Participatory Models: From Community Heritage to Social Heritage

Generally speaking, the participatory model is mainly interested in enhancing a greater visitor involvement and higher levels of reflection about the museum message (Heath & Lehn, 2010). It is inspired by the idea that the creation of knowledge, in its different forms is a socio-cultural process in which the number of actors involved necessarily increases. It is determined by a notion of knowledge distributed within a broad notion of ‘system’ (Chesbrough, 2006), with different participation processes (Gherab, 2012) seeking collective construction (Kelly, 2004).

The participatory model emphasizes the museum-society connection, the social role of museums, and the conviction that tangible culture will be preserved to the extent that each society is able to re-signify heritage in accordance with its own purposes (Frisch, 1997). Tangible culture and intangible culture become dependent on a much more complex patrimonialization process than in previous models. On the other hand, this model also aims at giving heritage significant social functions for reflection, in addition to a proper and external identification of the different groups and societies (Sabate & Gort, 2012). Enhancement focuses on the social significance of a tangible culture, its themes, and figures (Chittenden, Farmelo, & Lewenstein, 2004).

In this model, the characteristic feature of museology involves a broad reflection that, from the beginning of the planning, covers phases of social participation at various levels and at various stages of the project design, its development, and its subsequent management. Participatory museums have a very different perception of visitors: ‘Over time, museum audiences are likely to expect to be part of the narrative an experience at museums' (Chung, Wilkening, & Johnstone, 2009: 43). An important issue in this type of model is the dialogue among the different narratives: among the narrative of the curator, the narratives provided by users, and a probable negotiated common narrative, not necessarily unique or unitary, created in cooperation with visitors. An interesting possibility is that these narratives may coexist to reach a discourse with multiple voices that may certainly be difficult to represent. In this sense, the underlying museological conceptions necessarily imply settings that involve the participation of different groups of visitors. Indeed, this model refers to participants more than visitors. In analogue museography methods exist for promoting participation, but digital technologies have greatly facilitated the possible interaction of all types of participants, both real and virtual (Tippelt, 2011). Typically, these spaces of heritage presentation use a profusion of communication resources. The expansion of the social functions of heritage institutions also implies maintaining the diversification of public and educational programs. Participatory museums have the ultimate goal of social dialogue, with tolerance as a method, pluralism and difference as a value, and competence and creativity as an instrument (Laishun, 2010).

Clearly, new digital formats play a key role in having enabled and empowered these conceptions (Horton, 2012). The basic starting point would not only give visitors the freedom to contribute and obtain knowledge or not, but also harmonize how participation is undertaken so that it is aware of the final products, with a proactive positioning and scope of the collective contribution. It is essential to take care of the visitors’ digital channels contribution so that it is performed through attractive, simple methods adapted to different levels of users, without entailing a barrier that limits access to only a group of initiates. The new formats are not as focused as were the initial formats on providing access to information (level 1.0), but they facilitate communication between users (level 2.0), and the joint construction of shared knowledge (level 3.0) (Asensio & Asenjo, 2011).9

One of the first primary functions of museums with social sensitivity is to create a community (Vagnone & Ryan, 2015) and identity (Crane, 2012; Lubar, 1997), that is, to provide a basis for organizing events and programs around heritage. Doing so means revitalizing cultural life, enhancing certain types of heritage that had hitherto not been sufficiently recognized, for example in the so-called museums of identity and mentality at the time (Asensio, 2012). Another key function of the participatory discourse is to gather testimonies for the creation of exhibitions to honor the memory of recent historical events (Davison, 2005; Kyvig & Marty, 2000).

Participatory models also lead to the development of social and community programs through participation into proposals initially more or less linked to equity (Archivald, 1999). The concept of the social museum,10 which is very close to the participatory museum, is too vast and recent to assess its extent (Alcaide, Boya, & Roige, 2010; MECD, 2015). However, it is true that although it still does not produce a particular type of complete and differentiated museological proposal, it does actually influence the ways of considering museums with a new sensitivity (Scheiner, 2010). The model of participatory museums has been more present in anthropology and history museums, but it is also present in all subjects (Bedford, 2014), science, archeology, or art (Campolmi, 2015).

Among the most successful museums of this model are some museums that, clearly, are pioneers in enhancing the relationship with the community and the participation of visitors, in addition to memory and the creation of different and even complementary discourses. In the United States, the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, stands out because it is a center with a truly impressive discourse and an emotionally immersive exhibition, with multiple resources that reflect participants’ emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a similar vein, the exhibitions of the Brooklyn Historical Society have focused on fostering the community and emphasizing the visitors’ demands as a cultural claim. Similar experiences are those of the Bronx Museum and the Museo del Barrio. Migration museums in general can be mentioned, such as the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, the Immigration Museum (Museo de la Inmigracion) in Buenos Aires, and the German Immigration Center in Germany. However, some of them, such as the Ellis Island museum, employ a more explanatory model and involve less participation than those mentioned here.

In Europe, we may start with the National Museums Liverpool, a network of seven museums that has managed to go beyond superficial participation (2.0) to generate experiences of a real local involvement in the urban territorial regeneration. In the peninsular part of the Basque Country, the Bakearen Museoa is based on the memory of the massacre at Gernika planned by the fascist Spanish government and executed by the German and Italian air forces in 1937. This museum is an international example of peace work, focused on involvement and the generation of social projects. Among the recent memorial sites, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Miejsce Pamieci i Muzeum (Poland) and the Center for Memory of Oradour sur Glane (Centre de la Memoire d’Oradour sur Glane) (France) can be mentioned.

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