The Participatory Museum

Nina Simon (2010) directs her book at museums and constructs the reasons for, implementation of, and evaluation of participatory programs within an institution. Libraries and museums vary slightly on collection type and mission goals; however, they share a common objective of engaging with the community and establishing a learning environment. The Participatory Museum echoed many of the ideas librarians have written in the last 15 or so years. The book is divided into two parts: part 1 focuses on the need for visitor engagement in a museum and part 2 outlines the different ways to facilitate participation. I will outline these sections and relate them to the literature addressing libraries specifically. 

Part 1 of The Participatory Museum (Simon, 2010) explores the need for participation in museums to engage users beyond traditional methods. Users want to interact and create alongside others and the original creator. They also want to see their contributions displayed. In order to create a successful participatory activity the parameters and goals must be well defined so that visitors feel confident about their efforts. Simon stated institution programs should be audience first and they should treat people as individuals. One way to do that is by creating personal profiles which can take the shape of a personality quiz, name tag, or sticker that denotes an answer to a poll. These tags can be visible or not, but they promote a sense of community and spark conversations between visitors. Visitors are unknowingly interacting with the exhibits at the same time, and thus have a fuller experience. 

One of the best exhibits I have ever seen was the traveling exhibition Titanic at the Denver Nature and Science Museum. Even though it has been over a decade since I went to the exhibition I recall the whole experience vividly and it remains one of my favorites. The reason it was so memorable is the participatory element throughout the whole journey. Before entering the exhibit you are given a card with the name and social status of a passenger on board the Titanic. As you learn more and more about the ship and voyage you get a glimpse of what “you” would have experienced, and at the very end of the exhibit you discover if you survived the sinking or not. This simple, but effective, participation invested you in the story not as an observer but as someone who lived the experience.

Another way to encourage engagement with the collection is “create and take” or activities where visitors create a piece and are able to take it with them. When I was a gallery host at the Denver Art Museum, I was fortunate enough to witness the education department develop activities which allowed children and adults to create their own artwork based on the collection displayed. In the Native American collection visitors could make their own miniature beaded bags or create their own mythical story in Chinese lanterns. Each person was taught a little bit about the actual object in the collection and then encouraged to create their own work. These activities are geared towards kids but adults were welcomed to participate as well. 

Finally, Simon stressed the importance to balance interaction and personal experience by creating a network experience without impairing the aesthetic. When an institution creates a program it needs to consider how it affects the overall experience of guests. Will the activity crowd a popular area and make it impossible for others to enjoy? How long will an activity take? Is it stationary or do visitors move throughout it? 

In Part 2, Simon outlines the four types of participation: contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and hosting. Contribution is the easiest and most common, the activities listed above are all examples of contribution participation. Collaboration is defined as staff members partnering with specific members of the public to create an exhibition or activity. Co-creating is a partnership driven by the participant rather than the institution. Hosting is when the institution gives space to partners or encourages visitors to use space and make it more comfortable for them. The Denver Art Museum hosts a monthly nighttime event where there is music, drinks, food, and entertainment related to the exhibits to break down the stereotype of stuffy art museums and welcome individuals who are not usually interested in modern art.

Simon’s final observations are to make things shareable and continuously evaluate programs. She argues social platforms are created to “encourage visitors to develop a stronger emotional connection”, “to promote collaboration”, and “connect personally to a formal institution”. Social platforms allow visitors to share their created content with others and feel their contributions were relevant. Museums, and subsequently libraries, should not be afraid of social platforms but rather embrace them. To evaluate programs Simon suggests to create the process and product with the mindset that activities are not just for participants but also the institution. Once a program is established, ask for feedback, adapt based on responses, publish the edited program, and start all over again.

This diagram is how the Museum of Life and Science evaluates programs against institution goals. Programs are audience first however they should be aligned with the mission of the institution and further their goals as well.

Participation is not just for museums and other cultural institutions, but libraries as well. Every summer reading program I did as a school kid, every “staff pick” book display in the lobby, and every book review are examples of participation. This is not new, but the elements of participation may be different than 20 years ago with the increased use of social platforms. At the Denver Public Library they have a makers space with a recording studio, sewing machines, 3D printers, vinyl printers, and many other tools you need to fabricate different crafts. This space gives people who may not have the tools to create at home the ability to craft at the library. The Virginia Tech Libraries demonstrate collaboration through their Course Exhibit Initiative program where faculty and students partner to create different exhibitions based on assignments or interests (Matthews et al, 2018). By encouraging faculty and students to create virtual or physical exhibits the library is fostering community, conversation, engagement, and learning. Maybe students would be more interested in the library if they are co-owners in the mission. Many libraries have embraced a collaborative environment with users like Virginia Tech Libraries but many still shy away from participation. What is holding libraries back from creating participatory activities? Trust, trust in the users, trust in the program, and fear of losing their prestigious or academic image. “The user is not broken,” Schneider (2006) pithily points out. The user is not the problem and they can not break the library. Participation necessarily removes complete control from the library staff and places power in the hands of the community which increases the value of the library to users. Simon (2010) addresses this fear by encouraging institutions to establish clear parameters and goals for participation. With the proper tools and instructions visitors will produce content that furthers and benefits the institution and community. Michael Casey (2011) advocates that participation is necessary to keep patrons coming back to the library. The age old question is what can libraries provide that Google cannot? Community-centric programs may not be a silver bullet but they undoubtedly increase visitor experience quality. We all go back to places we enjoy.  


Casey, M. (2011). Revisiting Participatory Service in Trying Times. Tame The Web.

Matthews, B., & Metko, S., & Tomlin, P. (2018, May 7). Empowerment, experimentation, engagement: Embracing partnership models in libraries. Educause Review. 

Schneider, K (2006). The User is Not Broken. Free Range Librarian.

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Museum 2.0.

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One thought on “The Participatory Museum

  1. Eileen Wu says:

    That’s a wonderful concept of museums having participatory services. Creating personal profiles, the Titanic experience, and making things at Denver Art Museum are all great ways to involve participants as they visit the museum. That social platforms may help museums and not detract from them is a formative idea. Great post!

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