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Call for papers — Museums and Participation: Loosening the Difficulty

Workshop on 14 and 15 June 2023, University of Leeds
Deadline for abstracts: 31 March 2023

To loosen an object is to make it available to transition. (Berlant 2022, 12)

With over thirty years of practice and with a growing academic literature, ‘participation’ has come to garner significant political and intellectual focus for museums.

Case studies of various types – both practice-based and ethnographic – have repeatedly shown how complex and difficult realising participatory ideals of shared power and decision-making can be in museums. There have also always been, and continue to be, beautiful and hopeful accounts that show the potential of co-production – the ‘two-ing and fro-ing’ (Ames 2003) – although many such accounts also point to the edge, the foreclosure, the point beyond which generative collaboration meets the institution.

Doing participation in museums was hard in distinctive ways during the ‘long 1990s’ of ‘historically unprecedented levels of social liberalism’ (Gilbert 2019, 15). But the nature of this hard in the 2020s is produced through a new conjuncture: the cumulative impacts of financial crisis shifting the economic status of museum work, race being taken more to heart by a still too-largely white sector, decolonisation quaking fundamental museum logics of extraction and representation and climate emergency threatening the continuity future of implied by ‘conservation’ and ‘future generations’.

Considering the terrain of academic writing on museums and participation today there is scope for theoretical and conceptual insight into the ways in which seeking to enact participation in museums is so hard; the precise nature of this difficulty.

In this workshop, we will attend to ‘difficulty’ not primarily as something that can be solved or resolved or, indeed, as something that can be just accepted and worked with but as a political state – ideological, affective, relational, material, ontological.

Might we theorise the difficulty in ways that ‘loosen’, ‘recombining its component parts’ (Berlant 2022, 28), or that stretch, creating new space and light?

Might we – through giving the difficulty different conceptual shape – open up alternative orientations, which might include both orientations towards, away and alongside?

Reorientating insatiability

An important reference point to develop here might include Tony Bennett’s insight into the ‘insatiability’ of museums, which has been deployed in different ways since (e.g. Dibley 2005). For Bennett the insatiability is produced by impossibly ambitious claims that museums should be accessible to all and representative of all as well as a ‘mis-match’ between these stated aims and museums’ political rationality to reform the public in different ways (1995, 90-91).

Elizabeth Povinelli refers to an allied phenomenon as ‘the cunning of late liberal recognition’, which ‘was to treat radical critiques of liberal colonial capitalism as if they were a desire by the dominated to be recognized by the dominant state and its normative publics — as if what was being sought was inclusion into the liberal polis of the worthy’ (Povinelli 2021, p. 8). Participatory practice is often enrolled in this insatiability as a newer, better method for animating access, representation, inclusive and diversity – but what have been the implications of grafting participation, given its distinct direct democratic genealogies, onto the representational logics of late-liberalism?

In theorising and practicing participation what follows from identifying insatiability? Is it a question of ‘calibration’, of varying the intensities of the circuit? Or a doubling down, a speeding up, seeking escape velocity?

Povinelli draws attention to how late liberalism and its allied insatiabilities work to ‘bracket all forms of violence as the result of the unintended, accidental, and unfortunate unfolding of liberalism’s own dialectic’ (Povinelli 2018). What happens to the core constitutional terms of museums (conserving for future generations, accessible to all, representing the world) if the historic and everyday violences of liberalism are more properly unbracketed?

Multiplying political genealogies

Energy might also be generated through the desire to expand political reference points beyond the inexorability of late liberalism. This might include radical democracy and dissensus (Lynch and Alberti 2010), care or thriving (Morse 2020; Happy Museum 2022), anarchism, solidarity (Lynch 2020), queer and abolitionist strategies (Strike MoMA) or (museum) undercommons (following Harney and Stefano 2013).

What is opened up here are modes of being together not animated by access, representation or diversity, but by other logics of creation, making and being. What other political trajectories might nourish our understandings of participation in museums?

