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

Exploring 'participation' concepts and terminology

The term 'participation' is widely used in museums across many parts of the world, but has significantly different meanings in different contexts. In the UK, for example, 'participation' can sometimes be used simply to refer to attendance, the act of visiting a museum or going to the theatre.[3]   Meanwhile, terms like 'co-production', 'co-creation' and 'co-curation' are used at various times to denote collaboration between museum staff and a variety of stakeholders – community groups, visitors and non-visitors, special interest groups, individuals with specialist professional and academic expertise and so on. A burgeoning literature reflecting on the challenges and opportunities afforded by a closer working relationship with different constituencies and stakeholders has generated further terms which are frequently imprecisely defined and used in a variety of ways: for example, in addition to ‘participation’, 'co-creation' and 'co-curation', there is 'public-curation', 'community collaboration', and ‘co-production’. The sheer breadth of terms applied to these practices, while sometimes subtly nuanced in meaning, can nevertheless hinder constructive dialogue around the purpose and progression of such work.

In the context of working with non-professionals in museum projects, Bernadette Lynch has written that 'words matter': the need for both museum staff and audiences to understand the goals and intended outcomes of participatory work, beyond the rhetoric of 'shared authority' or 'co-production', is shown to be critical in avoiding disillusionment of the communities involved (Lynch, 2011, p 16). Crucially, this need for clarity applies to internal conversations too, particularly where – as with the Information Age – a concern to facilitate participation is shared by multiple members of the exhibition development team and not driven by a single department. The breadth of activities on the gallery development necessitated a clear articulation of the underpinning assumptions and meanings of participation that could incorporate content development at all stages of the gallery’s lifespan, from pre-opening through to post-opening and future gallery revisions (Science Museum, n.d. a). It needed to fold together different forms of participation: online and on-site; work with gallery visitors and wider audiences. However, the existing literature was largely found to maintain boundaries between different kinds of community involvement, often speaking primarily to issues around the participation process and focusing on either the impact of projects on participants or the final output experienced by visitors, but rarely both.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/003