The Participatory Museum (2010) will be familiar to many, particularly through the well-used free online copy. During years of voluntary work and as a student, this book helped sharpen my understanding of what museums and galleries could achieve through participatory practice and, even better, gave advice and examples of how to do it.
Nina Simon discusses the idea of social objects, which helped explain to me, as a student running object-handling tables, how and why visitors’ shy approaches soon turned into rapturous chatting once they’d spotted a pair of forceps. Simon’s advice really worked.
The book breaks down types of engagement, working through a spectrum ranging from public contribution to the full relinquishment of control by museums, in a writing style that is clear and engaging. Simon casts a critical eye on case studies, unpacking their successes and failures, giving a new museum professional like myself a grounding in effective modes of engagement and supportive institutional practices.
Some examples have since become old-fashioned, and Simon acknowledges that the book doesn’t address political perspectives on participation, though it still stands firm as a key practical text. One of its headline messages that resonated with me is that everyone at a museum should be considering participation and engagement in their work, no matter what their job.
This book is a springboard to more complex debates on engagement today and since reading it I’ve learned from increasingly innovative examples emerging in the sector.
Miriam Dafydd is an assistant curator at the Science Museum, London