‘Whose story is it anyway?’ workshop at the Culture Shock! Conference, 29th September 2011

Last week saw the end of project conference for the Culture Shock! project. Inspired by the vision of museums as a place for facilitating ‘tolerance, respect and understanding’ set out in a report by Culture:Unlimited (then clmg), Culture Shock! collected 550 digital stories over from people across the North East over two years.

Culture Shock! is incredibly interesting for thinking about issues of copyright and informed consent because it was very clearly a project which asked people to tell personal stories for public collection and display. The ethical issues raised by Culture Shock! are also very important for us (me and Rhiannon Mason, one of the other researchers on this project) as 12 of the 63 media items we worked with people to create for the Northern Spirit: 300 Years of Art from the North East gallery (through the Art on Tyneside project) were made through the Culture Shock! project.

The Conference was an fascinating day which genuinely brought together people from different types of organisations – museums, NHS trusts, social care – as well as bringing Culture Shock! participants firmly into the discussion. In the afternoon session, Mel Whewell from Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and I ran a workshop – Whose story is it anyway? – to explore both the technical issues of copyright but also the ethical issues of ownership and consent which come out from Culture Shock!, Art on Tyneside and other projects where members of the public co-produce media or exhibitions.

We were especially interested in exploring further one of the findings of the recent Culture Shock! Evaluation conducted by Culture:Unlimited:

[…] although each participant was asked to sign a copyright waiver, which in a legal/technical sense gave control over their story to the museum concerned, this was not the way participants saw it in reality. Their view, instead, was that they had given something of themselves to the museum(s), and that it remained precious and they held a strong stake it how it was used thereafter. This project created a community of stakeholders, rather than suppliers of stories and, rather like the transformation of the music and publishing industries, the old structures for protecting assets and controlling their use (copyright, licensing, loan agreements, legal ownership) began to dissolve.
(Culture:Unlimited 2011, p. 7)

We specifically wanted to explore how this might challenge ways of understanding ‘informed consent’ and how ongoing relationship with the ‘community of stakeholders’ might be institutionally managed.

We opened the workshop by asking people to imagine that they had made a digital story and that they had signed a copyright form setting out the terms of how the museum could use the story (e.g. in exhibitions, on websites, in broadcast). We then asked people to place themselves at a point on a continuum between ‘It’s the Museum’s Story’ and ‘It’s Your Story’.

In both workshops around half of workshop participants took positions on either end of the spectrum with the other half clumping in the middle. In both workshops we opened up the debate by taking views from either end of the spectrum.

On the ‘It’s the Museum’s Story’ side, there was a strong sense that once the form was signed it was essential that the museum was free to use it. This was partly expressed in terms of practicality but also quite simply that this was what had been agreed – everything was clear so the museum could use the digital story as it would any other type of object. This was likened, by an academic participant, to a research consent form.

At the ‘It’s Your Story’ end of the spectrum – which included Culture Shock! participants who actually had made stories for the project – there was an equally strong sense that while the story was being looked after by the museum it was still their story and, in practical terms, this meant that they’d like to know how it was being used. There was also a particular concern that no money should be made by the museum from people’s stories.

In the middle of continuum, there was discussion about specific instances when going back to people might be especially necessary (if the story was especially personal or the exhibition was on a controversial subject). There was also a sense that a key issue was how consent had been built – if it had been a good and reflective consent process then the museum going on to use the story was more legitimate. One contributor emphasized that while she didn’t think the museum had to go back and ask people, they still should because it was an opportunity to build stronger relationships with specific people and groups.

The main part of the workshop was small group discussions around one of four dilemmas. The aim of the four dilemmas were to set out specific practical issues relating to how participation was facilitated, how informed consent might be understood and how ongoing relationships with participants – after forms had been signed – might be approached.

In the feedback from the groups, there was sense of there being certain kinds of ‘big issues’ which needed to be thought about further:
• Where the emphasis on process and outcome should be placed, with discussions around issues and criteria of quality (whether ideas of ‘quality’ should be/needs to be museum generated or participant generated).
• Tensions between the duty for museums to make collected items as available to the public as possible versus considerations for the people contributing the story.
• The importance of museums as non-profit making organisations – is trust compatible with focus on income generation?
• Need for considering more expansive models of consent (such as that used by Patient Voices).
• Need to consider other models of copyright – such as Creative Commons.
• That ethics is about discussion and that people who make stories/media/contribute to the museum in other ways should be very much part of that discussion.
• Whether these issues could feed into the code of ethics/other documents about ethics organized by the Museum Association.

Be great to hear any reflections from anyone else who came to the workshop and anyone else interested in these issues…

Helen Graham


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