Citizen Curators: An Experiment in Cultural Democracy and Alternative Pathways
The Citizen Curators programme is a work-based curatorial training course for volunteers. Tehmina Goskar explains how this experiential learning programme has been designed to support the democratisation of museum decision-making, open up the knowledge locked in collections, and provide the start of an alternative pathway into museum work
The Citizen Curators programme is a collaboration between Cornwall Museums Partnership, Curatorial Research Centre, and seven Cornish museums — Telegraph Museum Porthcurno; Penlee House Gallery & Museum; Museum of Cornish Life, Helston; Falmouth Art Gallery; Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro; Wheal Martyn Clay Works; and Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, Bodmin. It is a work-based curatorial training and museum awareness course for volunteers from our communities. This experiential learning programme has been designed to support the democratisation of museum decision-making and to open up the knowledge locked in our collections. It also aims to provide the start of an alternative pathway into museum work.
Originating in an Arts Council England-supported Change Makers Programme (CMP) in 2017, Citizen Curators was then adopted by Cornwall Museums Partnership as part of their core National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) programme, with the seven participating museums. From 2018 to 2021 the programme is funded by the Museums Association’s (MA) Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and firmly based in the MA’s mission to promote socially-engaged practice in museums.
I am a curator, facilitator and historian of material culture. I think well-functioning museums are critical indicators of a civil society. The museum paradigm is shifting. Socially-just representation, participation and interpretation matters, particularly for minority and under-represented groups in society. However, this pressure has tended to come from external sources rather than from within, and less so from changes in curatorial ideology.
Cultural democracy, the civic agenda, co-curation, co-production, co-creation are themes which are regularly discussed at professional cultural events, or written about in publications such as this. I observe that national agencies and museums are diving into these complex ideas before facing what we really need to be talking about. We should be discussing permission, trust and control in our organisations. Who is involved in decision-making, and why? Who isn’t invited to the table?
At a recent international museum conference in Estonia in April we were challenged with the question, “what does it really mean to give authority over museum content to the citizen?” This question encapsulates our journey with Citizen Curators. Born from a desire to create a practical, high-quality and meaningful structure for participants and museums to explore cultural democracy with collections, we created a programme that flexes to their changing needs.
Negotiation is a critical element of the scheme’s resilience and the role of an effective mediator organisation like Cornwall Museums Partnership is critical, providing oxygen to all parties engaged in a democratic process that seeks to generate internal pressure for positive change. This kind of cultural democracy programme relies on being collaborative in its structure. That structure needs to balance diverse needs and desires while remaining true to its core values. Emmie Kell, CEO of CMP says, “Our model recognises that expertise lies across organisations and we try to create opportunities to share and amplify best practice at what ever ‘level’ it is found in an organisation.”
At the Curatorial Research Centre all of our educational work is led by research and evidence. Citizen Curators is also about active research. We are leading the programme while also collecting original evidence on its impact and outcomes over a four-year project that began in 2017 with the pilot. By June 2021 Citizen Curators will have produced not only 100 volunteers trained in basic curatorial practice and museum awareness plus providing unique access to the same training to some 30 staff, apprentices and interns, it will also produce a major body of quantitative and qualitative data that will make a significant contribution to museum and curatorial pedagogy.
Will Citizen Curators contribute to improving cultural democracy in our museums? What difference will it make to the participants? What difference will it make to the museum’s decision-making? How will the balance of power and permission, trust and control change? What difference will it make to our communities’ and stakeholders’ appreciation and value of museum collections?
Rationale and Models of Curatorial Learning
Citizen Curators is a new style of museum course that based on learning through doing, using a coaching-style of teaching. The fundamental idea is based on the power model of museums. Museums need to understand where their power lies and then learn how to share their power more widely. I developed this model of museum power based on an inverted pyramid.
Through the course, the Citizen Curators themselves develop their confidence around a set of competencies in five key areas of skill and awareness. Using their new-found confidence and knowledge to challenge stale and status quo narratives and key messages; as well as challenge decision-making that privileges certain kinds of museum programme over others.
The only prerequisites to joining the course are high motivation, demonstrable curiosity, being open to new ideas, and able to commit time. Participating museums are responsible for their own recruitment of volunteers and so far this has been a mix of new and existing volunteers. What has been a challenge is responding to the misconception that taking part in the Citizen Curators programme is somehow not volunteering. By investing in the curatorial learning of volunteers museums not only gain a new set of voices and people that have taken an interest in their collections — and in some cases become passionate champions of them — they are supporting a pathway into museum work which is in direct response to calls from national agencies such as Arts Council England’s Character Matters report. Through projects and interventions taking place at the museum, as outreach or online, the Citizen Curators are acting as ambassadors for the museum and its knowledge, as well as adding capacity to their ability to research and interpret collections.
