The Participatory Museum: An interview with Nina Simon

Audio (mp3: 6.5MB, 26:59)

Published: 1 June 2012

Nina Simon talks to Gerry Gaffney about designing participatory experiences. How can institutions encourage, support and scaffold engagement in the pursuit of “Me to We” design?

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

My guest today did not get to realise her childhood dream of designing pinball machines. However, she has worked with NASA and the International Spy Museum. She’s passionate about developing museum exhibitions, educational programs and online experiences to engage visitors as co-creators.

She’s consulted to a wide range of museums round the world and is currently executive director of the Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, California. In fact she’s just been one year at that role, so well done for surviving the year.

Nina Simon:

Thank you. [Laughter.]

Gerry Gaffney:

She’s author of The Participatory Museum, an excellent book whose relevance goes beyond the confines of the museum and which I’d recommend to people working in the field of user experience in general. She maintains the Museum 2.0 blog and is a prolific Tweeter. Nina Simon, welcome to the User Experience podcast.


Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here.


Okay, tell me first of all, why are you interested in museums?


Well, I’m interested in them because they’re opportunities for informal and free choice learning. I was a kid who was always great at school but very suspicious of all the gold stars and the grades and the kinds of formal setups that we create to structure learning and to really, frankly, subjugate some of the ways that people learn, some of the ways that people express themselves.

And so I became really curious about alternative forms an ways that people learn and discovered this idea of a museum as a place where you can go and it’s not going to be in the test, you’re not there to get a grade. No-one ever failed museum.

And so as a person who loves learning and who loves maths and science in particular and saw so many people being so stressed out by it, I loved the idea of being in a space where we could invite people to play with math, with science, with art, with history in a non-judgmental and really open environment.


I think it’s probably fair to say that a lot of people get dragged along to museums when they’re kids.




So where does the whole concept of participation come in and why does it matter?


Well, you know, I really strongly believe that going to the museum should not be like going to the dentist. It should not be something that you have to do or that you’re dragged to do. And it really should a place that’s open to the kind of learning that you want to do, and frankly that’s really where participation comes in line in that the museums that I see as most successful and people want to be at, want to go to, are places that give them experiences they can’t have anywhere else

And often that has to do with participation. Sometimes it has to do with seeing an object that’s an incredible object you can’t see anywhere else, but many times it has to do with the fact that you can get your hands on something whether that’s a paintbrush or whether it’s a science experiment.

And also in my case one of the things I really look at is cultural shifts and I think what we’re seeing internationally is that people are expressing themselves and getting involved in creative work in increasing numbers but they’re doing so outside of traditional organisations.

So, for example, people, adults of all ages are more likely to pick up an instrument today than ever before and less likely to go to the symphony. They’re more likely to take up gourmet cooking and less likely to go to an art show and so I think for a museum to be successful we have to really fit with how people like to experience the content that we’re about culturally.

So if the way people like to experience science is through a Maker Faire or a hacker space why isn’t a science museum a place for that kind of scientific learning? If the way somebody wants to experience art is through making art, through being part of something, why aren’t we inviting that opportunity? So I think that’s the connection I’m trying to make.


I guess one of the things that occurs to me sometimes at museums is that some places kind of confuse, I guess, the concept of participation with interactivity and, you know, it’s not that unusual to go to see an exhibit that can be a very unsatisfying button-pushing experience. Is that a problem with the idea of interaction itself or a failure of vision or a failure of design or why does that happen?


That’s a very good question and I think for me I really distinguish interactivity from participation where I think an interactive is something that invites you to do something so that could be to push a button and it could be to play a game.

But participation is really about inviting you to be part of something, and so for me the test case is this question of what happens after you leave? Does the thing just reset and it’s invisible to the fact that you were there? Or have you added to the experience in some way?

And I think absolutely that some of the frustration people have about interactive experiences is so often they feel so trivial; you know, lift the flap, push the button. And there’s not a sense that there’s any meaning to why you should be doing this thing. Whereas hopefully in a good participatory experience there’s a lot of meaning because you’re being invited to help create something or to share your story in a way that’s additive and cumulatively makes a better result.

That’s not to say I’m not for interactivity. I believe in interactivity as well but I think that it’s just one of many tools in the toolbox and that we have to really be intentional about how we work it into our design.


I’d imagine that for some people visiting museums the concept of participating is the equivalent of sitting in the front row at a comedy.


