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10.00  Digital vs Tangible: How Museum Visitors Experience Participation and What It Means to Them

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

The rise of web 2.0 (including social media) motivated the museum sector’s embrace of participation, including highly interactive, co-curated exhibitions and a dialogic museum experience. Drawing on a case study incorporating tangible and digital participation, this project complicates the view of digital technologies as inevitably and intrinsically beneficial for participation. It argues that the museum sector’s enthusiasm for digital participatory experiences should be tempered by a better understanding of their impact and effectiveness when seen in the context of alternative tangible participatory experiences.

The experimental exhibition, “Power of 1: Does your voice count?,” mounted at the Museum of Australian Democracy for twelve months (until October 2015), invited visitors to have their say about the state of Australia’s democracy, using digital and tangible interactives (including structured and open-ended, facilitated and self-directed, anonymous and public). New qualitative research from the case study shows that visitors like to participate (indeed expect it), enjoy reading and reviewing other visitor’s non-expert contributions, and take seriously the opportunity to have their say about important issues in a museum environment. When both digital and tangible interactives were available, tangible participation—writing on a wall, completing a secret ballot, leaving a message, for example—was accessed by more visitors, produced more considered contributions, and was more likely to result in a contribution that is remembered by other visitors. This research seeks to better understand how museum visitors view, engage with, and make meaning from digital and tangible participatory approaches. 

In exploring these results this paper seeks to bridge theory and practice in terms of: 

• Understanding the barriers to cultivating a museum participatory culture and the sector’s ability to deliver on multiple calls to democratize the museum experience; 

• Addressing the issue of power imbalance in a participatory, dialogic museum and museum professionals’ distrust toward visitors and desire to retain control and authority; 

• Examining levels of participation and their potential to bring balanced negotiation and respectful recognition of difference and expertise in a museum space.

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