Dr Helen Graham
I am interested, fundamentally, in how we organize ourselves. I investigate this question in two ways, through collaborative and interdisciplinary action research and through experimental writing, seeking forms for understanding and generating modes of political life.
I have developed this concern and these methods in relationship to museums, heritage, place and local democracy.
In terms of museums my thinking evolved through the Bradford's National Museum (2017–2021) project where I worked with National Science and Media Museum staff, other researchers and project partners with flourishing community development practices to experiment with how the museum could become more open, engaged and collaborative and better rooted in Bradford. As we put it in our final publication: ‘approaching the issues from many different people’s perspectives sharpened our understandings of the significant tensions produced by a national museum seeking to be rooted and collaborative. It also identified ways in which the tensions could be activated as strengths, dynamically creating pathways between the national and the local and expanding what the museum is and might become’.
Bradford’s National Museum led to co-facilitating (with Arran Rees) the action research strand of Congruence Engine (2020–2023), one of five UKRI Towards a National Collection projects. A year into the project we are now focused on thinking and designing ‘national collection’ not as a fixed resource but as a verb; a ‘social machine’ that is created and produced through the ongoing activity of its users.
I am also in the final stages of Deconstituting Museums, a writing project that understands the institutional turn towards participation in the light of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls ‘the cunning of liberalism’, which has sought to treat discontent with democracy and its public organizational forms as a demand to be seen, known, heard, included. A central theme of the book is that while participation has been called into use as if it is compatible with, and can be an extended methodology for, access, inclusion and representation – it isn’t and can’t be. In exploring this theme I activate different academic forms. I draw on critically on political theory to stake out the different genealogies of representational and participatory political and epistemic forms, affect theory to indicate the unsustainable lived subjective dimensions of doing participation in institutional contexts, and speculatively indicate the too often repressed political fantasy life of participation, a desire for other modes of being and organising that infuses the everyday discontents of any institutionally-located participatory gesture.
In terms of heritage, place and local democracy my interests and approaches cohered as a result of work conducted as part of the co-designed AHRC Connected Communities project, How should heritage decisions be made? project (2013–2015). This led to a long term collaboration in York with architect Phil Bixby where we have staged large scale participatory public engagement processes (My Castle Gateway (2017-); My York Central (2018)) in key areas of urban regeneration and city-level development. The approaches developed through these projects have combined the personal through narrative, story-telling and imaginative methods to enable personal articulation (hence the 'my' in the project titles) with developing a new form of public sphere via inquiry-led forms of debate and discussion and an approach to change that actively works across scale from large scale institutional/government-led infrastructures and investment to tactical experiments and community-led action. Out of the My York Central process we – with many others we have met along the way – have formed YoCo: York Central Co-Owned, in order to steward the public vision into a built reality by develop a 15 min co-owned neighbourhood underpinned by redistributive economic design.
I am in the beginning stages of an allied writing project (probably with York as a focus) concerned with experimenting with forms for enlivening the composite nature of heritage. Where writing will act as a method for evoking and intervening in the ways in which heritage holds together, often fuzzily, a variety of things such as liberal logics of rights and recognition with conservative impulses of duty; expertise with democracy; economics with affect; materiality with meaning; time with place.
- Director of Research and Innovation
- Research Ethics Lead
I teach on the MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies, MA Arts Management and Heritage Studies and MA Curating Science.
Research groups and institutes
- Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage