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  • 7 Dec 2015

Our Museum—A Learning Event

It all started with a simple question that came out of a meeting between 12 UK museums and their community partners: Whose cake is it anyway? Led by Dr Bernadette Lynch, this group met up in 2009 to gauge the real nature and effectiveness of the engagement practices of museums and galleries; to think about who held the resources—the ‘cake’; and which areas and dynamics needed to be addressed in the relationships between organisations and their community partners.

Through a process of active participation (reflection, discussion, debate), the fault lines of engagement in even the most committed museums and galleries were collaboratively uncovered:

  • False consensus and inadvertently using people to ‘rubber stamp’ existing organisational plans
  • Organisational policies and practices based on ‘helping-out’ and ‘doing-for’, effectively placing the museum at the centre and relegating community partners to the periphery
  • Community partners treated as ‘beneficiaries’, consumers of the metaphorical cake, rather than active ‘agents’
  • Project funding leading to non-mainstreaming of participation and pretending things are better than they are for the sake of subsequent funding applications
  • Absence of strong, committed leadership and a strategic plan for engagement

The study demonstrated quite clearly that successful, sustainable partnerships could only be achieved by facilitating organisational change so that participatory practice becomes core, embedded and less at risk of marginalisation when funding streams run out. Launched in 2012, the Our Museum programme was developed by Paul Hamlyn Foundation specifically to address these issues. Over the last four years, seven organisations across the UK took part in this programme of organisational development: Belfast Exposed; Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives; Glasgow Museums; Hackney Museum; The Lightbox, Woking; National Museum of Wales/St Fagans National History Museum; and Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives.

This week, as the project draws to a close, the participating museums and their community partners spoke to a group of their peers from across the UK and The Netherlands at PHF head office. Together they shared the changes they had implemented to embed participation at the heart of their work, including shifting culture and practice amongst museum management and trustees, staff training delivered by community partners and  incorporating engagement into every job description.

While each speaker highlighted the accomplishments that they have made through this process, they also admitted the challenges faced—many of which they are still working to conquer: resistance among staff, a lingering sense of disconnection between museums and community, the need to ensure that community partners are indeed representative of the locale. Despite these difficulties, these organisations have proven resilient and receptive. All museums and their partners seemed to absorb an overarching, invaluable lesson: never assume. Never assume what the community wants; never assume that new or alternative ways of working can’t be applied; and never underestimate the value of a critical friend. Each presenter brought home the importance of making space for honest, frank conversations and mutual reflection between museums and their community partners.

Museums and community partners are actively chipping away at the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that previously characterised their relationship. The museum is shifting away from the centre. Instead community partners and museums are moving towards a point where they can make and enjoy the ‘cake’ together.

The final report on the Our Museum programme will be available in March 2016. For more details on the initiative, including publications documenting some of the learning and outcomes, as well as a variety of resources covering topics ranging from governance to engaging with community partners, visit the Our Museum website.

You may also be interested in the following reports relating to Our Museum:

Whose cake is it anyway? A collaborative investigation into engagement and participation in 12 museums and galleries in the UK

Communities and Museums as Active Partners: Emerging learning from the Our Museum initiative

Our Museum: A five-year perspective from a critical friend

Many thanks again to our joint hosts, the Cultural Participation Fund and the Mondriaan Fund, and to our Dutch colleagues who joined us for this event:

Amsterdam Museum
Central Museum Utrecht
Dutch Museums Association
Limburgs Museum
Museum Arnhem
Museum Catharijneconvent
Museum Dr8888 (Drachten)
Museum Rotterdam
Museumdock Vreeswijk
National Museum of World Cultures
Netherlands Open Air Museum
Rijksmuseum Twenthe
Van Abbemuseum
Zeeuws Museum