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The Blood, Sweat and Paper Cuts of a Participatory Space

Joanna Salter on how the RE·THINK project at the National Maritime Museum is paving the way for a democratic approach to interpretation and interaction with visitors. The digital transformation of RE·THINK will now weave visitors voices throughout the National Maritime Museum, integrate them into the Museum’s narrative and store opinions and contributions as an ongoing live consultation

About the author: Joanna Salter is Senior Manager: Participation, for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Joanna has a degree in Fine Art from Middlesex University, an MA in Fine Art from St. Martin’s and a post-grad diploma in Teaching in the Lifelong Learner Sector. Joanna has worked in the museum sector for 17 years with varied roles in education, digital and participation. 

We live in a time when we expect and desire to have our opinions, views and experiences shared and listened to. The world is listening; we are constantly on show and in the spotlight of our own social circles or the wider world. So what does this mean for museums? RETHINK at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, created a platform for visitors and staff to have their say and sometimes leave very personal reflections in a public space.

RETHINK was a learning curve for staff and visitors alike. Unusually for a participatory space, the gallery was significant in its footprint and its development was led by the Learning and Interpretation Department. Such departments are more used to a tagged on, discrete area for feedback and engagement.

“We weren’t entirely sure how it would turn out and we needed to constantly remind ourselves that it was an evolving and experimental space”

Visitors were invited into a drop-in gallery space to respond to a theme from the Museum’s master narrative, the theme was refreshed every 6 months. A participation framework was created including comments cards, a voting interactive, handling collection, make and do paper activities, mark-making wall and touch screen research. A programme of events around each topic and a varied practitioner/artistic residency programme brought each theme to life. Maria Amidu (Ship in a Bottle) involved visitors with participatory artworks, Tamsin Relly (Environment) hosted printmaking workshops, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Sophie Herxheimer (Migration) published a book with writings and drawings from the residency. Bethan Peters, Choreographer (Exploration) produced a film installation from a touring dance piece and Paddy Hartley (Navy) added to existing research and produced a new body of textile and ceramic work, currently on display at the Museum; inserting contemporary artworks into historical displays.

We weren’t entirely sure how it would turn out and we needed to constantly remind ourselves that it was an evolving and experimental space. We do know, from our evaluation report, that “…the space has delivered a more contemporary interpretation of the Museum’s themes and by acting on audience responses it has ‘listened’, and improved the space iteratively with each display”.

When receiving feedback such as “this is just a place for school groups” (RE·THINK Ship in a Bottle, July 2014) we reacted by ensuring following displays confronted contemporary issues.

“…it’s great to see museums tackling contemporary issues. The story has changed in last few weeks, the language is no longer about migrants, it’s about refugees….” (RE·THINK Migration visitor, September 2015)

We took time to reassess the handling collection cabinets as feedback from the volunteers told us that visitors were too ‘shy’ to ask them to open up the cabinets. We made them more inviting through graphics and illustration and refreshed the volunteer’s training;

“We really need to bring children to museums like this where you can touch things. There’s the Internet but it’s nothing like this.” (RE·THINK visitor, February 2015)

The space also delivered on a key part of RMG’s mission statement: to be brave, coherent, passionate and collaborative. It was brave to allow easy access to whiteboard markers and invite visitors to effectively draw on the walls; made more challenging on occasion when markers were replenished with permanent pens by mistake. It was risky to give people free-reign and respond openly and publicly to challenging issues but in general visitors to the gallery were respectful and enjoyed the freedom.

The projects, and participant responses, associated with the space have also informed the Museum’s Community Engagement Strategy for increasing local, C2DE and BAME audiences by being a space that feels relevant (contemporary) and family friendly due to a dedicated space for making/participatory activities.

So what next…

The physical space was always intended as a temporary installation and is now closed. The learning is being fed into an exciting suite of galleries in the Museum’s new wing, opening in September 2018. RETHINK will evolve as a digital data collection and visualisation tool, continuing to gather opinion and examine the behaviour of its visitors. The RETHINK concept will be integrated throughout the new galleries and beyond – connecting to new interactive and participatory experiences across RMG.

