Testing Alignment as Strengths and Tensions as Strengths

In a final large workshop, we tested two strategies for approaching the tensions – Alignments as Strengths and Tensions as Strengths.

Alignments as Strengths was seen by staff as offering some scope. However, it was also thought that it was necessary to acknowledge the significant tensions. Tensions as Strengths was seen as offering a way of being more honest and open about the pressures for the museum.

Following the small group discussions, we ran a large workshop for museum staff to shape the future directions of the National Science and Media Museum in its relationship with Bradford. At the workshop we tested two ways of dealing with tensions: Alignments as Strengths (minimising any tension between local and national work) and thinking of the Tensions as Strengths (openly acknowledging the tensions and seeking to transforming them into a positive).

Tension connects and holds energy. Image credit: Karsten Seiferlin https://tinyurl.com/yyu5877a

While there was enthusiasm for alignment between the national and local where possible, many felt that more actively recognising the irresolvable nature of the tensions – and seeking to conceptualise ‘tensions as strengths’ – was necessary. Caveats to the Tensions as Strengths idea included how to make working through tensions feel positive and fruitful, being clearer about how making tensions visible might inform decision-making processes, and firmly positioning a ‘tensions as strengths’ approach within a wider commitment to culture change within the National Science and Media Museum. In this section you will find explanations of these concepts alongside staff reactions to them.

For the longest time I had been pushing towards what we ended up terming alignment as strengths. I’ve got old documents for a draft article on rethinking the national in national museum which, a little naively it now seems, sets out the myriad of ways on which there is no necessary contradiction between local and national. But that was ignoring that the lived experience of navigating the national and local at the National Science and Media Museum is experienced as, at minimum, a tension. In the end we decided we wanted to test both at the large final workshop – both the scope for seeing Alignment as a Strength and for Tensions as Strengths.

Helen Graham, Research Facilitator

Alignments as strengths

In the planning document circulated in advance of the final workshop, we asked the question: How might the NSMM be a thriving and stronger national museum precisely through being rooted and deeply engaged in and with Bradford?

This way of thinking about the question of the museum’s role in Bradford has come up persistently throughout the Bradford’s National Museum project. This way of thinking sees no necessary contradiction between being a national museum and a museum which has strong collaborative connections in Bradford – and in facts sees a strong alignment between national and local roles as a strength.

Examples we gave were:

  • Working with and in Bradford is national work
  • Interpret the nation from Bradford
  • Status travels in both directions
  • Build reciprocity in resources (that both the NSMM brings resources to Bradford and Bradford brings resources to the museum)

Reactions to Alignments as Strengths:

Potential was seen in Alignments as Strengths in that it allowed for seeing the local and national as on a continuum rather than in contradiction and, crucially, positioned the museum and Bradford as mutually benefiting from their association. The Alignment as Strengths ideas was seen as especially powerful by those in community-focused roles and those in curatorial roles who are focused on developing the collections. However, draw backs were identified to only taking this approach. Alignment as Strengths was understood as missing the wider responsibilities of the museum to regional audiences, to representing experiences beyond Bradford and as ignoring the power dynamics of how decisions are made in the Science Museum Group.

If it’s a commitment and is realised, it will give me a lot more opportunities to realise and do my work.  I work with very specific audiences in BD3 and BD5 but if there was more to draw on from other teams, and projects it would be better for my practice.

Iain Hendry, Audience Developer

London is the centre in a skewed way. It isn’t really the centre, just thinks it is. So we can rethink that. Nation gets defined locally, through interpreting what it means in that locality.

Gin Jacobucci, Volunteers Coordinator

Our current collection policy does not mention anything about Bradford. The collections policy of the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester (also part of the Science Museum Group) has a section about local stories. Our collection policy should reflect the same thing. Collect Bradford to show its importance to the nation.

Lewis Pollard, Curator of Television and Broadcast

We can collect more specifically in relation to Bradford. One of the limitations, if we did collect around what our audience in Bradford wants, becomes important only in the longer-term… In the long view we could say that we are only collecting for one audience and missing the relevance of other localities and other audiences. This is not a risk for now, but might be a risk in say 30 years if we focused on this exclusively?

