in Museum 

Participatory Approaches to Museum Development

Author of new book: Liberating Culture: Cross-cultural perspectives on museums, curation and heritage preservation. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Christina Kreps

Museums are increasingly being seen as useful tools for community development as well as a means of promoting cultural conservation. Today, in many "developing" countries, plans for a museum are often the centerpiece of community development projects. Because of their many functions and possible uses, museums have great potential for helping maintain people’s cultural traditions while promoting their socioeconomic development. However, when museums are planned for and imposed on communities they are often seen as foreign institutions in the eyes of local people, largely existing for outside interests. But if people are given the opportunity to fully participate in the planning and development of a museum the chances are much greater that the museum will become a meaningful part of community life, responding to local needs and interests. Community participation fosters people’s "sense of ownership" in a museum and the feeling that they have a "stake" in its activities. Participation is a key element of museum development projects intended to be of real significance and benefit to a community.

Although participation is now recognized as being essential to the success of museum development projects, what actually constitutes participation and how can it be achieved? In 1997, I was awarded a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship in Museum Practice to investigate participatory approaches to museum development. The primary objective of the study was to acquire knowledge and skills that could be applied to my work with the People’s Museum Development Program in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. As coordinator of the Program, I am responsible for planning and helping establish four "Centers for Nature and Culture" in villages in and around the Kayan Mentarang National Park. The proposed centers are to be devoted to environmental and cultural conservation as well as overall community development. Because the centers are to be designed in collaboration with community members, I was especially interested in exploring approaches that brought into dialogue the differing perspectives, experiences, and knowledge bases of outside museum professionals (like myself) and those of local people unfamiliar with the museum idea. I believed these approaches could be found through research in the fields of both museum and international development studies.

Recent trends in international development advocate the use of participatory approaches to improve the ways in which projects are planned and implemented, and as a means of empowering local communities to have greater control over their own course of development. Several decades of development experience have shown that when people influence and control the decisions that affect them, they have a greater stake in the outcome of a project and will work harder to ensure its success.

"Participation," as it has been conceived in international development studies, provides both a conceptual framework and a body of techniques and methods not only for facilitating the participatory process, but also for making seemingly foreign institutions and practices more compatible with local settings. Although these have been created predominantly for use in rural development projects, for example, in health care provisioning, natural resource management, and the education sector, they are also applicable to museum work. Thus, much of my research at the Smithsonian consisted of reviewing the current literature on participation and how participatory approaches could be useful to museum development projects.

In the following pages, I describe the Kayan Mentarang People’s Museum Development Program and report on the findings of my research. A more thorough analysis of the points brought out in this report can be found in the document I produced as part of my research project, "Participation and Museum Development: Suggested Approaches for Project Sponsors and Designers," available through the Center for Museum Studies. The purpose of the document is to provide project sponsors and designers with a conceptual framework for incorporating participatory approaches into their projects as well as some practical guidelines. While it is written specifically for project sponsors and designers and focuses primarily on museum projects in non-western cultural contexts, the document should be of interest to anyone involved in community-based cultural work, providing background information and references needed to address similar concerns in their own projects. The document is also meant to be a "work in progress," which will be updated to reflect my own experience in the field as well as that of others.

The Kayan Mentarang People’s Museum Development Program

The People’s Museum Development Program is one component of the Kayan Mentarang Culture and Conservation Project, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia Programme and the Ford Foundation. Since its inception in 1990, the Culture and Conservation Project has involved a series of field studies within the Kayan Mentarang Conservation Area on oral history, language, traditional legal systems regarding land tenure, and the interactions between people and their natural environment. Field activities have also focused on the creation of strategies for involving local populations in efforts to protect the natural environment and associated traditional cultural practices. The Kayan Mentarang Conservation Area is located on the border of East Kalimantan and the Malaysian state of Sarawak. (East Kalimantan is one of four provinces that make up Indonesian Borneo.) Formerly a nature reserve, in December 1996 the Kayan Mentarang was upgraded to the status of national park.

The Kayan Mentarang conservation project is a collaborative effort on the part of WWF and several Indonesian government agencies. The goal of the project is to develop and implement a long-term conservation management plan for the 1.6 million hectare Kayan Mentarang park. The park is the largest block of protected rain forest in Borneo and one of the largest in all of Southeast Asia. The area is both biologically and culturally diverse. Approximately 10,000 Dayaks (a generic term used to refer to the indigenous inhabitants of Borneo) live in villages in and adjacent to the park. About half are shifting or wet-rice cultivators who also depend on hunting, fishing, and the collection of forest products such as rattan, bird’s nest, resins, and aromatic woods for trade in the international market economy. Thus, Dayaks are highly dependent on the land and its resources for their livelihood.

