In 2009, Paul Hamlyn Foundation1 commissioned a study of engagement in museums and art galleries. Focusing on UK museums and galleries of varying sizes and governance, all of which are well known for their commitment to public engagement, it asked staff and community partners what was understood by engagement and participation in these organisations, how well it was working, and where these museums and galleries thought their public engagement work was heading.

A confidential process that applied participatory theatre techniques2 allowed professionals and community partners from the museums and galleries to open up courageously to dialogue and debate. Most importantly, it allowed trust to develop and thus for very frank views to be exchanged and examined collaboratively. What happened frequently surprised all involved. As a result of this process, in early 2011 the Foundation supported a further series of ‘surgeries’ for each of the organisations to begin to plan a process of change. Some of the organisations have since formed clusters around particular areas of practice such as inter-arts and inter-agency working, transferable skills and capability-development, and strategic partnerships with local organisations and local authorities. These clusters are already engaged in exciting out-of-the-box thinking about new organisational models and partnership processes. For some, it has meant refocusing on their community foundations, reaffirming the sense of collaboration with their local communities that helped establish the organisation in the first place.

Participating organisations

The organisations taking part in this research project were:

  • Belfast Exposed
  • Bristol Museums
  • Museum of East Anglian Life
  • Glasgow Museums (Open Museum Service)
  • Hackney Museum, London
  • Lightbox, Surrey
  • Museum of London
  • National Museums Wales
  • Manchester Museum
  • Ryedale Folk Museum, Yorkshire
  • Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Laing Gallery and Discovery Museum)
  • Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage Service

This set of urban and rural museums and galleries from across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales thus includes two large national museum services, medium and larger local authority urban services (a couple with multiple sites), a university museum and some smaller independent museums and galleries. Acknowledgements Sincere thanks to Paul Hamlyn Foundation for the initiation and support of the study ‘Engagement at the heart of museums and galleries’, and especially to the courageous staff and community partners of the museums and galleries involved, who provided a model of fearless, open discussion of their public engagement practice.


  • 1 Paul Hamlyn Foundation works across three UK programmes: Social Justice, Education and Learning, and the Arts. The mission of the Foundation is to maximise opportunities for individuals and communities to realise their potential and to experience and enjoy a better quality of life, now and in the future. In particular, the Foundation is concerned with children and young people and with disadvantaged people. In the study ‘Engagement at the heart of museums and galleries’, the Foundation wished to consider whether, within the Arts Programme, there may be scope to help promote the health and development of the museums and galleries sector in the UK. For further background, see Appendix 1
  • 2 See A. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, London: Pluto Press 1979, and also A. Boal, The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, London: Routledge 2006