Horizontal Museums: Opening up by imagining differently

I gave this presentation at the Group for Education in Museums conference in Leeds on 4th September.

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My argument is that it isn’t a political accident that museums find sharing power hard. This difficulty comes directly from the public interest model of delegated authority (from the electorate via politicians) which justifies professionals ‘balancing up’ different people’s interests for the greater good and ‘on behalf of’ everyone now and everyone in the future. Participation is often used to slightly extend these logics by including a greater number people to justify better the ‘balance’ struck. But the danger here is that people are implicitly asked to ‘stand in for’ or ‘represent’ others. This is problematic because it mis-uses ‘participation’ which is a direct and not a representational form of politics (people who are participating do so only as themselves) and, therefore, leaves participation open to criticism (‘why these people and not other people’?’; ‘are they the right people’?). Yet the impetus behind that question – which comes from a concern with equality and diversity (who’s here and who isn’t?) – remains a crucial challenge to participation. To address these two challenges I explore two different readings of ‘horizontality’ – one from community development drawing on Alison Gilchrist’s work and another from the alter-globalization movement. At the heart of this argument is the idea that museums will better be able to share power if they stop thinking of themselves as being for ‘everyone’ but rather as being for ‘anyone’.

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Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing?

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via Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing?.

Mike Benson, Rachael Turner and I are just on the train coming back from a workshop in Bristol. The workshop gathered together the nine projects funded, like ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’, under the same AHRC Connected Communities Co-design Development Grant. As part of this programme there is another project (involving Robin Durie, Keri Facer, and Lindsey Horner) researching all the co-design projects. Which could be a little bit research-will-eat itself but hopefully won’t be because it’s going to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Basically:

Quality. Will the various co-design and now co-production processes lead to better research? Raising obvious questions of quality, who defines it, who judges it, and where are the different sites/places where quality might be judged (or ‘qualities’ as one member of the workshop put it).
Novelty. What’s new? Will co-design processes lead to new insights? Raising the questions of ‘new’ where and for whom.
Legacy. Will it matter that the project happened? Where and for whom?

One of the things we’re doing on our co-design project is exploring the sticking points in heritage decision making so we can see them as sites for challenge and change in our research. So this made me think – what are the sticking points in questions of ‘better’ research?

Quality is often tied spatially to academic peer networks. But in a more sticky way, quality is also often tied to the success with which research is ‘located’ (spatially and temporally) within other research through referencing and citation conventions (so research shows how it comes after, and builds on, others work and how the research is closer to some people’s work than others).

Novelty appears to reference the urgent or presented-centred but in research contexts is more closely linked to ‘distinctive’ or ‘original’ contributions. But – to turn to legacy – what makes something ‘new’ isn’t its immediate usability more that it proves its originality through being located within what came before. What makes research count as being ‘new’ is that it then creates a legacy for itself by entering the long histories and slow change of academic disciplines. A form of change which is implicitly read as ‘real’ and sustainable because the insights can be tracked – through citations – as ‘distinct’.

But these forms of quality, novelty and legacy as ‘location’ and ‘distinctiveness’ are challenged by co-production and really, more broadly, by the interest in the impact of research generally – this must make it necessary to think of…

Quality as contingent and multiple: Traditionally academic ‘quality’ is decided by a ‘peers’ (as in peer-review of journal articles) but clearly in our ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ project each of us have ‘peers’ from seminar managers in national organizations, members of our community or radical history groups, other people work in the same professional domain (conservation officers; archeologists; community development workers) and other academics (in history; museum and heritage studies; management studies). It’s a bit like we are all attached to bungees and will always get pulled back out from the group back to the other people we work with ‘back at home’. So we need to openly explore what would count as ‘quality’ research in our different homes, our different sites of accountability. And also, as part of this, break down ‘quality’ into more graspable things. I like the ideas of ‘resonance’, of what sticks, what can be adapted, changed and used.

Novelty as specific and having different ‘times’: A sense of newness will also be different in different places and needs to be targeted and tailored. In one of the discussions yesterday, Ann Light reflected on design research and its focus not on generalizable knowledge by in creating understanding which are ‘fit for purpose’– so fit to be used and adapted. This in contrast to traditional notions of research as authored, ‘original’ and ‘distinctive’.

