By Stella Toonen

While community co-creation is becoming a buzzword in the museum sector, many museums are still hesitant to share power, give away control and work without predetermined outcomes. The Covid-19 crisis has pushed them to rethink their relationship to change and uncertainty, as well as to the communities they serve and how the needs of these groups fit into their work and vision. This article shares the approaches of three art museums in Manchester, London and New York and the lessons about co-creation they learnt from the pandemic.

[Image: An installation at Tate Exchange in 2017. (Credit: Seraphina Neville, Tate Photography]

When at the beginning of 2020 I started fieldwork for a research project that looked for institutional change in museums and galleries, I did not know what enormous change was awaiting the cultural sector. I had been interested in the changing relationships between museums and the communities they served, and had planned to follow three co-creation projects in the UK and US throughout the year. However, as they were all moved online during the first Covid-19 lockdown, and as I saw my field trips cancelled one by one, I also spotted an opportunity. 

During my preparation I had wondered why some museums struggle to give away some of their power and authority to community voices. I had found that it was often a result of museums finding it difficult to work flexibly and without predetermined outcomes, and to make space for communities to help steer the direction of a project. I realised now that the pandemic year, of which open-endedness and uncertainty became key features, offered a unique case study for finding out how museums dealt with such change. 

And so I ended up spending most of 2020 being on ‘fieldwork’ from home with three case study organisations: Tate Modern in London, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, and Queens Museum in New York. While I had spent some time at Tate and the Whitworth before the pandemic, my ‘trip’ to New York became entirely virtual. The warm welcome I received from people who had never physically met me, and the live Zoom-tour I got of the exhibition spaces to help me settle in, are examples of how the museum had taken on board change. Over the next months, I found e that the pandemic had led to new creative ways of collaborative working that were having a real effect on co-creation work in museums. 

Co-creation as a flexible and responsive practice

I chose the following  three museums to study because they all showed strong commitment to including community groups more deeply in the way they worked. At Tate, the Tate Exchange programme offered an entire gallery floor (and during Covid-19 also a vibrant online platform) to their 60+ Associates, which included community groups, charities and many other underrepresented and activist voices. The Whitworth had just before Covid-19 launched the Constituent Museum project, an organisational change programme that helped the museum to be led by the needs and demands of its communities. And Queens Museum was gearing up to their Year of Uncertainty programme, a direct response to Covid-19 to invite local communities and social thinkers into the museum to address social justice themes during the pandemic. 

All of these projects tried out innovative approaches to how museums could work with communities through co-creation. While the definitions of that term ‘co-creation’ vary widely (Walmsley, 2013), it generally represents a type of collaboration between an institution and a community in which each has an equal, or equitable, amount of agency over the project (Jubb, 2018). It shares power in a way that goes beyond traditional participatory projects (Simon, 2010), and includes community voices throughout the entire process, from inception to evaluation (Matarasso, 2019). As a result, co-creation projects generally work towards open-ended outcomes, and  to maximise the space for input from all partners. This puts pressure on the organisational structures within the museum, which are often not set up for that level of flexibility, and is similarly at odds with traditional funding processes.  

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced many museums to take a much more flexible approach. Frozen budgets, furloughed staff and changing health policy guidelines meant museums had to think on their feet and adjust their course with every change of circumstances (ICOM, 2020a; ICOM, 2020b). To be able to cope with that, they had to embrace the uncertainty and feel comfortable taking risks. A member of staff at Tate Exchange suggests that because their co-creation practice already embraced these elements, they felt less paralysed by the pandemic. Moreover, they say that their team’s approach to embracing risk helped other teams across the organisation to manage theirs. They say: 

“We know that as soon as the doors open, the public might want to do something completely different with what they’re presented with […] and so we’re really used to working to something that doesn’t have a fixed outcome. And we have had conversations with colleagues during Covid, where we’ve talked about what that is like. And a lot of people have said, actually, that that kind of knowledge and experience has been really helpful to them, trying to navigate through Covid.”

It suggests that museums who are comfortable not always being in control and who are prepared to be flexible, might have been able to deal with all the challenges of 2020 more effectively than other museums. To verify that proposition, however, one would have to compare both types of museums and their Covid-19 trajectory, but even by looking solely at existing co-creation projects in museums, a lot can be learnt from their approaches. 

Co-creating initial responses to the pandemic

With their experience of community engagement work and established local networks, both Tate Exchange and Queens Museum’s initial response to the first Covid-19 lockdown was to ask their communities “how can we be of service to you?” Tate did that by reaching out to their Associate networks, and following the response, they started to offer more flexibility in their (online) programming, offered their unused space to food parcel delivery teams, and  set up an Offers and Needs Marketplace for the cohort of Associates to exchange support. At Queens Museum they consulted with the neighbourhood by hiring a new Community Organiser, who took stock of the needs in the local area and found an increase in food injustice and so proposed a collaboration with a Queens-based food bank. Within a month the museum was operating a weekly food bank service for hundreds of local families per week, which has continued all throughout the pandemic. None of these initiatives had been pre-planned outcomes of their community collaboration programmes, but, by asking their community networks what they needed from the museum, they did not only use co-creation to increase the relevance of their work, but also deepened their civic role and mission. 

