Session: Museums, Galleries and Cultural Institutions

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TAKING PART conference

Goldsmiths University of London & Southbank Centre

Friday 29 October 2010

Session: Museums, Galleries and Cultural Institutions
Rules of participation in arts and its institutions

Kaija Kaitavuori
This paper presents some thoughts about participation in the field of art at two levels: participation in the arts (artworks, projects) and participation in the institutions that present art (museums, galleries). Participation is seen as a mode of activity, a way of engaging in the arts, partly in contrast and partly in addition to spectatorship. I’m asking what this way of engagement, participation, means in practice and what it entails for both arts practice and for institutions? These preliminary thoughts are part of a wider study that I am embarking on in the context of the research programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

I Art

I am focusing on artistic practice that invites people’s participation by either creating relationships between viewers (in the form of e.g. ‘platforms’) or directly engaging people in the making of the work and/or in its display. As examples of art that demands or relies on audience participation I have arranged some artworks and projects into three provisory groups based on the level of participation demanded by the audience:

* Artworks that engage viewers physically and socially in the process of experiencing them e.g. Dan Graham, Michael Lin, Ai Wei Wei, Erwin Wurm, Carsten Höller. These artists create installations or spaces where people can get in to and do things.

* Artworks that require people’s presence and participation in their making but are designed and controlled by the artist, e.g. Spencer Tunic, Steve McQueen’s Queen ad Country, Vanessa Beecroft, Rineke Dijkstra. People are used, with their consent, as the subject and the material of the work.

* Artworks that rely on people’s active participation and collaboration: e.g. Mauricio Dias & Walter Riedweg, Antony Gormley’s One & Other, Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen’s Complaints Choir. Artists set the scene and rules, but a lot of the content is decided by participants.

The three groups are not clearly defined or closed. They are only loosely described by such criteria as the level of participation required, and, accordingly, different roles of both participants and artists, e.g. whether the artist actually meets the people who get engaged with the work. In the first group this does not necessarily happen, where as in the second group the realisation of the project is also a social process. In the third group participants have more responsibility of the content and bring their own stories, ideas, and interpretations of the subject; in the result their voice, even quite literarily, is often heard.
This type of art that invites audience participation in the creation and/or in the reception of the art works has been labelled as relational, situational, participatory, dialogical, conversational, and has been scrutinised and theorised by a number of artists, curators and scholars. The development has also been referred to as ‘social turn’. Some aspects of the new practices have lately been dealt under the concept of ‘educational turn’. (It seems to me that all these concepts can refer to more or less same material but focus on slightly different aspects of it.)
What is interesting to me is that the idea of participation shifts the boundaries of the roles of different actors in the arts: Contemporary art practice blurs and restructures the conventional roles of artist-participant-audience and constructs new relations between actors. In my study I’m analysing art works and projects with tools borrowed from sociology. I’m arguing that, in order to grasp the meaning of today’s art, we need a conceptual framework that is better provided by social sciences than aesthetic studies – sociology has, after all, developed specialised theories and methods for examining relations, formations and configurations of people.

II Institutions

This shift of focus extends to art institutions as well. Participation presents quite a radical revision of the concept of art, and consequently, challenges the conventions of the institutions presenting art and, in particular, conventional notions of professionalism and expertise. It also restructures the roles of artist-educator-curator The traditional concepts and functions of both art and art institutions seem inadequate as the participatory approach shakes the various professional roles within and around it. (I’m mainly thinking about art museums and galleries here but I think most of this could apply to other venues presenting art and art educational settings.)

Participation in the institution can happen in several ways.

* participation in culture as a member of audience

* participation in the making of artwork

* participation in the interpretation of art

* participation in the decision making (curating, acquisitions…)
At its most evident level, participation means good access to information and content of the museum or gallery; to be able to find one’s way in and around the collection or exhibition and to the information related to it. Crucial questions at this level are questions of access, and the usability of information available.
Participation in the production refers to the above described participation in the artwork, which can, and often does, happen independently of institutions but occasionally through them as well.
The third point means the possibility to take an active role in the interpretation and dissemination of the content, not only as a passive receiver of pre-filtered information by others but as a creator of interpretations and meanings. Usually this power of interpreting art is exercised by the museum staff, and the interpretation and information material is primarily produced by arts professionals. But people from the audience are increasingly invited to participate in the interpretation of collections and exhibitions. This is based on the understanding that a work of art is not yet complete when it is put on display, but is only assigned a meaning when interpreted by a viewer. Thus, the ways in which viewers understand art and assign meanings to it are an essential part of the content of displays, and this should be appreciated and given space in the gallery.

