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Participation on Trial – Is it always a good thing?

Anna Salaman, Andrea Cunningham and Polly Richards explore what participation within the cultural and heritage sector looks like and question whether it is always a good thing.

We live in a digital age. And it is changing the world that we live in. Communication is quicker and easier than ever before, the internet has practically eliminated geographic distance as a barrier to shopping, business, crime, even (some would argue) ‘visiting’ museums,and it has never been easier to learn. The internet has opened up a whole new world of knowledge, skills and information sharing. Email, Skype, Twitter and a host of other social platforms have transformed the way we communicate, on both a personal and professional level. We can instantly offer our thoughts, opinions and own take on a whole world of articles, videos, music, recipes, history, art and so the list goes on. Self-obsessed, we create and share films, albums and play-lists which resonate with our personal experiences and perceived identities.

All this is happening faster than most of us can keep pace with. It is rapidly changing expectations which, cultural and otherwise, are now firmly placed in the rights of access, engagement and participation. (For now!)

So what does that mean for Museums? And what is participation anyway? In the introduction to her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon says: “Visitors expect access to a broad spectrum of information sources and cultural perspectives. They expect the ability to respond and be taken seriously. They expect the ability to discuss, share, and remix what they consume. When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life”
Which all sounds marvellous. Very exciting. Very now. But what does participation within the cultural and heritage sector look like, and is it always a good thing? And if it is a good thing, who is it actually good for?

Participation is, ultimately, about sharing. About inviting and trusting our audiences to contribute. It’s about relinquishing control and democratising the interpretation of our national heritage. The participatory museum is an audience-centered institution that is as relevant, useful, and accessible as a shopping centre or train station. A place where the visitor can construct their own meaning; where the users’ voices can inform and invigorate both project design and public-facing programmes.As opposed to the more traditional, didactic approach in which the museum identifies the knowledge it wishes to impart and transmits it to the visitor who receives it passively without question or comment.

There are countless examples of participation working across a variety of platforms in numerous museums: the Grant Museum’s Qrator project, the Museum of London’s co-curated ‘Our Londinium’ gallery and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s sobering online search for information about survivors of the Holocaust ‘Remember Me’ to name but three. Participation not only comes in many different forms but is embraced at a variety of deepening levels: from the light-touch ‘response card’ end of the continuum through consultation, co-curation and, ultimately, inviting the audience to stage their own exhibition or interpretation of the Museum’s collections. The received wisdom is that the participatory approaches employed here are inherently ‘good’, good for the visitor, good for the Museum, everyone’s happy. But is this really so? Are there potential pitfalls we are ignoring in our shiny new participatory world? Is it really good for everyone?

Critics have accused participation of a number of heinous cultural crimes including undermining knowledge, dumbing down, perpetuating banality and mediocrity, and false democratisation. These seem useful hooks around which to debate the current state of participation in museums.

Undermining knowledge
The case against participation argues that, in the participatory museum, personal responses are prioritised and the interpretation and narrative becomes minimal. The idea being that objects are open to a multiplicity of responses and readings and that the viewer’s interpretation is as valid as any other.Take, for example, the new hang at Tate Britain where labels are at a minimum and historic periods and genres are juxtaposed. On the surface this appears to be radical, inclusive, democratic. It appears that the institution is letting go of most of the authoritative control and meaning-making, handing it to the participant.

However, could it be that this simply results in the institution holding on to its knowledge and expertise about the collections, instead of sharing it with the visitor? Perhaps participation has unwittingly ensured that not only do museums still represent the interests of the social elite but now don’t even share their learning with the masses, leaving them with a sort of ‘do-it-yourself’ version.If knowledge is power then participation leaves us disempowered …but feeling nice.

In its defence, however, it seems this view assumes that the Museum is always the expert. But what if this is not the case? What if we use the Museum as a platform to share our knowledge?Any system which taps into a wide knowledge base must, ultimately reveal levels of expertise which are broader, richer and, therefore stronger.

Take the United States Holocaust Museum example. The Museum created the ‘Remember Me?’ website to enlist the public’s help in identifying more than 1,000 photographs taken of refugee children after World War II. Since its launch in March 2011, ‘Remember Me?’ has led to the identification of more than 330 of the 1,100 children on the site. In this case, far from undermining knowledge, the participatory approach has tapped into a previously unprecedented knowledge base while achieving those most elusive of museum interpretation goals: the emotional connection with the visitor and genuine, social impact.

Dumbing down
The mantra of participation is accessibility. Everything should be accessible so that the broadest cross-section of people can engage. However, could it be that in the name of accessibility, difficult ideas are over-simplified as complex language is removed and we are bombarded with open-ended questions and invited to make personal connections and contemporary links with displays – to draw, write poems and make comment?

