Participation begins within the Museum
At St Fagans: National History Museum we have recently been given the good news that we have funding for a major redevelopment of the Museum. The overall goal is to transform St Fagans into a world-class national museum of history that is driven by the needs of its users [see image above] . With funding from the Heritage Lottery Grant and Welsh Government, the work of constructing a new gallery and refurbishing the existing galleries will start next year. Both funders emphasise the importance of participation and listening to our users. The question is: How do we reconcile this with the usual pattern of front-end, formative and summative evaluation? If we are to place users’ needs at the heart of the museum’s work, surely we must develop more adaptive and participative ways of carrying out evaluation.
Sharing with staff
Most museums are practised at producing visitor studies, reports and gathering data about visitors and non-visitors. Very rarely, however, are their findings shared and discussed across the whole range of staff, let alone made relevant to the work of individuals. We believe that participation begins ‘within’ the museum and at St Fagans, we have tried to do this by involving over 70 members of staff in the evaluation and consultation processes of preparing our plans for redevelopment. Staff trained as scribes and facilitators for focus group discussions, and conducted surveys to track and map current visitor behaviour. This may not be as scientifically rigorous as work undertaken by professional evaluators, but it has exposed a wide range of staff to first-hand interaction with visitors and audiences we find hard to reach. This in turn has led to informed internal discussion about how we need to move forward. The findings were perceived to be less unfairly critical than reports produced by outsiders, yet harder to dismiss.
Sharing with other museums
Research reports published online by museums such as Glasgow Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are a useful source of information for practice that has worked well elsewhere. The majority, however, are summative evaluations published long after the project is live, and driven by the needs of funding bodies. Their purpose is mainly to persuade funders of the success of projects and not necessarily to impact on present and future practice. How is it that most museums, despite many years of evaluating their work, are still producing fundamentally similar gallery displays and attract the same types of visitors? Are we evaluating the wrong things?
One of the issues is that there is little consistency of approach across the sector. The methodologies used and the knowledge gained often resides with external audience research companies and consultants. Comparing data can therefore be challenging. It would be a real step forward if museums could find a way of working together to find a common approach, share methods and standardise questions so that research findings can be shared and inform the whole sector. Could a central place be provided for all museums to store and post recent research that would avoid trawling through numerous websites, blogs and publications?
Sharing with community partners
Our ambition at St Fagans is to be a participatory museum on a national scale, providing opportunities for all the diverse peoples of Wales to participate in creating and sharing content. Our inspiration is the work of Nina Simon (www.participatorymuseum.org) who defines such museums as a ‘multidirectional content experience, a platform that connects different users who act as content creators, distributors, consumers, critics and collaborators.’ There is very little evaluation of participatory projects in the museum world. If museum objectives are changed by the participation of users, then the process of evaluation needs to be ongoing and adaptive.
There are potential partners in other organisations who already have expertise in this area. Through our involvement in the Paul Hamlyn initiative,Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners, we are already learning how to involve others in our decision making – to share authority and ways of working with voluntary and other third sector organisations who have much deeper experience of working with those we traditionally find hard to reach. The lessons learned from Our Museum will inform work with our other participatory forums, representing all our target audiences.
These will help us to create a programme of evaluation, considering how we evaluate the success and impact of the process as well as the product. We need to create measuring techniques that are useful to both museum and community partners, which can be implemented by in-house staff, volunteers and community partners. We are in this together, hopefully for the long term.
This is not a strategy for the risk averse. We learn as much from failure as success. Both should be shared honestly, as they happen, with our colleagues in other museums if we are to create truly culturally democratic museums and reduce inequalities in participation in the cultural activities we provide. We are at the start of the journey and you can follow our progress at http://www.museumwales.ac.uk.
Author | Nia Williams, Learning Manager
St Fagans: National History Museum
Amgueddfa Cymru-Museum Wales