Large areas of Borneo have already been logged or cleared for commercial agriculture, which is moving toward the interior regions of the island at a rapid pace. Encroachment on the part of loggers, miners, and commercial forest product collectors are the main threats to the health of the natural environment as well as the livelihood of Dayak peoples. Subsistence farming and non-commercial exploitation of forest resources are not considered significant threats to conservation partially due to the area’s low population density. In fact, the presence of indigenous peoples is seen as beneficial to conservation. This position is based on the premise that the way of life (or culture) of the people who have lived in the area for centuries is relatively environmentally sustainable. Consequently, environmental conservation is seen as inseparable from cultural conservation. This insight is also a guiding principle behind the People’s Museum Development Program.

The People’s Museum Development Program is the final phase of the Culture and Conservation Project and involves the establishment of four "Centers for Nature and Culture" in villages in and around the park. The program is in its early stages. I made my first trip to East Kalimantan in June 1996 to conduct a three-month preliminary field survey in the Kayan Mentarang region. The goals of the survey were to meet with local people to discuss their needs and concerns regarding environmental and cultural conservation; to gather information on existing cultural resources, activities, and facilities; to assess the potential of different locales for the development of a center; and to select one community as the site for a pilot project. Based on the survey and input from WWF staff, the community of Pujungan, located on the Pujungan river, was selected as a site for a pilot project. I will return to East Kalimantan in August 1997 to begin the process of planning a center in Pujungan.

The center is to be designed in collaboration with community members, reflecting their expressed needs and own ideas regarding its functions and purposes. However, at this point the center is envisioned as a museum/community resource center. It is hoped that the center will become a focus of community life, providing a forum for a wide range of activities such as meetings, workshops, educational programs, storytelling and oral history, dance and musical performances, and classes in traditional arts and crafts. The center’s museum component can provide facilities for the collection, study, preservation, and display of local cultural materials.

The project is particularly important in light of the Dayak peoples’ current social, economic, and political conditions. Dayaks are a "minority" people within the context of the Indonesian nation-state. Although Dayak cultures have always been undergoing change, today traditional Dayak ways of life are rapidly changing due to the Indonesian government’s efforts to open the region to further economic development, and to integrate Dayak peoples into the greater nation-state system. In this respect, the proposed centers may serve as "vehicles of empowerment" as Dayaks struggle to maintain their sense of cultural identity and control over land and resources in the face of outside pressures.

The project is also significant in that it represents a relatively new role for museums, that is, as part of environmental and cultural conservation efforts as well as tools for community development. This new role calls for innovative museological approaches; those that draw on the concepts, methods, and techniques of other fields, such as international development studies.

Participatory Approaches and Museum Development

There are many definitions of participation and diverse views on what it should achieve. The World Bank Learning Group on Participatory Development defines participation as "a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them" (The World Bank Participation Sourcebook, 1996). Participation can best be described as a "stance" project designers and sponsors take in organizing and carrying out their activity. The participatory stance places designers and sponsors inside the local system being addressed and implies a willingness to work collaboratively with stakeholders, sharing influence and control in decision-making.

Participatory approaches have been created to redress and overcome weaknesses in what the Learning Group calls the "external expert stance" which, until recently, dominated development thinking and practice. This stance places project designers and sponsors outside the local system in question and about which they are making decisions. Generally, they determine what the project will look like, viewing other stakeholders as sources of information and opinions. Their "expert" role includes collecting information from other stakeholders, making sense out of what they collect, and converting it all into a development strategy or plan. However, development experience has shown that when external experts alone acquire, analyze, and process information and then present it as a ready-made plan, projects are less likely to succeed. In short, projects tend to fail when they have not enlisted the participation of people concerned. Although external experts may consult with and listen to local people, listening and consultation should not be equated with participation. Rather, listening and consulting are prerequisites for participation. The challenge is to support and create processes in which local people themselves generate, share, and analyze information, establish priorities, specify objectives, develop tactics, and contribute their experience and expertise.

Participation does not eliminate the role of experts in the field of development, but rather, changes the way experts communicate their expertise to other stakeholders. Outside experts can share with local people their knowledge of what other people are doing to address similar concerns. Their role is primarily that of a "facilitator." In their role as facilitators, outside experts can open possibilities for action that may not have been otherwise imagined by other stakeholders.

