Community participation - Museums Association

Community participation

Museums should develop innovative models of engagement which represent the cultural context of their communities and nations and that are brave and challenging. Community groups should be valued and fully engaged with all functions of the museum.

A case study from Jon Sleigh, Learning Officer and Learning Curator

Are practitioners as brave as the collections we represent? Recognising our limitations of lived experience and where this starts in others is at the heart of community participation.

In 2018, I had the privilege to work with Birmingham Museums Trust, the Arts Council Collection and the Precious Trust, which works with young women at risk of violence and exploitation, on a project that changed my life.

I faced a major engagement barrier – an artwork in the exhibition ‘Women Power Protest’ made using a real gun that talked about violence against women. How could I honour this narrative with integrity and for a meaningful purpose?

My answer was to build a collaboration with The Precious Trust. Every day the team hear first-hand accounts of girls and young women being exploited for criminal purposes and forced to become a form of sexual currency.

The reality of this hidden abuse is that girls often suffer in silence. The Precious Trust’s mission is to fight on their behalf and enable the young women to keep safe, rebuild their lives, and enjoy a more positive future.

The Trust’s founder, Marcia Shakespeare, used the artwork on violence as a practical tool in advocating for change. In the gallery, some of Birmingham’s most vulnerable residents claimed space for powerful and emotive sharing. The girls reinterpreted the exhibition in their voice, connecting challenging lived experience to visitors.

Following this, the Precious Trust joined me in Parliament to meet MP Jess Phillips and tell their story. Their testimony fed directly into Jess’s work advocating nationally for women’s safety. A private tour of parliament completed our journey.

Starting with a deficit of lived experience, we used community participation as a tool for change and amplified this to influence national politics. This all started with true intent, a willingness to face the challenge, bravery and a cup of tea.