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

Embedding participation in gallery development

Using the above definitions rather than an ambition to transfer authority to participatory groups, staff within the team worked together with diverse groups, through several distinct activities, to explore themes, create content and influence the interpretation of the Information Age gallery. All forms of collaboration – short and longer term, where the outcomes were pre-defined or more open-ended in nature – were all deemed legitimate and worthwhile where mutual benefits could be identified.

From the outset the notion of participation was deeply rooted in the core ambitions of the Information Age gallery. The subject matter of the gallery was identified as especially appropriate, both because of its universal relevance, and because of the determination to focus on the stories of ordinary users as much as the inventors and innovators of technologies – and the timing within the museum was right for an ambitious plan to develop a permanent gallery in this way. With this in mind a broad range of participation and co-creation activities were proposed as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund Activity Plan for the gallery, ranging from consultation with experts through to in-depth programmes to collect objects and stories for inclusion within displays. Whilst some activities were viewed by team members as an extension of consultation and other community-based activities, which had already been trialled and successfully delivered by the Museum, it was clear that some activities required staff to develop new skill sets or take greater risks in connecting with audiences that had not previously engaged with the Museum (see Appendix for a list of participation activities).

Groups and individuals were invited to participate because of the relevant experiences, expertise and insight they could share with the Museum. For example, Samaritans volunteers were the most relevant and appropriate group to work with when telling the story of the Samaritans as an organisation. Their first-hand experiences of being the listener at the end of the phone line brought a powerful and personal perspective to the narrative which curator-led research could not provide. Similarly, members of the London-based Cameroonian community were ideal spokespeople for exploring the impact that mobile phones have had on Cameroon as they have witnessed the dramatic change which the technology has brought to their homeland.

For the Information Age team, participation was integral to the development of a gallery that could engage the broadest possible audiences. It was important, however, for the Museum to be explicit about what the participation projects were not seeking to accomplish. For example, whilst the process of relationship building with the participants and community groups involved was important to the success of each project there were no long term engagement plans beyond the life of the gallery development. Rather, the goal of working with a range of groups was to influence the Museum’s thinking, to add expertise and experience not present within the gallery team, and to produce outputs that would be more accessible and would have wider resonance and appeal than could be produced without the input of additional participants. The processes of involvement, it was hoped, would generate value and benefits for participants, and indeed early analysis of evaluation suggests that this was the case (see below). But the primary motivation for collaborating with diverse groups was the development of a more engaging and accessible gallery for all visitors.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of the connecting Africa display in Information Age showing a mobile phone repair hut from Cameroon

Gallery view of Information Age, showing the Connecting Africa Transforming Event of the Cell Network

Figure 3

Colour photograph of the connecting Africa display in Information Age showing visitors viewing a mobile phone repair hut from Cameroon

Gallery view of Information Age, showing the Connecting Africa Transforming Event of the Cell Network

Figure 4

Colour photograph of three particpants from Cameroon in the Information Age gallery

Cameroonian participants in the Information Age exhibition

Figure 5

Colour photograph of the empathetic ear display in Information Age showing Samaritans posters and landline telephones

Gallery View of the An Empathetic Ear Transforming Event of the Exchange Network

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a number of people taking part in the set up of a live performance in the Information Age gallery

Live performance based art piece at November 2014 LATE event developed by MFA Art Curating students from Goldsmiths University in response to Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s Fiducial Voice Beacons installation

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/006