Skip to main content
In depth

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

Nina Simon has been described as a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian Magazine for her audience-centred approach to design.

An independent experience designer with expertise in participatory design, gaming, and social technology, she is the author of The Participatory Museum.  From 2008 to 2011 she ran Museum 2.0, a design firm that worked with museums, libraries, and cultural institutions worldwide to create dynamic, audience-driven exhibitions and educational programmes.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the PeopleSimon has lectured widely and given workshops on visitor participation. She authors the influential Museum 2.0 blog, which also appears as a column in Museum magazine, and is Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Speaking to Blooloop, Nina Simon claims she never envisioned herself working in a museum. Growing up, she was interested in making things:

“My dream as a teenager was to design pinball machines for a living. I later found out that’s not a career opportunity anymore.”

She studied electrical engineering and maths at university.

“I was very interested in the creative uses of engineering, in how you could build things that were playful, that were narrative, that were beautiful in an engineering context. But, I was in a very blue-collar space: I wasn’t thinking about art at all in this way – I just believed that you could use engineering to do creative things.”

While at university, she taught maths to fellow students “…to help put myself through school.”

She remembers how even engineering students hated and feared maths, and were uncomfortable with it.

“It was something I really loved, but I saw how the classroom environment was not the best way to communicate that passion and the really wonderful things about maths.”

She became curious about alternative formats for learning outside schools, and learned  about home-schooling and free-schooling, reading books like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and hearing about Summer Hill School in the UK, which had an approach based on students learning on their own terms.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People“As I was doing that exploration, I discovered there were people in the museum world who were talking about this idea of free choice learning, and so I got very curious about museums as a place to work, and science museums in particular, as a place to blend my passion for maths and science with my interest in informal learning.”

At this point, working part-time for NASA, the US Space Administration, and the rest of the time for a children’s museum doing science workshops, she was trying to find out whether engineering was really for her, and if not, what would fit.

“I found myself falling in love with the museum side and so, much to my parents’ chagrin, I put my engineering degree on a shelf and started working as an exhibit designer for science centres and children’s museums.”

In the US there is less of a distinction between different types of museums than there is in the UK – science centres, science museums, art museums and galleries all fall into the same category, which facilitates professional fluidity and opportunity.

Operation Spy

From working in science and children’s museums, Simon progressed to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Although essentially a museum about the history of espionage, it was actively exploring the tools of the theme park and narrative entertainment world to achieve its objective – in this case, to create an immersive experience where the visitor would not just learn about spies, but really feel as if they were being invited to be a spy. While many museums do this sort of thing now, at the time it was ground-breaking.

At the Spy Museum she became involved with a project called Operation Spy: a ‘You be the Spy’ one hour separate ticket experience.

“It was something we designed intending to let people dive more deeply into the psychological side of espionage in a fully immersive, interactive way, and it was interesting that during the time I was working most heavily on that project,   I started the Museum 2.0 blog.”

Museum 2.0 Blog

The Museum 2.0 blog started in 2006, and grew from the fact that Simon was seeing friends outside the museum world becoming involved in Web 2.0 and the associated explosion of technology. She became curious about how a participatory approach over Wikipedia or YouTube, where users were providing and editing content, might impact the way that more formal cultural institutions work.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

“It’s actually a bit of an embarrassing story about why I started the blog, ” she confesses. “I would go to conferences, and I was very shy, and I saw people in museums whom I admired and wanted to talk to – but I just wasn’t very good at the small talk. I remember I was at a conference and one of my heroes, Kathy McLean, was talking about, ‘What’s a Wiki Museum? How’s YouTube going to affect museums?’ and I realised that those were questions I thought I could really explore.”

It occurred to her that if she started thinking and writing about topics that were interesting to the people she admired as well as to herself, they might have a reason to connect. And, the more she blogged, the more she realised that no matter how great an immersive themed experience like Operation Spy could be, it is still fundamentally one in which the visitor is a consumer of the experience.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People“Even if you’re completely hands-on, and the game is shifting according to what you’re doing, there are still prescribed outcomes. And, what I started discovering on the web was that there was this whole other approach that was really about participation where participation invited people to bring their own contributions and the outcomes were not prescribed.

“I am always surprised when people use ‘participatory’ and ‘interactive’ interchangeably. To me they are quite different. There are ways you can have a wonderful interactive experience where you get to play and are immersed in it, but ultimately it resets after you’re done, or you reset it.

