxa Rodà

One thing I’ve learned while implementing 2.0 initiatives at our museum is that even in such an informal land as Social media, all you do has to be very well planned to be successful. The same happens for participatory processes: although flexible and adaptative they need a well planned well-cared and sustainable dedication throughout the whole process, isn’t it?

Absolutely. As Studs Terkel used to say about conducting great radio interviews: “prepare, prepare, prepare—and then improvise.” A strong plan helps both staff and visitors feel confident that they know what needs to be done to be successful. Often people are more comfortable being creative within specified constraints and plans than in a wide open environment.

Big Draw Barcelona, 2010. Photo: Jordi Mota

What would you recommend Museums to do when embarking to engage visitors?

Go out onto the floor and talk to them! If you spend time with visitors, seeing things through their eyes, you will very quickly start to understand their interests and approach things from their perspective. When it comes to inviting visitors to participate, they will only engage if the activity is truly appealing and fulfilling to them. You need to understand what motivates and interests them to design something that will be engaging.

What would you recommend Museums NOT to do when embarking to engage visitors?

Don’t be fake. Visitors can sense it when a museum asks for their opinion but doesn’t really care about their response. In my experience, the least successful participatory projects are those in which the staff don’t really want or need the contributions they ask the visitors to provide. This is a basic matter of respecting visitors’ time and energy. Think about it in a professional context: you would never ask a colleague to prepare a report or offer her opinion if it was not useful to you. We should treat visitors with the same basic respect.

One added difficulty for contemporary art museums, respect science or history museums, is that copyright is not usually owned by the museum but by the artists or by artists’ Estate. On the book, you can perceive some irritation towards museums not allowing visitors to take photographs, even without flash. Truth is that in most cases that is not the policy of the museum, but the obligation of the museum not to allow public use of images. This is a real wall against visitors’ photography or filming enjoyment. Any suggestions?

This is a huge issue. The only real way I have seen some institutions deal with this is to try to educate lenders and artists about the benefits of loosening up photo policies. If this discussion becomes part of all contract negotiations, at least the museum is in an informed position to decide whether an artist or work is worth it given the goals for audience engagement.

Blog header MuseumTwo

You have been blogging on MuseumTwo for more than 4 years, when the very concept of 2.0 was quite unknown still. Have users evolved, have you perceived an evolution in your users Museum 2.0 approach?

Definitely! When I started in 2006, people were still asking, “What is Web 2.0 and why should I care in this museum?” And then they started asking, “How can I make an argument for doing this work so we can start trying it?” Now, in the past two years, they have started asking, “How can we do these projects more thoughtfully, more successfully, and how will we evaluate them?” I have watched an explosion of work in this area and it thrills me to be part of a movement in this way.

Thank you so much, Nina, we are also thrilled to be part of it!

Conxa Rodà
Project manager

Have you developed any participatory experience at your museum or been a part of one as visitors that you’d like to share with us?

Do you have any question for Nina Simon? Leave it here or send it to our Twitter stream @museupicasso and we’ll ask Nina during the debate after her talk on 17th Nov.

  • Mar Sánchez
    November 17, 2010

    Moltes gràcies Conxa per compartir aquesta entrevista! Esperem aprendre moltes coses en la xerrada d’avui!!

  • Soledad Gómez Vílchez
    November 17, 2010

    Muchas gracias al Museo Picasso por hacer extensible la charla de Nina Simon a los que nos encontramos fuera de Barcelona.

    Quisiera poder hacerle una pregunta:

    Muchos museos son reacios a asumir modelos participativos por un miedo a la “pérdida de control” que supone que el visitante pueda ser también parte activa de los procesos, ¿qué les dirías a los representantes de este tipo de instituciones para conseguir que dejaran a un lado sus reticencia y cambiaran su idea de museo?

  • Museu Picasso
    November 17, 2010

    Nina: creo q hay museos que recelan de la posible pérdida de “autoridad”. Hay muy buenas experiencias, incluso en otros ámbitos, como la prensa, en que los usuarios pueden dejar sus comentarios y en ningún momento el lector se confunde respecto cuál es la voz del periódico y cuál la de los lectores. Los museos pueden hacer igual. El museo conserva su “autoridad” científica, pero abre la puerta a la participación. De este modo los museos peuden iniciar su camino a la particiapción e ir creciendo des de allí

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