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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

What was first | The Chicken or The Egg?

Originally posted on 29 August 2013 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject A round up on Open Culture 2013 by Julie Reynolds.

Last month, I attended the Open Culture 2013 conference [image above] and heard speakers from heritage organisations across the world discuss:  How can collections management power the participatory museum of tomorrow?  Listening to and interviewing delegates I found that people were generally happy with the way the conference was exploring thinking about participatory projects – speakers were on the ‘right track’! This blog (one of four) is focusing on the social and political aspects of the conference and shares   what representative groups and funders think about participatory practice.  Hopefully you can take something away to help you think about how to engage with participatory practice in your organisation.

Two of the speakers, Maurice Davies, Head of Policy and Communications, Museums Association (MA) and Piotr Bienkowski, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, discussed how the museum has a social function, how participatory practice can only work if the whole museum/organisation is on board and where collections management fits in.  We’ll start by looking at how the Paul Hamlyn Foundation encourages organisations to make serious changes to their working practices for participatory initiatives to be sustainable and effective.

Changing the organisation?

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Piotr Bienkowski shared learning from ‘Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners’, a programme that was developed in response to the research Whose Cake is it Anyway? .   The research identified barriers that prevent participatory practice being embedded in organisations.  It found that participatory practice is usually operated on the outskirts of an organisation and was short-term due to being funding reliant and therefore was not sustainable. As a result, most communities involved in participatory initiatives with museums and galleries feel they are ‘beneficiaries’ and not ‘active agents’. Our Museum, a community engagement programme run by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, is enabling the Foundation to work actively with nine UK museums and galleries to embed participatory initiatives into the core values of a museum’s/gallery’s working practice.

So, what did we learn about the processes of implementing organisational change and what a museum has to do to become a successful participatory museum? Bienkowski highlighted how change doesn’t happen overnight and it can take two to three years; how reflection has to be embedded in to all aspects of an organisation and how this works internally, and with communities and other organisations.  For example, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation works closely with the organisations in Our Museum by providing support, training and development and encouraging sharing through clustering, peer learning and peer review.  If you would like to learn more you can join the Our Museum community.  We heard how there are 12 things a museum needs to change to be a participatory museum: values; behaviours; decision-making [leadership and governance]; communications; policies; structure and rules; skills; activities [and this is where collections management came in]; physical design; reflection and learning and delegation.  It was emphasised that museums and galleries need to: work as one whole organisation and not be led by charismatic leaders who start projects and then vanish leaving no legacy behind; be routed in local needs; give communities real ‘agency’; be serious about their commitments and develop staff skills to understand communities; not be afraid of conflict; work with other organisations to deliver specific skilled services – a museum can’t do everything and doesn’t have the skills to do everything!.

But, where does collections management fit in? I think Piotr Bienkowski got our attention at the beginning of his talk when he said he didn’t believe that collections management ‘powered’ participatory practice. He saw collections management as an element or an activity amongst others that all had to work together for an organisation to be effective.  Participatory collections management can only flourish within an organisation culture that has addressed all the barriers and issues preventing participatory practice from being sustainable.  He recommended that Revisiting Collections a toolkit created in the mid 2000s by Museums, Libraries and Archives and the Collections Trust should be looked at to understand good practice of participatory working.  He introduced Caroline Reed, Consultant who had just published a report ‘Is Revisiting Collections Working?’ for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation evaluating the methodology of Revisiting Collections.

Caroline Reed then shared some insights on how Revisiting Collections supports museums to run object sessions, use open ended questioning, create user led content, capture external voices for future displays etc. It is a structured framework with the idea of bringing participation to the heart of collections interpretation and management. Its objectives mirror Our Museum and it wants to generate legacy, support organisational change, increase participation (especially with ‘hard to reach’ groups) and importantly make documentation a genuine tool for access.  Research found museum staff recognised the benefits of Revisiting Collections but unfortunately the methodology is not being championed in organisations as a whole, so if you are not using this look it up [link above] and if you are using it please share it and advocate it.

Most of what Piotr Bienkowski discussed is echoed in the MA’s current thinking about museums and social impact and I’ll now share what we heard about the MA’s vision.

Change is in the air

There’s a shift happening in the sector. This is a time in which museums are leading themselves, rather than be led by political guidelines, so the MA are thinking about how to guide museums into the future.   They’ve been reflecting on past work and have consulted both the public [What the Public Thinks: Public perceptions of and attitudes to the purposes of museums in society, by BritainThinks] and sector groups [Museums 2020] to see how museums should move forward. The result, Museums Change Lives was published in July.  Speaking at Open Culture 2013 Maurice Davies said: “it’s the MA’s vision for the impact of museums. It’s written as a ‘call to arms’ and there’s hope that the sector will unite behind this document and we can send it to funders, and we can use it to show partners the kinds of things that they can do in museums”.  But Davies did point out that the document is seeking to challenge and is open to debate, so do be part of the conversation if you haven’t already via ♯museumschangelives.

