On Wednesday 1st of May 2013, Prof. Piotr Bienkowski was guest speaker to the Brown Bag Seminar series at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Prof. Bienkowski is the Project Director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme, and runs a cultural consultancy specialising in organisational change, community engagement and cultural planning. Previously he was Head of Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool, Deputy (and Acting) Director at Manchester Museum, Professor of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Manchester, and Chair of the North West Federation of Museums and Galleries. He is a leading authority on the archaeology of Jordan, and directs an excavation in Petra. In his spare time, he does triathlon and he has represented Great Britain at duathlon.
Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners is a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Special Initiative to facilitate a process of development and organisational change within museums and galleries that are committed to active partnership with their communities. This initiative is the culmination of a careful consultation process started in 2008 and a research phase led by Dr. Bernadette Lynch. Her report, Whose cake is it anyway? (2011) concluded that the funding invested in recent years in public engagement and participation in the UK's museums and galleries has not succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organisations.
Prof. Bienkowski discussed barriers to participation and sustainable cooperative relationships, which fall broadly into four sections: Organisational and governance, knowledge and skills, understanding of communities and their issues, and fear of conflict. Piotr observed that leadership, governance protocols and social priorities are of most immediate concern in the success of any collaborative process. In particular, effective communication is essential to the engagement of all members of staff. Museum professionals within organisations that are in the midst of changing organisational paradigms may not (and sometimes may not wish to) consistently recognise shared authority and community engagement as institutional and professional priorities.
Unfortunately in the process of transformation, it is not always clear who is specifically responsible for community engagement. The answer is that everyone should be. In the context of competing priorities, it is important to charge all staff with a heightened awareness of and integration of community engagement in daily museum practices. It is also important to observe that sustainable relationships are necessarily long-term commitments; they are not simply ‘project specific’. Collaborative partnerships take time and commitment.
Additionally, staff may not have the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately to the challenges presented by collaborations. Staff may not understand differing cultural norms and behaviours; they may not know the appropriate social conventions necessary to create socially constructive relationships in collaborative partnerships for community engagement. It takes a great deal of patience and self-confidence to promote constructive communications both internally and externally to the museum community. Most cogently, Piotr recommended that in planning sessions and during sessions/events that are aimed towards community engagement, museum staff should always ask: ‘Who is in the room today, who is not in the room with us and why?’ Ultimately, however, the greatest barrier to constructive relationships between museums and the communities they engage, is ‘fear’, especially fear of conflict if the discussion of long-suppressed issues sparks strong views and anger. Fear, especially by directors and governing bodies, is one of the greatest barriers to reflective collaborative practice, to constructive collaborative sharing of authority, and to affirming the social agency of all participants.
Our Museum offers support for organisations to manage significant structural change. It is not about short-term project funding, but about facilitating organisational change so that participatory work becomes core, embedded, sustainable and less at risk of being marginalised when specific funding streams run out. The distinctive characteristic of Our Museum is a collaborative and reflective process through which institutions and communities share their experiences and learn from each other as critical friends.
In terms of wider impact, the Our Museum programme is working toward disseminating, across the museum sector, tested sets of principles and ways of working that bring communities and their values to the core of museums and galleries, and which can be applied to all types of institutions – small, medium, large, from multidisciplinary to social history museums to fine art galleries.
URL for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation: http://www.phf.org.uk/
URL for ‘Whose cake is it anyway?’ pdf. file: http://www.phf.org.uk/page.asp?id=1417
URL for ‘Our Museum’ website: http://www.ourmuseum.org.uk