Participatory Museums as Peacebuilders: The Case of Rodadora in Ciudad Juárez

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by Isabel Diez

How do you design a museum that seeks to sustain peace in a city once described as the most dangerous place in the world? When Sietecolores was entrusted such a task, the only answer we found was to involve the community throughout the entire development processand beyond.

From 2008 to 2012, Ciudad Juárez was considered the most dangerous place, not only in Mexico, but the world. This home to 1.3 million people was consumed with violence and crime, resulting in a huge social crisis that rapidly hit rock bottom. When local leaders came together to create an action plan for rescuing the city, a museum quickly became part of the conversation.

The idea of creating a permanent interactive learning space had been in the mind of locals since 2004, when the city of Chihuahua, near Juárez, hosted Papalote Móvil, a traveling museum created by Papalote Museo del Niño, with huge success. In 2009, a group of business leaders approached Sietecolores—our team of museum developers, initially created within Papalote—to design a space where children and their families could learn and heal. Because the museum would be key for sustaining peace in the soon-to-be transformed city, placing the project in the scope of peace education, which seeks nonviolent resolution of conflict and the transformation of social structures that perpetuate any type of injustice, was important.

Celebra La VidaDespite the evident complexities of the situation, Sietecolores was up for the titanic challenge. Where to begin, though? We knew that peace cannot be externally enforced—at least not if we wanted long-lasting results—but can only be achieved from within. With this in mind, we were guided by the idea of participatory museums. Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, defines these institutions as places “where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Visitors actively construct meaning, curate content, share ideas, and discuss issues. In consequence, our team introduced strategies for including Juárez’s citizens in the design process, such as holding interviews and focus groups, visiting indigenous communities, and inviting local artists, from potters and weavers to comic-book creators, to participate in specific projects.

In 2013, Rodadora Espacio Interactivo opened with the motto: “Celebra la vida” (“Celebrate life”). Its key role in the peacebuilding efforts of Juárez has been undeniable, proven by its sustained growth and success throughout its four years in operation. So, what exactly makes a peacebuilding, participatory museum tick? Sietecolores has identified three fundamentals to the culture and work of Rodadora:

  1. The community at the center

Putting the community at the center means listening to diverse perspectives, intentionally seeking participation of all groups, and giving voice to those who have been excluded—something essential for battling structural violence. But, when fear has taken over people for a long period of time, many important topics remain unspoken or become taboo. Museums can find creative mechanisms for visitors to feel safe enough to end that silence.

Alebrije_Rodadora.jpg
The alebrije sculpture at Rodadora

At Rodadora, one such strategy is the popular “nightmare-eating monster,” a giant alebrije—that is, a colorful Mexican folk art sculpture of an imaginary creature. Children and caregivers write down their worst nightmares, which disappear by “feeding” them to the monster. Sietecolores adapted this idea from Papalote, but Rodadora has taken it to a whole new level: it not only serves as a mechanism for visitors to externalize their fears, but also as a way for the museum to identify their needs. Education Director Mónica Félix explains how, throughout the years, it is clear how children’s fears have changed: four years ago, common nightmares included violence, death, or kidnapping, now children write about the dark or scary cartoon characters. The reality is different for adults, who will need more time to heal their scars. But visitors’ answers are a constant source of inspiration for new programs and initiatives. For example, Rodadora decided to produce a play for adults every November addressing the theme of death.

  1. Dialogue as a foundation

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung suggests that igniting dialogue is the bedrock of all nonviolent conflict resolution. This became a priority and a guiding design principle when we realized the community needed new ways to communicate. But how do you get visitors to share and discuss ideas when they are not accustomed to doing so? Begin with the simplest and subtlest of initiatives.

Sietecolores helped Rodadora start a program called Libro Viajero (Traveling Book). The museum “abandoned” copies of a book throughout the space for people to find and start reading. When staff discovered a copy with an underlined passage and comments on the margins, they decided to leave writing tools along with the books. This became a powerful way for visitors to start dialogue with each other, the museum, and the authors.

  1. A strong focus on action

If we understand peace as the presence of justice, it’s not only a goal, but also an ongoing process and effort. Rodadora is always finding ways for visitors to get actively involved in the same spirit that originated the museum.

For instance, Sietecolores invited a local collective of urban artists to paint a mural for the museum before opening day. Rodadora also recently created a space called “Urban Art Garden,” which contains three more murals painted by local artists in collaboration with the Juárez community. The museum has also planned workshops and programs in the garden throughout the rest of the year.

Museums can become catalysts of social transformation—as Sietecolores has seen again and again in the more than a dozen learning spaces we have designed over the years. By taking a community-centered, dialogue-based, and action-focused approach, we created a participatory museum that continues to instill Juárez citizens with a sense of possibility, a desire for change, a promise of hope. After all, as writer Vaclav Havel said, “it is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless.”

Isabel Diez is a researcher at Sietecolores Ideas Interactivas, a museum and exhibit design firm based in Mexico City. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Pedagogy by Universidad Panamericana and a Master’s in Education (Arts in Education Program) by Harvard University. isabel.diez@sietecolores.mx / www.sietecolores.mx/en/