On Soapboxes and Community Art: A Case Study of Visual Discourse and the Participatory Museum

This article is the first of Plinth's new features series, which will provide an informal space for in-depth analysis and conversation on issues in the museum field.

On a number of occasions in my museum career I have been told that museums are, or should be, safe places to ask unsafe questions.  This laudable focus on provocative and challenging inquiry, however, rarely accounts for where and how our visitors will answer those questions—both safe and unsafe.  Too often when we picture our visitors engaged in a discursive exchange related to our queries, we envision that conversation happening privately. We often design pleasant gathering spaces where we hope our visitors will engage in discrete (and perhaps discreet) conversation, or we imagine that the conversation will continue in the café or on the car ride home. Sometimes we encourage our visitors to “continue the conversation on Facebook,” or some other form of social media, which has a slightly more public focus, but which fails to include the museum itself as a site of discourse.  Frequently, for in-gallery response, we provide some token opportunity in the form of the museum comment book—a traditional, though fairly unproductive, staple of the museum experience—or its twenty-first century cousin, the post-it response board.  Rarely, though, do we imagine a space that allows our visitors to civilly and productively speak to each other on the most pressing issues of the day.

To be sure, in recent years museum professionals have begun a serious inquiry into the ways in which we might thoughtfully and productively engage our visitors in a discussion about the themes raised in our exhibitions.  Museum bloggers like Brad Larson, Linda Treadwell, and Nina Simon have advocated for a radical reconsideration of the relationship between the museum and its visitors, encouraging museums to provide opportunities for user generated comment and content.  One notable and influential contribution to this discussion was the 2010 publication (in print and on the web) of Simon’s influential and informative work, The Participatory Museum.1

At my institution, the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California, the publication of Simon’s book provided an important opportunity for staff members to think about and discuss the nature of participation in our exhibitions.  In spring 2010 we convened a meeting to discuss the book and offer our opinions on the practicality and applicability of Simon’s insights and ideas.  At the same time, the Autry was in the midst of creating one of our more critically acclaimed and well attended exhibitions, Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, a thoughtful and engaging study of the famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, his brief but significant 1932 sojourn in Los Angeles, and the subsequent impact of Siqueiros’ work on a variety of Latino, Angeleno artists past and present.  The intersection of these two discursive paths—our discussions of Simon’s work and the development of Siqueiros in Los Angeles—produced remarkably creative and salutary results.  As our guest curators, in-house designers, and education staff sought unique and engaging ways to articulate some of the central themes of the show, over time we developed two vibrant and engaging participatory installations. Each installation, in its own way, tacitly illustrated key principles from Simon’s work.  This article is an examination of those installations and our audiences’ responses to them. It makes clear the ways in which these installations illustrated key components of Simon’s important and useful book, and it argues that they catalyzed two distinct forms of visual discourse between the museum and its visitors, and between the visitors themselves, on a variety of topics (some controversial, some less so).

I think that this last point, my claim that our visitors’ participation represented a kind of “visual discourse,” demands that I define more clearly what I mean by that term.  And yet, ironically, I find as I think about ways to explain the first word in the phrase, “visual,” my definition is quite broad and amorphous.  After all, the term visual means those things which can be viewed or seen.  If one has use of their eyes, then virtually every technique employed to exchange ideas in the museum, save aural methods such as speaking and listening, is visual.  This includes traditional written texts such as label copy, books, brochures, signs, etc.  In this particular instance, though, my use of the term visual specifically refers to a collection of pictures, texts, symbols, colors, and other images which visitors created or employed to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas to the museum and its visiting public.

