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Museums and participatory governance – CAM

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This article is a reflection on a research exercise conducted through the Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM).

The CAM is an international NGO based in Canada. It supports the work of museums in 53 countries of the Commonwealth. The study was driven by a scholarly and professional interest in understanding the ways in which museums have shifted their vision and strategies towards more inclusive practices. Research was undertaken across CAM member states.

The in-depth report (see link below), written by Catherine Cole and Lon Dubinsky, on participatory governance is based on extensive research participation by museums across the Commonwealth. The full paper is enriched with relevant references, as well as case studies from across the globe. Some of the cases cited include; Barbados, Canada, Namibia, United States, United Kingdom, Nigeria and Malawi. While we will not include them in this summary, we encourage you to read the full article which can be found in the link below.

The report first outlines two key texts and one historical moment that could be regarded as pivotal in discussions about inclusive participation. The first text cited is Daina (1909), who argued that museums should be contributing to an enlightened citizenry. The second text is Cameron (1969), who asked a poignant question about whether the museum is ‘temple or forum’. The authors argue that these concepts around the ’purpose’ of the museum permeate into contemporary museum life, in contested and tested forms. The historical moment Cole and Dubinsky cite is the Glenbow Museum exhibition ’The Spirit Sings’ (1988), which led to controversy surrounding the extent to which the Indigenous First Nations, whose narrative formed the core story of the exhibition, were consulted. This example, which echoes a number of others across the world, begs the question: how much consultation is enough? And are there other, more inclusive forms of collaboration than consultation?

Cole and Dubinsky then evolve some of the processes which reflect a continuum of engagement.

They argue that the dominant narrative of audience development is driven by an individualistic and consumerist perspective. Museums increasingly need to argue for survival and resources in constrained economies. In order to do this, they need to perform by showing increased numbers, new groups or communities among their visitors, and yet their audience development strategies have very little to do with community needs and community-led initiatives. This logic, they argue, is not sufficient and does not reflect a fully participatory process.

They also argue that consultation takes place in many forms along a continuum. The Glenbow Museum case study is an example of this. Often curators remain the filters between community thoughts, ideas, stories, and what eventually is represented by the museum. Cole and Dubkinsky propose a more nuanced and complex collaborative framework which challenges the authority and position of the museum and supports equity in relations. They cite examples which illustrate the complexity of this framework, where it has worked and where it has not. The levels of uncertainty which prevail under truly collaborative processes is also something which museums grapple with while having to conduct fiscal reporting and other operations.

Another aspect of participation is the ways in which content is generated, shared and represented in museums. Museums have begun to move from an object-based approach in which curators focus on the scientific, collectors’ knowledge about an object to an issues-based approach. The issues-based approach often provides a platform for contemporary issues experienced by audiences to become the core of the museum process. This focus shifts the museum’s character into being regarded as a ‘space’ for mediation, knowledge sharing, and a platform for advocacy.

Cole and Dubinsky also distinguish between museums being ‘relevant’ and museums which are ‘socially responsible’. They define relevance as using the museum as a space in which contemporary issues are raised through the existing objects in the collection and knowledge of the museum. Social responsibility, they argue, at the other end of the continuum, means taking an active stance to make a qualitative difference in the lives of communities they serve. These two points on the continuum act in very different ways. At one end, it engages the specialists and expert knowledge found in museums into contemporary issues, such as environmental museums to the contemporary issues of climate change. On the other, engages communities and audiences through creating a platform for sharing knowledge and expertise for amplification and representation within the museum space.

We will conclude this article with a discussion in the next step.

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