Shifting Registers

Much potential has also been signalled by changing the register of work from narrative accounts to perhaps sharper abstraction or more intimate affective accounts of being caught up in participatory practice. Accounts which, perhaps, theorise burn out and exhaustion as a political signal, not as a personal failing (Munro 2014; Morse and Munro 2018; Kahn 2021).

Or there might be rich potential in speculative accounts which plough the utopian margins (Gordon 2018) of participatory work (otherwise).

Museums participation has a too-often repressed life of political fantasy, what might we find there? What different registers might loosen up ‘museum’, ‘participation’ and their interrelationships?

Generating political ontologies

More-than-human and non-representational accounts might abound here too.

Might relational ontologies unfold new human-thing relations that transcend the tension between conservation and access and between past and future, drawing participation ontologically to the heart of museums in ways that explode their political representational forms, epistemically and politically.

How might generating various political ontologies – attentive to relation – shift the traditional ways ‘object’ and ‘people’ and ‘inside’ and outside’ have figured ontologically in museums and participation?


We invite papers for this workshop that want to get to the messy heart of museums and participation.

Papers that want to go way beyond any simple call for just more or just better participation that just starts earlier, just works with more and different people for longer and just shares power better (as if these are simple matters and as if they haven’t already been tried repeatedly).

Papers that know even the community-controlled top of the ‘ladder of participation’ or ‘of, by, for all’ just raise the same loopy set of questions about access and representational deficit if you don’t unpick that paradigm first.

Papers gripped by the linked urgencies of decolonisation and climate emergency and that want to use museums and participation to contribute something – from wherever you stand – as institutional foundations come unstuck.

Papers that want to deal with the ‘difficulty’ differently and open up a variety of modes for participatory practice.

We’ll run this as a small-scale workshop – not a conference – with people sharing their papers and good amounts of time for discussion. The aim is not to draw together all of the work going on related to museums and participation but to bring together those of us ploughing these types of furrows.


Abstracts (of up to 300 words) to Helen Graham at by 31 March 2023.

We aim to develop the papers into a journal special issue.

Reference list

(There is a lot more wonderful, relevant work that we weren’t able to find space to evoke in the abstract but will be drawn into discussions at the event)

Michael Ames. 2003. ‘How to decorate a house: the renegotiation of cultural representation at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology’. In: L. Peers and A. K. Brown, Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge reader (eds) London: Routledge, 171-180.

Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge.

Berlant, Lauren. 2022. On the inconvenience of other people, Durham, Duke University Press.

Gordon, Avery. 2018. The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins. New York: Fordham University Press.

Happy Museum. 2022. Manifesto. Available online.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions

Kahn, Aksana. 2021. ’Collective Care is Different from Self Care: Rethinking Engagement in Art Museums and galleries’ 2021 in Dalal-Clayton, Anjalie and Puri Purini, IIaria 2021, Doing the Work: Embedded anti-racism and decolonisation into museum practice. Ual: decolonisating arts institute and Contemporary Art Society. London

Bernadette T. Lynch & Samuel J.M.M. Alberti (2010): Legacies of prejudice: racism, co-production and radical trust in the museum, Museum Management and Curatorship, 25:1, 13-35

Morse, Nuala. 2020. The Museum as a Space of Social Care. London: Routledge.

Morse, Nuala and Ealasaid Munro. 2018. ‘Museums’ community engagement schemes, austerity and practices of care in two local museum services’, Social & Cultural Geography, 19:3, 357-378.

Munro, Ealasaid. 2014. ‘Doing emotion work in museums: reconceptualising the role of community engagement practitioners’, Museum & Society, 12, 1, 44-60.

Povinelli A., Elizabeth. 2002. The cunning of recognition : indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Durham N.C., Duke University Press.

Povinelli A., Elizabeth. 2018. ‘Horizons and Frontiers, Late Liberal Territoriality, and Toxic Habitats’, e-flux, 90. Available online.

Povinelli A., Elizabeth. 2021 Between Gaia and Ground: Four Axioms of Existence and the Ancestral Catastrophe of Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Strike MoMA


Exit. Museums. A photo taken at the South Kensington underground in February 2023. Photo courtesy of Helen Graham.