Data will continue to be gathered and harnessed in a content management system which staff will be able to analyse and utilise to inform exhibitions and programmes. The visitors’ participation will be reflected in a social space, a screen will project graphics and visuals in a magazine format displaying the interactions, comments and responses from interactives at regular intervals.

“Gone are the days of a comment card box being acceptable – scribbling feedback on a notecard and posting it into the void of a sealed box marked ‘visitor feedback’. That’s not to say analogue responses are redundant but the method of sharing and valuably using this data should be robust”

Displaying the data is fundamental. We felt from the outset that if the Museum was asking for opinion and emotive responses we needed to project this back in a public setting, to ensure that the Museum was listening. The Museum should be transparent and respectful in its harnessing of visitor feedback and opinion, therefore the tool should be collaborative, not an archive with discreet access.

We are entering a dynamic new phase which will make the results of participatory activities throughout the Museum meaningful, transparent and responsible for cultural change and the democratisation of displays, exhibitions and programmes. On RE·THINK Migration Sara Wajid, Head of Engagement, Museum of London, and founder of Museum Detox, commented;

“I’ve worked at the museum for over 5 years and until I walked around RE·THINK Migration I’d never seen myself represented before. I’d never seen the story of my family’s experience reflected in the displays and I found it very moving to finally see the story of people like me told in a voice I recognised. It felt like progress.”

Similarly, a visitor recorded comment on the same theme said “The quotes on the walls are great. They resonate with us…”

We hope RE·THINK will ‘resonate’ throughout the Museum and indeed the wider sector. The significance of storing and using the data collected by our visitors is vital to their sense of ownership. Public institutions have a duty to democratise collections which are essentially owned by the public. Museum workers are the ‘carers’, the welcoming gate-keepers of the collection (or at least they should be).

With this tool, we have the opportunity to really break down the conventional barriers of traditionally impenetrable organisations. More often than not, the public are the experts. The people who have themselves cared for an object handed down through generations, who are able to give curators a new perspective on their interpretation.

‘…in a world run from data, the more data you have, the more powerful the change you can bring. This means that our sector might learn more, faster, if we work together to bring change.’ (Chris Michaels, Digital Director of the National Gallery, Nesta.org.uk)

Spoken in the context of the economy of museums, this relates to the many transactions which are made upon someone entering the building. RE·THINK will ask questions, gather opinion and share the results. Relaying information and the dissemination of learning is essential, the Museum is assumed to be the expert but we the public expect more. We expect to be able to stand next to a figurehead, take a selfie and share it with the world. We expect to Tweet an opinion and have it retweeted, we want to reach maximum likes on our Instagram post. Everyone’s heart skips a beat when your view of the world or ingeniously captured image is appreciated and ‘liked’. The Museum itself can become this platform and should respond to those interactions in the same way.

Gone are the days of a comment card box being acceptable – scribbling feedback on a notecard and posting it into the void of a sealed box marked ‘visitor feedback’. That’s not to say analogue responses are redundant but the method of sharing and valuably using this data should be robust.

Change usually happens gradually in a museum context, there is still more work to be done, but RE·THINK at the National Maritime Museum is paving the way for a democratic approach to interpretation and interaction with our visitors. The digital transformation of RE·THINK will weave visitors voices throughout the Museum, integrate them into the Museum’s narrative and store opinions and contributions as ongoing live consultation.

Joanna Salter, Senior Manager: Participation, National Maritime Museum

If you would like to read a copy of the RE·THINK Evaluation Report by Mercy Sword, please contact me: Jsalter@rmg.co.uk

Published 27 February 2018

Museum-iD Magazine #21

Museum-iD Magazine #21

International, independent and influential. Museum-iD shares progressive thinking and developments in museums globally.

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