Falmouth Art Gallery’s Gut Reaction
Falmouth Art Gallery’s Citizen Curators created outcomes that exemplified our ideal of supporting the creation of collection ambassadors. Working on a hitherto little researched collection, the Margaret Whitford Bequest of contemporary art, the Falmouth Citizen Curators explored the radical roots of the collection in feminist philosophy. The collection had been acquired by the museum with support from the Art Fund but until the programme started there had been little opportunity to find out more about the collector and her hugely varied collection. Their research was led by the open questions that the course encourages participants to embrace. They took a human-centred approach to research to try and get under the skin of the collector, for example building a relationship with people that Margaret Whitford knew, including poet and artist, Penny Florence with whom they organised a conversation workshop. The group used two methods of curatorial communication to reach their audiences, the first students of Pool Academy, the second, clients of FalCare, a charity which supports people with learning disabilities. By taking contemporary art out of its usual vocabulary and language, they intelligently facilitated workshops that encouraged participants to respond to the collection in a spontaneous way —through their gut reactions. The results of their response were hung alongside and interspersed with pieces from the Margaret Whitford collection as part of a month-long exhibition, and shared on Instagram.
Citizen Curator activity sits right in the middle of traditional categories of museum roles, occupying the space that has been widening as fast as the museum paradigm has been shifting — somewhere between collections management and documentation and publication/exhibitions on one end, and community engagement and learning on the other. While not an explicit aim of the programme, we think such schemes have huge potential in renewing our sense of appreciation and value directly in our collections. Research and knowledge that is shared widely must surely be a critical function of socially-engaged museums, particularly in this era of fake news, deep fakes and lack of trust in experts and expertise. When museums engage in peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, this has a direct impact on building trustful relationships with individuals and communities.
Citizen Curators at Penlee House intend to do just this through their project to reinterpret the museum building itself and in so doing promoting it as an important feature of Penzance history. Penlee House, since it was established in the 1990s has chosen to focus on its Newlyn School art collections as its speciality. While town history is presented in social history and archaeology displays, they have not formed a major part of the museum’s mission until now. Through display in Penlee House and communication in the the window of a disused shop in the centre of Penzance, the Citizen Curators aimed to encourage much more engagement from local people by making its history much more visible. The theme is picked up through large reproductions of historical residents displayed in windows of the museum that used to be blacked out. A legacy of this project will be to provide spoken tours to visitors, and it is hoped, in particular with content that will appeal to local people.
Through taking part in core sessions on collections, research, communication, communities and interpretation and (re)presentation, the Citizen Curators receive the same levels of intellectual stimulation and challenge as a Level 3 qualification but in a completely different package. However, it is never advertised as a replacement for formal qualifications. Rather we see Citizen Curators as an introductory or supplementary pathway into museum work or further study. Each core session comprises a half-day workshop and a mini-challenge which reinforces their learning through gallery-based group work. Throughout, there is a mixture of group activities and individual work. While in the museum they learn from real life scenarios, such as observing art hangs, undertaking condition reports or writing for websites. Optional masterclasses and field trips have included citizen science, conservation, subject specialist museums, exhibition critique, museum ethics and taking part in national consultations on museum issues. The whole programme is designed to be flexible around the busy lives of volunteers, most of whom are working or studying alongside.
Time and cost of travel is our (rural and Cornish) biggest barrier to cultural opportunity and this is amplified when you look at routes to working or volunteering in a museum. Cornwall’s other dimension of exclusion is the lack of understanding about the Cornish, an officially recognised National Minority equal with the UK’s other Celtic nations. Yet in spite of this protection and recognition, the Cornish are not able to express their identity with a tick box in the Census like other nations can, let alone find anywhere to explore intersections of Cornish identity in our cultural institutions such as our museums.
This socio-cultural scenario is informing the major legacy of the Citizen Curators programme in Cornwall. Over the project the work and curatorial knowledge gained by the Citizen Curators will inform the curation of the Cornish National Collection, a distributed collection that must represent the diversity of Cornish society past and present. This is a strategic priority of Cornwall Museums Strategy and is a proactive response to the recognition of the Cornish as a National Minority in April 2014 by the UK Government under the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The Citizen Curators will research and create the criteria for inclusion, they will create the content that interprets a living collection that represents stories of Cornishness that we hardly hear in the Duchy, let alone outside it. “We want to celebrate the national without straying into the nationalistic” (Allison Fox, Curator, Manx National Heritage.)
Royal Cornwall Museum’s Hireth
As part of the programme’s pilot in 2017/18, the Citizen Curators of Royal Cornwall Museum decided to develop a new dimension and new audience for its fine art landscape collections based on people’s feelings of Cornish identity and belonging (and alienation). Curator Michael Harris had already provided a framework for a new gallery hang of a wide range of landscape art, including textiles and sculpture, to reflect how feelings around landscapes run deep in many people’s sense of self and collective identity. The Cornish-language word hireth defies a straightforward English translation. It conveys a sense of identity, belonging and a longing for home. What the Citizen Curators wanted to do was to take this idea to a completely new audience and inaugurated the museum’s first foray into Instagram as a platform for curating its visual art. The campaign was curated relatively simply but effectively. They each used the curator’s personal voice to interpret various artworks or details from them, and then invited a response. Some of these were then selected to refresh and augment the gallery hang, thereby creating the two-way conversation that we crave as curators.
