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The Participatory Museum


This article was written jointly by Nick Stanhope of HistoryPin and Nick Poole of the Collections Trust. 

When real change comes, it doesn't come from any one place. It emerges, gradually, from many different places all at once. From people trying new things out, from posts and tweets, from conversations over sandwiches at meetings and from more people trying more new things out. Out of this, a very simple but very important new idea about the social and professional function of museums is emerging.

The idea, in essence, combines three rich veins of skills within museums around engagement, collections and digitisation into a single stream of collaborative participation and learning. It has been brought together by US museum director Nina K Simon in her new book entitled 'The Participatory Museum'.

This idea of the Participatory Museum has flowered as Museums have gained a better understanding of how and why to use the collaborative appetite and methods that the Internet has introduced. This understanding has come through trial and error – some a little painful.

There is always a danger when new approaches arrive that they are misunderstood and poorly applied. These two Nicks come from two different worlds - Nick Poole from work around cultural collections and Nick Stanhope from work in local communities. In both, “web 2.0” principles have been thrown around in ways that often undervalue expertise and experience.

In community work, “peer-led” projects have often underestimated the complexities of real change at a local level, wasted money and irrecoverably disengaged their disenchanted participants. Around cultural collections, digital and physical spaces have sometimes been filled with a mess that only has value because it is “crowd-sourced”. As one of these author’s primary school teacher once told him and his friends: “Just because you all did it together doesn’t mean it goes on the wall.” As that terrible communal poster from the boys of 4C illustrated, quantity of participants does not immediately equal quality of output.

But, a few years on and museums are combining their strong tradition of engagement with a more refined understanding of collaborative participation.

The genuinely wonderful output of the Stories of the World project demonstrates what can happen when children and young people are handed the tools of curatorship. Historypin and Reading Museum, in a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, have helped show where online and offline participation can meet, drawing the contributions of 2,000 local participants together in ways that brought 20,000 people through the Museum’s doors to explore and interact over just three months. 

HistoryPin creates opportunities for engagement by exploring the intersection between yesterday and todayWe have a capacity and competence in creating an environment in which people of all ages can benefit educationally, emotionally and intellectually from engagement with collections. Curating these environments, in which people can participate freely and creatively in developing cultural capital requires a particular skillset. It needs sensitivity, diplomacy, the ability to communicate and to encourage participation without patronising. And the result is equally significant - cultural literacy can transform a person's understanding of themselves and the world around them. It can enable them to give themselves both skills and confidence.

A new approach to digitisation

For a very long time, it has been apparent that there is something missing in the way museums tend to think about digitising their Collections. The approach has sometimes felt too supply-driven, motivated ultimately by an instinct to provide access, but in a tightly defined sense in which the curatorial concern can seem to take precedence over the end-user experience.

When digitisation (and by extension, collecting) has considered the user, it tends to think of them as an end-user, an ultimate beneficiary. But we live in an age of participatory culture. When, in Nick Poole’s recent address to the CIDOC 2012 conference in Helsinki, he spoke of agency, it was as a fundamental condition on which successful modern services depend (and equally so in the real world as the virtual).

What we believe we are heading towards is an age in which the user isn't at the end of the process, but is intimately written into every part of it - from selection, to assessment, to prioritisation, to digital surrogacy, to interpretation, distribution and use. It's a model that is already apparent in programmes like Historypin, which are re-coding cultural practice from an inherently user-focussed and participatory perspective.

Because the current model of digitisation has a fundamental problem.

Consider this scenario: A funder will announce a funding programme focussed on, say, generating digital resources for educational use. A curator, manager or director may, or may not, receive the announcement depending on whether they are signed up to the right email lists. The curator will consider which collections they want to digitise, and which best correspond to the parameters of the funding programme. They write a funding proposal, in which they are likely to have to identify an audience. In this, they will say that 'the digitised items about subject x will be of interest to people who are researching subject x (or are studying part of curriculum x). The bid will be assessed by some people who have done similar projects before, and based on a combination of the funder's guidance, their own personal attitudes and values and the outcome of an assessment meeting, the bid will either go forward for funding, or it won't.

