Co-creating Knowledge: Participatory Practices and Museum/University partnerships
AbstractIncreasingly, museums are looking to other fields of practice in order to spark innovation, incorporating digital mindsets and design-thinking methods in their practices, and engaging in collaborations with communities, private enterprises, and university partners to develop new experiences. So what is to be gained from cross-institutional collaborations, and what lessons can be learned from an exemplary partnership project? This paper will share methods and insights from //getting online, a design-led exhibition experiment at ENIGMA Museum of Communication in Copenhagen. //getting online explores strategies for engaging users in the creation of a polyphonic narrative of Internet history, following the museum's mission to foster dialogue. Moreover, the project is part of the transdisciplinary research programme 'Our Museum,' focused on museum development and advancing academic understandings of the museum experience. In the framework of the research programme, the exhibition experiments are thus also an experiment in museum practice, applying design research methodology and museological knowledge to the curatorial process. By addressing objectives, approaches, reflections, and results from the perspectives of both embedded researcher and museum host, the paper will provide an inside view of the prospects and potentials of university/museum collaborations.
Keywords: research, university, collaboration, participation, design methods
In December 2018, Copenhagen-based ENIGMA Museum of Communication opened its pop-up exhibition //getting online, focusing on the national development, cultural perspectives and user experiences of the Internet. The exhibition is the result of a museum/university partnership, and is designed to function as an experimental space for user engagement and institutional co-creation.
This paper will present insights from this collaborative project as part of the national “Our Museum” research programme, and examine how exhibition elements and experimental activities feed into both academic investigations and institutional developments. Hence, while this paper is primarily oriented towards a community of practice, and aims to present operational knowledge that may be of value to museums considering engaging in academic partnerships, it will also reflect on the project’s contribution to academic museology. However, while the project incorporates a wide range of perspectives, including participatory strategies and public engagement in museum narratives as well as design methodology and transmedia communication, our primary focus in this paper will be on the organisational motivations for and implications of cross-institutional collaboration.
In the following, we will first give a brief introduction to the exhibition and project design, before presenting an overview of the “Our Museum” programme and objectives. Next, we will outline the situation and motivations of the ENIGMA Museum, and consider the merger between museum objectives and research interests in the current project. In the final sections of the paper, we will discuss strategies taken and lessons learned in the process, from the perspectives of both museum partner and embedded researcher.
Bzzzzzzzz-krAding-krAding-tschhhh-blblblblblblbl-tzzzzzzzzzzz . . . Do you recall the sound of a 56K modem? The set-up of your computer station, the quality of the connection when you finally came online? Using a portal to search for information, perhaps, wondering what you might find out there in cyberspace? Or maybe you were born into a world already teeming with emails and emojis, face-recognition and FOMO, where going offline becomes the novel thing to explore? Whatever your story, it is all part of the history of the Internet. A story that is not only about technological innovation, but also about all the ways in which the Internet has become part of our common world and everyday lives.
In a new pop-up exhibition, ENIGMA Museum does not attempt to present “the history of the Internet.” Instead, by showing fragments of a complex story, we hope to trigger personal memories and inspire dialogues around personal experiences of the Internet and reflection on how these stories are also part of a greater historical narrative.
The exhibition highlights a wide range of themes—infrastructure, imagery, e-commerce, porn, games, surveillance, and more—mixing museum objects with illustrative installations, video interviews, and hands-on elements. The whole exhibition covers only a single wall, constructed as a simple plywood front to an existing wall-to-wall shelving unit in ENIGMA Square; a café and post office that is currently the beating heart of ENIGMA Museum’s public offerings. Using cut-outs and cheap LED strips to make display cabinets, this low-budget solution has an unpolished quality that matches the exhibition’s temporary and experimental nature.
Design for Participatory Practices
The exhibition is the result of a creative process involving explorative team workshops and iterative design developments and is the first step in a series of small-scale experiments designed to explore and evaluate new formats for fostering user engagement. It is also part of a collaborative research and development project under the national “Our Museum” programme, presented below. The authors’ involvement in the project is as the museum’s head of exhibitions (Martin Gerster Johansen) and post-doc designer/researcher-in-residence (Rikke Baggesen, Roskilde University).
