Democratising the Museum

Reflections on Participatory Technologies

by Pille Runnel (Volume editor) Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 240 Pages
Open Access


Democratising the museum is a collection of articles reflecting upon the problem of how participation, technologically mediated or not, can support the museum in the process of becoming more accessible. The open museum shares power with its visitors while negotiating professionalism and the role of the museum in a modern society. The book looks at the roles and struggles of audiences/visitors and professionals and the role of digital technologies in supporting the participatory museum. While different chapters draw on a variety of empirical examples, the main analytical backbone of the book comes from an extended participatory action research study conducted at the Estonian National Museum. This book aims at both academics and professionals working in the museum field.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Authors
  • The Challenge of Democratising the Museum
  • 1. The project
  • 2. The journey
  • 3. The concepts
  • 4. The new era
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • I Theorising and Analysing Participation
  • Who Authors the Nation? The Debate Surrounding the Building of the New Estonian National Museum
  • 1. Authoring the nation
  • 2. Participation
  • 3. Towards innovation and participation
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • When the Museum Becomes the Message for Participating Audiences
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. A short and non-comprehensive history of museums
  • 3. Museums in their contesting and intersecting fields
  • 4. Museum is a voice is a message is a medium
  • 4.1. The museum as a communicator – positioning "Who?"
  • 4.2. Participating in what?
  • 4.3. Naming thy partner – to whom does the message go?
  • 5. By way of conclusion
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • A Multi-Method and Multi-Site Interventionist Approach to Studying Audience Participation in Museums
  • 1. Audience participation in museum as a research method
  • 2. (Insider) action research and ethnographic research
  • 2.1. Action research
  • 2.2. Insider action research
  • 3. Intervention as a method to investigate participation
  • 4. Multi-method approach in data collection
  • 5. Online and on-site
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • II Museum Audiences as Participants
  • Handicraft Hobbyists in an Ethnographic Museum – Negotiating Expertise and Participation
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The role of experts in cultural participation
  • 3. Context and method
  • 4. Estonian hobbyist crafters’ perceptions of the Estonian National Museum’s expertise
  • 5. Estonian hobbyist crafters in relation to the Estonian National Museum
  • 6. Hobbyist crafters as cultural participants in an ethnographic museum
  • 7. Conclusions
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • Analysis of Participatory Activities in the Museums in Latvia
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The concept of participation in museums
  • 3. The methods
  • 4. Participation activities in Latvian museums
  • 5. Detailed description of activities in Latvian museums
  • 6. Conclusion: Participation in Latvian museums
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • III Struggles of Museum Professional
  • Facing the Death of the Author. Cultural Professional’s Identity Work and the Fantasies of Control
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Identities at work
  • 3. The subject position of the cultural professionals
  • 4. The opening up of the cultural realms
  • 5. Cultural professionals, fantasy and their identity work
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Acknowledgement
  • References
  • Identity Struggles of Museum Professionals: Autonomous Expertise and Audience Participation in Exhibition Production
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Methodology
  • 3. Situating the theoretical issues and research object
  • 4. Identity formation of the museum professional in ‘traditional’ exhibition production
  • 5. Challenges to the museum professional’s identity in the Open Curatorship project
  • 6. Conclusions
  • Acknowledgements
  • Sources
  • References
  • Democratising Collections through Audience Participation: Opportunities and Obstacles
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Collections and audience participation in the contemporary museum
  • 3. The Estonian National Museum and the formation of its collections
  • 4. Participatory initiatives and interventions at the Estonian National Museum
  • 4.1. The Correspondents’ Network: setting the "rules of participation" at the ENM
  • 4.2. "Donate a day to the Museum ": the effective expansion of contributive participation
  • 4.3. "Estonian Moments ": a civic initiative for crowdsourcing photographs online
  • 4.4. Creative content from traditional audiences through an online competition
  • 4.5. Hesitant steps towards an audience commentary board for the photographic collection
  • 4.6. Opening curatorship, diversifying collections?
  • 4. Audience participation and museum collections: getting physical?
  • Acknowledgements
  • Sources
  • References
  • IV Digital Technologies for Participation
  • Digital Cultural Heritage – Challenging Museums, Archives and Users
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Research design
  • 3. The average internet user and the museum
  • 4. Internet experience and the practices of memory institution employees in contrast with the practices of young people
  • 5. Preservation and publication of collections online
  • 6. Widening access through established, and potential new, databases
  • 7. Engaging users in the creation of collections
  • 8. Conclusions
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • Happily Lost in Virtual Space?
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The objectives of the cd-rom
  • 3. What should be done with the cd-rom?
  • 3.1. Interaction with the interface
  • 3.2. Interaction with the content
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Acknowledgments
  • References
  • Increasing the Usability of the Museum: Four Studies
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Memory institution choices for user generated content
  • 3. Participatory actions at the Estonian National Museum
  • 3.1. Collecting – “Give the Museum a Day of Your Life”
  • 3.2. Exhibition comments with pen and paper
  • 3.3. Open Curatorship exhibition
  • 4. Increasing user motivation for participation
  • 4.1. Making participation easier
  • 4.2. Providing the possibility to edit rather than create
  • 4.3. Promoting quality contributors
  • 4.4. Making participation a side-effect
  • 4.5. Rewarding, but not over-rewarding participants
  • V Conclusion
  • Visitors, Users, Audiences: Conceptualising People in the Museum
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. From public to participants
  • 3. Conditions of participation stemming from museums
  • 4. Participation factors stemming from people
  • 4.1. Capitals as personal attributes related to museum engagement and participation
  • 4.2. Information literacy as personal attribute related to museum engagement and participation
  • 4.3. Identity and engaging with museums
  • 5. Conclusion
  • References
  • Acknowledgements