If the project goes ahead, the museum will celebrate, will look around for an appropriate digitisation methodology or partner, and will run a digitisation project. If the bid doesn't go forward, it will usually be swept aside, not mentioned, left in a file or on a shelf or an email inbox. If it goes ahead, the project will deliver a set of digital assets that will ultimately be launched via a platform. Everyone will hope that the intended audience will find the assets and use them.

The risks associated with this model are clear - the museum might be wrong, or there might be a vast, untapped audience for a different part of its collection. It might have an opportunity to sell 3D scans of the objects to a TV company, but had only done 2D scans. The audience might simply not care, or may never discover the digital assets. The museum might not regard the output of the project as its core business, and hence might tuck the images away on a platform which slowly falls into disuse.

This approach is too random, too hit-and-miss, and too heir to the risk of developing resources which meet a perceived need, but fail to hit an actual one. This is why the Collections Trust has been advocating a supply-chain model for digitisation - one in which the end result is informed by a very clear understanding of the outputs and their intended use.

But this supply-chain model is simply a refinement of the old 'build it and they will come model'. The next step which people seem to be on the verge of taking is on setting aside digitisation and curation as processes, and focussing instead on using the tools of engagement to work with people to develop their cultural and digital literacy, using collections as the primary source material.

Consider an alternate to the approach set out above:

Your museum works with local communities and broader communities of interest to develop a collaborative collecting policy, which defines how the scope of your collecting will reflect the sphere of interest both of your curatorial expertise, and of your audience's knowledge.

This process isn’t easy. Asking the question of people within easy reach may tick a box, but it will likely skew policies towards the strong views of a few. There is also a gap between opinions and perceptions and reported opinions and perceptions that we need to be well aware of.

But, done well, this process can establish a rich partnership.

The Heritage Lottery Fund's new Strategic Framework encourages cultural institutions to use technology primarily as a platform for engagementBuilding on this implicit strategic relationship, you invite your communities to work with you to review your collections - not to replace or undermine the expert view of your curators, but to support and reinforce it. Through this, you will be guarding against cultural bias, against prejudice, against the risk of missing important facets of your collections that are obscured by traditional idioms of interpretation.

As part of the process of review, your communities help you identify elements of your collections, themes, narratives which help them to engage with what you have. In this process, your education officer, your documentation officer and your digital media officer (assuming you're lucky enough to have all 3, but you get the drift) work together - are empowered to work together in a way that is both more creative and more permanent than when they work apart.

Gradually, from this process, you build up a set of pathways into your material which are implicitly user-oriented, because they have been developed by and with users. Not only this, but your documentation person acquires the philosophy, perspective and language of engagement. Your engagement person understands how to make the systems work more effectively. The digital person sees both as relevant and connected to their work.

Through this collaborative process, you start to learn that there are threads and pathways, which cut across the taxonomic structures into which your collections have traditionally been organised. This naturally broadens and diversifies the participants in these conversations and, in turn, expands your relevant communities.

Using these pathways, you identify parts of the collection and associated narratives that form the basis of a content creation project.

You raise funds for the digitisation of this material, articulating to the funders the *existing* user support for the particular narrative approach you are taking. This collaborative approach not only presents a more compelling case to funders, but also opens up genuine opportunities for crowd-funding.

When digitising, your users come into the museum and digitise with you - they photograph, scan, handle, move, inspect, number, research, clear rights, tag - all the processes which museums have to accommodate when making pictures of their collections. Working with your curatorial staff, they develop knowledge and expertise - cultural and digital literacy, which will help them in their future lives and careers.

Instead of launching the resulting assets on one platform, you then launch them on every platform - distributed across the entire web through wikipedia, blogs, the BBC Digital Public Space, your own API. You encourage your community to make things with them, to enhance them, change them, share them and distribute them throughout their communities.

At the same time, you manage your digital assets, make use of them yourself, perhaps license them to create merchandise or put them into an image library for other people to use commercially.

