Dialogue Revealing Tensions

It was through making the connections between the moments and everyday working life at the museum that the tensions produced by being a national museum and working locally in Bradford became sharper. To enable us to understand the tensions we gave them names – such as national-local and collections-people – and gave the different tensions specific meaning through linking them to insights from staff.

Having listened to the moments on their own terms, we then explored the connections between the moments and the everyday work of museum staff. As we did so tensions – already visible in the Above the Noise reflection process, the staff action research group work and in the Headlines exercise – re-merged. In the workshops we were able to explore the tensions in more depth and with a wider group of staff.

Many members of staff are drawn towards wanting to see greater community and local engagement. However, there is a counter-balancing sense that other aspects of the museum’s mission necessarily pull energy and focus in other directions. Following the small group discussions, we identified the main tensions and organised comments from different members of staff that helped clarify how these tensions are experienced in practice.

In the large final workshop we looked at future directions for the museum’s role in Bradford. It became very important that we found a way to articulate the powerful and persistent nature of the tensions as well as identifying and discussing different possible strategies for dealing with these tensions.

The tensions identified through the workshops with staff were:

Local – National

A central tension identified is between local and national pulls and responsibilities. The national side of this tension is made up of a number of different elements and includes: governance and decision-making structures; funding; collections significance; status or prestige; being a national platform; international networks of other national museums; geographic scope in terms of collections and potential audience and geographic location. The local side of the tension includes: being well connected within Bradford; understanding the people who live in Bradford and their histories and faiths; working in collaborative ways and seeing how Bradford can be an entry point for interpreting the UK.

In Maureen’s piece she argues it needs to be an ongoing conversation (to tell Bradford’s evolving story), a work in progress. We need to continually be in dialogue with people in Bradford. But this is not currently embedded in the way we work.

Gin Jacobucci, Volunteer Coordinator

Bradford is an ecosystem and there are some things other institutions do really well and we don’t need to do, and there are things we can do – because we are a national museum – to fill these gaps in Bradford that other organisations are not filling.

Helen Langwick, Head of Exhibitions

We shouldn’t see the museum in isolation to other organisations that exist in the city. Andy Abbott names some that are firmly rooted in their local context, why does he see them rooted? We can strengthen our roots by doing what we do best in terms of our collections, our skills and resources, our profile, and so on, by working with what we have to bring impact and relevance that has longevity. What does that look like for us? What can we do that adds value?

Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Director

Tension between national and local is less so an issue at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester (also part of the Science Museum Group). SIM is about showing the nation to Manchester and Manchester to the nation. It is worth remembering that there is another museum in the group that does that.

Lewis Pollard, Curator of Television and Broadcast

Time to build relationships and think – Pressure to deliver

Staff often say that their everyday lives are focused on delivery, whether of exhibitions or events, and that they would need to be allocated more time to be able to build relationships in Bradford. However, ways in which this tension could be rethought started to emerge in the discussions in terms of framing working well with Bradford as increasing the museum’s efficiency and ability to meet its mission,

What does it practically mean for to us to ‘build relationships’ when we are charged with constantly producing deliverables that explain the world of science to our audiences?

Martyn Lenton, Project Manager Exhibitions

How can we stop seeing things like working with Bradford, Open for All, or any kind of equity planning as extra work? How can we create a culture that helps us recognize that these things can help us do things quicker and better?

Kathryn Penny, Head of Screen Operation

Working with communities is not a sideline or window-dressing, it is a core and vital part of what we do. It needs to be done strategically. It needs to generate KPI’s and link to outcomes which are measured and evaluated.

Iain Hendry, Audience Developer

Staff agency/agency of collaborators – Science Museum Group decision-making process

Being part of a group of national museums means policy and decisions are made in a structured way, with oversight provided by staff in senior positions. A key tension identified is how a mode of transparency and accountability offered by these processes can be combined with enabling staff and collaborators to feel they have creative agency in their projects. An area that drew focus, both in the moments and in the discussion, was in how to conceptualise organisational change and in particular how to think about the relationship between enabling innovation and structures of processes and decision-making.

