The term ‘participation’ is widely used in museums across the world but has significantly different meanings in different contexts: ‘participation’ can sometimes be used simply to refer to attendance, the act of visiting a museum or leaving responses to questions posed by the institution. Meanwhile, terms like ‘co-production’, ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-curation’ describe two-way collaboration between museum staff and stakeholders e.g. community groups, visitors and non-visitors, special interest groups, individuals with specialist professional and academic expertise.

Photograph of a group of men and women involved in a discussion and making notes
Museum staff and participation group members discussing exhibit development © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group

The definition of participation has evolved over several years at the Science Museum Group. It now includes all types of collaboration between museum teams and stakeholder groups which result in mutually beneficial outputs.

We think about participation on a spectrum. In practise this means the level of engagement and the nature of the outputs vary depending on the needs and ambitions of a project.  The different elements of the spectrum are as follows:

  • Consultation: inviting stakeholders such as teachers or local or new audiences, to discuss a particular topic or issue. Consultation becomes participation when it results in shared ownership of ideas and is a two-way conversation.
  • Contribution: asking for and receiving content from stakeholder groups. This could be contemporary collecting of objects and content, the contribution of stories and experiences by groups, or user generated content for display. This requires long-term commitment from the Museum that contributions made will be preserved in the same way as other assets.
  • Collaboration: open-ended collaborative activities where the Museum sets the project concept and plan and stakeholder groups help to deliver it. Staff and stakeholders make decisions on what content, stories or objects are relevant together.
  • Co-creation: creating an output together, with shared ownership of the concept between stakeholder groups and the Museum. This involves the Museum giving the stakeholder groups the tools and skills needed to deliver an outcome and working closely alongside them to support their activities.
Photograph of a male and female volunteer using a laptop and scanner to scan a telegram
‘Telegrams being scanned by volunteers on a collection day’ © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group

Evaluation of participation

The Science Museum Group has developed a framework which is used to plan the evaluation of participation projects. This states that that evaluation should be embedded from the beginning of participation projects and last throughout, capturing a record of how the projects evolve and change over time. Broadly, the framework covers:

  • Outcomes for Participants
  • Outcomes for institution and staff
  • Outcomes for visitors
  • Success of the process

The evaluation of each project helps us to improve our practice and understand how to maximise the benefits of participation for all stakeholders.  Some of our research questions include:

  • What motivates participants to get involved? What are their expectations? And what do they get out of it at the end?
  • How do staff members feel about participation? Does this change over time? What do they feel like they have gained from it at the end?
  • Do visitors have a meaningful learning experience with the output? (i.e. are learning and content goals achieved?)
  • Do visitors recognise the inclusion of non-museum voices in the final output? And how does this effect their engagement with it?
Photograph of three men, one points at a finished display case and interpretation panel which they have participated in producing
Members of a participation group with finished case display and interpretation © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group


Posted by:Lynn Wray