When Nick Poole talked at CIDOC about 'relevance', it was about placing ourselves at the disposal of our users - not in a way that undermines curatorship or expertise, but in a way that places them at the heart of a more open and collaborative offer.

Places to do things

From the perspective of the user (and of the funder whose primary role is to create value for users), this is about changing perceptions - they need to come to see museums as places of engagement and empowerment. Places in which digital and cultural literacy are acquired and enacted. A museum comes to be a place that you to go to to *do* something that is useful and valuable in the context of your own life, as well as to experience something.

And this is where the really good bit happens – the distinction between the physical and digital offerings of a museum just melts away.

Traditionally, the curatorial teams within the Museum passes information about collections and events to the digital team, who feed it onto their own site and, often, through a series of networks and channels, from Facebook and Twitter to Timeout and the BBC.

When Museums and their Collections are defined by participatory activities, their communities sometimes explore and collaborate online, sometimes offline. Even more excitingly, the Museum’s own physical space becomes just one within a network of spaces that local people are coming together around these Collections – its happening in schools, community centres, businesses, care homes – and the Museum’s own digital platform becomes just one within a vast array of platforms where people are interacting with and contributing to materials, narrative, meta-data and interpretation.

All of this participation can then cross-pollinate and aggregate, across the UK and around the world. Curation in Museum spaces interacts with curation online, meet ups and communal storytelling takes place around a cup of tea and on a Google Hangout or Skype conference.

By genuinely opening up the process of collecting and preserving material culture, we educate the public about what we do. By engaging them, we give them a stake in the preservation of their heritage. By giving them value (skills, literacy, entertainment, knowledge), we rewrite the contract with them, in return for which they will help us in the actual work of acquisition, interpretation, display and use. By equipping them with assets they can use and share, they become our marketing strategy.

What emerges is a museum that is fundamentally about literacy and confidence, and collecting and digitisation become processes that fuel and are fuelled by engagement and participation. In the process, we take our place in the new world of mass-participation, agency and social utility. By implication, we create projects that are better-tuned to the strategic objectives of both funders and politicians. Imagine, if you will, that the next generation of digitisation funding comes in the form of funding for audience engagement, in which digitisation is simply one part of the shared process.

What emerges is a participatory museum, which uses the skills of curatorship, documentation and preservation to work with audiences to develop social capital. The museum benefits because it gets its collections digitised, tagged, shared and used. The user benefits because they can both make a material contribution to their culture and acquire new skills in the process. Society benefits because people go through their lives with a personal understanding of and attachment to the work we do.

So what are we going to do about it? It is happening already - in museums up and down the country, specialists in audience engagement, collections and digitisation are sitting down together to work out how to plan better, more sustainable projects.

The Collections Trust, working with the Open Rights Group, has committed to a new programme called the Open Digitisation Project which is seeking to identify examples of this new hybrid approach, to share them and ultimately to use them to describe a better, richer, more engaging methodology for digitisation. The Trust is also going to commit to using this approach to deliver the digitisation projects that we have been funded to develop through the European Commission. In the coming months, we aim to sit down with funders and policymakers and you, if you have time, to see whether we can usher in a new approach to funding that promotes the idea of museums as places of engagement, and digitisation as a shared process.

Historypin is committed to rolling its Local Projects model out around the UK and around the world over the next year, taking what we have learnt in Reading, Billericay, Newham, East Palo Alto, New Brunswick, Sydney and many other communities about how online and physical collaboration interacts and overlaps. These projects see 100s of community groups and 1000s of local people come together around Museum collections to add to them, enrich them and generate narrative around them. In the process, different generations and cultures come together to boost and foster social capital and put Museums at the heart of their communities.

The Collections Trust and Historypin will collaborate to overlap these approaches, bringing together their networks of partners to create a new generation of digitisation projects and work with museums to make substantial, tangible progress against this big new idea.

We think it is time to articulate a vision, not of a new approach to digitisation, but of a new role for museums as places of engagement and participation in which the disciplines or curatorship, digitisation, collections management and documentation are shared with the user in a joint effort to develop shared cultural capital.

