Reaching out

Alistair Brown, 05.12.2017
Do we need mass participation in museums?
At the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition a couple of weeks ago, I attended a session that promised to show the way towards mass participation in museums. I was intrigued. What is mass participation, and what problem is it trying to solve?

If understood solely in terms of bums-on-seats, one could argue that museums already have plenty of willing participants. The official data shows that museum attendance is at an all-time high, with over half the population visiting a museum at least once a year. Famously, more people visit museums than go to Premier League football matches every year.

But the mass participation that conference panellists had in mind is a more inclusive variety. In an article in Museum Journal earlier this year, panellist Nick Merriman reflected on the growing divides in society highlighted by Brexit, and the role that museums can play either in reinforcing those divides, or in healing them: “If we do not make more strenuous efforts to really reach out to those who do not think museums are for them, then we are part of the problem.”

On that measure, there is still work to do. The government’s Taking Part data shows that across England there is still a whopping 24-point difference in museum attendance between higher and lower socio-economic groups.

Some panellists at conference suggested as a solution scaling up outreach projects so that they reach an ever-growing number of people. Carol Rogers of National Museums Liverpool rightly highlighted the success of the House of Memories programme for people with dementia and their carers, showing how it has gone from a local initiative in Liverpool to being commissioned by the health service in sites across England.

These outreach projects offer part of the answer. But the question of mass participation provokes more fundamental questions about barriers to participation: How do we address the role of museums as places for advertising one’s social class? How should museums respond if audiences are not attracted by free entry? Should we accept the personal choices of the non-visitors who get their kicks elsewhere? Or should museums work harder to entice more representative audiences?

It seems to me that the voices missing in these debates are the same voices that are missing from our museums. We cannot hope to answer them without a better understanding of what non-visitors want. We need to ask ourselves whether museums can meet those needs. And we need to recognise that while we can adapt, we won’t be able to please everyone all of the time.

Work is already afoot to understand some of these issues. The MA is working with the Association of Independent Museums on research into diversifying museum audiences. Our Transformers professional development scheme has supported many museums to engage with this problem. And academic research on mass participation is also producing interesting results, particularly from the Understanding Everyday Participation project.

But museums themselves need to understand their non-visitors better. Whether this is by survey or market research or by understanding their council’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, museums can and must do more to engage with a wider and more representative audience. If we fail to act on this, then we really are “part of the problem”.


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Becki Morris
Lead: Disability Co-operative Network, Disability Co-operative Network for Museums
08.12.2017, 10:46
I work with adults who do not traditionally visit museums as they have difficulties within the education system in respect to late diagnosis of neurodiverse traits. Diagnosis has to be privately afforded and can be as high as £500 which is not affordable to some. Social barriers relating to this has fed into my work at DCN. When asking, one of the difficulties relates to what museums represent to non-users. Answer is museums are academic spaces of text based information. These people love history but cannot engage with consistent text based information and like all of us want multi-sensory engagement and participation. Other sectors we have worked with have created more long term strategy and have developed more inclusive practice. We are supporting the sector doing this and the work particularly by providers mentioned in the article is a real indicator for positive change. However, from the article inclusion should be seen as not a problem but as an opportunity. We need key messages relating to inclusive practice to support people with disabilities and neurodiversity, to feel authentic in these public spaces. There are some great opportunities here.