The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

May 30, 2011

The participatory revolution is all around us

Okay, maybe “revolution” is a little dramatic. But preparing for my talk last week at the American Association of Museums meeting in Houston, I found no shortage of evidence that our culture is being reshaped by the work of many hands. Authority ain’t what it used to be.

I was chairing a panel on which three great people from STEM museums (Shari Werb from Smithsonian Natural History, Tom Owen from an exhibits firm working on the Kennedy Space Center visitor center for NASA, and Meg Lowman, a pioneering rainforest canopy biologist who directs the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) talked about how citizen science — or more to the point, visitor science — will play out in new facilities they’re building.

My job was to frame the topic, and I did so pretty broadly. This isn’t just about museums, I told the museum professionals in the room, or even about the culture sector more broadly. It’s about new roles that people like you and me are playing in all kinds of domains.

Those roles are described by various buzzwords, from crowdsourcing and user-generated content to maker culture, citizen journalism, citizen science, and so on. They’ve occasioned a slew of books, some celebratory (like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or We Are Smarter than Me) and some critical (Andrew Keen’s The Cult of The Amateur).

What’s it all about? Among other things, a changing sense of what authority and expertise are supposed to look like. (Not coincidentally, authority and expertise have been the foundation of museums’ value systems. No wonder they’re anxious.) At the root of “authority” is the word “author,” and I suggested that what’s changing is who gets to tell the story, who gets to be the expert. The answer, increasingly often, is you.

You’re not just a voter; you’re a civic problem-solver, at least if you live in one of the four cities where Give a Minute is operating. You’re not just a consumer or an armchair inventor, you’re an Innocentive problem solver (“We need your brain power to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems”).

You’re not just a buyer of stuff, a la Amazon. You’re a maker of the stuff in the first place, thanks to online communities like Etsy. And community isn’t just a metaphor here; Etsy also happens in real places where you can make things with others (like the Brooklyn Etsy Labs below).

In music, you’re not just an audience member. You’re a “rusty musician” playing onstage at the Baltimore Symphony alongside the pros (a program I blogged about last year). ...

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Categories: Citizen science, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visitor experience
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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