What do you mean by that?


Well I guess it’s something that’s a bit scary and they might think that’s not for me at all.


Oh, I see, yeah absolutely. And you know it’s very funny, before I took this job here at the MAH I was working around the world with different museums and one of the things that I’d hear all the time when I was in other countries was oh well maybe in America you guys like to talk to strangers and do all these crazy things but here in X, it didn’t matter where X was, you know if I was in Australia they’d say over there in New Zealand they’d let you do this, but if I was in New Zealand they’d say maybe in Australia it’s okay.

My feeling is that in every community there are ways that people like to participate but you have to be very culturally sensitive. So, for example, when I was working in Taiwan one of the things I discovered was that people were very reticent to share their opinion, which is a very American thing to do. But they were very happy to take photos and to have participatory experiences both with the people they came with and with strangers through their cameras and that to me were very interesting.

I think when I’ve done work in Europe there’s some places you go where it’s clear that consensus-based experiences, discussion experiences, collective games are very successful but individual interaction is not. Or vice versa in other places.

So I think there is an element of figuring out culturally for a particular area or a particular kind of place what’s going to be appealing and inappropriate.

But, frankly, you know from my perspective every one of us wants to find ways to express what’s important to us and what’s meaningful and it’s just a question of figuring out what the right fit is for that place.


But I guess even within a culture you’ve got some people who go to a museum and they just want to look at stuff and learn stuff and absorb whatever is around them and the last thing they want to do is get actively involved in any way. Are we at risk of putting those people off?


You know, I see it as it’s part of the whole experience and so in the same way that some people like very contemplative experiences, some people like media, some people like labels; you know it’s just sort of another thing in the mix.

Now, that said, I think there are some people for whom it’s so new that they are sort of surprised to see it there or they don’t think it adds anything to the experience but I’d argue that for every one of the people who thinks interactivity doesn’t add anything to the experience there’s somebody else that thinks labels don’t add anything to the experience and so on.

There’s been a lot of research in museums around what do people actually look at, what do people actually do, and they find the more interpretative tools you have the better. So there’s one person who will read every label then the next person won’t read any labels but they’ll look at all the videos or whatever it might be. But that it’s pretty diverse in terms of the ways we like to learn, the way we like to experience content and so I think we need as many options as possible.


I’d imagine that one of the things that’s scary from a curatorial or management point of view is this whole concept of getting your hands dirty with actually mixing in with people. I know we see it in UX design in general where sometimes organisations are reluctant to… You know, they’re there to serve people but there’s a certain reluctance to engage with them and you had a lovely phrase in the book. You talked about “harnessing the mess in support of the excitement”. Can you tell me a bit about those? I guess I’m probably conflating two different things here…


Yeah, no, no… Absolutely, and I think one of the things that gets very stressful for people is they start from this perspective of oh my God, we’re going to open the doors and we just have to listen to whatever they do and we have to make it happen and No you do not have to do that. [Laughs.]

There’s lots of different ways to use people’s participation and what I always focus on, particularly from a design perspective, is, you know, every one of us is walking around this world with the ability to offer meaningful and really valuable content experiences, creative work, and also the opportunity to make totally banal shit.

And I think the challenge from a design perspective is how do you design a participatory process that brings out the best in people. And so, for example, we have a lot of ways at our museum that we invite people to co-create art with us and I’m very realistic about the fact that most people are not great artists. I don’t want to have a display of just all the drawings made by all the visitors. But often what we do is we’ll pair up with an artist or a designer and we’ll create a structure in which everybody can express themselves and be part of a coherent, successful whole.

So, for example, we worked with a local metal artist named Ed Martinez who makes these huge junk sculptures and so he cut out hundreds of fish out of recyclable aluminum and then we gave visitors sledge hammers and we invited them to help us by creating all the scales in the fish, so basically creating dimensionality to the fish by banging on them, and then we hung them all up to create this giant school of fish sculpture. It’s a beautiful sculpture and everybody who participated can look at it and point to it and say: “I helped make that piece of art.”

Now could they have vastly screwed it up? Could they have turned their fish into a koala? No, they could only make a fish but they could express themselves through their fish in a way that then created something really terrific. And so we try and be really realistic here about asking the question; okay, what are we actually going to do with people’s results, how do we make sure that we’re designing this in a way that’s going to create something that we’ll use instead of just tossing it in the bin and just being very realistic with ourselves about that.


