Citizen Curators: How we created a curatorial community

Community, engagement, co-curation are all interchangeable ideas with strong resonance in the international museum sector. These ideas are challenging the very notion of what a museum is, and for whose benefit they exist.

This is the first in a series of articles that reveals the findings of four years of action research underpinning the Citizen Curators Programme 2017-21.

What does community mean?

For me, community can be any group of people who come together because they find common interest or cause in experiences, topics, and ideals. For me, it is important that the community can define itself, and is not just labelled by others. Place, with its amenities and possibilities, is a strong marker of community, where people live, work and rely upon for their daily needs. Communities can be transient too, particularly communities of learning.

Citizen Curators was based in Cornwall, UK. Cornwall is a large, and long, peninsula made up of many dispersed coastal, urban and rural communities with many museums – over 70 for a population of only 540,000. Cornwall as a place was critical to the building of the Citizen Curators community over the last four years. With the help of Cornwall Museums Partnership, Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and seven museums, I would like to share with you what we learned from the process of building a community of curators, from museum communities.

How we identified the need, and the causes of exclusion

In 2016 to 2018 I was an Arts Council England Change Maker, responsible for experimenting with ways to create better cultural opportunities for communities around our museums. Cornwall is a highly touristic area with 5 million visitors a year. Most of our heritage sites and museums mainly open for this audience and are closed or have reduced opening hours in the Winter. This means the chance for local communities to enjoy their museums can be severely limited. This will be a familiar story to many rural communities, especially those who experience high levels of tourism.

People who flexibility need to earn a living to support themselves and others, or have caring responsibilities, cannot afford to give their time for free.

What could be done to encourage cultural participation in museums while also providing opportunities to learn about museum work such as curating––usually a very individualistic occupation. From researching, speaking, and working with museum volunteers, I found that time and cost of travel was one of the biggest causes of exclusion.

As a museum professional and researcher, I also experience this constant exclusion. Courses, networking and meetings are designed for people in big cities. The other major cause of exclusion is the traditional way of volunteering in museums, which relies on regular shifts, a clear set of instructions, and if working with collections, this often means staff supervision too. So people who need flexibility to earn a living to support themselves and others, or have caring responsibilities, cannot afford to give their time for free.

The result is that a very narrow group of affluent, usually retired, people with independent incomes, have most influence in their local museum. As will be seen, Citizen Curators did not necessarily reverse this scenario but it did highlight it in a way that sector bodies and funders still do not fully understand or realise, and it did make some significant impacts on individuals who lacked confidence in a museum setting.

It’s made me review my life. I left at school at 16, I didn’t go to university, I didn’t do anything [until now]… I educated myself through art.

Year 2 Citizen Curator.

Why choose curating to challenge the status quo?

From a public perception point of view, museum curators occupy a position of authority and trust, but increasingly have also become the targets of legitimate and misplaced accusations of gatekeeping, poor practice and valuing objects over people. At the same time curatorial expertise of all kinds continues to haemorrhage from our institutions, and professional collections research is pretty much a rare and exclusive activity. Curatorial decisions therefore matter, and the absence of them matters too. I therefore saw a perfect opportunity to challenge this status quo, perceived and real, by proposing curatorial training specifically for volunteers from museums’ local communities. This would also help to address rigid museum volunteering practices.

Practical exhibition making was part of the training and learning outcomes of many of the Citizen Curators.

In October 2017 I planned a small pilot for a flexible, work-based curatorial training programme and named it Citizen Curators. It would involve learning key areas of museum work, such as, the purpose of museums and curators, collections, ethics, research, communication, interpretation, key trends in museums, and of course, communities. Participants also received technical training in exhibition making, online storytelling, handling objects, and audience development.

This was the deal: in return for volunteering activities at their home museum, the Citizen Curators had access to a high-quality, structured, learning programme – something that would be valuable in their life and career.

