Wider participation in decision-making has the potential to fundamentally change museums – to create more porous and relevant organisations, to shift power and ensure museums are for everyone.
To transform, however, museums need to involve a wider range of people in strategic decision-making and governance, with participation in their oversight and direction.
I wanted to explore how museums are engaging with participation. I interviewed museum staff, trustees and partners about the role of the museum in the community, the participatory work of museums and their ambitions for the future.
The results of this research are brought together in a newly published report, Democracy at the Top. This outlines the barriers and enablers to greater participation, the varied factors involved in changing power in museums, and the actions that have influenced change so far.
There is strong co-production work happening, seeking to shift power and leave a lasting legacy, for example through capital redevelopments. To date, however, participatory work has largely focused on temporary, ad hoc projects, mostly restricted to programming and displays, and is seen as the responsibility of certain teams and additional to core work and budgets.
Museums retain power and decide how and when people can participate. Communities are consulted on strategic issues, rather than having a role in decision-making.
Even where museums do a lot of co-production, there are limited mechanisms for people to contribute to wider strategy or priorities. Museum boards lack diversity, and trustees have limited relationships with the staff and participants involved in participatory projects.
While much needs to change for participation to make a stronger impact, some museums are actively progressing this work. Emergent practice shows how participation might impact the whole organisation, leave a lasting legacy, influence the museum’s strategy and direction, and give people more power to determine the scope of work, and have direct involvement in leadership and governance.
To make participation more powerful, museums should take a new approach. This involves moving from individual projects to systemic change. Museums should:
- Improve board diversity and culture. Museums are struggling to shift the diversity of boards. We need to change board culture, improve accessibility, and widen the scope of business, alongside better recruitment.
- Diversify and support staff. The workforce is key in breaking down barriers between institutions and communities. Museums need to develop staff skills and capacity, encourage a critical and reflective approach, and recognise and support the emotional labour involved in participatory practice. Leaders also need mentoring and networks to support change.
- Reduce hierarchies. Museum leaders expressed interest in creating flatter internal structures, seeing democracy as internal and external. Opportunities to develop relationships, discussion, and collaboration across all levels of staff, trustees, and community partners would also help boards and leaders to benefit from a range of perspectives, and learn from participatory work.
- Be more open. Many museums want to be flexible, responsive and engage in honest, open conversation. Get collections, staff, and trustees out of the building, develop a broader understanding of heritage and culture, and emphasise human stories and everyday experience.
- Take a holistic approach. Participation can be part of every role and aspect of the museum, and feature in decision-making at every level and stage of work. For example, some museums are shifting their thinking from co-curating content to co-curating the whole visitor experience.
- Look beyond the museum sector. Many museums recognise that other sectors are trialling and using processes that are yet to really influence how museums work. Take learning from elsewhere and experiment with different models of participation.
The full report details the research findings as much as possible in the words of museum staff, trustees and partners. Interviewees reflected experience at a wide variety of museums with a strong track record in community participation.
This research was supported by Clore Leadership and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.