Thursday, April 23, 2009

Participatory Design: Kicking it old school

So the words "Participatory design" are running though my head quite a bit lately. Probably because I'll be hanging out at Nina Simon's Participatory Design workshop on Friday afternoon. I've been thinking about it and what participatory design means for my museum.

My museum isn't even off the ground yet. We're out of the gate, heading onto the runway, but we don't expect lift off till September (which in this awkward metaphor, means opening to the public). So it's been hard for me to think about participatory design, because we're not even open yet.

Until it hits me. D'uh. The museum has been attempting to design things through participation, we've just been doing it old school. See, we've been hosting a series of discussions about the museum - we have a speaking interpreting each main point in the mission statement and then an extended discussion about what attendees would like to see in terms of programing. It's not elegant, and it requires attendees to come on site, but we are seeking direction from the community. And the advisory council, which sets our programming goals, is made up of a cross section of university and community members - more limited perhaps, but still a relatively progressive model, I think.

It's not a crowd curated show, it's not a well defined process yet, but it is a new museum attempting to serve the community beyond the campus in a town where campus and community sometimes butt heads. Participation, in my view, hasn't been stellar from the non-campus community, but there are some, and their voices are important. And the people who come are invested. So I think that's pretty neat.

I'm really looking forward to the workshop tomorrow, and seeing what sort of ideas come out of it. We want to be an open museum here, we want to be innovative and transparent, it's just a matter of getting there.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A comment on Smithsonian Blogs

The Smithsonian blogs. Eye Level is perhaps the best known of the blogs, and possibly the oldest. I've always found Office of Exhibits Central most interesting, even though posts are rare. And most of the others, I've not looked at.

A funny thing happened recently; I find myself on the press release email list for Smithsonian web based initiatives. This makes some sense; after all, here I am blogging about them. The most recent release is an announcement for The Bigger Picture blog, "which presents an inside look at the Smithsonian’s photography collections and invites audiences to engage in an online discussion about photography’s powerful impact on our world." So I hop on over to check it out. I am immediately annoyed by the layout. There's a small photo and a short paragraph before a jump, or a cut, or whatever you prefer to call the link which hides most of the content. This bugs me. I don't find it good for browsing; I don't want to click all those links, and then go back and clink more links.

As with the other Smithsonian blogs, I find the information and images presented on the blog to be intriguing. But I still feel like the real human voice is being hidden behind layers of editing. I could be wrong; maybe the Smithsonian is relaxing their approval structures, and I just prefer the hyper-personal voice for a blog (or something between the institutionally edited and the OMG LULZ!!!1!! voices, anyway). But it just feels disingenuous. [Edited to Add: Catherine Shteynberg sets me straight in the comments: Authors are not edited! Way to go, Smithsonian. I recall seeing a presentation about a different .si blog which showed a very layered process for creating content and tends to color my thinking about the way things are done. Then again, my biases are at least two years out of date.] I get the same sense looking at the comments; it almost feels like the various authors of the blog are required to post comments on the other posts. Only a few comments struck me as coming from individuals outside the project. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it just strikes me funny when I think of blogs as a way to engage community and stakeholders outside the institution.

So, while I commend the Smithsonian for pursuing these avenues to disseminate information which might otherwise not be shared with a potentially large audience, I still have my misgivings about the way it's being presented. Oh. And here's a link to the press release: Click me.