The P Word: Participation in Museums

Royal Pavillion audio tours

Participation in Museums

Make no mistake about it, museums really want you to get involved with their collections. Not so long ago they were just happy enough to see you through the doors, and some of them were frankly not too bothered about that.

But attitudes have changed – and perhaps as funding sources have shrunk and successive governments have paid them more scrutiny – museums began to focus more on who was not coming through the door and why, and then set about making their public collections more relevant and enticing to them.

Groups that were found to be ‘under-represented’ (Generally those from lower income groups and black and ethnic minorities. Government research from 2013 shows that B&EM audiences were 39% less likely to visit a museum or gallery) were actively sought out and invited in for events and workshops.

There is a tranche of buzzwords surrounding this: inclusion, engagement, community involvement etc, but in recent years the key one is perhaps the P Word: participation.

This was precisely the topic under scrutiny at a one day conference held at Brighton Museums. Museum staff from across the country gathered to explore exactly what participation means today, and to demonstrate how they’ve put it into practice.

Putting the Public in the Picture

Nowadays this doesn’t just mean attending a workshop or event, it means being consulted on the exhibition programme in advance, being invited to shape its direction and contribute towards it.

Brighton Museums’ Keeper of World Art Helen Mears outlined a project that did just this. Staff transformed the former James Green Gallery of World Art, a previously rather obtuse display of minimally labelled artifacts which left many younger visitors bewildered, into the far more dynamic World Stories space.

They worked collaboratively with a number of youth community groups, who responded to a variety of pre-selected items to create a series of multimedia pieces around key themes like identity, mental health, football and mortality. The end result was a more colourful, interactive and welcoming space, featuring items as diverse as a malagan-inspired sculpture, a table football game, an Iranian photo mosaic and an animation about life in the Arctic. Crucially the re-vamped display was well received by target audiences who have described it as being ‘like a breath of fresh air.’

African_Mask_World Stories exhib

The recent From Downs to the Sea exhibition was another example of this approach in action. Here local communities from Portslade and West Hove co-curated the art exhibition with museum staff, choosing items which meant something to them – and talking about them in short video clips, which replaced the sea of interpretative panels which usually accompanies an art show.

P is for Passion

What struck me was just how committed and passionate staff are about encouraging participation in a meaningful way. ‘Agency’ was a word which cropped up periodically and staff talked about how participation activity needs to be ’embedded and not tokenist.’ In other words, engaging the public is no longer seen as being the job of the education or outreach department, it’s everyone’s responsibility across the organisation.

What do YOU think?

There are some clear parallels between modern day museum work and blogging / social media too. It could be argued that social media has empowered many ordinary people, giving them a voice and a platform to be heard from, challenging the traditional media’s role as gatekeepers – and of course trad media has responded by trying to embrace it, with somewhat mixed results. Similarly there are debates around validity, when in theory anyone can start a blog and begin to posit themselves as an expert on their chosen subject.

In museum world, the question of validity rears its head too. How much knowledge do you need about an item or artwork before you can express an opinion on it? Is it enough to say how something makes you feel and what personal resonance it holds for you?

Some would argue that it is. Others might counter that too much emphasis is being placed on what the general public thinks, that their ‘less informed’ opinions are overshadowing those of the experts who have invested years of education and experience in their specialist subject.

Of course these are essentially philosophical questions as old as art criticism itself but new technologies, new ways of exhibiting and discussing items and new ways of thinking about public participation are clearly spotlighting them. And as someone now straddling both museum and blogging worlds, the issues seem all the more pressing to me!

From Gatekeepers to Game-changers

Museums are striving to move away from ‘here are some items we think you should find interesting’ towards actually asking the public what interests them and responding.  They’re moving away from their traditional role as ‘cultural gatekeepers’ and instead enabling discussions about culture and empowering people to access their cultural rights. The very existence of this blog – and the mix of independent voices on it – is further evidence of this shift in thinking.

Whose Museum is it Anyway?

In her welcome address RP&M Director Janita Bagshawe asked ‘whose story are we telling?’ and put this in the context of what she called ‘the other side of Brighton’, citing not only the city’s obvious diversity and energy, but also its social issues and its unenviable place in ‘the top 10 most unaffordable cities in the UK’.

Another topic which arose was the need to go beyond involving just ‘the usual suspects’ for outreach. The National Museum of Wales gave some great examples of their surprisingly diverse range of partners, which include prison services, job agencies, homelessness and mental health charities.

Oramics to Electronica
Oramics to Electronica exhibition, SSPL / Science Museum

Sometimes this means seeking out and speaking to niche audiences. When the Science Museum worked on their exhibition ‘Oramics to Electronica’, they recruited a range of hyper-specialist groups, from DJs and electronica musicians and pioneers from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to music students.

In the words of Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History at the Science Museum, this ‘let people speak on behalf of their passions, rather than their socio-economic background.’ Tim’s illuminating presentation mused on the wider cultural context of participation too, touching on how everything from reality TV to market capitalism and group therapy has influenced the discourse of participation. (Read more about the collaborative nature of the project in this paper.)

Bring in your Biba day
Bring in your Biba day at Brighton Museum, 2012

A similar thing happened with Brighton Museum’s 2013 Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki fashion exhibition, where staff curating it ended up ‘accidentally crowdsourcing’ content when they discovered just how enthusiastic the Biba fan community were, inundating them with personal items donated for display.

Interestingly, the conference did not shy away from addressing some of the challenges involved with public participation. Hackney Museum were refreshingly honest about their experiences working with the local Kurdish community, whose expectations were raised by being involved with an exhibit, and then disappointed slightly when the final display was not quite as extensive as they hoped.

Outstanding Outsiders

Manuel Bonifacio's Mermaid Pallant House
Manuel Bonifacio’s Mermaid, Pallant House

Marc Steene, Director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, demonstrated the powerful impact their ‘Outside In’ programme has made in showcasing the work of ‘outsider artists’ internationally. They took Portuguese-born artist Manuel Bonifacio to New York in 2012, where he sold some work. This put his career on a trajectory which transformed his life, seeing him exhibited at the prestigious Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne and the Outsider Art Fair in Paris.

The demand and interest in his work (and that of the 500 excluded artists they’ve worked with) proves that it’s valuable its own right, rather than simply being a ‘worthy activity’ to pursue.

Marc vividly put this into a visual art context, where arguably issues surrounding definitions of cultural validity – i.e ‘who can call themselves an artist and what constitutes a work of art?’ – are even more hotly debated than in museum circles. As he memorably put it: ‘We can never be Picasso. We can only be ourselves.’

We should all remember how privileged we are in the UK to get free access to museums of course, we may talk about ‘cultural rights’ but these are by no means universal.  Learning about the lengths to which many museums now go to actively involve the full spectrum of the public and give us true ownership of our heritage only reinforces their value even more.

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

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