Legacy as adaptability and assimilation: If we have these different spatial and temporal contingencies then there also needs to be an understanding of multiple legacies that are happening in different timeframes. Talking at the workshop, Mike, Rachael and I already believe our work together has shaped many other conversations we’ve since had with lots of other people . We played yesterday with the idea of virus, or spreading out. There are maybe two things going on here with different ‘times’:

Live and adapting: there’s the ‘live’ and adapting model where co-production happens throughout the project through multiple conversations and direct contact with us during the life of the project (which we would probably see as part of the constant shaping of our research not as dissemination). Success here might come from assimilation (and the project not being remember as such) rather than distinctiveness and separateness signaled by ownership, citation and tagging.

Mediation and distinctive: then the more conventional ‘mediation’ of ideas which has started through our project blog and continue through other written outputs throughout and at the end. These probably do need to be ‘located’ in the academic sense to be really useful – to build on what’s come before. The timeframes are different here too – for groups and practitioners this is maybe more urgent, for academic disciplines much slower and longer.

The key principle for me here is: if there are multiple peers, sites and timeframes then no one part of the network can stand it for or act as the explanatory key for the rest. If the research is considered good in one place, that doesn’t mean it’s good everywhere. The distributed accountabilities we have set up through the collaborative nature of our projects have to lead to distributed understand of qualities, novelties and legacies. This means that an academic judgment of quality should never be seen as final but nor should be a judgment made by any one of our community groups. However, the big question we will want to ask, and have asked of us by Robin, Keri and Lindsey, is whether keeping a wide range of sites (Heritage Lottery Fund, Science Museum, York Civic Trust, Heritage Studies, Management Studies, radical historians, local authority conservation officers, Urban Studies and archaeologists) in tension and in mind through our collaborative research makes for better interventions in each of the ‘homes’ and contexts to which our bungees are always pulling us back.

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Update from ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’

Reblogged from http://codesignheritage.wordpress.com/

Very good news – our research design was accepted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and we will soon begin carrying out the research. Below are some slides telling the ‘story so far’, covering the process we went through in the Phase 1 co-design phase and the plans we’ve developed for Phase 2.

Phase 1: We spent Phase 1 generating lots of ideas and from this realized we did have broadly shared aims for our research. We refined these into this statement:

Decision making about heritage is difficult. This is partly because heritage decision making has formed around the idea that the interests of people in the past, present and future need to be taken into account and that it is necessary to consider different and sometimes conflicting ideas of what is important or significant. We think we could make heritage decision making easier (and better) if we could identify the ‘boundaries’, ‘sticking points’, ‘blocks’ and ‘exclusions’ in current practices. We will do this through actively drawing on the multiple perspectives and locations of the Research Team, through deploying experimental action research approaches and holding these together with thinking informed by ideas of systems and complexity to generate new insights. Understanding the dynamics of ‘heritage decision making’ in this way will help everyone with a stake to self-consciously develop decision making processes and practices and through this reshape our understandings of ‘heritage’ itself.

But while we shared the same broad aims…we also realized we didn’t necessarily want to do explore them using the same type of activities or by using the same methods! So influenced by Danny Burns’ idea of parallel action in action research – going where the energy is rather than seeking consensus – we’ve developed three enquiry strands which are orientated towards ‘heritage’ in different ways: ‘from within’, ‘experimenting’ and ‘interrogating’.

Phase 2 plan:

From within: ‘making the familiar strange’
Members of the research team with ‘live’ museum or community heritage projects will work with a ‘critical friend’ (either Rebecca Madgin or Helen Graham) to actively reflecting on their own decision making and explore our research questions with people they collaborate with locally. Mike Benson (Bede’s World); Danny Callaghan (Potteries Tile Trail); Jenny Timothy (Leicester City Council) and Alex Hale (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) will all work on this.

Experimenting: ‘Other ways of making decisions’
Tim Boon, Richard Courtney and Helen Graham will work with a recruited group of people who will be invited to make recommendations for what might be added to the Science Museum music technology collections. Alongside this the group will reflect on the questions raised by this process: What is expertise? What makes decisions about collecting legitimate?

