Collecting: Corona Chronicles

Mary Dowson initiated Corona Chronicles early in the first Lockdown. The idea was to use the BCB networks to collect Bradford people’s experiences of Lockdown and to explore the technology they were using to keep in touch with friends, family or work. The archive would be a collection of audio interviews. Corona Chronicles also allowed us to explore the question of how the museum collects.

Bradford City centre, deserted on a Saturday afternoon on 9th May 2020 as a result of the lockdown imposed by the UK government in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Photo by Tim Smith.

Currently the National Science and Media Museum’s collecting policy does not mention Bradford, meaning that any case for an object or archive to be collected needs to be based on the core themes and disciplines of the museum. So Corona Chronicles could not be focused only on people in Bradford’s experiences, it had to tell a story of broadcast technology as well. That worked well as the technology side of the story was also important to BCB. As the Coronavirus restrictions were imposed BCB were forced to close their studios and had to find a myriad of different ways of carrying on broadcasting, involving the widest range of people, including those that didn’t have a computer or access to the internet.

However, moving forward in the museum wasn’t easy or quick. There was the collections policy mentioned above, there was the Collections Board that makes decisions on what to collect and there was the fact that the Science Museum Group is currently developing a digital preservation strategy.

Sarah Ledjmi, Associate Curator for Sound and Vision, worked with Mary to understand how to connect the Collections Policy, the Collection Board and Corona Chronicles. Sarah did this through openly exploring the issues with Collections Board. What became clear was that Collection Board were interested in a specific focus on broadcasters talking about the technology they used, rather than an archive that contains examples of how technology was deployed to record the archive or people talking about technology in their everyday lives. Corona Chronicles, therefore, exemplifies the tensions identified between STEM-Social and Collections-People.

The story isn’t over yet and Sarah and Mary are going to carry on finding ways of connecting National Science and Media Museum collecting policy and the experiences of using technology – for broadcast and in everyday life – in the times of coronavirus. But it has been frustrating for all involved. What has made it something worth continuing has been the context of the research which has meant that the conversations have been very open and the issues could be situated in a bigger picture of trying to understand how the museum can work differently in and
with Bradford.

Our collecting policy, although reviewed regularly, is meant to stand the test of time: in principle, all the objects we collect are acquired ‘in perpetuity’. I feel like this foreverness implies an assumption of placelessness, uprootedness. I wonder if this might explain why we find it difficult to make a strong case for Bradford material BECAUSE it is from Bradford. That somehow, being from Bradford makes the material less universal, it makes it time-bound because it is place-bound. Of course it is the opposite: Bradford is just as representative of the nation and speaks to universal themes because of its diversity, its very ‘localness’ which is at the same time global, connected, ever-changing.

This ‘fluidity as risk’ is also at play when we think about collecting the Corona Chronicles as an object in the making. Once the object is ‘IN’, it usually loses its connections with the outside world, and the museum controls the narrative (we write the object descriptions, the labels, we choose where and when to showcase it…). With the Corona Chronicles, BCB, its volunteers and the interviewees get to continue shaping and adding to the archive as it evolves. Is this too much of a risk for the museum? To lose control of the narrative and let ‘IN’ something that is more than an object – a living, evolving network of people with a stake in the story?

Sarah Ledjmi

The meetings with the museum have left me feeling quite deflated. I would probably have abandoned the idea of collaborating if it wasn’t for the context of my involvement with Bradford’s National Museum project. At times it has felt too hard and far too slow. I’ve questioned whether it was worth the effort – we might do all this work, for it then to enter a system that returns a blunt ‘Museum Says No’ verdict. But working with Sarah to actively negotiate this and to see it as part of understanding how the museum can work more collaboratively in general – that is a much more interesting proposition and has made it possible to stay involved. We need to see every project between the museum and Bradford as a Venn Diagram where we are trying to grow the overlap in the middle and grow what we have in common.

Mary Dowson