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Cause-Based Participative Relationships in Heritage Management

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia
Heritage 2023, 6(2), 1824-1838;
Received: 31 December 2022 / Revised: 3 February 2023 / Accepted: 7 February 2023 / Published: 9 February 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Cultural Heritage Management and Preservation Policies)


A shift from activities under the exclusive responsibility of institutions and experts to those organized and carried out by a growing number of civil society organizations and heritage communities has been seen as a means of democratizing heritage practice. This paper explores an NGO-run project of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum in Zagreb, Croatia in order to expound characteristics of its participative management model, which includes other NGOs, representatives of a museum institution, and neighborhood residents. The museum’s activities published on the official website and social media platforms were thematically analyzed according to layers of cultural participation. The results show a formation of a community of interests within a place-based community whose purpose is to represent heritage values alternative to those of the mainstream institutions. The TNM can therefore be described as a territorialized cause-based project whose management is predicated on value-based participation of different stockholders, while its heritage governance approach resembles both corporatist and service-led approaches.

1. Introduction

Speaking about the democratization of social space through citizen participation, Frank Fisher claims that this process was marked by two shifts in a wider social space in the late 20th century [1]. The first was the shift from activities under exclusive responsibility of the state to the growing number of civil society organizations that provide support to social development with their services. The second was the shift from the dominance of the profession towards citizen-based activities. This can also be traced in the sphere of culture with changes in the international discourse on heritage. Heritage has been increasingly recognized as being about process and outcome more than objects, and this is intricately tied to its usage for various contemporary social needs [2]. It has been defined as “processes of meaning making that occur as material heritage places or intangible heritage events are identified, defined, managed, exhibited and visited” [3] (s. p.). In 2005, the Faro Convention [4] introduced the term “heritage communities”, by which the practical field of heritage has been expanded through the encouragement of people to become active creators of heritage narratives based on their own values [5].
Working outside state or market influence [6], NGOs are important social agents that take on an active role in safeguarding and management of heritage [7] and contribute to the definition of heritage-related policies and strategies [8]. In a heavily professionalized and institutionalized heritage landscape in which professionals reluctantly relinquish their authority and control [9,10,11], it can be expected of civil society and heritage communities to offer an alternative view on heritage and management practices. The research presented in this paper focuses on an NGO-run project of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum (Croatian: Muzej susjedstva Trešnjevka) in Zagreb, Croatia and its participative model of management that includes other NGOs, representatives of a museum institution, and neighborhood residents. The aim is to analyze the museum’s activities in order to expound the goals and characteristics of its approach to participatory management.

