What Do Heritage Professionals Want? Thoughts on the First meSch Co-Design Workshop

Co-design workshops will help shape the products and tools that are being developed as part of the meSch project. Through these workshops the end-users of the meSch toolkit, be they heritage professionals or visitors, are given an opportunity to take part in the design process, creating a product that truly meets the user’s needs. From June 5th till 7th the first meSch co-design workshop took place in Amsterdam and The Hague (the Netherlands). Marloes Scholtens from DEN already gave a general overview of the workshop in an earlier blog post. In this post Merel van der Vaart, PhD researcher with the University of Amsterdam and the Allard Pierson Museum, will reflect on the workshop from a heritage professional’s perspective.

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Post-it brainstorming exercise on day 2.

Representing The Field

As a museum professional and researcher I am aware with the huge variety that exists in the museum and heritage field. Maybe that is why it felt rather daunting to be representing the Heritage field during the first meSch co-design workshop. I do not have a traditional curatorial background, have done research on co-creation in museums and am a fan of Nina Simon’s work. I have even run co-creative projects  myself in the past (such as this one) and knew that my knowledge and experience of co-creative practices would influence my opinion and behaviour during the meSch workshop. Was I really the right person to be representing the heritage field? A more traditional curator would certainly not always agree with me. Of course I wasn’t the only museum professional in the room and I think everybody was well aware that the staff members that were present from Museum della Guerra, Museon and Allard Pierson Museum couldn’t possibly represent all heritage. Nonetheless, it was obvious that our opinions and ideas were valued and this was just the beginning of a rich co-design programme.

As the workshop progressed the atmosphere changed from being rather show-and-tell (this is our museum, these are the prototypes we’ve been working on) to one that was more collaborative. Giving everybody the opportunity to show the rest of the team what they had been working on after the kick-off meeting in February was a really good move from the organisers. It gave the different team members the opportunity to showcase their expertise and having seen the prototypes and the museums it gave the brainstorming session real direction, without blocking the possibility of coming up with new ideas. On the second day small project teams were formed that worked together for the rest of the workshop. Each team consisted of at least one representative of the fields of heritage, design and technology, which I believe really benefited the quality of the improved prototypes that were presented on the final day. It also helped me, and I hope the others too, to better understand these three different roles within the project and to assess how they fitted together.

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Further developing the prototypes on day 3.

Being a Partner and a User Rolled into One

As the workshop progressed my initial worry about having to represent the heritage field in all its many shapes and sizes disappeared. I simply shared the experience and thoughts I had, based on my professional museum knowledge and I felt privileged to be able to be part of the design process. What proved to be more of a challenge was the fact that, in a sense, we were both project partner and end-user at the same time. It was crucial we were critical of, or at least neutral towards, the meSch project and the prototypes that had been developed, even though we were all involved in the project ourselves. I was surprised, however, how useful this co-design ‘among friends’ still proved to be. It also made me aware of how special my field of work is. It was great sharing in the delight of some of the project partners, visiting museum stores for the first time in their lives and to see their reaction to the vast amount of objects, from stuffed animals to tribal masks, we encountered behind the scenes at the Museon.

Visiting the museum storage space at Museon

Visiting the museum storage space at Museon

Engaging our Peers

The first co-design workshop, and thoughts of future workshops with exhibition developers and curators who are not related to the meSch project, made me curious about the breadth of curatorial practice that exists within museums. I am also keen to find out more about the way New Media have already influenced the way museums work. How do museums develop their temporary exhibitions? Would they use a tool designed to easily update their permanent galleries? What are the (varying) needs that exist in the field? Who decides when and where New Media might be implemented in exhibits or exhibitions? These are questions I am hoping to answer. Over the next few months I am planning to carry out some qualitative research in this field, connecting with peers in other Dutch museums and hopefully inviting them to join us for a future co-design workshop.

More Information

To read more about co-designing in the meSch project and the first co-design workshop, see the earlier blog post about the workshop in Amsterdam and the Hague.