Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a post I saw over on Museum Next titled “The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead.” Jim, the author, explains:

While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ will change, I think it is useful for us to think of the people who choose to interact with museums either digitally or by making a visit as ‘participants’.

Whether you are planning a new exhibition, website or marketing plan, thinking about how you can engage with your museum’s ‘participants’ rather than ‘audiences’ will give you a different mindset.

Museum exhibitions, events, and website visitors are all particularly associated in my mind with the word “audiences,” but thinking of the people on the other end of those experiences as participants rather than recipients opens up a whole new range of possibilities. I consider myself a very engagement-conscious museum educator – but I was surprised by how much of a difference this change in thinking, this conscious effort to not consider those users as “the audience,” made.

While this seems like a great suggestion for museum staff at any level, naturally it has made me think about the projects that I’m directly involved with – and the differences that could be inspired by this change in vocabulary. Although I always think of the people in my discussion-based programs as participants, I’ll soon be moving into other areas within the education division, working with an interactive online family map, teacher resources, and educator training.

Imagining the users of these resources as participants is liberating. It’s so easy to become focused on what you (the planner) are going to bring to the experience what you are going to share and provide and introduce. I realize that it’s much harder to prepare for a truly interactive experience, which will develop in unpredictable ways, and that it can be daunting to rely on others to contribute to the fullness and richness of the experience.

Personally, I normally try to prepare enough information to be able to lecture the entire time – this has the dual benefit of  giving me a wide selection of information add to an interactive discussion and serving as a reassuring emergency back-up plan. However, I’ve never had an experience where I needed to use all of that information at once – and I hope I never do. In my experience, visitors who are full participants in the experience are engaged and, I hope, affirmed in their opinions and viewpoints. They may not be exposed to quite as much factual information, but that is precisely the point –  they are participants, not audiences. As far as I’m concerned they are not there to learn from me, but to be guided by me.

Of course, bringing all of these new programming ideas to reality is a different endeavor, but conceptualizing them with participants in mind seems like an excellent place to start.