Overall, the project comprises three stages of experimentation, exploring different approaches to creating engagement through scaffolding, collecting, and communicating user perspectives in the museum. In stage one, the focus has been on the experimental development of a physical exhibition presenting a polyphonic narrative, mirrored online through a campaign across the museum’s social media channels. Next, the focus will shift to creating events and conditions for personal storytelling, e.g. by using design games (Brandt, 2006) as social conversation starters, aiming to create value and concrete takeaways for the participants while also finding meaningful ways to collect and make curatorial use of their stories beyond the event. In the third and final stage, the project will experiment with the design of an interactive “mechanism” for inspiring dialogue and letting visitors contribute directly to the exhibition. The project objective is thus to make a comparative study of the practices involved and the experiential results of these different approaches with regard to both user experience and impact in the museum.
For the museum, the project creates an opportunity to experiment with new formats that could form part of the future museum experience and gain insight into their experience value and implications for practice before launching into full-scale production. Furthermore, the involvement of a researcher-in-residence provides a new methodology for and a new perspective on the museum’s existing and future practices.
Meanwhile, for museological research, the project presents an opportunity for gaining a deeper understanding of the practice and pragmatism of museum communication and exhibition design, and for building further knowledge on how museums may develop curatorial initiatives to support engaging experiences and civil empowerment. Hence, while multiple strong arguments have been made for the value of and necessity for public engagement and participatory practices in museums (e.g. Anderson, 1997; Simon, 2010, 2016; Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt & Runnel, 2011, 2019; Black, 2012), numerous studies have also shown the challenges and dilemmas in asking for user contributions and building sustainable collaborations between institutions and communities (e.g. Lynch, 2011a, 2011b; Sanderhoff, 2014; McSweeney & Kavanagh, 2016; Coghlan, 2018). Further experimentation, critique, and research-based evaluation of this field is, therefore, still needed.
The present research project, “Design for participatory practices,” combines a post-digital museology perspective (Parry, 2013; Baggesen, 2019) with a design-oriented research methodology, drawing elements from co-design, participatory design and design thinking (Brandt, 2006; Björgvinsson et al., 2011; Silvers, 2013) and following an “agnostic” research-through-design epistemology (Koskinen et al., 2011). As such, it adds to existing research in the intersection of design research and (participatory) museology (e.g. Smith & Iversen, 2014; Macleod, Dodd & Duncan, 2015; Stuedahl, 2019; as well as numerous papers in the MuseWeb archive). To specify, the model for public participation in this project is “contributory” (cf. Simon, 2010), i.e. asking the public to share personal experiences of the Internet with each other and, in future iterations, with the museum. By contrast, the project’s experiments in collaboration and co-design relates to the museum/university partnership, with an aim to develop future internal work practices. Rather than staging a radical short-term experiment in community-driven co-creation, the project thus aims to build design practices and practices for engagement that are sustainable in the long run.
As such, and as part of the “Our Museum” programme, the project aligns with the renewed focus on methods for practice and embedded research approaches in museum studies (Macdonald, 2011; Dubuc, 2011), mirrored on the museum side by a growing interest in and awareness of the potential benefits of engaging in university partnerships (Bonacchi & Willcocks, 2016). As the topic of public participation has already been explored in numerous projects, including the studies referenced above, it is the issue of museum/university partnerships that will be the focus of this paper.
“Our Museum” is a five-year Danish national research and development programme focused on understanding and advancing cultural citizenship in museums (see also Drotner, 2017 and http://ourmuseum.dk for a full overview of the individual projects and programme objectives). Bringing together junior and senior researchers from seven university departments at five universities with eight museum partners, in a total of 13 fully funded PhD and post-doc projects, the programme is the largest of its kind to date in a national context and is also unique in terms of scope and scale in an international museum studies context. The programme’s 6 million EUR budget has been secured with funding from two Danish philanthropic foundations, Nordea Fonden and Velux Fonden, and from the universities involved, whilst the partnering museums contribute funding in kind, i.e. by allocating human resources and making their institutions available for research experiments.
