Participation, co-creation, collaboration – these are all buzzwords in museums at the moment, keys that can unlock funding and impress stakeholders. However, pinning down what they mean in practice can be tricky. The range of activities that could be considered participatory is enormous, and coming up with a systematic approach is difficult given the variety of different things museums do.
At the Science Museum I’ve been working on a project with a strong participatory element. In October this year Information Age will open, and new gallery dedicated to the last 200 years of communication and information technologies. One of the stories we’ll be telling looks at the impact of mobile phones in Cameroon. It would be rightly considered strange if we went ahead and told those stories without consulting some Cameroonians in the development of the gallery, but we’ve tried to go further and embed a number of London based Cameroonians in as many of our processes as we can. They’ve helped us select objects, write labels, produce films and choose images.
Last month my colleagues and I produced a paper outlining in quite practical terms what we’ve been up to, and how we think it has gone. This is just one way of working in a participatory way, and there are many more opportunities to get our audiences involved in developing galleries and exhibitions. I personally think this is crucial – particularly in national museums which are funded by the public, and as such the public should feel some genuine ownership over them. The best way to represent our audiences’ interests then is to allow them some input into what we produce. That’s not to undermine the specialist work of a museum, but instead to open up our practice and enable more true conversation at key points in the process.