Aspiring to what Nina Simon wrote about in 2007, many museums devote substantial resources and time to including interactivity within their exhibits. Thousands of dollars are spent on developing and maintaining kiosks, recording booths and interactive activities for patrons of various ages and interests. But despite all of these resources, museums still seem unable to proceed past Nina Simon’s third level, where the exhibits would truly become “2.0.” Instead, they end up falling more in line with Brennan and Kelly’s “1.5,” where patrons can interact to an extent, but the information and curatorial choices are still heavily subjected to institutional gate-keeping. Even at my museum, we continuously fall short. We have brand new kiosks that quiz and poll patrons on everything from Atlanta neighborhoods to religion, but their interactions aren’t allowed to proceed past simply viewing how many people received or chose the same result. We’ve even taken suggestions for objects within past exhibits, but again, curatorial gate-keeping often wins out. For as much as museums want to become like web 2.0 where exhibits are designed and supported by patrons, one prevalent thing is stopping them: fear.
Despite museums’ good intentions, in my experience meetings about interactivity and patron participation are almost always dominated by fear: the fear of the loss of authority, the fear of the loss of respect and standing, the fear of low quality exhibits. With funding sources drying up and the government purportedly looking at scrapping the National Endowment for the Humanities, even non-profit museums are having to focus more and more on admission earnings to stay afloat. This has created an atmosphere in which new methods of exhibit design that could alienate patrons are often seen as more risky than innovative. This is especially true for museums that include topics that are controversial for one reason or another, such as the Civil War in the south. We’ve had to talk to a number of our own volunteers for presenting ideas to patrons that are not in line with the institutional position! There is a fear that if even our own volunteers seek to exert the “lost cause” narrative within the museum, any effort to allow patron participation would be disastrous. Even if the museum were to distance itself from what patrons choose, it would still hurt the reputations of our institution and its staff. This loss in reputation could hurt admission numbers which would have long reaching effects, both towards future exhibition capabilities and staffing positions.
The trick is to find a way to allow level five interactivity but still mitigate the risks that it carries. This is something that online games have been struggling to do within their own communities and they have been at the forefront of finding ways to maintain digital civility. League of Legends, one of the largest competitive online gaming communities, has had some success with their policies, but it would seem that this may still be a ways off for museums.