The most challenging level of participation – challenging for both individuals and institutions – is participation in decision-making. Acknowledging the audience’s role in interpreting art, there is cause to ask whether the audience could also take part in the role of curator or assistant curator. Many museums have in fact had projects in which outsiders are offered the opportunity to participate in the curating process or otherwise influence exhibitions. Participants in these processes will be able to present their personal views and will also get a complete impression of the curatorial process. For the audience, it is always surprising to see the multitude of activities that go on behind the scenes and to participate in a process that requires them to consider the assemblage and content of an exhibition in a new way. It may in turn be surprising for the museum to realise how much information and ideas the audience may have and how many valid arguments they may present.1

Particularly the last two levels of participation challenge the traditional museum culture and we can see how suspicions and resistance within the museum may impose ideological barriers to allowing outsider participation in the work of an institution of specialists. Successful projects however show that audiences may have a lot to offer to museums. It would indeed be peculiar to suggest that museum staff are the only people who are capable of relevant thinking. Art deals with subjects that relate, in one way or another, to people’s lives and experiences, so people will obviously have thoughts and opinions on them.
The logic by which institutions set limits and rules for participation can be schematically described as follows:





a heritage institution

a collection, an archive

(collects, cares, preserves, catalogues, inventories…)

curators, assistants, researchers, archivists, conservators


a cultural institution

a mediator (exhibits, shows, mediates, produces, informs, communicates, serves..)

curators, producers, educators, communication, technicians, guards, front-of-house staff

audiences, viewers, visitors

a learning environment

an educational institution


education staff


a public space

a forum



users, citizens


Traditionally, a museum is defined by two core functions (two first lines): it takes care of its collection and it displays its collection in public. The first function, which I have here named ‘a heritage institution’ puts emphasis on activities like collecting, cataloguing, caring for, conserving and archiving; it serves the values of memory and history. This function calls for specialized, generally academic, professionals such as conservators and researchers. The second function focuses on activities like exhibiting, showing, mediating, producing and informing. The corresponding list of professions - curators, technicians, communications staff, front of house staff - are roles aimed at serving audiences. With this function the museum aligns itself with other cultural institutions, such as theatres or science centres.


A third function of a museum is linked to it being considered a ‘learning environment.’ This function is the realm of a relatively young professional group of museum educators. Thinking of the audience as learners gives them a more active role than that of mere viewers, and recognizes their potential personal agenda. When the focus shifts to audiences and learning, the structure of the museum’s activities becomes defined through audience needs.


The idea of accessibility is closely linked with the practice of thinking about diverse audiences and visitors. An accessible museum, ideally, serves well many kinds of audiences and provides every visitor with a possibility to participate and experience things in their own way.

The idea of participation gives a new dimension to accessibility. In addition to thinking about how different visitors reach the museum and how they can enjoy the programme, specific attention is also given to how people can participate in the functioning of the museum and influence it.
The idea of participation is linked with the idea of the museum as a public space. It starts with such questions as: who has ownership of the museum, who has the right to make decisions in the museum? How can we give voice to groups outside the museum, and how can the museum serve as a platform for questions and themes presented by the users of the museum?
There is a clear difference between the approach of producing programmes and events for an audience and the approach of giving space for an audience to make their programme. In the first case, people (or the target group) are considered audience, in the latter they are actors or users. In the participatory approach the people outside the museum are seen as mature citizens who have opinions and things to say about art, and who have their own relationship with the content of the museum, as well an understanding about the meaning of the museum in their own life and in society. In terms of managing audience relations, organisations move from access and interpretation to deepening participation.

