Museums and the practice of digital co-creation

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In the past few months, museums around the world have engaged in rapid response collecting to preserve the truth about how we are living through these times that are marked by social distancing protocols and city-wide closures. Most of the collecting ranges from stories of the COVID-19 pandemic to the BlackLivesMatter movement; objects being collected however could either be digital-born or physical items. With wider access to digital technology, it is easier today for museums to reach a larger part of the society, inviting participation and contribution to these ongoing collections. However, implementing these participatory / public memory projects is not as easy in practice. It is not uncommon for museums to record low participation or response – so how can museums plan digital co-creation or collecting projects in a way that is successful? What motivates audiences to contribute? From data gathering to data preservation, how can museums leverage digital means to co-create knowledge & collaborate with their audiences?

A European Union funded Horizon 2020 program called Participatory Memory Practices, addresses these challenges through research. Franziska Mucha (former Curator of Digital Practice at the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt) is a POEM Fellow currently researching Co-creation & Crowdsourcing using digital means in the museum sector. In this podcast I spoke to Franziska about planning digital crowdsourcing projects & understanding audience motivations; ensuring relevance for the wider public and more. Give it a listen or read on for the key takeaways:

Embrace Digital Podcasts are also available on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

Important Links:
Franziska Mucha on Twitter

Projects:

Research:

Planning a digital crowdsourcing / co-creation project: what museums should keep in mind

Any participatory projects must begin with museums reassessing their own practices and questioning their intentions about it. Co-creative projects are not free of conflict and museums must consider sharing control & power while inviting people to join them.

A key element to consider while building these projects is to find what interests audiences or what are the areas of curiosity.

To find these areas of curiosity you have to go out of your museum-bubble & into the field. Then go back to see what resources your institution can offer.

Understanding the audience’s motivation to participate or contribute to crowdsourced projects

Most often museums release calls for participation but do not see much feedback. We must acknowledge that participation is largely voluntary and therefore needs to be interesting enough; useful & relevant to audiences. For this reason, it is important that museums understand their audience’s motivations and intentions.

To truly embrace the process of collaboration there has to be an understanding of what is in it for the participant?

According to Nina Simon, participatory projects should be driven by a community-need; perhaps even by people outside the institution!

What does co-creation mean for audiences & what motivates them to participate?

Firstly, how do you define “audiences” ?

  • the people who participate in museum programs
  • the visitors [online / offline]
  • the potential public and audience that we could involve?

If you go by the larger public – they are enabled by digital technologies to new practices of creativity and communication in everyday life. So when museums invite participants, in a way, they value the digital expertise of their audience! Co-created projects enable participants to feel seen, heard or valued [as observed during feedback sessions at the Historisches Museum in Frankfurt]


Personally, as Franziska spoke about the value museums place in the audience’s expertise, I thought of the way the Philadelphia Museum of Art tries to enhancing the knowledge surrounding their collections by inviting people to add their own tags:


While POEM Fellows are currently researching how the digital condition changes memory-practices for young people, a few preliminary findings indicate:

  • participants can be motivated by the altruistic idea of contributing to the human pursuit of knowledge and simply help
  • participants can be motivated by the the idea of building up a network and exploring common interests
  • participants can be motivated by the idea of the creation process
  • participants can be motivated by the idea of learning something new

Digital co-creation projects can be a good way for museums to mediate digital literacies for their audiences. Even though audiences use digital technology in their daily lives – they might not necessarily have a deeper understanding of it!

Keeping co-created projects relevant for the wider public using digital

Again, going by what Nina Simon says about such projects – it’s not just participants who should feel good about these projects, but the wider public too!

For example, Asnath Kambunga’s exhibition in collaboration with the generation of the ‘born free’ in Namibia was directed towards exchanging perspectives using interactive mediums in the exhibition. Anybody visiting the exhibition had to position themselves and participate in the conversation.

So a participatory design that allows people to add their stories or respond to the existing ones can be one way of keeping it relevant.

Another example is Library of Generations in the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt : through personal mediation, the content is made relevant for the wider public.

Of course, museums must always be conscious about who they are creating for. Sometimes, through a professional-intervention, it is possible to create more aesthetic and visual aspects of stories being contributed – to make them more relatable for wider consumption.

[Franziska added this part when I shared the example of India’s first Partition Museum with her. Recalling the horrors of the forced migration, many of the witnesses are now aged and often tell their stories on video; the question is, how do we make these crowdsourced stories more engaging for a younger generation?]

Building networks and communities through collaboration

In our previous episode, Russell Dornan and Martin Schäfer gave examples of participatory projects as a way of deepening engagement with the audience. What kind of network-building opportunities do digitally co-created or crowdsourced projects offer?

It might not always be possible to stay in touch frequently with a network created through low-barrier or short-term collaborations. For example, on Instagram if people have contributed photos / remixed artwork in any way, you can share them and celebrate the new creations, but you probably cannot keep up a constant dialogue with them!

However, a long term project is a different matter. There can be small steps that you can take – ask participants to share reflections / invite them for network meetings / create an online or offline club or community and leverage the personal connections you developed in the course of the project.

Note: I have found LinkedIn Groups / Facebook Groups / Telegram Channels / Slack to be popular tools to use to build communities and stay in touch with those who engaged with you over a long time. The team at Art+Feminism for example, uses Slack to be in touch with a global community – but these tools are subject to country-based laws and regulations.

Some examples of co-creation and digital crowdsourcing:

The Minnen [memories] project is a website where museums and other cultural heritage organisations collect personal stories. As a platform, it enables museums to reach a wider audience to collect stories from.

The Historisches Museum Frankfurt too, collects all kinds of stories related to the city – the most recent one being about the COVID 19.

These projects are redefine the meaning of ‘museum collection’ and collecting practices; they also enable museums to think of the cultural heritage being produced everyday, and how digital media can support this process of collection.


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