In contrast to my expansive and fluid definition of that which is visual, my use of the term “discourse” is more exacting and precise and builds on the work of the intellectual historian David Hollinger.  In his 1979 essay, “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals,” Hollinger defines discourse as a social and intellectual interaction between a group of people who seek to answer a shared set of questions. “Questions,” Hollinger tells us, “are the points of contacts between minds, where agreements are consolidated and where differences are acknowledged and dealt with; questions are the dynamisms whereby membership in a community of discourse is established, renewed, and sometimes terminated.” 2

By linking these two concepts together (visual and discourse) my definition of the term becomes clearer.  By visual discourse I mean a wide variety of imagery created or employed in response to a shared question or set of questions.  In this particular article the discourse I refer to was provoked by a series of questions or prompts posed by the museum to its visitors.  And so our visitors’ subsequent responses to those questions represent their participation in a robust, creative, and continually evolving community of visual discourse.

The purpose of this piece, then, is to recount the history of that discourse and the creation of the installations that prompted it, while concomitantly understanding the ways in which these discursive events are prime illustrations of the great promise (and occasional peril) of the participatory museum.  In order to achieve these ends we will briefly explore the idea of the participatory museum as articulated in Simon’s 2010 book, and following that we will study the two education installations, as well as the ways in which our museum visitors interacted with them in response to the Autry’s questions and prompts.  In both cases we will see that the Autry’s participatory installations fostered a community of discourse largely independent of verbal or textual exchange.

Understanding Key Principles of the Participatory Museum
In the first chapter of The Participatory Museum, Simon describes the awkward and unpleasant experience of viewing a poorly designed and implemented participatory installation.  The piece in question was a video version of the traditional visitor comment book.  Those familiar with this staple of the museum experience know full well the way in which comment book entries can often devolve into a collection of trite compliments, “shout outs,” requests for the reinstallation of past exhibitions, and even profanity.  In Simon’s account the problems of such open-ended participation were compounded by the intrusion of the video camera, which inhibited some participants to the point of merely mumbling incomprehensible phrases while it emboldened others to “express themselves” in the most performative and shallow of ways.  In an extraordinary display of understatement, Simon observes that the installation “was not the participatory museum of my dreams.”3

In some sense the remainder of her book is an explanation of what the participatory museum of Simon’s dreams would be.  The participatory museum, she argues, recognizes the uniqueness of the needs and interests of each visitor.  It takes the responses and insights of these individuals and turns them into a collaborative experience which actually becomes richer and more informative as visitors contribute to the museum’s installations and exhibitions.  In other words, instead of merely providing an open platform for visitors to express opinions that may or may not contribute to the museum and its exhibitions, the best participatory experiences actually further the interpretive work of the museum in focused and thoughtful ways.  Simon articulates a number of methods and strategies for designing such installations, but for this author, the most significant and valuable assertion in Simon’s book is her recognition that participatory installations should not be open-ended encounters in which the visitor is presented with an undefined and unmediated participatory experience.  Indeed, as Simon observes, such moments can prove daunting and uncomfortable.  “What if I walked up to you on the street and asked you to make a video about your ideas of justice in the next three minutes?” Simon asks in her book.  “Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?”  Instead, the most successful participatory installations structure and give direction to visitor participation through the use of “instructional scaffolding.”4

The concept of instructional scaffolding has a lengthy history in the field of education.  It was first articulated by scholars at Oxford in the mid-1970s to describe the relationship between tutor and tutee, but over some thirty plus years, numerous educators have employed the term to describe a variety of educational methods.  Some have used it to describe the way in which parents help their young children acquire language skills, while others have employed the idea to describe educational methodologies in a wide array of disciplines from math and composition to ESL.  Put simply, and in the words of those who first coined the phrase, “Scaffolding situations are those in which the learner gets assistance or support to perform a task beyond his or her own reach if pursued independently when ‘unassisted.’”5  In the broader field of learning, such scaffolded support can range from the way in which a simple game of “peek-a-boo” teaches a toddler about the “conventions of turn taking and meaning making with words that are required of a language user,” to the way in which teachers break down large intellectual tasks into smaller projects, allowing the student to master one step before moving on to another.6 For the purposes of her book, Simon offers a concise definition of instructional scaffolding in the participatory museum setting. For Simon, scaffolding should "help people feel comfortable engaging in the [museum] activity.”7  It should direct the visitor towards a prescribed range of possible actions or responses to an exhibition or installation.  Such directives can consist of a series of focused prompts, specific questions, or even the opportunity to rate or vote on some element of the exhibition or even the museum.

