Hurdles to Participation

©Brooklands Museum
©Brooklands Museum

In this informative post Sally Whitaker, independent adviser, summarises her Kids in Museums literature review into the hurdles to participation children, families and young people face when visiting museums.

This week sees the launch of a literature review I undertook for Kids in Museums exploring what is currently known about the hurdles or barriers to participation by children, families and young people in museums. The review identified a complex mix of barriers and in the report each is set out under one of six headings, however, as would be expected, they are interconnected and not discrete.

Before looking at the barriers it is important to be clear what is meant by ‘participation’. The use of the word can be misleading as it may mean different things to different people. In my report I took true participation to be ‘meaningful engagement’ or engagement which is designed to enable and empower children and young people in becoming regular and comfortable consumers of what museums have to offer; and which, in the longer term, may contribute to a reduction in inequalities for the less advantaged and marginalised, and the development of personal and social skills, boosting of self-esteem, have a positive effect on health and well-being, and ultimately the enhancement of an individual child or young person’s life chances and choices. Not all of those who measure involvement or participation in museums or other venues look at it this way – published statistics are mostly a simple headcount of those children and young people entering the institutions.

© Brooklands Museum
© Brooklands Museum

 

The review revealed that hurdles to participation range from very practical barriers to social and attitudinal barriers and from changes to the school curriculum and cuts in funding:

  • practical barriers: the availability of public transport, and its cost; the cost of involvement – entrance fees etc.; project closures; availability and cost of refreshments; information on what’s available; poor communication and marketing; rurality (scattered populations and isolation); and lack of available time.
  • social and attitudinal barriers: evidence shows that audiences/visitors tend in the main to be from better educated and more affluent backgrounds. Parental influence can be both positive and negative: if a parent is unwilling to engage this can impact on other family members whether their unwillingness is caused by emotional (fear, discomfort) or interest barriers (not knowing what is available or understanding the relevance of what their child is doing). Children and young people may well hold a negative view of museums as remote and inaccessible, and not relevant to their everyday lives. Through school visits, museums and galleries could also have negative associations for some children and young people as may schools and other authoritarian environments have for them.
  • pressures on schools and curriculum changes: schools are generally seen as the best way to engage with children and young people, however we learn that creating and sustaining relationships with schools has become a real challenge for the sector. Poor communication, timetabling demands, budget cuts, a shift in targets, a reduction in time available for visits, less of a focus on arts brought by the change in curriculum, and stopping museum and gallery outreach activities have all contributed to the difficulties and uncertainties now existing.
  • limited consultation with young people: current literature which discusses the importance of consulting young people is very clear on the importance of proper engagement and the need for museums to develop a way of interacting with young people with equal respect as they give adults. It may well be that more support is needed for this to become commonplace:

‘Only children and young people themselves can communicate what they like or dislike, what works for them and what doesn’t. Services that involve them meaningfully in individual decision-making and planning, delivery and evaluation will be better able to meet their needs and be better used by them.’

From The Participation Charter www.participationworks.org.uk

  • poor collaboration – museums and community groups: at times collaboration and co-production can become one-sided if the museums are too controlling and risk-averse, leaving community partners disillusioned and unwilling to work with them again. Strategic partnerships need to be very carefully planned and put together to ensure an equal match throughout a project.
  • project funding and funding cuts: the short-term nature of project funding, and pressures of finding match funding can prevent the achievement of longer term changes and sustainability. The pressure to produce positive reports to encourage further funding without time to reflect on learning can be damaging to local needs and relationships.

All the above can contribute to the creation of an environment which sustains a lack of equality of opportunity for all to experience what is rightly theirs to experience.

If these inequalities and the lack of diversity are to be effectively addressed we need better participation and involvement of children and young people and better information on current participation. The research convinced me that the sector would benefit from the development of clear practice guidelines on, and the rolling out of programmes supporting effective participation and meaningful engagement. What additional data would helpful? It would be good to know who does what, where at the moment – how do they operate and what are the backgrounds of the children and young people with whom they engage? how do you select who goes on school visits and what can be done to ensure the less advantaged do not miss out? Where are young volunteer schemes operating what has been the impact of those schemes? Do they involve those from diverse backgrounds or less advantaged communities, either rural or urban? What programmes are there that engage with family members and break down barriers of exclusion? What has worked and can that programme be rolled out further?

Some excellent programmes and projects exist around the country and organisations are now beginning to capture greater detail on who their visitors are. With better knowledge sharing and a clearer focus, I’m hopeful that positive practices will become more commonplace and the learning that emerges will be used to drive funding to projects and programmes designed to successfully address the imbalance.

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