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Active Participation: Museums Empowering the Community

Marilyn Scott on how museums are in a unique position to create a sense of belonging and a pride in cultural identity, but it is a position fraught with dangers.

When we look back on our childhood many of the memories we have are associated with physical places- our school playground, our bedroom, the garden of the house we were brought up in. These place-centred associations stay with us very strongly into adult life. I recently returned to the place I was brought up over 40 years ago after a lengthy absence and found that I could still remember minute details – who lived in which house, my route to school, I could even remember the places that were no longer there. There was a sense of belonging – a feeling that there would always be a small part of me left in this place. I realised that I still knew a great deal about the buildings and the history of the town that did not necessarily have a direct relevance to my own experience, but was the result of many visits to the local museum through childhood and schooldays. Some of these visits were enforced through school trips, but many were voluntary since I was fascinated by the contents of the less -than-exciting 1960’s displays.

That sense of association stayed with me in a way that has not been replicated until, as a parent, I settled to live in a small Surrey village where my children went to school and I discovered a small, but fascinating, local museum which I visited a few weeks after moving in. Again that museum has given me knowledge about my adopted home which has led me to feel now part of that community, even though after living here for 20 years I am still very much a newcomer, in comparison to those people who can trace their village association back over at least three or four generations.

It is this unique sense of association and belonging that a museum can engender that makes the work we do in 21st Century museums so vital to the very survival of communities be they rural or urban. Museums and galleries now make up a significant segment of civil society and there is an ever increasing need for them to reflect the needs and interests of their audiences. There is an expectation that museums and galleries will offer ever-increasing opportunities for citizens’ active participation. Most communities today are constantly changing – the mobility of our population in contrast to 50 years ago is extraordinary. The situation created by the present economic climate will force people to move to where the work is and will mirror the vast moves in population caused by the decline in agricultural labouring in the 19th Century. These factors lead to disjointed communities – people who arrive in a town because a job is there but with no knowledge of what the town stands for or why it is like it is.

The Lightbox in Woking serves a particularly challenging community where the people who work in the town cannot afford to live there so they only occupy the town in their working hours and the people who live there work in London or other high-earning locations and are therefore only in the town in the evening and at weekends. Two distinct populations who rarely meet, but simply co-exist. If communities like these are to survive and thrive then there has to be a means by which they can begin to develop a feeling of belonging and gain knowledge of why the town they live in is like it is – who has lived there before them – what they did do and why, and they have to be given the chance to create some kind of history for themselves.

We then of course very quickly come up against the problem of whose history it is that we as museum professionals are trying to tell. Museums are in a unique position to create a sense of belonging and a pride in cultural identity, but it is a position fraught with dangers. Our additional complication in Woking – shared by many colleagues all over the country – is that we have a significant mix of ethnicity in the town, including a Muslim population who have lived in Woking since the 19th century and the first purpose-built mosque in the UK. This history pre-dates much of the recognised history of the town and is obviously a significant but hidden part of the story we need to tell. How do we integrate this into the very typical tale of a 19th Century railway town now populated by uninspiring 1960’s office blocks which according to many has ‘no significant history’.

Our solution in Woking – being in the fortunate position of starting from scratch – with no previous museum to use as reference and with a lengthy planning period due to needing time to raise money for the new museum, was to engage the local community in telling their own history. Hugely inspired by the work being done at the time by Hackney Museum and Croydon Clocktower, we engaged the local community in what we were hoping to do. There were some easy wins – the local history society, friends of local heritage sites and environmental groups keen to preserve local amenities all embraced the project enthusiastically. Less easy to engage were the ethnic minority groups for whom museums are not natural tellers of stories and those people for whom Woking was only their adopted home and who felt they had little to contribute because their knowledge of the town was, in their minds, insignificant. We spent a lot of time communicating to others through talks, newspaper articles, and radio interviews.

One of our main messages was that we were not looking for people with in-depth knowledge of the history of the town, what we were keen to obtain were stories, impressions, but above all questions – why are things as they are today. If it was a question that intrigued and interested one of our participants then there was a very good chance it would also interest our visitors once the museum was open. We tentatively held our first open meeting, really having no clear idea whether it would work – whether people would come and if they would understand what we hoped to do. 20 people attended that first meeting and I really felt we were getting somewhere when we asked ‘Are there things about the town that you have never understood?’ and one participant said ‘I have heard it described as the town of the mad, the bad and the dead. Why?’. This brief sentence encapsulates three important elements of the history of the town – a major 19th Century mental asylum, a huge 19th Century prison and the largest cemetery in Western Europe – here was the way to introduce people to the town and that description now greets visitors as they enter the museum.

Thus our journey to discover ways of telling the history of our town in a way that was relevant to as many of our visitors as possible began. Over a period of two years we worked with those original 20 participants to develop a series of interlocking stories devised by the participants themselves. The story group became the makers and shapers of their own history rather than being the recipients of a curator’s history, which may of course not be relevant to the local community at all. The work with the story group became absolutely central to the development of the museum. They were not simply treated as a focus group who met occasionally to give feedback on our ideas, they were the creators themselves and we developed a methodology whereby they came to us with their ideas and content and the professional staff acted as the sounding board – an interesting and incredibly exciting role reversal. The group became the active agents for shaping the whole museum not simply the beneficiaries of a second hand history.