Part of the trend toward participation is a growing awareness of the importance and value of what is known interchangeably as "traditional," "indigenous," or "local" knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is defined as the local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. It both reflects and constructs people’s ways of ordering and communicating about the world and serves as the information base of a society. Traditional knowledge is acquired through experience and observation from the land or from spiritual teachings and is handed down from one generation to the next. It is stored and passed down because it is needed for survival. Traditional knowledge is rarely codified or written down, but is implicit, learned through practice and example (Warren, et al., 1995).

Today, many have begun to see the value of documenting existing indigenous knowledge systems, incorporating them into development schemes and improving upon them. It is now recognized that it is more sensible to start with the assumption that the locals know what they are doing, and more productive to try to understand their practices in their own terms. Development strategies have a much better chance of succeeding if they build on local knowledge, institutions, and other cultural resources. Consequently, traditional knowledge and other cultural forms are now seen as assets in the promotion of culturally and environmentally sensitive approaches to development (Kleymeyer 1994).

In museum development projects, there is a tendency to imitate or reproduce Euroamerican (or western), professionally-oriented museum models and practices. But just as development work has demonstrated the need to incorporate traditional knowledge into projects and use "appropriate technologies" in diverse settings, museum practices should also be shaped to fit each community’s needs and circumstances, based on people’s own concepts of conservation and methods of treating cultural materials. Nearly all cultures keep objects of special value and have created places and various means of storing, preserving, and caring for them. Many have their own "indigenous models of museums" (Mead 1983) and "conservation structures" (for example, meeting houses, ancestor tombs, temples, shrines, and sacred sites), which are protected through measures embedded in a community’s traditional culture (Konare 1983). These examples demonstrate that while the modern, western form of the museum may be a foreign concept in many non-western cultural settings, curatorial-type behavior is not. Indigenous curatorial practices are unique cultural expressions worthy of preservation in their own. Paradoxically, the imposition of outside, professional museum models and practices can displace indigenous curatorial practices, leading to the loss of valuable cultural resources and undermining a museum’s goal of cultural conservation (Kreps, forthcoming).

Museums, historically, have been concerned with cultural conservation. Yet too often they are strictly devoted to the preservation of tangible cultural resources (i.e., material culture) and reflect a preoccupation with the past. If museums are to contribute to cultural conservation understood as "a concern for the continual survival of traditional societies" (Hunt and Seitel 1985:38) there needs to be a movement away from object-centered, static notions of conservation as well as ways of thinking about conservation that are embedded in a "salvage paradigm." Although the "rescue" of a people’s rapidly disappearing material cultural heritage is an important museum function (Taylor 1994), museums should also strive to support and conserve the living knowledge, customs, and traditions associated with material culture. Conservation that focuses on the people and culture behind objects helps sustain living culture rather than fossilize it in museums. "As a strategy, cultural conservation suggests that museums conserve cultures while they live rather than waiting to collect their remnants after they die" (Kurin 1989:14).


Museums have great potential as tools for community development and cultural conservation. But whether or not they can fulfill this potential largely depends on the degree to which a museum becomes an integral part of people’s everyday lives, and the extent to which the community controls their planning, design, and on-going management.

Participatory approaches ideally encourage the active involvement of local people in all aspects of the planning, development, and management of a museum, building on the people’s own knowledge, experience, and resources. This "bottom up" stance suggests that a museum is something that grows out of a community and expresses its own identity. Local people define what a museum is and its purposes in the process of defining themselves (Fuller 1992). Fundamentally based on democratic principles, participatory approaches aim to "bridge the gap" between outside professionals and experts and local community members. The idea of democratization suggests that the knowledge, experiences, and skills of local people hold as much value as those of experts. The integration of participatory approaches into museum projects can help create the kind of community involvement that sustains the museum and its cultural work in the long run.

The following summarizes some of the main components of participatory approaches to museum development.

C involvement of the intended beneficiaries in all phases of the project, i.e., decision-making, planning, implementation, and evaluation (the sharing of power and control)

C building trust and rapport with a community through sustained dialogue, consultation, and on-going interactions

C flexibility in project time-lines and objectives

C information sharing

C consensus building

C reciprocity: all parties should benefit by working together

C in-depth knowledge of the local social system, acquired through direct observation

C working within local decision-making structures and methods for conflict resolution

C ethnographic field work for direct observation and documentation of historical and cultural resources (both tangible and intangible), and to become familiar with vernacular systems for identifying and assigning significance to resources

C integration of local knowledge, conservation structures, and practices related to the collection and care of cultural materials (indigenous curation)

C respect for traditional values and customs related to cultural resources, for example, access to specialized knowledge, objects, sites and their use

