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Posts Tagged ‘community engagement’

Yesterday, John Jameson [1] and I hosted a roundtable discussion at the conference of the European Association of Archaeologists. We wanted to explore with participants what the challenges are of moving away from expert values and expert management, toward a recognition of individual and community values. Community engagement and community archaeology have been around for a while, but the questions remain about the effectiveness of existing practices. The fact is that most formal management structures still favour experts and their values, from designation decisions to site management. Legislation and policy may for a decade now have placed greater emphasis on community and intangible values, and the desire to involve ‘the public’ and ‘communities’ in all areas of heritage management. But are we really making room for this? Or are we still primarily concerned with our own objectives, be they management or conservation? In this post, I summarize a few key points from the discussion.

Volunteers

Opportunities for people to volunteer were raised as ways of engaging people, and sharing power. The key is to make sure that opportunities are truly open. So for example, there is a difference between looking for volunteer ‘scientists’ or ‘researchers’ – the former is likely to unnecessarily exclude people again right from the start, whereas many more may feel able to be ‘researchers’ when given the necessary support.

Volunteer projects were also noted as having potential for true power-sharing, although we accepted that the set-up of such projects should be bottom-up to avoid being stage-managed by professional managers. That in itself can pose challenges: it requires that volunteers step forward with ideas. Alternatively, some ideas may be suggested by the ‘experts’ to be further developed by volunteers. One colleague shared an example of a volunteer-shaped project (after they had been invited to do any project of their liking), and noted that while they did indeed make all the decisions they lacked some key knowledge and experience, which meant that the final product was not able to reach its intended audience (in this case, international visitors, to whom the group had wanted to present their site – they hadn’t really known how to think about the needs of those visitors).

Which brings us to the next topic the group discussed:

The interplay between experts and non-experts

The example above led to a discussion of whether there is a place for expert support for volunteers and communities. With a little input from an audience and interpretation specialist, the group might have been able to finetune their project. The danger is of course that experts take over. And some things we think we ‘know’ may not actually be all that crucial. A colleague from Italy shared a very successful example of an entirely volunteer-led project, that included guided tours which flaunted many a best practice principle. And yet, with local enthusiasm and a true love for both the site and the local community, they appeared to capture and share with their groups a real sense of place. Our discussion ended on the feeling that experts should be only one voice among many.

Dealing with diversity of values

Colleagues from Historic England shared experiences on presenting the new interpretation at Stonehenge. Contemporary view points were heard, through the long-going monthly ‘Pagan Roundtable’. This also highlighted some challenges of working with communities: while we tend to think of them as a homogenous group, the Pagan groups for example are far from that. There are many different viewpoints and practices, which share little more than a label (‘Pagan’[2]) and an interest in the site. The challenge therefore becomes how to reconcile the different views, and in fact, professional facilitators were used at some stages. That, indeed, struck us as a key aspect of working with a diversity of heritage values.

What is important to people

The Historic England colleagues also shared that feedback from general audiences at Stonehenge suggested that what they wanted was to have enough information about the latest thinking, even where it is contradictory, to ‘make up their own minds’. For me, that was very interesting to hear, as it mirrors what my own research especially in Germany has found. At Stonehenge as at my study site, it seems to be information, uncensored, both based in accepted science and other viewpoints, that visitors want in order to form their own picture. This, we thought, may also be an approach then to deal with diverse heritage values, since in representing all of the different perspectives we are not priviledging one (and particularly not the expert ones).

What professionals do matters

Our discussion also touched on the symbolism that our actions as professionals take on – and how people react. This came up as we discussed bilingual signs in Scotland, but also Wales and Ireland. One question was whether the use of the ‘native’, non-English language had any relation to the sites in question. The general (British) feeling was that it wasn’t about the sites: it was about the wider culture, and its recognition and support for it by the organisation in charge. Ignoring the native language therefore could by many (even non-visitors) be seen as an affront – even if the site has nothing whatsoever to do with the culture that spoke the language [3]. Again, Historic England colleagues shared that for years, the organisation’s name was not used in Cornwall alongside the logo, for the pure reason that people kept scratching it out (after all, it’s not ‘English’ heritage over there, it’s ‘Cornish’). Now, the organisation will use Cornish alongside their logo, and we wondered whether that would have an impact on how people felt about the sites, and Cornwall, and their language [4].