It was only at the point where the themes had been developed, the stories chosen, the research had been done that we handed over to our museum designers. A huge sense of ownership of the museum had been established as each participant in the ‘Story Group’ had in turn engaged a group of stakeholders who had helped with research, suggested themes and stories, given us feedback on difficult issues such as how to tell the story of the mental asylum in a sensitive manner when those who had lived and worked at the asylum were still living in the town.

Reflecting back on this process now three years after the museum was opened it is interesting to consider that the current political message (2010) is one of increased localism, The Big Society, empowering communities to do things for themselves – an emphasis on public participation and the growth of self-reliance – rather than to have things done to them. In our experience using our local community to tell their own story is probably one of the most powerful and successful experiences we have ever had at The Lightbox. It has undoubtedly created a feeling of public ownership of our collections which now permeates everything we do. In the debate ‘What does engagement mean?’ for us it was simply realising that there were people in our community who were much better qualified to tell their own story than we were and we should engage them in making meaningful contributions to the museum. We might have had all the professional qualifications and the knowledge about how many words people read on a label and what environmental conditions the Victorian christening robe needed, but were we truly engaged with the history of a town that most of the staff were relative newcomers to?

We needed our clients as much as they needed the professionals. We were able to truly empower the group by giving them a very open brief to tell us what they thought was unique and important about their town and what they thought the legacy of the museum project should be. They became the doers not the ‘done for’ and became more confident and informed through the process we had enabled. We took sometimes halting steps up the ladder of involvement by first informing in the widest sense possible what the project was about and our goals, consulting, again in the widest sense on how we were to achieve those goals, involving directly a key group of people, collaborating with them as equal partners and finally empowering them to make decisions.

The resulting ‘master plan’ that was handed over to the designers was of course very different from the typical chronological survey which has traditionally been the route taken by many local history museums. Instead the group developed themes which centred around two areas. Firstly, everyday lives – how did people live in the town and how do they now. What work were they engaged in, how they did they spend their leisure time, where did people shop and go to school and how does that contrast with life today? This was set alongside the question ‘What is special about our town and what makes it unique?’ This could prove to be quite a challenge for a very ordinary Victorian railway town – on the face of it with ‘no history’ but the Story Group very quickly identified many unique physical sites which had a history to tell, varying from the largest cemetery in Western Europe to the first purpose-built mosque created in the UK. There was of course great debate over which special and unique sites and stories we were able to include as our space was limited but gradually the group reached consensus on what was to be selected.

The Story Group, although primarily being responsible for content development, also took a very active role in deciding how as well as what. Everyone had their own ideas on what makes a good museum display, although not all group participants (and most certainly the other groups they were talking to) had wide knowledge of museums so many references came from the media and from retail. There were widely diverging views ranging from the Pitt Rivers style ‘fill up all the showcases’ to a designed approach of creating arty shop windows with a montage of Kenwood food mixers!

Through this process of shaping the museum we were able to place public engagement at the forefront of everything we did and at the heart of the organisation. Our Story Group and all the stakeholders they had in turn engaged with became equal partners to ourselves in designing and helping to deliver the project. Our continued use of volunteers to help run our building and our service continues this partnership through our chosen mode of service delivery.

The Story Group helped at a very crucial stage in our development to define a new model of individual and community empowerment. The right to public ownership of the town’s history had been effectively established. Our challenge of course three years later, now with an established museum, is how to retain this sense of ownership. Our 150 volunteers without whom we could simply not open our doors ensure that we do not forget how much the museum belongs to, and is in partnership with, our local community. But to ensure that the empowerment is real rather than tokenistic, we engage community representatives as members of our Board of Trustees, deciding what we do at the highest level. Also we genuinely regularly consult and communicate with our community, to ensure that we do not stray into the realms of ‘doing to’ rather than ‘doing with’.

Community-curated exhibitions are a regular feature. Finance dictates that it will be a long time before we could ever redisplay the museum but smaller exhibitions generated by community partners are an integral part of our programming. We also take the focus away from the static collection by inviting local collectors to display their own collections in the way they want to without the dead hand of the curator intervening. Other local interest groups take space around the building to talk about their own particular topic or cause and rather than appearing out of place or insignificant amongst the collection these exhibitions provide huge interest and variety for our visitors and should not be ignored in terms of audience development. We remain open to any suggestion and it is perhaps not the nature of the suggestions that is so pleasing, but just that individuals and groups feel able, without invitation or prompt, to come to us with ideas to fill what is not ‘our space’ but ‘their space’ by right and through a true sense of ownership. The engagement we have managed to achieve has been slowly and sometimes painfully won. I know there will always be those for whom the museum is not relevant to their lives but for many their part in the creation of their museum has been a fantastically satisfying and empowering experience which has to be a great measure of success.

Marilyn Scott
Director, The Lightbox

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