Interrogating: ‘public inquiry’
Strand 3 is an interrogation (from the outside) and does this by launching a grassroots public inquiry into whether heritage is good for York (with York Civic Trust, York’s Alternative History and helped out along the way by Rachael Turner, MadLab). This will include citizen journalism and big data crunching, participatory exhibitions and public events with the city’s decision makers.

All throughout we’ll be covered in our activities by Hive Radio, community media group based at Bede’s World.

To keep in touch and join in the debates which will emerge as we go along sign up to our our discussion list. We’ll also be tracking our progress here on this blog and warmly welcome and encourage comments and reflections as our plans unfold…

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Co-design project: ‘What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History’

Reblogged from ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ Co-design project blog

We were sitting by the fire in the Golden Ball a few Wednesday nights ago for York’s Alternative History open meeting and Nick Smith was stuck, in a very productive way, on this question: ‘Nope’ (after I’d tried to say something incisive), ‘I still don’t get it…what’s heritage again?’

Martin and I had been trying to encapsulate the debates we’d had at the first Co-Design workshop at Bede’s World (13th and 14th March). The fundamental problem of definition was something Martin had raised earlier that day in his blog ‘Heritage is a mess!’ I think the sticking point for Nick was around about what makes heritage ‘heritage’ rather than just stuff and life and what makes ‘heritage’ different from archaeology or historical data (as Tara-Jane Sutcliffe helpfully put it).

Of course, this debate is completely core to academic debates in heritage studies (and has been the stuff of debate since the ‘heritage debates’ and Robert Hewison, Patrick Wright and Raphael Samuel in the 1980s and early 1990s) but the debate we had gave the question a slightly different complexion.

The discussion – not surprisingly, given around the table were revolutionary socialists, anarchists, libertarians and activists – was mostly focused on a critique of the institutional management and designation of stuff and life as ‘heritage’ and ideas about if, and how, to radically intervene in York’s history (something we’ve talked about a lot about since York’s Alternative History started last year).

So on the first point, it was noted by Steve Cox (who is currently working on developing an event for 2014 to radically question and contextualize the First World War ‘commemorations’) that institutional histories (in museums and such) like to smooth over class conflict. So this relates to the question of whether histories of protest and dissent are properly discussed in most museums? York’s Alternative History generally don’t think so in York – hence our recent Luddites event and last years ‘A Walk through Radical York’ led by Paul Furness.

On the second point an issue that has long exercised York’s Alternative History is whether we’re looking to mainstream radical history in York (see another of Martin’s blogs). For example, did we want to campaign for a blue plaque for the site of where the execution of the West Riding Luddites took place in January 1813 or was our more performative and also ephemeral cardboard and plywood placards, each carrying the name of an executed man, in some ways more powerful?

The Luddites commemorative placards 10 days on

Nick gave another example of this dilemma in terms of storytelling traditions in the Leeman Road area of York where his neighbours shared with him the explanation for the burnt bricks on his street (bombing during the second world war). Does this need to be remembered institutionally or is the chat and conversation in the street enough? John Bibby suggested that maybe we all should write our own DIY blue (or red and black as Mick Phythian suggested…) plaques for our front doors. In other words, as Nick put it, museums alone can’t do it, ‘history should be being done by lots of different people, in different ways all the time’.

I think this took us to a really key question for me which links the two issues around which the York’s Alternative History discussions circled and strongly related to debates at the workshop inspired by the work of Mike Benson, Kathy Cremin and John Lawson at Ryedale Folk Museum and now at Bede’s World. One of their very inspiring arguments is that museums come back to life when people can be given space to have ‘freedom of self’, to loosely work together to share and cultivate their own expertise and interests.

I’m very excited about Mike, Kathy and John’s approach but I also recognize that museums and archives have grown up around the management of the past for the present and future (and this is what I think ‘heritage’ refers to…) in part to achieve this more than slightly bonkers desire to keep stuff for everyone now and everyone in the future. The question for me, then, is (and I think this was also behind Nick’s persistent question) – is ‘heritage’ tied to the political logics of public-ness? Public-ness in the sense of the collective ownership of resources managed by professionals ‘on our behalf’? Is this the political price we need to pay for the logic of perpetuity?

