This blog post was written following the Objects in Motion conference, held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.
We often imagine that museum objects end their lives when they enter a collection. At the Objects in Motion conference, there was much discussion over whether museum collections are alive, dead, or just resting. Often museum objects have been through a long journey – from their native setting or perhaps another kind of a life to being stripped of their context, given a label and an identification number and placed reverently in a cool dark store to await an audience. An audience of researchers perhaps, arriving one at a time to eagerly inspect a particular quality of that object, or maybe an audience of millions when the object finds itself on display in a large national museum. Whichever of those is true, the question remains: are those objects alive?
13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.
Well, it’s obviously not the end of the Information Age, if such a thing truly exists. Although I am marking the end of my personal journey into building the Science Museum’s brand new Information Age gallery, and heading off to pastures new.
When I started at the Science Museum back in 2010 as an assistant curator, the museum had just been told that they had been awarded a pot of money to develop a potential new gallery, then known under the working title Making Modern Communications. It looked likely that I would get to help. What I didn’t anticipate then was a trip to Cameroon to acquire mobile phone related objects, some of my writing appearing alongside pieces by David Attenborough, Stephen Baxter and Martha Lane Fox in our accompanying book, or witnessing the Queen sending her first (and perhaps last) tweet. The last four and a bit years have been long, but extremely rewarding.
So for everybody outside the museum the gallery has just started its life as a public space, meanwhile for the large team who put it together we look to what comes next. I’m about to embark on another long journey. I’m beginning a collaborative PhD with the University of Cambridge and the Science Museum, looking at the development of Ohm’s law and the wider history of electricity in the nineteenth century. I’ll be using museum collections as the starting point for recreated experiments, following in the footsteps of my supervisor, Hasok Chang. I also have every intention of being a more regular blogger, so watch this space!
Participation, co-creation, collaboration – these are all buzzwords in museums at the moment, keys that can unlock funding and impress stakeholders. However, pinning down what they mean in practice can be tricky. The range of activities that could be considered participatory is enormous, and coming up with a systematic approach is difficult given the variety of different things museums do.
At the Science Museum I’ve been working on a project with a strong participatory element. In October this year Information Age will open, and new gallery dedicated to the last 200 years of communication and information technologies. One of the stories we’ll be telling looks at the impact of mobile phones in Cameroon. It would be rightly considered strange if we went ahead and told those stories without consulting some Cameroonians in the development of the gallery, but we’ve tried to go further and embed a number of London based Cameroonians in as many of our processes as we can. They’ve helped us select objects, write labels, produce films and choose images.
Last month my colleagues and I produced a paper outlining in quite practical terms what we’ve been up to, and how we think it has gone. This is just one way of working in a participatory way, and there are many more opportunities to get our audiences involved in developing galleries and exhibitions. I personally think this is crucial – particularly in national museums which are funded by the public, and as such the public should feel some genuine ownership over them. The best way to represent our audiences’ interests then is to allow them some input into what we produce. That’s not to undermine the specialist work of a museum, but instead to open up our practice and enable more true conversation at key points in the process.