Last week we had to cancel a training day on community engagement because of low uptake . The training co-ordinator suggested that community engagement may still not be seen to be important to the work of museums. He may be right, but I very much hope he isn’t. After all, there is, and has been for a couple of years, a lot of talk about community engagement in the museums sector in the UK.
The thing is, sometimes I wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we say ‘community engagement’. And I wonder if the practices that are out there can really be called ‘community engagement’, or whether it’s just a label that we apply to tick a box.
I deal a lot with community engagement and co-creation, so I inevitably hear a lot of comments about it too. And I’m afraid I often disagree with them. At a recent network meeting, for example, someone talked about a community engagement project in which they got people in to work on their archive. That’s not community engagement, if you ask me. That’s getting volunteers in to do the work you need doing. Another person understood engagement as working with pre-constituted groups, which you target according to your own choice. Again, with this level of museums control (your choice) and exclusion of other members of the community, I don’t feel we’re really justified in calling this community engagement . In another meeting someone felt it was community engagement if a group approached the museum with an idea and then executed it on their own with the museum in effect providing nothing more than a venue. I’m not sure I would call that engagement either.
Now don’t get me wrong: these are all worthy project structures . And compared to those times when museums were completely closed off to any public input, they are better than nothing. But personally, I feel we need to strive for more than that. For one thing, I think community engagement should be embedded in how a museum or heritage site is run. No more one-off projects without any links to what else is happening. Yes, you may need to kick-start the process with a few individual projects, but these quickly should turn into a constant dialogue, where one thing leads to another and then sideways feeds into yet another aspect of museums work. We need a constant stream of crowd sourcing and participation and feedback and co-production, to the point where every little thing has a public connection. And that’s not where it should end either. I do believe museums and heritage sites are an active part of people’s lives, and therefore our community engagement should not only have an impact on us, it should have an impact on ‘the community’ as well.
Allow me to give an example of which I am mightily proud. In my museums service, we decided to put the call out to the community to get their input into what should go onto our Community Timeline. Not only did people submit events, people and landmarks we’d never even considered, but we were also able to draw on a previous engagement project, where people had specifically shared local superstitions. We also, for the first time, heard from a part of the community that so far the service had had no contact with, and whose history is completely and utterly absent from our exhibition and the story we tell: the Jewish community. So I asked them if they would like to do a talk as part of our lecture series. They agreed, and what was going to be just a talk given by one Jewish group turned into their own engagement project where they collaborated across different denominations within Judaism. The talk sold out, with plenty of attendees never having been to the museum before. Now the synagogue will host a re-run, and some of our non-Jewish visitors who missed the first talk are set to go there to catch it this time around.
To me, this is really exciting. It was a give and take, inspiration being traded and the programming and display most decidedly being developed together over a series of different activities and collaborations . It had an impact on us, and it certainly had an impact on them.
There are still a few big questions to ask, and I will be the first to admit that I neither have the definite answers nor am I sure that everything we do in our service actually works when it comes to community engagement. What level of collaboration and dialogue makes something real engagement? What type of power balance qualifies? Is it engagement if the stimulus comes from us? Is it engagement if we just provide a venue? In my service, we use several different methods, so I suppose we’re covering all bases. But as I tried to illustrate with my example: in the end, I feel that community engagement is real and truly successful when it develops a life of its own.
 For the record, in my practice I prefer talking about stakeholder engagement. But if ‘community engagement’ doesn’t find enough supporters, then ‘stakeholder’ engagement gathers none. So I’ve given in.
 I actually feel quite strongly that targeting groups, especially when they’re the types of groups generally favoured by a social inclusion or ‘hard to reach’ agenda (young offenders, mental health groups, or ethnic minorities), is often a rather questionable practice. It labels and defines people by something that’s negative and which they probably wouldn’t choose themselves as their one defining attribute (e.g. the offender). It also tends to limit the responses or perspectives that we allow people to have (I hope I never see another ‘mental health’ response to a collection).
 Except for targeting groups. I really can’t bring myself to see any good in that.
 Our volunteers did the artwork to represent what people had submitted, and the public helped us paint the timeline. And talking of giving over control: when the young school children we’d invited in drew green grass and trees everywhere both our Learning Officer and I were close to a heart attack. But then you just have to let go. Now I like how colourful it is!