Effective co-curation

Photograph of people working together to build a scene in Lego

Co-creation, co-curation and co-production have become everyday terms in museums. Their usage varies but essentially they refer to the process of involving people who are not employed by the museum - often a group from the local community - in creating work to share with the museum's audience. This could be an exhibition but equally could be an event, website, learning programme or online resource. I'm not going to go into terminology here but it's important to say that, whichever term you choose, working in this way is distinct from consultation, a process in which people are asked about their needs and preferences but then the museum staff take that insight away and make the decisions. Genuine co-production should - ideally - be an iterative, long term process and a partnership in which decision-making is shared and all voices carry equal weight.  


Over the past ten years I've evaluated co-production work at several different organisations: constituent working at Manchester Art Gallery and Platt Hall; inclusion work at the National Trust; exhibition co-creation with children and young people at Eureka! The National Children's Museum in Halifax, and I recently finished a two-year evaluation of the co-production and partnership work with both young people and industry partners that helped create the new Eureka! Science + Discovery in Birkenhead. I worked on a community exhibition at the Royal Armouries Museum back in 2014 that was researched and curated by adult learners and just completed an interpretation plan with PLB Projects at Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes for a new gallery that is being developed with community partners. All these projects were very different but in every case some similar themes have emerged that I've also seen reflected in wider sector conversations. These, in no particular order, are some things I've learned about effective co-working. I'd love to hear whether these observations resonate with other practitioners and what else you would include.  


1. Have a clear, shared purpose

This may sound obvious but I've been surprised by how often organisations embark on co-production projects without a shared agreement on what they want to achieve. Often there is a straightforward project objective - for example, to create a new exhibition - but the underlying purpose of that for the organisation isn't clear. Curating an exhibition is a means to an end. There is an important distinction between the output that will be created by the project (for example, an exhibition) and the change that project is seeking to achieve (often this is to do with embedding new working practices such as shared decision making or power-sharing). Projects can come unstuck when people both internally and externally have different expectations for what that change should be. This is by no means unique to co-creation work but it can be a lot more problematic when the work involves participants from outside the organisation as well as internal colleagues who are heavily emotionally invested in the work. It's worth having conversations at the outset about what people want to see happen after the project and what difference they want it to make, and being really honest about what the limitations might be. 


2. Give it time

Working collaboratively takes a lot more time than more traditional approaches to museum work for several reasons. It's rooted in relationships, and those relationships take time to build and nurture, especially if you're working with people who might not have had great - or any - experiences of museums and with whom you need to build trust.  You will also be making decisions in different ways, particularly if you're trying to reach consensus with people who have a diverse range of experiences and opinions, and actually getting people together to have conversations could be a logistical challenge. All of this will impact on both the timeframe of the project and the internal staff resource you need to allocate to it, and could have a knock-on effect elsewhere in the organisation, for example on conservation or technical colleagues if you're co-curating objects for display. Not only will you need to allocate more staff time and longer timeframes for this work, you'll also need to be flexible to the needs of the people you're working with and prioritise relationships and communication. 


3. Be intentional about who you work with

A lot of museums are adopting co-production practices in recognition of the fact that museums have historically not been inclusive or diverse and as part of a strategy to improve community involvement and representation. This means being very clear and intentional about who is missing and who you need to involve. Of the projects I've evaluated, the ones that have made the most impact are those where the museum has intentionally gone out to find people they haven't previously worked with and tried to create a broad and diverse mix of background and opinions. This can be difficult - you may have some tricky conversations and will need to spend time building trust - but can have profound results. The Uncertain Futures project at Manchester Art Gallery is a good example of this approach in action.  


4. Be honest about responsibilty, accountability, and power

Much of the debate around co-production in museums centres on the desire to share power and decision-making which is a laudable ambition and an effective way of creating more responsive, user-focused services. However, problems can arise if the organisation isn't clear about the limitations of shared decision-making, or when projects come up against existing systems of accountability that are not within the museum's control. In the first example I've seen conflict arise when decisions are handed over to co-production groups with the best of intentions but the accountability for those decisions lands elsewhere in the organisation.  In the second I'm thinking particularly of museums run by local authorities where museum staff are already accountable within a democratic structure that they do not have the power to change. I'm not suggesting that change is not possible in these circumstances but I do think it's important to talk about these issues from the outset and be clear with participants from the start about what the limitations and challenges might be. 


5. You still need project management

This is another point that may sound obvious but I've been surprised by how often it gets forgotten. Co-production might mean working in a different way but if you are creating a product - an exhibition or event, for example - you will still have deadlines to meet, budgets to work within, risks to manage and dependencies elsewhere in the organisation. The fundamentals of project management are still necessary to make it all work. The most challenging thing for many organisations is in determining who has the final say, particularly with creative projects where there may be multiple equally valid opinions at play (and this links to my previous point about accountability). This will be different in each case but being clear about signoff processes and accountability at an early stage can save a lot of headaches. 


6. Prioritise care

Co-production is all about relationships. This means getting to know the people you're working with and understanding their perspectives and needs. It also means giving staff teams the time and resources to look after themselves properly too - the GLAM Cares network is great for resources and support on this. Communication is key to this process, and I wish more museums would offer training in handling disagreement and working with conflict. Differences of opinion are inevitable and can be part of a healthy process of debate, but if disagreement is avoided or overridden it can become really problematic. 


7. Think about endings / plan for the long term

These two statements might seem contradictory but they are part of the same conversation about organisational change. One of the issues I've noticed is that organisations often try out co-production as part of an externally funded project which means that the funding is eventually going to run out. This can pose a challenge when the project has generated deep relationships and expectations on the part of participants, and often also within the staff team. What next? In the short term, thinking about what a good ending looks like for the project is time well spent - I've found the Four Pillars model outlined in Endings for Beginnings really helpful in thinking through what needs to hapen to make, and mark, an ending. But for a lot of organisations, co-production is part of a wider process of change. This means thinking about the long term process - where the project has taken you, what challenges and points of tension have been uncovered and what needs to happen next. The job roles and skills needed for co-production work are very different from more traditional museum roles. There are some great examples of community co-production groups evolving into advisory panels and of people moving into paid roles within organisations. The Changing Perspective group at Wilberforce House Museum is a good example of this in action (and won a Museums Change Lives award in 2023). This needs leadership and long term resource commitment if it's going to work.   


There is a lot more I could say about co-production but that feels like enough for now! I'd love to know if this resonates, or if you disagree - let me know what you think over on LinkedIn