What price audience participation?

A Tardis-like box of questions opened up at the Visitor Studies Group conference yesterday. The questions around the value of audience participation in museums just got bigger and bigger as the day progressed.


Interesting points raised by the presenters – but for me the real unpacking of the topic came during informal conversations over lunch or coffee, and in the final open discussion sparked by two provocation points:


Can participation for the few give value for the many?

How do we avoid tokenism in participation?


By the end of the day, these were the themes that were lodged in my mind:


  • What’s the philosophy of participation? What is it for? Is it just the new buzzword for the arts that will soon pass? Or can we find a way of making it meaningful and of value to the organisation as well as the participant?
  • What and where are the sustainable business models for museums today and why and how does ‘participation’ fit into them? Who pays for the investment in participation?
  • How can we properly and effectively use the ‘participation of the few’ models and ensure that we all learn from them and can adapt and replicate them for our own situations … when funding bodies place a constant emphasis on the ‘new’ and reports and evaluations rarely dare acknowledge the learning potential of knowing what went wrong as well as what went right?
  • How can museums be supported to allow the extraordinary length of time it takes to really build up relationships of trust and collaboration with certain groups – and to get away from the short-termism of the project funds-driven model … a model that the communities thus ‘engaged’ are savvy enough to see through?
  • Why should ‘community’ for participation or outreach efforts always be defined as the local estate, local families or the ‘hard to reach’? What is wrong with defining an organisation’s community and stakeholders as being the professional s and students it wants to influence and inspire. Why can’t participation project include participating with these people, to create a source of ideas for the organisation and a resource for professional development for the community?
  • How do museums position the role and importance of the ‘object’ and the curators’ knowledge of it at a time when the sexy emphasis is on participation, visitor response and multiple voices? On the other hand, was the traditional action of going to a museum to stand and contemplate objects really any more valuable than the digital/ interactive/ participatory suggestions we had been hearing about? We (the people at the conference) may admit to preferring the space to stand and contemplate the object in an unmediated way, but we weren’t born with the ability or inclination to do that. It comes from accumulated education and exposure. What participation projects aim to do is offer others the chance to build these relationships to objects and one day they may also just choose to stand and contemplate.

Meantime, the excellent case studies we heard about both prompted and shed some light on these ideas, and recommendations for further reading:


The USS Constitution Museum’s ‘A Sailor’s Life for Me’ exhibition – apparently all the visitor research has been published online.


The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ Tree of Promise.


The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s report ‘Whose cake is it anyway?’ which has led to follow-up funding for 7 museums to create more sustained engagement with communities.


The W K Kellogg Foundation General’s report ‘Intentional Innovation‘.


The Science Museum’s ‘Who am I?’ display and their forthcoming Senseless exhibition.


The One and the Many‘ by Grant H Kester.


South London Gallery’s ‘Making Play’ project


The Museum of London’s involvement in the national Stories of the World programme and their inclusion of the youth Panel Junction in the planning for the museum’s new permanent Roman Galleries.


UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology’s experimental digital project QRator.