Above all, Simon believes that participatory scaffolding must be designed into the museum and its exhibitions.  Here, Simon employs the broadest possible understanding of the term, design.  Indeed, by her account, “We're all designers when we think consciously about how the things we create impact the people who receive them.”8  In other words, the participatory museum is the product of a conscious, collaborative effort from all museum departments to create spaces which encourage and shape engaging and constructive visitor participation.

This collaborative ethos played a critical role in the creation of the Autry’s educational installations for its Siqueiros in Los Angeles exhibition.  Indeed, the entire exhibition project was a broad collaboration between the Autry, two outside curators (the journalist Luis Garza and art curator Lynn LaBate), as well as a host of institutions, lenders, and artists in the US and in Mexico.9  Such collaboration is not uncommon in museum work, and, equally significant, creative collaboration was an integral component in the creation of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Los Angeles murals in 1932. As LaBate makes clear in a 2010 article which complemented the opening of the Siqueiros in Los Angeles exhibition, “mural painting, as developed by the Mexican mural movement, was a collective act.”10  And so, like the artistic movement which informed and inspired the Autry’s exhibition, Autry curators, designers, and educators formed an interpretive bloc, which, through spirited discussion and impressive creativity, produced a compelling narrative about the career of David Alfaro Siqueiros, the political and social climate of 1930s Los Angeles, Siqueiros’ brief but influential sojourn in the City of Angels, and the artist’s influence on subsequent generations of Latino artists in LA.  Of greatest significance to this article, was the way in which this interpretive unit devised and implemented two vibrant and collaborative participatory installations which brought to life two central themes in the exhibition—the raucous character of political engagement in 1930s Los Angeles and the communal nature of large-scale mural painting.

Participatory Venues in the Siqueiros Exhibition
The first such installation emerged as an attempt on the part of the Autry’s content and development team to convey to the visitor the vibrant political atmosphere of the Los Angeles Plaza (the site of Siqueiros’ controversial mural, América Tropical) in the 1930s.  The Plaza was the original center of Spanish Los Angeles, a central space around which the city’s founders built the Pueblo.  But by the 1930s the Plaza was also a vibrant site of political exchange and protest where activists and labor leaders would take to their soapboxes, so to speak, and advocate and agitate on behalf of the poor and oppressed.   In initial discussions, the content team toyed around with the idea of literally putting a soapbox in the exhibition.  Such an installation might encourage the same kind of participatory engagement which had been a hallmark of the Plaza during the Great Depression.  But an unfacilitated soapbox installation would be just another version of the museum comment book.  It would encourage only the boldest of museum visitors to participate, and without any form of instructional scaffolding it would likely result in the kinds of unproductive and unpleasant forms of participation described in the first chapter of Simon’s book.

Fig. 1 La Tribuna (Soapbox) installation.  Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA. Fig. 1 La Tribuna (Soapbox) installation. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA.

What the team arrived at, instead, was a creative reinterpretation of the soapbox, as well as an extremely successful method for catalyzing political discourse between museum visitors (see fig 1).  Visitors were presented with a weekly question on a topic of contemporary social and political interest ranging from the then recently passed, controversial Arizona immigration law (SB 1070) to the desirability of using environmentally friendly light bulbs. The Autry also included three responses to each question, which might reasonably be categorized as pro, anti, and non-committal.  The responses were then placed next to three color-coded, plastic chips (green, pink, and white) with holes in the top, which allowed the visitor to hang the chips on a peg board installation in the exhibition.  At the end of the week, museum staff would take down the chips, tally them, and post the results of the previous week’s debate, as well as the upcoming week’s question and answers.