In addition to the scale, the programme also represents a considerable diversity of museum institutions and academic approaches, ranging from early modern history and modern art history through astrophysics and education to digital innovation and performance design. Five research projects are thus focusing on historical developments in the museum field from the 17th century to the present day, while the remaining eight—including the present project—engage in innovative development projects in close collaboration with their museum partners.
The addition to a historical dimension, as well as the strengthening of the design research methodology and also the inclusion of a systematic evaluation perspective, is part of the contribution that “Our Museum” will make to previous studies and programmes in this area (Drotner 2017). In a national context, these include “Learning 2.0: Digital Literacies and Innovation” (DK 2009-2015; http://dream.dk, cf. Drotner, 2013; Knudsen & Simonsen, 2017), and “Museer og kulturinstitutioner som rum for medborgerskab.” Museums and cultural institutions as spaces for citizenship. (Villumsen, Rugaard & Sattrup 2014; Haas 2016). International parallels can be found in the British namesake programme “Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners” (UK, 2012-2015; http://ourmuseum.org.uk, cf. Lynch 2011a, 2011b), the Norwegian “Cultural Heritage Mediascapes: Innovation in Knowledge and Mediation Practices” (NO, 2015-2019; https://www.uv.uio.no/iped/english/research/projects/mediascapes/, cf. Pierroux, 2019), and the ongoing research in the “Upclose” project at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (US, n.d., http://upclose.lrdc.pitt.edu; e.g. Knutson & Crowley, 2016).
What unites the very diverse projects in “Our Museum” is a set of common research interests. The overall aim is to stimulate and understand best practice in museum design development, and also to advance academic understandings of education, experience, and empowerment in museums through historical scholarship and practice-based research. Moreover, in empirical terms, all development projects follow a similar research cycle, from (co)design of new communication initiatives through implementation and documentation to evaluation of their impact, both in terms of visitor experience and with regards to their effect in the partner institution. To ensure programme cohesion and to facilitate knowledge-sharing across projects, the 30-odd participants meet regularly for one- or two-day themed research seminars to partake in workshops and engage in discussions of key concepts and experiences from practice.
For the museums involved, this set up means that “Our Museum” offers more than a mere opportunity for external evaluation of existing initiatives. Instead, the network provides a research-based framework for exploring and reflecting on current understandings and possible future practices. For the ENIGMA Museum, this opening was particularly relevant in light of recent and ongoing transformations.
ENIGMA Museum of Communication
ENIGMA is the Danish museum of communication. Formerly known as “Post & Tele Museum,” the museum changed its name and also formally changed its scope from the history of the Danish postal and telecommunication services to a much broader idea of “communication” in 2016, following a series of organizational changes.
Significantly, changes to the museum’s economy resulted in a relocation from central Copenhagen to the city district of Østerbro. Along with a new address, came also a new director, major changes to staffing and the beginning of an ongoing process of re-conceptualization of the museum. In terms of resources and conditions, unlike most Danish museums, ENIGMA does not receive public funding but is instead founded and funded by the Danish Postal Service (PostNord, formerly Post Danmark) and the primary Danish telecommunication company TDC Group (formerly Teledanmark). However, in order to realise the envisioned new museum, ENIGMA now needs to secure additional funding.
Although the museum’s collections are primarily technical, ENIGMA’s articles of association define it as a cultural history museum, as also reflected in the new museum’s wider scope. The exact definition of “communication,” however, has not been, and probably will not be defined in any form of vision or mission statement. Instead, the museum understands its field of operation as permanently subject to interpretation, as illustrated in this excerpt from a prospectus for the future exhibitions of the museum:
“At ENIGMA we are conscious of the speed with which our subject field is evolving. To be a museum of a technological area that is defining our times and substantially affecting our culture and ways of being human, demands a museum capable of acting as quickly as the development.” (ENIGMA, 2016:9)
The ever-transforming subject field of the museum is mirrored in its organisational values and practices. Choosing espoused values (Schein, 2017) such as “quick,” “open,” and “inviting,” and trying to implement them into the mindset and culture of a still-transforming organisation, makes the boundaries of the organisation quite fragile but not necessarily in a negative sense.
