Representation, Knowledge and Museum Community Engagement

Above: Illustration by Olivia Wilson

Linnea Wallen

We were walking through an empty museum exhibition space, talking about the photography display Clara had been a part of in creating as a museum community engagement project participant, when she said: 

“We decided on the topic ourselves and picked poverty in the end. Modern-day representations of poverty were really out of date … it needed to be represented because that gap was pretty shocking. It doesn’t really have a voice, but it’s everywhere. And representing poverty requires a diversity of people. We didn’t want to tell people what poverty was, but show how each of us had experienced it … I just think it would be good for the public who haven’t experienced poverty to get that lived experience dimension. Hopefully it’s made people think”.

I have never set out to explore representation in museums – not explicitly, anyway. When I first spoke to Clara, in one of the first interviews I ever did, I was not to know that a discussion surrounding the value of knowledge emanating from experience would come up in every one of my interviews to follow.

Sociology – and Public Sociology in particular – have long questioned the nature of knowledge and the power dynamics involved in the perception of whose knowledge is regarded to be legitimate, valuable and useful. Museum displays and exhibitions are inherently socio-political and are, accordingly, entangled in power relationships. As such, the museum is sociologically interesting, particularly in the light of the tensions both within and outside the museums’ walls surrounding the notion of representation: what, and whom, is to be seen, heard and valued (Wilson 2010). Questioning not only who is visibly represented, but also whose knowledge and voices are valued in telling stories and sparking debates through museum displays is certainly not a new debate in museum studies. Indeed, inclusion in museums has been positioned as a matter of social justice and the debate surrounding representation has been ongoing for decades (Kinsley 2016). Sociology has a valuable role to play in this debate, particularly in offering alternative perspectives on whose, and what form, of knowledges shape displays and exhibitions – as well as how that knowledge is mobilised. I will return to this point later on, suggesting that Gramsci’s (1971) concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ is a particularly relevant perspective to consider.  

In the late 1980s, ‘new museology’ altered the discourse surrounding the political and social roles of museums. Its emphasis on people being central to museums and their collections made sociological discussions around the nature of knowing more prominent in museum literature than ever before (Fyfe 2006). Macdonald and Fyfe (1995) brought museums and sociology together further in their edited collections of papers for The Sociological Review, which was subsequently made into the seminal book ‘Theorizing Museums’. Their publication initiated an increase in sociological studies on the interrelationship between museums and society by approaching the topic through the prisms of sociological concepts such as power, identity, citizenship, politics and memory (Fyfe and Jones 2016). I build on these grounding ideas of the museum as a space of sociological relevance; more specifically, here I argue that sociology has much to offer our understanding of museum community engagement work.

At its core, museum community engagement is sociologically interesting. Indeed, the concepts ‘community’ and ‘engagement’ are, in themselves, ambiguous – lending themselves well to sociological discussions. Community engagement became a more prominent undertaking by museums in the UK, as a result of the new museology discourse and New Labour policies that positioned museums as important actors in improving people’s quality of life (Ross 2004). This engagement predominately took, and still take, the form of community engagement and outreach projects; the benefits of which have shown to have wide-ranging positive impacts on participants, the community and wider society (Munro 2014). The scope, approach and focus of museum community engagement projects vary considerably. Here, I focus my attention on projects that involve a combination of discussion and self-reflection activities around particular topics prompted by museum art and artefacts. These projects commonly result in displays or exhibitions of the participants’ interpretations of existing items from museum collections, personal items the participants have themselves donated to the exhibition or items they have created themselves (such as photographs or artworks). In the context of such projects, community engagement is often perceived to be beneficial for museums, as it brings in new voices and perspectives. However, engaging with communities is not always as democratic a process as is often made out to be. The sustainability of museum community engagement work has been criticised, highlighting uneven power dynamics on the parts of the museum and the community, resulting in short-term and tokenistic projects that benefit the museum only (Lynch 2011). This has led others to emphasise the necessity of active negotiation and engagement built of shared power and ownership of projects for them to actually be beneficial to communities (Fouseki 2010).

Much of the discourse surrounding representation and, more specifically, whose and what types of knowledge are valued, reflect (public) sociological discussions of community voice, agency and ownership. In particular, I wish to draw attention to Gramsci’s (1971) concept of the ‘organic intellectual’. The organic intellectual, Gramsci argues, incites social change and transformation by challenging hegemonic understandings of what is deemed to be meaningful through mobilising knowledge emanating from lived experience. Gramsci’s ideas have been discussed in the relation to museums previously, primarily to draw attention to the power of the museum’s hegemonic position in shaping history, identity and sense of belonging. Discussing Gramsci, Wilson (2010) argues that positioning knowledge from outside the museum as valuable and significant has the potential to challenge dominant narratives through presenting alternative histories and perspectives. There is, however, still room to expand on how the museum can accommodate for individuals – as organic intellectuals – to not merely be ‘brought in’ to have their stories represented, but also mobilise their expertise to challenge, disrupt and spark discussion.

Notably, Docherty-Hughes et al. (2020) frame the participants in their multisectoral community-based project as, indeed, organic intellectuals. The project saw the participants reflect on sociological concepts by interpreting a piece of art of their choosing from the museum’s collection – resulting in critical and counter-hegemonic narratives that were developed into a museum exhibit. In doing so, not only were the participants’ narratives and interpretations visually and textually represented; their exhibition also sparked discussions amongst visitors. Docherty-Hughes et al.’s discussion focuses foremost on the participants as organic intellectuals within the context of the museum community engagement project itself. I would suggest that their understanding of Gramsci’s organic intellectual can be extended into the museum space itself and inform how explorations of personal and social issues through lived experiences are framed. The belief in community knowledge being equally valuable and complementary to the museum practitioners’ more factual knowledge was a common thread across the interviews I did with community engagement facilitators. One of them said:

“There is this idea of expert knowledge… seeing them not as specialists but seeing them just as communities. But actually, no, both [museum practitioners and communities] are experts; they both have expertise”

In light of this, the museum, and museum community engagement is sociologically interesting and discussions regarding the connection between representation, expertise and power, is receptive to sociological thinking. By engaging with Gramsci in the context of museum community engagement work, I do not aim to present practical suggestions as to how hegemonic knowledge production in museums can be challenged at a fundamental level. What I am hoping to do is offer an additional perspective through which knowledge production can be analysed, by questioning what, and whose, knowledge is perceived as valuable and considered worthy of space and note in the museum.

Linnea Wallen is a PhD candidate in Public Sociology and Psychology at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the conceptualisation and use of memory in museum community engagement work. Contact her at lwallen@qmu.ac.uk or on Twitter @linneawallens

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