This is part of a series of blogs exploring participation and community engagement. You can read about the Science Museum Group’s approach and future blogs will draw out the specific research agenda relating to participation and community engagement for the Bradford’s National Museum research project.

The literature on participation and community engagement in museums can be thought about via three strands: Power, Purpose and Practices.

Power: A core debate is focused on theorising power. Here the concern is inequity and groups being ignored or exploited by the institution. The register is often theoretical. Key questions include: Who has control? Who is involved? Who is excluded? Whose knowledge (or expertise) is recognised and remunerated? (e.g. Smith 2006; Smith and Waterton 2009; Lynch and Alberti 2010)

Purpose: There is the sizable literature focused on purpose and which sees participation as means to the end of other desirable outcomes (e.g. well-being; democracy; addressing prejudice, human rights). Here the focus is about establishing the role of museums in bigger debates. Key questions include: Who benefits? How can we evidence and argue for these benefits? (e.g. Sandell 2007; 2017; Black 2011)

Practices: Then there is the literature focused on museum practices. Here the focus is on what to do and questions such as how to establish and sustain relationships. The register is often toolkits and how to guides. Key questions include: How to do this? What structures and processes can be used? (e.g. Simon 2009; 2016)

How are these questions connected?
While these three strands to the debate are never treated entirely separate, there is a real benefit in seeing these questions as fundamentally conceptually and practically connected. I will explain why via an insight made by Tony Bennett’s in his foundational, The Birth of the Museum (1995).

Power: Public rights claims
In The Birth of the Museum Bennett diagnoses what he termed the ‘insatiability’ of the museum’s political demands:

Two distinctive political demands […] have been generated in relationship to the modern museum: the demand that there should be parity of representation for all groups and cultures within collection, exhibition and conservation activities of museums, and the demand that the members of all social groups should have equal practical as well as theoretical rights of access to museums. (Bennett 1995: 9)

While Bennett made this observation in the context of 19th-century museums, these demands are immediately recognisable to contemporary museum practice and the debate concerned with power noted above. Crucially Bennett argues that these dynamics are ‘insatiable’, in that the claim to represent all and be accessible to all can never be fully or finally achieved. Museums are animated by this sense of ‘never enough’.

Purposes (Constitutive Tensions 1): Public rights and public reform
Yet Bennett shows that this instability is specifically animated by a constitutive tension in the political form of museum; a ‘mismatch’ or ‘dissonance’ between public rights demands and the ‘political rationality’ of the museum:

Public rights demands are produced and sustained by the dissonance between, on one hand, the democratic rhetoric governing the conception of public museums as vehicles for popular education and, on the other hand, their actual functioning as instruments for the reform of public manners. (Bennett, 1995: 90).

‘Public manners’ could be read, in the terms I set up above, as questions of purpose. If read also through the lens of 21st-century policy debates, ‘public manners’ could be understood in terms of well-being, human rights and citizenship (the apogee of this tendency today is the Museum Association’s ‘Museum Change Live’ campaign). Bennett’s contribution to museum practice today is to help us see that museums are always caught up in various governmental and policy aims. As a result the call for greater public access and representation needs to be understood in the context of the ongoing expectation that museums play a role in public reform.

Purposes (Constitutive Tensions 2): Public access and preservation for future generations
To Bennett’s analysis we then also need to add the way in which museums are also produced through a second constitutive tension: to make things accessible to everyone now and preserve them for the future. So the call for greater access is always in the context of the aim to sustain material culture for future generations.

Practices: The constitutive tensions produce the role of ‘museum worker’
Bennett’s purpose in pointing to this insatiable dynamic is to show that calls for the museum to be more representative and more accessible are built in to museum work. It is not insurgency to call for this. Rather both political calls are structurally expected. Moreover it is the irreconcilability of these calls (e.g. the public calls for museum to reform are linked to the role of the museum in public reform; there can never be enough access and, due to questions of preservation, there is always a danger of there being too much access) which could be said to create the distinctive, restless role of the museum worker in two ways.

Firstly the call – the public rights demands – can be seen as part of a governmental programme where it is precisely through people’s freedom to call for greater representation and access that the museum draws it purpose. So the rights demands – far from being a challenge to the museum – are the very mechanism by which museums secure a role in reforming (in various ways) the public and public sphere. The invitation to ‘Tell Your Story’ could be read here as equally a response to the call for greater representation and as the means by which museums demonstrate how they can help cultivate a subject position considered desirable for liberal democratic participation.

Secondly, the call for both greater access now and preservation for future generations can be understood as one that produces the responsibility of the museum worker and museum governance to act as decision-maker in order to mediate these conflicting ambitions. The political ambitions of museums in representation, access, reform and preservation therefore produce a particular set of roles for the museum worker: steward, expert, responder, facilitator, mediator.

Back to power: A tyranny or an opportunity for tinkering?
Some have seen the ambivalent nature of this institutional participation – always caught in complex power dynamics – as a ‘new tyranny’ (Cooke and Kothari 2001), a manipulation of people through their own freedoms and desires, including the freedom to call for their lives to be represented. Some have seen the claim to be stewards and holding people today at armslength in favour of the those not yet born, as a power grab (Smith and Waterton, 2009).
Yet I would suggest that once museum work recognises this complex and implicated positionality, more productive everyday activity becomes possible. Indeed, Bennett’s answer to the insatiability was to draw attention to practices; to, what he calls, ‘tinkering with practical arrangements’ (2006: 195). While it is possible that the use of term ‘tinkering’ is calculated to annoy those museum workers keen to see their work as fighting injustice, there is a lot to this. All forms of living together are made, and fail, in their everyday practical arrangements. Everyday practices are about how we make and re-make the world through forming relationships between things and people.

Working with constitutive tensions: What does this mean for Bradford’s National Museum project?
If looked at one way the Bradford’s National Museum project is very much caught in the insatiable dynamic described above. It inevitably is – as all museums that claim to be public and national are and especially research projects which are seeking to explore representational and access as ours is.

What this points to is the necessity of taking the insatiable dynamic of museums to be the starting point for our research design on participation and community engagement, rather than the end point. We need to start knowing that the calls for representation and access will always come and yet are always embroiled in reform and policy and that there is some kind of constitutive tension between access and preservation.

We need to conceptually grapple with the fundamental political logics of museums (power; purpose) and experiment with what museum work can be through everyday activity (practices), with both strands aiding and informing the other.

A question then arises: how can we tinker the big conceptual challenges of museums as a political form (representing all, accessible to all, on behalf of future generations; for the public good) – and do this through the everyday practices and everyday relationships that produce museum work?

Tony Bennett (1995) The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge.
Tony Bennett, Culture: A Reformer’s Science (London: Sage, 1998).
Graham Black (2011) Transforming Museums for the 21st Century. London: Routledge.
Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari (Eds.) (2001). Participation: The New Tyranny? New York: Zed Books.
Bernadette Lynch and Sam Alberti (2010) ‘Legacies of prejudice: racism, co-production and radical trust in the museum’, Museum Management and Curatorship 25: 13-15.
Laurajane Smith (2006) The Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.
Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton (2009) Heritage, Communities and Archaeology, London: Duckworth
Richard Sandell (2007) Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference. Routledge: London and New York
Richard Sandell (2017) Museums, Moralities and Human Rights. London: Routledge.
Nina Simon (2009) The Participatory Museum. Available at:
Nina Simon (2016) The Art of Relevance. Available are:

Posted by:Helen Graham