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14.00  Co-Production in Heritage: Toward New Imaginaries

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“ …it’s important not to be ignorant, especially in such a public space not to be ignorant of different perspectives and to make sure you don’t only have one singular view that’s very dominant, because that would be very dangerous I think.” 

The above quotation, collected from a visitor during evaluation of co-produced outputs at the Science Museum in London, both reinforces and mirrors the current call within the academic and museological fields for a more collaborative, democratic approach to heritage management and narrative creation in cultural institutions. If our visiting public is now both expecting and appreciating a diversity of perspectives, voices and influences, then a more concerted effort should be made to really address the current challenges limiting the effective embedding of co-production within large museums, galleries and heritage sites. Delivered by museum professionals working within the co-production and participation fields, this paper will draw on both their experience of working in large, national museums in the UK and their recent involvement of editing a book that focuses on co-production and participatory working with audiences in large and national cultural institutions. 

Deriving knowledge from a practice-based perspective the speakers will use the “Information Age” gallery at the Science Museum, which opened in October 2014, as the main case study to help underpin the paper’s discussion and arguments. The first part of the paper will address the question: What does “co-production” mean to all? Terminology surrounding this way of working is marred in equal amounts of complexity and vagueness, and does little to champion its value to the uninitiated or skeptical. Considerations of what co-production means to its stakeholders will be discussed. This examination will be grounded in evaluation and research conducted with Science Museum internal museum staff, museum visitors and, of course, co-creation participants as well as on a review of the chapters included in the authors’ upcoming publication. An exploration of different examples of good working practices that have emerged from various institutions (mainly around iterations of the “Ladders of Participation” advocated by Arnstien, Wilcox and Simon to name but a few) will also be explored. 

However, the speakers will also challenge how you move this forward, upscale and begin to apply the frameworks to not just one-off co-production projects but to developments and decision-making at more strategic levels, on a more consistent basis. The speakers will address the theme of how different versions of co-production can truly challenge our understandings of heritage. 

The second part of the paper will consider the issues of power-sharing and partnership realities—where is the balance? Can there be an equal balance? During community co-production initiatives, the “co” or partnership elements are often over-played, with the balance of power and decision-making often resting heavily on the cultural institution. These uneven partnerships can cause challenging relationships with the partner audiences, who often criticize these collaborative projects as tokenistic attempts to tick a box or to please funders. The speakers will investigate, through their experience, what then are the conditions that need to be in place to push the more limited model of consultation into transformative practice, where real value is gained for all involved and a type of “true” partnership or collaboration can be achieved? 

The third theme explored in this paper will be how co-production can disrupt and add to the authorized narrative and discourse prevalent in museums. This section will reflect on the authors’ own experience and consider this in relation to Laurajane Smith’s seminal work on the Authorized Heritage Discourse. Recognizing the multiplicity of knowledge and the variety of ways that you can produce and communicate knowledge can be difficult in more traditional academic/museum environments, especially when that knowledge is being produced by those considered to be non-experts. These “experts by experience” provide not only a personalized perspective, but often bring a level of authenticity and emotion. The added value of this expertise is also critical for subsidizing our collections knowledge that is often devoid of this more grass-roots input. Good examples, drawn from the contributions of the authors’ soon-to-be-published work, of this production of alternative narratives and its disruption of the authoritative voice will be shared. 

Finally, reflecting on the outcomes of Information Age, and the findings of the exhibition’s summative evaluation, the paper will conclude with an insight into how far a national museum such as the Science Museum has come with challenging this authority, and offering suggestions for further progress. This evaluation included a four-year investigation with Science Museum staff on their attitudes and acceptance of working with the public in a co-creative way and an in-depth qualitative evaluation with visitors who experienced the co-created outputs in the gallery.

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