From a visual standpoint the soapbox installation turned out to be an aesthetically pleasing, interesting, and ever-changing pattern of colors.  As visitors responded to our questions, the order of pink, green, and white chips changed regularly, as did the intensity of the colors on display.  When one green chip was placed on top of another, for example, it reinforced the depth of that particular shade of green.  A green or pink chip placed over another colored chip would create a darker hue. And by contrast, when a visitor responded to our questions by placing their opaque white chip over another visitor’s colored chip, the visible color of the underlying chip lightened, making the white chip the predominant color, but revealing, as well, that other colors lay beneath the surface pattern.

But these evolving patterns of colors and their changes in intensity were not solely an aesthetic exercise. Remember, each chip represented a visitor’s opinion in response to a specific question, and so the different designs and shifting intensity of colors represented a discursive exchange in visual form between our museum visitors.  When a visitor placed a colored chip next to another colored chip it became a kind of conversation, a way of reinforcing or countering the opinion of another visitor, and perhaps of greater significance, when a visitor placed a chip on top of another chip, that act could, and on occasion did, signal an argument or altercation between our museum visitors.

This last point, the visual arguments which arose in response to some of our more controversial questions, was likely the most surprising phenomenon we encountered with the soapbox installation.  Initially it seemed as if the piece might reveal a kind of harmonious group-think between museum visitors.  Take, for example, the very first question the Autry posed:  “What do you think of Arizona’s new immigration law?’  If one merely stood back and looked at the visible row of colored chips throughout the week, it appeared that virtually all of our visitors chose the anti-law response, “It’s racist and wrong.”  But upon closer inspection of the installation, we found that not all museum visitors felt that way.  Indeed, approximately 40% of those who participated in the exchange either supported the law, choosing the prewritten response, “It’s for the best, (green chip),” or they chose the more middle of the road assertion, “Something needs to be done, but the law is flawed (white chip).”  But this significant minority opinion was buried, almost certainly on purpose, by those who opposed the law.  While it was rare to find pro or non-committal chips placed on top of chips which opposed the controversial law, anti SB 1070 chips were placed routinely on top of alternative responses, obscuring visual evidence of the actual diversity of opinion which existed in the installation.  One would often have to look four or five chips down on an individual peg before one could find a dissenting opinion.  This act visually imposed the thinking of the majority on any visitor who viewed the installation, and represented a kind of censorship of visual discourse.

Surely the Autry did not wish to encourage censorship in our participatory installations, and this was especially true of the work in our Siqueiros exhibition. After all, the very title of the exhibit, Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, indicated the curators’ celebration of the ways in which the art and ideas of David Alfaro Siqueiros ultimately triumphed over an historic instance of censorship.  Siqueiros travelled to Los Angeles in 1932 following a lengthy house arrest in the Mexican city of Taxco—a government punishment for the artist’s left wing, revolutionary activities.  Despite his communist ties, while in Los Angeles Siqueiros benefitted from the patronage of the city’s patrician, capitalist class.  Indeed, the central event around which the exhibition was built was the artist’s creation of his monumental mural América Tropical, a piece which had been commissioned by Angeleno socialite Christine Sterling.  Sterling had expected the artist to create a docile and idyllic depiction of “Tropical America.”  But Siqueiros would not fulfill his benefactor’s expectations and instead created a mural that sharply criticized US policy in Latin America.  It depicted an indigenous man crucified underneath an eagle (the symbol of American power and hegemony).  The artist’s audacious work offended the sensibilities of the city’s leaders and was soon covered in whitewash.11

Our curators argued, though, that Siqueiros’ influence could not merely be whitewashed away.  It lived on in the works of countless artists influenced by the Mexican mural movement. What is more, the opening of the Autry’s exhibition occurred just two years before the Getty Foundation completed an historic restoration of Siqueiros’ controversial mural, as well as the creation of a visitor’s center and viewing station—a project made possible through a successful partnership between the Getty and the City of Los Angeles.  Clearly the Siqueiros exhibition rejected the notion that one could silence free speech by merely hiding that speech under a wash of color.