While I designed, adapted and administered the programme, and provided the bulk of the teaching, many of the sessions were delivered by museum staff and guests, sharing their own skills and knowledge in new ways. In addition, Citizen Curators would work on projects in their museum with real-world outcomes such as preparing for events and exhibitions, conducting research and writing interpretation. Sometimes these were within a broad framework decided by the museum, sometimes they were more open, and the Citizen Curators could decide what to do.

Hireth. An exhibition of landscape paintings at Royal Cornwall Museum that evolved with new interpretation from the Pilot group of Citizen Curators, 2018.

The six-month pilot took place in 2017 to 2018 at Royal Cornwall Museum with five new volunteers, four of whom were under 26 years old. This was the deal: in return for volunteering activities at their home museum, the Citizen Curators had access to a high-quality, structured, learning programme – something that would be valuable in their life and career. Learning took place in half-day sessions, and volunteering in or for the museum took place in different ways depending on personal schedules.

It was very important that the programme was a worthwhile investment of time and in our evaluation, over 90% of each cohort reported participation as excellent value for time.

How was this an experiment in cultural democracy and alternative pathways?

The pilot was a success, and got noticed by the museums in Cornwall Museums Partnership’s consortium, by 2018 there were seven. At the same time Arts Council England was championing the Creative Case for Diversity and all sorts of initiatives were being heralded from both the arts and museums sector for cultural democracy. The Citizen Curators pilot was featured in the report 64 Million Artists alongside other initiatives that sought to both value everyday creativity and democratise, although what democratising involved was a moot point, this is a topic to which we will return.

Citizen Curators hasn’t been the only programme that has had the concept of museum democratisation at its heart, there have been many other museum training programmes usually targeting one kind of group or another, e.g. D/deaf and disabled, ethnically diverse, working class. These have tended to be under-written by larger, wealthier and better resourced museums than those participating in Citizen Curators, the majority of which were cash-strapped, time-strapped and space-strapped.

Core session learning took place in the meeting rooms and galleries of participating museums, here at the Museum of Cornish Life.

Our model did not follow the traditional design of a supervised work placement or internship – these are adopted by larger and wealthier institutions; nor did it follow the traditional roles of teacher and student like a university course. 

The diversification of voices that interpret museum collections and their topics to the public, as well as the start of a credible alternative pathway into museum work, became the two over-arching goals of Citizen Curators. It was important that these two goals also coincided with Cornwall Museums Partnership’s aims of providing new, sustained work and training opportunities as well as delivering commitments to diversity and inclusion.

So in 2018, under CMP’s auspices, we won funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to deliver the Citizen Curators programme across seven museums. I billed it as an experiment in cultural democracy and curatorial education to underline that we just did not know how exactly such a scheme would pan out. And we were very transparent about this to both participating museums and Citizen Curators themselves.

The programme was free to access and participate in and included a budget for their travel and other costs, as well as materials to bring projects to fruition at their home museums. The Citizen Curators had to have a say in how their budget was spent. Our model did not follow the traditional design of a supervised work placement or internship – these are adopted by larger and wealthier institutions; nor did it follow the traditional roles of teacher and student like a university course. 

Using the CRC study collection to teach object research and safe handling.

As Programme Leader I also considered myself part of the community. I learned from the group, and they learned from each other, being encouraged to ask open questions, and listen respectfully. Each year we committed to a set of values and conventions. Each of our sessions was designed according to the experiential learning framework originated by Kolb, and active reflection was part of every session. This helped to solidify their learning.

Over the four years, a total of 116 Citizen Curators were recruited, and 82 successfully completed the programme, receiving a certificate of achievement. This represents a 71% success rate. Unfortunately, UK museums, universities and colleges do not openly publish their training programme and course success rates for comparison.

In what ways was recruitment inclusive?

There is much debate about inclusive recruitment in museums. The premise is that very narrow recruitment methods tend to attract a certain kind of candidate already well-practised in saying and demonstrating the right things. This is certainly true and many museums and heritage organisations continue to recruit in their own image.

We were interested in recruiting people because of their ideas about museums and diverse life experiences, not in spite of them.

