Understanding Audience Participation Through Positionality

Understanding Audience Participation Through Positionality

Agency, Authority, and Urgency

Lorna Cruickshanks and Merel van der Vaart

For a number of decades, museums have been challenged to rethink their relationships with visitors: from the New Museology,[1] highlighting the social role of museums in the late 1980s through a growing focus on engagement, outreach, and representation, to the concept of participation popularized in the early 2000s by, among others, Nina Simon. Since Simon defined “a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content,”[2] researchers and practitioners have continued to consider the multiple factors that influence participation practices within museums.[3] The complexity of museum audiences has increasingly become recognized—understood as having different interests, backgrounds, and values. These diverse audiences are, however, often set in opposition to “The Museum,” a homogenous entity. But every museum is different, each uniquely shaped by its collections and its history, as well as the people who work there. By overlooking these differences, we fail to critically engage with the way that participatory practices develop and are understood differently in different organizations.

Museums can be considered as living organizations made up of many practices and people, and the interactions between them, each “organizational life-world” different and dynamic.[4] This has been recognized in more recent explorations of participation practices and the impacts of variables such as the size of the institution[5] or the departments and professional spheres that museum professionals work within.[6] Institutional context undoubtedly impacts the way staff understand and value participation, and who we are as museum professionals and as people matters; both influenced by, and influential on, the institutions we work in. As yet, not much research has been dedicated to the position of staff members as individuals within the process of developing a participatory work culture, nor the impact of the type of museum and disciplinary context these individuals work within. Does an anthropologist understand community participation the same as an art historian? Does the curator at a science museum consider relationships with audiences the same way a social history curator might? It is our aim to contribute to these early explorations and encourage further thinking in this area.

This exploratory paper begins to unpack the impact of positionality on the rich diversity of collections-based participation that has developed among museums. It will look at this through three ideas: agency, authority, and urgency. By agency, we mean the influence that individuals inside or outside the museum hold, or are perceived to hold, in relation to collections. By authority, we mean the power and voice that comes with expertise, and the way knowledge around collections is understood and valued. By urgency, we also refer to the sense of accountability or responsibility assumed towards communities, and how important and essential collections-based participation work is perceived.

After defining what we understand participation to be and introducing the idea of positionality, we will further define the concepts of agency, authority, and urgency in the context of collections-based participation. We will reflect upon how these concepts may differ for different disciplines and how this impacts how museum professionals, and in particular curatorial staff, engage with the concept of participation.

In writing this, we draw on our professional practice in the museum sector—as a curator and as a community engagement professional, respectively, both of whom have practical experience involving audiences with science, history, ethnographic, and social history collections in particular—and our writing reflects the academic disciplines we have been trained in: history/museum studies and anthropology, respectively. It also reflects our experiences working in a European context—namely the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—and the agendas and concerns of these museum landscapes.

Although we draw on relevant literature where possible, we are aware of the limitations of our work. This research topic would highly benefit from more ethnographic or practice-based research, and we hope to provoke further reflection and encourage further investigation into this field.

Fig. 1. Narrative Objects Community Partnerships project. Photo: Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Participation and Positionality

While participation is a growing field within the cultural sector, definitions continue to vary among practitioners and academics alike. Throughout this paper, participation reflects a collaboration between museum and audience where the two are doing things together—with outputs such as co-created exhibitions, co-produced events, co-written research applications—within the context of a reciprocal relationship. It manifests in multiple and plural ways, across a scope of activity of real value to both museum and partners. It is tied up with processes of democratization of museums, decentralizing knowledge production and presentation, and pluralizing museums and narratives, as well as inclusion and representation.

To date, participation work has largely straddled innovative curatorial work and learning and engagement practice. While changing, participation often still takes place in isolated, one-off projects, initiated and driven by one or more select staff members.

