Museums are increasingly taking a participatory approach to working with communities, which is reflected in the projects the Museums Association supports through the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and the Digital Innovation and Engagement Fund, both of which I help administer.
For participatory practice to succeed, the balance of power needs to shift to create equitable relationships where the museum isn’t automatically taking the lead. Many of our projects have been exploring avenues to ensure this by finding ways to reimburse participants for the time and effort they put into their museum.
Here are some things to consider that have been shared by project grantees:
- Is the project volunteering or participation?
It can be hard to define where volunteering ends and participation begins, but you should consider how you reimburse everyone who provides their time to help achieve organisational goals. Offering refreshments, cafe vouchers or free entry to exhibitions are ways that project grantees can thank volunteers.
For those who provide expertise and share lived experience, you might consider something more. Durham University Museums’ payment is based on the level of involvement. Community curators, for example, are paid an hourly rate, while members of the steering group are offered Amazon vouchers.
- Be proactive
There might be significant training and wellbeing benefits to participants,
but this does not mean that you shouldn’t also reimburse them for their expenses or time. Towner Eastbourne offered project participants – for a podcast series co-hosted with the LGBTQ+ community – £10 to cover expenses. Few took up the offer, but having the option made for a more equitable relationship.
- Involve your participants in the process
Participants should be involved in the decision- making at an early stage. Consider working with them to decide how best to reimburse people for their time.
The Horniman Museum in London recently took this approach for its 696 Festival. Music curator Adem Holness, who led the project, says: “I view the participants and artists we work with as a core part of our team. So, sharing decision-making about budgets is essential.
"Shaping project budgets in partnership with artists means we get to work out the scale of ambition of the work together, while ensuring they get paid fairly. Part of the reason the Horniman’s 696 resident artists have been so successful, with such varied outputs, has been because each commission was bespoke to an artist, their practice and where they’re at in their journey.”
Also consider how you reimburse organisational partners such as schools,
care homes and community groups for any unpaid involvement in programmes.
High Life Highland offered an after-hours “head torch” tour of the Highland Folk Museum to a local youth group it had worked with. Other projects have provided free education sessions or curator talks.
- How much you pay participants doesn’t just depend on your budget
Participants may already be receiving state benefits that could be affected by anything they earn, so payment could ultimately leave them out
Mitigate this by setting your payments at the right level and supplementing them with non-financial benefits.
Caro Howell, the director of the Foundling Museum in London, says: “Payment for our training programme for care-experienced young adults is set at a level that doesn’t interfere with their benefits. Learning how to invoice us and manage payments is part of the life skills element of
- Don't commit to a method without trialling it first
The University of Cambridge Museums Group is piloting
a community panel process where it pays participants £40 for each two-hour session, inclusive of travel and meeting preparation time.
The panel meets every six weeks as the service trials different session topics and meeting formats to determine how best it can bring community voices into more areas of its activity.
For example, sessions have looked at how it runs volunteer recruitment and marketing activities, and how it approaches topics such as the environment. The group will evaluate these payment terms and processes as part
of its end-of-pilot feedback.
Ultimately, there is no single right way to reimburse your participants.
When considering the many unsalaried individuals and community groups that help make museums, start by asking yourself: “What’s in
it for them?”
Sarah Briggs is the collections development officer at the Museums Association