2. Participation in Heritage Management—Literature Review

The social, political and intellectual movements in the 1960s and subsequent years had a global impact with their questioning of authority and power narratives, shedding light on social injustice and politization of culture, as well as fighting for civil rights and different underprivileged groups. The period also had a great impact on the field of heritage conservation in that it transformed the notion of heritage and authority and constituted the “values turn” toward a greater embrace of societal perspectives alongside the heritage values perspective” [12] (p. 17). New types of museums emerged as a response to the canonical, discipline-based institutions, whose expert systems “disembedded social relations from local contexts and from the daily experiences of people’s lives” [13] (p. 27). Efforts to ensure cultural democracy and social justice, and bring heritage back to the center of its production and use gave rise to various forms of community museums and ecomuseums that cater to a “local community (population) on a specific territory, using common heritage as a resource for development” [14] (pp. 24–25). Neighborhood museums are one type of such institutions or organizations that have been part of the global heritage landscape since the 1960s, when they were created to better serve communities in specific urban areas [15]. One of the first neighborhood museums that introduced a change into the dominant model of museum work was the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, established in 1967 by the Smithsonian Institution in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington [16]. By moving out of its walls and reaching out to underrepresented communities in attempts to meet their cultural needs in their own territory and on their terms, the Anacostia Museum made a deliberate action and used the museum as an instrument for a social change [17]. The decisiveness of the Smithsonian curators in the 1960s, most notably the founder of the Anacostia Museum, Dillon Ripley, in addressing the political aspect of the museum work and correct the shortcomings of the museum’s past collecting practices regarding diverse social groups created the legacy that has today been followed by the so-called agenda museums, which try to effect social change through their work [18]. Community—and, in particular, neighborhood—museums also represent early endeavors that aimed to engage specific communities around their common cultural background and around distinctive features of the place in which they lived in order to improve quality of life both socially and economically. In that respect they can be linked to the concept of ecomuseums and the movement of new museology that engendered an utterly new view of an “integrated museum”, which develops a sense of belonging to the community and the place [19,20]. The concept of ecomuseums depends on close-knit ties with its community and their participation in the work of the museum which is intertwined with their everyday cultural practice in a particular place [20]. It is the community that forms the spirit of place with its values, meanings, and emotions that are embedded into physical objects and practices. It represents a living heritage approach to conservation in which the core community “created living heritage and sustains the original function of heritage, retains its original connection with it over time and still considers heritage an integral part of its contemporary life in terms of its identity, pride, self-esteem, structure, and well-being, has a strong sense of ownership/custodianship for heritage and sees the caring for heritage as its own inherent obligation” [21] (p. 21). The entire ecomuseological project and the key to its success relies on the equality of the relationships between the community, experts, and other stakeholders with the goal of empowering the community for its involvement in heritage conservation, interpretation and management as well as in steering the museum in general [20].
Both social movements and social history lie in the foundation of another strand of neighborhood museums—those that are associated with identity politics in that they focus on and fight for the recognition of identities of various oppressed or marginalized social and cultural groups. One such case is the Bezirksmuseum Friedrichshain–Kreuzberg in Berlin, founded in 1990 and having roots in bottom-up history research that merged with local initiatives fighting against urban redevelopment projects in the 1980s. It represents the everyday life and multiethnic diversity of this migrant neighborhoods and maintains close relationships to the local grassroots movements through different forms of participation [22]. Through social history, curation museums assume social responsibility by representing histories of marginalized groups [23]. Their narratives are grounded in everyday experience of people, and their memories shape forms of resistance to the dominant and often elitist heritage narratives [24]. The District Six Museum in Cape Town is one such case, in which local memory preservation and representation is placed at the center of its mission. It was founded in 1994 as a museum of and for the community that was forcedly removed from their homes in District Six in 1966 during the Apartheid [25]. The neighborhood—which previously had a multiethnic configuration, with a majority of laborers and small traders—is seen today as a “driving force for democratic access to the past” [26] (p. 33). In addition to the support given to the idea of the museum by various community members and professionals of different profiles, especially oral historians [27], its foundation was also made possible due to former residents’ contribution to the collection and stories that represent their former lives in this part of the city. The sociopolitical agenda places this community museum next to those that have recently become committed to social agency by addressing issues of intolerance, prejudice and discrimination and taking sides when defending human rights [28]. The growing number of museums committed to social engagement is accompanied by a theoretical framework of sociomuseology, which “is a way of understanding museum and heritage and a way of acting upon world. One could say it bears the philosophy of new museology and brings it into a broader context” [29] (p. 8).
In addition to living heritage, the broadening of the term heritage has steered the change of the material-based approach to conservation, and consequently heritage governance and management, in the direction of the one based on a wide range of values [21]. Allowing for subjectivity and equity among the stakeholders, including professionals, ultimately makes the value-based approach an inclusive and democratic process, which allows participation of many social agents and inclusion of different kinds of knowledge. In museums, fostering inclusion of multiple voices emphasizes the pluralistic concept of heritage, in which complexities and differences and emphasized rather than suppressed. In this way, the museum exhibition becomes a mediator of new forms of social interaction and can be considered a form of cultural policy because it represents ideological workings of the museum through the manner in which its treats peoples, cultures, social groups, nationalities, and the like [30]. In addition, participation of others in the representation of identity in and through the museum is about power, and, traditionally, heritage institutions have most frequently been the stakeholder in power. As Lynch claims, the fear of letting go of the power undermines the true reciprocity of the well-meaning museum’s intentions to carry out (democratic) participatory projects [10], so the process of engaging the public, users or communities in the decision-making process can be conceived either as relations of reciprocity or governmentality [31].
A range of analysis of national and international documents and practical examples related to participation in heritage and museums show a range of different approaches [32,33] or classifications proposed in theorical accounts [34,35,36,37]. In museological literature, there are views that participation of museum visitors refers to their feedback on presented content or their empowerment when being able to construct their own meanings at exhibitions [38]. On the other hand, participation is seen in terms of the extent to which different stakeholders participate in the decision-making about museum programs [35] or in terms of levels of participation of visitors in the processes of museum content-creation, within which degrees of decision-making are implied [36]. The very existence of these different levels of participation points to potential conflicts that can arise at the heritage management level between the institution’s wish to keep more control for itself and steward the representation process in a professionally defined direction or to let go of the power and facilitate the empowerment of stakeholders or communities.
Depending on the meaning of participation, communities can be conceptualized in different ways. Hooper-Greenhill defines museum visitors as different communities according to the characteristics impacting their acts of interpretation of museum content [30], which can be shaped by a range of different factors, such as historical or cultural experience, demographic factors, identities, specialist knowledge, visiting practice, exclusion from other communities, or location [39]. From the perspective of heritage management and participation, focus is placed more on stakeholders because heritage projects include a range of different interests and levels of influence on management by all those involved in the project, either directly or indirectly [40]. Local community is considered an important stakeholder, especially in the light of the Faro Convention [41]. Drawing on stakeholder theory and management, Dunham, Freeman, and Liedtka have broken down the often monolithic and vague concept of community into four subcategories, namely communities of place, interest, practice, and community as virtual advocacy group, which are distinguished one from another by a set of features such as geography, identity, and interaction [42]. Taking into consideration types of stakeholders and the understanding of heritage either as governmental or hybrid, Sokka et al. propose a model of participative heritage governance according to the levels in which governmental bodies, and institutions engage the stakeholders in participative decision-making [43]. Apart from the recognition of government institutions of the need to include the public in decision-making processes around heritage issues, there is also a rise in the initiatives seeking to take part in participatory management that come from diverse heritage communities and NGOs [5,12]. The following chapters examines the work of the neighborhood museum project recently established in Zagreb by an NGO group, which shares similar concerns as the abovementioned museums but whose founding has been planned as a project of participative heritage management.

3. Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum

Drawing on community-based institutions founded “in poor working-class areas worldwide, in which the official, national, and imperialist white culture has bypassed oppressed communities and their needs” [44], the Croatian NGO BLOK launched in 2018 the project of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum—Building from Bottom Up in Zagreb, Croatia. Defining themselves as a curatorial collective, BLOK’s activities include production and research of socially engaged art, publishing, political and artistic education, etc. Since 2016, they have used the premises in Trešnjevka, which they call “art and activism space BAZA” [45] (s. p.), for various activities.
The conceptual and geographic framework of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum (further in the text TNM) was set at the start of the initial founding project. The main motivation for the establishment of the museum arose from the post-socialist conditions in which public institutions evaded and completely neglected topics related to socialist revolution, labor, or life in socialist Croatian in general. The museum mission has, consequently, been based on the need to “collect, safeguard, research, interpret and present the history of space, labor and everyday life of Trešnjevka and connect it to contemporary needs of the community” [45] (s. p.). In other words, the residents are called to participate in a project whose aim is to reinstate neglected socialist narratives and give more attention to the industrial and labor-based past of the neighborhood.
The project was financially supported by the European Social Fund through the Culture in the Centre—Support to the Civil–Public Partnership Development scheme within the framework of the Efficient Human Resources Operational Program. The objectives of the program included improvement of new participatory models of cultural management, capacity-building of the stakeholders engaged in the participatory management process (both public sector and civil society organizations), and increased engagement of citizens [46]. In addition to BLOK as the lead partner and the main stakeholder, the project included the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum and three NGOs.
K-Zona is a Trešnjevka-based organization dedicated to informing, providing support, educating, and empowering women, LGBTQIA+ persons, and civil society organizations in joint efforts to build a more just and equal society by dealing with issues of gender equality, feminism, social inclusion, and LGBTIQA+ and labor rights [47]. The Nikola Tesla Technical Museum is a museum that specializes in technical heritage. It is funded locally, but its collection policy includes the entire Croatian territory. Its permanent exhibitions are discipline-based, but it broadens its conceptual scope through various projects and temporary exhibitions. The Centre for Peace Studies, also based in Trešnjevka, is a civil society organization that fights against violence and promotes social justice, tolerance, and inclusivity. Through their programs, they advocate for human rights protection, raise civic competence, empower citizens for activism and violence prevention, and work towards removing religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice and from Croatian social life [48]. SF:ius is a partnering organization not based in Trešnjevka, whose focus is sharing stories from the social margins through interdisciplinary research. The description of the NGOs activities on their official website has been described in the following manner: “the programs follow current problems in the field of philosophy, artistic practices and art theory, memory studies, history, politics, and social theory. The programs rely on scientific research, artistic, advocacy, and activist work” [49] (s. p.). All these initial partners of the TNM worked on the creation of a collaborative management model and carried out particular activities such as virtual collection building, guided tours, exhibitions, etc., which went on for the duration of the project, from 2018 to 2020. Programming has continued after the initial project ended as part of other projects, among which the formal one has been The Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum—Living Heritage. However, due to the project-based logic of funding the work of the museum, other projects also had activities that were topically related to the museum’s mission and goals.
In the context of diverse participatory forms and practices, which have mainly been identified in research on international and national documents and policies, this paper aims to contribute to the current discussion on participatory heritage management and participatory museology by examining the particular case of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum in Zagreb.