Results of the pilot
Participant satisfaction in the pilot was high. This was monitored through qualitative feedback and a formal exit questionnaire. In general the features they found most appealing were the behind the scenes aspects of the programme, the permission to represent the museum on public platforms such as radio and the chance to work towards a goal that they had a large role in shaping.
“It’s nice to have our voices included.”
“I feel confident now I can go for museum jobs.”
“My highlight was talking about opium on the radio.”
Citizen Curators pilot feedback, 12 March 2018.
We can also quantify the impact of the programme based on self-assessment methods developed by the Curatorial Research Centre. Participants are asked to rate their confidence levels in 11 key areas relating to our competency model at the start of the programme and then again at the end. At a glance, the diagrams show in which areas the participants have felt they have grown the most, and in which areas they are still stretching.
We also collected feedback from museum colleagues and continue to do so during the full three-year programme. The main criticism of the pilot programme was that integration with the wider museum team could have been better. This led us to establish mentoring by a museum staff member which varied from being a practical guide to getting heavily involved in the work of the Citizen Curators. Capacity at our small museums remains a constant challenge and the programme does push organisations to think carefully about the time it takes to settle in new volunteers. Some will be self-starters and willing to take the initiative within the protocols of their museum, others require more reassurance, still others might think they know more than they do. Like any experiential learning programme, being able to balance the diverse needs of participants and organisations is essential. Open dialogue helps and as Programme Leader my priority is to keep communication channels open and ongoing throughout the process. Group dynamics can be unpredictable and Citizen Curators is no exception. Another priority for me is to provide as much support as the museums want or need when they experience bumps in the road. This is, after all, as much of a learning experience for established museum professionals (and long-term volunteers set in their ways) as it is for the Citizen Curators.
There were some practical issues that needed resolving (or reminding) related to space, use of desks, access to stores and computers. To improve this during the full programme we insist that all volunteers receive a full museum induction prior to starting the course, and this coming year, we will be asking museums to settle in volunteers a number of weeks before the formal part of the course starts. Some ideological opposition suggested that the participants should not be permitted to use a title with ‘curator’ in it. From the participant point of view, it was really important to them to be able to use this title, particularly for those wanting their Citizen Curators experience to count towards a future job or study programme.
Positive feedback from the museum point of view included how the programme had helped to raise the profile of the museum in new places. Citizen Curators were chosen as a key stop on a tour by Prince Charles (Duke of Cornwall) in March 2018. Across the board with the pilot and the first year of the full programme, seeing participants grow in confidence came back as the resounding highlight for museum colleagues and directors.
Work in progress
On recruiting for Year 1 of the full three-year programme we can report that it was over-subscribed with three times more expressions of interest than places. All places were filled.
Our target for retention on an annual basis is 70%. We have retained 71%. A major cause for lower numbers was the temporary withdrawal of one museum from the programme because of logistical problems that they could not overcome. Again the flexible nature of this programme meant that we could easily withstand this without it affecting the experience of other participating museums. Three of the seven museums retained their full groups. Drop out has mainly been caused by change of personal circumstances or health reasons. Other causes have included lack of satisfaction in the museum volunteering experience — although participants have been reluctant to put their reasons on the record. The sense of the museum as establishment or authority figure still remains in the minds of many.
Attendance at core and optional sessions met or exceeded our targets, particularly in the core programme. The number of non-Citizen Curators interested in participating in the workshops also exceeded our expectations — staff, apprentices and interns — these are other pathways CMP is investing in and promoting.
We have just completed a rapid evaluation of Year 1 and as a result we have made some changes to the programme for Years 2 and 3. Participants who complete the programme are awarded a Statement of Accomplishment, like a certificate, which endorses their learning on the course. This endorsement is made by Cornwall Museums Partnership, their home museum, the funders, Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and the Curatorial Research Centre. Questions have been asked about who accredits our course? The answer is, we do. Unlike book-based learning and essay style assessment, Citizen Curators is all about self and peer-review. We believe that we are jointly in the best position to judge whether a participants has achieved in all areas than someone who doesn’t know them or doesn’t know their museums — and crucially — the learner is at the centre of assessing their own progress. As we begin recruitment for Year 2 we look forward to seeing what the coming year might bring. A new set of opportunities, a new set of challenges, new ways of curating our collections.
Director and Curator, Curatorial Research Centre
First published in Museum-iD magazine (issue 24, Sep 2019) / published online 28 January 2020