Elevating Public Engagement

Posted by on Nov 14, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | One Comment

Let’s talk about elevators.

As far as I’m concerned, these are cabins of solitude that simultaneously save you time, but cost you time. In some cases, they are unavoidable: no one should ever have to walk up 50 flights of stairs. In other cases, they provide an easy detour up a couple flights, when walking the stairs just isn’t a possibility. Maybe you’re disabled, in which case they are necessary, or carrying something, or pushing a cart, or injured…no matter your situation, one thing remains: elevators are a moment in time when you are doing absolutely NOTHING.

At least when you walk up stairs you are moving your body and burning a couple calories. In elevators, you are restricted to the following: awkward interactions with other people; standing silently while a Muzak instrumental version of ‘I Believe I can Fly” plays over the speaker; suffering through twelve elevator stops that the 8 year old brat pushed right before you got on board; Squeezing in with 10 other people who are all in a hurry and all smell bad. They aren’t that pleasant.

When viewed from a public engagement perspective, however, elevators aren’t a time suck where all  you have to do is stare at a sliding metal door waiting for it to open. I see an opportunity for me to teach you something.

Instead of wood paneling, carpeted walls, what if the inside of an elevator told you about the history of the building you worked in? Each morning would be spent learning a little bit about your building, its place in your community, and the people who had worked there before you. Instead of wasted time, you gain something from your elevator trip.

I happened upon a Facebook photo this week of one of my former Peer Educators at the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Center. She works in the MSU Microbiology Department, and they just used construction paper to create a plant cell diagram on the ceiling of their elevator, backlit by the original florescent lights. A simple project. A simple way to make the elevator a little more interesting, but most of all a way to teach.

What if this was coupled with a simple panel on the elevator wall pointing out the different parts of the cell, and talking about what they do? Visitors would get a biology 101 refresher, and their time in the elevator wouldn’t be spent staring into space, listening to terrible music. It would be spent doing something productive. I call it Guerilla Education, where you learn something in a place where you might not expect to.

You can imagine these in other places where waiting is at a premium. Basically, think of anyplace where you’re forced to look at advertisements, and replace it a museum display. Bus stops. Urinals. Waiting rooms. Subways. Cafeteria tabletops. All of these places are prime locations for us to engage the public about their cultural heritage.

Think of some of the additional benefits that a business who owns a building might gain. Employees might gain a unique perspective on their place of work; instead of being that place where they have to go everyday, maybe it becomes this neat building I get to work in that has this amazing history. It could give a company’ workers who are on floor 4 and 6 who never interact a common professional heritage: the past of the space they work in, or the history of their company within the context of their local community. For the small investment of a few museum panels in an elevator, or some informative tabletop tents in the cafeteria, a cultural heritage and a closer community could be fostered.

Archaeologists are often engaged with companies who are in the process of building new structures, as we are typically mitigating the space their building will be built. Encouraging them to  transform these dead spaces into educational spaces might be the type of  thing they would be interested in. They are already investing money and time in the archaeological process, why not use the results of all the research in something that will be beneficial to their community, workers, and visitors?

So, what do you think? Do you have any suggestions of other places this might work? Have you seen this type of education happening around your town? Would you consider it for your business?

Photo “Elevator Doors” by 13desetembro on Flickr.

  • we used to post our dorm minutes in the bathrooms – worked great. I like the elevator idea a lot though – you could have a more formal info blurb, and rotate it every few months.