“A participatory experience is one that you contribute to, where when you walk away your contribution persists. And, that’s a very different kind of interaction. Instead of being treated as a user, you’re being treated as a contributor or a collaborator or a co-creator. To me those are quite different in kind, and in the outcome of the experience that people are having.”

Small museums and the participatory revolution

Small museums, according to Simon, have the potential to be the leaders of this participatory revolution because they are so much more engaged with their communities. All they have to do is shift their perspective a little, and regard every visitor who walks through the door as someone who can contribute something to the museum. And, because they are getting hundreds or thousands of visitors annually rather than the millions who come through the doors of the big museums, it is possible to engage individually with all of them.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the PeopleShe cites the Derby Silk Museum as an example. The Silk Mill building stands on the site of the world’s first factory and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is currently going through a process of development, reinventing itself for the 21st century to create Derby Silk Mill – Museum of Making opening in 2019/20.

“They said, we have this UNESCO Heritage Site – the oldest factory in the world – let’s make it a place for making: this has always been a place where people make things: let’s re-make the museum here. I think what they’re doing is fascinating and a good example. Granted, a UNESCO World Heritage site is a little different from small local museums, but I think that museums situated in smaller communities have a huge potential to be working with the people in that community not just to turn it around, but really make it breathe and live of that community, which is exactly what we’ve done here in Santa Cruz.”

Simon’s role at the Santa Cruz Museum came about by serendipity. She moved to Santa Cruz from Washington DC because it was the place she most wanted to live. Using her experience at the Spy Museum she worked as a consultant, sharing her expertise with museums around the world, helping them start working on participatory project. It was by sheer luck that the museum in the community where she lived was changing leadership, and wanted to go in a direction that was much more focused on the community.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

“I’ve found, as our museum has changed, that most people who have been involved for a long time are so excited to see new life in the museum; to see young people; to see the museum in the paper; to see other people caring about it. But, they couldn’t make that change – they needed to hire somebody who was equipped to make that change.”

Simon makes a clear distinction between the largest urban national museums and the other 99%.

“We give so much oxygen, so much press attention, to just a handful of museums. And, those museums are important, for sure. But, those museums operate in a completely different way and for completely different reasons than small museums. Those museums exist to present a version of our national identity; to showcase the best objects that represent who we are as a people; and to show not just to people who live in our country but to people who are visiting from around the world.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

“The function of the other kind of museum, which is the vast majority of museums, is to help people within its community connect with the strengths of that community, the challenges of that community, with each other through objects.”

Simon contends that, like libraries and community centres, museums have a public service role, operating “…around objects and designed experiences in cultural programming, which is very powerful. For example, we are working with a heritage project where they’ve been going into our museum archives and finding information about recipes and foods that were used at the very beginning of Santa Cruz as a town; and they’re also putting on these programmes where they invite people to share their own recipes from their family and to catalogue those into the archive.

“In some ways it’s a very traditional archiving project, but it’s one that’s really reaching out and saying – food is important to all of us, in our past and our future – let’s share that together.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People“I think that a modern museum is one that is not like an airport lounge – it’s not showing objects in this anonymous white space before they go on to some other anonymous white space. I think that a strong modern museum is one that is highly peculiar to the community in which it sits.”

Touching on current trends in museums, Simon says: “I’m kind of seeing two fashions going on, and it does partially, though not entirely, correlate to the big museum-small museum distinction.

“One fashion that has continued is the integration of technology, and fortunately we’re really getting to a point where more institutions are thinking about embedded technology and less like ‘let’s stick a screen on it’ type technology.

“I think there are interesting things happening with using technology to do everything from create an immersive experience in a gallery to things like Brooklyn Museum’s new ASK app, where you’re texting live with a curatorial assistant as you’re going through the museum and they’re helping you understand more about what you’re seeing.

“Those kinds of projects tend to be happening at larger museums because of the costs involved. The other kind of trend or fashion I’m seeing is a grass-roots design aesthetic: handwritten labels; post-it notes; a messiness. And, I think that that messy approach comes from a desire to make people feel welcome and not as if they had to walk in on tiptoe.

“But it is also a design aesthetic, and it’s certainly possible that it’s a fad.”

