Friday, 15 May 2015

Participatory Governance and Museums

By Catherine Cole, Principal Consultant, Catherine C. Cole & Associates.

As promised in the November / December 2014 issue of the Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) Bulletin, the report on Participatory Governance and Museums conducted by CAM in collaboration with the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge, Alberta and the Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert, Alberta is available on the CAM website at:

Stephen Weil noted that, “Museums have changed from organizations based on what they have to organizations defined by what they do [1].” And what they do is increasingly to address contemporary issues.

The concept of participatory governance may not be familiar to many museologists, as it resides primarily in development literature. Participatory governance is the democratic process in which citizens are active in determining the formation and implementation of policies and programmes affecting their daily lives, a form of engagement which is a viable option for museums in both the developed and the developing world. The question is: How can museums use their resources – their collections, exhibitions, programs, and expertise – to motivate citizens to action on contemporary issues?

As the model above illustrates, participatory governance may be defined as the convergence of community engagement and social responsibility. The content axis (top) includes: object centred, issue-based, relevance, social responsibility, and public debate while the process axis (bottom) includes: audience development, participatory museums, community consultation, working together, and shared authority. The two axes meet at participatory governance. We chose the image of Canada Geese flying in V-formation to illustrate the model. Like Canada Geese, museums may sometimes take the lead in participatory governance, and at other times drop back and develop an object-centred exhibition or a project focussed on audience development. 

[1] Stephen Weil, Making Museums Matter, Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2002.