Searching for light in the participatory museum

For the past three months, I’ve been following a Museums Association initiative called Partnerships with Purpose. It builds on 10 years of research and development work supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, from Whose Cake is it Anyway? (in 2011) to a programme called Our Museum (2012-2015). Partnerships with Purpose aims to turn the knowledge about working with communities already developed into sustainable practice. It has been testing how to do that through meetings in Sheffield, Swansea, Dunfermline and London, bringing together people from museums with others from the community and voluntary sector. I’ve been to all four of these lively events, listening to what people have to say and learning about current approaches to participation in museums. 

Carnegie Library and Gallery 2017 Extension

The final meeting was held on Thursday at the Carnegie Library and Galleries in Dunfermline. This was the first library built with Andrew Carnegie’s money, in the town of his birth. (Carnegie, who became immensely rich in controversial ways before becoming an equally generous philanthropist, could have figured in Chapter Eight of A Restless Art, which considers the 19thcentury roots of cultural participation.) The original building opened in 1883 and recently acquired a large and rather lovely modern extension with a museum and galleries. It was an ideal place to talk about the changing ways in which museums imagine and think about their social function. 

Partnerships with Purpose meeting, Dunfermline 25 April 2019

One of the strengths of these Partnerships with Purpose events is that they have all ended with food, giving people a chance to talk informally about the ideas that have come up during the afternoon. One of the conversations I had over vegetarian food from a nearby Indian restaurant was specially interesting. We were a mixed group, including an archaeological illustrator, a professor of nursing and an academic curator. I learnt something of what technical illustration involves. The work is guided by the archaeologist, who will decide what information the drawing needs to show about a find. The artist – and whether that is the correct word to use in this case was one of the key points of our discussion – is constrained in what and how they work. It struck me that they use drawing as a lawyer uses words in a contract: to convey knowledge accurately and precisely. In each case interpretation happens before the creation of a drawing or text. In each case, everything is done to avoid ambiguity. 

In art, though, ambiguity is unavoidable. Indeed, it is valued because interpretation is integral to the communication that art offers and the pleasures it brings. It is the difference between a contract and a story – one seeks to prevent interpretation while the other encourages it. That difference seems to encapsulate the challenge museums face in the 21st century, when knowledge and truth are all being contested. Since the end of the Second World War, democratisation, education, prosperity and technology have transformed people’s relationship with culture. We are no longer content to leave interpretation exclusively to curators and professors: we want to think for ourselves and have a say. At its worst, this tendency can lead to the rejection of experts and even facts and the fallacy that all opinions are equal – a dangerous situation that leaves us open to deceit and manipulation. But that is not inevitable. If those with knowledge and expertise recognise that what is needed is a new relationship with people about how interpretations are made, there is no reason why they should lose the public’s confidence. 

Visual record of the Dunfermline discussions by More than Minutes

And that is the challenge faced by professionals in cultural institutions and especially in museums. For much of the past two centuries, the curator’s role has been to interpret for others, making a body of more or less scientific knowledge accessible to the public in ways that help them understand it. That knowledge has never been fixed, but how and when it should change is a professional concern, a matter for peer review and, like the manufacture of sausages, traditionally kept out of public sight. But the participatory museum invites the public – who are often the moral owners of the collection – to contribute to the development of the knowledge it holds. It seeks their participation in the process of interpretation that is the heart of all cultural meaning. Museums are moving, more or less willingly, more or less quickly, between two concepts of knowledge: from the fixity of the archaeological drawing to the fluidity of art. It is not an easy change to make, but it is a very important one.  

Above the door of his first public library, Andrew Carnegie ordered the placement of a carved inscription over a rising sun: LET THERE BE LIGHT. Today, when we are less sure of where the light comes from or even what it is, we need to search for it together.