4. Research Goal and Methods

Taking participation in heritage and museums as a wider theoretical framework, this research draws specifically on the view of a participative cultural institution “as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content” [36] (p. ii) and of participants as users who have agency in conceiving and carrying out of museums activities. Since museums communicate to and with their users based on information about heritage objects or sites, making decisions about content, discourses and modes of communication can have a major impact on the perception of the museum’s status and role in society. Identities that are often formed through heritage are also shaped through communication, which is why the communicative function of museums forms an important aspect of management [50]. The issue about participation is who is allowed and welcome to decide what sort of content can be communicated and in which mode—the museum staff, other professionals, communities, or other individuals and groups. Nina Simon proposed a ladder-based model distinguishing four levels of participation based on the types of projects which engage visitors in different way in terms of their content-creation options and decision-making about them [36]. First are contributory projects, which are controlled by the institution as the stakeholder that solicits specific ideas, objects or actions from visitors. In the second, collaborative approach, visitors are invited to create their own content but within projects that are established and controlled by the institution. The third projects are cocreative, and in them, community members work together with the institution’s staff to define activities from the conceptual level to their implementation. The fourth are hosted projects in which visitors or public groups individually use institutional facilities or resources and independently of the institution envisage their activities.
Although the ladder approach to participation has been seen as too hierarchical [51] or problematic due to uncertain methods of progression on it and due to a potential for masking top-down decision by the authorities [52], this model has been chosen here to serve as an analytical tool for identifying levels of agency for diverse museum activities and stakeholders. The research takes the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum as a case study with the goal of analyzing the museum’s activities in order to answer the question of what characterizes participative management model of this museum. The data collection included a retrieval of texts on museum activities published on the official museum website and social media, and an interview with two museum curators, Dunja Kučinac and Ana Kutleša. The interview was audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was conducted on the online texts and the transcribed interview data. Although this method has been deemed limiting because it brings to light what has already been mentioned in the text, it can also be used to reveal latent themes or “underlying ideas, assumptions, and conceptualizations—and ideologies—that are theorized as shaping or informing the semantic content of the data” [53] (p. 84). In addition to Simon’s participatory level, the framework for the thematic analysis has also been formed by the four layers of cultural participation proposed by Lorena Sancho Querol [54]. Researching participatory management models in museums from the sociomuseological perspective, Sancho Querol puts forward four layers of participatory activities, namely those that are related to traditional museum functions (collecting, exhibition, education), sociocultural dynamics, collaborative projects, and—finally—museum values, causes, and ethics.

5. Results

The themes that are identified as being pertinent for the research questions include types and topics of activities, types of stakeholders involved in each activity and their roles in participation. The results are presented as the four layers of participation containing short descriptions of the defined themes. A summary of the results is given in Table 1.

5.1. Traditional Museum Function

The most visible activities that are meant for audiences are found together in the traditional museum functions layer, which includes “exhibitions and catalogues, research and publication, collections and heritage educational activities” [54] (p. 67). The museum catalogue—or rather, the database of photographed objects—forms the core of the TNM and is accessible on the official website [55]. It has been arranged into different topics or “collections”, such as Red Trešnjevka, Culture, Urbanization, Labor History, Education, and Sport. Information about individual items have been catalogued by art history, history and ethnology experts whose roles have been to generate interpretation of the objects. In addition to the BLOK curators explain, the associate includes very often “the people who participated—as Ana said—in some other BLOK’s programs and expressed their interest for this” (D. Kučinac). The documentation process is in the hand of the curators and associates who “receive the information from the donor at the collecting site and provide a context and sometimes there is not enough information coming from the donors so it is necessary to do some research… the role of the person who creates documentation is to draw from the stories, narratives recorded on site, as many metadata as possible and create a meaningful description the artefact which places this artefact in a wider context (A. Kutleša)”. The said metadata include categories such as object ID number, collection, type of object, author/creator, period/year, address/location, and donor/owner of the original object represented by the photograph. Descriptions of artefacts are written in an impersonal and objective way and provide information about the cultural history of the material and short biographic information about the donor or people represented by the artefacts. The site does not offer comments or social folksonomy options, which means that the content is under the staff’s supervision both during and after the formation of interpretative texts.
Regarding exhibitions, the TNM usually works with artists who interpret in their art pieces individual items from the virtual collection or draw on the collection and the neighborhood for their inspiration. Only one exhibition, Cyclops from Kučerina Street—Photo Chronicles of Trešnjevka, was organized in collaboration with amateur photographers living in Trešnjevka, in which their role was to provide photographs whose final selection was made and exhibited by a curator. Regarding online exhibitions, there is one related to the history of tuberculosis in Trešnjevka, curated by the museum staff. The program includes creative workshops for different age groups, facilitated by visual artists and writers and organized in connection to the museum collection or the neighborhood on topics such as working condition, experience of working-class history, neighborhood urban history, etc. The artists’ work and workshops are curated by A. Kutleša, though in consultation with other BLOK colleagues, which means that there must be a conceptual agreement about the proposed projects with the museum’s thematic framework.