And the conclusion?

We noted two key things that were important in beginning to truly shake up an over-emphasis on experts in heritage management. One colleague pointed out that what is required is negotiation and faciitation, which needs to become part of the heritage professional’s skills set. John also made the very good point that all approaches should be team approaches, which include communities. I would, after a chat with a colleague following the roundtable, add that giving a human face to an organisation is also important: getting to know communities, both geographical and dispersed, and having an on-going dialogue, much like Historic England have done for years with the Pagan Roundtable. It’s harder to ignore one another’s views when you’ve worked with each other for a while [5].

Notes

[1] John recently retired from the U.S. National Park Service and is now an assistant editor of the Journal of Community Heritage and Archaeology. He is also currently helping to lead efforts in South Carolina to create, manage, and interpret a city-owned archaeological park.

[2] This label actually sparked an interesting discussion itself.  John, as an American, felt that using the term ‘Pagan’ would not be acceptable over there, while over here, that is the term that, well, Pagans themselves choose.  It raised that question though of how we ‘frame’ communities. That framing can say a lot about us to those communities. Similarly, the label used by the communities themselves may give rise to all sorts of views in ‘us’.  What did you think when you heard ‘Pagan’ and ‘Roundtable’?

[3] I’ve worked in both Scotland and Wales, and with the requirement of using Gaelic and Welsh in interpretation. I’ve always felt that this use was almost a reclaiming of those histories that were imposed on the ‘native’ culture by others, mostly England. Nothing more powerful than having Welsh interpretation at one of King Edwards’ (the Englishman’s) castles all over Wales.

[4] Cornish would be a ‘revived’ language; apparently there are very few speakers left, none of whom were raised in the language.

[5] I’m fully aware of the difficulties in this. So many heritage projects are funded for only a couple of years, for example, and I know from my own experience that staff turn-over can be very high, particularly in smaller organisations. Building and maintaining relationships is tough in these circumstances.

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In her latest blog post ‘Following up on Ferguson’, Gretchen Jennings mentions that several museum people told her that they had been specifically forbidden from answering visitor questions or commenting on social media about Ferguson [1]. Having worked in local authority museums in the UK and knowing from my work here as a consultant the constraints that many organisations work under politically, I expect that this is in fact the case for most museums. In the UK, it will not be Ferguson that museums are forbidden to engage with, but you can take your pick of any of the pressing issues that we are facing over here and which will no doubt be deemed ‘too hot’ by decision makers.

Contrast this with the drive to make museums more ‘democratic’, with ‘co-production’ and ‘community engagement’, with ‘audience development’ and ‘Museums Change Lives’. These are all eminently worthy and truly important initiatives. But are we deluding ourselves by not facing up to a fundamental hypocrisy here? If Ferguson, to stick with the American example, is on communities’ minds, then what on earth are we doing avoiding the issue? I am beginning to wonder whether museums are becoming irrelevant even as they’re trying, at least nominally, to become more people-focused. Here are a few questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Is this really what museums are for?
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Museums Association (MA) published case studies for its Museums Change Lives campaign [2]. And what these museums have done is all great: the Tank Museum has taught young offenders engineering and basic skills qualifications; Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service have engaged homeless people, and Glasgow Museums have created memory walls off-site to help people with dementia. But is this really what museums are for? Aren’t there other organisations, dare I suggest perhaps even the state, who should be tackling the underlying issues here? And what about actually discussing these issues? Who is asking the question about what makes young people so disillusioned that they just don’t seem to care anymore? Why do we live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and yet people have to go to foodbanks?

