Science centres are all about participation and the joy of discovery. Science centre NEMO in Amsterdam is no exception. Even on a school-week Tuesday the building is buzzing with energy and the sounds of excitement bouncing against the roof. I was positively surprised, therefore, that I was asked by Diana of NEMO to host a creative workshop on specifically the topic of participation and innovative ways of engaging with audiences.
NEMO is looking for ways to have visitors participate and engage with their content in a more sustainable and relevant way. In my own words, they want to build enduring relationships with their audience that go beyond the one-off event a visit to their building nowadays is. The main focus of the workshop, therefore, was how to embed participation in a meaningful way in the activities of NEMO, so that it builds connections between the institution and people, and fosters enthusiasm.
With over 500,000 visitors a year, NEMO has about reached its limits in the number of physical visitors it can welcome. So, not surprisingly, when asked about their future vision for NEMO, most participants drew an image of a science centre leaving its building, and using modern technology and media to take control of the public space.
Most of the installations in NEMO are participatory in a playful, but unconnected way. Often it’s not clear why people should participate other than because they can, and little is done with the effort visitors put into their contributions. Also, NEMO is almost entirely focused on children, with the immediate effect that when I visited them on a school holiday, the place was filled with bored-looking parents.
Certainly, NEMO is doing some amazing things to connect with their audience in a relevant way. In their Science Live programme researchers from the Technical University of Delft work together with visitors on real research. When I visited, there was a queue to partake in real research!
In the workshop, we focused on the role of participation within the larger context of building meaningful relations between NEMO and its visitors. In this context, participation is both a means to an end (sustainable relations), and an end in itself as a way to get to know people and engage them with content.
For a science centre such as NEMO this means it has to be clear why people participate. Why do people participate? What are their expectations? And then, how can these expectations be managed so that after they’ve participated, they come back and can be turned into enthusiastic advocates for the institution?
To me, this comes down to not just designing participatory installations, but processes in which meaningful relations are built with people. Such processes, in a nutshell, should be inviting to the right target groups, offering them high quality and a safe and trustworthy environment, inviting people with a challenging and highly relevant question to become engaged, and offering a timely and serious follow-up.
Participation certainly isn’t as straightforward or linear as the above models might suggest. My own experience with for instance the National Vending Machine shows that only a percentage of all people with whom you make contact will eventually participate, and that sometimes people participate without previously having shown much interest.
Also, it is important to note that not all phases (contact, interest, etc.) have to be passed through in one session, not in one medium alone. Contact can be made online, when interest is created with a great offer in gallery, followed by participation through a mobile device and enthusiasm in a public debate, months later.
Based on the position of participation in a larger context, seven lessons about participation in cultural institutions and best practices from around the world, the participants built their own participatory installations/programmes in the workshop. Not surprisingly, they focused on two of the biggest strengths of NEMO: their potential as an institution for popular science research, and their flagship attraction the chain reaction. Their solutions crossed the boundaries of media, and focused on processes spanning months, even years.
Also, their solutions mostly left the physical building of NEMO (sorry, Renzo Piano), although parts of the process were in the building. This offers NEMO an opportunity to reach a wider audience more often, because outside (and online) they are not limited by the number of people they can welcome.
I guess the workshop was as inspirational to me as to the participants – who in a last exercise filled metaphorical backpacks with takeaways – mostly because of the challenge to transform a highly successful participatory institution such as NEMO, to one that uses the same tools and strengths to build meaningful relations with their audience.
My key takeaways of the afternoon, and of this post, were:
- A focus on participation in a broader context and the openness to leave the physical building offers unique opportunities to cultural institutions to build sustainable relations with their audience.
- Probably the best place to start in such a process is the part of your organisation that is already most successful.
- Participation can be both a means to an end, as an end in itself, making it a complex but very powerful tool.
Thanks to NEMO and Diana for inviting me, and the great people at NEMO for providing so much insights in participation in science centres.
Photography of visitors of NEMO, © Science Center NEMO.