Both the US and the UK have a rich legacy of civic museums, institutions that formed in parallel with national museums but with a rationale to develop identity and belonging for a town or urbanized area for the individuals who dwell within it (Hill 2013). In the last thirty years, museums’ relationships with their local community have been intensified by the increasing dependency of museums on audiences for their financial sustainability, and communities becoming increasingly dependent on museums for access to civic space and public service. The crisis of mental health and questions of ‘well-being’ that have landed on the sector in the wake of economic, climate and social crisis have underscored the potential and actual importance of local or civic museums in sustaining the social fabric and the challenges that are faced by civic museums in these circumstances, outlined for example in ‘The Future of Civic Museums: A Think Piece’ (2018), commissioned by the English Civic Museums Network.
Research on digital interface activities in museums and heritage sites emphasizes the role that digital technologies can play in increasing public access to the knowledge held in these institutions. Digital content and delivery have been heralded for more than a decade as a means of making museums more democratic by facilitating direct engagement between audiences and institutions via web 2.0 mechanisms such as social media-based engagement and crowd-sourcing. While these can be very meaningful forms of engaging with the public and accessing ‘citizen’ knowledge, it has also been observed that digital interfaces sometimes just provide new platforms for existing kinds of interactions (e.g. Wong, 2011, Proctor, 2013). As Taylor and Gibson (2017) observe, even the most democratizing initiatives in digitising heritage access are prone to replicate the ‘authorized’ values of heritage and its institutions, and are prone to adopt the values of universality or ‘community’ which do not always serve the groups that are most in need of inclusion.
This project poses the question as to how digital interfaces can best be used within civic museums to foster reciprocal forms of communication, exchange and enhancement between audience and institution which is underscored as a key foundation of future development for civic museums. Given that physical and social engagement are associated with the positive health impacts of museums (C. Todd et al, 2017), does digital have a role to play at all? Specific paths of investigation include the appeal to different senses which according to J. Kidd (2019) enhance empathy and audience satisfactions with digital activities. Aspects of digitally-delivered activity that will be explored include how digital interfaces can help museums to meet new standards of visual and auditory accessibility that are implicated in the transition to a social model of disability, and how they can invite audience co-creation of the exhibition (Peale Center); how digital images can mediate experiences of place in a participatory artwork (DeLaWarr Pavilion); and how different sensory experiences of a garden can be highlighted to visitors through web-based activity (Brighton Museum). The project will include upgrades to a custom-built app used by the Peale Center that will also be repurposed for use at the DeLaWarr Pavilion and Brighton Museum with the aim of reframing their historic museum buildings as more inclusive environments by highlighting diverse histories of the organizations and their buildings.
DigiPICH engages the expertise and daily practice of key participants in three civic museums that have demonstrated a significant commitment to community engagement or to digital enhancement or both. Each organization has a national and international reputation for its work which is sustained by high profile professional activities and publications on the part of the key participants. The project has been crafted to make the most of this practical expertise, and the research methods are designed to work within these settings and to elicit the contributions of the museum practitioners as researchers (Pringle, 2019). This includes allowing the partners to determine the nature of the activities that form the content of the programme, including in two cases the commissioning of creative practice appropriate to the particular setting. The key participants, PI, and researchers will contribute reflective texts to the programme blog as a key form of data to be produced by the project. The participating organizations will employ the modes of audience evaluation that are ‘native’ to their organization, but also offered training to use the UCL Well-being Measures toolkit as part of their evaluation processes.
One of the problems with evaluation of well-being measures is that they account only for the impact on the participating individual, and consequently do not consider well-being in terms of sustainability or impact for the host organization. The project therefore proposes the development of a different conceptual approach to well -being in museums framed through feminist theories of care (Fisher and Tronto,1990) that consider well-being not as an individual psychological state but as a function of social structures that involve domestic, bureaucratic and marketplace activities. Framing the study of well-being as a study of care activities will enable DigiPiCH to study these initiatives as part of a relationship between the organization and its local communities, and to evaluate its impact on all partners: feminist and other evaluations of curatorial or museum projects that seek to foster community engagement have often described the lack of sustainability of these initiatives because of over-reliance on the emotional and social labour of curatorial staff (V. Horne et al, 2016). The investigation of the sustainability of digital developments for well-being in civic historic museums is as paramount to developing good practice as is the question of their efficacy for individual visitors.
The outcomes of the project will allow us to structure a more developed proposal for a future investigation into the role of digital interfaces in the promotion of well-being and community engagement for museums and their audiences.
