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

Participatory projects and experiences

Many participatory activities are focused on individual projects. In the UK many of these have been supported with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has made 'participation' a key requirement for support, defined on the basis of widening audiences and creating opportunities for engagement. To be eligible for support, projects must 'help more people, and a wider range of people, to take an active part in and make decisions about heritage' (Heritage Lottery Fund, n.d., 19). ‘Community participation’ is understood as 'people having an active role in your project, in particular taking part in decision-making and delivery'. Where the Heritage Lottery Fund guides organisations to support participants with 'their own plans', there is an emphasis on 'projects' for which the community takes 'responsibility' (Heritage Lottery Fund, n.d., 18). The language used to describe the community's active rather than passive role is largely aligned to the language of project management and product design rather than embedded practices.

Meanwhile, the value of outputs and outcomes that are pre-determined by the museum and projects that are driven by the institution rather than the community have been called into question. In her writing on participation, Simon evokes a language that prioritises experiences rather than projects, and she threads this through discussions of both the design and consumption of experiences, emphasising the need to support different levels of individual and social meaning-making (Simon, 2010, p ii). For Simon, participation (in the specific project sense above) is one of many possible design strategies that an institution can use to create personalised, relevant, fluid, creative and social experiences for visitors (2010, p iv). Simon's framework helpfully acknowledges the value of both institutionally defined, output-centred projects as well as more open-ended activities that emphasise creativity and process. Yet some have reported that the process of participatory projects can be potentially more significant than the final product – the display, text, resource or other tangible output. This was the case for the innovative Manchester Museum exhibition Myths about Race, described by Lynch and Alberti (2010), and for the Museum of London Docklands' Sugar and Slavery exhibition (Spence et al., 2013). Here, the process of reaching out to and empowering participants trumped the significance of any final 'product' created. Where the primary goal is ‘power-handover’ – a fundamental shift in museum practice intended to empower communities to have a much greater say in the work that museums do – this emphasis on process is clearly appropriate and, indeed, necessary. But this conceptual underpinning, which places process over product, poses questions for contexts where the quality of both the participation process and the final product are paramount.

As is evident from Simon's writing, the development of social digital platforms and participatory culture more widely have influenced long-running discourses around working with communities to create museum content and experiences (Simon, 2010). While differently situated, research and practice across both digital and non-digital fields comment on remarkably similar issues. They each centre on a set of questions around what makes participatory work genuinely participatory, meaningful, and impactful for both museums and participants. Writers question the quality, value, and impact of participation, not only on museums and participants involved, but increasingly on wider visitors who encounter the products that result from participatory projects (Allen-Greil and MacArthur, 2010). Is the project genuinely participatory and dialogic (for example, Macdonald cited in Atkinson, 2010; Lynch and Alberti, 2010)?; Do participants really wield significant power in shaping the museum's interpretations (Lynch and Alberti, 2010; Lynch, 2011; Smith, 2012)? Are museums learning enough from other sectors who are developing participatory experiences with high-quality outputs (Carpentier 2011; Kidd 2014)?

While there remain different sets of literature spanning exhibition development, digital media, and community engagement, which explore different types and purposes of participation – from community empowerment to visitor agency – there are recent attempts to conceptually draw together this breadth of practice and provision. Thinking beyond a ‘tacked-on’ activity – usually the responsibility of learning, engagement or audience-focused staff – the notion of participation has been explored more holistically in the literature. Stanhope and Poole (2012), for example, suggest that the sector might more nimbly thread together skills in 'engagement, collections and digitisation into a single stream of collaborative participation and learning'. Similarly, Satwicz and Morrissey discuss what they call 'public curation', which is defined as:

[...] an umbrella term to encompass “participatory design,” “user-driven content," and the broad and creative ways public (or non-professional) audiences are increasingly and collaboratively involved in shaping museum products (e.g., exhibitions, web sites, archives, programs, media), processes (e.g., design, evaluation, research, public discourse), and experiences. (2011, p 196)

Such a holistic view includes but goes beyond the realm of delineated projects to include the breadth of museum processes and experiences. It can tie together both digital and non-digital audience participation to acknowledge and draw strength from the fact that these are working towards the same goals of supporting engagement and meaningful experience. Other underpinning ideas, particularly the notion of sharing power and decision-making with audiences, raises issues that warrant further critical examination, especially in the context of participation that is undertaken with a primary aim (as with the Information Age project) of enriching the interpretation and visitor experience within a major permanent gallery.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/004