What makes an object participatory?

If my goal is to improve the relationship between a traumatized child and stressed caretaker, I need to consider how social objects work. In the Japanese tea ritual, the host often places a single object of floral arrangement on the table for contemplation. That becomes a focus of meditation or a start of conversation. I’m looking for a kind of translation of that between a distressed parent and traumatized child, something that by itself is inviting so you don’t have to have the ritual for the idea to work. The ritual makes itself.

According to Nina Simon, a social object is one that connects the people who create, own, use, critique, or consume it. Social objects are transactional, facilitating exchanges among those who encounter them. For example, one of my most reliable social objects is my dog. When I walk around town with my dog, lots of people talk to me, or, more precisely, talk through the dog to me. The dog allows for transference of attention from person-to-person to person-to-object-to-person. It’s much less threatening to engage someone by approaching and interacting with her dog, which will inevitably lead to interaction with its owner. Unsurprisingly, enterprising dog owners looking for dates often use their dogs as social instigators, steering their pups towards attractive people they’d like to meet.

Whether in the real world or the virtual, social objects have a few common qualities. Most social objects are:

1. Personal
2. Active
3. Provocative
4. Relational

Activating social objects in museums is a function of asking the right, open-ended questions and inviting participation. Displayed comment cards asking visitors to make sense of an exhibit invite other comments. Actors interacting with an exhibit encourage others to photograph themselves engaging in the exhibit. The key is providing the right context and prompt to push people in the right direction.

A toy must first relate to a child’s personal experience. Its form must be close enough to some familiar and favorable construct (such as a favored animal) that the child bridges that gap with imagination. Making the toy personalizable through clothing, snap on elements, or physical manipulation (such as flipping a stuffed animal inside out) can facilitate new narratives. A toy that is active must change as the child rewrites his narrative. A toy that is provocative captures initial interest and maintains it by adapting to the child’s moods. Finally, a toy that is relational encourages that child-to-guardian interaction by telling the parent when and in what capacity to engage in dialogue or play with the child.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0, 2010. Print.

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