I started off today by saying that despite working within an institution we are also individual people. And we each develop personally, through learning and reflection. My role is to support this development and also the collective change in the museum that will deliver our mission and ambitions. It is important to strategically embed this work because that is how it will be sustained.

Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Director

We need to look at the way we are administered and governed as an organization. My headline was about moving towards community ownership. I know that won’t happen, but to me the key question is to ask: what are the political and economic systems we are a part of and sustaining? Is this at odds with our vision for a fairer, more equal society? That is what I see in what Sajidah and Chris say about change.   

Sarah Ledjmi, Associate Curator of Sound and Vision

Going back to the transparency of the fundamentals of what we do and where we can be flexible. Not language of ‘we must, you can’t’ but explaining what we can do for others. I have used this when working on events for example. Having very open conversations about our processes. I want to be perceived as somebody with integrity and a good will. I want to help, but there are things I can’t do.  

Dean Loughran, Head of Operations

Exhibitionsprogramme can be decided from above, touring shows come in that have different focusses to what we usually focus on. Being consulted is really key, so that conversations can be had about making it work in Bradford.  With the move closer towards Science Museum Group processes and identity, decisions about the exhibitions programme are now made both locally and group-wide. That introduced pressure to create tour-able exhibitions which can present challenges in combining Bradfordfocused working with this aspiration. We need to avoid formats that limit locally specific content to an ‘add local aspect here’ section. That tends to look tokenistic and not integrated.

Alice Parsons, Interpretation Manager

There is something monolithic, essentialist, about some of the ways the ideas of the institution, of the nation are mobilised. It’s a false dichotomy of local and national. You are always local somewhere. ‘If you are not from here you can’t ever be from here’ is surely the opposite of what we are hoping to achieve, of our vision of what ‘national’ means. How do we miss out on the critical, how do we break the monolith, the pitting of fixed, immutable, singular ways of being against each other? How do we value the plural, the multiple, the other, the fluid?

There is a difference between reform, revolution, and abolition when we think about change. It would be interesting to think about what these words could mean for an organisation like ours in terms of change. How do we break down the monolith of nation, organisation, etc? How can we make it more plural? How can political concepts help us put this into practice?

Sarah Ledjmi, Associate Curator of Sound and Vision

Audiences (large numbers) – Communities (in depth engagement)

A tension emerged in how the museum distributes its focus between ‘visitors’ and ‘communities’. Museums are set up to create inspiring visitor experiences – magic moments or magic days out. Exhibitions are designed for large numbers and understood through audience segmentation and exit surveys. Communities are specific people and groups and work is developed through in-depth engagement work. A tension that was expressed in our discussions was how to move towards more sustained long-term relationships with communities in Bradford, whilst retaining the importance of that more momentary visitor magic.

We need to recognise it is a long-term thing and to get away from a project approach. We have been looking in our team at developing long-term relationships with particular groups, or parts of Bradford. We have long-term goals and strategies in place for that. Co-curating a space is like a front room. It is when you are comfortable enough to move the furniture around. That takes time and trust. As a recruiting manager I think about Andy’s experience and how we can recruit in a way that represents our communities and Bradford. We need to think about how we do that and about what we put on job descriptions.

Elaine Richmond, Partnership and Participation Manager

We know who our audience is, and that a lot are from Bradford and the wider Yorkshire area. We’re always aiming to get our message to that group and as many others who we think will enjoy what we do. We know we can’t put everyone from Bradford in one pot, and when we want to engage other groups it takes time, planning and resource. Obviously, that’s not an unlimited supply so it can create tension in terms of where we apply our focus, but this document should be an excellent starting point for developing new ways of approaching that. 

