The glossary entries are the result of a collaborative process among OpenHeritage consortium partners and have undergone an internal review. However, they only express the perspective of the authors listed under each term, not of all partners. You can find information on the glossary production process and the full glossary here.

Volodymyr Kulikov
Central European University, Budapest, Hungary – Vienna, Austria;

Dóra Mérai
Central European University, Budapest, Hungary – Vienna, Austria;

Short definition

Participation is the act of taking part (becoming involved) in an activity or event and of shaping its course. In the heritage domain, participation is understood as an active involvement of stakeholders within a range of heritage processes and projects.

Key discussions around the term

In politics, the term refers to mechanisms for the public to express opinions and influence decisions. In business and finance, it means the ownership of a part of the assets (equity participation), partaking in decision-making processes, or profit-sharing. In media, participation refers to the model when an audience can play an active role in the process of collecting, processing, and disseminating content. In the heritage domain, participation is defined as the active involvement of stakeholders within a range of heritage processes and projects (Neal 2015). It can also be an instrument to shape and direct individual behavior by governmental policy and professional organizations: for example, to promote certain sectors within or outside the heritage realm (Neal 2015, 346). Terms like “involvement,” “engagement”, “collaboration”, and “empowerment” are often used in the literature to indicate different forms of participation (Rowe and Frewer 2005).

Participation by the public may happen in various organizational forms. It can be initiated by formal institutions such as local governments or professional heritage organizations. Alternatively, it can be a bottom-up initiative when citizens decide to take independent actions outside the formal channels established by the formal agents (Head 2007, 444). The impact of participation on decision-making also varies. Sherry Arnstein developed the model of the “ladder of citizen participation,” illustrating how the empowerment of the public can happen at various levels (Arnstein 1969, 217). Three levels and eight rungs constitute the ladder. The first level, “disempowerment,” is non-participation. The second level includes three kinds of tokenism. The only power the public is given here is the right to be heard. The upper level presents three degrees of citizens’ power. At this level, heritage professionals and local governments expand their roles from regulators to facilitators. The highest rung of the ladder is “citizen control” wherein the public gains full decision-making.

In the following decades, scholars and public government bodies developed alternative typologies which modify the one suggested by Arnstein in some respect. For example, the Council of Europe in 2009 identified four levels of engaging civil society: information, consultation, dialogue, and partnership. (Council of Europe, 2009). The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) developed another popular typology of public participation. Their “Spectrum of Public Participation” defines five forms of public participation ranging from the weakest to the strongest in terms of impact on decision-making: 1) Informing provides the public with the information; 2) Consulting is used to obtain the public’s feedback; 3) Involvement assumes working directly with the public through a dialog; 4) Collaborating is the type of participation where the public is a partner in each aspect of the decision-making process; 5) Empowerment means that the final decision making is handed over to the public (IAP2, 2).

All these models are based on a traditional ontology of vertical (top-down or bottom-up) planning. Boonstra and Boelens (2011) suggest going beyond Arnstein’s hierarchical participation model and embrace a “horizontal” approach. According to the latter, there isn’t necessarily a qualitative difference between various kinds of involvement, but their efficiency and applicability depend on the specific context.  While in some cases, it is the dialog or even citizen control that is the most fruitful approach, there are situations where providing information in a transparent manner is the best way to involve a community.

Nina Simon too argues in her book on the participatory museum (2010) that all types of participation are important and museum curators should not focus exclusively on “creators” (who produce content), but also on “critics” (who submit reviews, rate, comment), “collectors” (who aggregate content for personal or social consumption), and “joiners.”

By embracing participation, the actors learn from each other, build trust, make better decisions, and establish legitimacy. However, participation also entails some typical challenges. In the museum sector, critics mention the risk of “undermining knowledge, dumbing down, perpetuating banality and mediocrity, and false democratization” (Salaman, Cunningham, and Richards).

The so-called representation problem refers to the situation when citizen participation involves only a small proportion of the population (community), so the decision is skewed to the perspective of a certain group of interest. Moreover, under certain conditions, participation can be costly, time-consuming, and ineffective. Besides, participatory governance can also be critiqued, especially due to the (often non-conscious) processes of in- and exclusion. Participation is easily made pointless if the decision is ignored and it can even cause conflicts between “professionals” and “the public” (Irvin and Stansbury 2004, 58).

The above-mentioned side effects of participation can be eliminated by targeting low-cost and high-benefit indicators, for example, by making those projects attractive for volunteers which benefit as large segment of the community as possible or by engaging those representatives of the community who have a particularly strong influence (Irvin and Stansbury 2004, 62; Simon 2016). These are ways to create some kind of “creative scaffolding” for participation where the role of heritage expert is facilitation.

Reference list

Arnstein, Sherry R. “A ladder of citizen participation.” Journal of the American Institute of planners 35, no. 4 (1969): 216-224.

Boonstra, Beitske, and Luuk Boelens. “Self-organization in urban development: towards a new perspective on spatial planning.” Urban Research & Practice 4, no. 2 (2011): 99-122.

Head, Brian W. “Community engagement: participation on whose terms?.” Australian Journal of Political Science 42, no. 3 (2007): 441-454.

Council of Europe (2019). Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-making Process Revised. Adopted by the Conference of INGOs on 30 October 2019 Accessed March 22, 2021.

IAP2 (Institute for Public Participation). n.d. “Public Participation Pillars” Accessed March 22, 2021.

Irvin, Renee A., and John Stansbury. “Citizen participation in decision making: is it worth the effort?.” Public administration review 64, no. 1 (2004): 55-65.

Neal, Cath. “Heritage and participation.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, pp. 346-365. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.

Rowe, Gene, and Lynn J. Frewer. “A typology of public engagement mechanisms.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30, no. 2 (2005): 251-290.

Salaman, Anna, Cunningham, Andrea, and Polly Richards. n.d. “Participation on Trial – Is it always a good thing? Accessed March 22, 2021.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2010.

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2016.