Written by Claire Messenger, Manager, International Training Programme

Paying for it: Sustainable and fair participatory practice 

Museums are increasingly taking a participatory approach to their work – working with their communities to inform and sometimes lead practice.  This session – Paying for it: Sustainable and fair participatory practice – looked at how can we make these relationships equitable when some involved are paid and some are not and how we can make it worth participants’ efforts and ensure we are not simply making use of a free workforce?

In this session we were introduced to two projects – at University of Cambridge Museums and Birmingham Museum Trust – who have addressed this issue by paying project participants.  We learnt about their successes and challenges and considered the future of equitable participatory practice.     

Danika Parikh, Research and Engagement Fellow and Jenny Bull, Engagement Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums – https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/

Together, the eight University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden represent the UK’s highest concentration of internationally important collections outside London. With more than five million works of art, artefacts, and specimens, the collections have supported nearly 300 years of investigation into the world around us.

The RePresent Project aims to connect with local communities who don’t usually engage with University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) through relabelling objects on display to tell new stories and bring community voices into museum spaces.  This project engaged with five participants from the Cambridge African Network – a local diaspora community group – who took part in a pilot project in 2020.  The project team choose objects that sparked a strong emotional response from them, and then wrote new labels and recorded audio sharing their thoughts.

So what did UCM learn from this project?

  • Be clear and up-front about the levels of commitment and compensation.
  • Create a terms of reference – guidelines – to manage expectations.
  • It might not be easy – dealing with your own internal financial procedures – but the work you do will be available next time you run a project like this so you can use it again and again.
  • Running a pilot was very helpful to ensure you can evaluate and learn.
  • Paperwork procedures can be onerous – for staff and participants – so make it is a straightforward as possible and provide support.

You can read more about the project through the University of Cambridge Museums blog post here – https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/blog/2020/11/11/represent/

Andrew Fowles, Learning and Access Manager, Birmingham Museums Trust – https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/

Birmingham Museums has 9 extraordinary venues that provide a fascinating glimpse into Birmingham’s rich and vibrant past and showcase world class museum collections.

The Guide Us Project looked at engagement, learning and wellbeing and ways to increase community ownerships over Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT).  The project aimed to take co-production to a new level with paid community producers.

What did BMT learn from this project?

  • Ability to pay participants enabled them to move around the city and communities to bring new people into the Museum.
  • Community producers felt that their voices carried more weight.
  • They felt truly embedded in the project.
  • It removed perceptions – for both sides – of hierarchy.
  • Community producers were established as part of BMT.
  • There was a greater level of project ownership.
  • It was motivational and confidence building for the participants.

Find out more about Birmingham Museums Trust community projects here – https://ww.birminghammuseums.org.uk/uk/get-involved/community-projects

Creating and sustaining equitable partnerships

This session looked at how museums and galleries can develop lasting, equitable partnerships, creating real change with communities, impacting on people’s lives for the better and was chaired by Jane Sillis, Director, Engage.

Engage are the lead advocacy and training network for gallery education, representing arts educators, organisations, freelancers and artists from across the UK and over 20 countries worldwide.


The session started with a provocation from consultant Mark O’Neill who called for a strategic approach to explore the potential for engagement work to democratise museums and reduce inequalities in museum attendance.

Since 2007 museum audiences have increased, year on year, but what’s not changed is the gap between the upper and lower socio-economic groups.  This gap – 34% – is the average and while some museums do better, some do worse.  The biggest driver for that gap, is education attainment levels and museums are seen as places that serve the already educated.

Mark’s provocation looked at what this gap means and how it could be reduced.  He feels museums and their projects and programmes are too focussed on immediate outcomes and too keen to maintain the status quo.  Statistics show that visiting museums 3 or more times a year helps both health and wellbeing so the necessity of narrowing the attainment gap is so important.

The London Museum of Water and Steam then demonstrated how community participation can be achieved, sharing the challenges as well as opportunities of working towards long-term equitable relationships with communities.

Liz Power, Director, London Museum of Water and Steam set the scene for her museum which tells the story of London’s water supply, the site of the former Kew Bridge Waterworks, and the amazing pumping engines that helped to make London the great city it is today.

As well as housing the world’s largest collection of stationary steam pumping engines, the Museum is also home to a narrow-gauge steam locomotive and a Waterworks Gallery that traces the development of London’s clean water supply. The Museum offers a fun and educational day out for families and steam enthusiasts alike.


The Museum is a heritage site and a museum how have managed to create sustainable community partnerships through sharing spaces.  The site is only open to the public at weekends while another two days per week are just for the local community.

How to share spaces??

  • Create an equal power relationship with your community.
  • Be helpful.  Liz explains how they have encouraged a good flow of communication – ‘ask us anything, we can always say no!!
  • Be honest.  If you can deliver something, say no, explain why and see what might be possible.
  • Try things.  Be brave.  If it works that’s great, if not, it doesn’t matter.
  • Be authentic and real. Keep in touch with your spaces unique selling point and your museums aims and objectives

Letting the community lead is key to creating sustainable relationships.  At the London Museum of Water and Steam the community told them they would like a café.  This was beyond the financial scope of the Museum so they partnered with Our Barn Community, a ‘not for profit’ local charity who works with young people with learning difficulties.  The café pays no rent for the space and there is no income to the Museum but The Pump and Grind Coffee Shop enables the charity to provide supported work placements for their young people and provides the Museum with a useful facility for visitors and the community. The Museum also uses the café space to deal with community issues and has people there to help with housing issues and support paying bills.

Liz summed up by explaining that local people need to care for, love and engage with the museum to keep it going.  She uses that level of support and engagement to drive the museum in a business sense – not just in practical ways like asking community partners to help write funding applications – but also when working with staff and stakeholders. 

The level of community participation at the London Museum of Water and Steam was inspiring and the support that the community gives to the Museum, and in return the Museum offers to the community, is a wonderful example of what can be done with without large budgets but just through communication and consultation.