Is it really about collections?
In her post, Gretchen also mentions that several colleagues had commented that museums should always be first and foremost about mission and collections [3]. I know I keep writing this on this blog, but I really feel that in light of this continued insistence on the importance above all of material collections one has to keep saying it: collections are dead. And let’s face it: the majority of local history museums are full of stuff that’s neither local [4] nor particularly interesting [5]. By focusing our energies, resources, and our professional self-concept primarily on collections, we spectacularly fail to actually connect with what makes our communities go around. Yes, good practice is to find the angle that will ‘connect’ ‘the public’ with our collections. But like it or not, you will always and forever be limited by what that collection item is if that is how you set the parameters of your ‘connection’ with your community. And they just might genuinely not care, because when it’s between debating what can be done about institutional racism that rakes their lives, and talking to you about their cultural connections to an African kora, they might just deem the former far more relevant and pressing than the latter.

Are we too self-absorbed?
At the start of this year, the MA wondered what was around the corner for museums. This was the day before Charlie Hebdo, but many months after Ferguson and UKIP’s victories in Britain. And around the corner were concerns about budget cuts, the impact of the election on culture policy, and tucked away at the bottom, the current consultation on a new code of ethics [6]. Now, obviously budget cuts have an impact. Without money you won’t do much. But it does seem to me that certainly in the UK the focus has been on cuts, and relaying the impact of cuts, and gathering evidence of why cuts in museum budgets are wrong because museums contribute to society – see the Museums Change Lives case studies. And that’s all valid, but when there are people leaving our societies to join terrorists on the other side of the world, and a political climate sweeps the country in which the Prime Minister suggests that Britain would be a ‘better, stronger country’ if there were fewer migrants, then museums talking primarily about cuts in their budgets just sound a bit out of touch.

However, the question does, I suppose, come back to what service museums are meant to bring to society. Is it engaging the ‘hard to reach’ with collections? Is it using collections to support the health agenda? Or:

Should museums be something different altogether?

Last week I was struck by Richard Wendorf’s description of museums as ‘the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society” in his comment on the MA website. Setting aside the Christian and religious connotations, and the inherent elevation of collections as objects of reverence [7], I did feel it expressed well a need that does exist in a secular society for a space that is special, that does hold society’s respect, and that does provide sanctuary to discuss, debate, grieve and celebrate together in safety. One could argue that perhaps there are many institutions that could provide this space: the local community centre perhaps, or the library, or maybe just even the town square. Like many others have done, however, I too would argue that if there is any relevance and purpose left for museums, then this is it. There is a need for places where we can encounter, share and further develop our collective memories and our collective aspirations – in many ways, museums are already set up as that. I think if museums really are serious about reflecting their communities, and providing a service to them, then we need this radical rethink that builds on and expands what museums are – both from museum professionals, but also crucially from decision makers. Museums need the political autonomy to explore and respond to the issues that are of concern to their communities. There cannot be any external, or internal censorship. If we are serious about being of service and use to our community, then this is what we need to do. Museums may well survive, drawing on the same white, educated, over 55 audience that lobbies for their funding as they’ve done for decades. But should they?

Notes

[1] You’ll know all about Ferguson, no doubt, but just in case you might want to read this. And for museum responses, check out Twitter #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[2] That’s the ‘MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society’ (see link).

[3] The joint statement by museum bloggers on Ferguson suggested otherwise: ‘As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.’

[4] How many ethnographic collections are there in local history museums just because a notable citizen brought these back. Let’s not probe too deeply into where and how they got those items in the first place, or ask those ethical questions whether they should be on show at all.

[5] My colleague Adam Ditchburn has eloquently said it in August last year in this post: “I get that the ‘Coming of the Railways’ was a big deal, but for goodness sake, let it go, or tell me something new about it, or ask me to tell you something, just don’t make me read another panel about it.”

[6] I dismissed this at the time, assuming that it would be concerned only with acquisition and particularly disposal, as it seemed this is all that’s been in the MA news over recent months. However, laudably, the code of ethics does raise questions about museums’ role in society, and public access etc. Well worth responding to! You’ve got until Friday this week (13th Feb).

[7] I can’t embrace either of these – I think all religions at times in their history have a questionable track record of giving and deserving respect, and I’ve already made it clear that I do not hold objects in particular esteem for their own sake.

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Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum, ended her excellent guest post on the equally excellent Museum Commons blog yesterday with what I felt was not just a question, but a much-needed challenge for museums. She wrote: “This time it was Ferguson, Missouri.  Next time it could be your community.  How will your museum respond?”