Management and Coordination
The PI (Perry) has managed a complex international research network (Leverhulme Network on Feminism and Art Curating, 2010-2012, which included 5 universities and 2 national museums) and has the experience to oversee the budget management and the coordination of the different elements of the programme both with, and between, the partners. The PI has established professional relationships with all the partners and the leadership experience in programme organization that will support the complex elements of the programme. The key partners will co-ordinate with the PI to deliver the elements of the programme that are situated within their own institutions and will ensure that the staff resources mobilized by the project are used effectively. A considerable element of the programme involves enabling the work undertaken by and within the partner organizations to be surfaced in impactful ways as research and as impact events. The PIs experience in collaborative writing and co-production of research outputs with curators and museum professionals will be drawn on to support the partners in articulating their own research and professional practice in ways that are visible and valued within the sector.
C. Todd et al (2017), Museum-based programs for socially isolated older adults: Understanding what works, Health and Place 48, 47-55
Fisher and J. Tronto, ‘Towards a feminist theory of care’, in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, eds E. Abel and M. Nelson, 1990, 35-62.
Hill (2013) Manufactures, archaeology and bygones: making a sense of place in civic museums, 1850–1914, International Journal of Regional and Local History, 8:1, 54-74
Horne et al (2016) ‘Taking Care: Feminist Curatorial Pasts, Presents, and Futures’, OnCurating 29, 13pp, online.
Kidd (2019) With New Eyes I see: embodiment, silence and empathy in digital heritage interpretation, International Journal of Heritage Studies 25:1, 54-66.
NESTA (2017), Digital Culture, p. 28
Pringle (2019) Rethinking Research in the Art Museum, Routledge 2019
Thomson and H. Chatterjee (2015) Measuring the impact of museum activities on well-being: developing the Museum Well-being Measures Toolkit, Museum Management and Curatorship, 30:1, 44-62
Research methods. The project employs a variety of research methods including a) developing and user-testing digital interfaces for their capacity to promote social inclusion and impact on well-being b) creative practice in visual arts and in creative writing to create content that addresses diverse sensory engagement with place c) reflective practice of key participants in the process of developing digital interfaces for inclusive practices d) archival research into the history and built environment of the participating institutions and e) applying feminist methodologies develop new approaches to conceptualize well-being in museums.
Aims and Objectives. To engage in the development and evaluation of best and sustainable practice for civic museums in the use of digital interfaces for historic environments. The evaluation will be developed in context of the role of civic museums as agents in reciprocal care relationships with their community.
Timetable of Activities
Feb 2020: Workshop 1 ‘Masterclass’ on accessibility standards in digital content and well-being measures, that will initiate the DigiPICH partnership with a meeting in Baltimore. Expert contributors to the ‘Universal Design Today’ exhibition will
21/22 March 2020: Project 1 The DeLaWarr Pavilion will host a weekend event provisionally titled “Calling in” which will allow us to research its practices of community coproduction for social inclusion. The programme will include a commission of an artwork by Amy Cunningham which explores digital mediation of space and belonging, areas of investigation that are central to the research programme.
March- April 2020: Project 2 The Peale Center ‘Universal Design Today’ (working title) exhibition explores the history of disabled rights and centres sensory accessibility in its exhibition design and audience participation elements. We will evaluate the exhibition specifically in relation to its practices of community inclusion.
March/April 2020 Project 3 Staff exchange. DLWP staff member spends two weeks in Baltimore working with Peale Center and partners at the conclusion of ‘Universal Design Today’ (working title). Knowledge exchange on the two organizations’ community engagement strategies.
April 2020: Impact event 1 Workshop on Inclusive practice, audience engagement and digital to be delivered at the Museums and the Web Conference, April 1 2020, Los Angeles California.
May 2020 Workshop 2 What is a caring museum? Workshop for project participants in Brighton to articulate how the feminist theory of caring work can be used to structure analysis and evaluation of digital initiatives in museums. Proposed invited presenters: Elke Krasny (Vienna Academy of Arts, co author of Critical Care. Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet; Kirsten Lloyd, University of Edinburgh, author of “Being with, across, over and through: Caring Subjects, Ethics Debates and the Encounter in Contemporary Art”.
July 2020: Project 4 Research and development of written, audio and visual content for a web-based app that promotes the Royal Pavilion Estate garden and gardening as a site to develop well-being.
September 2020: Impact Event 2 Presentation on DigiPiCH programmes and outcomes to date at Museums and the Web Conference, Shanghai, China.
July-October 2020 Project 4 Upgrade of Peale Center BHere Baltimore web-based app and repurposing of this app for DeLaWarr Pavilion and RPM with new custom content
October 2020 Impact Event 3 workshop on outcomes for South East Museum Development Service hosted by Royal Pavilion.
November 2020: Closing event hosted by University of Brighton for all participants and public.