You talk about five stages of engagement. Can you tell us a little bit about those five stages of engagement?


That’s really focused on this specific ideas around social participation, and you know I fundamentally am driven in my work by the idea that when you bring people together that come from different backgrounds and you invite them to work together, you’re really creating something, a kind of social bridging that makes the community a better place, makes us a more just and caring society.

So that’s sort of first of all my underlying mission that kind of underlies this and so one of the core questions I started out from was okay, if I want strangers who are visiting a museum to engage with each other, how am I possibly going to get them to get out of their own little bubbles and decide to talk to somebody they don’t know.

And so when I started looking at how this happens on the web in the social web I started realising that one of the surprising things is that if you want to create a social experience among strangers, you don’t start by saying, hey here are all these people who like books or who like soccer, let’s put them all in a room together and have them chat.

No, instead the most successful websites are ones that really start from the individual and move to the collective. So I call this Me to We design. And so at the first level there’s this idea that you’re getting content from the institution, you’re reading the label, you’re getting the instructions.

On the second level, this idea that you’re interacting with the institution or with the site in some way; you know you’re making your profile; you’re pushing the button, that kind of thing.

The third level is where it starts to get interesting and that’s when you start having interactions that are in some way networked. So let’s say we’re in an exhibit and there’s a place where you vote, you know: Do you think children should drink coffee – Yes or No? And so if you just hit “Yes” or “No” and then walk away and that’s your whole interaction, that’s level 2.

Level 3 would be that you hit “No” and then I come up to it and I hit “Yes” and it shows me 38% of people said “Yes” or 64% agreed with you and said “No”. So now I’m starting to get a sense that, Oh! there are other people who have participated with this thing. There are other humans who are out there who have been part of this.

On the 4th level that gets social and it says okay the person who came before you disagreed with you, or it says somebody who’s just your age and your gender who came agreed with you. So starting to get a sense not just of the general collective but of specific other individuals and hopefully that leads you to this 5th stage which is about social engagement among the people so that if you go up and you vote “No” and then I go up and I vote “Yes” and it says, hey Gerry who’s standing right next to you said “No”. Hopefully we’ll turn to each other and have a discussion about that.

Now I say hopefully. There are ways you can design to influence that happening but I think if you think about this from the perspective of a site like Facebook you see that you’re starting out by making your own profile, your profile connects you in aggregate to other people who have done the same thing, read the same news piece, whatever it is.

And then you end up having discussions with people who yes you know them in that case but you don’t necessarily know them very well and so this idea of using design to link people who don’t know each other, don’t commonly interact through these stages that go from Me to We.


And in the book, which I do highly recommend, you’ve got lots and lots of examples of museums and organisations that have managed to engage at various levels along the five stages and some of them are fascinating.

One of the things that occurred to me was how user-centred of course it’s necessary to be when you talk about participation. I was very impressed with the Dutch library you talked about; Bibliotheek Haarlem Oost, excuse my pronunciation, and how they got people to tag books.

Can you tell us about what they did?


Sure, so they wanted to get a way for people to tag the books that they’d read and to add modifiers to them; keywords that could be used in the database. At first they were going to have people do this on the web and then they realised of course that that doesn’t make any sense in terms of the user experience of how you actually check out books.

When you think about it, if you’re going to check out a book from the library, you check out the book, okay maybe you go on the website, you find the book, you go to the library, you check out the book, you read the book, you return it to the library, you’re done.

There is no reason for you to be going back to the website at that point and key wording things related to the book that you’ve already returned to the library. It’s nonsensical. And so instead what they did was they worked it into the returning system itself so that when you returned the book there are several different shelves or drawers that are labelled different things like “Loved it”, “Funny”, “Boring”, “Didn’t read it.” And the idea was that as you are returning your books you’re re-shelving them into the shelves that they belong to. Each of the books has an RFID tag; the shelves have an RFID tag so the keyword is automatically then applied in the database as well.

Now I say how it’s supposed to work because in the end if you read the book you’ll see that there’s sort of a sad coda to this story which was the design was quite brilliant but in the end the library ended up discontinuing it because they found they had a couple of problems. a) People were spending too much time re-shelving their books and being very thoughtful about their tags and so there would be these lines of people waiting to return books and the librarians felt that that was not appropriate and not a good thing for the library.

