12.00 Democratizing the Museum: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Politics of Participation
Is it possible to democratize the museum experience and open it to non-expert voices through the use of participatory approaches? This paper will explore the opportunities for “disciplinary borrowings” between the study of democracy and the study of museums, to generate a richer understanding of the politics of participation and the conditions that inhibit power-sharing in cultural institutions.
The experimental exhibition “Power of 1: Does your voice count?” mounted at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra will be used as a case study to examine whether the rhetoric of the highly interactive, audience-centred approach of the participatory museum is meeting its aims. What are the political narratives visitors construct, and what personal negotiation of political issues do people reveal in response to exhibitions? The paper will discuss the ways in which recent ideas of museum participation were incorporated into the planning and development for this exhibition which used digital and tangible participatory approaches to invite visitors to have their say about the state of Australia’s democracy. It will outline findings from new qualitative research to show how visitors view, engage with, and make meaning from participation. The subject (participation), exhibition (Power of 1), and interpretivist research paradigm share a commitment to recognizing the agency of individuals, and understanding how this agency is facilitated or not by exhibitions that explicitly aim to encourage active engagement.
Drawing on research from the field of political science into citizen engagement and political participation, I will explore how an inter-disciplinary approach can contribute to a deeper understanding of participation in museums. My position is that it will not be possible to deliver on the promise of democratization in public museums until the relationship between meaningful participation in a museum context and the ceding of power and control by museums is better understood. If this can happen, museums, and specifically the Museum of Australian Democracy, can be promoted as valid arenas, in response to calls for new public spheres, for the performance of democratic practices. This museum case study, therefore, is a small piece in a much bigger puzzle about responses to democratic disengagement.