To embed participation, museums could learn from mental health

The recent publication of Bernadette Lynch’s research into participation and engagement in museums throws down the gauntlet to both museums and their funders. Published by Paul Hamlyn Foundation Whose Cake is it Anyway concludes that:

Despite presenting numerous examples of ground-breaking, innovative practice, the funding invested in public engagement and participation in the UK’s museums and galleries has not significantly succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organisations. In fact, as this study demonstrates, it has curiously done the opposite. By providing funding streams outside of core budgets, it appears to have helped to keep the work on the organisations’ periphery.

The Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) was one of twelve museums involved in the study and was praised for its participatory work. Dr Lynch praised the work of smaller organisations like MEAL, Ryedale Folk Museum and Hackney Museum (interestingly all social history museums) for taking serious steps to embed participation in their organisation. The challenge for museums is to ‘scale up’ this practice to larger institutions by better enabling user representation on governing bodies and working towards genuinely co-producing museum programmes.

This still does not solve the issue of marginalisation of participatory work due to its reliance on short term project funding. To me this could be solved by two ways. Firstly core funders could imperil organisations to be more participatory, rewarding those for the work they do rather than who they are. Some might be penalised if they show disinterest in sincere dialogue. However this approach is pretty unsubtle instrumentalism. An alternative would be for project funders to wield their influence by making their support dependent upon user engagement and decision making. Cuts in core funding have suddenly raised the importance of foundations like Paul Hamlyn within the funding landscape. They should use their weight to encourage core funders such as MLA/Arts Council to be demanding of their clients.

Recently I spent the day with Comic Relief, who are funding MEAL to work with Mental Health Service Users. They will be working alongside curators to interpret material from St Audry’s Hospital, a psychiatric institution near Woodbridge which closed in the early 1990s. Funding through Comic Relief’s mental Health strand is only possible if it is demonstrably ‘user-led’, meaning participants co-produce and develop activity. They are one of the few bodies I have encountered who make it a condition of an award that recipients attend a workshop to encourage their participants to shape the monitoring and evaluation process.

Not only are Comic Relief demanding that grant recipients demonstrate participation but are trying to equip organisations with the skills to help participants evaluate the impacts of their own contributions. Recent developments in mental health practice has pioneered notions of co-production of services between client and provider. It’s an experience from which the cultural sector would do well to learn.

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One Response to To embed participation, museums could learn from mental health

  1. Interesting suggestions about how funders could encourage participation. I read that report yesterday and wasn’t convinced whether project funding is really to blame for marginalisation to the extent the report suggests. (

    That said, I agree that funders – and particularly those offering core revenue funding (i.e. ACE) – should be expecting funded organisations to meet certain standards including engagement/ participation (in the way there are standards for Governance, financial management against which funders assess applicants etc). When I was working for Arts Council (some time ago now) we used this approach and would attach conditions to funding agreeements if there were areas where organisations needed to improve their performance.

    I believe ACE had introduced a ‘self assessment’ framework which outlined standards they expected of funded organisations (and I had a conversation with their senior audiences person along the lines that they planned to include measures for participation/ engagement in the future) but looking at their website that seems to have disappeared.

    So I support your suggestions – but wuold add that funders can only do so much to encourage organisations and my experience of trying to achieve changed practice and attitudes on a range of issues (disability, diversity and audience focus) through funding mechanisms during 4 years in the arts funding system leads me to conclude that unless leadership is willing to embrace participation (or diversity etc) then you are pushing water uphill….

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