And so the Autry’s education staff encountered an ethical dilemma.  Should we allow visitors to express their disapproval of certain opinions by covering those opinions up, or was it more important that the soapbox installation, in some way, reflect the actual diversity of visitor response to our questions?  Any solution we chose would prove problematic. If we allowed the majority opinion to literally blot out the opinion of the minority, then in some sense we would have encouraged the same kind of visual censorship encountered by Siqueiros.  By contrast if we somehow manipulated the installation to more accurately reflect the opinions of a wider array of visitors, weren’t we infringing upon the rights of the majority to express their disapproval of the minority opinion?  Wasn’t this act also a form of censorship?

Ultimately our decision was guided, somewhat unwittingly, by Nina Simon’s understanding of educational scaffolding.  As the reader will recall, Simon argued that participatory installations depend upon an educational scaffolding which "help[s] people feel comfortable engaging in the [museum] activity.”12  While we did not explicitly reference Simon in our discussions, education staff did believe that providing a comfortable, non-threatening participatory environment was an essential part of the soapbox experience. Regardless of our particular views on the political issues raised in the installation, we believed that the visual censorship imposed by some of our participants may have intimidated some of our other visitors, making them feel uncomfortable about freely expressing their opinions.  And so, rightly or wrongly, we decided to re-place (not remove) some of the chips so that they were more visible.  Throughout the week, we would monitor the accumulation and placement of chips.  When the nature of the visual discourse in the installation bordered on censorship, we would re-group the chips to reveal some of the minority opinion chips and thereby make clear to our visitors that the soapbox installation tolerated a variety of social and political views.

The Autry’s Soapbox installation catalyzed a thoughtful and provocative participatory exchange, one which possessed all the hallmarks of civil discourse and of the participatory museum.  Museum visitors responded to a shared set of questions.  Through visual methods unique to the installation they engaged in a kind of discussion and even debate about the central questions of the day.  Autry staff’s ability to reposition chips allowed all parties in the debate to be seen (and therefore heard).   And the scaffolding provided by the Autry, our predetermined answers to these provocative questions, provided a pathway for a fairly civil exchange on topics which can often generate tremendous animosity.  Indeed, had we created a less structured activity, one in which visitors were given a freer rein to express their opinions on these issues, the installation likely would have devolved into a forum which favored the loudest, angriest, and most shocking of posts, not unlike posts found in a standard comment book or, worse, the obnoxious proclamations of today’s political pundit class.

And yet, despite our recognition of, and appreciation for, the role of scaffolding in participatory installations, the Autry’s other participatory element for the Siqueiros exhibition possessed far less obvious structure than the Soapbox.  Its purpose was to reinforce for the visitor the collaborative nature of Siqueiros’ Bloc of Artists. Siqueiros established the Bloc when he was denied the use of an interior wall to teach mural painting at LA’s Chouinard Art Institute.  Faced with the challenge of painting outside in an urban setting and extremely dry climate, Siqueiros brought together his students, accomplished artists, and even an architect to collaborate on the creation and rapid completion of his murals.13  In a nod to this collaborative spirit, the Autry created a “community mural.”  We installed a large canvas in our entryway, which we occasionally “seeded” with work from talented, professional graffiti artists, but on the whole the purpose of the installation was to encourage our visitors to leave their mark on the mural.

Fig. 2 The Community Mural on opening day. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA. Fig. 2 The Community Mural on opening day. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA.

In a very real sense, the community mural threatened to become an unstructured and incongruous activity that flew in the face of all sound participatory design principles.  Initially it was nothing more than a blank canvas with a sign encouraging visitors to participate in the project (see fig. 2).  Following its first weekend, before we had time for our artists to seed the installation, the canvas looked very much like a free form comment book.  Confronted by a vast expanse of white canvas, our visitors demonstrated little interest in collaborating with each other to create an aesthetically pleasing image.  One of the more surprising developments to arise from our first weekend was the sheer amount of text that appeared on the mural.  Rather than creating pictures, designs, color patterns, or other non-textual images, a large number of our initial participants at the community mural wrote words, phrases, their initials, and other brief bursts of text.  Likely the very public nature of writing on the mural, which was only possible when facilitated by museum staff, militated against the most obnoxious forms of personal expression.

