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Heritage as a Living Stream: Distributed decision-making and leadership at Bede’s World

LEED_1135-RYEDALE-FOLK-MUSEUM-sketchKathy Cremin, Mike Benson, John Lawson

Decision-making can be distributed across a museum. Instead of hierarchy, leadership can be passed between communities, volunteers and staff. This shifting, dynamic and shared approach to decision-making is enabled in Bede’s World by thinking of heritage as abundant and constantly renewed. Sharing your own knowledge, memories and cultures enables all of us to have ‘freedom of self’ and be active agents in our own lives. The image of a living stream helps us see how heritage is a means of sustaining the places in which we live. But while all this is shown to be possible, the wider museums and heritage sector needs to be constantly challenged – and both conceptualizations of heritage and organizational structures need to be re-engineered.

The three of us separately came into this sector as heritage activists. What we shared in common was a belief that heritage is part of everyday life, flowing through individuals, families, communities, workplaces. We also shared a deep-rooted desire that anyone’s heritage, including our own, should be seen, heard and celebrated and a fierce belief that by maximizing the power of objects through activism and storytelling, different objects could sing and tell their stories in different voices to different people.

Ecologies of heritage: Heritage activism, abundance and mapping levers for change

John Lawson’s experiences as an accomplished volunteer have been a constant warning against what he calls ‘the ceiling of mediocrity in museums’, that lack of ambition and willing that too often starts with what can’t be done. This even when faced with the resources of a volunteer such as John brining his expertise and love, his 10,000 hours of graft telling stories, making films, running projects with hundreds of young people, writing blogs and tirelessly campaigning for his heritage to be seen, to be heard and to be celebrated. Why would any museum close its doors to that abundance? We don’t know, but it happens often.

Our shared learning and reflections have shaped a practice that strives to understand in a systematic way the ecology of heritage – looking holistically for connections, seeing the value of relationships, constantly learning and adapting what works, listening to different voices, bringing in different partners, being ambitious and optimistic that our sector can be different and better. Seeing the big picture and looking at who has the power, where are the levers that can shift gears and create changes and developing a practice that changes relationships, changes values, and nurtures new ways of working

Central to our approach is the realisation that an abundance of knowledge, skills, passion and expertise about heritage lie outside our organisation, and that seeking to connect inside and out, to remove the barriers, can create a museum that is a social space, a shared space of individual and collective purpose, where anyone can bring their talents and skills. By working in this way, we have come to understand how effective the social space can be in making our museum relevant, loved, and well-used.

Taking with people not about people: Re-engineering the system

As a museums and heritage sector when talk about participation, engagement and democratising decision-making, we tend to use language to talk about people rather than with people. All too often this clutter of museum constructs remains un-examined and distorts our conversations so that the museum cannot even hear. Looking with these eyes we might more easily speak of hard-to-reach institutions than hard-to-reach audiences. Within the heritage sector, if we’re serious about democratising decision-making, if we’re serious about participation, then it’s not a question of contorting the constructs that already exist. It’s about re-imagining and re-engineering the system to make the whole purpose of museums more democratic, more responsive, and crucially, fit to survive in the future as an essential part of life.

Freedom of self: Decisions by the right person at the right time

If a north star of the mission and principles guide the museum, this will be seen across that museum in the behaviours and conversations. This social museum will pioneer decision-making that turns the triangle of hierarchical decision-making on its head, with a mission and governance informed by users and beneficiaries of the organisation’s work.

Our north star mission is that which nourishes the roots of a social space for heritage, that values the expertise and knowledge of different people and that – like an spinning atom - enables leadership to shift and change according to need will be a museum where linear hierarchies are redundant. In this model decisions are made by the right person, at the right time, in the right place.

Museums as social spaces: ‘Feltness’, diversity and divergence

Some say it looks messy; it’s not. It takes real discipline and graft to create a space where leadership be passed through a collective community. To change heritage decision-making in our museum it is freedom of self, shared belief in the work, a collaborative culture and focus on solutions that create movement from imagined task to realised actions at any level from volunteer to apprentice to trustee. When a social space functions powerfully, people feel it. It is this ‘feltness’ that drives the living of values and the actions that uphold them. A park is a social space where anyone from an isolated individual to a family can encounter, play, experiment, confront. That space is not created by demographic segmenting and targeting. It is a divergent space where people find their own way. Likewise, by its very divergence and diversity the museum as social space becomes a point of convergence and true community resourcefulness.

Nourishing the heritage ecosystem, not containing it: Unleashing resources and potential

We have come to see the need for change not only in our own museum, but also in the sector. With every bit of work we create, we work to make that shift structural and scalable through thinking, storytelling and everyone being able to both lead and follow. At Bede’s World are re-aligning our core business so that it is human-sized, human-shaped; a people-focused place that humanises decision-making and unleashes objects and museum resources to power our community.