Co-designing Participatory Practices around a Design Museum Exhibition


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This paper was published in the Proceedings of the 6th International Conference of Design History and Design Studie. Another name for Design. Words of Creation. In Osaka, Japan, 2008.

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Co-designing Participatory Practices around a Design Museum Exhibition

  1. 1. Co-designing Participatory Practices around a Design Museum ExhibitionMariana Salgado1, Leena Svinhufvud2, Andrea Botero1, Mirjam Krafft2, Hanna Kapanen2,Diana DeSousa1, Elina Eerola2, Anna Louhelainen2 and Susanna Vakkari2.1- Media Lab- University of Art and Design Helsinki2- Design Museum HelsinkiFIGURE: 1) 2) Stand 3) Interactive Map: a visitor’s comment 4) Written comment on the exhibitionBuilding a Participative PlatformThe project The Secret Life of Objects started with the Design Museums objective to develop services for theirpermanent exhibition on Finnish design. The starting point was a series of workshops with children thatfocused on certain design objects using new technology to interpret them. In collaboration with researchers anddesigners from the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design, the project was redefined as an explorationin how to generate conversations around design objects with different groups by using different mediaresources (both on-line and on-site).Visitors’ generated content displayed in the museum gallery was both a way to complement the curator’s textsand enrich the visitor’s experience by means of inclusion. A comment was redefined to include stories,opinions, memories or feelings in the form of written text, sounds or images. To communicate that to visitorswe, the developers of this project, created workshops in which visitors made poems, music, drawings and12121222
  2. 2. pictures, and we displayed these examples through the map in a stand and later in the whole exhibition. Aseries of documented workshops and events was organized in the museum for children and teenagers thatprovided initial material (stories, ideas, memories, new artefacts) for triggering comments from casual visitors.These casual visitors’ comments brought a pluralistic view based on the objects.An interactive map of the exhibition was the interface from where to access all the triggers and to invite newcontributions. The interactive map could be reached on-line and in the exhibition space through an especiallydedicated stand. Visitors could then join conversations opened up by participants in the workshops or events,either in the gallery itself or from a remote station, at home. In combination with the interactive map we alsoset up a weblog to describe and communicate the evolution of the project (1).The first one “Esa and the Objects” was designed for five-year old children and took place both at akindergarten and in the museum during November 2007. This workshop consisted of five sessions guided bythree facilitators from the museum. The children were invited to discuss the properties, uses and familiarity ofthis object and where given details of its historical context.The second workshop “Sound of Objects” was designed for a group of teenagers eleven to twelve years oldengaged on learning guitar. Students came to the museum and went through a guided tour in which six designobjects were introduced and then they improvised music based on these objects.The third workshop “Odes for Objects” was designed for two groups of teenagers taking classes in creativewriting. After a guided tour focused on six design objects in the exhibition they wrote a short story based onone of them. To close the session each of the participants wrote an ode inspired in another design object.The development of the project had two phases. In the first one (October 2007-February 2008) the interactivemap was deployed in the stand in the permanent collection exhibition of the Design Museum that has beenhosted in the basement for the past six years. For this phase only a small selection of the objects in theexhibition was in the map. The emergence of the conversations was tested in a series of events (during onefamily weekend, one event and one exhibition opening) from November 2007 to February 2008. All the timethat the stand was open, there was someone inviting visitors to try it out and facilitating the use of theinteractive map.In the second face (from March 2008 and still ongoing in May 2008) a possibility was offered to put up atemporary version of the permanent exhibition in Design Museum and took the name of our project: The SecretLife of Objects, an Interactive Map of Finnish Design. For this phase we created a new map (in three languagesFinnish, Swedish and English), a new stand, improved the software, new texts for the map and we also got afaster Internet connection. This time most of the 50 objects in the exhibition were also in the map (40 objects)as discussion points. During the time that the exhibition was open, from 18 th of March to 1st of June, the stand
  3. 3. showing the interactive map was in the gallery without any facilitator. During this phase, while visitors addedcomments to the map, we printed and added to the exhibition space some selected comments.The stand had two versions, one in the first phase of the project, and another in the second, with the newexhibition. The second version of the stand consisted of a table, two chairs, a computer, a DVD, the fliers, ahelp sign (explaining the basics of how to use the map), a mouse, one computer screen and two large screens.All the components of this project the weblog, the interactive map, the stand, the exhibition, the workshops andtheir documentation methods involved, worked as pool resources to make a participatory platform thatmotivated visitors to comment.Visitors’ Generated Content in an Interactive mapIn The Secret Life of Objects, visitors’ generated content was gathered and displayed using available resources.For example, YouTube ( was used for showing videos recorded in the workshops on-line, as part of a wider concept to make a museum WebTV. Open source software ImaNote (2) allows us toannotate and navigate the map with the layout of the exhibition. This software -developed as a research project-let us make the trial and explore the challenges that the museum context offered. Functionality of ImaNoteincludes the ability to add and locate comments to an image (in this case the map of the exhibition). Thesecomments display, among other things, text messages, links to multimedia resources on the Web (as the musicdone by guitar students in the workshop) and images.Museums are incorporating into their websites and in the galleries tools that motivate their visitors to creatematerial based or inspired in their collections. Currently there are wide array of projects in which visitors’generated content is displayed in the exhibition space and in museums’ websites exploring the possibilities ofweblogs, podcasts and/or other web 2.0 resources (3) (4) (5).In this particular case a map was the interface to connect the objects in the exhibition with visitors’ comments.Visitors could find easily the objects and the material based on them. Salgado and Diaz- Kommonen have triedthis concept before in an Art Museum in Helsinki (6). Using the map we have gathered and displayed inparallel visitors’ and curators’ comments.Visitors’ ExperienceAlthough the concept of museum as a forum for discussion (7) is well known, the actual practice to actively
