I have recently, together with a colleague, co-curated an exhibition with several groups from within civic society in our town. The topic was social exclusion. This experience has raised some thoughts for me on how much is still at stake when it comes to power-sharing in museums .
People continue to be excluded from museum narratives
The groups we worked with are well-known within our town and rather visible in terms of their organisational presence and the coverage and general support they get. Maybe for this reason I was somewhat surprised to find that for some of them, being represented in the museum seemed to be something very special indeed. This has once again underlined two things for me: firstly, that museums do carry a lot of weight for people. To be included in the representations and stories in a museum is truly a form of acknowledgement. It means something. Secondly, to some people, this acknoweldgement and representation are still sufficiently rare for them to find it noteworthy.
This really touches a nerve for me: in much of current museum (and heritage) discourse (and beyond) it is an accepted view that museums should strive to be representative of society, and inclusive. We have evidently a long way to go still if people with disabilities, with different sexual and gender identities, or newcomers think it is special that they are, in fact, included.
What does quality look like in a museum context?
The question that arises is why there is so much theoretical support for inclusion in museums on one hand, and yet such an evident lack of practical implementation on the other. In a very stimulating conversation with a consultant in preparation of a panel discussion on power-sharing, it all seemed to boil down to one central criticism: that including people somehow meant to lower the quality of the work that museums do . The consultant subsequently hit the nail on the head: what is required is an open discussion about what actually constitutes quality in a museum context. This has everything to do with what – and who – we think museums are for.
Of course, we do already have various sets of definitions of quality in museums: accreditation is one attempt, as are the principles of interpretation. But let’s face it: these are often too vague or too specific to truly capture the museum as a whole, and particularly in those areas that we have nominally pushed to the fore over recent years. If inclusion is truly something we value in museums, then we must define criteria that place inclusion at the centre. What quality is in this context is something we have yet to establish authoritatively and consequently present as a natural expectation of any museum claiming professionalism and excellence.
Giving a voice to the marginalised
This process also requires ensuring that those who do not traditionally speak for museum audiences are heard. The thing about audience development – and thus inclusion – is that we are working with people who are not already networked in museums’ established (mainstream) cultural circles. These people tend to not have a voice yet, and often they are utterly unaccustomed to even claiming that voice. Museums themselves, and their decision-makers, must therefore be the advocates for these marginalised people, until they become advocates themselves. Otherwise, the only voices that we will hear are those of the established groups. And their interests are not necessarily the interests of those that we claim we want to include.
Really sharing power
Finally, and I will probably explore this further in a separate post, it was astonishing to me just how often the question of power actually arose for me personally in doing this exhibition. I am a long-time supporter of democratizing museums, and yet I was constantly aware of my own position of power and the fact that I ultimately decided against the groups if and when I felt that the experience of other audiences was being compromised. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that in my view; personally, I did feel that the groups and I discussed things on an equal footing and in all but one case came to a compromise that worked for us all. But still: I wonder if there can ever be a way of working together that feels less like me sharing some of my power.
 I am conscious that some of this may (only) have particular relevance to the German context I am working in now. Although there is a very strong movement toward participation and democratization of museums and heritage in Germany also, I find that the voices opposing both are far more numerous and more influential than I have ever experienced in the discourse in the US or Great Britain. However, readers from those and other contexts may hopefully still find some of this of interest.
 In the case of our exhibition, we are of course talking about the method of co-curation. In theory – and theory only, as far as I am concerned – it might be possible to include people without them actually participating in telling their story. It still doesn’t happen (nor does it seem a justifiable and viable approach to me, to talk about and for someone, instead of giving them a voice themselves).