Heritage Participation

According to Suzie Thomas and Joanna Lea, the concept of ‘heritage participation’ is “relatively new” (Thomas & Lea, 2014) and emerged under the influence of developments such as the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and more recent developments like “the loss of authority of ‘the experts’; ‘the change in the nature of knowledge production; improved communications; and questions of democracy’ (Science for All Expert Group, 2010, 5)”.

In the field of cultural heritage, Sherry R. Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation” (1969) is often used as an approach to heritage participation. According to Arnstein’s ladder, there are eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation, which can be divided into three categories: “nonparticipation”, “degrees of tokenism” and “degrees of citizen power”. The first rung of the ladder, for instance, is labelled “manipulation”, which refers to activities that merely create the illusion that citizens are allowed to participate — for example through the creation of a powerless advisory board. The highest rung is titled “citizen control”, which entails that citizens are in full charge of, for instance, policies or management, or even own a historic site. In this sense, Arnstein’s work and other critical reflections on heritage participation projects demonstrate that practices that might appear engaging, interactive and participatory — like crowdsourcing, for instance (Bonacchi et al., 2019) — are not always as empowering as they seem.

Frequent usage of participatory approaches in the field of cultural heritage includes “public participatory archaeology” (Thomas, 2019) and different participatory activities in museums. Attention for approaches like these is only expected to grow, since digitalisation will continue to produce new ways for people to participate, and the Faro convention will push heritage professionals and researchers to construct new ways to engage and empower heritage communities — or “CGIs”, as Marc Jacobs prefers to call them (Jacobs, 2020).


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224.

Bonacchi, C., Bevan, A., Keinan-Schoonbaert, A., Pett, D., & Wexler, J. (2019). Participation in heritage crowdsourcing. Museum Management and Curatorship, 34(2), 166–182.

Jacobs, M. (2020). Article 15: Participation of Communities, Groups, and Individuals. CGIs, not just ‘the Community’. In The 2003 UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention: A Commentary (Oxford Commentaries on International Cultural Heritage Law) (pp. 273–289). Oxford University Press.

Thomas, S. (2019). Doing public participatory archaeology with “difficult” conflict heritage: Experiences from Finnish Lapland and the Scottish Highlands. Post Classical Archaeologies, 147–167.

Thomas, S., & Lea, J. (2014). Public Participation in Archaeology. Amsterdam University Press.