And that they had this experience where they really couldn’t work these tagging systems into their workflow. And I think this is so interesting from a design perspective because the designers were so careful to make sure that they were designing something that would work for the patron of a customer but they were not attentive at all to how it would work for the staff member and ultimately that killed the experience in the end.


I guess there are a lot of stakeholders that you’ve got to juggle as in most types of design. You’ve got the end users if you like and then you’ve got the museum itself and then you’ve got the people working in the museum.

How have you found your year in your current role? You blogged recently about what you’ve learned and what you should have done better.

Would you like to comment on that a little? I know that’s taking us off topic.


Yeah it’s been terrific. You know after years of being on the road and working with different museums and libraries and things like on their projects it’s such a pleasure to be focusing in the community I live in and really seeing something move from a creative direction.

I think that anybody who’s a designer, who’s a hired gun, knows that were a couple of problems with it. One problem is that you never get to really see and experience what you’ve made. So your client is your client not the end customer, and so I was always frustrated that I didn’t feel like my design work was getting any better necessarily, because I wasn’t getting the feedback I needed from the participants or the users themselves. I was only getting the feedback from the people who’d hired me.

And then I also felt there was sort of a problem that people would always say, people always chose the third best idea. You know that in terms of, if you want take risks it’s hard to convince other people that they want to take risks. And so now being in my own place, a) I can really be responsive to and adapt with the community I’m in, and b) we can take those crazy risks that I would have had to take months and months to convince somebody else to even consider.


That’s something that’s been on your mind a bit I think because you also had another blog entry talking about building a culture of experimentation which presumably ties in with the concept of risk as well.


Sure, absolutely. I think that, you know, the comic thing to me about risk taking is that for people who are perceived to do it, you know a lot of times that’s not the way any of us would define what we’re actually doing. It doesn’t feel like a risk if it feels like this is the right thing I need to try out, and I think that it’s really even more about just trying things out, experimenting, as opposed to feeling like Ooh this is a risk or Ooh, you know, I could fail. But just, you know, if you have an expectation that I need to keep trying things and I need to keep things fresh and keep playing with things it really leads you in some exciting new directions.


So for museums that are interested in becoming participatory, how do they take those first steps?


Well I always say that you don’t need anything in particular to be participatory. You don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need a particular content type.

All you need is one thing, which is you need to have a genuine interest in and respect for what visitors have to say.

So you have to find that thing where you’re genuinely interested in what they have to contribute. I don’t care if it’s their opinions about how clean the bathroom is or how good the food is or if it’s them creating a whole big exhibit that’s visitor-generated.

What I care about is the staff figuring out where is the place where we could really use help from our community? So, for example, for us there’s so many things we do here at our museum where we just say, you know what, theere’s no way we could do this on our own or there’s no way we could do it well on our own. Who are the people in our community who can help us?

Sometimes it’s very specific people and sometimes it’s a type of person, like, Oh we need people who skateboard or for example in our most recent Love exhibition we decided we wanted to profile people who were loving, family, mostly, situations under really tough circumstances.

And sure we could have done research and we could have tried to like learn about and you know, tell some vignettes about people who have been profiled in the paper or something like that. But instead what we did is we called up the woman who runs the family homeless shelter and we asked her to connect us with families who are living at the homeless shelter and trying to keep it together. And we ended up doing some short oral histories and taking photographs which are now on display.

And so it’s new content created with these members of our community. It’s very powerful. It’s real. It’s in the first person. It’s more powerful than what we could have created on our own. That’s what’s important to me is that it’s not about giving visitors an opportunity to participate; like oh you little visitor, you need this thing.

It’s really focused on who are the people who can help us make what we do better and how are we going to find them, how are we going to cultivate them, how are we going to create the opportunities that really make their experience something that we can share with others?


It’s interesting you talk about or you poor visitor or you little visitor. It really goes to the heart of the relationship between an organisation and its customers, doesn’t it?


Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think that the sad fact is that in most museums at best there’s a kind of positive inclination but a mystifying confusion about who visitors are and at worst, frankly, there’s a total disregard or a sense that those visitors are stupid people who need our help to learn what we have for them. That’s very much changing but there are still some old guard people who really feel like the job of the museum is to lift up and educate, and that’s a problem.


Is that kind of a generational thing? Is that fading? Is that sort of old school mentality disappearing?