In The Participatory Museum, Simon outlined the following conditions necessary for a cultural institution to become a place for participation:

  • Desire for the input and involvement of outside participants
  • Trust in participants’ abilities
  • Responsiveness to participants’ actions and contributions[7]

These conditions are a set of values. In order for an organization to fully embrace participation, its staff needs to share these values—collectively and individually.

Such values are not easily institutionalized, not least because they are fundamentally about the way individual people interact with other people. Institutions exert influence on individual members of staff, but staff members do not only and fully represent the organization they work for. Individuals’ perspectives on such collective values, as well as the position they hold or the influence they exert, affect how these values might be realized within an institution.

As individuals, who we are, what we believe, and what we’ve done shapes our values. Our identity and positionality undeniably influence our professional experience and practices. In their recent paper examining the idea of identity and allyship in the context of diversity and inclusion work among museum educators, Wendy Ng and her co-authors make clear that:

Our identities and our practices… shape our work as museum educators. They inform which teaching objects we select, what forms of knowledge we sanction, what audiences we connect with, and how we value the knowledge and lived experiences of our visitors and colleagues and stakeholders. We believe that identities and practices… shape the work of museum professionals in all departments.[8]

Advocating for increased self-reflection and self-awareness, Ng and her colleagues emphasize that museum professionals’ identities and positionality, including how they see themselves and are seen by others, impacts their work with audiences. Who (and why and how) is leading participation work plays a great role in shaping what the process looks like.

Ng and her colleagues also actively encourage us to convene colleagues to collectively unpack positionality and take shared responsibility for creating a compassionate and inclusive institutional culture.[9] While this kind of activity could positively influence how values and approaches are shaped collectively, unfortunately this is not very common practice. Bernadette Lynch, who has written extensively about community engagement in museums, discussed an invisible, subtle and coercive power that can exist within museums, where staff feel powerless to analyze, critique, or challenge their practices.[10] This, she writes, makes it difficult for individuals and institutions to undo assumptions and take part in necessary processes of learning and unlearning in order to improve their practice. Lynch also speaks of “habits of mind”[11] that form in museums, where “the values of the institution subtly become the ‘common-sense’ values of all.”[12] While individuals of course can feel at odds with their institution’s approach and practice, people are influenced heavily by the context of their professional environment—both directly and indirectly. An individual might react and act differently depending on the context of the organization and the approaches, beliefs, and values they have been trained in and are surrounded by.

As human interactions and person-level relationships lie at the heart of participation work, reflecting on how we see our work, ourselves, and others, and how we recognize our identity markers and privileges, is an essential part of our work. How do we think others see us? What of ourselves do we feel we can show to others? This self-awareness and reflection is an ongoing process.


Within participation work, the agency of participants and partners continues to be a subject of research and discussion.

Lynch’s seminal research for the UK-based Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2011 found much early participation or community engagement work to be “empowerment lite.”[13] The Foundation’s subsequent Our Museum project (2012–2015)[14] addressed “community agency” directly.[15] The participating museums aimed to involve communities more actively in collaborative exhibition development, interpretation, and decision making. Our Museum also reflected a subtle but important shift away from paternalistic models: community participants were considered as active partners and agency negotiated rather than given or awarded.

What shapes ideas of agency when it comes to involving audiences with collections research, exhibition making, conservation, or collecting? Who are the communities whose stake is valued, or that museums are willing and open to negotiate with? How might ideas of agency be influenced by the type of museum, collection, or discipline of an institution?

One line of participation work can be located in relation to social history collections and practices of oral history, documenting lived experience and contemporary community collecting. Often located within the communities whose histories they represent, social history museums have a long tradition of working closely with local communities whose agency is recognized as experts and stakeholders in these collections. Many are increasingly reflecting upon representation within their institutions, and have sought to work collaboratively with different communities to address gaps or challenging topics in their collections.[16]

Another strand of participation work can be located within ethnographic museums and the changing relationships between museums and “source communities.” In particular, work which began in North America with Native American and First Nations communities, in Australia with Aboriginal communities, and in New Zealand with Maori communities throughout the 1990s has impacted the collaborative work many museums do today. Stemming from a growing awareness of the need to address problematic relationships with and representations of communities, this shift sat alongside a period of change within the wider discipline of anthropology, in which anthropologists began to reimagine relationships with those they study and write about.[17] A fundamental repositioning of agency in knowledge creation and production continues to be tied to practices of decolonizing ethnographic museums through more equal and collaborative relationships with communities.

