We’re about to embark on the initial planning for a major new exhibition on technology and I’m wrestling with the promise and peril of institutional co-creation.
Doing it with visitors
Participatory design is one of those of movements, like universal design, that is gathering more and more steam, and with good cause. Encouraging museum visitors to become active, engaged participants in our educational programs is a way to insure museums’ relevance in the current century, and invigorate our practice. It’s also hard work and forces us as practitioners to be more open and attentive to others. It’s an exciting time to be working in this field. Read Nina Simon’s book, or visit her blog if you need convincing.
One thing seems clear from my own experiences and those of other colleagues; when the museum doesn’t (or can’t or won’t) develop a structure for the collaboration, a way for visitors to meaningfully participate, then you run the risk of creating a mess. For me, the cases that I’ve seen where it’s gone most wrong have been those where a museum abrogated their responsibility to show participants how museum exhibitions get done, and just asked them “What do you want to do?” and left them to it.
There’s an example in The Collaborative State: How working together can transform public services, edited by Simon Parker and Niamh Gallagher that captures the pitfall of asking questions and not doing your due diligence when it comes to questioning the answers. The book focuses on UK government, but the issues are fairly universal. Sophia Parker starts her chapter on the paradox of co-production with a story,
“A village policeman decided that he wanted to find out more about the concerns of local residents, in order to understand how he could be most helpful. Through a series of conversations he discovered that their biggest worry, by some distance, was speeding in the village. He agreed that he would set himself up in a siding with a speed gun and catch the offending motorists, in a quest to reduce the problem. However, after a week of doing this, it emerged that in fact most of the people he had booked were themselves residents of the village.”
The institution (in this case, the policeman who represents the State) motivated by a sincere desire to serve the needs of the community, does the logical thing and asks the community. They respond with what they honestly perceive to be the most important need they have, and the officer goes off to serve the greater good and runs head-on into one of the most common paradoxes of human society; what we say and what we do are often not the same, and we don’t even recognize it when we do it. When it comes to collaboration or co-creation in museums, this is a huge issue that deserves to be taken very seriously, very early in the development process, before anybody in the museum talks to anybody outside the museum. The story of the policeman is the equivalent of going off and building what your partner says they want and when you present it to them, they react with horror because they didn’t want that, they expected something different. Dean Kamen once described an engineer’s job to me as not giving the client what they want, but listening carefully and then giving them what they need, based on your expertise, experience, and observation. If the village policeman had spent a day watching who was speeding before he started handing out tickets, he might’ve saved himself a lot of heartache.
So there’s a potential downside. Jim Richardson of Sumo and MuseumNext, gives a great overview of the promise of co-creation. His example of CCCB’s Brangulí exhibition in Barcelona hits all the major features of a modern co-creation model of exhibition development. He doesn’t really speak to the implications of the model, which is a problem in my opinion, because the high-flown rhetoric of turning audiences into participants, can often run head-on into the realities of making exhibitions.
In the Barcelona example, the museum mounted an exhibition of photographs by a noted Spanish photographer. They sent out a call to contemporary photographers to respond to the artist’s works and submit photos. One photo reflecting each theme of the exhibition was chosen and mounted alongside the artist’s work, and all the other 2,000 photos were displayed on a projection in the museum. In terms of the museum’s staff workload, to make this work they had to:
- do *all* the work typically associated with developing an exhibition, and
- manage a photography contest, judge winners, and integrate the winners and develop a way to display all the submissions.
In essence, to make their one co-created exhibition, they did about two projects worth of work, each important and necessary to make what sounds like it was a great final product. And the museum took a lead role in shaping the process of collaboration. The expectations on both partners were clear, and that made the work of the museum clear. Adding a participatory dimension to the project didn’t make it any faster, any cheaper, or any less work for the museum. In fact, I’d bet it made it take longer, cost more, and use up more staff time than a traditional exhibition might.
So, why do it? Because, it made the exhibition better. And isn’t quality what we strive for? The reason to do it (when it seems appropriate, which is something only you can judge) is to make your product better. By opening up the development process, RIchardson points out, the museum made “an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.”
Richardson says, “It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.” It is also perhaps naïve to think that anybody has the expertise necessary to make good museum exhibitions. The key word in Richardson’s statement, to me, is “always”. There will be times when co-creation makes sense, and there will be times when it won’t. Only you will know which one is right, and you’ll only know if you have a clear idea of what you want to do and why.
Now you’ll probably note that the examples I’ve used all feature an institution and a diverse bunch of individuals who are invited to participate in something that used to be considered the purview of the institution. What does it look like when the model involves two institutions, both with missions, money, staff and stuff, that one wants to use for public education? Well, it depends on the partners and the partnership. My experiences with institutional co-creation, especially with corporate entities has been decidedly mixed, with some great experiences and some I’d rather forget. When I look at the ones that didn’t work well, two things that they all share is that there was some kind of disconnect between the expectations of both parties, and/or a lack of clear communication about roles and responsibilities. And I’m not sure how best to plan for them or minimize their impact.
Doing it with corporations
There is nothing more professionally disheartening than when two (or more) groups of well-meaning professionals try to make something and disappoint each other. As Parker says, “At a point where the public policy world is at risk of treating collaboration between state and citizens as a panacea, the complexity of who we are and what we think must not be forgotten… Indeed it demands new skills for the state and citizens alike, and the ability to recognise and value new forms of evidence and insight at a much earlier stage in the processes of decision-making and policy development… collaboration between the state and citizens is not easy. Working together takes time, effort and know-how — qualities that most of us feel we have in short supply.”
I sat down with several colleagues today who’ve all worked on partnerships and we listed a dozen projects the Museum had undertaken over the past five years. We listed the pros of cons of each project and tried to see what general principles arose from the data. The following list was the result. I hope it’s useful to you.
Qualities of successful museum/institution partnerships
- clear communication from the outset
- clear roles and responsibilities for partners and mutual respect for what each partner contributes
- clear project scope and timeline
- shared expectations of what success looks like
- clear budgetary understanding (x dollars = y amount of museum product)
- commitment to schedules
- partner contributes more than just their stuff. Staff time, assets, and expertise are often the biggest gift they can give
- Mutual commitment to education. It’s not about their product, even if it’s about their product.
- partner enthusiasm to educate
- interest in learning museum processes
and the killer…
- the final product is better than what the museum could do alone for the same money and time.