3 months in, it’s time for taking stock of the activities that have marked the beginning of our collective explorations of ‘the explorative exhibition’.
Workshop 1: User perspectives and design thinking
In late May, the 7 person project team – i.e. the people managing exhibitions, collections, research and education at Enigma Museum + me – went on tour to my old project-partner museum, Ragnarock.
The idea behind the excursion was to give the user perspective a central role in our project by making that our starting point: being users and potential contributors in another institution. Hence, despite the obvious differences between the two museums, Ragnarock is also an interesting parallel to Enigma in that both relate to contemporary, everyday culture, and both seek to engage the public in collating their history as a polyphonic narrative. Moreover, Ragnarock’s take on interactive exhibition design could serve as a common reference in future discussions, whilst the problematics of the ‘rockspor’ site would remind us of the challenges of designing for participation.
Rethinking ways in which to engage with our own musical history was therefore the challenge in the afternoon workshop. In preparation, I had asked to team to respond to a ‘proto’ probe on this theme – originally designed for the Ragnarock project – as a means to tune in and reminisce, but also as an introduction to this particular method as a potential tool in our continued process.
The workshop itself, however, was structured around the Stanford d.school crash course in design thinking. This format takes you through the stages of a design thinking process in just a couple of hours: building empathy through interviews, defining a problem statement, ideating and iterating solutions and finally building and testing prototypes. The point of the exercise is thus not to come up with solid solutions, but rather to get acquainted with the basic ideas of design thinking (as formulated by the d.school; there is a wider spectrum of methodologies related to design thinking, which again relates to human centred design, and to the Scandinavian traditions of CoDesign and Participatory Design, as argued by Björgvinsson et al. . For an extended presentation of how design thinking may be applied to a museum context, see Dana Mitroff Silver’s MW2013 paper).
The purpose of the workshop was mainly to work as a warm-up exercise for the design work ahead, and therefore, more than the team’s innovative idea sketches, the most interesting thing for me to observe was the power of prototyping, as I sensed a palpable rise of energy and buzz of productive playfulness when we shifted from pen and paper to making mode, even if the prototyping materials were pretty basic.
So even though the ensuing discussion (along with bringing up points about the craft of interviewing; the pros and cons of time pressure; and an interesting observation about memory as a social construct) also stressed the need for building more knowledge and clarifying our design intentions before launching into production mode and engaging users, to me the workshop also illustrated how ideas and understandings are also constructed in the making process. In my thesis, I built on Hastrup’s idea about research as a process of ‘ontological dumping’, in which relational understandings of the world are transformed into objects of knowledge, to describe how the design process similarly lets understandings of the problem field become substantialised in the form of suggested solutions (Hastrup 2006:3; Baggesen 2015:55). This notion could be a heuristic for the continued process in this project, which also aims to explore how design methodology affects museum development processes.
Musings on methodology
Following on from this, workshop 2 focused on clarifying the museum’s intentions. But, to stick with the methodology angle, let me first make a note about the workshop space. As noted earlier, Enigma Museum is still in-the-making, raising money and making plans for future exhibitions while experimenting with other ways of being a museum, e.g. through events, external collaborations, pop-up exhibitions and media presence. From a museological point of view, this process and these experiments are fascinating to follow. But another upshot of this limbo state is that the museum still has space to spare, meaning that I could clear a corner of the provisional storage floor to set up a workspace for the project.
Being able to furnish it with an old mahogany table set once used by the museum board was a scoop, adding a symbolic meaning of having a mandate to make decisions, whilst also lending some definition or solidity to the makeshift space. In practical terms, the space also gives us walls to mount our work-in-progress ideas and inspirations on, and, most importantly, gives the project a (temporary) permanence and physical presence, a place to go to go into project mode and pick up from where we left off, rather than having to re-establish the project arena, conceptually and materially, every time.
In a sense, therefore, establishing this workspace is a very literal, spatial response to the argument made by Björgvinsson et al., that “a fundamental challenge for designers and the design community is to move from designing ‘things’ (objects) to designing Things (socio-material assemblies)” (2012:102; insert brackets in the original). This Latourian idea (playing on the shared etymology of the word ‘thing’ and the old Nordic democratic institution the Ting/Thing) of the design (research) process as an assembly of people, artefacts and ideas gathered to address pertinent matters of concern, is one I also pursued in my PhD project, and a fundament for my continued research.
The current project is thus also a gathering together of people and interests with the dual objective of creating both museum development – designing a new format for collection and mediation – and museological research – exploring matters of concern. However, what the project also illustrates is that it is not really a question of moving from one thing (pardon the pun) to another, but of designing for both: using design to construct a Thing that may develop a thing (i.c. a participatory museum platform, actually a pretty Thingy thing, to stick with the lingo).
In a proposal for the upcoming Research Through Design Conference RTD2019 in Holland next spring, moreover, I argue for the relevance of also paying attention to the agency of material design things, such as process tools and prototypes, within the socio-material design Thing. So, looking at the material things designed to help the social Thing explore matters of concern and develop new things (and Things). Specifically, for this particular call relating to method and critique, I wish to reflect on the construction and agency of the design/dialogue tools, such as cultural probes and concept cards that I have made/will make for this particular process, and the process products, such as design sketches and prototypes. That is, if my proposal is accepted.