For ethnographic as well as archaeological collections, the idea of agency can also be linked to theories of material culture. Seminal works, such as Appadurai and Kopytoff’s approaches to mapping the way value, meaning, and significance of objects changes within different contexts in The Social Life of Things,[18] have continued to influence how material things are understood in relation to people. Within the life of an object, many different people hold agency. The recognition of the multiple and sometimes conflicting histories, identities, and stories that museum collections are tied up with impacts the agency that is recognized, navigated, and negotiated; something that continues to make participation work difficult as well as necessary.

While, for many types of museum, participation has typically been driven by an interest in engaging more obvious stakeholders who can share specific (types of) knowledge relating to collections, participation work in museums also involves thinking about how an object might be relevant to, or made use of, by others. Here we draw on the experience of one of the authors while working in the Community Partnerships Team at the British Museum, London, on a project involving an intergenerational group of artists. The artists spent five days creatively exploring an ivory model of a summer festival celebrated by the Sakha people, one of Siberia’s largest indigenous populations. This object was the focus of a wider research project, Narrative Objects, being led by the University of Aberdeen’s Social Anthropology department, which also involved the object going on loan and being discussed within the community in Siberia.[19] The London-based community project was initially conceived by the research team as a dissemination opportunity. Once in progress, however, it became clear that the artists’ way of knowing, understanding of materials and form, and prior interest in exploring ideas of tradition and ritual within their practice could really contribute to the research around the object and its significance. Of course the discussions were very different to those that happened in Siberia, but the project encouraged new ideas about the value and significance of working with individuals beyond the “source community.”

Fig. 2. Narrative Objects Community Partnerships project participant sketchbooks. Photo: Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Could art museums have more freedom to think creatively about who has something to say about the objects in their care? In their consideration of participation in the Dutch art world, Anna Elffers and Emilie Sitzia suggest that art museums have been late to adopt this approach to working with audiences, and this has resulted in continuing ambiguity over the definition of participation within the art world.[20] Partly, they say, this is a result of persistent debates between instrumental or autonomous views of art, as well as the influence of the different contexts that stakeholders work in. What is art’s purpose? What is its intent? In art museums, in particular, it is not only the positionality of the staff that has influence over audience participation, but that of living artists, too. About this, Elffers and Sitzia say:

Certain specifics of art museums set them apart from other cultural institutions. They often work with living artists who have their own understanding and agency in terms of their relationship with audiences, the level of participation their work should provoke, and the way they define their own place in the process (from isolated genius to community mediator).[21]

Artists can have a say in who engages in their work, when and in which ways within the museum context, but also during the creation of artworks. The tradition of participation within the art world is therefore significant.

Art historian and critic Claire Bishop has traced artists’ involvement of audiences in their work back to the 1920s, identifying precursors to participatory art in Dadaism,[22] although the socially oriented projects of the 1990s are often considered to mark the social turn in the art world. Bishop has characterized participation in the production of art as “striving to collapse distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception.”[23] Greater agency is awarded to participants, and to the collective social experience. Museums working with living artists who involve audiences in this way may only realize participation as imagined by the artist. This work can be of value, of course. Socially engaged art has been the focus of much debate around contemporary participation in art, particularly in the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics,” in which he advocated for relational art that seeks to produce human interactions or social encounters. However, Bishop challenges the inherent democratic nature of relational art. She questions what types of relationships are being produced in these encounters, for whom and why.[24] These are, of course, pertinent questions to participation work within all types of museums.