Certainly in the UK, but also in my native Germany, museums needn’t wait for a ‘next time’. Stuff is happening here as well: I’ve already blogged about my unease with the current anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK. In Germany, there are mounting anti-Islam protests (and, thankfully, an equally strong counter-movement). These events and developments may not – yet – be as dramatic as what happens in the US, but they already challenge our museums and heritage sites, and us as people working in the field, to think deeply and honestly about what our role in this is, and how we could, and should respond.

If you’ve not already read it, I want to flag up to you the joint statement posted by various US bloggers in response to Ferguson. They make some very good points. I find them best summarized in this sentence from the statement: “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”

Yes! All too often, I find that museum professionals (more so than those working more widely in heritage) are narrowly focused on things. Collections continue to be seen as the backbone and apparent raison d’être for museums and their work. The focus is on exhibitions and activities that ‘bring collections closer to the community’. I say, forget about collections. Museums must be so much more than that. They are perfectly placed to be spaces where our communities explore and express what it means to be a member of that community. They capture and reflect the spirit of that community. They are the place to go to if you want to connect with that community as an outsider, or connect with each other if you are a member. Yes, some of that can happen in the public square or the local community centre as well. But this is where museums can draw on their knowledge of the community’s past, as well as the material culture they have collected, to put them at the service of the community’s dialogue with each other, and how they shape their present and future.

Museums are places for the community. They do not exist separate from that community. We must stop doing community engagement work from a position that seeks benefit for the museum from this – as someone in a workshop I recently facilitated has suggested. Community engagement is not an add-on to the ‘core purposes’ of museums. It is the core purpose of a museum. Laudable position papers such as the UK Museum AssociationsMuseums Change Lives must not lure us into a false sense of achievement: the sector is very far indeed from actually embracing the radical shift away from a collection focus and toward community power. Community projects may abound, but serious evaluation still reveals a disturbing lack of diversity, impact, and organisational change.

The latter is a point that cannot be overemphasized, especially as organisations continue to use the idea of collections as the core purpose of museums as justification for their structures and activities. In times of dwindling resources, conservation and collections management, including access, are still prioritised. Community engagement is often seen as woolly and less profitable – especially if judged by (low) participation numbers. Investment into community engagement is regularly cut short long before its full potential can be realised. In addition, there is a culture of consensus and self-promotion that inhibits debate and self-critique. This is due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is securing the museum’s survival: if you are seen to challenge your funders’ priorities, take risks, open up for debate your own practices, then you might just run into the danger of losing funding or political goodwill. But that is exactly what’s needed: we need leaders that don’t merely talk the talk, but who go out there and stand by their communities, warts and all, and say: we’re not sacred. We’re here because of you. What do you need? What do you want to talk about? Some ugly and painful stuff may come out of this, but that’s all part of progress. This is what relevance means.

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In one of my jobs, emails from our security guards about incidents were a regular occurrence, usually involving large groups of youngsters trespassing and getting drunk. One day, I was feeling rather depressed about this and I told my friend, ‘I feel I need to be a social worker in this job, not a heritage manager.’

The recent Culture and Poverty report by Baroness Kay Andrews reminded me of that day. Decision makers expect a lot of heritage and museums professionals, especially in such challenging and demanding environments as can be found in Wales [1]. However, I’m neither sure that we have the training to meet the particular challenges of these environments, nor that we should be the people (and sector) expected to do so.

Take community engagement for example, which is one of the key foci of the report. It should of course be part of the skills-set of any heritage manager or museum professional. But there is quite a difference between engaging with a community that ‘just’ may not visit your museum, and engaging with a community that struggles to survive. It is one thing showing young people what the museum has to offer them, and quite another discouraging them from burning down a historical structure in the first place (and I mean literally).

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the latter when I first started. My team and I did a lot of the reaching out and networking that the report calls for, but throughout, the above feeling stayed with me. It was exhausting.

