Participatory governance of cultural heritage

Margherita Sani,
Istituto per i Beni Artistici, Culturali e Naturali, Emilia-Romagna Region (Italy)

In Europe the combined effects of the economic crisis, demographic or migratory factors and a decline in resources, call for new development models driven by greater democracy, strengthened citizen participation and better governance based on more open, reactive and transparent institutions. This is true also for the cultural sector, where public participation is practiced by an increasing number of cultural organisations and participatory governance of cultural heritage has become a key priority in European cultural policies.

In opening up to participatory practices, cultural institutions acknowledge that the knowledge and skills of local citizens and laypeople have as much value as those of experts and recognize that the public has a significant role to play. At the same time, however, they must adopt new management and organisational models, create the conditions for participatory activities to be funded and sustainable in the long run and ultimately empower people and help them build stronger communities.

1. Introduction

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”  (Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948).

It has been a long time since everyone’s right to participate in all forms of cultural life has been stated in official, universally valid documents. However, if we look at recent literature and at some of the latest acts adopted by the European Union and the Council of Europe, the concept of participation in the arts and culture seems to be more central now than ever. In particular, the idea has emerged that citizens should participate not only in cultural activities, but in the very management of culture and cultural heritage and that this will generate a number of benefits.

The "Council conclusions on participatory governance of cultural heritage"  of the Council of the European Union, and the EU Commission Communication “Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage in Europe”,  both issued in 2014, identify cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe, acknowledge its social dimension and underline the importance of activating synergies among different stakeholders to safeguard and valorise it. They also recognize the importance of transparent and participatory governance systems to be shared with the people to whom heritage ultimately belongs.

Why is this important? Why has the European Union included this issue among its priorities in the Work Plan for Culture 2015-2018? And what exactly do participation and participatory governance of cultural heritage mean?

2. Participation: a people centred approach

Participation is an umbrella term which covers many practices. Different authors have tried to systematise the concept and  have created theoretical frameworks to explain it; for example, Arnstein used the metaphor of a ladder, its rungs representing different levels of participation, from level zero - “manipulation” (which only appears to be  participation) - to level eight -“citizen control” (Arnstein, 1969). While Wilcox talked about going from “information” to “consultation” and from “deciding together” and “acting together” to “supporting independent community interests" (Wilcox, 1994).

These categories, placed along a continuum, represent different forms and degrees of citizens’ involvement in public activities and consequently of participation.

With specific regard to the cultural sector, more recently Nina Simon (Simon: 2000) developed a categorisation of participatory practices into four types, which are relevant not only for museums, but for a wide range of heritage contexts. She refers to:

Contributory projects, where visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions and ideas to an institutionally controlled process.

Collaborative projects, where visitors are invited to act as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution.

Co-creative projects, where community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the programme or exhibit based on community interests.

Hosted projects, where the institution turns over a portion of its facilities and/or resources to present programmes developed and implemented by the public”.

There are many of these kinds of projects, from co-created and co-curated activities (for example at the Open Museum in Glasgow collections are taken out into the community and  people in disadvantaged areas are provided with both the objects and the expertise to develop their own exhibitions), community-led redevelopment projects (such as at the Forssa Museum in Finland, where visitors and volunteers take up roles of curators, designers and makers), collaborative initiatives (such as Collective Conversations started in 2004 by the Manchester Museum, in which people are involved in the process of identification and interpretation of objects, thereby adding different stories and viewpoints to those presented by the museum, and  all recorded and accessible on Youtube), to initiatives aimed to empower communities (like the training programme set up for owners of traditional rural buildings by the Estonian Open Air Museum,  which enables  them to take care of their properties, thereby contributing to the preservation and upkeep of rural heritage).

The proliferation of participatory practices in the cultural field can be interpreted as a true recognition of the value of citizens’ contribution to the management of cultural heritage resources.