Despite the differences in how participation is understood within the art world, audience agency in art museums remains largely positioned within a “user-end” experience, where audiences are involved in processes of interpretation and personal meaning making, often in response to an existing work. An interesting example of this is the 2018 Rendez-vous met Frans Hals exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in the Netherlands. As well as inviting contemporary artists to respond to and reimagine Frans Hals, the exhibit also featured a display produced with a group of medical students showing a series of portraits by Hals with annotations speculating on the conditions the sitters might have been living with. When it comes to historical art, art museums often seem to favor working with contemporary artists rather than collaborating with other audiences. Although, as the Frans Hals case shows, the agency of other kinds of experts is sometimes also acknowledged.

Fig. 3. Medical students’ responses to Frans Hals. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij. Courtesy of Frans Hals Museum.

Refocusing on museum professionals, we recognize that agency is not equally distributed across an organization. In fact, participation work can often make power imbalances within an organization even more visible. The agency of community partners may be limited to the agency of the member of staff they are in contact with. While there has been a push to make participation an organizational approach and a core function of a museum, often a small number of staff will be responsible for this kind of work, and projects take place in silos. There may be differences of opinion or approach between individuals within an organization, between generations, across hierarchies, or between one staff member and “the institution.” Personally, we have both experienced this at times and have notably felt that advocacy has always been an important (unofficial) part of our roles. At the same time, we have also felt some responsibility to represent the organizations we worked for in our interaction with audiences. More general challenges that many individuals within museums are dealing with are the temporary contracts and uncertainty over their future at an organization. While staff turnover can be damaging for work with audiences which relies on personal relationships, it may also play a role in the way someone approaches their role at an institution. Does this encourage staff to take more risks and push more boundaries? Does it prevent institutionalization? Or does it encourage staff to stick to the status quo, afraid that challenging it might damage their career prospects? How do personal feelings of security, inclusion, and agency affect how someone drives or facilitates audience participation?


The concept of sharing authority with audiences continues to be key to discussions around museum participation. Museums’ reluctance to share authority has been identified as one of the reasons that participation too often remains project-based or tokenistic. But what are some of the factors that might influence perception and willingness to let go of authority?

The value placed on authority and its distribution within the museum is of great importance here. Not only in relation to literal hierarchies or organizational structures that determine power and authority, but in the sense of authority as it relates to expertise and who is authorized to speak about collections or produce and share knowledge.

The role of curator can vary greatly from museum to museum but, holding a position that traditionally focuses on the care and research of collections, curators continue to be positioned as experts, and often hold a great amount of authority within museums. Curators are often still expected to have been academically trained in a discipline related to the collections for which they will be responsible. This is particularly true for older and/or larger institutions, perhaps partly due to their close associations with academic institutions.[25] The way museums continue to categorize their collections in such terms and the perpetuating requirement for academic training for curators is important, particularly because these disciplines perceive the process of knowledge creation and the idea of expertise, and therefore authority, in different ways.

Professional progression and standing may also be significant in the way that authority is perceived and shared. Curators may feel they need to protect their expertise in order to secure their authority and progress in their career. Peer pressure and public opinion can play an important role in this as well. As such, in order for a curator to adopt a more participatory and democratized practice, they may need to break from individual and institutional, if not societal, burdens and norms, which connects back to what has been said above about the individual agency of different staff members.

Rhiannon Mason, Christopher Whitehead, and Helen Graham, reflecting on their experiences collaborating with members of the public during a project coproducing audiovisual exhibits at the Laing Art Gallery, noted that:

Social history practice—like oral history—confers expertise on people by recognizing and valorizing their involvement in, or experience of, historical contexts or events. By contrast, familiarity with art history discourse is still seen by many as a form of cultural capital only to be accessed through one’s elite social position and/or educational privilege. For the former (social history) participants are seen to be the expert on their subject of their own lives and, accordingly, this gives them a sense of authority over their story. In the latter (art history), our experience suggested participants were far less likely to be viewed or themselves feel authorized or empowered by the invitation to participate.[26]

Perceptions of expertise and knowledge creation might influence how curators feel about sharing authority when in it comes to content development, but also how others engage in such processes.

