Go back to article: Embedding plurality: exploring participatory practice in the development of a new permanent gallery


Given the relative infrequency of large-scale permanent exhibition developments across the sector and the considerable complexity bound up in their making, it is unsurprising that existing models of participation largely reflect practice within smaller scale projects and attempts to build relationships with local, geographically defined communities. At the same time, there is a need for more research and debate around how museums that are primarily national and international in scope and reach can meaningfully involve audiences in their work. There is also a need for an enhanced understanding of the benefits that are generated by such participatory activities for museums, participants and visitors alike.

The approach to participation taken with the Information Age emphasised the need for mutual benefits for both the Museum and participants from engagement and involvement with a large scale, high profile and permanent output. Various activities and techniques across different fields were drawn in under the banner of 'participation', and all forms of involvement, with different levels of authority-sharing, were valued by the institution. Large-scale exhibitions require the involvement of multiple teams and various skills. That these teams on the Information Age gallery included individuals and groups drawn from outside of the museum, with diverse forms of expertise and insight, was considered a strength. At the same time, whilst the making of the gallery involved new ways of working, of eliciting and valuing contributions from communities outside of the Museum, the drive for participation was not based on an attempt to hand over power to these groups.

Current professional and academic debate questions the implications for expertise, and for quality, of increasing experimentation with participatory practices in museums, often highlighting the risks as well as the advantages potentially created by the sharing of power or authority with constituencies outside of the institution. For the Science Museum, although this was the first time that participatory work had been embedded within the process of developing a large scale permanent display, the approach was conceived not as risky or radical but rather as building on and extending existing exhibition development practices that could draw in a range of perspectives towards a more inclusive shared output.

There were, of course, limitations in what could be achieved; forming new partnerships was rewarding but meant entering unknown territory, so planned outcomes were not always possible. However, ongoing evaluation and opportunities to reflect on what was working and how emerging problems might be addressed helped to move the Museum forward. The methods and approaches utilised – and the lessons learned – in the creation of Information Age are by no means fully resolved. Rather, they constitute an experimental work in progress, a possible way forward for the Museum to explore the embedding of participation in the core of its work.

Further research is needed to address the many questions posed by this attempt to embed participatory practice at the heart of the Museum’s work. Would more flexibility in outputs have been feasible with a development of this kind, and would it have resulted in higher quality outputs? What are the challenges for museums in further developing and embedding participation in times when, in some organisations, staff with specific experience of community engagement are being let go (Nightingale and Mahal, 2012)? How are visitors’ experiences of galleries changed by the adoption of participatory practices in creating museum narratives? Fundamentally, to what extent does the kind of participation facilitated in the development of Information Age foster greater inclusion and access for all?

Large organisations can and should play a key role in helping to explore these questions, and must find ways of working that engage the public more fully in the sector. What remains clear is that this requires continual questioning around the assumptions and ideas that shape the formation of participation and its discourses, and how these might support or hinder work across very different museum and project contexts. Moreover, in order to develop a more critical body of knowledge on participation in large museum contexts, the sector must expand upon ways of sharing existing practice and experiences across institutions of all kinds. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/008