Over the last decade museums have become increasingly focused on their audience, what it knows and what it desires. While the focus group and formative evaluation has been around for a long time, there is a new trend in museums to solicit and feedback a visitor’s ideas as an integral part of their experience ‘on the floor’ . This is rapidly becoming the most valued mode of interactive engagement. True to the very notion that these experiences are essentially anti-authoritative, there is no agreed upon terminology for what this new activity is. Common terms used are ‘user-generated content’, ‘public-curating’, ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘bottom-up planning’, ‘audience engagement’, ‘user-centered design’, ‘talkback’, among many others.
These ideas follow a general trend in society based on a constant re-definition the self through the objects and ideas we associate ourselves with (see earlier post on this topic). With the notion of personal self-fulfillment at its apex, this new sense of how our identity in constructed also re-defines how we as individuals relate to society on the whole. We no longer expect to identify with overarching ideas and desires of a collective, societal-level experience, unless we select to join that experience. In fact over arching ideas are treated as suspect ideology. For the last 40 years or so the commercial sector has been bolstering this sense of the self determining individual, desire and focus on the self with generations of products designed around an expectation that products and services will be personalized and responsive to individual customers needs and interests. (No matter that we as consumers we eventually become slaves to some company’s idea for who we are). If museums have traditionally reflected ideas about society and transformed to keep pace with larger shifts and societal identifications than it can be assumed that museums must also necessarily change to reflect this obsession with self-definition.
Last week we began to explore how a range of social-networking technologies have emerged to meet this new desire. The social network is essentially a device that builds on the processes of self-selection and personalization, placing the user at the center of his web-based world, filtering content and creating associations that reinforce the user’s sense of self. Following the Web 2.0 Summit, Facebook founder, Sean Parker relates his vision of the future of internet commerce and posits that very soon, if not already, information services (like Yahoo, Google, YouTube, MSN) will be outmoded by network services (like Twitter, Facebook, Ebay, Paypal)” as the core value of the internet. Sean says that “Collecting data is less important than connecting people.” and ” New economic value on the internet will not be generated by the search, but by the number of connections it generates”. In other words, it is not the content but the connections that count. Crowdsourcing and auto-generative processes that lend meaning generated by collective actions of individual users over the opinions of experts, has now become a new tool for the production of the museum experience. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki asserts that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals. The Brooklyn Museum took this idea to heart when they ‘crowdsourced’ their recent exhibition titled Click.
Nina Simon writes extensively on this topic of museums and how they relate to Web 2.0 technologies and social participatory experiences. In her post titled Hierarchy of Social Participation, she created the above diagram that illustrates five potential levels of a museum’s engagement with visitors. These range from passive receptivity at the bottom (most museum experiences) to collective social engagement in the creation of the museum experience (few but a growing number of museums). You could say that these emergent museums are “under new management”… that of the visitor.
It is interesting to try to imagine a museum that has no authoritative voice, no scholarly enterprise at its core, and perhaps no content of its own. This kind of museum would simply provide the infrastructure and the interface to connect visitors in a creative and generative process that aggregates an ever-changing and collectively produced content. The process itself and the feeling of being connected to other people becomes the experience. One commenter on Nina’s site likened this highest level of creative participation to that of a rave party. The Brooklyn Museum is a rapidly emerging as a pioneer in this area of Museum 2.0 exploration. It is not surprising that they also have regular, late-night, public parties in their exhibition halls after the curators and collections managers go home.