The Luddites event we organized in January was one of the most moving experiences of remembering and engaging with the past-in-the-present that I’ve ever been involved in (I avoid ‘heritage’ there for Nick’s sake!). A museum may well not have been able to organize that – it didn’t need to…we in York’s Alternative History wanted to do it, so we did it. It was self-organized, it was horizontal, it was based on shared desire and ‘mutual aid’ of a small number of people and it gathered together other like-minded people. It was exactly what it needed to be. Is it important for either this quite anarchic event itself (the red and black flag was flown by some that day…) or for the West Riding Luddites themselves to be remembered in perpetuity? Was the ‘now’ of that January day enough?

And here is the biggy: is the very form of political association that created this event able or appropriate for dealing in perpetuity? Are self- and horizontal modes of organising necessarily and helpfully present-centred (as in these forms accountability lies to each other now)? Can self-organisation be relied on to value that which others, themselves self-organizing in the past, valued? Or do we need the public ethos of being ‘inclusive’ and ‘to consider everyone’ (however flawed in practice) to more dispassionately ‘manage’ (I use this word deliberately) all of desperate passions and values which make up our pasts and present?

The more libertarian self-organized radical feminist archives from the Women’s Liberation movement have nearly all come under some form of institutional care now. The last exception is the Feminist Library in London – and today’s feminists are working very hard to keep this alive. But for me this raises the question, to put the same issue in a different way, do we need public institutions to say this is important because it was important to people in the past even if fewer people now want to self-organize around it?

I think we probably need both…the energy of ‘freedom of self’ and association which is about what matters now (as the Luddites do to many of us) and some kind of public ethos (which should always work to be more democratic) which can manage more dispassionately and over a longer time period multiple and conflicting interests. So, and this is also basically where I’ve got to with my anti-cuts activism too (also a topic that has been hotly debated in York’s Alternative History), perhaps we need some kind of anarchic public-ness?

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Ideals and awkwardness: the form of the final decision

Reblogged from our AHRC co-design project website ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ – posted as part of the initial reflection phase of the project.

I hate getting consent forms signed. It’s something I’ve had to do a lot, whether for oral history projects, co-production projects in museums or as part of research projects. It’s awkward to say the least. I hand over the form and then there is no option but to kind of hover while the person I’ve worked with for months bends over the paper and signs it. Signing my life away, semi-joked one signee, as I hovered.

‘Do better, easier-to-read forms’, you say – thanks, yes, I have tried this. ‘Build better more transparent understandings before you get to the form signing bit’, you say – good idea and yes, I’ve tried that too. ‘Draw up the form together’ – yeap, done that too. That moment is still awkward.

It’s an awkward moment, as I’ve written elsewhere (Graham 2012a, 2012b) and with others (Graham, Mason and Nayling 2012), because all those small interactions which build relationships – all those moments of laughter and joking, the moving moments, the moments of misunderstandings or disagreements which have since been worked through – get somehow flattened out into a series of transactions, agreements over use and a signature.

But I’m pretty sure no matter how great the form, no matter how brilliantly negotiated the participation process and no matter how skillful the hoverer, that awkwardness is part of this moment. To focus on these improvements of form and process are important and must be understood in terms of ethics (as I’ll be discussing with Alex Henry and Aileen Strachan today at the Tackling Ethical Challenges Conference in Durham, see also Banks et al. 2012; Banks et al. 2014). But this awkwardness comes from something bigger. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need the form. In fact, it’s politics which floods the scene.

An oral history or a digital story is a very personal thing. Yet the very reason it has been recorded is for public record and use. It is for use now. It is also, if accessioned into a collection, for use in perpetuity. As a result suddenly up pop many things which exceed me-the-form-carrier and you-the-signee. Between us suddenly appear (like a pop up book or the introductory credits to Game of Thrones) the museum, funders, indefinable others who might use or edit the recording; everyone now and everyone in the future.