So while I fully support the view that heritage, culture and the arts have a lot to contribute to all sorts of social initiatives, I’m not sure we can or should place the core burden on heritage and museums professionals. Yes, they should be open and willing to engage with all kinds of partners, such as Community Safety, Youth Workers and Social Care. And yes, they should certainly actively reach out to them all. But if decision makers expect heritage and museums professionals to deliver these programmes as the lead, then they will need to provide the necessary training and support. They will also need to provide better funding, which doesn’t constantly threaten museums and heritage professionals with losing their jobs, so that skills can not only be gained, but also retained long-term. The same goes for those carefully nurtured relationships not only with partners, but also with (let’s call them) users – one-offs or constantly changing staff undermine and actually damage work that has already been done.

Decision-makers also need to take responsibility for the, well, decisions that they make which affect society at large. Benefit cuts and immigration caps, and the rhetoric that goes with these, probably all have a greater detrimental impact on social exclusion and deprivation than any community engagement efforts by museums and heritage professionals can alleviate. If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something. And so on.

I am not suggesting that the report ignores the above entirely – it doesn’t [2]. But having worked in the South Wales Valleys, and seen the excellent efforts of so many museums, heritage and social work people there, I’m just a little bit worried about recommendations to a government and the cultural sector as a whole that focus so much on what the sector should do and should achieve. I’m beginning to get worried that this is just setting heritage up for failure, by shifting responsibilities and creating unrealistic expectations in a context that is itself becoming increasingly damaging to social inclusion, positive empowerment, and opportunities for all.

 

Notes
[1] The report writes that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty outside London. Wales has some of the most deprived areas in the UK. (p. 12) 24% of the population in Wales live in Communities First clusters. (p.13)

[2] Recommendation 2, for example, at least suggests the creation of a task force to the Welsh Government, which would ‘identify solutions to barriers around transport’ (p. 4), although it doesn’t outright suggest funding be made available.

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Last week we had to cancel a training day on community engagement because of low uptake [1].  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 [2]. 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 [3].  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 [4].  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.

Note
[1] 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.
[2] 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).
[3] Except for targeting groups.  I really can’t bring myself to see any good in that.
[4] 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!

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I know I keep writing about how we need more research and critical self-analysis in interpretation.  But when I recently read Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report ‘Whose Cake is it Anyway?’ (2009) and Skibins, Powell and Stern’s 2012 ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’ I didn’t feel validated.  I felt depressed.

Lynch researched ‘the real nature and effectiveness’ of community participation practices across 12 UK museums [1].  While it didn’t surprise me that she found there exists ‘an illusion that the work is more effective than it is’ (p. 10), I was plainly shocked to read that ‘target participants’ felt frustrated and had ‘the unhappy feeling of having colluded in their own marginalisation, disempowerment and even exclusion’ (my emphasis, p. 12). Lynch also had a good (discourse analytic) look at the language one museum used (‘we believe’, ‘we can make people’s lives better’, ‘we nurture a sense of belonging’, ‘we provide, expand, foster, encourage’, my emphasis) [2]. Her conclusion is that museums display ‘an almost nineteenth-century view of a passive subject, outside the institution, awaiting improvement (my emphasis, p. 16).

It’s worthwhile pointing out that in our official interpretation discourse, we use similar language as the museum quoted above.  For example, here in Britain, the Association for Heritage Interpretation writes that interpretation ‘helps people’ to ‘make sense, ‘understand more’, that it ‘enables communities to better understand their heritage’ and that it ‘enhances visitor’s experience, thus ‘resulting in a variety of benefits, including individuals possibly identifying ‘with lost values inherent in their culture’ (my emphasis). Is interpretation also stuck in a 19th century mindset?

Interestingly, in Lynch’s study the ‘participation’ experience was frustrating for participants, yes, but in the end they weren’t all that bothered, it seems to me. After all, they knew that they needed museums less than museums needed them, as one of them said (p. 21) [3].

The article by Skibins, Powell and Stern sought evidence for a causal relationship between the best practice techniques established in interpretation literature and outcomes examined in evaluation studies.  Theirs was a review of 70 articles rather than a piece of original research, which in itself makes for sobering reading.  Evaluators, they write, often didn’t seek to isolate factors that may have determined outcomes – there was a tendency to uncritically assume that an outcome is associated with a particular technique, when really, the cause for it could have been anything. This becomes even more depressing when they point out that many best practice examples still were only linked to an outcome fewer than 5 times, with many others having no link with an outcome at all.  If ever there was evidence that we need more evidence, this surely is it.