The Whitworth Art Gallery had only just started shaping its co-creation strategy when the pandemic hit a few months into their Constituent Museum project. They had been working on including more community-led action, creative education, and health and wellbeing work as part of their new civic mission, and the pandemic offered an opportunity to accelerate that work enormously. Bringing on board community members to help shape the new approach, the increased focus on community-led programming has helped them to build their new mission from the ground up, in a fully co-created way that ensures the relevance and usefulness of the museum for the Covid-19 era and beyond. 

Image: La Jornada food pantry at Queens Museum, New York (Credit: La Jornada / Queens Museum) 

Covid-19 as an opportunity for structural change

After their initial Covid-19 response the three museums are making sure to use the overhaul of practices to embed their community work more structurally in their systems too. Tate Modern director Frances Morris suggested that Tate should see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to build closer connections with local communities, and the Whitworth has built their pandemic programme of community-led work so deeply into their new mission that it recently won one of the Awards for Civic Arts Organisations.

At Queens Museum they are not only making full use of the moment of change to strengthen their socially-engaged work in the borough of Queens, but are also actively celebrating the concept of uncertainty in their new Year of Uncertainty programme. It’s a yearlong co-creation commitment that brings nine community partners, six artists-in-residence, and twelve critical co-thinkers into the museum to build new connections, interrogate themes of social injustice and create new possibilities for collaboration. It serves as a commitment and an invitation – if not a provocation – to think differently about uncertainty together with constituents of the museum, and as a consequence the project’s expected outcomes are entirely open. In a research interview, director Sally Tallant said: 

“I have no idea what we’re going to do. […] I don’t know what it’ll prove. I don’t really mind. It’s going to be a messy year of hope. But by the end of the project, we should better understand how we can function as a museum.” 

It can be frightening for a museum to give away so much power over their programme, and in all three case study museums, staff interviewees have sometimes expressed discomfort when having to work without a detailed content plan. However, other interviewees argue that at a time of crisis, when drastic change is needed – or when museum closures mean they are not expected to do well and perhaps have less to lose because of that – innovative out-of-the-box ideas can flourish. Moreover, going through radical change where traditional practices are completely overhauled, also creates space for the new ways of working to be embedded more structurally, and extend their impact throughout the entire organisation and beyond the Covid-19 era. It creates the opportunity for wider organisational change, and indeed, an interviewee at the Whitworth says they feel the pandemic has not only increased the extent of their co-creation work, but also accelerated the wider institutional process towards becoming a more community-led organisation. 

Co-creation flourishes in Covid-19 time

Finding increased civic purpose has been an important theme in museums since what Bishop (2006) called a ‘social turn’, a paradigm shift towards participatory and co-creative working. But over the last year the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated that work, not just in the three case study museums, but also across the sector more widely. The state of emergency has offered more opportunities for museums to work closely with communities on civic or socially-engaged projects; from providing homeschooling activity packs, to making their spaces available to soup kitchens or vaccination centres. Moreover, the forced public closures moved the emphasis from exhibitions to public programmes that could be delivered online or locally, of which co-creation was more likely to be a key feature. Also, the limitations on travel and tourism prompted museums to focus on building relationships with communities more locally and to use co-creation to increase their participation in the museum. And finally, the Black Lives Matter protests that happened just after the first lockdown made it even clearer why different voices needto be represented in museums, which builds an even stronger case for co-creation. 

Where I had initially worried that the pandemic would shut down all of the co-creation projects I was about to start observing, I actually found that the quantity of co-creation work increased, along with the commitment to building more equal relationships with community groups. While for some museums this was a simple step up from co-creation work they were already doing, for others it might have been the first time they dived into the complexities of power-sharing and for many the uncertainty and letting go of control will have felt daunting. I hope that my PhD research can offer some examples and inspiration to these museum professionals for how co-creation can help deal with and shape change in museums. My research, which I am currently writing up, will highlight some of the successes, but also the complexities and difficulties that my case studies have encountered, and this will  instigate discussion about co-creation practice and provide a stronger theoretical underpinning for a field that is still highly under-researched. 

References

Bishop, C. (2006). ‘The social turn: collaboration and its discontents.’ Artforum, 44(6): 176-183.

ICOM (2020a). ‘Museums, museum professionals and COVID-19.’ ICOM Report, 26 May 2020. Available at: https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Report-Museums-and-COVID-19.pdf 

ICOM (2020b). ‘Museums, museum professionals and COVID-19: Follow-up survey.’ ICOM Report, 23 November 2020. Available at: https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/FINAL-EN_Follow-up-survey.pdf  

Jubb, D. (2018). ‘Update: co-creating change 25 Apr.’ Battersea Arts Centre Blog, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://batterseaartscentreblog.com/2018/04/25/update-co-creating-change-25-apr/  

Matarasso, F. (2019). A restless art: How participation won and why it matters. Lisbon & London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0. 

Walmsley, B. (2013). Co-creating theatre: authentic engagement or inter-legitimation? Cultural Trends, 22(2): 108-118.

Biography

Stella Toonen is a PhD researcher, based at both Tate Modern and King’s College London as part of an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award. She studies collaborative practices between museums and communities and looks specifically at co-creation. She also works as a freelance researcher and producer, most recently on projects with the Museum of London, Creative People and Places, and Museums Galleries Scotland. Previously, she worked as a producer for public programmes at the Imperial War Museum and King’s College London’s Culture team. Stella is currently a trustee of digital arts company Culture24

Twitter @StellaToonen LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/R7k43K  Email: stella.toonen@kcl.ac.uk

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