Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How Long Should Participation Last? Saving Visitor-Created Content

Laurel (MD) Historical Society director Lindsey Baker and I have been having several conversations about the long-term use and meaning of visitor-created elements in museums. My firm, Riverhill worked with Lindsay and her volunteer committee on the development of their current exhibit. She generously agreed to guest blog about the issue for The Uncataloged Museum.

When we first started thinking about how to put together our current exhibit, “Snapshots in Time: Our Community in 1910 and 2010” we laid out several goals. One of the most significant (in my mind) was an exhibit where visitors were able to contribute something. I wanted the exhibit to be living, breathing, and changing as people added to it during each visit. But even more, I wanted an exhibit that people felt invested in—that they connected to on a very personal level.

As we continued along the design process, we came up with several interactive aspects where people could contribute pieces to be kept in the exhibit. As we came up with these sections where people would leave behind a part of their experience, the question of how to deal with visitor- generated content kept coming to mind.   If we, as museum professionals, truly value the content that is contributed to our museum by visitors, then what should we do with it?

In our exhibit we ask people to examine how they define their community. Is it how you see yourself? And how do you see yourself—here, sit down and make a self-portrait. Is it who you have fun with? Here, sit down and play a game with your fellow visitors and tell us about the games you like to play.

So the pieces that people leave behind might be considered “fluffy.” A self-portrait. A piece of brown paper with the games that they like to play. A dry erase board covered in magnets for voting.

And so the question is, what happens next? We can’t keep the votes. But we could keep the brown paper. We could keep the self-portraits. Should we? If so, where? How? As part of the collection? As a separate piece of the collection?

More importantly, aren’t other museums struggling with these same questions? Where are they putting the stuff? Are they accessioning Max’s portrait of himself playing basketball? What about Ethan’s blob-ish looking portrait that could possibly be him as a spaceship and indicate that he has much larger ambitions than anyone would have guessed? Or the small list of games left on the brown paper—surely an important piece of history as it relates to recreational practices in the early twenty-first century?

I really don’t know the answer to these questions.  And I don’t know, just yet, what our visitors think.  Would they be disappointed to know we throw them out at exhibit’s end?     So the self-portraits which are actually of bunny rabbits and the hearts drawn on the table asking what games you like to play—who am I to say we should throw them out?  

Is there a proper method to dealing with these items? Once you ask someone to contribute to your exhibit what is the life span of his or her piece in the exhibit? Should you state rules up front for how you will handle the items and then have each 6-year-old read them and sign off on them before leaving their bunny rabbit portrait? I’m not really sure I know the answer or even if there is a correct answer. But as we continue to ask people to contribute to our exhibits, I think we should begin or continue the conversation about what exactly we will do with their contributions.

Lindsey raises some terrific points.  We'd love to hear what others do with these visitor-generated materials--and should there be some guidelines for organizations undertaking this work?  What does your museum do?


Anonymous said...

For now, I'm scanning the original drawings that our posted on the magnet boards in our education spaces within the galleries. I'm not sure if I will be able to keep the originals, but at least I will have a digital file. Very interested to see what other museums do with visitor-created work.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

This reminds me of how one local history museum collected contemporary ephemera. We kept an acid free document box near the front desk. Anyone could drop in any type of ephemera they collected as they went about their daily lives. At the end of each year, the curatorial staff sorted the material, weeded out duplicates, items in poor condition, and material not germane to the collecting scope, then accessioned the box as one item.

It seems that the same technique could be used for visitor-generated materials.

I would err on keeping a selection of this material rather than pitching it. Once gone, you'll never be able to retrieve it. For the short term, would it have to be accessioned?