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

She adds,  “On the one hand, I feel like these choices are very powerful ones because they do open up a sense of welcome. On the other hand, I think it’s important that we make sure we’re considering them as a design aesthetic among many and that we’re not absconding our design choices and saying, this is the way to be casual: this is the way to be warm and welcoming – because there are a lot of ways to do that.”

Simon is currently overseeing two big projects at the Santa Cruz Museum. One, a typical museum project, is the complete redevelopment of the history gallery which tells the permanent county history.

The second project is far less typical.

The Santa Cruz Museum is expanding in a very non-traditional way. Over the past four years, as a result of community-building, its attendance has tripled, with people of new ages and backgrounds visiting for the first time and then returning. However, Simon realised that keeping all that energy behind the walls of the museum would preclude the kind of community impact the museum wanted to have. So, as it grew and more space was needed, a radical decision was taken to turn the vacant lot outside the museum into a public gathering-place.

“We decided to invest in public art, in performance art, in ongoing programming, food, and in experiences that expand our mission outside.

“At the beginning it felt as if we were doing a separate venue outside, but we all feel now that the natural way to expand the mission of a community-focused museum is to take it outside into the community: if we can take our mission and our programming outside into this 24/7 free space, I think it won’t just change our museum – it’ll change our town.”

The Vernacular of other Formats

“I think that using the vernacular of other formats is growing, ” says Simon. “The place I’m seeing it growing the most is in crossover with performance and festivals. I think there’s a real sense among those of us who manage facilities that those facilities are a real drain, and that the parts of the arts and culture sector that are really booming are these festivals where it’s a weekend, a week, two weeks – a combination of urgency, novelty and the social dynamic that creates a huge energy filling the city, the space.  I’m seeing more and more museums going towards more emphasis on the night-time programming; more emphasis on this festival model; this sense that a museum lives and is activated through its events.”

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

Museums as custodians of artefacts

Museums are, traditionally, custodians of artefacts – something that can rapidly become a burden for a small museum.
Simon contends that it makes sense to have a sensible differentiation between objects in the permanent collection that get the Grade A management, and the things where there are numerous duplicates, or which are really not that compelling, and become part of a teaching collection or a collection that an artist can interact with.

She gives an example: “Tyne and Wear Museums did something a few years ago where they invited artists in to create new objects with some objects in their collections that they considered less precious – but it was very complicated to get to that point of being comfortable to say: Ok, all of these spoons – we could let an artist do something with these spoons. And they really wrestled with themselves internally to get there.”

She adds,  “At a small museum you get a lot of calls from people saying, our church is celebrating its 150th anniversary, or our hospital has this big momentous occasion: we think there ought to be an exhibition about it. The answer is, well, no: there doesn’t need to be an exhibition at the museum about it – but if you want to do your own exhibition, you should.”

The answer was to create a guide showing people that they could mount their own exhibitions.

Curating the Community: Bringing Museums to the People

Pop-up Museum

“So we’ve been doing this project called ‘Pop-up Museum’ – –it’s a toolkit for anybody to make a museum that just exists for a couple of hours.”

What is a Pop Up Museum? from Santa Cruz MAH on Vimeo.

Museum of the Future

In Simon’s ideal world, every museum would be peculiar to its own community.

“I think each museum needs to really determine what is the most relevant role for us to have in this community – and given the assets we have, what kind of place should we be? There are lots of different ways for a museum to exist, and I think the hardest part is learning who the community is, and having the courage to shift your programming to fit that community.

“It’s easy to say, this is the way a museum ought to be, so this is the way we need to be. It’s much more interesting and valuable to say: this is what THIS museum needs to be for THIS community.

“We have a lot of work to do both within our walls and beyond our walls, and I’m excited to just keep exploring that. It has been very interesting to me that in conferences and different places I go around the world, I’m really considered somebody who is an advocate for participatory museums and for community participation generally – I have become very focused and much more interested in the specifics of this community here in Santa Cruz.”

In conclusion, she says,  “I think a lot of institutions and museum professionals think of community engagement as something we ought or want to do, but that will cost a lot of money. In our museum we have had a huge increase in attendance, in donations, in financial support, in press – all of it based on having a community-based approach.

“It’s important that we look at community engagement as a way to extraordinarily transform our museums; to engage more and more diverse people, to engage new funders and to matter more to our communities in ways that we couldn’t before.

“I love working with the people in this community who bring forward their passions, creativity, assets and skills to the museum, and I just want to keep doing that.”

Search for something

More from this author

Related content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update