That’s all I’m saying.  We have to be self-critical.  We have to constantly test our assumptions or interpretation as a discipline will become even more marginalised and undervalued than it is already in places.

Notes
[1] Participation, or community engagement as I prefer to call it, to me is the core of interpretation.  Just in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about a study on participation on my interpretation blog.
[2] Of course that’s just the one museum who had the courage to hand over its policies for scrutiny.  I daresay we’ll find that most policies talk like that.
[3] Which is another way of saying that they don’t need museums, or interpreters, to understand their heritage.  They already understand it, or at least enough without having to put up with our professional hybris.

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Next week sees the For Them and By Them: Involving Stakeholders and Communities in Interpretation conference take place, which I initiated.  I am no longer able to be at the conference myself, so I thought I’d share here what I was going to talk about there [1].

It is really quite astonishing to see just how much the focus has shifted over recent years from heritage protection for its own sake, to heritage for the people [2].  This is expressed in what is generally referred to as the (public) benefits of heritage. [3]

In the UK, it is English Heritage who first started to really specify what these benefits are.  This was in 2005, in their strategy ‘Making the past part of our Future’.  The benefits that the document listed ranged from vague ‘social benefits’ to ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘well-being’ [4].  Over the following years, policies and strategies have further defined the public benefits of heritage: English Heritage’s 2008 Conservation Principles add ‘sense of identity’, ‘gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to places’ and ‘reflection…of diverse communities’.  The National Trust in their 2010 ‘Going Local’ strategy introduce ‘social cohesion’, ‘inspiration’, ‘pride’ and even ‘peace’.  In 2011, the Arts Council England writes that heritage (through museums) can ‘empower people as citizens’, in addition to the benefits already listed above.

The interesting thing is that all these policies also provide a vision for how these benefits can best be delivered.  Access and provision of learning are no longer seen as enough.  It is again English Heritage’s strategy of 2005 that takes the first leap forward: it suggests that heritage managers ‘engage with diverse communities’.  In their 2010 strategy, the National Trust declare that they no longer want to act as proprietors, but as facilitators, which signals their intention to place ‘the visitor’ in the driving seat of their own experience.  Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funder in the UK heritage sector, require projects to demonstrate right from the start how they engage with stakeholders and involve them in creating and shaping the project.  Most radically, however, it is the Arts Council England that express how heritage can realise its benefits for the public: managers need to work with ‘the public as creators’.

In other words, the impulse given by official policies (many from funders) is that by involving stakeholders and even handing control over to them, heritage can deliver a variety of benefits that are important to the welfare of society as a whole.

For those of us working in the field, the challenge is twofold: we need to find meaningful ways of engaging with stakeholders, and we need to provide the evidence that what we do really delivers.

I’ve reported in my last post that according to the Arts Council England, we’re not doing too well on the latter point.  But what about the former? Are we engaging stakeholders in interpretation in meaningful ways?

Very often the approach is to have a series of focus groups at the start of a project, or maybe put out a call to the local community about stories or objects.  While this is better than nothing, it doesn’t go far enough.  In fact, the sector is full of stories (seldom properly analysed) of disillusioned communities who don’t visit their local sites after having been involved in consultations.  The issue is usually around four key factors:

–       expectations aren’t managed properly

–       there is no or only a very poor communication strategy (e.g. keeping participants informed)

–       there is a lack of transparency about the process

–       an authoritarian or patronizing approach by the professionals [5]

 

What this highlights is that managing stakeholder engagement takes skill.  It is as important to heritage management and interpretation as are the other tools of the trade.

But let’s look beyond consultation.  The Arts Council wants people to be the creators.  I don’t believe that’s a call for volunteer museums, and I’ve written here about the issues associated with those.  I think it’s actually a call for interpreters acting as facilitators [6].  If you think of it this way, then engaging stakeholders in interpretation becomes about two key things:

1) to help stakeholders articulate what they feel is their heritage, and

2) to help them interpret this heritage to a wider public.

