Heidi Schaaf, a stone wall behind of her.
Heidi Schaaf.

Dissertation: Museum structures should be opened towards genuine participation and inclusion


According to the doctoral dissertation by Heidi Schaaf, MA, museums should examine critically what participation and inclusion mean in their Audience Development and how they are realized in practice. The methods and philosophy common for service design can offer museums tools for broader public participation.

Master of Arts Heidi Schaaf examines the Audience Development of museums in Finland and Germany in her doctoral dissertation. She studies the ways in which Audience Development is practiced and how participation and inclusion are understood in the museum sector. In addition, she finds out the hindrances and invisible barriers obstructing people from visiting museums.

Audience Development in museums refers to that part of the museum work which is directed toward the public. It is, for example, program planning, guided tours, workshops, and lectures.

"In museums, public participation can be, for example, participation in a pre-planned workshop, but as well opportunities given to the public to influence the planning and construction of an entire exhibition," Schaaf illustrates.

Aspiration for inclusion is a part of museums' Audience Development. This research defines inclusion as the result of successful, genuine participation.

"Inclusion can be understood as something related to the disabled only. A thing that is realized when the criteria for physical accessibility are reached. On the other hand, we could think that inclusion applies to each of us with our own weaknesses, strengths, and learning styles. However, museums are, at least in theory, places and learning environments open to everyone", Schaaf states.

"The opportunity for a museum visitor to operate independently in the museum environment regardless of their abilities or knowledge is part of inclusion. However, genuine participation requires that museum visitors' contribution has a meaning for the visitor and the potential to develop both the museum and the visitors themselves. Inclusion thus means the participant’s chances to relate to the museum environment and a sense of belonging, which they determine themselves. Participation usually takes place in the framework of Audience Development, for example, in workshops or within projects aimed at individual target groups", Schaaf says.

Practices of participation and hierarchies of museum work need to be reexamined

Heidi Schaaf suggests that museum institutions examine what participation and inclusion mean for them in practice. Museums should see the visitor's own contribution to the museum and themselves as an essential part of participation.

"Museum visitors should have the genuine power to determine the terms of their own participation in the museum and define its meaning for them. From the museums' point of view, participation would then be a way of doing things to achieve the common, agreed goals of museums and participating museum visitors or project partners", Schaaf characterizes.

In addition, museums could evaluate whether participation happens with the current methods and resources of Audience Development and with the hierarchies in the museum structures.

"Audience Development is the part of museum work that meets the visitor and often adapts effortlessly according to different needs but is not involved in the activities that are often considered the museum's core tasks, i.e., conservation, curation, and exhibition planning. Audience Development is often carried out with intermittent project funding, and it is also often the first to be cut out, like during the corona pandemic", Schaaf regrets.

In her dissertation, Schaaf presents an inclusion-directed participation model for museums, which draws from the methods and philosophy of service design. In the model, participation comprises five components in a continuous cycle: research; collaboration and communication; sustainability; meaningfulness and ownership; and obstacles.

"I believe that museums' project-based Audience Development would find it useful to utilize the model. In the long run, it can lead to more sustainable relations with the public, reliable research-based solutions in Audience Development, and, of course, genuine participation and a more diverse museum community than before. In this way, invisible barriers would also be lowered, and the museum could develop as a place for open discussion, where it is easy to come", she states.

In addition, Schaaf proposes for museums new posts which would operate between curators and front-line staff and thus break the current hierarchical separation between these tasks.

Information on the public examination

The academic dissertation The Meaning of Participation: Detecting the space for inclusive strategies in the Finnish and German museum context by Heidi Schaaf, is publicly examined in the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland on Friday, 25 November 2022, starting at 12 noon (Finnish time) in Lecture Hall 3 (LS3, Yliopistonkatu 8, Rovaniemi). The opponent is Ph.D. Leena Hannula from the University of Jyväskylä, and the custos is Professor Tuija Hautala-Hirvioja from the University of Lapland. The language of the event is Finnish.

The public defense can be followed online:

Information on the doctoral candidate

Heidi Schaaf earned her Master of Arts at the University of Lapland in 2013, majoring in art education. In addition, she has completed an advanced minor in art history. Schaaf is a founding member of the German-Finnish Association for Inclusive Cultural Work (Deutsch-Finnischer Verein für inklusive Kulturarbeit e.V.), founded in Cologne in 2019. She has received grants from the Finnish Cultural Foundation's Lapland Fund, the Otto A. Malm Fund, the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, and the University of Lapland's Esko Riepula grant for her dissertation work.

Further information

Heidi Schaaf
Heidi.M.Schaaf (at)

Information on the publication

Heidi Schaaf: The Meaning of Participation. Detecting the space for inclusive strategies in the Finnish and German museum context. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 344. University of Lapland: Rovaniemi. ISBN 978-952-337-328-0. ISSN 1796-6310.

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