Co-production, co-creation, co-curation

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

Takiung the plunge by Flickr user Lingamish

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.

The speed trap by Flickr user - POD -

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.

The Branguli exhibition, by Flickr user inocuo

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.

Partnership agreement, by Flickr user o5com

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)
  • trust
  • 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.


  1. Very good post!.

    As process designers specializing in co-creation in the cultural sector we cannot but be very much pleased to see your appreciation of this kind of projects.

    Not only does co-creation influence (on the positive side) the final quality of the exhibition but also improves the perception of the institution by the public. The public becomes more “an owner” of the exhibition and is more identified with the institution.

    At least, this is our experience in designing processes of co-creation with institutions (in the cultural sector and others). Usually organizations approach participation or co-creation from a very cautious perspective. This is way they typicaly start with contributory processes (like the one you mention of the CCCB) which is not really a co-design project.

    Actually most co-creative projects are just contributory processes: that is, projects where the public is required to contribute ideas or content and little more. Of course, this has the side-effect of getting them “thinking deeper” about the exhibition topic or, with luck and a good organization of the process, helping them start a social dialogue and starting to form and engaged community around the institution (this is mainly the approach of Nina Simon’s “Participatory Museum”, that is creating participation to increase social interaction in the museum community).

    There are many fine details in the process to ensure that users (and the institution!) adopt this new role of active co-creators and not just a disguised form of feedback or content providers. It is very important that the process doesn’t become just a case of simple crowdsourcing. Actual co-creation goes way beyond simple contributory processes crowdsourcing processes. You can turn them into an opportunity to turn the institution into the hub of a learning and engaged community of users and co-creators. Something that is being seen by some museums and cultural centers as a possible close future scenario as it regards their goals and function.

    Of course, to do so, they have to be aware of some techniques that go beyond the use of social media as simple platforms for contributory processes and, as you mentioned, the institution resort to techniques from design. Participatory Design are and starting point for these type of processes. An institution is not a simple object to be designed. Not even an exhition is. This requires to use techniques of co-design of complex systems where the users become codesigners of a system where, eventually, they are going to be part of. For example, it they are invited to co-design and exhibition we can take the co-design process seriously and make them reflect on their future role in the system as users. In a way, they are designed the exhibits and their role (for example by designing the participatory activitities that the exhibition will have). This is not just run of the mill participatory “Design Thinking”. It stretches design techniques beyond their current state.

    In order to “design processes for co-design” one has to resort to new developments in the discipline of design, not just the more commercially oriented “Design Thinking” movement but other trends in design that are connected with social innovation such as the work of Ezio Mazini, who views users and designers as real partners and sees the whole process as an opportunity for evolving both the institution and the social group around it.

    The goal for engaging could be (a) the users becoming more aware of the exhibition themes and the institution goals by being involved in exhibition design as co-designers, not just as idea providers or content providers (the case of the CCCB project you mention) (b) making them learners of the main topics of the exhibition by involving in the process of creating a platform of expression that results in an exhibition (c) making them understand the goals and constraints of the intistution by inviting them to participate in their typical processes (c) in doing so, developing a stronger relationship to the institution and the community around.

    Being co-designers of a whole exhibition, we know by experience, is an incredible opportunity to turn the museum into a learning experience, and definitely a process that sparks a deep change in the users’ and staff expectations: about each other, their roles, the topics and the institution. It is a process that opens up many more possibilities to rethink the role of the institution in its social context.

    Again, this involves turning the public (“participants”) into something more than “contributors of content”.

    See for example the project we devised “From contemplation to participation and beyond” where the users were the designers of a whole exhibition (including participation processes for other users) about Internet Technology and where we managed the collaboration of two institutions (Tech Museum in California and Citilab in Spain) and users that where at the same time local and global. Designers were the facilitators of the process, co-designers of the exhibition and helpers in articulating a community:

    See the academic publication that describes the whole process here, with some discussing on precedents of design here:

    Next October, we will share this co-design methods at the annual meeting “Creativity & Collaboration 2011: An Exhibitions Retreat” that the AAM organizes in cooperation with the American Association for

    Previously, the same month, but in Barcelona we also will have a hands-on workshop on these subjects:

    The combination of online and offline methods is a very important aspect of the whole process, but this would be the matter of another loooooooong comment!.

    It is a really promising new way of doing things! A pleasure to see that a community of practitioners and museum professionals is starting to grow globally around it! 🙂

    Ramon Sangüesa and Irene Lapuente, founders of Co-Creating Cultures


  2. Hi Ramon and Irene,

    Thanks for such a meaty and thought-provoking response. I love having new references to check out. And I like the distinction you make between contributory processes vs true co-creation. It’s a high bar, considering most of the field would consider “simple” crowdsourcing to be a real stretch for their current workflow and internal processes.

    Getting out the comfort zone will be a struggle, so it’s good that pioneers like you guys are willing to share. I am very excited to hear that you’re going to be n instigator at the AAM/NAME Retreat! I went to the last Creativity and Collaboration workshop and found it an immensely helpful event. I’m going to try to very hard to get to this one too. Hopefully we can talk co-creation at greater length there!

    And if you want to write something about online and offline methods, I’d happily host it as part two of this discussion!


  3. Thanks! It will be a pleasure to have you at the AAM/NAME retreat!
    And yes, we are going to write and share something on the relationship between the offline and online worlds in terms of co-creation and co-design. Cannot promise much in terms of dates but we will. A pleasure to share!

    Irene and Ramon


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