Participation: a game changer in memory work?

Inga-Lill Aronsson

POEM invited me to become a supervisor to a thesis focusing on the concept and practice of participation in the heritage sector, particularly in museums. I was honoured, but also hesitant, because I have an ambivalent relationship to participation. POEM is about “mediated memory ecology”, and the thought occurred that it might be better to choose a brilliant and convinced activist researcher to supervise on this semi-sacred tool. I accepted, because participation intrigues me in all its dimensions.

I am a cultural anthropologist with long experiences with fieldwork in fragile and violent contexts. I am professionally trained to use local and informed participation as a main method for the ethnographic inquiry. I have done long fieldworks in different countries, especially in my longitudinal research on a large infrastructure development project – the building of the hydroelectric Zimapán dam – with involuntary resettlement components. People were forced to move from their homesteads, fruit orchards and rivers located in a rough, but enchanted landscape in the Sierra Gorda in central Mexico. It was a World Bank project with strong participatory components in order to prove that it would be possible to move people in a decent way.

Involuntary resettlement with obligatory participatory components is of course an oxymoron. Hence, in my field research I came in the position to use the participatory methods in order to study how a participatory project developed on the ground between the stakeholders.

Participatory projects are difficult, especially when real people and high stakes are at play. When he World Bank officer in charge of the social components of the dam project described a meeting with the local people. He appreciated that the men had left some of their weapons outside, but he was uncomfortable sitting at the table in front of a very angry group of peasants. He asked if this was really the best way to start a participatory project. He left the project.

In my doctoral thesis (2002), I answered his question with a NO, and showed ethnographically how temporal and spatial orders transformed in this participatory project. In an article on participation (2009), I discussed obligations, rights and accountabilities in relation to participatory projects and concluded that all stakeholders have rights, obligations and accountability. Accountability cannot be one-sided. In an unpublished paper (2016), I questioned participation as local empowerment, because on the one hand participation turns easily into a pedagogic exercise with strong manipulative dimensions. On the other hand, the participatory people could misuse participation in order to gain time and resources in accordance to their agenda. The postcolonial theoretical frame on asymmetrical power relationship between the stakeholders (the good guys and the bad guys) is a simplification of reality. I suggested negotiations with strong educational elements for the weaker part. In development projects with high socio-economic stakes, negotiations add value, while participation does not. In my latest work on evaluation research in fragile, conflict and violent contexts, participation is a building block (2019, 2020 b, c, forthcoming, 2020a Hassnain lead). Participation is expressed in the guiding statements such as “people come first”; “context”, “participatory monitoring”, and “never reduce evaluation and social relationships to a pedagogic/learning experience” (e.g. Aronsson & Hassnain forthcoming). The evaluation and development industry is convinced participation will guide projects to success. The hydroelectric industry also stresses participation for sustainability and dignity in hydroelectric projects for the affected people (iah 2019). The SDG goals Agenda 2030 on sustainable development) is based on participation.

I try to understand participation in its different dimensions, by combining my background in the development sector with teaching and research in the heritage sector. I focus on heritage in conflict and disaster areas, where local participation is particularly stressed in the emergency phase, but also in the rebuilding of a man-made or natural disaster struck society. I make good use of my knowledge in the humanitarian action work, as the former director of NOHA (Network of humanitarian action). I am convinced that the cultural heritage sector and the development sector have much to gain by a closer collaboration, but there are still some gaps to overcome.

I agree with POEM that “participation” needs a critical discussion. I have for long called participation a buzzword, but that might not be fair. I find it fascinating, and necessary to analyse, why an innovative and strong heritage sector adopted this concept with such a frenzy, and what participation does to the sector. Simon is certainly a part of this, whose influential book (2010) and splendid TedTalk convincingly argue that this is the way forward. Simon highlights the participatory memory-making cleverly expressed with “me to we”. She also writes that participation involves the entire institution and the sector. Here I discern a political agenda.

Is participation a game changer for the heritage sector? Does the heritage sector feel obliged to implement participatory projects, because well-meaning politicians and funding agencies expect it? In regard of the research process, is there a risk, that our colleagues in the heritage sector nicely answer our questions well aware of their economic vulnerability and with a political strategy in mind? Whatever the answer is, can we as researchers in the heritage sector write about it in a clear language without risking a career loss? Participation for what?

I value intellectual and cultural achievements in their own terms, especially in the heritage sector in an increasingly troubled world. It requires good evidence-based research on participation. It is not enough to talk about democratization, inclusiveness, doxa and habitus and meaning-making. Simon´s argument for participation is that museums have to make themselves relevant for the public. Simon recognizes that participation is about quality, and makes a vivid example of how the quality of responsive text/word/topic depended on type of wall and equipment for writing. Quality matters.

In any participatory project, everyone “reads” everyone constantly. I believe this is valid also on-line. I prefer physical face-to-face meetings, where I can use the phenomenological approach and embodied experience to understand the lifeworld of others. Trust is a key in participatory projects, and participation should never be exotic and distance. This means that people have to be taken seriously and not treated in a pejorative way, because of misguided democratic and humanist ideals. That is an art. Trust is not only an analytical category, but also a human inter-subjective one. The researcher on participation must master both in order to understand the context.

This poses particular challenges when museums are being remodelled as participatory museums in a digital world. For example, Berg (2015), in his book on netnography (netnografi) sees participation as an aim in itself in order to change society (politically?), but it does not present any innovative participatory methodological tools for research.