5.2. Sociocultural Dynamics

The sociocultural dynamics layer entails knowing residents’ needs, taking advantage of local knowledge, and using the museum space in diverse ways so as to generate social and cultural value [54]. The activities that fall in this category are live concerts at BAZA and film screenings at the main neighborhood market space, which are meant to bring the neighborhood’s people in closer contact with the museum, though not through its traditional functions. The type of live music performances at BAZA defies standard concerts by erasing the boundary between musicians and the audiences, while the type of music played there “defies commodification and standardization of broadcasting” [56]. The performers are usually little-known bands playing alternative music. On the other hand, film screenings are curated events by associates. These events are open to everyone and include both short and featured Croatian and foreign films that deal with topics of labor, feminism, and urban transformation. All the activities are agreed upon jointly within the conceptual framework of the museum, as is shown by Kutleša’s claim: “We conceive of a focus and then invite [associates], for example, for film screenings we have associates; there were several of them in the course of the program; currently that is Dina Pokrajac who curates the Subversive Festival; she tells me ‘here, Ana, I’ve got a short list of these five films’ and then I say ‘look, I’m not too keen on this one because this and this and this’, and we talk. In case of a disaccord, I’d tell her ‘ok, it is your name on the program, I’m not for it for these and these reasons, but you have the final say’. That is what I say to artists as well, but we rarely have such moments. It’s more often that we provide each other with arguments, listen to one another and at the end of the day she and I or any other associate stand behind the project. There are no hierarchies that may usually be found in institutions”.

5.3. Collaborative Projects

Collaborative projects layer entails activities that offer individuals and organizations to reach a common goal, to build “a collaborative community of interests, which complement and intersect each other on a daily basis” and which can lead to the invention of new services and social development [54] (p. 68). Since the initial project of the TMN was collaborative, this layer includes all the activities of the project partners who organized activities for neighborhood residents (and all interested). SF:ius organized a tour on the People’s Liberation Struggle during the Second World War, the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum’s tour dealt with the early days of industrialization in Trešnjevka, the Centre for Peace Studies organized a tour on Trešnjevka migrants, while K-zona’s tour was on the Trešnjevka’s female history. Alongside the tours, there were two in situ interventions, the first of which was the marking of former industrial sites in socialist Trešnjevka and the other the placing of posters on kindergartens giving information about their histories, especially emphasizing the communist women whose names these institutions used to carry. When it comes to conceptualizing activities, such as guided tours, regular meetings are held in which conversations about ideas lead to the final shape and point of each activity, or as Kutleša says “we suggest to them if we think there is something that needs changing, if they left out something, if there is something too much, too long, too short…”. After the end of the initial project, the TNM has continued with giving guided tours in the neighborhood, trying to tell stories about Trešnjevka within new projects on different topics, such as the history of tuberculosis, or the history of women in sports. Interestingly, no collaborative activities by these two museums around the topic of industry and working class were related to the technical heritage presented at the Nikola Tesla Museum, which could have resulted in a distributed museum collection as a form of participation [57]. The reason for that might be related to the individualized practice, responsibility for and authorship of the museum collections. According to Kutleša, “not all museum workers are interested for this type of initiative, some perhaps have other priorities and the director of the museum did not want to order her curators to cooperate with us; but it was Kosjenka [Laszlo Klemar], who has the sensibilities for this type of project, who was that person”. In addition to the initial partners, collaboration has also been established with external experts—for example, art history scholars whose research fits the museum’s concerns.

