A museum is a strange place

On 9 November 2022, I was invited by Fondazione Brescia Musei to contribute to a discussion on ‘participatory museums today’, and specifically on the potential of co-creation in museums. I was able to draw on my thinking about co-creation for the Traction project to explore parallels in the world of museums. This is the text of my short intervention. (The photo above is of the Historical Museum of Sughd, Khujand, Tajikistan.)

A museum is a strange place.

Half temple to the ancestors, half store cupboard of chance survivals, a museum can be beautiful or dull, fascinating or oppressive.  It all depends on the visitor.

And that’s the point, because a museum without a visitor is just potential. It is dormant, unfulfilled, like a book on a shelf.

It is a reader who brings the book to life. It is the visitor who brings a museum to life. And a museum curator is a visitor too, just one who is who chooses to spend a lifetime visiting.

This idea is anathema to those who still hold to the Enlightenment’s ideas about culture and art. In the late 18th and early 19thcenturies, philosophers, writers and artists seeking emancipation from religious and royal authority saw art as an alternative source of value.  

They elevated the elite taste of their day and renamed its forms as the Fine Arts, which they defined exclusively as painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and music—what Larry Shiner calls ‘Polite Arts for the Polite Classes’. Enlightenment philosophy claimed that this class of art held transcendental and universal value, investing it with the moral power of an alternative religion. As Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in 1947, ‘As an expression of totality art claims the dignity of the absolute.’

Mafra Palace Museum, Portugal

There is no room in this high idea of art for the style of museum that existed before the Enlightenment—the cabinet of curiosities, where art might be displayed alongside sea shells, rare minerals and scientific instruments. The Enlightenment still shapes Western beliefs about culture and cultural institutions. Its thinking is evident in the ‘Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ published by 18 great Western museums in 2002.

The 18th century’s invention of art transformed European culture and society, and I do not underestimate its importance, or its value. But it is in the nature of revolutions to become rigid and oppressive as they exhaust their energy and defend their positions. The Enlightenment emancipated us from religious and regal authority by replacing it with reason, science and art. Since the middle of the last century, we have been struggling to emancipate themselves from the new cultural and ideological authority it created.

Acropolis Museum, Athens

What has this to do with museums and co-creation? 

The starting point is to recognise the museum as a cultural artefact in itself, by which I mean that every museum is an exercise in meaning-making. In assembling and displaying a collection of objects a museum is creating a narrative about the past, with the intention of shaping the future. A museum is an attempt to shape reality, not a reflection of it.

For much of the time since the late 18th century, that narrative has been shaped by an increasingly professionalised group of people we now know as curators. To their task, they bring huge intellectual, material and financial resources. The museums they create—one might say the museums they author—attract wide admiration and millions of visitors.

But there are those who question the story they tell. Like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s Enlightenment fable, they point out that the Emperor is naked, however confidently he parades through the square. 

The nature of their questions changes from time to time, but there is a consistent focus on the people and events omitted from the museum narrative. Where are the women, the people of colour, the slaves, and the victims, the people whose labour and suffering directly enabled the production of what Matthew Arnold claimed as ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (and, museums would add, made)?

At their worst, these questions of omission and commission are politicised in culture wars. At their best, they are the creative enquiry that gives life to culture. At their best, they are a claim for the place in co-creation of our culture protected in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Sami museum in Northern Finland

Understanding co-creation

Co-creation is a complicated idea that has been used to mean many different things in many different fields since it emerged about 20 years ago. So before going on, I should say what I mean by it, and why I believe it is a valuable idea. In the arts, which is my field, I define it as the creation of a work of art by professional and non-professional artists working together.

Note that I do not speak of artists and ‘participants’, or artists and ‘ordinary people’. If you are involved in creating art you are acting as an artist, just as you are a runner when you take part in a marathon. Some runners are trying to break the world record, most only want to finish the race, but they are all runners. 

However, there is an important difference between the two kinds of runners, or artists. 

  • Professional artists have artistic training, skills and expertise, as well as knowledge of their field which helps them make informed judgements about it. They can draw on experience from previous work and confidence in familiar processes and their home ground. They have authority from public recognition of their artistic identity, and years of practice. They have artistic talent and aptitude.  
  • Non-professional artists have fresh ideas, questions and solutions because they have not been trained to see things in a particular way. They have knowledge and expertise too, but in aspects of life that nourish the subject and meaning of the art being created. They have things to say and a need to say them, since they know that this may be the only opportunity they will have (or want) to make art. And they too have artistic talent and aptitude, though perhaps in unexpected forms. 

Each group can create art without the other, although for several reasons the non-professionals will find it harder. Co-creation happens when they work together, and the result is greater than the sum of the parts because it is art that neither could have made alone. The interaction of professional and non-professional artists challenges everyone, sparks new ideas and insights, and generates alternative forms and meanings. It destabilises assumptions, producing creative energy that makes art unknown, risky and vital. Co-creation is a thrilling, joyous process that, once experienced, is never forgotten.  

Science Museum, San Sebastián/Donostia

Museums need co-creation

This explanation of co-creation in art can apply equally to museums. The word artist can easily be replaced by curator in the outline I have given. But that is only possible if we admit that museums are strange places, the products of chance, love and greed, shaped after the fact into more or less convenient narratives.

Behind their scientific resources and smart visitor facilities, despite their Enlightenment claims to independent and universal values, and their avowed detachment from politics and finance, museums are human creations, with all the glory and the fallibility that implies. 

What matters is how museum narratives are developed and tested. That is how they will gain authority in complex, diverse democratic societies.

And I know of no better example of how to put this principle into practice than the Museum of Making, which opened in 2021 in the Silk Mill in Derby, in England, a building often said to be the first world’s first factory. Developed over eight years with thousands of local people, the story it tells and the ways in which it tells it, are the result of just the kind of co-creation—or we could say co-curation—process I have been describing. One symbol of this, as Director of Projects Hannah Fox says, is that ‘there’s no behind-the-scenes in the museum of making’.

The museum is not only a place to display precious historical objects, or tell stories of innovation and manufacture. It is a place where anyone can learn and make new things in its workshops—a living museum that changes with every visitor or co-curator, and a demonstration too of how the idea of the museum can change with our changing societies. 


Shiner, L., 2001, The Invention of Art, A Cultural History, University of Chicago Press, p. 79

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T., 1947, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Cultural Memory in the Present), Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Hicks, D., 2020, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Pluto Press, Kindle Edition.

Arnold, M., 1993, Culture and Anarchy and other writings, ed. S. Collini Cambridge University Press

All photos in this post by François Matarasso