Phil Oates, Communications Manager

The issue in my role is that I have a focus on particular people and communities. The audience BD5 and BD3 become isolated because it is not linked to the audience segmentation model or the communities that marketing might be conceptualising 

Iain Hendry, Audience Developer

The flip-side to long-term commitment is short-term work with schools in Bradford. Sometimes it works really well for things like design testing or a preview for creating marketing images. While this could be seen as extractive or short-termism, there is reciprocity there. I got the impression that the children were enjoying the special treatment. The museum was experienced as a special place that they got special access to. And then they can show pictures in the paper. This maybe doesn’t mean much in formal education but creates a base for the future.   

Martyn Lenton, Project Manager Exhibitions

As the Front of House team, we engage with so many people who come through our doors. We have some really good conversations with people. A lot of these experiences are lost and not incorporated into our understanding of what is valued. The experiences of Front of House could be better captured.   

Siobhan Devanny, Explainer Team Leader 

Collections – People

Museums collect objects and use conservation techniques to keep objects safe in ways which mean they can survive for use in the future. Tension can be experienced between making collections available for use in the present and ensuring their long-term conservation. The other way this is a challenge is that the museum has a specific collections focus – the science and technology of sound and vision. This means that collaborative projects need to look creatively for links between the museum’s collections and themes and issues of importance and relevance to Bradford.

Museums are not local youth clubs or common spaces, they have a significant role in keeping collections safe. This means things can’t always be turned around quickly and in what has been described as a ‘Bradfordian’ manner. Now, of course there is a middle ground to be found and the museum needs to get better at connecting to people and understanding their needs. But what would be lovely is if some of the places and people in Bradford tried a bit more to understand what museums need, in the same way we in the museum try to understand the needs of Bradford. 

Helen Langwick, Head of Exhibitions 


The feeling I had from the Above the Noise experience is to have the conversation very early on and to ask: Do we need to adapt the way we work? Above the Noise has had an influence on how we look at exhibitions going forward. How much support will this exhibition require from registration and collections services? Who are the lenders? What is their experience? How much do they know about the museum? The National Railway Museum in York and the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester (both also part of the Science Museum Group) have also been impacted by it. It has also impacted how we are looking at COVID collecting and how to develop a fast-track process to collect in a responsive way. That process made me hark back to Above the Noise and making sure we tick the boxes we need to, to make sure objects are safe, whilst also adapting to the situation. 

Nadine Loach, Registrar 


From my side it has to be really practical and that is why we use the idea of being a good neighbour. We wanted to build on relationships that the Security Team already had. Something we did recently was to work with Bradford Homeless outreach. We are now an official pick-up point for a charity for people who need a place to stay.  

John Rooney, Operations Manager 

Personal relationships – Strategic partnerships

The museum already has established formal strategic partnerships in Bradford. Yet a key issue remains in terms of how staff might be supported to cultivate their own personal-professional networks in Bradford in ways that would enable their everyday work, in particular with those in Bradford who are part of the civic networks debating the future of Bradford.

There is frustration and more loaded emotions in Bradford about historic injustices and relationships with individuals and organisations which is important we recognise and know for our work. We are not starting from scratch, there is a long historical, social and political context we are working in and with, and we need time to get to know that history. This is a relationship, something we keep working on. I was previously maybe not as aware of that. 

Gin Jacobucci, Volunteers Coordinator 


Networks are so important. I realised that when I worked on Rivers of Tea with Tim Smith. Tim or Andy Abbot can do what they do because they have these massive networks. Alice knows everyone, she talks to everyone, and is a huge asset for our team. This knowledge needs to broaden out. I would love it if all of us knew people in the city who we could call and find out what is happening in Bradford. If you have those connections already then you can collaborate with people more easily and make their voices heard. A lot of people who work in the museum don’t live in Bradford, and at the moment we of course don’t even see our colleagues. Maybe we can have a set of systems in place to enable keeping in touch, like monthly trips out, have someone who works in the community or creative scene at each of our monthly staff briefings. It would be nice to have workplace support to go out there and talk to people. 