Participatory practices in the cultural heritage field are growing out of a drive to democratize culture and increase access to cultural resources on the one hand, while on the other, a reduction in public funding, services and support for heritage have determined an increased need for people’s participation in its preservation and upkeep.

In some countries the part played by private or voluntary action in the cultivation of the arts and culture has generally been as important as governmental action, if not more so, and this is reflected in the existence of numerous  non-governmental bodies playing an active role in the preservation of historic buildings, like the National Trust in the UK.  In other countries the phenomenon is not so relevant, although,  generally speaking, cultural volunteering can be said to be widespread all over Europe and many museums – for instance in the Netherlands – are totally run by volunteers.

In Italy the introduction of the principle of subsidiarity in the legislation in 2001 has determined a shift from a top-down, hierarchical model to one in which it is the community itself in the first place which takes care of its surroundings and is supported by public authorities only if it fails to do so.  According to the principle of subsidiarity, cultural heritage and landscape matters should be dealt with as closely to the affected population as possible. The city of Bologna, for example, embraced the idea that the community itself should take care of its surroundings, although with the support of public authorities, and promoted a framework to foster citizens’ independent initiatives to regenerate, maintain and qualify areas of the city, making this collaboration a permanent feature of public policy.

Thus, the phenomenon we are witnessing of a proliferation of participatory practices in the cultural field - reflected in the production of literature on this subject - could be interpreted both as a true recognition of the value citizens’ contributions can make to the management of cultural heritage resources and as an impulse to foster active citizenship, as well as a necessity determined by financial strictures.

3. Cultural heritage as a common good

There is an additional, more fundamental factor, which justifies why participating in the protection and upkeep of cultural heritage is appropriate and should be seen as a natural progression from top-down management: cultural heritage is a common good. When we speak of cultural heritage, in fact, we speak of something which belongs to us all and for which we should therefore feel responsible and actively involved.

In general understanding, the term “common good” describes a specific “good” that is shared and beneficial for all - or most - members of a given community. Common goods belong to no one individually. This is also true of cultural heritage, which ultimately belongs to mankind and is held in trust by museums and cultural heritage institutes for future generations. If we speak of water, air and the environment, they are common goods in a global sense, but if we take a city’s historical centre, a monument, a local museum, a public garden, or a landscape, these are goods which benefit a particular community and can be key to local development, contributing to improve the quality of life of that community, and ultimately producing integration, social cohesion and a sense of belonging.

“Cultural heritage” is a relatively recent concept which appeared in the late 1960s, embedding to a certain extent ideas of “culture”, “identity” and “memory”.  The Council of Europe provides this definition: “cultural heritage is a group of resources inherited from the past which people identify, independently of ownership, as a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time” (Council of Europe: 2005).

By its very nature, cultural heritage is a concept which has expanded over time to incorporate not only what we would immediately identify as having historical or documental value - artworks, collections of objects, artifacts, monuments, cities, cultural landscapes - but also objects of everyday life, material culture and, more recently, intangible resources - also called “lived heritage” -, such as (oral) traditions, social practices, rituals, knowledge and skills.

When we speak of cultural heritage, in fact, we speak of something which belongs to all of us and for which we should therefore feel responsible and actively involved.

Whereas museum collections of national importance can immediately be identified as relevant to mankind, other forms of heritage have a closer relationship with a specific community or group of people. Intangible cultural heritage, for example, is heritage only insofar as it is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it.

The issue of value is crucial, since the importance different individuals or stakeholders attach to heritage resources is the essential driving force which determines their involvement in activities of protection, valorisation or management.  An object, a city district or a landscape is heritage only if valued as a cultural good by a community. 

The Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (Faro Convention) defines a “heritage community” as consisting of “people who value specific aspects of cultural heritage which they wish, within the framework of public action, to sustain and transmit to future generations”.