The relationship between art museums, art history, and the wider art world, and a prevailing idea of connoisseurship, for example, has implications for participation, whereas disciplines such as anthropology and social history have stronger traditions of valuing lived experience, first-person narratives, and intangible heritage. Emilie Sitzia has suggested that traditions within art history have driven art museums to, in general, adopt a didactic strategy to display and maintain a unidirectional educational role.[27] In her application of Jacques Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster” to the museum world, Yuha Jung has considered how museums might rethink their relationship to knowledge in order to reduce the authoritative and elitist nature of museums.[28] She argues that a changed mindset, in which everyone is seen as intelligent, capable, and worth being valued, would lead to museums being more inclusive spaces. Building on this idea, Sitzia explores how an “ignorant art museum” might rethink its relationship to expertise and let go of its control over knowledge.[29] Decentralizing knowledge can be difficult, both on an institutional and personal level. She says, “One often sees a certain degree of resistance from expert staff in museums as they see their role threatened and feel their existing knowledge is being devalued.”[30] This discomfort is, of course, not limited to art museums, and many factors (some of which we have mentioned already) contribute to this.

Participation work requires—and is often an important part of the process of—reimagining, repositioning, and democratizing knowledge. A project one of the authors worked on, which focused on collecting oral histories around a technology-related object, influenced the way the curator responsible for the object thought about potentially relevant narratives. In the past, the curator had decided to remove certain additions to the object that referred to the location where it was used, in order to place more emphasis on the object as an example of technological development. They now regretted these changes, admitting they had not previously realized the importance of alternative narratives about the users of the technology and its place in society. In this example, this realization that others’ voices were valuable did not devalue the curator’s knowledge, but added to it. Being aware of how you have been trained in a subject field, to know and think in a specific way, is a first step towards acknowledging there might be other valid ways of exploring topics, different ways of knowing and different ways of producing and presenting knowledge, opening up the space to share authority.


The final theme we wish to begin exploring in this paper is that of urgency. Having looked at how ideas around agency and authority might hinder or encourage participation work, what can cause museum professionals to experience a sense of urgency that results in them embracing and advocating for greater audience participation within their organization?

First of all, community groups who have already been involved in (one-off) participatory projects can be important drivers for change. Both authors have had experienced this when working with LGBTQ communities. In conversations with Gendered Intelligence, an organization supporting transgender youth in the United Kingdom, to explore how the Science Museum’s collections could be relevant to them, an earlier visit by the group to the museum sparked an idea for a participatory project. When the group had visited the Who am I? exhibition at the museum, which explores gender from a binary perspective, many young transgender people felt unrepresented. From this grew the idea for Gendered Intelligence to “hack” the exhibition and insert themselves, their stories, and relevant artifacts into the existing displays.[31] At the British Museum, working with a number of organizations supporting LGBTQ communities particularly focused on collaboratively developing programming over some years, it became clear that there was a need for more collections-based work and a desire to address the lack of LGBTQ histories highlighted in the galleries, as well as a call for the museum to be bolder.[32]

Fig. 4. Exhibition view of Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories at the British Museum, London, May 11–October 15, 2017. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Secondly, there seems to be a broader societal trend as well as a paradigm shift within the humanities, which has been driven by, among other things, postcolonial, feminist, and gender theories.[33] The fact that references to representation, diversity, and problematic collecting histories are appearing in popular culture, such as the hugely well-known music video for “APESHIT” by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or the museum-based scene in the blockbuster Black Panther, add to the feeling that museums are increasingly being held accountable in society.

