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The Age of Participation – Office Hours Column

By Michael Stephens

It’s the museum director’s conundrum. She has six brief seconds to grab the visitor’s attention as they walk past each exhibit. Once they pass the exhibit, they’re gone for good. That thought went through my mind as I stood talking with a museum administrator at astammtisch [“regular get-­together”] in Berlin in March 2010. Could this brief window of opportunity be maximized by adding a social, participatory component to museum ­exhibitions?

I couldn’t help but think that this is the same problem facing libraries. How can we grab the public’s interest despite the one-click availability of information? How can we compete with the seductive voice of Siri?

I revisited these questions and more at the Salzburg Global Seminar program “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture” (ow.ly/8GfJ4), held October 19–23, 2011, and cosponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Representatives from over 20 countries gathered for five intensive days of discussion and deliberations about the future of cultural institutions in a time of hyperconnected social ­participation.

Building collections and seeking ways to engage the public and promote curiosity challenge us all. The seminar gave me a newfound appreciation for the work of museum professionals and cultural institutions. The era of participatory culture demands that cultural and information professionals play an active, visible role in our communities. My takeaways were many.

More access

Breaking down barriers remains a goal for all. Transparency and access can lead to demonstrating the value of our institutions to the public. Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, described dropping admission fees to encourage visits, resulting in an increase. Walls between visitors and museum staff became windows that curators could open to talk directly with the public. “Everything we do should be measured by the benefit [to] the public,” he said. What fees might libraries drop? What walls could become windows into the operation of the library?

Preserving a community’s digital heritage is the work of both libraries and museums, but involving the community in these efforts is imperative as we move forward. Gathering histories via various media, scanning documents and objects for sharing online, and other activities are an important consideration for future services. A library in Colombia made it a service priority to invite people to bring in their documents and photos for digitization, adding Creative Commons licenses to the materials. A museum in India gave people an opportunity to display their personal collections in museum space. Folks could even cocurate their objects with museum staff.

Where learning occurs

These participatory spaces are where learning will occur. Pablo Andrade, studies department manager BiblioRedes, Directorate of Libraries, Archives, and Museums (DIBAM), Santiago, Chile, described the thriving virtual community created for residents of Chile. A key phrase impressed me in a video (ow.ly/8Gf8D) about the project: “all of them communicating every day in the community of local content.” Not only are participants creating, curating, and sharing, but they are exchanging knowledge without curriculum and administrators.

Truly, the world has become flatter. Understanding and empathy among cross-cultural partners in a technological environment is key to success. Technology doesn’t solve our problems, but it can be a conduit to making change and promoting progress. Noha Adly, deputy head, Information and Technology Sector, Bibliotheca Alexandria, Egypt, illustrated this concept when she described the fast-growing digital collection her library was amassing around the Egyptian revolution: 2.8 million tweets, 90,000 videos, 230,000 images, 18,000 Facebook pages.

When a guest becomes a host

Finally, I also took away the knowledge that my own emphasis on humanism and the heart in my teaching is an important part of what comes next. All of the talks and group reports at the seminar shared that common thread. Words such as civilitysharing, and caring were used throughout the program. Across our communities and across cultures, understanding, empathy, and kindness matter in everything we do. Technology extends human reach but participation requires engaged participants who feel welcome, comfortable and valued. Serhan Ada, head of the Cultural Management Program of Istanbul Biligi University, summed it up well in a final comment: “Participation occurs when someone welcomed as a guest feels as though they have become a host.”

That’s an important consideration in our evolution as cultural institutions: How will we open the door and invite everyone inside to participate?

Originally published in Library Journal, February 2012

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