The premise behind recruiting Citizen Curators, throughout the programme, from the Pilot to our all-digital Year 3 (owing to Covid-19 lockdowns) was to encourage anyone who had even a little bit of interest in their museum, or museums generally, history, art, society or science, to feel confident to apply. Confidence is another theme we will return to.

We did not use a traditional recruitment process. We created a questionnaire rather than application form. We were interested in recruiting people because of their ideas about museums and diverse life experiences, not in spite of them. We did not ask about previous jobs or educational attainments. We did not do any pre-application diversity and inclusion monitoring. We asked questions such as, “what particularly attracts you about this museum?” “What hobbies and talents do you have that you can bring to the museum?”

Contrasting field trips in Years 1 and 2 provided the opportunity for Citizen Curators to further develop their interests (here at the Shelterbox Visitor Centre, Truro, Cornwall, UK).

We also asked about access needs and any adjustments that might help participation. We made several adjustments to timings and break times, to account for public transport, the need for mental rest and to accommodate work and care responsibilities. Prior to applications we organised informal open events with refreshments, as opportunities to get to know the programme and the museums. Year 3 in 2021 was re-designed for digital delivery as all museums remained closed during our pandemic lockdowns. For Year 3 I created a video and held a digital drop-in to give prospective candidates a flavour of the programme prior to applying, including testimonies from former Citizen Curators to encourage confidence in new applicants. 

While the citizen curator may lack expert knowledge, we can nonetheless bring self-reflection, memories and rich childhood fantasies into our research process.

Year 3 Citizen Curator.

Did we create a diverse community?

The other side of inclusive recruitment is diverse community or workforce. Volunteers occupy that grey area between community and workforce, particularly where smaller museums are concerned, who rely on voluntary workforce for many critical functions, like front of house, maintenance, educational activities and documentation.

Ultimately this data helped us learn whether our goal to alleviate time and cost barriers was well-targeted.

We often see statistics used badly when it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity in museums. I wanted to do things differently and make sure we obtained a detailed, honest, and nuanced view. We collected this information during course participation, in fact it was at the centre of the core session called ‘Curators in the Community’. Each year I made a detailed report to compare changes according to legal protected characteristics, such as sex, age, disability, ethnicity and sexual orientation, as well as key indicators of wealth, care responsibilities, education, place and environment when growing up. The questionnaire permitted multiple choices of response, and none. 

Museum leads and guests also contributed to the diversity of the programme, such as the Disability Awareness training provided by Wheal Martyn in February 2020.

The aim of this monitoring was certainly not to tick anyone else’s boxes, and was actively used as a basis for adapting the programme and learning lessons from it. Ultimately this data helped us learn whether our goal to alleviate time and cost barriers was well-targeted. Of course, much also depended on where and to whom museums advertised the opportunities. Most of the time this was in traditional channels to existing museum followers, rather than in new spaces which will have inevitably shaped the pool of potential participants. In terms of numbers, each year we worked to a potential cohort of 35, up to 5 from each museum. In fact even this small increase in bodies at some of the museums sometimes proved hard to accommodate.

Across the programme we saw changing scenarios in each year. In summary, participation was highly dominated by women, averaging 75% female to male; the age range was more diverse, and overall younger, than traditional volunteers; cultural, religious and ethnic diversity increased marginally across all the years; between 48-60% reported living with disabilities and other conditions affecting daily life; financial dependence on another person or the State increased significantly by Year 3 with 33% relying on others, and just 13-14% in previous years; following this trend, reliance on public transport increased to 38% in year 3 from approximately 20% in years 1 and 2 – this may reflect the conversion to a digital programme making it more accessible in the final year; and we noticed that 29-40% of participants came with a high level of education at Masters level, in a variety of mainly arts and social science subjects.

The benefit of doing diversity and inclusion monitoring this way is that the community is in control of it. It is not being done to them solely for the benefit of the museum, its reputation and potential for future inclusion-based funding. I will write further on our diversity and inclusivity findings, but for now it is safe to say Citizen Curators did help alleviate time and cost barriers, it did diversify voices in museums, and by extension diversified the volunteer workforce, but in key areas such as prior formal education and gender (female-dominated), those factors affecting all areas of museums, remain stubbornly the same.