But there are also other types of communities: “source communities”, or “communities of origin” which are the ones from which collections originate; “user communities”, such as visitors - “interpretive communities”,  referring to the active contribution people can make in interpreting heritage, “communities of practice” or “communities of interest” and  “virtual communities” or “online communities”, emerging as a result of the widespread use of Web 2.0 which has determined new forms of engagement and participation.

It is worth noting that the Faro Convention definition of “heritage community” makes no mention of space or territory, social status or other societal parameters. If we consider “virtual communities”, the conceptual unity of “community” and “place” disappears. The concept of participation has traditionally been associated with that of a given community defined in spatial terms; however, this is no longer necessarily the case. 

4. Participation in the digital era

The idea of “communities” losing spatial and geographic connotations is partly connected to the increasing use of digital media, which provides heritage organisations with new opportunities to involve a wider, remote public. There are many examples of innovative work in this area, in particular with regard to crowd sourcing, the provision of data and information by an audience which includes laypeople, amateurs and enthusiasts.

In Denmark, the National History Museum launched a national online atlas aimed at mapping the distribution of butterflies, chosen as a general indicator of the state of nature in the country. Using an app for mobile devices, members of the public could upload geo-referenced observations of butterflies, which were then displayed on an interactive map and added to an online collection of butterfly species.

Likewise, when creating a new online catalogue in 2008, the Museum of the City History of Leipzig presented its collections to the public on its webpage, including a reply button which allowed people to email any additional information they had on the objects, significantly adding to the knowledge the museum already possessed.

Using the same crowd sourcing methodology, the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency is building an extensive database of Dutch archaeological finds and monuments. Taking this one step further, at the National Landscape Drentsche Aa, again in the Netherlands, the knowledge of scientists and knowledge collected through volunteer enthusiasts is integrated into a digital landscape atlas, which forms the basis for land planning and management.

In all these cases, cultural heritage organisations elicit information from a number of different stakeholders, retain the right to validate the data and to subsequently make them available, for example via databases or linked open data models, to different agents and to the general public. This gives heritage institutions an opportunity to play a different role: not only as authoritative sources in a specific subject area, but as architects and organisers  of newly established, shared and participative knowledge networks, which can become active in policy making at territorial levels.

5. Participation and participatory governance

Examples provided so far speak of increased public access and participation, but participatory governance is quite a different matter. Participatory governance is a process by which authority is broadened and new management models are adopted, where responsibility is shared and decisions are taken by communities rather than by individuals. In short, participatory governance can be defined as shared responsibility in the decision making process.

In the cultural heritage field, examples of true participatory governance are difficult to find. In several cases, even excellent participatory projects remained one off activities and failed to be integrated into the institutional fabric of the cultural organisation, as participation was not embraced as a core organisational value (Lynch, 2010).

There are nevertheless some examples of good practice, for instance, the redevelopment plan of St Fagan’s Open Air Museum in Wales, where the governing body consulted over 120 national and regional community based organisations to elicit ideas on how to represent Welsh identity in the new museum and co-produce programmes based on community needs identified by the community itself.

Similarly, for the new Helsinki Central Library, due to open in 2018, cooperation was sought with city residents  through an online platform and a participatory budget to collect, discuss and select  their ideas and develop them into products.

If we look at the performing arts,  good practice is shown by the York Theatre Royal, which every year hosts a festival, called TakeOver, run entirely by under 26 year olds who plan, program and deliver all activities.

Participatory governance can be defined as shared responsibility in the decision making process.

But often, successful cases of participatory governance, that is shared responsibility, start as grassroots projects and are connected to an institution only at a later stage. This is the case of the Gualtieri Theatre in a small provincial town in Italy, where a group of young people, initially totally self-funded, set themselves the task to recover and restore an abandoned theatre building, reopened it and brought it back to life.  The public administration to which the building belongs was virtually “forced” to join the enterprise, eventually entering into a formal agreement with the young people’s association and contributing funding several years after the project had been initiated.