Fig. 3 Artist roadways surrounded by visitor content in the community mural. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA. Fig. 3 Artist roadways surrounded by visitor content in the community mural. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA.

As the Director of Education, the department responsible for both participatory installations in the Siqueiros exhibition, I was deeply concerned about the development of the community mural.  By the end of the first weekend of the exhibition I feared that the canvas would soon fill up with empty, meaningless, and possibly profane text, and that it would happen so quickly that we would be forced to purchase more large canvases throughout the run of the show—an expense that none of us had anticipated or budgeted for.  But my fears were allayed the following week as our contracted graffiti artists added some scaffolding to the installation.  As the artists added a city skyline and other forms of landscape onto the canvas, their works provided our visitors a structure to build on and enhance.  Distant towers were soon surrounded by visitor generated trees, and where the artists had created inaccessible hills, our visitors created roads and highways.  To be clear, the level of freedom granted to visitors in the community mural led to a freer, more abstract response.  Representative elements were, in fact, covered in a wash of colors, banal text and abstract squiggles.   Nevertheless, the scaffolding created by our artists provided some participatory unity to the piece (see fig. 3).

Ironically, as with the Soapbox installation, even this looser, less structured participatory experience resulted in a visitor generated outburst of censorship.  A few weeks into the exhibition, one of our hired artists painted a naked woman on the community mural canvas.  A few Autry staffers were somewhat concerned about the painting because so many of our participants were young children, and we feared we would get complaints from parents and teachers. Still, our interest in allowing free artistic expression meant that we were not particularly inclined to ask the artist to make any alterations to the painting.  We allowed the community mural to evolve, and over time our visitors altered the image, at first covering the figure in a kind of stylized underwear (sadly no images exist of this particular moment in the life of the mural) and later clothing her in a white tee-shirt and black pants.  (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4  Artist created woman clothed by museum visitors.  Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA Fig. 4 Artist created woman clothed by museum visitors. Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA

The censorial impulse of the participants at our community mural installation again make clear the ways in which the participatory museum can encourage a visual discourse between the museum and its visitors, as well as between the visitors themselves.  By clothing the naked woman in the mural, a few visitors made clear to the artists and the Autry what they believed to be acceptable imagery in a very public part of the museum.  The first visitor to alter the image, the one who clothed the figure in a stylized bra and panties, in some sense argued that nudity was not particularly appropriate for the space, while the person (or people) who created the tee-shirt and pants seemed to say that the figure should be more modestly clothed.  Even if I am completely wrong in my assumptions, even if our visitors clothed the image just for the heck of it, they were still engaged in a discursive exchange about what they would like to see in our community mural.  To be sure, the mural did not engage in the same kinds of direct and provocative questions put forth in the Soapbox installation.  Still, I believe that by asking our visitors to contribute to the creation of a public work of art we compelled them to consider a range of questions such as: “What is art?”  “What do I want to say?”  How can I contribute to the existing images?”

In responding to these questions our visitors engaged in a visually compelling discursive exchange, one which grew richer, more vibrant, and colorful as the days and weeks of the exhibition went on.  While initially I believed that once the canvas filled with paint, I would have to purchase new canvases, over time I decided not to buy additional canvases.  I came to see that the community mural was a continually evolving work of art, which expressed the thoughts and feelings of a wide range of participants.  Their contributions to this art and discourse became an artifact of a particular moment in the museum’s history and an exciting testimony to the promise and excitement of the participatory museum.