In more practical terms, ENIGMA is not a big museum—the collection and exhibitions team consists of only a handful of people—and ad hoc additions to the team through partnerships has become a necessity in order to meet the organisation’s objectives and live up to its chosen ideals. But more than a pragmatic solution, for ENIGMA, engaging in partnerships also establishes a connection between our organisational culture and our subject field in the sense that “community” and “collaboration” are among many relevant synonyms for “communication” in the vocabulary of the museum.
Accordingly, taking advantage of the interim situation of “being in-between exhibitions,” ENIGMA had already launched several initiatives and experiments prior to the current project, in order to strengthen ties to the local community as well as testing designs for participation and collaboration with a variety of community partners. Hence, ENIGMA Square is the realisation of a vision of establishing a local forum in the mold of a town square. Here, a recurring event is a monthly communal dining event for local residents, where museum staff introduces guests to a current topic along with a “dialogue menu” to spark conversations over dinner. The concept is currently being rolled out on a national level in collaboration with the Danish Coop supermarket chain. Similarly, under the headline “ENIGMA meets,” the museum invites local non-profits to use the museum for events, meet-ups, or presentations.
While these community-oriented activities are examples of ongoing practices. Experiments directed at future exhibitions have however been limited prior to the partnership with “Our Museum.” Most notable among them was the 2017 exhibition “MANIFEST NOW,” an interactive poster installation allowing users to remix historical tech manifestos into their own visions for the future and upload them to a website, which was shown simultaneously at the museum and also at the annual Copenhagen Tech Festival. Still, despite their success, the impact of these one-off events on the future museum has been unclear, as documentation and evaluation has not been part of the project scope. In the current project, the research framework of the //getting online exhibition and related events, provides an opportunity for extended and systematic experimentation and evaluation of possible strategies for future exhibitions.
Motivations and Negotiations
These are the museum’s value based and somewhat idealistic motivations for joining “Our Museum.” Still, being an organisation in the process of fundraising for its future, and ultimately its survival, there are of course other, more strategic, reasons too. Becoming associated with a university and a prestigious research project helps to raise the value proposition of the museum, and the addition of a highly qualified researcher to a small team is both a productivity boost in simple terms of available hands and also a potential upgrade by exposing staff to new methods and ideas.
These strategic considerations were indeed ENIGMA’s primary reason for accepting the invitation from “Our Museum” before knowing the exact subject or content of the collaboration—only that there were plenty of things which needed taking care of. At the outset, it was therefore decided to link the research project to ongoing efforts in the museum, focused on developing an ecology where co-created user stories could easily and relatively un-edited become part of exhibitions and possibly future research. Becoming more deeply engaged in the collaboration, the museum further adjusted this focus to align with existing programme intentions, refocusing the effort to include particular research interests and leaving out elements which were irrelevant to “Our Museum.”
From a research perspective, in turn, the current under-construction status of the ENIGMA Museum provided a unique opportunity not only to gain insight into organizational transformations but also a chance to contribute to the shaping of the future museum. Of course, the project’s experiments will not necessarily have a direct imprint on the future exhibitions. Still, in the context of design research, but also with regards to museological experimentation and evaluation, the museum’s organisational agility and openness of the design field is vital. Hence, the readiness to try new methods and follow research interests, and the genuine interest in project outcomes in terms of both research insights and possible solutions, makes the museum an ideal collaboration partner. Too often, the conditions for embedded, experimental museum research are more restrictive. Nevertheless, the realities of museum practice have called for continuous adjustments to the original research plans.
Hence, the current collaborative project is the result of a merger and a trade-off between museum interests and research objectives, just as the exhibition is the pragmatic product of a process of production, in which underlying research interest and overarching ideals and intentions, as well as curatorial concerns and communicative ideals, were sometimes drowned out by the focus on practical, feasible solutions.
In the remaining part of the paper, we will, therefore, reflect on the experience and implications of engaging in museum/university partnerships, by relating inside perspectives from both parties.
