As you can see from our Questions page, we’re asking a range of questions about the museum, about Bradford, about communities and about the science and technology of media. In asking the questions, as is suggested by the project title and the repeated use of the word, we’re seeking connections. As we launch the project, I want to share some ideas about what connects these different domains (Bradford, ‘communities’, science and technology, media) by suggesting that one crucial connection lies in the concept of ‘connection’ itself.
What is ‘connection’?
A quick dictionary search generates a definition for ‘connection’ which runs something like this: ‘a relationship in which a person or thing is linked or associated with something else’. Connection therefore implies people and/or things and a relationship between them.
One thing which connects places, communities and science and technology and media is that they are all linked to methodological traditions that have used tracing relationships between people and things as part of a way of knowing or understanding.
To show this I just want to give three quick examples drawing on three of my favourite thinkers. Each example works in quite different ways and are focused on quite different topics. Yet each thinker put connections at the core of their work.
Place (or how Bradford is ‘extroverted’ and is made up of millions of relationships)
Every year I get my MA students to read Doreen Massey’s 1991 article in Marxism Today called ‘A Global Sense of Place’. Reflecting on the complex international connections visible on Kilburn High Street in London – a street where many languages are spoken and many different goods and foods sold – Massey asks us to hold a dense network of relationships in our mind, she evokes:
Economic, political and cultural social relations, each full of power and with international structures of domination and subordination, stretched out over the planet at every different level from the household to the local area to the international (1991, p. 27).
Massey suggests that thinking about place through these ‘relations’ opens up ‘an alternative interpretation of place’ (emphasis added):
In this interpretation, what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalised history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at particular locus. […] It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead the of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relationships and understandings, but there a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether that be a street or a region or even a continent. And this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local. (1991, p. 27)
In other words, Massey shows us how to be very locally engaged and yet rigorously not parochial or closed off. I see this as a kind of manifesto for all local history and heritage projects everywhere … but, of course, this approach to place-through-connections is particularly useful for a museum that is has ‘national’ in its title and yet wants to engage with its locality.
Communities (or how community is not a pre-constituted group, more an experience made up by dynamic networks)
Lots of things clunked into place for me when I first read Alison Gilchrist’s, The Well-Connected Community: A Networking Approach to Community Development. Community has long been noted as a pretty dangerous term, in danger of being ‘warmly persuasive’ as Raymond Williams put it (2004 , p. 70), of clumping people together, or as working as a kind of institutional code for race (Black and minority ethics) or class (working class). Museums have tended to segment people into demographics so they appear to be rendered knowable, so the museum can target exhibitions or programmes or understand who is visiting and who isn’t. I am not saying this can’t be useful or politically necessary but participatory approaches to museums do become easier when you fully recognise something at the centre of Gilchrist’s book: ‘the experience of community is generated by and manifest in the informal networks that exist between people, between groups and between orgainizations’. (2004, p. 1)
This relational way of thinking about communities allows for the following shift for institutions seeking to ‘engage communities’: community is an experience not a solid thing. Community therefore doesn’t pre-exist out there to be ‘worked with’. If ‘community’ is that generated by informal networks, you can’t ask anyone to represent anyone else. And – to bring it back to our project – museums can’t represent ‘the community’.
Yet Gilchrist’s work points very clearly to what this reading of community does enable. It means you can make really good relationships with people who care, have ideas and want to make a difference, as Gilchrist argues:
Community development often works best by identifying and supporting (linkers) (Fraser et al, 2003) or ‘moving spirits’ (Gibson, 1996): those individuals who are not community leaders as such but who work, often invisibly at a grassroots level to connected people with the more visible institutions and bringing about change in very subtle ways. (2004, p. 45)
This liberates museums from its paternalist legacies where people are carved up into demographics and worked with successively. Instead it paves the way for participatory practice where you work not with everyone but with anyone that see the museum as resources for achieving things they are interested in… all in order to make exhibits and programmes that work even better for the more casual visitor.
Science and Technology (how there is never an isolated fact or action, each are produced through the enrolment of many, many people and things into particular relationships): Various philosophical and methodology initiatives in histories, philosophies and sociologies of science and technology have focused on breaking down the idea that there is simply a scientific fact or that there is simply a hero scientist or inventor who, by the power of sheer genius, discovers or invents something. Instead there has been a crucial turn towards tracing the many relationships between things and people that make any ‘fact’, ‘technology’ or ‘action’ happen. Here is Michael Callon giving one of the clearest explanations of this idea …in the act of driving you are not alone:
When I drive from Tokyo to Kyoto, as soon as I turn the ignition key of my Nissan, I mobilize all the engineers who designed my car, the researchers who studied the resistance of materials, the firms that explored the deserts of the Middle- East and drill for oil, the refineries that produce petrol, the civil engineering firms that built the highways and maintain them, the driving school and its teacher who taught me to drive, the governments that drafted and issued traffic laws, the police who enforce them, and the insurance companies that help me to face my responsibilities. The simple act of turning an ignition key and driving from Tokyo to Kyoto mobilizes an extended network of human and non-human entities that participate, as many and yet as one, in this very ordinary action of transporting me from Tokyo to Kyoto. This action is collective. (2004, p. 6)
This indicates a very useful way forward for the interpretation of science and technology collections. Not only does it demystify – or ‘de-black box’ in the vocabulary of Science and Technology Studies – the technology in questions (e.g. a TV / a phone) but it also makes room for the user. You phone, play, watch, surf but with collective help…but you (the user and the visitor) is a crucial part of the story.
Ok… but so what?
Through the Bradford’s National Museum research project we’ll be looking for connections – relationships. One real benefit of this is that it helps avoid any tendency to see Bradford, ‘communities’ or science and technology as fixed, bounded or knowable only from one perspective.
This is especially important for our action research project because if nothing is fixed and bounded and is being dynamically and constantly made as connections are being made, broken and reformed – then we can also make and develop new possibilities for the museum in Bradford through noting current relationships and making different connections and new relationships.
Ultimately these relational perspectives suggest that in seeking to know any constellation of place, of people, of technologies you also become part of it and inevitably change it – this is far from a research flaw in our view, it’s an opportunity: you know the connections and relationships by joining in and exploring how they can grow.
Michel Callon (2004) ‘The role of hybrid communities and socio-technical arrangements in the participatory design’, Journal of the Center for Information Studies, (5) 1-10.
Alison Gilchrist (2004) The well–connected community. A networking approach to community development. Bristol: Policy Press
Doreen Massey (1991) ‘A Global Sense of Place’, Marxism Today, June: 24-29
Raymond Williams (2004 ) Key Words: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Forth Estate
PHOTO CREDIT: Playing pool in front of a mural depicting the journey from rural Bangladesh to urban Bradford, at the Bangladeshi Youth Organisation in Manningham. 1990. © Tim Smith