5.4. Museum Values, Causes and Ethics

Museum values, causes, and ethics layer refers to the basic tenets of museum’s participative endeavors—or, as Querol states, “initiatives and projects which, in the long term, define the essence of the museum” [54] (p. 69). For both the TNM and its managing stakeholder, the BLOK association, partnering and collaborative work lie in their very foundations. Therefore, the participative collecting which, since October 2019, included seven campaigns, and development of partnerships is what stands ahead and what the future of the museum will be built upon. The museum organizes collecting campaigns through public calls to Trešnjevka residents posted on the museum website and through newsletters emailed to subscribers, inviting them to bring to BLOK’s premises artefacts that could tell stories about the neighborhood. The items are photographed or scanned and returned to the owners, while the object photographs are published on the virtual collection webpage. The museum is waiting for better days when the virtual collection is planned to be replaced by a physical one. In the calls for donations, or just for lending artefacts to be photographed, the museum staff uses expressions such as “get involved in the building of the virtual collection of the Trešnjevka neighborhood museum, which will give value to the stories that do not form part of the official history”. The framework for collection building has been set based on values of the museum staff—or rather, the managing stakeholder, BLOK—and the process of building is seen as a collaboration of curators and the neighborhood residents within the framework of values. “The interpretation is on us, and there is the position that Ana mentioned, the position that gives value to female history, that recognizes that something has a feminist perspective, […] that recognizes that workers’ stories are important” (D. Kučinac), “you can have a history of the church exclusively from the perspective that sees the church as a building investor, agent of development and progress, but the same object can also be differently contextualized. We find it interesting, it is also interesting in the context of life in Yugoslavia as a state where it was not allowed to expresses religious beliefs and then you have someone say ‘here, this was my christening, we all gathered and everything was great’” (A. Kutleša). In short, it is the position or the framework within which the contributing members of the community must recognize themselves. If they do not, their contribution will be reinterpreted accordingly. “I think that within our community, a potential neighborhood community, defined by the neighborhood boundaries, we are building our own community. In other words, people from Trešnjevka who recognize our values as their values” (A. Kutleša). Future partnerships, just as former ones will be similarly framed by shared social values. It was what guided the selection of former partners such as K-zona, Sf:ius, and the Centre for Peace Studies, whose experience and knowledge were considered valuable in envisaging a different kind of museum—a museum which could contribute to society by dealing with contemporary social issues, such as increased xenophobia, violent behavior against people who are different, critical situations caused by great numbers of migrants, and the like. However, due to project-based funding and concepts of the funded programs, the work with initial partners did not continue seamlessly; it awaits new project schemes. As Kutleša claims, “Very often, these projects are short-lived, they have very ambitious goal, they aim to solve the problems of the world and then they end and that is it. For us, it was important to continue to build the collection, to work with the community. So, we integrated the TNM into BLOK’s functioning scheme and applied for funding to available sources and used them to continue with the work of the museum”.