Similarly, it was a group of young people in Naples who in 2006 created a cooperative and took over the management and interpretation of a set of catacombs, both to share local heritage, but also to boost community pride and create youth employment.

There is also the case of Scotland, where archaeological societies and local communities wanting to look after cultural heritage sites in their area, prompted the State Authority for Archaeology to start the “Adopt a monument scheme”, which established a triangular collaboration between public authorities, private land owners and communities, allowing the latter to engage with local heritage within the framework of structured agreements accepted and endorsed by all parties.

In the end, whether participatory governance is “top down” or “bottom up” probably turns out to be a false problem, as it is more likely to be both. Whether it starts as a grassroots initiative or as an institutionally controlled one, it takes both sides to guarantee the success of a project and its sustainability.

6. Conclusions

The benefits of the integration of participatory approaches in the running of cultural heritage organisations are clear: engaging the public alongside professionals in managing cultural, historical and natural resources can create a greater sense of collective ownership in the community, promote its well-being and quality of life and facilitate the long-run sustainability of the cultural organisations involved.

However, a participatory approach requires adjustments in the governance structure and a change in the organisational culture of the institutions involved, which must be ready to relinquish some of their authority and power.  It also requires an ethos which speaks equally of the rights to information and communication from decision makers, as well as of those who will be affected by such decisions and declares the right of all those involved in a participatory process to design the ways in which they participate.

Engaging the public alongside professionals in managing cultural, historical and natural resources can create a greater sense of collective ownership in the community.

Legal frameworks and policy mechanisms are necessary to allow shared governance, transparency and information, along with education and training for all those involved: politicians, managers and communities. Cultural heritage professionals in particular should acquire new skills to act as facilitators and brokers in participatory processes. But the biggest challenge is that of truly reflecting the needs and ideas of the people involved, empowering them and helping them build stronger communities.

And, of course, the transfer of decision-making to communities should never be used to cover up a lack of funding on the public side. Only rarely do projects find their own way and become self-funded. In the majority of cases public organisations have to fund or co-fund participatory activities and create the conditions to attract additional resources, as financial resourcing is essential – whether it comes from government, trusts and foundations, corporate donors or individuals.

In recent times a great profusion of participation rhetoric has matured, not always coupled with a real effort to assess the realities behind the phenomenon. While it is true that the number of initiatives and policies which define themselves as participatory is increasing, we should move behind the scenes to hear the voices of those involved both on the delivery and the receiving end, to assess to what extent a participatory approach has actually changed the organisational structure and management procedures of the institutions involved, but, even more importantly, to see what impact it has had on people’s lives.


Margherita Sani

Istituto per i Beni Artistici, Culturali e Naturali, Emilia-Romagna Region (Italy)

7. References

Arnstein, S.R. (1969): “A ladder of citizen participation”, JAIP, 35(4).

Cornwall, A., and J. Gaventa (2001): From users and choosers to makers and shapers: repositioning participation in social policy, Brighton: IDS Working Paper 127, Institute of Development Studies.

Council of Europe (2009): Heritage and beyond .

Council of Europe (2005): The Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society - Faro Convention.

Council of the European Union (2014): Council conclusions on participatory governance of cultural heritage (2014/C 463/01).

European Comission (2014): Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage in Europe. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.

Expert Group on Cultural Heritage (2015): Getting cultural heritage to work for Europe, Report of the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on Cultural Heritage.

Golding, V., and W. Modest (eds.) (2013): Museums and communities: curators, collections, and collaboration, London: Bloomsbury.

Lynch, B. (2011): Whose cake is it anyway? A collaborative investigation into engagement and participation in twelve museums and galleries in the UK, Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Simon, N. (2010): The participatory museum

Wilcox, D. (1994): Guide to effective participation

World Heritage (2014): Engaging local communities in Stewardship of World Heritage



Margherita Sani,
Istituto per i Beni Artistici, Culturali e Naturali, Emilia-Romagna Region (Italy)



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