Being Part

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Being Part

Being Part Reflections on the Participatory Museum Luisa Hilmer Iria Suárez Martínez Lisa Rotzinger


The Project This booklet is the result of a short project which we, three V&A/RCA MA students of the History of Design Programme in London, conducted at the Design Museum Gent. Through a visit with our tutors and fellow students, we were introduced to the institution and its core team. Consequently, Evelien Bracke, Head of Programmation at the Design Museum Gent, gave us the opportunity to spend one week in October 2018 in Gent to research aspects of a new wing, an expansion of the current Museum. Participatory Design One of the main objectives regarding the new wing is to use participatory processes to create an open space that allows for public engagement. Participatory Design is an approach whereby various stakeholders are involved in the decision making during a design process. Users are directly involved in the team of experts as they help identify shortcomings of design solutions, thus, contributing to the project and playing an active role in the decision-making process. There is a considerable difference between consulting or engaging participants, whereas the latter being more likely to lead to a successful project. A key element to starting a Participatory Design project is the initial driving force. The diagram on the right shows the relationship between the Museum, the design team and the visitors. Our Approach The focus of our visit and workshop in Gent was to critically reflect on participatory methods used in the planning of the Design Museum’s new wing. The primary goal was to generate more data points for the architectural brief of the project. First, we wanted to concentrate on internal voices to enrich the existing map of needs and wishes of people working with the Museum, and prospectively within the new wing. Therefore, we conducted interviews with different departments of the Museum to collect opinions and visions

about the plan of a new building. Second, we got the chance to observe children as one target audience of the Museum who attended a workshop led by researchers from the University of Leuven. As an external case study, it gave insight into the perception of young museum visitors and their visions of aspects a museum’s space should entail. This booklet shows the results of our workshop in Gent and wants to encourage further discussion about the new wing addressing people actively involved in the process of creating the participatory Design Museum Gent.


Design Team


Internal Voices

The Design Museum Gent is an organisation linked to the city of Gent. The different departments that constitute the Museum are: Communication, Education, Management, Production and Programmation.


The Design Museum Gent holds more than 23.000 objects overseen by Annelies De Mey, Head of Collection Department, and team. The team is responsible for restoration, registration, storage management, conservation, coordination of acquisitions, as well as maintaining the library. In addition, much time is currently spent in relocating all objects not on display to a new storage facility. In general, Annelies considers the collaboration with curation and production to be very important, since her team takes on the supervision of commissioning objects, assists with installing exhibitions, writing the conditions reports and checks, cleaning the objects, etc. For the new wing, Annelies sees several great potentials regarding her team’s work. She hopes that the wing will help her provide good conditions for the objects through controlling environmental factors, such as light, humidity and temperature. Furthermore, the infrastructure should be given for safely handling objects during building and dismantling exhibitions. Annelies considers the new wing a great chance to show a much wider range of objects, and most importantly the myriad of data points associated with them. Currently, Annelies and team are working on enriching the existing database to provide multi-faceted data shown on the Museum’s website (for now on, and ultimately in the new wing. Existing basic data points include information about each object, such as measurements, material, sensory experience, and visual documentation. Now, the plan is to add rich contextual data, such as objects’ biographies and potentially their environment. With this as a foundation, Annelies emphasises that the wing will enable to go between: ‘I hope that the technology will be there to show the collection in a more interactive way. I think it is to show the rich relations of our collection and the data. Go between is a good attribute for the new wing.’

Another essential part of the Collection Department is Research, which currently consists of one researcher Eva Van Regenmortel. Besides working with the Curation Department for selecting and researching objects for exhibitions or coordinating acquisitions, Eva’s goal is to encourage other researchers, academics, students, to work with the collection. In order to provide the infrastructure to allow for such collaboration, Eva works with her colleague Annelies De Mey, Head of Collection, on digitising the collection. The rhythm of this digitisation process is connected to an effort, currently undertaken by the Design Museum Gent, to value their collection. Over the course of the next five years, the team will research the different sub-collections in order to obtain a better overview of the collection, a better understanding of its history, its strengths and weaknesses and, along the way, a framework of priorities for future research and conservation work. In Eva’s opinion, this investigation and digitisation of the collection is the main touch point where research meets the new wing. An optimized database enriched through research could provide the data that is crucial in order to offer new experiences where the context of designed objects and their historical environment of production or use could be made visible. In this light, she is also interested in immaterial design processes and new intangible forms of design. Eva also hopes that the new wing will foster the exchange with a wider variety of audiences that could give opinions about what they want to see and know, and help open up new areas of exploration. ‘The crowdsourcing aspect is also dear to me. I am not sure how it is going to look like, but it would be valuable if we could ask many different people to leave what they know about objects or tell stories about them.’