6. Discussion

The analysis of the participative activities of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum finds that the museum operates in cooperation with diverse stakeholders and within a range of participatory relationships proposed by Simon [38]. Its activities at the moment form part of two projects—the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum—Building from Bottom Up, which is related exclusively to the online collection building and continues onto the initial or founding project, and the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum—Living Heritage, which includes all other activities (guided tours, concerts, film screenings, exhibitions and workshops), which have been planned and are carried out by the BLOK association in partnership with diverse stakeholders. As the initiator and the main stakeholder in the initial and subsequent projects, BLOK’s operation is based on participation and a particular set of values that determine the agenda of the TNM. These values are closely related to labor rights, antifascism, socially marginalized communities, feminism, LGBTIQA+ communities, migrants, and other social groups suffering prejudice or exclusion, by which BLOK—together with the partners—clearly communicates its leftist political position.
The choice of partners and the goal of founding the museum has been formed in response to what the BLOK curators perceive as the dominant narrative of Croatian and particularly Zagreb museums—the narrative which is based on traditional and undemocratic approach to representation of social identities. The neighborhood museum project was envisaged to fill in the role that has been failed to be played by the mainstream cultural sector. In doing that, BLOK shunned the neutrality of the conventional discipline-based museums and dedicated their work to social change, especially by advocating for tolerance and respect for difference [28,58]. At the TNM, the participative activities and the types of participation of diverse stakeholders have been determined by the museum’s agenda, which is—to use Sandell’s words—to construct discourses of difference [28] that have been shaped in response to the political, social and historical context of the state-run museum in Zagreb (and Croatia). In addition to being defined by the local circumstances, the museum’s agenda and goals, similarly to the neighborhood museums in the period from the 1960s or the 1980s, stem from the current sociopolitical developments on a wider scale, such as the sustainable development or social inclusion agendas, growing multiculturalism, and the like, which the TNM addresses in its program consciously and purposefully [29].
The building of the online collection as a participative activity follows the same agenda. Devised to remedy the lack of social and socialist history narratives in the mainstream museums in Zagreb, and to create a platform for their representation, the online collection can be said to have been formed through caused-based collecting [59], though not by curators but through community participation, which is why the project contains in its name the phrase “building from bottom up”. However, this phrase does stand for the approaches allowing local people with no professional help to express their own forms of heritage [26], helping or enabling their self-determination, building of self-esteem, and ability to determine the representation of their own history [60]. The bottom-up here means accepting material objects recognized as heritage items by the resident donors and shaping their stories and testimonies within the curatorial knowledge frameworks and discursive constructions. By doing that, this participatory museum project that opposes the conventionality of the traditional museum profession in fact emulates its role in a way that imposes control over the process of content creation, giving it legitimacy among “experts” in the process of documentation and interpretation [61]. Additionally, narratives that might interfere with the museum’s conceptual framework built on the proclaimed values are deemed unwelcomed and something to be given “the right interpretation” by which the inherent dissonance arising from bottom-up heritage approaches is suppressed [24]. Not allowing controversies or conflicting views, according to Lynch, stifles the democratic process that should be inscribed in participatory relations [10]. This view reflects the dialogic approach to museum representation that sees museums not as the authority in interpretation and meaning-creation but as a facilitator in the process of giving a voice to diverse users [30]. However, accepting a range of different narratives presupposes open-endedness, multiperspectivity, and neutrality, which can interfere with the assertion of specific values contained in the message that the museum tries to put across. The projects or museums that unambiguously advocate public good most likely act as arbiters rather than being a forum [62]. However, in situations that give rise to issues such as fostering participation that produces multiple views or providing just one view, no matter how morally and ethically appropriate, Sandell proposes “offering audiences opportunities to critique and debate taken-for-granted ideas about equality and to open up possibilities for new, progressive ways of understanding human right struggles” [62] (p. 88). Deciding how to deal with different types of knowledge raises the question of the goals of participation and the configuration of participative relationships.
Unlike ecomuseums, which develop cocreative participatory relationships with place-based communities with the goal of empowering their members, which is the rationale of the concept [63], the TNM sees community as contributors; the greatest freedom of decision-making through collaborative and cocreative relationships has been given to individual associates from cultural institutions, NGOs, or to freelance experts. A similar situation can be found in museum institutions [64], where participation is in the service of increasing a number of visitors in competitive circumstances of the leisure market and where education and empowerment would drain already insufficient human and financial resources [65]. What can be interpreted as the goal behind the participative project of the TNM is to build a community of interest in the sense that stakeholders see heritage as a means of supporting specific worldviews and values [41] (p. 35). According to the Faro Convention, this is a method that expands the field of heritage governance with particular attitudes [4]. Traditionally, interest groups have been gathered around the same goals, and they collaboratively identify issues and strategies for the achievement of set outcomes [42]. The TNM has developed a network of old and new associates who can share the same agenda and, in addition, it “recruits” neighborhood residents into its value-based network, thereby shaping a community of shared interests within a place-based community. This practice reflects Tony Bennett’s view that “museums need to be understood not as institutions which represent communities and cultures—which create a ‘place for all of us’—but as institutions which actually produce the very notion of community and culture” [66]. In that context, the living heritage of the TNM’s approach is not equivalent to the approach according to which heritage is maintained by the community whose everyday life it is a part of and that is connected to it according to its needs and concerns [21]. The needs and concerns of Trešnjevka residents are being elevated to broader social needs and concerns through curators’ control over the stories they provide. Based on the donated objects and sites in the urban fabric of the neighborhood, the TNM constructs narratives through which heritage gets a new or renewed life in the museum’s programs—in guided tours, exhibitions, and workshops—and is communicated back to residents and all other users. Specific objects and sites are chosen, researched, and interpreted in order to reinstate in the public discourse the values of the socialist society, which are expanded and amplified by contemporary social values. This community of interest has created its own conceptual, activist space for achieving their goals, and in this respect, the participatory relationships in the management of the museum show what Fisher calls instrumental effects [1]. In trying to match this management model with the types of cultural heritage governance proposed by Sokka et al. [43], it could be placed somewhere between the corporatist and service-led approaches. According to the former, interest groups take part in the formation of heritage policies—or, in this case, programs—without a broader inclusion of local residents, while the latter targets the community but does not work with it to achieve their full civic engagement. This model has been proposed from the perspective of public cultural managers not civil society, but this research might perhaps serve to expand this or similar models with management and governance practices of heritage communities.