Geoff Belknap, Head Curator

Tensions as Strengths

In the planning document circulated before the final workshop we also set out the Tensions as Strengths idea for discussion.

We wrote:

The tensions expressed above are often experienced as barriers or contradictions. Yet it is also clear that the tensions express different aspects of the museum’s purpose, with different teams and different members of staff holding responsibility for different elements of the work. The museum needs to do many different things to fulfil its mission. In this sense the tensions are not resolvable. It is not possible or desirable for the museum to think in an either/or way and pick a side.   

Rather than seeing these tensions as negative – as a barrier or as contradictions – the various conversations and discussions have prompted the idea of whether we can think of the tensions as a strength. In fact, we might say, these tensions are precisely what makes the NSMM the NSMM.  

Tension – in physics – is the force of connection. Tension is created by both pulling apart and keeping connected. It is precisely this pulling and connection which creates energy.  Tensions have been experienced as pull apart or pulling in different directions. But could we see the tensions as pulling to expand what the museum can do and become? We can think of tensions as dynamic connection that can support and expand each other.   

Examples we gave were:

  • Inter/national scope AND local depth
  • Reciprocal relationships AND targeted delivery
  • Transparent, safe structures AND creative freedom
  • Magic moments AND deep relationships
  • Collecting things AND debating meanings
  • Personal relationships AND Strategic Partnerships
  • Science knowledge AND everyday experience
  • Quality in outcome AND quality in process
  • Reciprocal relationships AND targeted delivery

Reactions to Tensions as Strengths

Tensions as Strengths was seen as being helpful as it allowed for the different competing agendas and remits to be openly talked about and navigated. It was noted that not all tensions are creative and productive and that more unhelpful tensions need to be identified and resolved where possible. It was also noted that constantly navigating tensions had the potential to be tiring and dispiriting and needed to be carefully managed through the right kinds of organisational culture and time and space for discussion. Finally, there was concern that ‘tensions as strengths’ needed to be articulated in terms of how it might aid decision-making and help make visible how decisions are made in the Science Museum Group (which often requires decisions to be made from a collective ‘Group’ perspective).

There will always be tensions…

I would find very helpful to recognize the tensions and openly talking about the different agendas we have to manage.

Gin Jacobucci, Volunteers Coordinator

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought we could remove all the tensions in an organisation that is as complex and rich as ours. But I think that a way of navigating these tensions is to work collaboratively. The important thing is that we can articulate them, understand them better and make sure we are supporting everyone within their roles. If we are honest about the tensions, then we can work better together.  

Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Director

I think every kind of human endeavour has tensions and restrictions. It is identifying those and resolving them as a group. Don’t just put a fix in place and move on, solve the issues together. Align and resolve where we can and express and acknowledge the tensions where we can’t. 

Dean Loughran, Head of Operations

The fact that they won’t go away is about reminding ourselves that we are not aware of a final destination, this is process of change we go through, Bradford is changing as well, we can’t have a fixed point we are running towards. Everything is always changing. That is why the box in the first Padlet happened, the discussion about the word slow. Time consideration, patience is important, we won’t have solved it one day. So it is important to show in Bradford that we are wanting to adapt, that we are on a journey, but we can’t show what it will look like, it will never be a finished outcome, but an ongoing process. Makes me feel calmer because it will be an impossible task otherwise. (impossible to find a final solution) 

Alice Parsons, Interpretation Manager

Tensions need to be acknowledged and not slipped under the radar. We need to be honest about what we are trying to do. It’s sometimes going to be awkward and require more time.   

Martyn Lenton, Project Manager Exhibitions

Working with tensions is really critical in all of my practice, its about critical thought. If we don’t take the space and time to question our collections, we will not be doing our job.   

Geoff Belknap, Head Curator 

Difference between productive and unproductive tensions

Tensions underlie all of our activities – there are time pressures, word counts, budgets. But there are some tensions that we could drop, as they are counter-productive. 

Dean Loughran, Head of Operations

We need a catalogue of tensions, some are positives and some are not. Which ones can be spun and turned into something positive and which can be removed and simplified? 

