The Science Museum was looking for answers to three questions:
How can we involve knowledgeable enthusiasts in the museum’s collection, so they can contribute what they know to our activity?
Can we work with these knowledgeable enthusiasts to engage a wider audience with our collection, by sharing their enthusiasm?
What can we discover about the ways in which laypeople think about the past of technology by working with subject enthusiasts?
Description of project:
In 2010, the Science Museum acquired the Oramics Machine, one of the first machines designed to produce electronic music. Envisaged in the late 1950s, it was constructed in several stages across the 1960s by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram. The museum had stabilised the machine, which was quite challenging because of its DIY-style, and determined to devote an exhibition to its place in electronic music. The Science Museum supports the idea of public history: that non-professionals carry knowledge about the history of our scientific culture. The museum team decided to develop the Oramics exhibition in co-creation with electronic music enthusiasts and with input from former colleagues of Daphne Oram. The exhibition ‘Oramics to Electronica’ explored the history of electronic music from the 1950s to today and revealed the boundless creativity of the musicians and engineers involved.
The Science Museum looked for enthusiasts of electronic music via a widespread call. Signing up for the project was not complicated; people only had to answer a few questions about why they loved electronic music and what their relationship to it was. Participants were selected on the basis that the museum wanted a diverse group of twelve people, men and women, professionals and amateurs.
These participants were required to contribute one day a week for six weeks on a voluntary basis. They visited the museum stores, were given lectures on the historical background of the Oramics machine and engaged in open discussions about the collection and the direction of the exhibition. The Science Museum team reflected each week and then came up with the plan for next.
Eventually the exhibition portrayed a different story from that which the Science Museum would normally tell in their exhibitions. Traditionally the Museum looks at the chronological development of a technology. These music enthusiasts were much more focussed on the music itself and the people who create the music.
What have they learned?
Merel van der Vaart worked at the Science Museum as an Associate Curator of Public History in 2011-2012, and was closely involved in the Oramics co-creation project. Looking back on the Oramics project now, what stands out most was the commitment the participants showed. Starting with a group of twelve, the idea was that potentially half might ‘drop out’ of the project, and the group would still be big enough to get a substantial amount of work done. No such thing happened; in the event, participants asked for homework in-between sessions, felt generally at home within the museum, showed initiative to programme musical events, and wanted to write the accompanying text for the exhibition (for which the museum gave them a course and guided them thoroughly).
Building trust and understanding between the participants and with the museum staff was crucial to the process. During the first meeting, everyone was asked to bring a piece of music that they really liked. Most of the participants brought music that they had made themselves, and sharing this greatly helped to create understanding between them. On a more basic level, Van der Vaart also advises to think about the atmosphere: comfortable chairs, good coffee and cookies help make the group feel valued and welcome. Opening up the museum stores to the participants also helped in engaging them with the collection and realizing they were part of a selected and special group for the Science Museum.
The participants’ commitment and interest in the inner workings of the museum were a welcome surprise. However, museum staff was also aware that these people had been invited to join the exhibition team because they could contribute different voices and ideas to the story that was being told. The project team didn’t want them to assimilate to such an extent that they practically became museum staff. Therefore, the team aimed to only give participants ‘museum training’ when they explicitly requested it themselves.
Van der Vaart emphasizes that the real value in co-creation can be found in the opportunity to invite multiple voices into the museum. Museums often try to take a neutral stance in their exhibitions, because they have, in their experience, less space for critique, for voicing political or less popular opinions. Asking ‘outsiders’ to contribute allows the museum to display multiple views. These outsiders can take the liberty to ask different questions or formulate different answers.
Why is it a best practice:
‘Oramics to Electronica’ is inspiring as a best practice in co-creation, because:
The Science Museum was able to realise a mulitvocal exhibition that was clearly different from anything they would have created independently.
The exhibition was much more focused on the personal stories behind the music and the role of creativity in the evolution of electronic music.
Because of the way the call for participants was put out and the conscious manner in which a larger community was involved (through the dedicated Facebook page), a very loyal and enthusiastic network was created around the exhibition and the Museum’s collection.
A diversified communication plan, aimed at both the general museum audience and the knowledgeable enthusiasts, contributed to this success.
Description of organization:
The Science Museum was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, and gained independence in 1909. Today the Museum is world-renowned for its historic collections, awe-inspiring galleries and inspirational exhibitions. Research at the Science Museum aims to promote new ways of understanding collections, audiences and exhibitions. The researchers come from a range of academic disciplines. They engage with the specific practices of the museum as well as more theoretical work on the themes of historical and contemporary science, technology and medicine. The Science Museum plans to grow its adult audience by providing sophisticated exhibitions that meet their expectations and suit their lifestyles. They also aim to sustainable local relationships with families and community organisations.
Interview with Merel van der Vaart of the Science Museum by Robin van Westen on July 7th 2015.
Panel session and presentation with Merel van der Vaart on the Oramics project, during expert meeting ‘Hacking Heritage: the Audience, in Amsterdam on October 5th