How can we make museums more participatory? Nina Simon provides a lot of ideas in her book The Participatory Museum

To get us nicely warmed up before the lecture that Nina Simon will give at the Museu Picasso on Wednesday 17 November, we offer you a review of her widely acclaimed book.

The concept of public participation is associated above all these days with the track opened up by social media. And it’s true that the social networks provide endless options to share, comment, recommend, co-create and, in short, participate so easily and so immediately that we’re still getting used to. But the idea of participation goes far beyond the Web 2.0. The museum visitor, now accustomed to being an agent in the virtual environment must also be offered channels of expression and participation in the physical environment of the museum.

With a rigorous methodology, in The Participatory Museum Nina Simon presents the different stages of participation museums can offer. Ideas, recommendations on what to do and what not to do, a myriad of examples of good practice in museums around the world, together with the occasional failure, make this a bedside book for present-day museography.

Nina Simon

Every museum, every cultural centre, depending on the typology of its holdings and, above all, in harmony with its mission and objectives, will find here ideas and proposals of real value. Some are very simple, such as simply encouraging visitors to express their opinions by making a computer available or a voice recorder on which to leave their message. The fact is that something so relatively simple to put into practice is far from common in our museums. It makes me wonder why a habit that is so widespread on the Internet is still not happening in the physical museum. If we are in favour of participation, why are we limiting it almost entirely to the virtual environment?

Illustration from The Participatory Museum

What is a participatory museum?
The author defines a participatory cultural centre as “a place where visitors can create, share and connect with each other around content” (the collection).

Participation is not an end in itself, it’s a strategy. The aim of participatory techniques is to satisfy the visitor’s desire to be actively involved and to do so in a way that projects the mission and values of the institution forward and outward. The implementation of participatory techniques breaks down such deep-rooted ideas as that museums never change and so if you’ve been round once there’s no reason to visit it again, or that the authorized voice of the centre does not embrace the perceptions of the visitors.

6 flashes of the book
The book is very rich in content and I strongly recommend reading it attentively. As a taster, here are some of its reflections and proposals:

  • A museum or a cultural centre is a platform that provides opportunities for diverse experiences co-produced by the visitors.
  • The more accustomed people are to participatory learning and experiences, the more they want something more than simply to attend a cultural event or institution.
  • Good participatory practice is not just giving the visitors a say but helping them develop experiences that are of value and interest to everyone.
  • In many cases, if some participatory proposal fails to produce the results the museum was hoping for, it is the fault not of the visitors but of bad design (design here being everything from idea to realization).
  • There are three agents for whom the experience must have interest, meaning, value: the actual participants, of course, the non-participant visiting public and the museum.
  • There is a need to shift our gaze, to focus it on the visitor and ask ourselves some questions: What does our audience want? What is the museum prepared to give? What organizational changes will the adoption of participatory projects entail? How do we assess the results of participatory experiences?

Cover of The Participatory Museum

Participation in art museums, too
It’s true that participation and experimentation are easier to achieve in science museums and history museums, but art museums can also do a lot to a visiting experience of more quality.

In the words of the author: “The idealistic mission statements of many cultural institutions — to engage visitors with heritage, connect them to new ideas, encourage critical thinking, support creativity and inspire them to positive action— can be attained through participatory practice”. This is also very much the case with art museums.

The book provides good examples from the Tate, Brooklyn, Hirshhorn, Cantor Art Center, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Victoria & Albert and Rijksmuseum. Among the cases of good practices we note with pride the reference to the participatory experience developed by the Museu Picasso with the Eina School of Art and Design.

The book, an example in itself of a participatory writing process
The actual process of writing the book was in itself a model of participation: once the author had completed a first draft, she put up a wiki on which professionals from museums around the world could contribute our critical readings, comments and examples.

The website also encourages readers to keep on contributing comments and ideas: these will be taken into account in future updates of the text. You are all cordially invited to have your say here or post your comments on the book discussion space.

You can read the book online, for free, at
See other reviews of the book

Conxa Rodà
Project Manager

As a visitor, have you taken part in a participatory experience that you’d like to share with us?

If you work in a museum, have you implemented any participatory projects in your centre?

  • Ramon Sangüesa
    November 6, 2010

    Nina’s book is extremely helpful. Her way of looking at participation from the 2.0 lens is also very interesting and has changed completely the way that museums should look at audiences.

    The ways of providing a platform for social interaction and dialogue that she illustrates are very inspiring and useful.

    One thing I am constantly asking myself after reading the book and sharing a nice conversation with Nina this summer in Santa Cruz is “what else”?

    In my view one should exploit other venues of user involvement as, for example, it is done in the design tradition. Co-creation with users is something more than creating dialogue and interaction (which is extremely valuable, don’t get me wrong!).

    This requires a framework that goes beyond the metaphors of 2.0 or that mixes them with the user-led design methods. Interestingly enough, this approach is mentioned in Nina’s book when she refers to the IDEO tradition. However IDEO design methods seem to me more “user-centric” than “user-led” or participatory design methods. Also, it is curious that the tradition of design in Barcelona is lacking of this approach.