Kate Burnett, Interpretation Developer 


I work across two large events, a film and a videogame festival. A lot of our content for these festivals is created and supplied by contractors. I have been thinking about my work with them. Going into discussions with contractors thinking, how can I – as a representative of a national museum – benefit those we work with. This might involve talking and communicating more, asking how they would want to use a museum space, what kind of promotional opportunities we can offer, what their own ambitions and project goals are and how we can help meet them. I am trying to have a more co-operative approach to my work ethic. 

Jack Wentworth-Weedon, Festival Assistant 


There is a sense that we aren’t part of the cultural and heritage networks in Bradford. Almost by nature, because of the way the museum is approaching its mission. The tone too often is, we are an institution and we will bestow our learning onto our audience. The museum is not collaborative in our setup.  

Phillip Roberts, Associate Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology 

STEM – Social history

The National Science and Media Museum is part of the Science Museum Group and therefore has a mission to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It was noted that this is often not always clearly understood by people in Bradford and sometimes makes it difficult for staff to develop local collaborations.

STEM focus can mean over-emphasizing a STEM factor, which can lead away from the actual local issue or story that is meant to be addressed in a collaboration between the museum and partners in Bradford. 

Iain Hendry, Audience Developer

I often get approached by local partners because of the museum’s national status, but I know that my focus needs to be our STEM remit too. The people approaching me are not clear about that, their argument is that we are the national museum, so important things should happen here. I know from experience that local significance does not rate as high in our decision-making processes (like Forward Programme Group), as STEM content does. I am told to work locally, but our processes are more likely to filter local ideas out. I think because of that I then self-censor and put maybe more focus on STEM aspects than needed, which can take us away from the actual local needs we mean to address.    

Alice Parsons, Interpretation Manager 

Quality in outcome – Quality in process

Linked to the discussions about delivery, a tension was expressed between an outcomes-focused approach to work (quality in outcomes) and a processes-focused approach (quality in process) that might take longer and need more resourcing. In recent work of the Exhibition Team there were useful indications of how an apparent opposition between outcome and process might be rethought.

In Sonia’s piece I recognised her point about how momentum was lost when Above the Noise opened. We changed our way of working in the Exhibitions Team, now when the exhibition opens – instead of seeing that as the end of our work, that opening day is when the work is just begun. It is when something is live, when it is a resource for engagement. As a result, we changed our work pattern structure to hopefully allow more space for tours, events and other responses. I hope now that we’ll have more time to have conversations when it matters, not like Sonia experienced it – a year and a half later.  

Alice Parsons, Interpretation Manager 


I also see that timescales for exhibition projects make indepth collaborations very difficult. You would probably need to double the development time on an exhibition. This does not mean it shouldn’t be done, but it is challenging to do. There is an extent to which the Bradford’s National Museum project hasn’t impacted the internal workings of the museum. Partly because the museum is not willing to change structures. That is what I see between the two stories, what we should do and how the museum is set up. 

Phillip Roberts, Associate Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology 

We had been circling around these tensions now for over 18 months. They’d lurked in the cross-cutting questions arising from the Above the Noise reflections, in the ‘working models’ documentation and in the staff action research group discussions. But what we hadn’t worked out was how to do something productive with them.

Everyone knew tensions existed, but this wasn’t getting us very far. The working models approach – based on identifying different paradigms/worldviews – hadn’t really hit the nail on the head. The working models still set things up like there was a choice to be made and the way I had written them, I think, felt a little bit too much like annoyingly pointing out inconsistencies. Seeking to encapsulate the tensions on this kind of sliding scale – as shown in Part 3 – was more immediately easy to grasp in large part because it didn’t set the issues up in terms of falsely easy choices or as if consistency in worldview was the point.

Helen Graham, Research Facilitator