• Fundacja Polska Debatuje

Integrating debates into museum education strategy

Museums are currently going through a profound crisis of identity. As stated by Graham Black:

If museums do not change to respond flexibly and rapidly to changing public demand, the public will go elsewhere.

Institutions have to embrace the change to stay relevant to local communities and societies, and to help people face new challenges. To be able to change, museum professionals have to accept new needs of the public. Most people think about a visit in a museum as a quality social outing and not as a possibility of learning. We have to put a lot of effort to prove to the audience that museums can be more relevant today than ever.

Museums and art galleries are no longer only temples of knowledge. They have to sustain themselves on the market and actively attract potential museum goers in order to survive, but they cannot forget about their core audience. The emergence of the concept of ‘participatory museum’ at the beginning of the 21st century marks a change in museum theory. Participatory approach is seen as a way of modernizing institutions.


Participatory programmes have various scope and character, they follow two major strategies for engagement:


1) visitors as creators of the concept,

2) visitors as creative users of the content.

In her 2010 book The Participatory Museum Nina Simon presents a following typology of participatory exhibits, that shows the strengths of museums and can be used to create permanent attachment of the audience with the institution:

  • Taking part: focus on minor approaches that can help transform permanent displays.

  • Responding creatively: comes directly from engagement with collections.

  • Contributing: reflecting and responding/adding to content.

  • Belonging: engage audiences as equal partners on a learning journey with the

  • museum.

  • Empowering: seek to empower people & communities to become actively engaged in wider society.

  • Taking action: actively influencing behavior.

Institutions should actively reach out to potential new groups, especially young people and make them want to be a part of the community around the museum. Organizing competitive debates is one of the possibilities to attract those groups who are only rarely attracted by the traditional museum education strategy.

Participatory approach is always an experiment. No one knows its result, so the risk factor exists, but as shown by multiple examples from around the world, it usually pays off. The public likes to be given the control or, at least, some of it. It is up to the museum to decide how much of it the institution is ready to give away.


Author: Wojciech Głowacki, he led the workshop – "Integrating debates into museum education strategy".

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