    So there is a lot of things to be daring and go ahead. 🙂

    That’s what we have learned in several workshops with users and professional alike in co-designing activities, exhibitions and other museum-related formats.

    Keep track of this in:

    Lapuente, I., R. Sangüesa. “The Expolab Experience on Engaging Users in Exhibition CoDesign Online and Offline”. Accepted at the 11th International Conference on the Public Communication of Sience and Technology. New Delhi (India).

    And be prepared for more!

    All this said, thanks a lot for bringing Nina to Barcelona (and also David Bearm and Jennifer Trant)

  • Conxa Rodà
    November 6, 2010

    Moltes gràcies, Ramon.sí q cal seguir la magnífica feina del CitiLab i dle projecte ExpoLab.
    Us esperem si podeu el 17 a les 12?30 al museu: amb les vostres aportacions el debat promet!

    Thank you, Ramon, the experiences of CitiLab and ExpoLab are certainly to be tracked. Our museums, in general, are far from reaching a true co-creation attitude. I like the distinction between user-centric and user-led: we need to be much more open and dare to give way and room for our users.
    Come the 17th to Nina’s talk, if you can, the debat promises to be alive!

  • Kippelboy
    November 6, 2010

    La Nina, com a totes les bones històries, parla d’un fet petit i singular, els museus, per explicar un tema molt més gran, com és la societat participativa. És per això que el llibre enganxa.

    Una de les coses que més m’està agradant del llibre (encara hi estic) és el concepte mateix de participació. Fins ara no relacionava el simple fet de veure un vídeo del Youtube o fotos a Flickr amb participar. Sovint confonia participació amb proactivitat.

    Està clar que no només als museus, si no a la societat en general la tecnologia ha afavorit l’aparició de projectes col·laboratius i participatius (Ogov, viquipèdia, lipdubs massius…) fins fa molt poc temps impensables.

    Crec que els ciutadans estem aprenent a formar part de moltes converses on fins ara no havíem sigut convidats, i ens està agradant i molt. Els museus, i les institucions en general, tenen l’oportunitat d’explotar aquestes eines per poder explicar-se més enllà de les notes de premsa i les publicacions oficials, sovint massa fredes i llunyanes.

    Igual que últimament estic desvirtualitzant gent molt interessant que vaig conèixer a les xarxes socials, crec que és el moment de ”desvirtualitzar” les institucions, de tenir l’oportunitat de conèixer-les més enllà del taulell d’entrada o la bústia de suggeriments i veure que estan formades per equips humans.

  • J.G.
    November 7, 2010

    os felicito, siempre es bueno que un blog tenga siempre un museo

  • Soledad Gómez Vílchez
    November 7, 2010

    Muy interesante, ¡gracias por compartirlo!

  • Ramon Sangüesa
    November 7, 2010

    Hola Conxa,

    Moltes gràcies per les teves paraules sobre Expolab.

    Nosaltres seguim la línia de treball en exposicions participatives i prototipat com a estratègia de codisseny cultural iniciada amb “De la contemplació a la participació i més enllà”. Ho fem fora de Citilab, a CoCreating Cultures, perquè creiem que és una plataforma millor i més flexible

    A més, el setembre vaig renunciar al meu càrrec de Director d’Innovació al Citilab per tenir més espai.
    Aquí tens el meu post de comiat del Citilab:

    Ara sóc a Nova York on treballem amb Irene Lapuente en diversos projectes d’innovació i cultura, entre d’altres institucions, amb museus.

    També estem organitzant en col.laboració amb Barcelona el grup de treball i mètodes que va sortir dels tallers de pràctiques culturals 2.0.

    No podrem estar a la conferència de la Nina i és una llàstima: vàrem poder parlar amb ella aquest estiu a Califòrnia, va ser un intercanvi interessant. Dona-li records!

    Al Gener, però, estarem a BCN unes setmanes i aprofitarem per fer la reunió presencial del grup.

    Una abraçada


    November 8, 2010

    voltarei mais vezes

  • Larraitz Mendizuri
    November 9, 2010

    Felicidades a todo el equipo por poder contar con Nina. Nos encantaría poder asistir a la conferencia, poder escuchar y compartir experiencias, pero no va a poder ser… ¿Tenéis pensado documentarlo de alguna manera? ¿Se podrá seguir en streaming? Gracias y abrazos para todos.

  • Carmen Doral
    November 9, 2010

    Gracias por habernos brindado la oportunidad de conocer el museo desde la perpectiva de su conservadora

  • Museu Picasso
    November 9, 2010

    Gracias, Larraitz, y a todos por vuestro interés y las buenas aportaciones a la discusión.

    Para los q no podáis asistir: la conferencia se retransmitirá en directo por streaming desde la web del museo y posteriormente estarán accesibles el video y audio.

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