Friday, June 15, 2012

The Network Effect in the Museum Setting: Creating Participatory Museums

The “Network Effect,” as described in the chapter “Types of Strategy,” is one we are all probably very familiar with. We see this strategy in effect in most Web 2.0 technologies. YouTube, Pandora, Facebook and Flickr are some of the most obvious examples. The more people that create and post media to YouTube, that rate it, that “like” it, that comment on it, that share it with friends on Facebook/Twitter/via e-mail—the better the site becomes for everyone. 

In the museum field, this strategy is finally catching on- and in the hands of some museum administrators and arts professionals, it has been wildly successful and led to increased museum admittance. The Network Effect is an especially relevant and sustainable strategy because museums serve the purpose of educating and engaging the public. The Network Effect in the museum setting, like online, enhances the museum-experience and creates a dynamic conversation among participants. For a museum, this is the goal of its education department. 

Author and museum administrator, Nina Simon, wrote "The Participatory Museum," a book about implementing the Network Effect strategy to create more engaging, participatory museums. The more people that participate in an activity in the museum setting, the range of ideas, perspectives and knowledge grows—and everyone benefits from this. A static activity becomes dynamic and the single perspective of the museum administrator (who implemented/initiated the activity) becomes an aggregate of all participants’ ideas, reflections, and expertise. 

A museum’s education department must identify the different levels of participation to create an activity/opportunity for participation that allows each type to feel comfortable enough to engage, just as Flickr and YouTube have done. 

Simon identifies the following comfort levels/styles of participation as:
1.The creators
2.The critics
3. The collectors
4. The joiners
5. The spectators
6.The inactives

YouTube provides the platform for creators to post their videos; it allows users to comment on the content; to store the content in their “favorites” list; to sign up for a YouTube account to feel more involved; or to simply view videos for no particular reason. What makes YouTube so popular in the Web 2.0 world is the fact that the more people who upload the content, the more people who rank it, the more people who comment—the better and more engaging the experience and interface become for everyone involved. 

Museums should seek to replicate this in the offline realm not only because today’s generation is more receptive to participatory experiences, but because it is the core of a museum’s educational mission to create engaging experiences for its visitors. A museum’s education department should, in both my and Simon’s opinion, implement the Network Effect strategy to create projects and activities that get better with the more people who use it. 

I recently participated in one activity at a museum that applied this strategy (a photography exhibition about Facebook “friends”and the validity/comparison of “friends” in the cyber realm vs. the realworld). Users were invited to respond to a daily prompt posted in the gallery. They were instructed to write their responses on post-it notes and stick them on the wall surrounding their favorite photographs of the artist’s Facebook friends. Many visitors participated by posting responses to the prompts, many simply wrote “like” on a post-it and stuck it below a comment they liked ( just as you would on Facebook), and others merely strolled through the gallery paying as much attention to the post-it notes as the photographs themselves. Each additional comment enhanced the exhibition-it was no longer just about the artist’s photographic talent or skill, but instead a social commentary about the meaning of friendship in the 21st century, the role of Facebook in changing our perception of human interactions, and future of photography  in an increasingly digital age.
More exhibitions and educational activities like the aforementioned one would attract the Millennial generation’s interest and participation, enhance the exhibition when appropriate, create sustainable educational programs and activities in the museum setting, and potentially generate greater admission.

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