 

A project for and by stakeholders is really exciting, but it’s not free of challenges.  There are a number of issues that emerge:

–       there’s never just one group of stakeholders

–       stakeholders aren’t saints: they will try to dominate the discussion over another group

–       stakeholders aren’t professional interpreters either: whatever took their fancy during their last museum/heritage visit is probably what they’ll focus on in terms of media for their project

–       motivation, motivation, motivation: some stakeholders really aren’t that interested in working with an organisation

At Bedwellty House and Park, where the conference takes place, we tried a number of engagement projects with varying success.  One project was to train up volunteer tour guides, and then work with them on developing new guided tours.  There were representatives from the local heritage forum at the initial training who had very strong views about what period of the history of the house and park we should focus on.  It also quickly became apparent that their estimation of some of the key figures in that history differed quite substantially from that of other stakeholder groups.  My approach was to encourage all groups to substantiate their interpretation of history with relevant references (the most basic interpretive principle).  I also encouraged a discussion among group members, and suggested that perhaps the way forward was to indicate in the guided tours that these different viewpoints existed – without making a judgement about either.  The project was unfinished when I left my post, but before I left, I agreed with the heritage group that we would put on ‘opinion’ tours, whereby they would be able to present their views as passionately as they felt about them.  I would have used the marketing of these tours, and the programming around them to make sure that visitors understand what is contentious about the issue.  Whether or not this would have worked, I will not know until I try it at another site, should the issue arise again.

Another project, which worked really well for us, was the ‘Memories of Bedwellty’ project.  Before the site opened in July last year, we actively went out into the community and asked people about their memories of Bedwellty.  We put out the call for memories via newspapers, our website and posters and flyers around town.  We also set up shop in several care homes, the local library, a local café and in the local youth café. The responses we got were fantastic.  They ranged from stories of love to youthful adventure to work to the simple joy of being in the park. It did several things:

–       it made people aware of what was happening at the house and park

–       it gave people an opportunity to meet the new management team where there had been none before

–       it let us know what people valued about Bedwellty House and Park

–       it gave us a ton of material and ideas to use for future programming

For a start, we made some of the memories into an exhibition which we put on when the house opened.  In my view, this provided a nice feel of continuation between what the house and park used to be, and what it was going to be now.  Overall, this was a very low-key stakeholder engagement project, but it gave a starting point to do more.  You can see a very basic version of the exhibition online.

The most notable thing about all of the stakeholder engagement projects that I’ve done and that we’re currently setting on their way in my new role, is that the benefits that people gain from heritage aren’t delivered by the outputs of these projects, but by the process.  It is through engaging in the process that people learn new skills, meet other people, challenge prejudices and increase their quality of life through participating in opportunities.

In other words, interpretation makes connections no longer through media, but through engagement.  At least that is what the research seems to suggest.  It is certainly the process that attracts the funding, and not the end product per se.  We do need more proper research into this, for it is already clear that evidence for the public benefit delivery of heritage projects is the next developmental step in public policy.

 

Notes

[1] Some of you may have planned on catching up with me at the conference.  Please feel free to send me a comment via this blog and I’ll be happy to catch up about my research by phone or email.

[2] For the purpose of this post, I’m focussing on the UK.  EU legislation was actually much quicker in putting people at the centre of its heritage legislation, at least in terms of benefit, if not participation. Benefits as we would recognise them now from UK legislation started to emerge in 1975, in the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage.

[3] In the UK, the term ‘benefit’ is actually first used in 1907, in the National Trust Act: the trust protects heritage ‘for the benefit of the nation’.  However, the act didn’t specify wherein this benefit lay.

[4] Wellbeing is an interesting one.  The Office of National Statistics introduced questions about wellbeing into their questionnaire in 2011.  The Happy Museum Project is an initiative that sprang to life from the same thinking.

[5] There is a lot of knowledge about Stakeholder Engagement outside the heritage sector, which is why I am very excited that Participation Cymru will be at next week’s conference.  Click here for the Scottish set of engagement principles.

[6] You still have to be careful, though: facilitation can be manipulative also, just like a survey can be, depending on how you frame your questions.  We need to always take a step back and allow stakeholders to explore their own paths.

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