The links between accessibility and participation. Multiple voices in the HelsinkiDesign Museum.Mariana SalgadoMedia Laboratory – University of Art and Design HelsinkiFOTOSFIGURE: 1) 2) Details of the stand 3) Interface with the Interactive Map withcommentary from a visitor 4) Printed commentary absorbed into the exhibition“The Secret Life of Objects, An Interactive Map of Finnish Design” was a temporaryexhibition (March 18th to the first week of June 2008) at the Helsinki Design Museum,Finland, that brought together a selection of design objects belonging to the permanentcollection.The exhibition sought to reinterpret the objects through the active participation of themuseum’s visitors, encouraged by a series of resources designed for this purpose. Theco-design strategy consisted of organising, together with the museum staff, workshopsand prototype evaluations of the various interactive tools through which the texts,videos, music and drawings related to these design objects would be compiled beforethe exhibition. These edited materials went on to form part of an interactive map thatinvited visitors to make comments inspired by the objects on display.During the exhibition, the interactive map collected in the region of 110 commentariesfrom visitors and museum staff, which varied greatly in tone and content. Thestrategies used to achieve active participation and ownership of the exhibition were ofdifferent natures. I think it is important to describe them, because they could be usefulas design tools for future projects.Various elements were deployed to make known the possibilities available forparticipation in the exhibition: an interactive map that served as a navigator for thecomments, texts replaced by visitors’ comments and the introductory board that isusually used to describe the main objective of the exhibition was replaced by apostcard of the objects handed out to visitors asking them to explain stories that wouldrelate the objects to their lives.The interactive map was based on a building plan representing the exhibition area andthe objects displayed there. For one week before the exhibition opened, we workedwith museum staff in the education department in order to integrate the workshops,organised in the museum itself, into the material generating process for the forthcomingexhibition.The inspiring comments created before the exhibition by workshop participants broughttogether poetry, stories, musical improvisations and plastic activities. Contributions thatcould be compiled in the form of texts were translated into three languages: Swedish,English and Finnish.Including a visitor’s interpretation within the exhibition’s general discourse is asignificant way of validating their personal opinion. Displaying diverse commentariesallowed us to show a vision that was non-consensual, quite the contrary in fact; itopened up a plurality of voices generating new discussions based around the exhibitionmaterial. The website allowed us to share these comments through the use of newtechnologies. And lastly, we used a blog to spread word of the project and to sharematerial.However, I cannot leave aside the risks that this kind of participation involved. The
museum is thought of as a respected site, something akin to a temple (10). This meantthat the casual, personal, creative and humorous contributions could be seen byaudiences and even by museum staff themselves as out of place. In our experience ononly two occasions comments were unrelated to the exhibition contents. For thisreason supervision was not too arduous. I think that the quality of commentariesproduced is directly related to the participation strategies employed for a specificproject.Currently, and increasingly, the museum paradigm is no longer based around thedisplayed object but on the context surrounding that object. It is crucial, then, tosuggest that an exhibition is a living element. The visitors will therefore give context tothe objects on display based on their own histories of use, perceptions andinterpretations. For this reason, I believe that the commentaries generated during theexhibition should be taken seriously as part of our cultural and industrial heritage. Thisintervention by visitors in the museum represents an affective relationship and reflectsthe objects’ situations of use in our society.After this experience at the Design Museum it seems necessary to consider anexhibition not as a completed, closed work but as a sketch that needs to be finished.Planning the exhibition as something incomplete, in this case, was the key tomotivating participation and enriching the visit. Opening an exhibition to controversy, inthe sense of accepting a variety of voices, is one way of creating a museum foreveryone. Displaying and exhibiting differences in ways of interpretation is a strategyfor encouraging debate and facilitating dialogue. In this case, through an exhibitionmap, the visitors and museum staff revealed their parallel, and at times differing, pointsof view.The visitor needs to know whether the commentary will be used for educational orcommercial ends, in virtual forums or in any other form of publication. How can we letvisitors know the uses to which the museum might put their contribution? How can werespect the intellectual property of those who created the contributions? There areother challenges too, such as the storage of these contributions and the means bywhich they can be made accessible to the general public.