  4. 4. comment on the exhibition is new to the visitors. Therefore we need some time to install it as a popularpractice in the museum visit. Visitors are not used to have this chance. In our case during nearly three monthsthe interactive map was on display we got around 100 comments.There are many different kinds of comments. In some cases, visitors criticized or prized the objects or thedesigners, sent a personal message to the designer, told some memories or stories that relates them with theobjects, such as how they used an object, posed questions, added material that relates to the object and gave theobjects sound. For example: Otto, 6 years old added the following comment to an art object called Spider:“fgyhfgcbvgfhdg ffetrrdfvggbvvcg ffddsdsfsssssdvc cdbdcvdfgghhghghfhghh”. These are example ofcomments that pose philosophical questions: “spiders give me the creeps but they also fascinate me... sostrange that I fear them but at the same time I want to look at them closely... I guess fear and admiration gohand in hand?!” and “Once I had a dream where I saw the same spider and it was a surprise for me to see thatsomebody had the dream before and he decided made it for real. Everything is already invented then?”After observing and interviewing visitors during the exhibition, researchers in our team realized that most ofthe visitors do not necessarily try to use the interactive map unless they are prompted. But most of the ones thatused it have a positive impression about it. The visitors interviewed read the comments printed in theexhibition and enjoy the presence of a personal and multifaceted view as part of the exhibition. Displayingvisitors’ responses to museum pieces was an exploration for validating their contribution and encouragingparticipation.ConclusionThe alliance between the designers and researchers (coming from Media Lab) and the educational staff in theMuseum gave the original and educative character to this project. The interactive map and the workshopsshared one goal: collect audio-visual material that tells stories about the objects. Events, workshops, mediadocumentation and the interactive map at the museum were co-designed as a coherent whole in amultidisciplinary group. We believe that it was a good strategy to use the material coming from the workshopfor triggering causal visitors’ comments. The richness and creativity of the comments gathered are partly due tothe triggers that activated them. As the comments included visitors’ points of view, can we say that a newparticipative museum is being built?Visitors’ participation can not only be measured by when visitors leave a comment or not, but also includethose aspects of engaging with the exhibition, as for example reading previous visitors’ comments. The visitorswe interviewed value the presence of the other visitors and enjoy reading comments. It seems that visitorscontribute further when they see that other visitors’ comments have been respected and displayed as part of theexhibition’s message. Participation is an empowering element when used related to everyday life objects as in a
  5. 5. design museum and it is a way that visitors and museums’ staff can open up a fluid dialogue that extendsbeyond the museum visit. In many museums there are activities, as for example workshops where thisconversation starts, but it closes when the workshop finishes. In the case of “The Secret Life of objects”project in the Design Museum Helsinki, our aim is that the conversation continues after the visit.Participatory practices offer huge possibilities to widen the social role of the museum and they can also givenew political meaning to the traditional cultural institution (8). In future the interactive map of design objectsby Design Museum could serve as a platform for a variety of topics from designer and consumer ethics to localcollaborative design projects. The aims and status of the interaction with audiences within the museumorganisation becomes the crucial question (and this is a current debate in the museum field). What will be thestatus of documents produced by visitors? How are they preserved and what is their value in the museumorganization?In the design-research process close collaboration with the education department of the Design Museum wasnatural because of the traditional role as link between the museum and audiences. How can the methods andtools enabling participatory practices be baked in all museum practices from exhibition planning to marketing?Participative practices could be a tool that motivates visitors’ to engage with the exhibition and a resource inthe design process.AcknowledgmentsFirst of all we want to thank to all the participants in the workshops, the teachers Rody Van Gemert, Outi-Maria Takkinen, Nana Smulovitz-Mulyana and Onnela Päiväkoti. Special thanks to Matti Luhtala, Lily Diaz,Jukka Savolainen, Merja Vilhunen, Marianne Aav, Harri Kivilinna, Tommi Jauhiainen, Mikko Laitinen, IlpoKari, Atte Timonen and Vennu Nivalainen.NOTES(1) The Secret Life of Objects weblog: Consulted May 30, 2008(2) ImaNote, Consulted May 30, 2008(3) Samis, P. and Pau S. “‘Artcasting’ at SFMOMA: First-Year Lessons, Future Challenges for MuseumPodcasters broad audience of use”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2006:Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 1, 2006. Consulted May 9, 2008. Von Appen, K., B. Kennedy and J. Spadaccini. “Community Sites & Emerging Sociable Technologies”. In
  6. 6. J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & MuseumInformatics, published March 1, 2006. Consulted May 15, 2008. Salgado, M., Breaking Apart Participation in Museums, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums andthe Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. ConsultedMay 9, 2008. Salgado, M. and L. Diaz-Kommonen. “Visitors’ Voices”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums andthe Web 2006: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, Published March 1, 2006 a. ConsultedMay 15, 2008. Duncan, F. C. “The Museum, A Temple or the Forum” in Reinventing the Museum. Historical andContemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Edited by Gail Anderson Altamira Press. USA. 2004. Pp.61-73(8) Sandell, R. Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference. Routledge, New York, 2007.