No pain, no gain

Last year, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) published a report entitled Whose Cake Is It Anyway? by Bernadette Lynch. Its …
Piotr Bienkowski
Last year, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) published a report entitled Whose Cake Is It Anyway? by Bernadette Lynch.

Its conclusion raised concerns about a tendency for participation work in UK museums and galleries to be short-term, not embedded, and what Lynch calls “empowerment-lite”.

To address the issues raised by the report, PHF has launched the new Special Initiative called Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners. The defining characteristic of Our Museum is that it offers support for organisations to manage significant structural change.

It is not about short-term project funding, but about facilitating organisational change so that participatory work becomes core, embedded, sustainable, less at risk of being marginalised when specific funding streams run out, and gives genuine agency to communities.

Although still in its early stages, the development of the initiative so far has already highlighted a few key issues, which seem to be central to successful, embedded participation. Here I will focus on just three of these points.

First, an organisation has to have a culture of honest reflection, both internally and with its communities, which means having a trusting dialogue with critical friends who can challenge assumptions without being branded as disloyal. It takes serious training and practice to make this work effectively.

Importantly, this reflective culture must be sustainable and self-renewing: once you’ve developed it, you must put in place a mechanism whereby new staff, partners and board members are introduced to this way of working through induction and training. Otherwise it gets lost very quickly.

Second, embedded participation is not just about what activities you do: to succeed, it requires a process of transformation which affects the whole organisation’s culture and structure.

Organisational change reaches deep into the heart of everything you do and affects every member of staff: it means re-evaluating values; behaviours; decision-making and governance; communication; policies; as well as activities.

This can be painful, and some organisations decide they don’t want to change – they simply want more money to do more one-off projects.

Third, the creation and sustainability of a truly participatory museum will not work unless there is clear buy-in and championing from the top – from the director and from the board. When the going gets tough – and believe me, it will get tough – everyone needs to know that the director will not suddenly shy away and change course.

Relationships with individual communities may wax and wane, but directors must be prepared to proclaim the principles and practice of active participation, so that everyone inside and outside knows that this is what the organisation does.

So why do it, if it is so hard? In my view, museums don’t have a choice. They must be in the business of responding to their communities’ needs and finding out what they want. Otherwise, they will remain elitist bodies.

The museums and galleries that are part of the Our Museum programme, together with the PHF itself as an independent funder, believe that museums have a role in social justice, and in developing people’s potential, skills and capabilities.

They believe that giving communities real agency, making them active partners, and appreciating what they can give you, is the proper role of a museum in today’s world.

Piotr Bienkowski is a cultural consultant, and project director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation initiative Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners

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