Bradford’s National Museum has explored how the National Science and Media Museum can become locally-rooted and more open, engaged and collaborative. Part 3: Future Directions sets out where we arrived. About, Part 1 and Part 2 explore the process that took us there.

Views of the National Science and Media Museum from City Park. In the foreground is a water fountain with children playing in it.

Views of the National Science and Media Museum from City Park. Image credit: Tim Smith

The Bradford’s National Museum project came about in the wake of a change in direction for what is now known as the National Science and Media Museum. The museum had been threatened with closure when severe funding cuts looked likely in the 2013 Comprehensive Spending Review, a possibility which saw 45,000 people signing a petition to keep the museum open. The museum did not close but the crisis prompted a new approach. The new strategy sought to focus more specifically on the science and technology of sound and vision and to find ways of connecting more closely to Bradford. It was this new strategy that led to the Bradford’s National Museum project.

Telegraph & Argus supplement produced for the Science and Media Museum’s opening in 1983. Image credit: National Science and Media Museum / Science Museum Group

The Bradford’s National Museum project was collaboratively designed between museum staff, partners who were well connected in Bradford and had established community development practices, and researchers at the University of Leeds. The question we posed was: ‘How can the National Science and Media Museum become locally-rooted and more open, engaged and collaborative?’

Future Directions

If you are mostly interested in where we ended up, then Part 3: Future Directions is the place to go. Here you will find that the way we addressed these questions was to recognise that connecting the museum more closely and more collaboratively with Bradford creates many tensions which, it became clear, were not resolvable in any fixed or final way. These tensions are between the pulls of being, on one side, part of the larger Science Museum Group, looking after internationally significant collections and attracting large audiences and, and on the other, developing local networks, building deep collaborations and seeing Bradford as lens to tell the story of the nation.

What we came to realise is that rather than seeing these tensions as contradictions that were wholly negative, there was a way of being honest about the challenges and, through this, reimagining the tensions as strengths. In Part 3: Future Directions, you can read our letter to Bradford and its accompanying ways of working which show how the tensions can be transformed into a positive and creative part of the museum’s everyday work and collaborative relationship with Bradford.

The action research process

But if that is where we ended up, it cannot be separated from how we got there. Bradford’s National Museum was an action research project. Taking an action research approach meant we collaboratively generated questions, experimented in different ways, reflected, discussed and, very often, debated. Over 150 people have been directly involved in shaping the research in different ways. The rest of this publication – Part 1: Moments and Part 2: Dialoguesare about this action research process and will be of interest to those thinking about cultural change in museums or those who are interested in large-scale action research processes. Throughout, we’ve added reflections about facilitating the action research process. We’ve done this as a ways of making visible the many uncertainties and false starts and as a way of resisting the temptation to tell a smooth, inexorable story of progress towards Part 3: Future Directions.

In the About section we tell the story of significant aspects of the project which take us up to the summer of 2020 and the beginning of this publication and Part 1: Moments. About is where to go to understand more about our action research process. Here we explain how we used a large collaborative exhibition Above the Noise: 15 Stories from Bradford to understand better what the challenges are for working more collaboratively in Bradford and to set agendas for the final part of the project, our exchanges with practitioners in Chicago and Washington D.C. and how the Staff Action Research Group took forward the agendas from there. This included a conversation about race that gathered pace within the museum in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S..

Advertising for the Above the Noise exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum. Image credit: National Science and Media Museum / Science Museum Group

Part 1: Moments is where the story of this publication begins. This publication has itself been developed as part of the action research – we, in effect, used the making of this publication as the process by which we completed our final phase of reflection. Here you can read ‘moments’ contributed by over 30 of our collaborators – staff, researchers and people who live and work in Bradford. We called them ‘moments’ as they all seek to capture both a moment of realisation that occurred during the project as well as indicating reasons for hope or possibility for change. They are powerful and thought-provoking – they are also all very different and come at our shared questions from necessarily and usefully varied positions and perspectives.

In Part 2: Dialogues we outline the process we used to move towards the Future Directions outlined in Part 3. We ran a series of small group discussions for staff where we listened to the moments on their own terms and then started to make the connections to everyday work in the museum. This process only solidified the need for us to address head on the tensions generated by being national and seeking to be locally-rooted and collaborative. We then ran a large final workshop to work through different strategies for dealing with the tensions – Alignments as Strengths and Tensions as Strengths.

Our Conclusions take two tacks. The first, in the words of its Director Jo Quinton-Tulloch, indicates what will be coming next for the National Science and Media Museum. We also offer a conclusion to the research process by those of us – Julia Ankenbrand, Helen Graham and Lynn Wray – who acted as its facilitators, a way of tying together our reflections on the roles we played that we have contributed throughout the publication.

A multiplicity of perspectives

A key principle of the Bradford’s National Museum project has always been to actively seek and value a multiplicity of perspectives. However, we have not approached this in the spirit that simply hearing different views is a good in itself. Rather, it is only by taking other people very seriously indeed, especially when they disagree with you, challenge you and particularly when they know things that you cannot (which is always true), that all of us as individuals can develop and grow and build the collective and shared spaces we need, whether in organisations or in cities and districts.

The necessary friction between the collective and the personal is made visible in Part 3: Future Directions. The letter stages a provisional and temporary ‘we’ of the museum and makes a commitment to certain ways of working – but there is also room made for personal postscripts by staff, researchers and our collaborators. Postscripts which, from different people’s standpoints, add to, qualify or layer different meanings to the shared letter. The personal postscripts are a reminder that honouring the responsibility of working for a public institution or of being a citizen committed to your place, is an ongoing task of deep and creative engagement which is never completed. Even as this phase of the Bradford’s National Museum work has reached its end.