Community Exhibitions as Tools for Adults’ Individual Development

The growth of the European Union has led to profound demographic changes across Europe. As key holders and interpreters of national heritage, identity and meaning, museums, galleries and cultural institutions need to respond to the underlying changes in society to maintain their relevance and play a part in influencing future demand for their services. They need to redefine their mission, brand and services in a wider social (not simply in an academic) context.

If sections of society are ignored or play no part in the telling of history this is likely to lead to a sense of exclusion for some audiences making them less likely to be active citizens and engaged with cultural life. Museums and heritage sites can provide a comfortable, neutral place for diverse individuals and communities to come together to share their own stories and histories in the wider cultural landscape and to pass on their unique skills and knowledge to a wider public. Community participation increases adult learning, supports people from vulnerable social groups and has the potential to increase community cohesion.

A survey of the research certainly finds support for the proposition that community exhibitions can and do promote positive relations amongst ethnic groups in society (Karp and Lavine 1992; Hooper-Greenhill 1996; Sandell 2002). Exhibitions can disseminate information, raise awareness and, perhaps most importantly, counter prejudice through the process of ‘reframing difference’ (Sandell 2006).

Developing mechanisms for integrating local communities in the planning and delivery of content is currently being tackled by museums and heritage sites throughout Europe and therefore time and effort are needlessly duplicated.  Through this partnership and joint strategic thinking, the staff and learners involved can share knowledge between not only current users but also potential future users of heritage. Additionally, we partner with excellent service providers who work with their communities to offer skills that we are not able to provide, for example English language skills or routes into employment. This partnership will share examples of best practice and knowledge to the benefit of all.

This project will support museum and gallery professionals and their organizations to achieve their maximum potential by developing methodologies for a common approach whilst respecting each partner’s regional variations and individual capacities. During this process, museums in countries with a shorter tradition of democracy will also learn about ways of encouraging community participation which benefits the community as well as individuals’ personal improvement.

Indirectly this project also helps to address a major educational challenge in Europe (that is also addressed in Europe 2020 Strategy: ‘European platform against poverty: to ensure social and territorial cohesion such that the benefits of growth and jobs are widely shared and people experiencing poverty and social exclusion are enabled to live in dignity and take an active part in society.’): engaging disadvantaged adults from the local community in museums and cultural heritage sites will allow participants to take more responsibility for their own learning and passing their cultural heritage and identity to others.

By debating, sharing ideas and innovative practice around the problems, museums have to deal when engaging with their diverse audiences, visitors and communities. It will promote and develop a culture of learning among staff of museums and other heritage organizations personnel, minorities and community members from socially disadvantaged background or marginalized adults.

The partnership will promote an open debate on how we can design new tools that allow involving the communities in the planning activities of museums and other cultural organizations. This partnership will help in creating, experimenting and introducing methods which allow the delivery of cultural content to all, enhancing museums and cultural heritage sites to widen their scope to reach more diverse audiences and truly reach out to their local communities.

The learning will cover a broad range of subjects, depending on the needs and interest of the learners (museums and cultural heritage organizations staff as well as community members, audiences and adult visitors), but at its core will be learning about the sustainability of museums by increasing community participation as well as the development of basic skills in using Information and Communications Technology to communicate cultural identity and the preservation of heritage. All the findings of the mobilities, site visits as well as the exploration and discussion of best practice examples will be collated in a document with recommendations to be distributed widely in the European cultural heritage and adult learning community.