Yes, I would say – what’s that great quote: ‘The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed” – I think it’s Bruce Sterling, the sci-fi writer [Gerry's note: close enough, it was actually William Gibson]. But I think that there are pockets of all kinds of things in museums. There are pockets that are really pushing in this way and there are pockets that are very reactionary and I do think that things are overall changing because there is a real sense that for museums to be viable in the 21st Century they need to be places that are relevant to communities, that make connections.

Funders are interested in this you know and yes it’s absolutely true in the States where museums are much more self-funded. But I’m seeing in Europe and countries as well, government funding falling back, more governments looking at the US model, whether it’s a good thing or not it certainly means that you have to be more responsive to customers in the very business sense of that term.


Now recently, in fact as I was reading your book, I visited a little town in regional Victoria in Australia and I went to a museum that was entirely old school and run by volunteers.

Is it reasonable to expect an institution like that to ever become participatory and does it matter?


Oh well I would say it already is participatory. You know, it’s created by the community and, frankly, you know, in my museum we have 8 staff members and 150 volunteers. I actually think the vast majority of museums in this country, sorry not just in this country, in the world, are those tiny museums and so I think in some ways they have the best shot to do it.

Now are they following, you know, international trends in museology? No, but once they see something they’re interested in they can make it happen right away because they don’t have all this bureaucracy that a big organisation does nor do they have kind of the curatorial hand-wringing so I think that there’s real potential for those organisations.

Some of those organisations have become like a little club and that’s a problem but I think what I see in a lot of those organisations is a real desire to find new members who want to get involved because frankly that’s what’s going to keep them alive in a very real sense of the term.


To move from philosophy into tactics, how should participatory experiences be scaffolded? This is something you talk about in the book.


Well, I think one of the misconceptions with participation is that people want an open slate. And the reality is that a blank piece of paper is like the scariest thing in the universe to most people, and so if you want people to be creative or to share a personal story you’re asking them to really do something very personal and very scary and so you have to both give them kind of the emotional support to feel like Oh they’re not going to kick over my sandcastle, this is something I can do, this will be okay, and you need to give them the tools to be successful.

So you know in that fish example I used earlier, we didn’t say to people we’re making a giant sculpture, come make whatever you want. We handed them a fish and a hammer and we let them go to town.

I think that if you can give people tools. I always say you know you want to give people tools and scaffolding that constrains the possibilities of what they can do but does not constrain the outcome.

You know so it’s not like they can’t do something crazy in how they design the fish. They can do it however they want but that’s the constraint of what the activity is at hand.

And in my experience, whether you’re planning a comment board and you’re going to ask questions or whether you’re doing a sculpture or a mural or something like that, the most successful ones are highly scaffolded.

And I’ll just note that I think this is a real problem on the web because I think that when we think about participation in online environments, particularly when it comes to things like comment threads, it’s almost entirely un-scaffolded. And if you think about this question of how can we design commenting systems that really invited certain kinds of participation? You know, how could we invite people maybe to write more thoughtful lengthy pieces or how could we invite people to respond to each other as opposed to just saying their own bit?

There are ways from a design perspective to play with that and it has to do with how we scaffold things and unfortunately I think most comment threads online are just completely un-scaffolded and it leads to this very open ended kind of mishmash of what happens.


It’s interesting. I was thinking about that this morning as I was lying in bed reading my Twitter stream because I was looking at some of the newspaper comments and they tend to degenerate into personal abuse very, very quickly. And on the other hand I was looking at a blog by a chap called Stan Carey who blogs on language stuff and, you know, the comments on his blog were so polite and well informed by contrast.


Right, and probably it’s in that case scaffolded really more by the personalities involved than by any instance of exactly how the comment thread thing is designed. But even the fact, you know, particularly for newspapers, God! those ones are awful and because it’s seen as a more anonymous, everybody, takes all comers kind of space, you need to be even more intentional in thinking about how am I going to scaffold this because there aren’t those kind of cultural preconceptions that probably come with that blog in terms of Oh, I know the other people here, I want them to think I’m a reasonable person, whatever it is.


Nina, I’d love to talk to you for longer but we’ve run up against our time window. People can buy the book or read it online at the Particpatory Museum website.

Nina Simon, thanks so much for talking with me today on the User Experience podcast.


My pleasure. Thank you.

Published: June 2012