How far can we frame the participatory work in museums as research?

Maya reflects on a recent workshop hosted by the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage at Leeds University

I took part in a workshop hosted by the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage at Leeds University which set out to explore the question: how can we frame the participatory work in museums, as action research? Whilst this is museum focussed it could apply to wider artforms.

The workshop was attended by a range of museums professionals who all shared a commitment to embedding community participation in their work. There was a refreshing lack of presentation; the emphasis was very much on participants’ reflection and discussion, and throughout the day we shared our experiences, thoughts and feelings about the participative aspects of our work. We were encouraged to think about how our work could be framed as action research, and what elements of action research we use in our day-to-day activities.

What is action research?

It was good to unpick what exactly action research is: it’s a term that gets used often but there can be a level of vagueness about what it actually means. At it’s simplest, action research is learning by doing. This workshop helped me reflect on action research as a process which recognises and values knowledge in a range of different locations. I liked this idea very much, as it works against the idea of the museum curator or academic as the ‘expert’, and places community members as equally knowledgeable and bringing valuable insight to museums and their collections.

Action research and funders expectations?

One repeated theme of the day was how action research can sit against funders’ expectations. If action research values openness and change, how does this work where some funders need detailed outcomes, aims and work plans? How can we talk to them about the more organic nature of participatory work and the joy of unplanned and unexpected connection and findings? This session offered no simple or easy answers, but set up some interesting and evolving discussions. I look forward to further conversations.

More about the wider project

The Audience Agency is working with the British Museum to evaluate its exciting three-year Object Journeys project, part of the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre Activity. One related but separate element of the project is to create space for museum professionals to explore engagement methodologies, developing collaborative and community-led practice. These workshops are part of a research project initiated at the British Museum. The project is a collaboration between researchers from the British Museum and partners from the University of Leeds and Brighton & Hove Museums. It originated in a shared interest in the conceptualisations and effects of different ways of producing knowledge in museums and how to better frame participatory practice as research.




Written by Maya Sharma, Learning and Participation Consultant
Featured in February's edition of The Learning Diaries. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.