Kathryn Penny, Head of Screen Operation 

Human toll of tension

There will always be tensions. The consequence is that it is tiring, to constantly live with tension. From the outset you need to acknowledge that there is a human cost, living in a state of tension is hard and draining. After a very tense time, people would need some time to heal.  

Geoff Belknap, Head Curator 

It’s a lot to hold together and that can be tiring to manage. Finding a constructive way of doing it is important. Maybe that is sometimes when we stop, because it is difficult. To get the idea of Tensions as Strengths to work we would need to pace ourselves and spend time on it. 

Gin Jacobucci, Volunteers Coordinator

From Tensions to Transparent Decision-Making

The tensions are good in recognizing where our pitfalls are, maybe it gives a space to question the status quo. We talk a lot about these things and then we grind to a holt. It’s about using the conversations and then creating actions. Rather than have massive discussion and then nothing comes out of it.

Bex Hill, Festivals and Cinema Events Coordinator

It is really important that solutions are agreed rather than imposed. Understanding, for example, that if something is targeted towards a specific community, then it may not turn out to be a blockbuster. That is okay but needs a mental trade off. A change in view. 

Dean Loughran, Head of Operations

How do we reach consensus? There are some things that will never be resolved, so how do you move forward, or how do you change your perspective on it? Maybe tensions isn’t the right word. You need to find a commonality to find a productive way forward. Maybe there is a better word that can show that you do go through some friction but what comes next is important? How do you move forward?Structural tensions are harder to deal with than creative tension.  

Geoff Belknap, Head Curator

How do we adequately capture all of the stakeholder attitudes that often go unsaid during the process? We often find out at the end, when it is too late, to do things differently. There are some things that we have to do legally, and some things that we have just always done in a certain way. We need to make sure we know which of these we are dealing with in any given context. This could be worked out during the process rather than at the end, so these assumptions are surfaced properly. This is where the model could be useful, in opening up conversations about these tensions, and surfacing them at the outset and keeping logging as we go, so nothing is lost, and we can work out which are which. Do we need to do it this way, or could it change? Who then makes the decision about who does what, and what goes forward? This is the crucial part that is missing in this draft.   

Dean Loughran, Head of Operations

I quite like that this whole debate about national and local is more internal than anything else. The fact that we are not going to get a clear answer about which to prioritize allows us to be more flexible and not constrained. We can do national and local, the tension allows flexibility in our programme. Tensions as Strengths can make space for that.  

Alice Parsons, Interpretation Manager 

Dangers that Tensions as Strengths hides inequalities

It is a rehearsal of London and region and how disjointed and unequal it is. The country knows certain regions and communities get less, all of this is a rehearsal of these inequalities. We’re always rehearsing this story, we are run from London, the tension cannot be resolved. But it could be a conversation about devolution, democratisation and what it can do to address those inequalities. If the same people at the top retain the final say and the decisions are made somewhere else, then, in this view, tensions as strengths could be a lie. 

Sarah Ledjmi, Associate Curator of Sound and Vision 

In retrospect it seems odd I didn’t reconcile myself to what became Tensions as Strengths sooner. I’ve often thought all museums – and this is only exacerbated when they operate at a larger scale – are themselves founded on a contradiction.

To see heritage as a material and non-renewal resource which must be kept safe for future generations and made accessible to everyone now is a split mission which then prompts the professionally-led ‘on behalf of’ everyone and future generations that exemplifies the governance of almost all museums. As long as museums exist with that paradigm they will be fuelled precisely by navigating irresolvable tensions.

This core collections-people tension, which prompts the decision-making tensions when participatory practice is added to museums, is present in the NSMM. It is also added to by others that are specific to being a national museum and part of a large group of museums led from London. The pragmatic question then becomes how to make these tensions positive, fruitful and creative rather than tensions that drive everyone to exhaustion and despair. What we weren’t sure of going into the large final workshop was whether this playing around with the different meanings of ‘tension’, from meaning something unresolved to its meaning from physics, as a force of connection and potential energy, would resonate.

Helen Graham, Research Facilitator