Increasing participation from wherever you are

What works for museums and heritage might also work for universities

Helen Graham (University of Leeds) and Rebecca Madgin (University of Glasgow), members of the Heritage Decisions Research Team, share key ideas from a recently completed Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities project and suggest that what the team learnt about increasing participation in museums and heritage is just as relevant for developing engaged universities.

In March 2013, when fourteen of us gathered at Bede’s World in Jarrow, we knew we had in common an interest in decision making, participation and heritage – but we didn’t know exactly what we’d decide to work on together or how. We were funded by AHRC Connected Communities ‘co-creation and co-design development’ pilot project, which aimed to support not just collaborative research but the collaborative development of a research agenda right from the start.

As you can see by how we describe ourselves, we are all situated quite differently in relationship to heritage and its decision-making processes. Some of us are leaders and shapers of policy, organisations or thinking; others of us are practitioners hoping to do good work within structures we don’t control; others of us are university-based researchers seeking to find connections between thinking and doing; some of us are activists for our own histories and heritage. Many of us fall into more than one of these categories. The aim was to use our collective experiences, perspectives and positions to create a research project which might explore how to increase participation in heritage decision-making.

Knowing how to increase participation

We aimed to identify how to increase participation in museums and heritage. We did this using two methods. The first was by reflecting on innovative work already undertaken by practitioners in the research team. The second was through conducting a number of research experiments.

  • Reflecting on innovative practice
    • In terms of reflecting on innovative practice, John Lawson, Kathy Cremin and Mike Benson, who collaborated first at Ryedale Folk Museum and now at Bede’s World, looked back on the development of their approaches to distributed decision-making through turning museums inside out, conceptualising heritage as a ‘living stream’ that sustains the places it flows through and decision-making as devolved so that all staff and volunteers might have ‘freedom of self’.

      Danny Callaghan worked with Karen Brookfield to reflect on a funding programme, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘All Our Stories’, from two ends of the spectrum. The local focus for this research strand was The Potteries Tile Trail, a community and crowd-sourced virtual collection of tiles and architectural ceramics found in buildings and public spaces throughout Stoke-on-Trent and further afield. At a national level, Karen had strategic responsibility for the All Our Stories programme in HLF. One outcome from this was the role of individual heritage activists and has led to the development of a DIY Heritage Manifesto.
  • Research experiments
    • In terms of research experiments, at the Science Museum the focus was on how communities can contribute towards developing museum collections. The project, coordinated by Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History, focused on electronic music and work with musicians, fans and self-confessed synth-geeks – Jean-Phillipe Calvin, John Stanley, David Robinson, Martin Swan with researcher Richard Courtney, University of Leicester – to recommend items for the Science Museum collections. Alongside these practical recommendations, the project also came to question logics of preservation by arguing that a future for the synthesizer collections might be best secured not by keeping them away from being touched but by synths being played, used and celebrated by a community of those that know and care about them.

      Other projects included: an exploration of how a Conservation Officer collaborated with architects and developers in Leicester; a project of organizational reflective practice at the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland; an investigation of heritage decision making within the city of York.

Increasing participation…from wherever you are

The overarching idea which emerged from our research was that everyone whatever your position – professional, researcher or someone who cares about your own culture and place – can do something to increase participation. The key ideas that have emerged from the Heritage Decisions project (all ways in which to increase participation in museums and heritage) are:

  • Act: Make change from where you are
    Act aims to encourage us all to start to make things happen. Danny’s DIY Heritage Manifesto is a great example of this.
  • Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate
    Connect draws attention to the importance of building networks across institutional boundaries and between professionals and activists. This was something Richard Brigham from York Past and Present called the ‘magic path’ of people who want change to happen.
  • Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes
    Reflect is focused on the power of seeing issues from lots of different perspectives. There was an example of this in the reflective organisational research practice Rebecca Madgin, University of Glasgow, conducted with Alex Hale and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
  • Situate: Understand your work in context
    Situate was a way of evoking a key influence to our research methodology – systems thinking and specifically the work of Danny Burns who has drawn systems thinking into an action research approaches. Danny Burns shows the importance of drawing on lots of different people’s knowledge within a local system to develop a ‘working picture’. In the context of our project this allowed us to think about where the levers for change are in local and organisations systems – such as specific funding streams or specific key people who can make a difference. The crucial thing here is not to conceive of research in a sequential relationship to its impact. Instead to see collaboratively producing knowledge as itself a creating all sorts of adjustment and new potential for action and interaction, as Burns puts it, ‘each situation is unique and its transformative potential lies in the relationships between interconnected people and organizations’.

Increasing participation in universities and research

While we all had these ideas in mind for increasing participation in museum and heritage contexts, those of us based in universities have started to see they are just as valid there as well, as Paul Manners, another member of the team argues in this blog. In fact the complex decision-making structures in universities and the emphasis on individual academics driving research and teaching lends itself to forms of politics focused on generating informal networks, using space for agency and creating momentum, and thinking systemically (both within the organisation and how the university fits within bigger flows) to identify levers for change.

For more information see the Heritage Decisions website or join us on Twitter @heritageres.

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