Before I conclude my assessment of these two participatory installations, I should briefly acknowledge a certain gap in our understanding of this project.  Specifically, I have no data to indicate how these installations were received by our visiting public, save of course their engagement with the actual participatory elements.  Reduced budgets and a general cultural and professional shift at the Autry reduced or eliminated most evaluative processes at the museum for some time.  To be clear, recently we have revived audience evaluations as a critical element in the formation and summation of our work, but put simply we did not evaluate audience perception of the Siqueiros exhibition or its educational installations.  And so while it is clear that our soapbox installation prompted a non-textual, discursive exchange, we have no way of knowing if our visitors made the connection between that exchange and its interpretive goal, namely to give some sense of the political climate of the LA Plaza in the 1930s.  And while the vast amount of ink and paint on our mural makes clear that countless visitors collaborated on our community mural project, it is not clear if visitors connected that endeavor with Siqueiros’ creation of the artists’ bloc.  Indeed, since visitors could participate in the mural project without even entering the museum, we do not know how many of those participants viewed the Siqueiros installation at all.

Having said that, I think it is entirely reasonable to say that our education installations succeeded as participatory spaces and sites of communal discourse.  And it was their success as discursive installations which prompted me to write this article. If, as David Hollinger asserts, questions are the central catalysts of discourse, and if, as the professional adage suggests, museums are important sites to pose questions, then clearly museums can and should become central sites of publically engaged and engaging discourse. As I have argued above, though, the museum’s success as a discursive institution relies heavily on its ability not just to pose challenging questions, but also on its skill at successfully designing interactive components which allow visitors to answer those questions.

The participatory installations in the Autry’s Siqueiros in Los Angeles exhibition offer a case study, a set of possibilities for how museums might pose questions and accommodate answers in the museum setting.  Central to our work was a loose adherence to a vision of participation clearly articulated in the important work of Nina Simon and other thinkers and professionals in the museum field.  Their thoughts and prescriptions have prompted some on the Autry staff (or at the very least, me) to reduce our reliance on textual and verbal discursive exchange and to instead encourage intellectual engagement that involves a broader set of visual cues.  When properly scaffolded, such visual discourse creates a civic space that allows visitors to address a wide range of provocative questions without the vitriol that so often plagues our public life.   And so the educational components in our Siqueiros exhibition quite literally made the museum a safe place to ask and answer unsafe questions, and our success in achieving that end points to the great promise of visual discourse in the participatory museum.   As we move forward with our work at the Autry, the memory of our success on this particular project will continue to inform the way we think about and design our participatory spaces.


1  Brad Larson authors, TechMuse Blog, Linda Treadwell’s blog is The Uncatalogued Museum, and Simon’s blog is Museum 2.0.  Also see: Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010).
2 David Hollinger, “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals,” The American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 131-132.
3 Nina Simon, Chapter 1, The Participatory Museum, accessed 23 August 2012.
4 Nina Simon, Chapter 1, The Participatory Museum, accessed 24 August 2012.
5 Wood, et.al., “The role of tutoring in problem solving,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89-100, quoted in Roy D. Pea, “The Social and Technological Dimensions of Scaffolding and Related Theoretical Concepts for Learning, Education, and Human Activity,” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 3, Scaffolding (2004), 425.
6 Roy D. Pea, “The Social and Technological Dimensions of Scaffolding;” Beth Kemp Benson, “Coming to Terms: Scaffolding,” The English Journal, Vol. 86, no. 7, Interdisciplinary English, (Nov., 1997), 126-127.
7 Nina Simon, Chapter 1, The Participatory Museum, accessed 28 August 2012.
8 Nina Simon, “E-mail to Author,” 28 August, 2012.
9 For more on the collaborative relationships which helped make Siqueiros in Los Angeles a reality see: Jonathan Spaulding, “In The Heart of El Pueblo,” Convergence, (Fall 2010), 6-7.
10 Lynn LaBate, “David Alfaro Siqueiros and the Chicano Mural Movement in Los Angeles,” Convergence, (Fall 2010), 26.
11 Irene Herner, “What Art Could Be: A Revolutionary Struggle, From Pistol to Palette,” Convergence, (Fall 2010), 21-22.
12 Supra, see note 6.
13 Irene Herner, “What Art Could Be,” 17.