One of the hidden gems in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. (which is itself a largely hidden gem) is the Lego exhibit on the second floor. The room includes a bunch of stunning off-the-shelf Lego models of many of the most recognizable skyscrapers around the world as well as an adjacent “free-play” space filled with tables and Legos and dominated by an invitation to build.
Alex Gilliam posted on the BMW Guggenheim Lab blog last week about noticing that the Lego creations assembled by museum visitors (many of whom are kids) are often dominated by a specific type of building or pattern. On one day Lego skyscrapers filled the room, while on another day it might be houses. This lack of diversity seemed to happen despite the staff systematically disassembling everything at the end of every day. Every morning the room offered a clean slate, yet some design approach took hold and then persisted throughout the day.
On one occasion, departing from the usual practice, the staff left a structure – a large pyramid – intact overnight. The next day, the room was filled with pyramids. Alex writes about placing strange structures in different locations around the room at the end of the day and seeing the same dynamic unfold in the morning, the initial creations serving as points of departure for many of the visitors during the day.
The dynamic is really important for designing civic participation processes, a point which Alex explores as well. People participating in a process of some kind, whether formalized like a community planning effort or informal like the National Building Museum’s free-play area, respond to, are inspired by, and perhaps are even limited by what they see around them.
Alex suggests that nearby examples serve as “scaffolding” for subsequent participants (a metaphor that gets used elsewhere in the museum exhibit design world, as well, such as in Nina Simon’s NODEM 2010 talk), but that doesn’t sound quite right to me. The best we’ve come up with so far is to think of mashups or remixes … those initial expressions become elements that subsequent participants build on, riff off of, react to, or in some other incorporate through their own lens, often mashing them up with other ideas or models they might have on their mind.
The mashup metaphor isn’t entirely satisfying, either, but regardless of the metaphor the implication for architecting participatory processes is substantial: the questions you ask, the tools you provide, and the examples you offer can all have a profound impact on the scope of the participants’ imagination and creativity.
Scaffolding is important: as Nina Simon explained in describing a Denver Art Museum project inviting visitors to draw their own versions of the psychedelic posters they had just seen in an exhibit, if the invitation was limited to art supplies, the people most likely to participate would be those confident in their artistic abilities. By providing tracing paper and prints of some of the posters in the exhibit, they offered visitors a tangible starting point, dramatically reducing the barriers to participating.
But the scaffolding, prototypes, and models can also deeply constrain the universe of ideas as well.