The Communication Department at the Design Museum Gent is a group of three people, Corinne Troop, Simon Adriensen and Anthony De Meyere. Their work is often aligned with exhibitions, for which they develop strategies for communication, press, social media, etc. The team’s social media platform includes the Museum’s website, Facebook, Instagram and a newsletter; their physical outputs consists of flyers and booklets, which are distributed in the Museum, but also reach other institutions in Gent, Flanders, Northern France and the Netherlands. In general, the target group consists of national and international audiences requiring the team to provide their outputs in multiple languages. For the new wing, the team is excited for a visually stunning space attracting attention, which will then be accompanied by a new communication strategy and brand identity developed by them. In this light, the team is also looking forward to a transparent, easily accessible space with no entry fee that will complement the efforts of the communication team to draw people into the Museum. Another important change triggered by a new wing that will impact the communication team’s work is related to the faster speed and higher frequency of new exhibitions and events. The team will have to differentiate between faster campaigns for the wing and deeper, slower campaigns for the existing parts of the Museum. The team also sees the need to be more active in the events market to support the higher number of small and big events that will need equal communication. In general, the team anticipates a need for communication to a wider spectrum of target audiences through the additional wing, such as universities and students. They hope that this aspect of their work will be informed by data gathered in the new wing, such as information about visitors’ profiles and behaviour.


Bernadette De Loose is Head of Education Department, who works with two other colleagues on the organisation of learning activities, such as guided tours, workshops, family activities and lectures. The department functions as the mediator between objects presented in the exhibition space and the audience, creating and delivering educational content through different activities; generally to children, young people, families, adults and members of cultural organisations. Inspiring curiosity, the new wing will be an additional teaching tool where visitors can discover, more independently and autonomously, what design is and what design means. Moreover, it will provide the opportunity to involve the public and the community and invite them to interact with the different aspects of design taking place in the Museum. In Bernadette’s opinion, there should be a difference between ‘taking part’ and ‘being part’. She considers ‘being part’ more valuable, since it involves the whole community experiencing design for themselves, and actively participating in creating a new space for the Museum. Bernadette hopes that the new space will accommodate the needs of a wider range of user groups, including children and young people. Thereby, the building created for different audiences will host capacious, flexible and well-equipped learning spaces. Lighting, storage, and facilities, lunch rooms, toilets and lockers, for instance, are essential. Ultimately, the new wing should be a place that allows for learning, exploring and participating in design.


Katrien Laporte is the Director of the Design Museum Gent since 2014, and her job is to conceptualise the strategy of the Museum. The concept is to not only create exhibitions about the aesthetics of design but to include societal issues. Another primary task during the last years was to improve the conservation of the collection. Because of the eclectic collection, they decided to focus on a specific strand, namely Belgian Design, and only acquire international pieces if they relate to it or when key pieces. As director, Katrien is also the leading project manager for planning the new wing. Her responsibility is to make sure that the Museum is following the cultural heritage plan. Katrien thinks that they have to strengthen the programmation team, for instance, to support more lectures and activities opening up the new space for third parties. This aspect is also important for the education department because their work is always connected to external partners. Katrien believes that her team needs to think more about target groups, co-creating a new space for the city and the multicultural community: ‘We have to make ourselves necessary.’ The asset of the Museum should be a conglomeration of the past, present and future attract visitors that are predominantly tourists. ‘The upper floor of the new wing should be a public space, a kind of penthouse of the population.’ It should be a space for the community, a ‘Community Sense Making Museum’ that is less about technology but about people. Moreover, the new wing, according to Katrien, has to be an open building: ‘The facade needs to be flexible and modular, a participatory project.’ Furthermore, the building needs to be easily accessible, infused with technology introducing the Museum. They want to follow the trend of the so-called ‘Museum 3.0’, where the museum does not contain all the knowledge but is hosting the knowledge as a ‘landmark of content’.

Bregt Depreeuw is the Business Manager of the Museum. Working very closely with Katrien, the director, he deals with everything that is related with budgeting and funding. Besides, he deals with general administrative tasks and supervises and supports the financial needs of other departments. For the new wing, together with the Communication Department, Bregt is developing a fundraising plan, which is a capital campaign that focuses on finding financial partners and building a network of individuals and corporations around the new wing. This could be a first step towards a broader philanthropic support for the Museum. Building relationships with external partners, the new wing will be free entry and will operate as a separate entity. It will serve as a profitable platform where retail spaces, such as the cafe and the bookshop, as well as other audience-centric events, such as talks, workshops, courses and short-term projects, will come together. The ultimate aim of the financial strategy is to generate different business-to-business and commercial opportunities through the new space. Bregt hopes that the new wing will provide diverse spaces with the right atmosphere for business-to-business interactions that are not just for generating income but for building a network. For Bregt, the new wing should also foster technology to empower the institution with data about visitors’ experiences. This data should help the Museum to understand different audiences better, and ultimately to have a positive financial impact on the sustainability of the organisation.