In the process, we want to put museums at the very core of the Connected Age, creating social and personal capital, developing digital and cultural literacy and equipping people with the real, complex and vital skills they need to navigate this new world confidently and responsibly.

We want kids to beg their parents to go to the museum to learn more, discover more, do more. We want teenagers to spend their time in the museum developing skills, discovering themselves and their sense of social responsibility. We want mums and dads to go to museums to enjoy the collections, to do something different, and to share their knowledge and perspectives. We want grandparents to build new skills, share their stories, spend time with their children and grandchildren engaged in building something worthwhile together. We want all of this to be happening online and offline, interchangeably and holistically.

We think we have a collective opportunity and a shared responsibility to do something big and meaningful to establish a new public understanding of what museums are for in a Connected Age. Shall we?

Comments (7)Add Comment
Jonathan Wallis
written by Jonathan Wallis, July 20, 2012
Fantastic Nick and Nick
I really like the thoughts that you are presenting here. We in Derby have been thinkin this way for sometime and are pleased tht we are moving in the direction that you are proposing. We need to develop a new role for our museums as places for engagement and particiapation and know that the more we engage peoplewith our collections the safer they are for the future. Best wishes
Jonathan, Derby Museums
The guinune role of museums!
written by Ahmed Abu-Zayed, July 21, 2012
This is a paradigm shift from the genuine role of the museum. Rethinking the genuine role of museum is needed before moving forward led by IT vast developments. Engaging the community and measuring the users
Where do we get the people from?
written by Trevor, July 23, 2012
The big problem is that on-going community engagement requires people which generally equals permenant staff. Given that the pressure on museums in the public and not-for-profit sector is to reduce staffing levels I can't really see how we get to this utopian vision.
written by John Peel, July 23, 2012
We haven't taken things quite as far as this article but we are definitely on the same road in our current planning. They're definitely needs to be more of a bringing departments together as well inviting the general public in.

John Peel - Manchester Art Gallery
Where to get the people from
written by Doug Taylor, July 23, 2012
Trevor raises the important question of where to get enough people from so that the community can be engaged. We've had some success in facing a similar problem at Wikipedia, where we find that using volunteers from the community is a viable means of meeting the need for editors to write an encyclopedia.

It is worth considering making use of volunteers to meet your needs in engaging the community and you can have a look at some examples of work already in progress at
written by Nikita Belavate, July 23, 2012
Right now the thought is to digitise Museum archives etc and then publicise them somehow and which later falls out with time, as you too said. The idea of this kind of Holistic approach is very nice. However I wonder how to really implement this in case of absence of external funding by someone (any organisation or person) ? How to convince the Museum staff that it is for there own benefit to digitise their content and make it available for free on internet as mentioned by you "The museum benefits because it gets its collections digitised, tagged, shared and used." The article is primarily written keeping UK in sight, though I would like to have a wider visiblity and understanding in terms of setting this kind of *Participatory Museum* environment in India, keeping insight the Indian culture and people. I have been willing to collaborate with a Museum and digitise and hence more interested in the process !
Regards !
written by Brendan Carr, August 04, 2012
The 'Useful', 'Happy' or 'Participatory' museum? Good question. Responding to leadership towards the massive potential of emerging technology, promoting fun/self realisation and unlocking the fascinating truth contained in museum collections: We should all be aware. So this is an important article (apart from the stock imagery of some young people wasting their energy in a mosh pit): In 20 years time the curent Government's putative plans to invest in the cable required; could be decisive, can you imagine? It would be great. However, as it stands most places have Local Authorites who are struggling to keep the valves on their sewage systems up to date. This is because New Labour's localisation agenda delivered a responsiblity for Social Service budgetary pressures that remain clearly unsustainable, especially if Council tax remains frozen. The current coalition government are not much better in terms of adding to the pressure. So good for Nick and Nick, I agree with you and support your views; they are quietly focused on enhancing documentation and being purposeful..

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