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

Shared authority and shifting notions of expertise

Although described in multiple ways, a key value ascribed to participatory work in much of the literature is the shift in power from ‘experts’ to ‘non-experts’ that enables museums to foreground new and diverse voices. Indeed, much writing in this area concerns the implications of participatory work for the role of experts (see, for example, Stein, 2012). Kathleen McLean notes that while most museums incorporate participatory activities at some level, such as inviting comments and make-and-take activities, these 'mostly preserve the usual novice-expert construct: the museum pushes content toward the visitor and the visitor reacts' (McLean, 2011). This problematisation of the ‘expert’ voice, however, has prompted challenges to the way the terms ‘expert’ and ‘non-expert’ are often used. The use of such terms to frame conversations about participation in museums can work to reinforce hierarchical approaches to knowledge about collections, where professional knowledge is sometimes considered a more valid form of expertise than that which derives from, for example, lived experience. To tackle this, Dodd, Jones and Sandell, in their work to develop new narratives around disability in museum displays, have used the concept of the ‘trading zone’ to shape a process through which different forms of expertise (including that which derives from personal experience of impairment and disability) are accepted as equally valuable in relation to collections (Dodd, Jones and Sandell, in press). These experiments suggest possibilities for more inclusive frameworks for understanding expertise and how museum knowledge about collections is produced, validated and shared.

This problematisation of the expert voice has also encouraged different forms of participation to be considered hierarchically. Onciul notes that research into community engagement and co-production of knowledge in museums has often been approached using hierarchical models of participation, such as that presented by Sherry Arnstein (Onciul, 2013, p 82). Arnstein's ladder of citizen participation (1969), which sees a hierarchical scale from non-participation to tokenism to citizen power, has been used to theorise degrees of control in participation in museum contexts. In this model, citizen power is defined by 'partnership', 'delegated power' and full 'citizen control' (Govier, 2010; Gibson and Kindon, 2013).

The notion of a hierarchy of varying levels of participation has strongly influenced debate and practice within museums. The process of 'consulting' with audiences has been understood as low down on the spectrum of meaningful participation, where audiences are asked to contribute to museum knowledge or advise on outputs in a one-way knowledge transfer process without necessarily being rewarded with any benefits for the audience themselves (Peers and Brown, 2003, p 2). In the context of museum exhibitions, 'co-production' has been broadly defined by Davies as 'a spectrum of activity across the production process, performed by a range of individuals and groups with a varying impact on the final exhibition' (Davies, 2010, p 307). In 2008, Heywood loosely defined co-production as 'a museum inviting in community members to help produce exhibitions' but argued that the practice goes beyond 'community consultation' and requires 'the museum relinquishing some of its power and being brave enough to allow input into curating the exhibition' (Heywood, 2008, p 19).

The preference for reciprocal benefits for both museum and community members has been highlighted, pointing to what Phillips describes as 'the collaborative paradigm of exhibition production' where museum and community partners 'co-manage a broad range of the activities that lead to the final product' (Phillips, 2003, p 159). 'Co-creative' projects for Simon go a step further by often requiring 'institutional goals to take a backseat to community goals' (Simon, 2010, p 264). Yet Govier has put forward a broader definition of 'co-creation', that 'is not always anchored to the representation of community interests, or predicated upon the hand-over of power'. Instead, she envisages the term straddling 'Simon's notions of “contribution”, “collaboration” and co-creation': all of which involve working together with our publics to make something new. Govier notes her preference for 'co-creation' rather than the related term 'co-production' as 'the former implies slightly more openness about where the collaborative journey might take all of the participants' (Govier, 2010, p 3-4). Moving towards a fuller hand-over of control from museums to audiences, 'genuine co-creation' has been described by Sally Macdonald as the situation where museums act as facilitators, rather than as creators themselves (Macdonald, in Atkinson, 2010). This facilitation model is what Simon has termed 'hosted' projects, and has also been termed 'radical trust' by Lynch and Alberti (2010). Expanding on this term, Lynch and Alberti explain:

In practising radical trust, the museum may control neither the product nor the process. The former – if there is one – will be genuinely co-produced, representing the shared authority of a new story that may then have a knock-on effect in the rest of the museum. But the process itself is the key issue, and it may not be outcome oriented at all. Consensus is not the aim; rather, projects may generate ‘discensus’ [...]. [Participants], including museum staff, may develop new and radicalising skills as 'citizens' during this process. (p 16)

For the Information Age team, the multitude of terms used in the wider field was confusing and open to misinterpretation. Moreover, a lack of a shared understanding of the practice and the implied assumption that meaningful participation must be predicated upon the relinquishing of authority by the museum to its community participants (and the associated critique of participatory practice that fails to embrace this ambition) also posed new challenges for the team in understanding and reflecting on their work.

The gallery team eventually settled on the umbrella term ‘participation’ (over ‘co-curation’), which could encompass the Museum’s existing understanding of processes of 'consultation', 'contribution', 'collaboration' and 'co-creation'; terms which were largely influenced by Simon's framework for understanding participation in museums (Simon, 2010). From the outset, care was taken to define, as clearly as possible, the different forms of participation that would be utilised by the Museum in working with groups to develop the gallery.

For the Museum:

-    'consultation' involved inviting specialists (for example teachers or subject experts) as well as non-specialists (such as local or new audiences) to help identify particular audience’s expectations, needs and wants, thus informing the Museum’s practice. Consultation was felt to be 'participation' when it resulted in a sense of shared ownership of ideas, and where the conversation was two-way between the Museum and participants. An example is consultation with the British Vintage Wireless Society who contributed collections knowledge and expertise to the Broadcast Network;

-    ‘contribution' involved asking for and receiving content from audiences. This could be in the form of assistance in the collecting of contemporary objects, the contribution of stories and experiences to shape interpretation, and user-generated content for display, both online and on-site. This process was understood as a long-term commitment from the Museum, which necessitated contributions being treated respectfully and preserved in the same way as other museum artefacts and knowledge. For example, the oral histories of women who worked on the Enfield Telephone Exchange were recorded and are now preserved as part of the Museum’s collection;

-    'collaboration' described open-ended collaborative activity with participants where the Museum set the concept and outline plan (for example, the area of the gallery and the possible final form of the output). Staff then worked with audience groups to develop the detail and make it happen. This would often involve the audience defining and deciding on what content was relevant, as was done by the volunteers and museum partners who categorised and sorted the telegrams during the community collectors project showcased in the Cable Network;

-    'co-creation' was defined as ‘creating an output together’, with shared ownership of the concept between participants and the Museum. In this participation scenario, the Museum gave audience groups the skills and tools to deliver an outcome, and staff worked closely alongside them to support their activities. The goal was shared between Museum and participants. Co-creation as it was undertaken at the Science Museum required the Museum to involve audiences from the start, a good example being the work with the London Cameroonian community to produce an exhibit on mobile phones.

Following Simon (2010), the Science Museum worked to achieve a spectrum of participation, resisting a notional hierarchy which pitched some approaches as naturally better than others. Across this spectrum, different activities involved different levels of involvement by participants and resulted in different outcomes. This approach drew inspiration from Simon, who has argued that one form of participation is not necessarily better than another,[4]  and from Govier who has questioned the explicit and implied assumption in debates surrounding participatory practice that equate 'the greatest yielding of institutional power with the most valuable kind of participatory work' (2010, p 4).[5]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/005