Giel Vandecaveye is Head of Production. He is the mediator between the concept and the end state, organising and making things happen. Giel ‘translates an artistic idea into a reality, a feasible project’. Being in informal contact with Evelien, the Head of Programmation, he and his team, consisting of six people with different skill sets, implement projects. For the new wing, the Museum will modify and expand the team to respond to more complex dynamics in the new space. Giel thinks that there will be a variety of upcoming projects involving exhibitions, small-scale interventions, lectures, occasional events, etc. Therefore, technical support would include new kinds of presentation modes, such as projections or sound installations. Giel’s aim is to keep the new space very simple by reusing and recycling material they already have. Furthermore, he emphasises that participation is a very optimistic concept because it is very hard to mobilise and engage minorities to come to the Museum. For Giel, participation is activating people that are more passive in the Museum; participation is ‘keeping the door open’. Giel sees further opportunities but also challenges in regards to a participatory approach for the Museum. For example, he is convinced that, instead of creating a new cafe, the Museum should use the existing infrastructure of the city, and rather free up space for other local partners, such as the adjacent youth centre. Moreover, the ideal architecture of the new wing, in Giel’s opinion, would be a non-finished building, a bare shell. For instance, the site could be constructed without ceilings and with centralised cables to allow for quick transformations. This ‘open house’ with a ground floor on street level, should invite as many people as possible eliminating the feeling of intimidation. Giel hopes that the new building won’t be like an ivory tower excluding minorities, but like a gathering place strengthening the role of the Museum in the social sphere.


Evelien Bracke is the Curator of the Design Museum Gent. Primarily, she is responsible for the programmation of the institution, but she interacts regularly with the rest of the departments in order to coordinate the different artistic aspects of the exhibitions. As a highly active site of cultural production, the new wing will be under a different programming scheme with faster and smaller projects related to design and design processes. Evelien wants to stimulate and experiment with people’s ‘feelings of curiosity, make them feel like they really want to know what design is’. Moreover, the new wing will be a facilitator which encourages public engagement and serves as a platform for the production of social spaces. Offering the audience the possibility to participate within the institution, the space will provide different discursive formats which will actively involve the public, emphasising the inclusive relationship between the Museum and the community of Gent. Embodying the concept of what design means, modularity and potentiality are two of the key assets that the building of the new wing should epitomize; a space with a modular system, whose elements could be configured to facilitate all sorts of different activities. At the same time, the building should possess the potential to become something new and to be explored and developed by experimenting with design, designers and the public.

External Voices

Museum of the Future, Drawing 1

Besides wishes and needs of internal Museum’s staff, the voices of visitors are crucial to the design process of the Design Museum’s new wing. A good example is a recent project with external participants that were invited by the museum’s Head of Education, Bernadette de Loose, to engage with the Museum. Led by a group of researchers in relation to project RETINA (RE-thinking Technical INterventions to advance visual literacy of young people in Art museums), a workshop took place during our stay at the Design Museum Gent. With the aim to develop digital strategies in cultural institutions, the researchers organised activities with one of the youngest target audiences of the Museum, between ten- and fourteen-yearolds. Reflecting about museums, these two drawings are examples of the different responses from the children to the brief: envision the ‘Museum of the Future’. The kids had to imagine and visualise what they want to experience in a prospective museum space. We believe that the engagement with children’s voices in the development of the new wing will enhance the project, sparkle innovative ideas, as well as exemplify participation of a pivotal audience of the Museum.

Museum of the Future, Drawing 2


The two sections of this booklet show two different kinds of voices that we believe are valuable sources of information for planning the new wing of the Design Museum Gent. On the one hand, we were interested in how thoughts and ideas of the Museum’s staff, what we called internal voices, are captured. We hope our research can aid this process. On the other hand, we saw the need to highlight relevant external participants, which are already engaged by the Museum for different purposes. Inviting them to participate in the planning of the new wing, we think, would be a great opportunity. However, our booklet only scratches the surface. Much more valuable work can be done to define who will be involved in the participatory process, what their wishes and needs are, and how their visions could be incorporated during and after the building process. While listening to the different internal and external voices, it became clear that the Museum is reflecting on and experimenting with participatory design, and architectural processes more generally. This is evident in their desire to define these concepts for themselves, and a genuine interest in inviting wider audiences and communities. As mentioned by the Museum’s staff, the new wing should make people curious. It should provide a platform where social spaces can emerge, where a new community of museum visitors can come together, and experiment with what design and the design museum means to them.

Being Part: Reflections on the Participatory Museum Luisa Hilmer Iria Suárez Martínez Lisa Rotzinger Collaboration between: V&A/RCA MA History of Design and the Design Museum Gent 2018

This project was made possible by the support of the V&A/RCA History of Design Programme. Our special thanks are extended to Dr Sarah Teasley and Dr James Ryan, Heads of Programme, who encouraged us in using the opportunity to collaborate with the Design Museum Gent. In addition, we want to thank Dr Helen Charman and Sarah Campbell from the Victoria and Albert Museum for providing background information about visitors’ engagement in regards to the V&A Learning Programmes and Dr Chiara Barbieri who guided us through the funding applications for the project. Funding was provided by the Royal College of Art. Furthermore, we really appreciated the generosity of the researchers from the University of Leuven, Priscilla Van Even and Dr Lode Vermeersch, for sharing their outcomes such as the children’s drawings with us. We would also like to thank the staff of the Design Museum Gent for their hospitality; in particular Evelien Bracke who was the main supporter of this project.

Collaboration between V&A/RCA MA History of Design and the Design Museum Gent 2018