Strategies, Considerations and Lessons Learned
At the time of writing, the paint on the exhibition wall is barely dry, and the next stages of experimentation have yet to commence. Moreover, we have not yet had the chance to evaluate the user experience or whether the exhibition has indeed provided an opportunity for engagement. As such, writing an evaluative paper may seem a bit premature. However, taking stock of the first year of collaboration in this way serves as a formative tool for the continued efforts and also as a useful reminder of the dual obligations in the project. Moreover, sharing insights and concerns from an ongoing process, we believe, may be the best way to illustrate the need for turning tacit understandings into tangible knowledge.
Implicit understandings and communal work practices within an organisation are not common knowledge for an outsider and often not even clearly articulated inside a team. Making these understandings explicit is thus a useful exercise for all involved and necessary in order to establish common ground for collaboration. In the early stages of the current project, therefore, the researcher conducted a series of interviews with all members of the exhibition team to gain insight into their practices and (common as well as differing) ideas and also to establish a baseline for later reference and evaluation. In addition, a series of explorative workshops served to establish a shared methodology and shared ownership in the project and to identify and discuss common interests and possible pathways.
Another strategy for establishing a shared understanding was the initiation of a museological study group in the museum. Although day-to-day pressures of museum practice leave little time for delving into theory, the project team has found that reading and discussing key texts not only gives an insight into the academic perspective, but also provides a shared vocabulary—new ideas and a fresh outlook on the museum’s existing practice.
Even though museum studies and museum practice share the same field of interest, the two communities of practice also operate according to different logics, conditions and time-frames (Dubuc, 2011; Drotner, 2017). For example, whilst the ENIGMA museum embraces the need for being agile and adaptive, constant changes can be a challenge in academic research processes where inherent consistency (and, in the current case, compliance with programme objectives) is a requirement. Hence, engaging in a partnership calls for a research design that can incorporate some level of flexibility and uncertainty but also for an open discussion of what is expected and what is at stake for the parties involved.
In the collaboration between “Our Museum” and ENIGMA, catering to requirements and expectations from multiple stakeholders, including programme funders, university institutes, academic peers and museum management—before even starting to consider the interests of community participants—has at times been a difficult balancing act, and sometimes conflicting needs will mean that not all demands can be met. Similarly, the issue of time and resources needed in the project can be a source of conflict when weighed up against other pressing concerns in an organisation or other obligations for the researcher. The question of whose agenda gets precedence can be delicate or left to pragmatic decisions, and the flip side of flexibility, adaptability, and compromise is the risk of losing sight of what is necessary and truly relevant for the community, for the museum or for research.
The issue of changeability and need for flexibility is also addressed in Knudsen & Simonsen’s (2017) evaluation of experiences and outcomes from “Our Museum’s” predecessor, the cross-institutional research programme “Learning 2.0″ (aka DREAM, cf. above). Given the many parallels—as well as significant differences—between the two programmes, their incisive evaluation provides some relevant reference points for the analysis of the current project.
Drawing conclusions across the projects involved in the DREAM programme, they also found that whilst formal agreements were useful at outset, these did not always correspond to how things were actually realised in the individual projects. This lack of certainty, they note, was problematic in relation to the rigid constraints of the PhD education programme that most junior researchers in‘”Learning 2.0” (as in “Our Museum”) were also part of. Thus, just as researchers need to adjust to museum realities, museum partners also need to build an understanding of research conditions and be willing to bend toward academic needs and interests, lest the call for flexibility becomes an uneven transaction.
In the current project, the post-doc status of the researcher has permitted greater academic freedom, but as importantly, the museum in turn is also in a situation that has allowed for a more open-ended, and thereby a more even, negotiation of the collaboration design. Hence, even though it was easy at the outset to spot the many parallels between ENIGMA’s organisational values and mission, and understandings and interests in “Our Museum’s” research agenda, e.g. in relation to inclusive practices, civic empowerment and innovative communication formats, deciding on a concrete design for exploring these matters in a way that was realisable and also able to meet the targets of both parties, required an extended—and interesting—process of investigation and discussion. Moreover, to make most of the collaboration framework, the researcher became fully embedded in the exhibition team in order to realise a project that was more than just a peripheral experiment but which could contribute to the museum’s core development process.
