June, 11, 2018

Dear participants,

It was a pleasure getting to meet and exchange with you during Communicating the Museum Brussels. Here you will find the key learnings I extracted from the presentations and from our conversations. If you have any reactions, additions or would like to continue the conversation on any of the key learnings, feel free to do so by email or on social media with the hashtag #CTMBRU.

Thank you again for your active participation at Communicating the Museum Brussels.

All the best, 



We define participation

Every institution gets to define what “participation” (or “collaboration”) means to them. This does not mean that the meaning of “participation” is to be diluted; it simply recognizes that a museum cannot be everything for everyone. Pick your “participation” battle and ensure that your institution’s definition is transparent, i.e. communicated clearly among all members of staff to be embodied in their tasks and attitudes. Extra points if all members of your staff contribute to the museum’s definition.


From culture consumption to cultural democracy

The conference was bookended with calls to approach our relationships with culture through a “bottom-up” lens.

The opening keynote from Jan Boelen, Z33 House for Contemporary Art and Atelier Luma, introduced the concept of social design, explaining that people can change political situations by making, producing and choosing the ways we use the tools around us. This creation, production and use through access to culture – distinctly different from the consumption of culture – is the way we and our audiences can exercise our political power and how we can effectively collaborate.

This motion was echoed in the closing keynote from Dr Steven Hadley, University of Leeds’ School of Performance & Cultural Industries, who unpacked and the different concepts of cultural democracy (bottom-up process) and democratisation of culture (top-down process). Cultural democracy makes available the artistic “means of production”, allowing underserved communities to become creative producers, whereas the democratisation of culture attempts to allow these communities access to established art forms and culture created from “above”.

Steven Hadley CTMBRU

Steven Hadley


Participation not paternalization

Adopting a perspective on cultural democracy leads us to question the many ways in which our participatory projects may border on the paternalistic. Yves Goldstein, KANAL – Centre Pompidou, mentioned during the Encouraging a greater diversity of audiences, ideas and perspectives panel that he believes people can decide for themselves whether to come or not – they do not need a non-profit to take them by the hand.

Other speakers reminded us throughout the week that the “new” audiences we design for (LGBTQ people, disabled people, young people) are also paying audiences and “not just community projects”. There comes a moment at which museums need to let go, to embrace the unknown and let their audiences take full control.


Terminology: watch your words!

Terminology and semantics came up frequently at CTM BRU, especially around the term “communities”. Sacha Coward, Royal Museums Greenwich, and James Brandon, TATE, stressed the importance of educating staff about terminology beyond simply giving them a lexicon.

For instance, in an LGBTQ-inclusive context, phrases such as “Ladies and Gentlemen” need to be rethought. Theatre Maker Raquel Meseguer mentioned debates over the use of words such as “resting” or “recharging”.

Words are powerful and sometimes the first signifiers of an inclusive (or exclusive) attitude. Work with your team on what words to use or remove from your institution’s vocabulary.


Find good partners

Many of our speakers mentioned how they worked with a network of different partners and structures: some with local non-profits and organizations; others with agencies and private entities. BOZAR’s Johan Van Roy, openly admitted that the winter edition of BOZAR Open Air had failed, partly due to the lack of relevant partners.

Choose your partners well and make sure continue working together after the deal is signed. As exemplified by Lore Van de Meutter, Communications Manager at La Monnaie, and Thierry Brunfaut, Founder & Creative Director at BASE, partners are collaborators, not just doers and saviours.


Thierry Brunfaut (Base) et Lore Van de Meutter (La Monnaie)

Start with your staff

“Be the diversity you want to see in your audiences” was one of the leitmotifs of this conference. Raquel Meseguer recommended “modelling and demonstrating” and stressed the need to start by asking our staff about their special needs. It was agreed that institutions need to hire more diverse staff, e.g. curators living with a disability. It is important to work with staff members who our audiences can identify with, therefore making them feel welcome and included.

