I just returned from the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) annual conference in Houston. This year’s theme was “Theory, Practice & Conversations,” and the conference was structured for attendee participation—the opening plenary was pitched as potentially “one of the best opening sessions ever, as the speaker is . . . YOU!”
What made the conference such a success this year—and judging from all the wonderful comments I’ve received, I am convinced it was a success—is that the conference organizers focused on drawing out and featuring participant artistic creativity and expression. Not just talk-backs and graffiti boards for attendees to respond to and comment on the conference, but activities and times where attendees could BE CREATIVE—through poetry, art-making, and even interpretive dance (yes, interpretive dance, which might sound silly, but was actually very energizing).
Throughout the course of the conference, I was struck by a sense that conference attendees were behaving a bit differently. They were more animated, they seemed to be interacting with each other more openly, and the conversations seemed to be more about possibilities than problems. Of course (and ironically, given that this was a Visitor Studies Conference) I have no data to back this up, and I am biased to the extreme. But I kept drawing parallels to visitors in our museums and exhibitions.
The presence of opportunities for visitor artistic creation undoubtedly changes the ways they experience the rest of the museum. In addition to asking visitors to respond to our creative work, how can we create situations where visitors do the creating? I have long been a proponent of visitor co-design, and am interested in pushing that idea a bit, to consider exhibits where visitors have been given the creative control in MAKING the experience. Do any of you have examples to share with us?