Thirdly, and not unimportantly, a new generation of museum staff seem more aware that contested histories, narratives about colonial pasts, and multiple perspectives related to underrepresented communities are often missing from museum displays. Individuals across the sector have found ways to support one another and mobilize to challenge the status quo and drive change. For example, Museum Detox is a network of over 250 ethnically diverse museum workers from all ages and class backgrounds in the United Kingdom which was created in response to a lack of representation within the sector. The network is raising awareness of and challenging racism in heritage.[34]

Urgency also seems to be linked closely to ideas of responsibility or accountability. In her paper drawing on an organizational study and the way museum professionals make sense of community engagement practice, Nuala Morse explores the relationship between accountability and community engagement work.[35] Her research among different departments across a museum service identified four “repertoires” of accountability (accountability being a term those she interviewed kept returning to), grounded in ideas of democracy and relating to funding sources as well as professional practices. Morse found that disciplinary tradition among the social history curators led them to position their work as “for the people,” with strong ethical and moral values driving their community engagement practice.

It is important to note, however, that this sense of responsibility, accountability, and urgency does not necessarily translate into a more participatory work practice. Interestingly, art museums in particular seem to rely on more traditional forms of knowledge creation and research when responding to the growing expectation of sharing more inclusive narratives. This is well demonstrated by recent projects such as the 2019 Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse exhibition in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, which will question the representation of “black models” in art, and the re-hang at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which will see more women artists on display in the galleries from late 2019.[36] Both of these undoubtedly innovative and welcomed projects seem to rely primarily on traditional curatorial knowledge and (art) historical research.

At the same time, urgency is key; not only to individual museum professionals and institutions alike to engage in participatory work to begin with, it can also be a trigger for organizational change, bringing participation work from periphery to core, and from a one-off project to an organizational approach.

Fig. 5. Exhibition view of the Gendered Intelligence display case of the permanent exhibition Who am I? at the Science Museum, London. Photo: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library. Courtesy of the Science Museum.

Final Thoughts

Consideration of how participation is situated within different types of museums reveals the particularities and burdens but also opportunities that different disciplines can bring. It offers insight into the comparative practices that have grown in very different conditions. Through an awareness of positionality and how this can impact upon participation practices, and through reflection upon what may influence this within different types of museums, new ways of thinking and working can emerge.

Perhaps if disciplines look to one another more, and can together learn and push boundaries, museums can improve their practice. Museums which have begun to think in more interdisciplinary and thematic ways show the potential there is to learn from one another and overcome the limitations that the categorization of our collections and disciplines can sometimes create. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in the United Kingdom has a relatively long history of community engagement and participation; from experimentations working with young people to redevelop the World Stories: Young Voices gallery in the lead-up to 2012, to recent approaches in the Fashioning Africa project (2015–2018), which has included setting up a collecting panel of twelve members, each a specialist in the broad field of African fashion, some through academic training and others through more personal experience. As part of the Fashioning Africa project the museum also worked with researchers within diaspora communities to co-curate displays, both within the World Art gallery and as interventions in other galleries, such as Fashion and Style.[37] This project cut across the traditional divisions of the collections and made steps towards embedding practices developed within the World Art department across the museum. The Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands has also been encouraging interdisciplinary working through its ongoing Deviant Practice research program,[38] which aims to create new ways of thinking and new practices at the museum as part of processes of “demodernizing, decolonizing, deprivileging or decentralizing” and “questioning past suppositions, hierarchies and modes of working.”

In order to rethink practices and methodologies, we must question why we think the way we do and what is missing from our own thinking. Looking outside the museum sector and drawing on more international examples can help us, too.

Continuing to unpick the museum as a homogenous entity, and continuing to recognize museums as made up of many individuals with their own positionality, limitations, and influence, is essential to improve participation practices within the sector. We believe there is more to be investigated around this topic, but hope that we have provoked thought and discussion about the impact of positionality and, in particular, understandings of agency, authority, and urgency.