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Agnes Aljas is a research secretary at the Estonian National Museum and a PhD student at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu. Her PhD research focuses on changes in the concept of culture. Currently, she is participating as a researcher in the following research projects: “Changing Cultural Dispositions of Estonians through Four Decades: from the 1970s to the Present Time”, “Developing Museum Communication in the 21st Century Information Environment”, and “Actual Complexity of Cultural Communication and Methodological Challenges of Cultural Research”.

Nico Carpentier (PhD) is Associate Professor at the Communication Studies Department at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels) and Lecturer at Charles University in Prague. His theoretical focus is on discourse theory; his research interests are situated in the relationship between the media, journalism, politics and culture, focussing on social domains such as war and conflict, ideology, participation and democracy.

Krista Lepik (PhD) is a lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences and Education, University of Tartu. Her research interests cover governmentality and cultural participation in museums and libraries, and information literacy education in an academic environment.

Linda Lotina is a PhD student at the Institute of Social Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences and Education, University of Tartu, and a lecturer at the Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences. Her research focuses on participation issues in (Latvian) museums.

Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt (PhD) is an associate professor at the University of Tartu, Institute of Social Studies, and a researcher at the Estonian National Museum. Her interests are Internet user typologies, user-friendly online spaces as possible venues for participation, and participatory applications for organisations. She is leading and participating in several national and international projects.

Pille Runnel (PhD) is a research director of the Estonian National Museum. She has worked as a researcher at the Institute of Journalism and Communication, University of Tartu and is carrying out joint research projects with the Institute in the areas of generations in the emerging information society, and museum communication in the context of the information society. Her research interests involve ICT and cross-media usage, and audiences (governance, participation, the ← 7 | 8 → digital divide). She has been part of the EU Kids Online research initiative, as well as several research projects on transforming media usage. Her research also involves users and digital cultural heritage, visual anthropology and new museology. She is responsible for the research agenda and the production of future permanent exhibitions at the Estonian National Museum.

Taavi Tatsi (PhD) is an independent researcher formerly affiliated with the Estonian National Museum. His PhD research focused on the transformations of museum-embedded cultural expertise, specifically how audience participation affects museum curatorship and collections. His research is part of the “Developing Museum Communication in the 21st Century Information Environment” research project.

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The Challenge of Democratising the Museum

Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt

Pille Runnel

1. The project

Democratising the museum is a collection of studies looking at how participation can support museums in the process of becoming more open. We look at the open museum as sharing power with its visitors and stakeholders, but also negotiating professionalism and the role of the museum in a modern society. The societal challenges that inspire this book are on the one hand related to the need to reinvent the notion of democracy in today’s political crisis, to open up the concept and bring it out of the strictly institutional level of politics. On the other hand, the challenges are to do with increasing technologisation of society, ways of sharing information, communicating and networking with the public. While often the technologies are seen as the solution to the problem of democratisation, the key thesis of this book is that the way technologies are used are far more important. Hence the concept of participatory technologies is under investigation.

This is a project book. It draws upon a five-year research project called “Museum Communication in the 21st Century Information Environment”, carried out at the Estonian National Museum. At the same time, it is much more than a book about one museum research project, one team and one set of participatory initiatives. The articles collected here reflect journeys of hope and expectation about museum development, audience engagement and the role of technology in these processes. This book looks at successful ways in which museums use different techniques and technologies to foster museum communication, especially audience participation. But we also talk about some of our failures.

Curiously, the project is not set in traditional museology. Our research started by identifying a research issue and looking at a museum in dire need of research to help it face multiple challenges. We also started by forming a team of researchers who were both eager and interested to bring together various disciplines to help the Estonian National Museum in the transformations it was going to face, and to find new ways to analyse how museums operate and interact with their audiences. The project partners and authors of this book come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds within media and new media studies, media sociology, ethnology and museology, communication studies, information and technology studies and finally, democracy and participation studies. Moreover, many of the partners have ← 9 | 10 → been affiliated both with the museum and with the university at the same time and were simultaneously studying the museum and its processes as well as trying to shift some of the key understandings of how Estonian National Museum as an institution should operate.

