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Community Curation and Curators: reversing the curator-audience relationship

Unit(s) of assessment: History

Research theme: Global Heritage

School: School of Arts and Humanities


It is widely accepted that in order to stay relevant and impact on their communities that they need to change and face the future differently. Demographic, technological, economic, political and broader societal changes have left many sections of society under-represented in museum exhibitions and collections, and as a consequence large sections of society do not engage with their local museums. Put simply, young adults, the poor and BAME communities are the least likely members of society to visit museums or engage with them.

In part this is due to a distinct lack of diversity within the museum sector workforce, which is dominated by white middle-class women but with a preponderance of white middle class men in senior positions. Museum volunteers are also largely either white middle class and middle aged, or younger graduates seeking paid employment within the sector.

With the exception of some London museums, and specialist collections (e.g. Black history, Jewish history, LGBT history) the vast majority of museums and their collections have struggled to engage with diverse communities and develop more inclusive and democratic approaches to audience and collections development.

In the context of a museums sector that has faced a funding crisis over the last decade, with many museums closing or having restricted opening, museums professionals are faced with a dilemma: increase visitor numbers and audience engagement, reach out to diverse communities in order to promote inclusivity and diversity and embrace rapid technological change all of which needs to be achieved while maintaining their own professional authority, integrity and values.

The museums sector has generally been slow to change, not least because of perceived and real financial challenges and the longevity of permanent exhibitions, many of which can remain in place for two decades or more. Within this context traditional methods of curation and interpretation still dominate many museums.

Research Aims

  • To work with selected museums in Nottinghamshire to develop a series of community-curated exhibitions.
  • To work alongside museums to deliver training to community volunteers in object selection, interpretation and presentation.
  • To work alongside museums to develop historical understanding and interpretation.
  • To develop a model for universities and museums to work in partnership to develop community engagement.
  • To reach new and diverse audiences
  • To develop exhibitions that are, in the objects and interpretative materials, a metaphor for the community.

Addressing the Challenge

This is an area of research that has been led by Professor Graham Black for a number of years. His work is international in scope and he has presented keynotes at museums conferences around the world appealing to museums professionals to forego some of their authority to the visitors. However, for understandable reasons many museums professionals have been reluctant to take this on board fully.

The current project is supporting museums to experiment with a radical way of engaging audiences: by bringing them in to the museums as curators where they will loan their personal objects to the museum for the purpose of developing a temporary exhibition. By doing this the museums “collection” is expanded to include objects from within the community. The community benefit from training in curation and interpretation and the museums benefit from a new relationship with their audience. To some extent the roles of audience and curator is reversed through this research.

Making a Difference

This pilot study is one of the first in the UK where academic historians and museum and heritage specialists have worked alongside museums professionals and local communities to develop a radically new approach to audience development through community engagement in this way. Reversing the role of curator and audience is likely to have as big an impact on the museums professionals as on the community, thus potentially transforming the working methods of the museum over the longer term.

Related staff

  • Dr. Andy Gritt
  • Neville Stankley

The project team are working alongside museums in Ruddington, Mansfield and Bassetlaw with exhibitions planned for Autumn 2019.