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

Towards a research-based practice

In 2014, Lord and Piacente wrote, 'We are moving past the initial excitement of participation “because we can” into participation where quality is sought and valued' (2014 p 168). Indeed, there is growing recognition that participatory practices, shaped by a commitment to creativity, diversity and inclusion, can bring a more bespoke or responsive voice to museum work that facilitates the creation of new meanings (Flinn and Sexton, 2013) and, in doing so, results in richer, higher-quality outputs. Yet, despite a widespread belief that participation in museum work is good for everyone, there is little consensus on how the value of participatory work can be understood and captured, described and measured.

The scale of the Information Age gallery meant that the Museum invested significant resources in evaluation and research. An ongoing process of evaluation produced findings that could support the team to refine their approach to participatory practice as the project developed. Research activities were directed towards addressing not only internal, institutional gaps in knowledge (for example, around the implications of scaling-up participation beyond small-scale projects) but also to exploring gaps within the broader literature on participation, as well as exploring the staff and participants’ experiences of working in this way.

In attempting to build a culture of reflection among the project team, individual staff members were encouraged to be actively involved in a process of internal evaluation. This was designed in collaboration with researchers from King’s College London and was administered by them at the start, during, and at the end of the project. The aim was to capture staff and stakeholders’ attitudes towards, and experiences of, participatory approaches from the very beginning of the project through to the gallery’s final delivery. The Museum aimed to map this attempt to embed participation within all aspects of a major gallery development to see how a large project that touched upon and impacted so many different teams within the Museum could start to change not only attitudes towards (and acceptance of) collaborative ways of working, but also to stimulate changes in working practices and policies.[6]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision to place participatory practice at the heart of the development of the Information Age gallery from its inception was regarded by team members with a mixture of scepticism and apprehension as well as excitement and enthusiasm. Some expressed anxiety about embarking on collaborative methods of working with which they were unfamiliar; others had concerns about impact of participation on the quality of the gallery interpretation or the potential loss of institutional authority.

There was also a very real concern that the added time and efforts needed to work in this way may not produce a valuable output and one deemed to be sufficiently different from previous galleries to warrant the extra resources given to participation activities. In order to address anxieties and build confidence, training, skills workshops and awareness-building sessions were delivered to all staff members, and extra advocacy support (by specialist participation and audience-focused staff) was provided for the teams to ensure that their concerns were listened to and addressed during the gallery development process.

During the participation projects gallery staff became fully embedded in the participatory activities as equal partners along with the public participants and engagement staff. Early analysis of the internal evaluation suggests that this exposure to the processes of participation and contact time with the participants led to a more enhanced appreciation of the value of this approach among Museum staff than had been experienced on previous projects.

Museum evaluation was also concerned to gauge the impact of the projects from the perspective of the participants.[7] Throughout the evaluation participants reported a sense of enjoyment and pride from being involved with the projects (‘...this was a real opportunity for our voices to be heard...’, Cameroon project participant, 2014), emphasising a sense of ownership and responsibility for the finished products. Many of the participants also claimed that the projects had exceeded their expectations and that, along with the chance to get involved and see the workings of exhibition developments, they had also learned new skills they might not otherwise have had an opportunity to develop, and were given an opportunity to make their own contribution to a permanent public space (‘...we are part of the artwork, it’s part of us…our names are in that gallery...’, Art Project participant, 2015).

As with many participation projects, not all of the team’s plans to involve groups were realised due to shifts in content direction, a failure sometimes to find meaningful modes of participation, and limitations on time and resource. There was also a marked gap between the ambition of staff and the reality of what was possible during content and interpretation development. Not all participants derived the benefits that the Museum had hoped they would, for example when their interests and experiences did not naturally fit with the aims and ambitions of the project. This was the case for one particular project with young people from Bede House, a community support organisation with a base in Bermondsey. The project was based around technology (early telegraphy) prevalent at a particular point in history (the 1920s) which was unfamiliar to the young people. Although the Information Age team had hoped to find a modern relevance for this among a teen audience, the group could find few tangible connections with this topic. It was quickly decided that instead of forcing a link that would look and feel artificial and tokenistic, to both the participants and the Museum, the team would limit the project to just this initial exploration rather than a longer term relationship (McSweeney, 2011).

Six months after opening Information Age has been visited by over 400,000 visitors.[8]  A major evaluation investigating visitors’ responses to the gallery is currently being undertaken, including questions about the effectiveness of the participatory elements. The Science Museum is committed to understanding how far the ambition to enrich the gallery experience for all visitors through a participatory approach has been realised and to exploring what a ‘valuable’ encounter with participation outputs might be for audiences.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/007