What kind of promises does this interdisciplinary approach make to the readers of this book? As a number of these articles or their earlier versions have been previously published elsewhere, we can use this introduction to bring together the conceptual contributions we believe this interdisciplinary background provides. Interdisciplinarity combined with strong theoretical background can be very beneficial for transdisciplinary developments (Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, 2013). We use the theoretical concepts and/or the methods from different disciplines and can thus shed new light and new understanding on an area in which study is not new. This means that some of the statements present here might be obvious and familiar to some disciplines while we believe that they have new and important contributions to make in other fields.

This book brings together a set of case studies conducted mainly in one particular museum, contextualised with some international case studies from the members of the same research team. Being based on a thorough theoretical and analytical framework, this book could be a useful handbook to anyone interested in involving audiences when making any kind of cultural institutions more participatory or more audience centred. We hope that strong analytical roots in the workings of one particular museum means that the discussions are strongly connected to the real museum context and that this book can thus also serve as an asset for other memory institutions, such as galleries, libraries and archives also struggling with the same processes. As this book combines research with practice and action research experiments conducted throughout the research period, readers with professional backgrounds might find that the articles collected here inspire and offer opportunities to learn from the challenges we encountered throughout our journey. At the same time, the very same point of departure of combining theoretical ideas from different research disciplines and trying them out in the museum setting, makes this collection of articles a valuable resource for researchers and students working in the areas of museology and museum audiences, and in the fields of communication and audience research more generally.

2. The journey

When we embarked upon the journey of proposing a research project more than five years ago in 2008, we had some hopes and dreams. When we started look-ing at museums as sites for communication and participation and ways in which technology can foster these activities, we were not quite sure what to expect. The ← 10 | 11 → original “Museum Communication in the 21st Century Information Environment” research project was founded on the expectation that construction of the new Estonian National Museum would soon be finished, and that the overall process of research would emerge along with fmalisation of the first museum building for the hundred-year-old Estonian National Museum. When we started outlining the research plan, the building process was at the stage of summing up negotiations between architects and the engineers regarding the building project, whereas the museum had hardly worked with the detailed floor plans according to the latest understandings of how a contemporary museum would operate in a space specifi-cally designed for a museum. The building along with its contents was expected to be finished in 2012. We hoped that – with the unique opportunity of seeing, analysing, recording and participating in the process of constructing a new building for a museum that had already existed for over 100 years – we would be able to bring academic knowledge to the process of making and reinventing a museum. We embarked upon the project with an enthusiastic hope that by evolving emerging new technologies, we might be able to open the museum and the building process to the wider public, involve people in the debates about future museums and discussions over the ways a renewed museum would operate in terms of collections, content, exhibitions and programmes.

It could be said that the new building would have brought a new museum as well as new museology. However, the funding of the building was declined unexpectedly around the hundredth anniversary of the museum, followed by several months and eventually years of uncertainty and negotiations of securing other source of funding in order to continue building the museum. In 2013, the final year of our research project, there is no new museum building yet, although the corner stone was finally set in the spring of 2013. The new building of the Esto-nian National Museum is currently on its way and should open its doors in 2016. Hence it can be said that the new house that we as a research team hoped to fill with the discussions and debates emerging from the participatory framework, is still largely on the drawing boards. At the same time, we have had a unique possibility to send the museum on its way to new physical settings and on its way to becoming a renewed organisation as experimental laboratory for participatory initiatives. We were also able to use our double vision as academics and museum professionals to learn from these initiatives and study them from the academic viewpoint.

This book reflects our academic journey. It is a way to summarise some of our findings as well as some of our enthusiasm and optimism. The delay in the new museum building changed the opportunities open to the research project, influencing the project to evolve in different ways. Eventually, it became a study ← 11 | 12 → of museum communication in three different areas, looking at the museum institution from the aspect of public debate, from the aspect of museum content and from the aspect of the museum-making process. We aimed to understand the current status of things and at the same time design interventions that would change the way in which a particular museum was perceived. In this process, the focus shifted away from understanding the current status, as many of the project members were working at the museum and felt that the current status was less relevant. We set out to change not only the public perception of the museum but also the perception from inside the museum. Applying participatory action research meant that many of the research project members were at the same time studying the museum and its processes as well as trying to shift some of the key understandings of how museum should operate.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (March)
Museology Museumskunde open curatorship Kulturerbe Participation studies
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 240 pp., 17 b/w fig., 10 tables, 7 graphs

Biographical notes

Pille Runnel (Volume editor) Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt (Volume editor)

Pille Runnel, ethnologist and PhD in Media and Communication, is a research director at the Estonian National Museum. Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt is an associate professor at the University of Tartu Institute of Journalism, Communication and Information Studies and research associate at the Estonian National Museum.


Title: Democratising the Museum
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