I have always loved going to art and history museums. The Bay Area has some great ones, including the Legion of Honor and the de Young. Seeing artifacts or interesting pieces of art is always fascinating to me. My mom, sister, and I used to go to museums together and make a day out of it. Watching Nina Simon’s TED talk about participatory museums made me reevaluate what a museum could be. Most of the museums I have visited are designed for visitors to look and admire the pieces. Sometimes, there is a suggestion box for visitors to leave comments, but otherwise, there is nowhere for visitors to interact with anything or other people.
Nina Simon’s TED talk was interesting because I never thought of museums as being a place where people can connect with the exhibits or other people. One thing that she said that really stuck with me was that she wants to “make museums opportunities for conservations” (not an exact quote but she said something along these lines). That really made me think about what museums are designed to do and who they are trying to reach. Museums typically are seen as “high culture”, rigid institutions full of rules. It is an interesting idea that museums could be focusing instead on encouraging visitor participation to enhance not only the museum itself but to facilitate the forming of connections between people. As I was writing this post, I actually thought of an example of a museum near me that fits more into a participatory museum.
The Oakland Museum of California is a museum focused on California and the Bay Area covering many areas including art and history. Growing up, I had visited the museum many times on school field trips. The museum was interesting, but a fairly standard museum. About 5 or 6 years ago, I went back to visit (I don’t remember what exhibit I was going for). I was shocked when I went to the history galleries because it was nothing like I remembered. They had completely renovated the space and transformed it into a more interactive space. It still covered California history from the native peoples to modern day but they added many interactive elements so visitors can touch and play instead of just looking and reading. My favorite is from the section on the 1950s, where there is a jukebox that you can play songs from that era and a diner scene with a table you can sit at. In the modern day section, there are current issues featured such as immigration and technology and visitors can share their thoughts or experiences on these topics. Participatory museums illustrate how these rigid institutions can be transformed from static to adaptive by encouraging visitors to engage with their community and surroundings.