Imagine with me…
A small local history museum in a northeastern city wants to do an exhibit on the Great Migration, when Black folks moved from the South to northern urban centers from 1916 to the 1970s.
The museum’s three staff members, the Curator, the Director, and the Educator, read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and agree that they should get members of the Black community involved in creating this exhibit. But, where do they start? They are all white and they don’t know anyone who is a leader in local Black communities.
“Let’s host a community meeting!” the Educator suggests. The Director and the Curator enthusiastically agree. The Educator prepares a set of questions to discuss with the community. The Curator edits the questions to make sure they are relevant to the subject matter. The Director cuts one or two questions that might spark conversations that could upset donors. The Educator prints flyers and posts them up in local churches, schools, and community centers throughout town.
The big day arrives. Many of the people who show up are people who are already involved with the museum, mostly white retirees. A few unfamiliar Black faces dot the crowd of two dozen-or-so participants. The Educator leads the session. A few highly talkative individuals dominate the conversation, mostly older men.
Towards the end of the evening, a Black woman towards the back raises a tentative hand, “Is the Great Migration even the right subject? Shouldn’t we be talking about…” she suggests an alternate topic that is more in line with events currently impacting her and her friends. The Curator politely steps in and steers the conversation back to the Great Migration.
The museum staff take the results of their conversations back with them and excitedly uses the ideas to start developing their exhibit. Once they have a solid exhibit concept, they decide to hold another community meeting. Then, they continue to design based on their conversation at the second meeting.
At a third community meeting, a new attendee raises their hand and asks, “Why did you make this decision?”
The Director smiles. “It’s what the community wanted,” she responds.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions…
I am a huge believer in the power of participation to transform museums for the better. But, over and over, I’ve seen well-intentioned museum staff make lots of small decisions that they feel will protect their institutions, but add up to undermine their community engagement processes.
This problem isn’t new and it’s not just me that’s seeing it. In 2011, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation published a study of 12 museums in the UK known for community engagement and found that many community members sensed their participation was really about rubber stamping the museum’s pre-determined ideas. These community participants felt they were being used to access funding and the museums were not committed to long-term relationships with them. As the report stated, “the actual experience of engagement and participation frequently revealed a level of control, risk aversion and ‘management’ by the organizations that served to undermine its impact and value for the ‘target’ participants…Thus, while an illusion of creative participation is on offer in such situations, decisions tend to be coerced, or rushed through on the basis of the organization’s agenda or strategic plan, manipulating a group consensus of what is inevitable, usual or expected” (Lynch, p. 11).
A community participant succinctly summarized the issues facing these engagement processes, stating, “I perceive some consultation as being cosmetic. The museums have to have public consultation, but are they taking everything on board? I think not” (Lynch, p. 12).
These community engagement practices are predatory. According to Merriam Webster, a predator “looks for other people in order to use, control, or harm them in some way.” Fearing their own irrelevance, museums look for visitors to participate in their processes in order to bolster their own authority and control how the visitors view their society.
Predatory participation is the natural extension of museums’ historically predatory collecting and interpretation practices. For over a century, museums have offered cultures up to visitors for consumption. Museums collect artifacts, lift them from their indigenous context, and reclassify them. Exhibits position the museum as the authority over the objects’ meanings (Maranda and Soares, pp.14-16).
Today, many museums are trying to reform through increased participation. But, the problem is they are inviting visitors to participate in these flawed collection and interpretation practices instead of really changing how they operate. The museum holds community meetings or focus groups where they control what information is recorded and how. Then, the museum staff use the results of these meetings to further develop their own ideas. When sharing these ideas, the museum supports their decisions by stating choices were made in consultation with the community. Repeated ad nauseum with little context, “community” becomes another way of saying, “the common good.” When the museum acts as if it can define what is “good” for a nebulous public, it revives the nineteenth century perspective of the visitor as a passive subject.
From Predator to Symbiote
“People confuse consultation and collaboration…It’s a different power relationship,” stated one of the museum staff members involved in the Paul Hamlyn Foundation study (Lynch, p.17).
In order to move from predatory participation to symbiotic participation, we need to give community members real authority over our projects. That means making them the ultimate decision makers with the power to give the final thumbs up or down on our work.
We also need to define “the community” really specifically. To demonstrate this point, let’s look at the story from the beginning of this post. The Director is able to deflect the concerns of the attendee at the third meeting by referring to the “unverifiable opinions from an abstract general public” (Levine, p. 1175). Thereby, the Director positions the Museum as serving the needs of the community, while sidelining the desires of the actual community member who stands in front of her. What if the Director in this story defined the community as “people who live in zip code xxxx” or “Black residents whose parents or grandparents migrated to city X during the Great Migration?” Then, the Museum could empower these specific individuals as authorities and they could hold the Director accountable.
TLDR: if we define our communities carefully and if we give them real power, community participation can transform museums for the better. But, that is a big if…
Levine, Jeremy R. “The Paradox of Community Power: Cultural Processes and Elite Authority in Participatory Governance.” Social Forces 95, no. 3 (March 2017): 1155–79. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cYjOtUGzJJehs61gWcsH8IuMYkCTfU05/view?usp=sharing
Leonard, Meredith, Zoom conversation with author, October 20, 2021.
Lynch, Bernadette. “Whose Cake Is It Anyway?” Paul Hamlyn Foundation, December 12, 2014. https://www.phf.org.uk/publications/whose-cake-anyway/
Maranda, Lynn, and Bruno Brulon Soares. “The Predatory Museum.” ICOFOM Study Series, no. 45 (2017): 13–20. https://doi.org/10.4000/iss.290
Pagani, Camilla. “Exposing the Predator, Recognising the Prey: New Institutional Strategies for a Reflexive Museology.” ICOFOM Study Series, no. 45 (2017): 71–83. https://doi.org/10.4000/iss.341
Paynter, Braden, Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, Kathryn Silva, and Rainey Tisdale. AASLH 2021 Online Conference, “Museums and Capitalism,” October 12-15, 2021.
“Predator.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed November 9, 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/predator.