I learnt a lot about different methods of communication and why these are important for museums, I wrote a blog for the first time and took part in a podcast.

Year 1 Citizen Curator.

What challenges were encountered?

First was competition for space at the museum, and time for support from museum staff – both essential to keeping the community together. In Year 3, remote volunteering from home created a very individualistic experience compared to the group work of previous years. However, some of the museums thrived with their Citizen Curators, through regular digital meetings during the pandemic lockdown when there was less pressure to run operations in a building. When a little time and support was prioritised, this resulted in more fulfilling and successful projects with promising outcomes for all, including international collaborations. When this contact was not forthcoming Citizen Curators failed to achieve a sense of belonging in their museums.

Year 3 Citizen Curators at PK Porthcurno in a session with me, their museum lead and their international counterparts to explore global imperial connections in historical telegraphy.

Pressure on creating outcomes in Year 1 led to shifting the emphasis on processes of discovery and encouraging museums to use Citizen Curators in their overall decision-making, however this was marginal at best. What the Citizen Curators programme revealed, in fact, is that many of our museums themselves worked in hierarchical and individualistic ways. 

There were also some clashes of ideas and opinions within Citizen Curator groups and with their museum leads – this is natural in any new group formation. At the beginning there was some cynicism from museums about their right to call themselves ‘curators’ and suspicion about the learning quality of the programme overall. The main complaint from participants themselves was around poor internal communication, something that many museums with few resources suffer from; in one example the participating museum suddenly closed to the public because of financial difficulties and the Citizen Curators only found this out on social media. 

I thought it would be a doddle but it hasn’t.

Museum lead, Year 1.

However, by the end of the programme most museums better understood the time and effort it took to be truly inclusive, and it presented a reality check for funders and investors to realise that just opening your doors isn’t enough. Many Citizen Curators struggled to decide what to do and some structure such as a pre-existing project or theme was found useful. Others struggled with accessing basic information from collections databases and organising a suitable time to work at the museum. It exposed museum systems as sometimes being too linear and too reliant on facilitation by just one person, who had many other priorities. In spite of these limitations new interpretation on old collections by Citizen Curators was produced throughout the programme and happened in all sorts of creative ways.

Year 1 Citizen Curators at Penlee House produced new interpretation and signposted it to the townspeople of Penzance in a disused high street shop.

It is fair to say none of the museums considered their participation in Citizen Curators to be a top organisational priority. If their groups were helping them achieve other goals, particularly those connected to funded projects, this presented good opportunities for participants and museums alike; but the idea of including the participants in key museum-wide decision-making – what we may recognise as genuine cultural democracy – was the least embedded aspect of the whole programme. This point also speaks to how and where the Citizen Curators sat in their organisations, were they an audience or an integral part of the museum like other regular volunteers?

Where Citizen Curators were permitted some primary decision-making, the reportage in evaluation was markedly different and it really left a lasting positive memory with those individuals and groups. From anecdotal observations, informal feedback throughout the programme, and conversations with museum leads and directors I can say that the reason for this wasn’t a deliberate case of exclusion, but more a casualty of how smaller museums are expected to function, constantly delivering and never having enough time to stop and properly re-strategise, let alone think about how to make decisions differently. The backdrop to this experiment in cultural democracy should have been more fully considered when the programme was originally designed.

“I really am so grateful for the Citizen Curators programme and always attribute where I am today to it!”

Siân Esther Powell, Exhibition and Engagement Officer, Wheal Martyn who was part of the Citizen Curators Pilot 2017-18.

The impact on individual participants, however, tells a slightly different story particularly in relation to our other goal of providing an alternative pathway into museum work. 89% cited Citizen Curators in museum job applications, while 78% cited the programme in other job applications. The programme resulted in 20% of participants going into museum jobs or traineeships, nearly 20% into other jobs, and 23% onto further study. 23% remained regularly volunteering at their museum.