7. Conclusions

The role of mainstream museums as the oldest heritage protectors and caterers to a small group of people was challenged in the 1960s by alternative, community-based museums whose inclusive goals and visions of social development could be said to represent precursors of the contemporary merger of heritage and social values. However, the institutional work has now been expanded by a pronounced significance of participation of individuals and groups in the heritage field. Motivated by this new shift, the research presented in this paper explores the project of the Trešnjevka Neighborhood Museum—Building from Bottom Up in Zagreb, Croatia, which was launched by BLOK, a Zagreb-based NGO. By partnering with other NGOs and the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum in Zagreb, they conceived of what they call a long-term neighborhood museum project whose goal was to establish the museum on the principles of participative management and integrate citizens’ participation in its operation through their donation of artefacts whose reproduction was to form the museum’s online collection. After the end of the initial founding project, the museum has been run by BLOK. Drawing on the literature on participation in museums and heritage in general, and the levels of participation proposed by Nina Simon in particular, the research aims to identify levels of agency in decision-making about content creation for a range of activities carried out by the TNM. Thematic analysis was conducted on two sets of materials—texts about activities published on the museum’s official website and social media and the interview held with two curators from the TNM. The results have shown that through the initial, past, and present projects, the museum has established diverse participatory relationships with different types of stakeholders. The goals of participative projects have largely been defined by the social and heritage values upheld by the BLOK association as the initiator and the main stakeholder in the TNM project, and they directed the choice of stakeholder and manners of participation. Both BLOK and the associates they work with foster democracy, social inclusion, and equality by advocating the rights of marginalized social groups. The TNM project was formed around the agenda of representing past and contemporary social issues through heritage. Historical narratives that support the value-based framework of the stakeholders have been shaped based on the collected items and particular neighborhood sites and communicated through exhibitions, workshops, guided tours, concerts, film screenings, and the online collections. The participative configuration of the museum includes like-minded individuals and organizations who are given a high level of participatory agency and decision-making freedom in relation to the concept and content of activities. On the other hand, the neighborhood residents as the local community have participated in only one activity—the building of the online collection—in a contributory manner and with a low level of decision-making about the content that is published. Their participation has also been determined by the social agenda in the way that their stories have been shaped in professionalized discourses and used to construct historical narratives with manifest links to contemporary social issues. In this way, the museum builds a community of interest within a place-based community in order to represent heritage values alternative to those of the mainstream institutions, which arguably democratizes heritage discourse in Zagreb and Croatia. The TNM can therefore be described as a territorialized cause-based project whose management is predicated on value-based participation of different stockholders, while its heritage governance approach resembles both corporatist and service-led approaches.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb (17-2021/22, 28 September 2022).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy or ethical restrictions.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Table 1. Activities organized according to participation layers, topics, stakeholders and participation approaches.
Table 1. Activities organized according to participation layers, topics, stakeholders and participation approaches.
Participation LayerActivityTopicStakeholdersParticipation Approaches
Traditional museum functionsDocumenting collected artefactsRecording history of TrešnjevkaBLOK, Art historian, historians, ethnologistsCollaborative
Photography exhibitionTrešnjevka in the 1960s–1980sBLOK, amateur photographers from TrešnjevkaCollaborative
Virtual exhibitionHistory of tuberculosisBLOK-
Art exhibitionsCollages of neighborhood plants, animation of collection objectsBLOK, ArtistsCocreative
Creative workshops (writing, drawing, collaboration)Work conditions, labor history, Trešnjevka urban history (in connection to online collection)BLOK, Artists, writerCollaborative
Sociocultural dynamicsFilm screeningsFeminism, labor, transformation of labor and urban spaceBLOK, film expertCocreative
Concerts in BAZAA range of genres, music inspired by ethno sounds (nonmainstream)BLOK, BandsCocreative
Collaborative projectsGuided tours in TrešnjevkaHistory of migrants, WWII antifascist movement, female history, history of industry (part of initial project)NGOs, Nikola Tesla MuseumCocreative
History of urban planningBLOK, Art historian (Institute of Art History)Collaborative
History of tuberculosis (reading texts and archival documents at sites)BLOK, Nikola Tesla Technical MuseumCocreative
Interventions in public spaceMarking sites with posters on communist female heroes, and sites of former industrial Premises (part of initial project)BLOK, K-zona, Nikola Tesla Technical MuseumCocreative
Panel discussionTalk on the history of Trešnjevka’s urban developmentBLOK, Art historians (researchers, academics)Collaborative
Museum values, causes and ethicsCollection buildingHistory of TrešnjevkaTrešnjevka residentsContributory
Collaborative projectsTopics related to Trešnjevka (Invisible Players—ongoing project on the history of women in sports)Partners (Trešnjevka Cultural Centre; Vanja Radanović and a journalist exploring women in sports)Cocreative/collaborative
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