Diversity among staff also allows for barriers to participation to be identified: how often does our normative misperception block someone from engaging with your vision?


Participation from A to Z

Many speakers stressed the importance of offering authentic programming to the “new” audiences we are trying to reach. Including these audiences from start to finish, including all the nit-picky details, was shown to be the most effective method, as explored in several case studies such as BOZAR’s Next Generation, Please! with Melat Gebayaw Nigussie and Raphael Miles and TATE’s Queer British Art exhibition with James Brandon. “Nothing about or for them without them” is a great motto to keep in mind in the museum world.

Including your audience every step of the way also includes a transparency in communicating how and to what extent input is being used. Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CitizenLab, stressed the importance of decision-making and closed feedback loops to effective citizen engagement, a lesson easily transferable to museums and cultural institutions.


Make time and space for participation

Many of our speakers pointed out that audiences often need formal and direct invitation to participate. Those invitations can take the form of a sign (“Please touch”), pieces of furniture (sofas, beds and bean bags to lie down) or demonstrations of how other use the space (perhaps through social media e.g. Facebook Live, Instagram stories).

We discussed the idea that for places to be occupied and taken over by the public, they need to be vacant in the first place. Consider creating breathing and resting spaces – a place and/or time for reflection and expression, or simply for contemplation and decompression, into your buildings and programmes. Such dynamics are crucial in participating and our audiences can’t be active all the time.

Last, but not least, we were reminded of the fertile grounds for creativity found in boredom, doubt and the unknown

Raquel Meseguer

Participation takes time, money and tools

Have patience! Speakers noted over and over that participation takes time. Participatory projects begin with getting to know your audience through thorough research, observation, and adaption to the specific channels your audience use to communicate and find information.

Putting together participatory projects also requires sufficient resources, i.e. funds and people solely dedicated to the project, as well as strategic planning and tested tools – using existing social media channels just to launch a question every now and then won’t do.


Empathy, Healing and Emotions

Participation implies both emotional investment and resonance. We need to keep this in mind when working with feedback and measuring impact. We must continuously ask ourselves what exactly a project offers to its participants, especially for projects involving sharing stories and personal narratives. What happens to everything that is collected during participatory practices? Who decides what becomes part of a collection? How do we let participants know that their contribution (or the traces of their contribution) will be conserved? These self-reflective questions link back to the value of transparency.

Emotions are key to learning and memorizing. Rather than asking ourselves what our museums should look like, perhaps we should start wondering what we want our museums to feel like.




We can’t all agree all the time. Here are some of the debates that divided us – amicably of course – during CTM BRU.


// Do we start with an audience in mind and create exhibitions and public programs for them? Or do we start with exhibitions which then become opportunities to reach out to new audiences?

Some believe that even in a participative museum the starting point is always the collection. Others are convinced that audiences should be the main origin of our programs and activities.


// In terms of internal management, do we go for no rules and embrace the unknown? Or do we need to set rules for our organizations?

From the very first day of the conference, we noticed that participants were quite divided on this topic.


// Are museums and institutions two completely distinct things?

Some confided that desacralizing the museum was not desirable, while others are convinced that new times call for a new definition of the museum. What is the difference between a museum and other institutions? What roles are they taking on? What are museums for?

CTM BRU 2018 - Photo credit Stokk Studio

CTM BRU 2018 – Photo credit Stokk Studio


How do we measure impact and success in participation? What benchmarks can we set?


How do we reach a balance between serving locals or tourists; and between entertainment and our mission?


Why are we encouraging participation? Is it purely a marketing strategy or is it a mission statement, an artistic stance?


How do we efficiently keep this conversation going with audiences? How do we encourage repeat visitation without having to segment (or segregate) our audiences based on their sexual preferences, ethnicity, physical capabilities, etc?


Is it time to rethink the way we categorize our audiences? Can we?




Thanks again to all of you for making those debates and conversations so rich. Email us your thoughts or keep the conversation going on social media with #CTMBRU.
See you soon !