C criteria for selecting objects governed by local values and customs

C creation of a community’s "sense of ownership" in the museum by sharing power, building support networks, and devising mechanisms for accountability and long-term sustainability

C equal representation of community-wide interests and needs (ensuring that the "voiceless" are heard)

The concepts and processes of participation described in this report should only be seen as suggested approaches since no perfect model of participation exists. Forced or imposed participation is not acceptable. It is something that should be desired on the part of intended beneficiaries and represent their shared interests. Participation is above all a voluntary and collaborative process. Although participatory methods have been created to counter the negative consequences of "top down" approaches to development, they are largely based on western notions of democratic processes, the rights of individuals, and the workings of civil society. These notions are not necessarily applicable cross-culturally. Indeed, alien organizational forms or practices must not be imposed on communities in the name of participation (Davis and Ebbe 1995).

Furthermore, participation is generally assumed to take place among "local" populations. However, calling a people or community "local" implies a fixed and bounded category and can obscure how physical boundaries are permeable as well as how populations are almost always linked to wider processes and forces. What is "local" in one context at one moment may not be in other settings and at other times. Factors such as who speaks up, who claims to speak for whom, who chooses to remain silent and why, all influence which voices are labeled local (Forbes 1996). It is imperative to remember that participation is a political process which may involve contestation and conflict among people with different and competing interests and claims. Prioritizing place over politics can mask how the "local" is multi-sited and encompasses a range of actors, living within as well as outside the locale where a project takes place.

Participation is also usually assumed to concern a given "community." But again, if a community is only defined in spatial terms it is possible to overlook other individuals or groups who share common interests and who may be affected by a project. In invoking "the community," we also run the risk of seeing communities as homogeneous and harmonious. Few communities are without internal differentiation and conflict, which can render participation difficult to achieve (Peters 1996).

Just as museums are as varied as the communities they represent, participatory approaches to their development should be context specific and adapted to local circumstances.


I am grateful to the Center for Museum Studies and the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Institution for giving me the opportunity to conduct research at the Smithsonian Institution through a Fellowship in Museum Practice. I would especially like to thank my sponsor, Dr. Paul Michael Taylor of the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology for his interest in the project, and for providing additional research funding. Gratitude is also extended to Dr. Richard Kennedy, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, and Mr. Stephen Weil, Center for Museum Studies, who also served as advisors. A special note of appreciation to Ms. Nancy Fuller of the Center for Museum Studies for her guidance throughout the project. Finally, I want to thank my colleagues, Dr. Christina Eghenter and Dr. Bernard Sellato, Field Director and Co-Director, respectively, of the Culture and Conservation Project of the WWF-Indonesia Kayan Mentarang Project.

Participatory Approaches to Museum Development

Reading List

Davis, Shelton and Katrinka Ebbe, eds. Traditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development. Proceedings of a Conference Held at the World Bank, Washington, D.C., September 27-28, 1993. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. 1995.

Forbes, Ann. "Defining the "Local" in the Arun Controversy." Cultural Survival Quarterly 20(3):31-34.1996.

Fuller, Nancy. "The Museum as a Vehicle of Empowerment: The Ak-Chin Ecomuseum Project." Museums and Communities. Ivan Karp, Steven Lavine, Christine Mullen-Kreamer, eds. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1992.

Hunt, Marjorie and Peter Seitel. "Cultural Conservation." 1985 Festival of American Folklife Program. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution and National Park Service. 1985.

Kleymeyer, Charles. "Cultural Traditions and Community-Based Conservation." Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-Based Conservation. David Western, R. Michael Wright, Shirley Strum, eds. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 1994.

Konare, Alpha. "Toward a New Type of ‘Ethnographic’ Museum in Africa." Museum 35(3):146-149. 1983.

Kreps, Christina. (Forthcoming) " Museum-Making and Indigenous Curation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia." Museum Anthropology.

Kurin, Richard. "Why We Do the Festival." 1989 Festival of American Folklife Program. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution and National Park Service. 1989.

Mead, Sidney. "Indigenous Models of Museums in Oceania." Museum 35(3):98-101. 1983.

Peters, Pauline. "Who's Local Here? The Politics of Participation in Development." Cultural Survival Quarterly 20(3):22-26. 1996.

Taylor, Paul Michael, ed. Fragile Traditions: Indonesian Arts in Jeopardy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1994.

Warren, Michael, L. Jan Slikkerveer, David Brokensha, eds. The Cultural Dimensions of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems. London: Intermediate Technology Publications. 1995.

The World Bank. The World Bank Participation Sourcebook. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. 1996.


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