Presence, Experience, Exchange: Thinking beyond ‘visitor generated content’ at Wellcome Collection

By Danny Birchall

Wellcome Collection

During the last three years, London’s Wellcome Collection has invited visitors’ contributions as part of both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Visitors have been asked to recall their experiences of taking drugs, and of the death of loved ones; they have been contributing strange and unusual objects to a temporary artist’s collection; their drawings form an ever-changing wall in a permanent gallery; and their memories and experiences have been selected and illustrated by professional illustrators. These contributions have been solicited and managed not through high-tech custom builds but with widely-available applications interfaces such as Flickr and the Flickr API, and social media platforms familiar to our audiences.

This paper will look at these various uses of visitor-generated content not as individual case studies, but as part of an ongoing attempt to involve visitors in the themes and subjects of our exhibitions. It will attempt to draw out three new understandings from our experiences of dealing with material created by visitors and users:

The effects of visitor presence in an exhibition: how contributions made by visitors who have visited an exhibition in person may vary in quality and quantity compared to contributions made by those who visit online.

The role of personal experience in responding to exhibitions: how visitors’ own lives may make more sense of an exhibition than opinion or comment.

How the process of exchange, turning stories into illustrations, transforms the value of content generated by visitors and re-presents it to the museum’s audience.

The implications of these approaches, that ‘visitor-generated content’ is not a substance to be gathered, but part of a larger flow between visitors and museum and beyond, will be explored, alongside how visitor-generated content manifests itself (or doesn’t) between Wellcome Collection’s gallery and online presences.

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