And this is the big, tricky issue of ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ from my perspective. Heritage is personal and it’s public. It is owned by specific people and places. But its very transformation into ‘heritage’ has some kind of wider, public dimension. Some have noted this and have strongly argued that people’s memories, objects or practices and decision-making should just be theirs; they should be ‘accorded the right to decide’ (Waterton and Smith 2010 p. 11). Yet it is these same people who equally robustly point out how exclusionary public institutions are. Could it be that for ‘heritage’ to be diverse and to be inclusive, this shift ‘into the public’ has to happen? Is part of this a necessary recognition of heritage as only existing as it does because of public and civic purposes? Is this sense of a bigger purpose, beyond yourself and even your rights (Graham 2012b), necessary to make heritage ethically viable?

Perhaps heritage has no simply source of legitimacy, in other words. I hoover awkwardly because I personally can’t make it all alright. The form being signed is not just between me and you. I carry the form to you on behalf of yet-unimaginable others (everyone now, everyone in the future). And you sign it, maybe, possibly, recognizing a purpose bigger and beyond yourself (history, culture, humanity, perpetuity). This is different to research ethics, it is as if the act of signing over, of accessioning or depositing is a specific form of representational politics – a form of politics which seeks ideals of clarity and transparency and yet, and because of the constant limits of these ideals, feels always, personally emotionally fraught.

Flowing from this are questions I’ll be taking to our first ‘How should decisions be made?’ workshop in March; questions of the effect multiple and often imagined sources of legitimacy. Can I pay attention to how this awkwardness feels – what this feeling tells me about the dangers of appropriation, ownership and loss – and the demands of publiciness at the same time? More particularly how might an interpersonal ethics and politics (of association, of self-organization, of the horizontal) relate to a deliberately public politics of heritage? Trying to think both together is all very, but helpfully, awkward.

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Two new AHRC Connected Communities projects almost up and running

Really excited to have two new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects almost up and running. The first is Ways of Knowing which draws together a fantastic research team to reflexively experiment with common methodologies of collaborative, participative and action research as a way of exploring the kinds of knowledges they make possible. Which I expect will be just as relevant to the ways of knowing produced through museum co-production too.

The other is a Co-Design Development Grant linked to the Connected Communities programme and called How should decisions about heritage be made?. The exciting thing about this project is we don’t really know what it’s about yet. An equally fantastic team of us, with members from community heritage groups, museums, funders and universities, are going to work together between now and May to design the research project which we will then carry out over the following year.

More will be revealed as the projects take shape.

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Museums and Cultural Institutions as Spaces for Cultural Citizenship project – Copenhagen

I’ve just come back from a fascinating trip to Copenhagen to visit a project ‘Museums and Cultural Institutions as Spaces for Cultural Citizenship’. The project is comprised of 11 organizations, mostly musuems: ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Design Museum Denmark, KØS – Art in public spaces, Nikolaj – Center for Contemporary art, The Royal Theater, Copenhagen Museum, The National Museum, The National Gallery, jF Villumsens Museum and Thorvaldsens Museum.

Each museum has volunteered a pair of staff, one from the learning team and one from the curatorial team to explore dialogue-based approached learning and curatorial practices and is linked to action research being conducted by Lise Sattrup for her PhD. There was also an earlier phase focused specifically on dialogue-based learning in museums which can be read about in an inspiring book by Olga Dysthe, Nana Bernhardt and Line Esbjorn (which has just been translated into English).

My presentation used visitor research on co-produced exhibits and exhibitions (based on research conducted for ‘Northern Spirit: 300 years of Art in the North East’ and as shared in the workshop ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced and User-Generated Exhibits’ held at St Mungo Museum of Art and Religious Life, 18th December) as a starting point to explore questions of different types of knowledge and the politics of museum decision-making raised by co-production. My slides are here:

The workshop the ended with a fascinating workshop led by Helene Illeries (thanks to Gry Guldberg for the English interpretation!) which revisited her interest in meta-reflection in teaching practice. Helene was using this workshop to question constant self-regulation and self-reflection and was exploring whether there might be space in museum visits for not ‘paying attention’, for boredom and for practitioners to let go and not being in fully ‘in charge’ as this creates space for student-led learning.

Across the project there was this strong attitude of creating space for possibility and for listening and that this has potential for an approach for challenge and change within organisations as well as within learning programmes.

All photographs of Northern Spirit by Nicola Maxwell.

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