These things are happening in practice in many places already. What I’m hoping this diagram makes visible is why and how professional roles seem to be in changing and why it sometimes seems to create tensions. In the same way as participation shifts the roles in the production of art, it also shuffles the institutional functions and professional responsibilities. Defined as a public space, there are no clearly defined specified occupations to manage this aspect in the gallery, but it seems to be part of everyone’s work description. It leaves it also open to more general policy-led debates about what purposes art and its institutions serve.

III Some conclusions

Cultural participation in art and art institutions can be compared to similar developments in other fields. Activities and structures that enhance people’s participation have often been compared with the web 2.0 thinking. Web 2.0 – or Social web – is based on collective content production and on open source principle: the content as well as the tools are shared and free for everybody to use. The open source principle is not only about the web. The same development can be observed in journalism (citizen’s TV, blogs), in politics (participatory and direct democracy), or in commodity production (where consumers take part in the development and design of goods).

And it’s not only about technological innovations; it’s about a change in thinking and acting. To illustrate the change, Charles Leadbeater makes a distinction between the world of To & For versus the culture of With and By. In the former “(k)nowledge and learning flows from experts to people who are dependent or in need. Organisations are hierarchies based on the power and the knowledge to make decisions. Authority is exercised top down. The aim is to define what people lack – what they need or want that they have not got – and then deliver it to them. The world of To and For starts from people as bundles of needs, rather than, say, as bundles of capabilities and potential.” According to him, the web 2.0, in contrast, is creating a culture of With, which changes people’s relationship to information and to one another. This change affects the working culture of museums and other organisations.

One possible way to perceive this change from the viewpoint of the audience is through the concept of produser, in which Axel Bruns combines two functions: user + producer. This phenomenon as a whole is called produsage, collective user-driven content creation. Using a certain service is here also regarded as production, as content is created in a continual process in which various users bring their own contributions to the whole. This kind of activity is especially common in intangible production (publishing, information production and management, games, idea production) but also increasingly in the sharing of material property. There is more to new forms of activity than merely developing new technology; Bruns discusses a shift in paradigm. Produsage is not confined to mere participation in the production chain, but forms a completely new way of thinking, in which the roles of producer, distributor and consumer are combined. Also for him, this change does not only pertain to the digital world, but is more far-reaching with impacts on the media in general and also on the economy, education, societal practices and democracy.

Participation – Art of With, produsage or web 2.0 thinking – undermines old notions of control and owning. In this new culture of operation, it is necessary to examine also the traditional notion of expertise. Various other forms of expertise must be included in discussions alongside arts and museum expertise to further enhance the production of information and meanings.
Participatory art blurs the positions of participant and artists. It does the same to the roles of curator and artist. In addition, the changing concept of education challenges the traditional distance between the teacher and the learner. As a result, participatory projects and activities can be initiated and directed by either artists, curators or educators. We often face an outcome of a participatory project where it is not possible to judge from the result whether it is an artistic, educational or curatorial project. Educational turn.
At the same time, the concepts like ‘community’ or ‘target group’ also require redefinition. ‘Target group’ refers to a world of To & For, a world where things are done to us, where people are objects of action. ‘Community’ changes from a predefined and defined-by-outsiders group of people into an either self-organised or defined-by-insiders community, or into a temporary operational community focused on a particular phenomenon or service. In both cases the community is limited in time and has flexible boundaries, enabling people to join or leave the group on the basis of their interests or their situation in life.


Bruns, Axel (2009) ‘From Prosumer to Produser: Understanding user-led content creation’. Paper presented in: Transforming Audiences, 3-4 Sep., 2009, London. Online <HREF="" MACROBUTTON HtmlResAnchor>

Kaitavuori, Kaija (2009) ‘From accessibility to participation – museum as a public space’, Engage journal 24/2009: 33-38. London: Cornerhouse Publications.
Leadbeater, Charles, 2009. The Art of With. An Essay for Cornerhouse, Manchester. Online <HREF="" MACROBUTTON HtmlResAnchor> (accessed 28 September 2009).
Simon, Nina (2009) The Participatory Museum.

1 Charles Leadbeater (2009) makes a comparable categorization, he talks about enjoy, talk, do –experiences, about three different activities through which people engage with art.

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