The Importance of Participatory Practice in Museums

Above: The Museum of Transology at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: James Pike Photography

Community engagement has become a key part of many museums. From discussion boards to full scale projects, institutions are constantly adapting to find new ways of connecting with people. In recent years, the use of participatory practice has become popular amongst different cultural organisations in order to create more inclusive spaces for their local communities. But what is participatory practice? 

Participatory practice rejects traditional collections centred approaches in favour of an audience-centred approach which puts local communities first. This can be differentiated from simply attending museum events where audiences have not been involved in the creation process and are simply receivers of pre-decided information. Participatory practice gives audiences more autonomy within museums, allowing them to take an active role in deciding what museums should exhibit and how they should exhibit them.

There are three different types of participatory practice. The first is the contributory project where visitors will be invited to share objects, ideas, or thoughts with the museum in a pre-decided way. The most popular type of contribution usually comes in the form of discussion boards at the end of exhibitions where audiences are prompted to express their opinions on their museum visit. The second type is known as co-collaboration. Here, members of the community are invited to work as active partners in the creation of projects. However, the goals of these projects are usually defined by the originating institution and members of the community will be invited to take up pre-decided roles. Specific audiences are usually targeted for these kinds of projects. For example, many museums create projects targeted at young people to help them gain new skills. The third and final type is known as co-creation. This sees members of the local community involved in developing projects which reflect their own interests. The vision and outcomes of these projects have not yet been defined by museum staff, and instead they work with community groups in order to outline them. Facilitation of these practices have many benefits for the local community. With reference to the Museum of Oxford, the cities first museum dedicated to telling the story of Oxford and it’s people, and the Museum of Transology, a collection committed to stopping the erasure of transgender history through telling the stories of their community, this article will explore the benefits of using the above mentioned practices in order to engage local communities.

Photo from the Rhodes Must Fall Protest. Supplied as part of the digital Black Lives Matter Exhibition by Marta Lomza.

Firstly, creating opportunities for collaboration with different groups of people that represent a broad spectrum of the population promotes inclusivity within the museum space. The Museum of Oxford has achieved this through using both contributory projects and co-creative projects. The first, City Stories, is contributory and aims to collect a variety of personal stories belonging to the people of Oxford. Prompted by a specific theme, members of the public are invited to upload materials relating to select projects. Some past themes have included Black Lives Matter, Oxford’s twin cities, the Covid-19 Pandemic, and what it’s like to be a part of the LGBTQIA + community living in Oxford. The second project is co-creative and involves the building of a new space called Museum Makers which will open at the Museum of Oxford in September 2021. This space has been designed to encourage communities to organise and create exhibits centred around their own interests and experiences. Both projects aim to reflect the stories of their diverse communities, and can help to build a more comprehensive understanding of different parts of society.

Work being conducted on the Museum Maker's Space at the Museum of Oxford, September 2020
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museum of Oxford

These types of projects also come with added benefits. Allowing the local community to share their experiences and knowledge with museum professionals and staff can have a positive impact on their psychological and personal welfare. Feeling like a valued member of society can increase self-worth and lead to increased self-determination. It also gives both museum professionals and the public opportunities to learn new skills from each other. In turn, the museum becomes a socially engaged venue that responds to and interacts with the lived experiences of different people.

On a more serious note, participatory practice can also be used to help people engage with contemporary issues and learn about subjects that have previously been ignored in public spaces. The Museum of Transology, which holds the largest collection of objects belonging to transgender, non-binary, and intersex people in the UK, has achieved just this through making use of co-collaborative practice. The museum’s collection was built by E-J Scott and aimed to fight the erasure of transgender history through sharing the experiences and stories of the community. It involved running collection workshops in community spaces in order to build trust with transgender, non-binary, and intersex people who were skeptical of museums. Items were collected, each with a tag attached to it to signify what it meant to the owner and how it was significant to their gender journey. The resulting collection has been exhibited at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery as part of Be Bold, a series of events developed in unison with Brighton’s LGBTQIA+ communities, and at the Fashion Space Gallery in London. The use of co-collaboration gave members of this community the opportunity to share their specific struggles, journeys, and triumphs, giving them a visibility that has often been denied in cultural spaces.

Museum of Transology Cabinet Space at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
PHOTOGRAPH BY James Pike Photography

Furthermore, this retrospective created a space for members of the wider public to learn about their local LGBTQIA+ community as well as give them the opportunity to evaluate their own attitudes, thoughts, and feelings on gender politics. The fact that the exhibition made use of multiple perspectives, rather than taking a more traditional approach of having one person controlling the production of information, meant that it was of a more personal and intimate nature and allowed people from all areas of life to empathise and understand the struggle of transgender, non-binary, and intersex people. The Museums of Transology’s collection continues to grow, and will hopefully soon find a permanent home for its exhibition.

In summary, both museums show the wide-ranging benefits of using participatory practice to engage different communities and how it can be used to make the museum environment a more diverse, equitable, and accessible space. From improving wellbeing to creating more inclusive environments for marginalised groups, participatory practice is an important tool for the modern-day museum. If you would like to learn about either of the fabulous museums mentioned in this article please follow the links below!

Museum of Transology

About us – Museum of Oxford

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Paige Worrall

Paige Worrall is a BA history graduate and has recently completed her MA in Museum Studies which specialises in making use of co-productive practice within institutions. She currently works as a library assistant and freelance exhibition technician. Her passion for history of art has led her to set up her own blog, The Museum Inspector, where writing on her various interests can be found. She also has an Instagram dedicated to promoting some of her favourite cultural institutions. When she isn’t visiting museums, Paige can probably be found in a bookshop or curling up with a novel or two!