Go back to article: The ‘co’ in co-production: Museums, community participation and Science and Technology Studies

Visit 1: The ‘co’ in the glass case, the ‘co’ in community participation

Let us come to stand in front of a glass case. The display we are visiting is in the Kodak Gallery at the National Media Museum in Bradford. There are four things in the case, all labelled as cameras. The case has the effect of indicating the cameras clearly as ‘museum objects’, distinct from other things, such as the knife and fork I’ve just eaten with in the café or the things in my bag. The glass case calls on me to interact in a certain way. The transparency of the glass invites me to look through the case. The case, at waist height, requires me to lean over. I cannot touch or reach out. It invites only a visual and not a haptic engagement (Hetherington, 2000, 2002; Candlin, 2015). The case is an access-barrier, giving and regulating access.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of four early wooden box cameras on display in a glass case

A glass display case in the Kodak Gallery at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Throughout this article we will keep returning to visit this display, exploring each time different readings of ‘co-production’.

The glass case is a materialisation of a set of ideas about the political legitimacy of museums, a ‘material-discursive practice’ where ideas and political relations are materialised and play active roles in enabling and constraining new ideas and political relations (Barad, 2007, p 146). As Brita Brenna put it in a recent article on the heritage listing of glass cases in the Bergen Museum in Norway:

[…] glass cases are universal emblems of ‘the museum’. They are signs of museum-ness, of a particular way of making things both visible and out of reach. In museum literature the glass case has often figured as a synecdoche, as a part that stands for the whole (see for example Henning 2006). In a long tradition of museum critique, the glass case has been a metaphor for what museums do to objects. Museums, it is claimed, decontextualize objects, severe their bonds to any original context, and taps them for monetary and use-value (2014, p 47).

Alongside critical engagement in what glass cases do to objects, there has also been sustained interest in what exhibitionary forms do to people. In his work on nineteenth century museums Tony Bennett refers to an ‘exhibitionary complex’, which he defines as ‘a network of institutions in which earlier practices of exhibition were significantly overhauled in being adapted to the development of new forms of civil self-fashioning on the part of the newly enfranchised citizenry’ (2006, p 48). Bennett describes the ‘exhibitionary complex’ as linking the scopic regimes of the open public space of the exhibition with object-based displays. The consequence was to align new forms of evolutionary knowledge with imperial superiority, with the effect of placing ‘the visitors as the pinnacle of humanity’. The aim was, in his account, to produce new forms of ‘self-monitoring personhood and shared citizenship’ (1995, pp 63, 79).[3]

Yet even in twenty-first century museums, where there may also be interactives or participatory exhibits in the same space, glass cases still reflect aspects of the nineteenth century exhibitionary complex in terms of relations between objecthood and personhood that Bennett diagnoses (2005, p 536). The glass case, a material-discursive apparatus, I am looking at and into is actively doing particular ontological work – that is, it is itself producing a theory of what there is in the world: as Brenna goes on to argue, it is important not to treat glass cases as ‘”black boxes”; self-evident museum features that do not need further investigation’ (2014, p 48). The display case generates the demarcation between the objects on the one hand and me as a visitor on the other. Through this demarcation, it is implied that the object can be known about and this knowledge can be represented to the visitor. The glass case also, through its capacities to keep objects safe, produces a ‘time sense’ where the past is complete – the objects are no longer in use – and the future is yet to come. Finally, a political argument is modelled that the museum is an institution that can take on the responsibility to pass important objects on to future generations ‘on behalf’ of the visiting public. The glass case, as an access-barrier, offers a very particular and restricted version of the more general move in co-production in public policy to both pluralise and stabilise. The access-barrier of the glass case manages my engagement as part of justifying the legitimacy of museums’ political purposes and arrangements.

Community co-production in museums has, of course, been one of many responses to the limits of the exhibitionary complex of the glass case – beyond the kind of relationship implied by the idea of a ‘public’. Like co-production in a policy context, community co-production has sought to increase the variety of people, and often objects, which are involved in museum practice. An example here would be the Open Museum in Glasgow where community groups both curate the Glasgow accessioned collections in places that are important for them or are supported to curate their own collections (Glasgow Museums, 2010). Yet in community co-production in museums, there is also often a stabilisation process involved too, pluralising the numbers and diversity of people involvement while still seeking to hold in place specific arguments (as outlined above) for the public legitimacy of museum practices.

However, once more people and new forms of relationships are created then the twin moves of pluralisation and stabilisation can become problematic. This was demonstrated through Culture Shock!, a digital storytelling project through Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (2008–10). Culture Shock! worked with people from across the North East to develop personal digital stories with the aim that the museum would officially accession them into the collection and treat them like any other object (of value and for display). Due in part to the personal nature of the story and the kind of social relationships developed with museum staff through the process of making the story, a very small number of participants – for whom something had changed personally – contacted the museum so they might alter their story after it had been formally accessioned. This led to a series of institutional negotiations which made visible the contested nature of ‘the object’ (was the story fixed and finished?) and had the effect of questioning the assumptions that museums’ legitimacy necessarily comes from making ‘objects’ publically accessible rather than cultivating responsive and reciprocal relationships with specific people and community groups (Graham, Mason and Nayling, 2013).

If co-production has a political rationality – aimed at both pluralising the number of people and stabilising the legitimacy of museums as institutions that can manage materiality and time in particular ways – then the Culture Shock! example indicates that this is highly uncertain. Once museum practices are opened up to more people – increased variety – then the variability of museum practices tends also to be opened up in unpredictable ways. This includes political challenges, as the museum studies literature attests (e.g. Lynch and Alberti, 2010; Lynch, 2011), but also, as we will explore through Science and Technology Studies, a necessary ontological challenge (e.g. Harrison, 2010; 2015). Community co-production tends to generate new theories of what museums are.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160502/002