Which is a bit of a ‘damned if you don’t and damned if you do’ situation, or at least an example of the dilemma in this research situation: with so many potential outputs, where should I focus my energy to make the most of the project within a limited timespan? Because, of course, as a researcher I am expected to produce and publish knowledge that is relevant to a wider field of peers. And in this particular project, I am also obliged to answer to the shared research objectives of the ‘Our Museum’ research programme. At the same time, I want to provide a real, useful contribution to the museum’s ongoing development process. In sum, it is a balancing act between academic expectations, design ambitions, museum realities and pragmatic project constraints. So do I really have the time to go out on a theoretical/methodological limb about design things/Things? Is it relevant enough, in this context? And in a wider sense: Should the continued project process focus on efficient design of realisable prototypes ready for testing in the foreseeable future, allowing me to complete an empirical study of user responses, as suggested by one senior researcher in the programme? Should the process focus on staging discussions in the project team, allowing me to elicit and explore more nuances in the museological matters of concern, or even testing and challenging the convictions and rhetorics of the museum, as suggested by another? Is my main contribution to the museum the development of a ready-for-production mediation concept, or an experiment in methodology to fuel future work processes? Am I a catalyst, a facilitator, an evaluator, a critic or a team member; an insider or an outsider? All of the above, perhaps? So, it’s a balancing act, pursuing academic objectives and development objectives at once, and considering these various concerns as I plan for the next stages of the project.
Workshop 2: Design intentions
Negotiating different or even conflicting objectives, ambitions, constraints and concerns was also a theme in our second workshop, focusing on our design intentions. To begin my research, I had earlier conducted a series of short, individual interviews with the project team members in order to establish some kind of baseline of the project before setting off on our joint expedition. As expected, their ideas and concerns were overlapping but also quite diverse in terms of what they saw as the primary aims of the project and of the exhibition ‘mechanism’ projected as the intended result. It was therefore necessary to stage a discussion of these different perspectives to get a joint idea of the scope and discuss conflicts and commonalities, and to see if we could reach an agreement on our design intentions.
The discussion was both constructive and inspiring, and provided relevant material for analysis in relation to the Our Museum dimensions, even though we didn’t succeed in arriving at a singular objective. Still, from a rough analysis of the video documentation and post-it notes from the session, I could distill a provisional ‘wishlist’ of intentions, including the wish to co-create a polyphonic history of communication with our users; to create identification and foster ownership and empowerment; to engage users in our research; and to create inspiring, iconic, and innovative exhibition experiences.
Of course, this still reads more like an idealistic mission statement than a concrete design brief, but these grand objectives are also relevant as guidelines in our continued process. And of course, the discussion also pointed to many aspects that were still unresolved: whether user contributions should feed into research, or exhibitions, or both; whether participation should function as a means for collecting or as a didactic strategy, or both; how to handle incoming data and materials; how many ressources this kind of strategy would require, and how many the museum is able or willing to spare; and, of course, whether and how our users would want to participate.
Museological study group
In the continued process, we will try to find answers to these questions through exhibition experiments and user engagement. In parallel, however, we will also try to understand these issues through discussions of museological theory. So far, we’ve had two study group sessions; one focusing on participation, with texts by Nina Simon, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt & Pille Runnel, and Bernadette Lynch; and another on museum missions with readings of Duncan Cameron and David Anderson, along with the (re-published) Musetrain Manifesto, Orhan Pamuks Modest Museum Manifesto and ICOM’s Cultural Diversity Charter.
Now, I’ve had to realise that I have been a bit over ambitious with the quantity of reading, but apart from that, this experiment in bringing museological theory into museum practice has proven to be very inspiring. Realising (with initial disbelief and then som disappointment) in the first year of my postdoc how little academic museum research is used in museum practice (I know, practitioners are very busy, and academia can be a bit too cerebral, still it seems such a waste of effort and potential), I am quite excited to have met such a positive attitude to the idea in Enigma, and to see that it does seem to make sense to infuse practice with theory, to provoke discussion and build up a shared set of references and ideas.
On the basis of these initial explorations, and after finally getting clarification on the continued framework for the project (i.e. that museum did not get funding for a large scale project that this project could have fed into), we have now been able to adjust the project scope to focus more on exhibitions and less on research, and have also deviced a new project design comprising three joint experiments in how to collect and exhibit userdriven narratives. I’m looking forward to tucking into the project proper, but first up, it’s time for a summer break. Starting…now! [press publish]
Baggesen, R. (2015). Mobile Museology: An exploration of fashionable museums, mobilisation, and trans-museal mediation. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen
Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. & Hillgren, P. (2012). ‘Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges’. Design Issues, Vol.28(3), pp.101-116
Hastrup, K. (2006). ‘Designforskning: mellem materialitet og socialitet’ [’Design research: between materiality and sociality’]. Copenhagen Working Papers on Design. Copenhagen: Danmarks Designskole.
Silvers, D.M. et al (2013). ‘Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design’. Museums and the Web 2013, online proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.