Last week I attended an excellent workshop on ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced Exhibitions’. Co-production is a central theme in museums at the moment, and participants were encouraged to bring their own experiences of co-production to the workshop for discussion. I came away with a few good points to ponder, which you might find interesting as well.
Process vs Product
Call me naïve, but it surprised me that all but one of the examples given by other participants were actually of co-producing an end product, usually an exhibition. This is not what I do in my practice, where we are much more process focussed. We do in general have a clear idea of the outcomes we hope for (e.g. understanding people’s heritage values as in our current Stake Your Claim project), and we are committed to doing something with whatever outputs are created. But what that will be is decided in a second step, usually upon completion of the process. My rationale for this is twofold: 1. Until the process is completed we won’t know what we’ll get from it – that’s the nature of truly handing over authority, as we try to do. 2. Creating a product for other visitors requires following best practice interpretation, which is a process governed by its own, and rather tight rules. This is actually something that came out strongly in participants’ evaluations:
Just because it’s co-produced doesn’t mean other visitors like it
Over and over, participants reported this as an experience with their co-produced exhibitions: visitors’ reactions were either lukewarm or downright negative. One project reported something very interesting: visitors didn’t like the co-produced exhibition – until they were told that it was co-produced. They still didn’t seem to take more from it, relatively speaking, but they approved. This sense of moral approval came through quite strongly for other projects as well, but the question is of course whether moral approval is a good enough outcome for co-produced exhibitions. Those in the discussion group that I was in agreed that it wasn’t. A lady from Glasgow Museums raised the very interesting point that perhaps we feel that by selecting a group for co-production, say young people, we speak to all young people. Interestingly, one of the projects actually found that the exhibition co-produced by young people was in fact rejected by other young people, who were more interested in the ‘expert’ voice. Why? Because they felt that if they wanted to hear what young people thought they could talk to them all day long outside the museum! Which brings me to another point we discussed:
How do you select groups for co-production?
I wish I could share the conviction put forward by one participant from a university: that selecting target groups by demographics is ‘no longer how museums do it’. Well, it’s certainly how all of the projects we heard about at the workshop seemed to have selected the groups that they worked with (usually ‘young people’), never mind the local authority matrix that I continue to have to work toward, or the ever-present HLF identifications . The colleague is right, however, that these group classifications are of limited if any use, especially if we expect the outputs (e.g. an exhibition) to have relevance for other groups. This, in fact, is the crux of the matter: can co-production with one particular group ever be relevant to other groups? As we’ve seen with young people above, even such a seemingly clear-cut group doesn’t produce an exhibition relevant to the same group. I don’t have the answer to this one, except that this is less of an issue when looking at ‘co-production’ as a process rather than end product. Also, in my own practice I’m dreadfully reluctant to identify any specific target groups (by motivation or otherwise), so we just widen it out to as many people as possible. It seems to work for us.
What, actually, do we mean by co-production?
In the end, this was one of the questions we were left with. Some of us, myself included, argued that narrow parameters, such as providing objects for group interpretation, don’t actually make co-production. The whole concept of co-produced end products also seemed generally flawed, and co-production thus a misleading term. We agreed that further examination of concepts was required, not the least to provide a shared language between departments. After all, without proper understanding of terms there cannot be proper implementation.
The workshop ended with some discussion on what the next steps should be. In my opinion, we need to establish proper criteria that identify ‘successful’ co-production (whatever we decide this to mean). Is this success for the museum? For participants? For visitors? We also need researchers that can spend time on identifying factors that impact the success of co-production. This goes beyond the usual evaluative studies that we can do on our own, even those that go that one step further and ask, why did this work (because who answers the question will bias your results)? Finally, I would also like to move beyond co-produced end products and look into how visitors can contribute to exhibitions while they’re up. That to me is true co-production: on-going, dynamic, and democratic. Here’s to the new challenge.
Happy New Year to all of you!
 Allow me an entirely personal rant here: 1. As a practitioner, I rely on university researchers to challenge me and to provide me with solid insights. This requires that researchers actually examine existing practices on the ground, rather than build their argument on what I can only describe as wishful thinking. The latter looks great on paper, but there may be a reason why it’s not being implemented in practice – and it is understanding these very reasons that can improve my practice. 2. As a researcher, I am expected to critically examine assertions and provide data to support my claims. I am deeply worried by the many so-called researchers that are given a voice in our field who do not abide by this most basic of research principles. It is absolutely acceptable to be a theorist, but let’s not treat theorists as researchers, please. Apologies if I sound harsh, and no personal attack is intended on the colleague in question.