As also noted by Knudsen & Simonsen, however, embedded design research also presents a dilemma concerning the researcher’s role as designer/researcher and as outsider/insider, both in regard to her mandate in the museum and in relation to her (lack of) analytical distance as researcher. This dilemma needs consideration both in organisational and scientific terms but should not be a hindrance for embedded research, especially as close collaboration and personal relations create the best conditions for alignment between research and museum objectives.
Hence, Knudsen & Simonsen conclude that “ . . . some of the collaborations that people often articulated as being the most successful in the DREAM program were the ones in which the researcher had succeeded in functioning both as a practitioner and as a researcher.” (2012:102) and also that “ . . . finding common research interests and thus genuine anchorages between practical and theoretical expertise . . . ” (ibid.) was key to constructive partnerships.
Anchorage vs Agility
“Anchorage” is thus a central concept in their analysis, used to examine the importance of, but also the challenges in “ . . . staying connected and in sync rather than drifting apart” (ibid.:96). While we agree with this notion and appreciate how the concept is also highly productive as a focal point in the analysis, we would, however, also like to challenge the potential implications of this metaphor. Hence, the idea of being anchored in an institution could also be seen to imply an organisational fixedness, that either does not necessarily reflect the reality or which could potentially be counterproductive to reaping the benefits of collaboration.
As argued by Baggesen (2019; Bautista & Balsamo, 2011; Rudloff, 2013; Proctor, 2015), the museum field has been set in motion by technological, cultural, and political developments, and museums have responded by becoming mobile too; mobilising their resources and publics to stay relevant, also as nodes in a greater network of knowledge. Speaking to the same point from the perspective of strategic communication, Gulbrandsen & Just (2017) propose a re-conceptualization of organisations, considering them as relational and dynamic networks rather than fixed entities, as socio-material constructs rather than purely human communities, and as contingent processes rather than as deliberate decision-makers. These ideas resonate well with the values of ENIGMA, but also reflect the realities of museum institutions around the world that are in the process of transforming from professional bureaucracies to ad hoc organisations reliant on collaborations and the ability to attract funding for short-term projects.
We would like to suggest that entering into a partnership with this understanding in mind, and with a mutual willingness to be moved by the process—to let collaboration serve also as a sail and not only as an anchor—could lead to more curious and constructive projects, allowing for a better navigation of the given circumstances and emerging opportunities.
Cautions and Conclusions
Lofty ideologies aside, however, project-based partnerships are not without problems. As noted by Lynch (2011 a), in a refreshingly frank evaluation of the British “Our Museum” programme (which, it should be noted, focused on museum/community collaborations, not museum/university partnerships), strategic engagements and reliance on external funding can lead to an unhealthy pressure for positive reports and also to a cycle of “short-termism,” in which project goals are not truly embraced or have a lasting effect in the organisation. This “dark side” of the project economy is worth keeping in mind and redressing.
Ultimately, we cannot know if we will succeed in creating a mechanism or method for user participation that will have true value for either participants or museum, or to which extent we can extract transferable knowledge from this situated experiment. This is a condition in any kind of experimental activity, be it in research or in museum innovation, and combining the two provides no more of a guarantee for success, but quite possibly a unique opportunity for mutual learning. Before engaging in a partnership project, it is thus important to have realistic expectations of what can be achieved, both in terms of short-term results and long-term effects.
Despite these cautionary notes, our own experience of collaborating in a museum/university partnership has been positive. Adding a research dimension to the museum’s development process has given a fresh perspective and a new momentum. Conversely, being allowed into the machinery of the museum, and getting the chance to apply museological theory and design methods to practice, has given an invaluable insight for the researcher.
As discussed above, giving due attention to aligning interests and objectives was key to establishing a viable project in the early stages of collaboration, just as taking shared ownership in the process was paramount to succeeding in the endeavour. In the next stages of experimentation, the challenge is to keep this momentum going and keep the project objectives in balance—now, even more importantly, as we’re finally ready to get our participants aboard.
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