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Biomedicine in museums

The participatory museum — what's a medical museum 2.0 like?

Sorry, there was no posting yesterday. Some of my co-contributors are on vacation, some are busy-busy writing chapters for our forthcoming book, and one is on parental care leave. And I didn’t post because I spent my spare-time yesterday reading a blog that I’ve never heard about before — Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0.

I found it because I had a chat with my colleague Bodil Busk Laursen at nearby Danish Museum of Art & Design the other day. We talked about user-driven acquisitions, user-generated exhibitions and such things, which in turn led to questions like: Is the ‘museum and web 2.0’-discussion restricted to using Facebook for building visitor networks, writing museum blogs etc? Or can museums also learn from the general idea of web 2.0? Can we use the experiences from the participatory web to develop the notion of ‘the participatory museum’?

Well, these days one can rarely come up with a web 2.0-related idea which hasn’t already been around for a year or two. A quick search revealed the existence of Nina Simon’s power-house of a blog, launched in late 2006 and filled with interesting, innovative views about museums and the web. Some of the content it pretty well-known stuff and sometimes it’s a trifle verbose — but more often than not Museum 2.0 is an innovation machine for thinking about the future of museums.

Nina expresses very succinctly what Bodil and I were stumbling to formulate the other day, namely that the participatory web is a powerful analogy for developing the notion of the participatory museum:

The web started with sites (1.0) that are authoritative content distributors–like traditional museums. The user experience with web 1.0 is passive; you are a viewer, a consumer. Web 2.0 removes the authority from the content provider and places it in the hands of the user.

And she then suggests that museums have “the potential to undergo a similar (r)evolution as that on the web, to transform from static content authorities to dynamic platforms for content generation and sharing”:

I believe that visitors can become users, and museums central to social interactions. Web 2.0 opens up opportunity, but it also demonstrates where museums are lacking. The intention of this blog is to explore these opportunities and shortcomings with regard to museums and interactive design.

Her point of departure is the following four key elements of the participatory web:

  1. venue as content platform, not content provider
  2. architecture of participation with network effects
  3. perpetual beta
  4. flexible, modular support for distributed products

and then she translates, very convincingly I think, these four elements into the basic features of the participatory museum. This 20 minute slideshow is a good starter.

There are some bits that I’m not happy with, but the general direction of Nina’s point — to apply the philosophy of the participatory web to the museum world — is excellent. Not to be followed slavishly, but as inspiration for fostering creativity with respect to the way museums relate to their custom… (sorry) visitors in a more participatory way than we usually do. Much food for thought.

So here are four questions for my colleagues when they return from their vacations and chapter writing:

1. what does it mean to turn a medical museum into a ‘content (or aesthetic experience) platform’ rather than just a provider of content (and aesthetic experience)?

2. how can one think of a medical museum in terms of an ‘architecture of participation?

3. how can our exhibitions be ‘perpetual beta’ rather than finished?

4. and what does a ‘flexible, modular support’ look like (other than the obligatory museum café)? What other kinds of museum widgets could we imagine? 

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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