The exploration of how the National Science and Media Museum and Bradford connect is far from over. Bradford’s National Museum uncovered both enormous potential but also genuine difficulties and dilemmas. Tensions as Strengths is a way of openly and honestly exploring the challenges of evolving a museum and to see this as an ongoing and constitutive part of the museum’s practice.
The challenges identified through this sustained collaboration between the National Science and Media Museum and Bradford are not unique. The insights of our project are certainly relevant for other national museums based out of capital cities. But not only that. Many of the issues identified apply to any museum, as tensions are produced simply by being a museum. The different missions bound up in collecting and conservation – of looking after objects for future generations and of making these objects accessible now – in themselves produce tensions. Tensions which will have their own particular flavour in museums of different scopes and scales but might still benefit from being explored and activated as strengths.
The wider museum sector is working out how to respond to decolonisation, racism and its own whiteness, to climate change and ecological breakdown, to a need for new economic models and to calls for democratic innovation. These are significant challenges that require us to go to the very founding logics of museums and to ask whether these political challenges can be accommodated within the structures and paradigms bequeathed to us from the late 19th century. This is the existential question for museums in 21st century.
What we noticed is that the frustrations that were provoked by any of the Bradford’s National Museum research initiatives – not least Above the Noise: 15 Stories From Bradford – were made bearable, even sometimes enjoyable, because there was always a meta-dimension. We didn’t just try to create an exhibition, collect an archive or put on an event, we used each experiment to ask bigger questions. It was through framing each initiative within this shared inquiry and joint intellectual endeavour that the irritations and awkwardness of practical collaboration were made more bearable and came to hold greater meaning.
This points to a way for museums in general to deal with the 21st century challenges to their operating models. That is to see every project, every exhibition, every aspect of museum practice as a collaborative exploration into their own existence. Museum work becomes action research. Museums become open inquiries. Bradford’s National Museum has given a little indication of how helpful that could be.