Youth as Curators: User-Created Content at Museums

Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 10:25 am
Jennifer Dick's picture

The idea of shifting the participation of museum visitors from internal (i.e., mental, or “look but don’t touch”) interaction to external (physical, hands-on) interaction isn’t a new one. Natural history museums have been doing this for years with exhibits that allow visitors to physically engage with selected artifacts. I remember going to Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo, CA as a child in the 1980s and touching a piece of raccoon pelt and taking my friends up on a dare to smell the skunk exhibit. We learned about the different kinds of fault structures by using the manipulables that mimicked dip-slip, thrust, strike-slip, and reverse faults. Being able to use a sense other than sight at the museum is why I remember these activities some 20 years later.

But here’s what is new: The recent increase in the portability and ubiquity of digital media creation tools has helped push teaching and learning practice beyond basic internal and external interaction to a focus on actively making meaning. Now many museums and other cultural institutions are providing opportunities for visitors to record their reactions to exhibits and share them with subsequent visitors through audio, video, images, and social media. Bringing participatory culture into museums can help engage youth for whom this sort of interaction is integral to how they process their experiences — not only making these spaces more welcoming to young people, but also providing a platform for documenting the importance of these places to the community.

In Practice
Our work with Chicago’s The Field Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum shows how two major museums are responding to the meaning-making trend by creating structured programs in partnership with local schools and organizations, giving youth a chance to own the issues and artifacts at these two institutions. When youth are provided an active way to engage with content and a platform that honors their voice and media preferences, they become invested in not only the content, but also in the space and in thinking critically about the knowledge they consume.

Making meaning — and content — doesn’t only happen on site, or even in the classroom. While many museums have a strong online presence, sometimes including ways for site visitors to respond to content, there are some web spaces that allow people to create their own online exhibits. Rhizome at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art is an arts organization that explores “emerging artistic practices that engage technology” and actively finds ways for people to participate in projects. Rhizome encourages their base to use their online archive, ArtBase, to create member-curated exhibits. This gives people a chance to document their own aesthetic insights and inquiries, shifting power from a few art professionals to any interested consumer of art.

What’s Next?
Those cultural institutions that have been employing visitor-created content for some time are now wrestling with questions of what to do with the resulting physical artifacts and how to store them. While easier to store, digital artifacts also raise questions of file showcasing and hosting — how will the pictures/movies/micro-blogs/etc. be shared? How long will these digital files sit on the museum’s servers before they are cleared away for new files; or will they be kept in perpetuity? And while showing these digital artifacts on a website is great, professional curators will need to continue to find ways to integrate user-created content into the physical exhibits if they wish to make visitor contributions seem meaningful and worth the contributors’ time and effort. It will be interesting to see how cultural institutions tackle these issues and move this practice along.

Do you have any experiences with user-created content in museums or other cultural institutions? Please share them in the comments!

Additional Reading on User-Created Museum Content