Making personal connections with museum collections might make people feel better about themselves and more connected to the content, but does it actually challenge the participant? Does it stretch them? Do they discover anything unexpected? Do they work out something difficult? Do they learn anything new or are they simply re-enforcing what they already know? And are all those questions, provocations and invitations really as neutral as they appear?

The other question is the position of the expert in all of this and the years of study focused on particular artefacts and their histories. Don’t people want to hear and learn from those with authoritative knowledge about museum collections – not just from the person sitting next to them on the bus?

But is this argument confusing participation with accessibility? Is accessibility really synonymous with ‘dumbing down’? Can the institution which underestimates the skill required to unlock the stories and information contained within its collections to the widest possible audience ever be a forward thinking one?

Similarly, could the institution which undervalues the level of inherent skills, knowledge and expertise contained within its audience be underestimating and, ultimately, alienating them?Might such an institution be in danger of eventually rendering itself irrelevant and therefore defunct?

The Museum of London’s Roman Galleries are a case in point for using participatory practice to achieve accessibility without dumbing down. Co-curation with its Youth Advisory Group ensures accessibility and engagement in its young visitors and results in an experience which delights and informs young and old alike. A participatory approach to gallery development and interpretation creating an experience which is, arguably, both accessible and challenging.

Perpetuating banality and mediocrity
Another argument against participation is that simply inviting people to participate does not guarantee a quality debate, interesting critique or even an exciting conversation. At worst it can inspire bile and hatred. Even with content as serious and sensitive as Holocaust survivors the string of ‘poor baby’’ and ‘OMG-this-made-me-cry’ type comments remain prevalent.

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon cites the community gallery at the Detroit Historical Society which allowed the institution to reflect the unique and diverse stories of Detroit’s citizens. While the museum staff have the knowledge and experience to avoid dubious design choices in their own galleries, the community gallery is designed by partner groups who have been given the freedom to design the exhibit as they see fit. In an understandable attempt to give gravitas and integrity to their content they replicate the ultra-traditonal, text heavy interpretive approaches – the very modus operandi that the participatory museum project is trying to shed. Quality also varies: community outcomes do not always have the same high production values as those delivered by the museum itself. But if it doesn’t have the ‘home-made’ stamp how can you determine its ‘otherness’ – or does that not matter? “The hands-off approach overvalues the open-ended creativity of participants and undervalues the utility of scaffolding and creative constraints.”

Is participation leaving our national collections and narratives adrift in a sea of mushy opinions, half-baked arguments, falsehoods, personal prejudices and emotional fiddle-faddle? Or is it simply a case of providing the right framework – the right invitation?

Last year’s ‘Visions of the Universe’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich showcased some breathtaking images of space taken by leading experts. When the audience was invited to contribute their own images of space, the sky, literally, was the limit and the responses spectacular.Anyone who saw the work of these so-called ‘amateur photographers’ displayed side-by-side with the ‘professional’ photographs would be hard-pushed to describe any of it as mediocre or banal.

False democratisation
It would appear that the digital world we now live in has rendered participation inevitable. If museums don’t respond, the public will simply find increasingly clever and creative ways to have their say anyway. But is anyone really listening? Does anyone read the comment cards or do they simply sit on someone’s desk before ending up in the recycling? And does it really matter as long as the visitor goes away happy, thinking they have had their say and made a difference?

Can participation be truly democratic or does it simply favour those who want to participate while presenting barriers to those who do not? Are museums really ready for democratisation or are they just pretending? Is participation ghettoising the public in fake acts of involvement while, at their core, continuing to represent the interests of the social elite? Can participation ever benefit everyone? Perhaps it’s enough for participation to be a democracy of anybody as opposed everybody.

What is certain is that for participation to be more than fashionable window-dressing led by the liberal audience-focused teams in museums, it has to come with wider organisational and cultural will. It has to embrace both the traditional knowledge-based, collections focus of a museum’s function with the needs of an evolving public. This has to be real and at the core of the institution for it to have genuine impact. This is far easier said than done and the process is evolutionary. But everything starts with the conversation.

The National Maritime Museum’s new participation space ‘RE.THINK’ opens up the debate and invites different voices to join the conversation around the Museum’s key themes. In the first of a series of displays, the space focuses on Yinke Shonibare MBE’s artwork Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.

Through a series of displays and programmes the space facilitates conversation between the Museum, the visitor and the artist around the key theme of ‘Art and Empire’. Ultimately, it will provide the Museum with a variety of perspectives on how to interpret ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ in the context of the historical content it is juxtaposed with.

Meanwhile, the Museum will be keeping a close eye on the space, ever mindful of the debates surrounding participatory approaches and, no doubt, drawing some fascinating conclusions about its audiences and how they can be best served.

Anna Salaman – Head of Formal Learning; Andrea Cunningham – Head of Informal Learning; and Polly Richards – Exhibitions Interpretation Curator – National Maritime Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich

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