But where does collections management fit in? Davies quoted his colleague, Sally Colvin, Effective Collections Coordinator, as saying ‘no-one else really cares if museums have a whole documentation backlog!’   Everyone laughed and this brought us all back to the reality of working with collections.  So, Davies advised that those thinking of participatory practice collections management should: see things from other points of view; be really responsive to requests to use collections; be open minded to ideas and be ready to find solutions to respond; be entrepreneurial.

Going back to Museums Changes Lives we heard how it is asking for museums to think about social impact and participatory practice and to change the way they work  – outside first, then in..  It has 10 principles for museums to think about:

  • Every museum is different, but all can find ways of maximising their social impact

  • Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums

  • Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others

  • Active public participation changes museums for the better

  • Museums foster questioning, debate and critical thinking

  • Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs

  • Effective museums engage with contemporary issues

  • Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums

  • Museums are not neutral spaces

  • Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness

It concludes with Practical Actions for Museums.

In Museum Changes Lives the MA acknowledge the changing social shift the museum’s place within that. After the conference I began to wonder if this was happening naturally, so, I asked a London Museum Group colleague, Cheryl Smith, Head of Heritage at Islington Heritage, what’s happening on the ground? How are small/medium museums or heritage services beginning to think about participatory practice and how is this affecting job roles?  Cheryl’s response was this: ‘Part of our job is to show how heritage in its widest sense is relevant. The role of every member of staff at Islington Heritage has changed to being that of project managers, creative consultants and community advisors. External communities and organisations come to us for help and support with their own heritage projects from funding applications to supporting them to realise projects or even managing them ourselves. Objects are not the basis of the projects but we do point them to our archives and objects so that they can undertake their own research. For us objects or material culture are secondary to the stories of the social history of the area. Objects help tell the story (and are often interesting in themselves) but only act as scene setting or props for the projects. We need objects and museums are ways of using objects. We are the history, the community is the centre!’ This quote illustrates quite nicely how organisational shifts can take place naturally, of their own accord, guided by public/community needs. But as we all know, all museums and heritage services are different and have different external communities and audiences. Therefore, the shift may be occurring naturally within some museums/heritage services because a wider social culture is changing, therefore needs are changing and museums are responding to their audience’s need. This is something museums/heritage services are good at. Thinking about this social shift and the message of Museums Changes Lives and Our Museum to think ‘outside’ brings me on to the talk by Culture Action Europe, which placed all of this in a wider cultural global political place.

We are not in a crisis…

Following the MA’s ‘call to arms’ we heard Luca Bergamo, Secretary General, Culture Action Europe (CAE) talk about ‘how in the midst of the transition between a world driven by Western powers and world driven by transnational interest and emerging national powers, Europe can play a role by investing in assets that are mostly intangible and cultural. In this way the cultural sector can play a critical role’[Open Culture 2013 brochure]. He said: “We are not in crisis.  This is not a crisis – for us it is a transition. He asked people to think about how culture should be part of decision makers’ thinking and how we should be participating and engaging in a wider public debate to prove that culture is an asset in these changing times. Bergamo demonstrated the importance of thinking about participation with communities and changing our organisations internally to do that, but also recognising this has to be part of a bigger picture and our role as citizens and organisations in a global context is part of that dialogue. We have to actively direct discussions around culture to influence decision makers, to put culture on the ‘table’ and say ‘this is what we have to discuss’.

But, how can collections management become part of this dialogue?  Bergamo invited everyone to join and be part of the CAE conference: ‘It’s not just a crisis, it is a transition!’ Rome -4, 05 October details here.

Summing up | What was the first: the chicken or the egg? 

So, we’ve heard about the challenges of embedding participatory practice into an organisation for it to be effective, how museums should start with the outside first and become active agents themselves and think globally.  We’ve recognised that museums are responding naturally to outside communities’ needs (something we’re good at). We’ve heard how we have to be entrepreneurial and still work with that backlog of documentation!

In addition to the above voices, all of the conference speakers from heritage organisations were actively undertaking participatory projects and talked about similar issues.  There was an overall feeling of not letting barriers get in the way, of working with communities in quality participatory projects, and being ‘open’.  The theme of openness and speakers views on organisational change will be discussed in the second blog: What we heard.

But how will you [small, medium or large museum] start thinking about participatory projects?  Will you start by ‘doing first’ or ‘changing your organisation’s culture first’, or ‘both’? – the chicken first or the egg? We’d love to hear your thoughts; please shout out!

Author | Julie Reynolds, Open Culture 2013 Blogger

August 2013

This is reprinted with the kind permission of the Collections Trust.

The views expressed in this blog/article are mine and are not representative of the Collections Trust. The blog’s purpose is to open up discussion.

A London Museums Group colleague, LMG Blog co-ordinator Susan van Schalkwyk, kindly tweeted live from the event and has used Storify to report on the event and this will be published here soon.  There is also a great round up of all the conversations on twitter, kindly provided by ON:meed:ia. Click here.

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