The bulk of research literature on participation and heritage has boomed for the last decades. One of the latest contribution is an edited volume with the title “A History of Participation in Museums and Archives” (Hetland et al 2020). The title confuses me, and the price provokes me (1765:- SEK). The title indicates that “history” can be written with a short time frame and by non-historians. Moreover, the price is unethical and leave the Global South chanceless in purchasing the book.

In the heritage literature participation is about knowledge, and particularly so called progressive knowledge, known in our field as memory-making/heritage-making, the uses and mis(re)-uses of heritage. A participatory infrastructure/ecology is meant to be built. This include a lot, but also an idea of a mysterious relationship between the material world of objects, and us human beings. This has attracted attention in the digital humanities as well as in conventional heritage research on materiality. However, we need to move forward without ending up in hermeneutical interpretative loops, producing texts with a nullified language, which makes heritage research useless in the rest of the society.

In the middle of this is participation in all its dimensions as a driving force and possible game changer. Participation is a political agenda for transformational change. That is one reason, but not the only one, for conducting solid academic research on this topic based on empirical field studies together with heritage professionals. We have to make us trustworthy. My task as a supervisor in the POEM project is to guide on this highly interesting topic in an unsentimental way.


Inga-Lill Aronsson has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Uppsala University, and is Senior Lecturer in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at the Department of ALM. She has more than 15 years of experience of advanced multi- and interdisciplinary academic work. Her main research interests are conflict and heritage, memory and reconciliation and longitudinal research on involuntary resettlement. She is the former Director of NOHA (Network on Humanitarian Action) (2005-2011), and from 2012 Member of The NOHA Steering Committee. She is as well Member of The International Network on Displacement and Resettlement (INDR) and Member of the Research Colloquium, The Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. Among her past commissions of trust are Board Member of Forum for Latin American Studies (2015-2017), Member of The Recruitment Board of the Faculty of Arts (2009-2011), Board Member of the Faculty of Arts (2005-2011), Uppsala University. She has initiated several faculty funded gender projects. She is at the present, board member of The International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). She represents Europe. She has authored and co-edited several publications on cultural heritage, resettlement, ethics, local participation and gender in museums.
Mail correspondence:



Aronsson, I-L. & Hassnain, H. (Forthcoming).

“Some Critical Reflections on the Multiple Dimensions of Evaluation in Fragility, Conflict and Violence and in Situations of Pandemic”. Transformational Evaluation for the Global Crisis of our Times. Edited by van den Berg, R. & Magro, C. & Adrien, M-H. International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). Exeter: UK.

Aronsson, I-L & Hassnain, H. (Forthcoming 2020b).

“Ethics in Evaluation in Resettlement Related Interventions”. In: Evaluation in an ethically challenged world: doing “good”, “bad” or “no harm”. Edited by van den Berg, R. & Hawkins, P. & Stame, N. International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). Exeter: UK.

Aronsson, I-L & Hassnain, H. (Forthcoming 2020c).

“Evaluation and Ethics in Contexts of Fragility, Conflict and Violence”. In: Evaluation in an ethically challenged world: doing “good”, “bad” or “no harm”. Edited by van den Berg, R. & Hawkins, P. & Stame, N. International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). Exeter: UK.

Aronsson, I-L. & Hassnain, H. 2019.

“Value-based evaluations for transformative change”. In: Evaluation for Transformational Change. Opportunities and challenges for the Sustainable Development Goals. Edited by van den Berg, R. D. & Magro, C. & Salinas Mulder, S., International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). Exeter: UK.

Aronsson, I-L. (Unpublished).

On Negotiations in resettlement projects. Unpublished paper. An earlier version “Five Sides of the Same Coin: The Place of Global Policy Frameworks in the Setting of Negotiations” was presented as a conference paper at the Society for applied anthropology conference, Pittsburg 2015. Co-author T.E. Downing.

Aronsson, I-L. 2009. “The Paradox of Local Participation in Forced Displacement and

Resettlement caused by the Development Process”. Revista Româna, XX, nr.1-2, p.37-59, Bucureşti.

Aronsson, I-L. 2002.

Negotiating Involuntary Resettlement. A Study of Local Bargaining

during the Construction of the Zimapán Dam. Doctoral thesis. Uppsala University. Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. Occasional Papers 17. Elanders: Stockholm.

Berg, M. 2015. Netnografi. Att forska om och med internet. Studentlitteratur: Lund.

Hassnain, H. & Anand, A. & Rotondo, E. & Duffy, G. & Aronsson, I-L. & Kuji-Shikatani, K. & Kelly, L. & Lorenzoni, M. & Sutherland, M. & McHugh, R. & Davies, S. & Eric Yakeu, S. & Somma, S. & Krause, W. & Rowe, W. 2020a (forthcoming).

How to Guide on Evaluation in Contexts of Fragility, Crisis, Conflict, and Violence. Including in a pandemic such as COVID-19. International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). Exeter: UK.

Hetland, P. & Pierroux, P. & Esborg, L. (Eds.) 2020.

A History of Participation in Museums and Archives. Routledge.

International hydropower association (iha). 2019.

How-to Guide Hydropower Benefit Sharing. International Hydropower Association: London, UK

Simon, H. 2010.

The Participatory Museum. MUSEUM: Santa Cruz.


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