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Journey into participation: a viewpoint from the Science Museum, London

Many institutions, including London's Science Museum, are now looking to invite their audiences to take a more active role in engaging with their sites and collections, rather than being the traditional passive consumers of culture.

The ambition of many cultural institutions today is to provide meaningful and engaging visitor experiences. Traditional audience research supports this by helping to define what ‘engaging experiences’ are and highlighting how these are best achieved. However, many institutions, including the Science Museum, are now looking to invite their audiences to take a more active role in engaging with their sites and collections, rather than being the traditional passive consumers of culture.

This process of participation can cover a spectrum of different types of engagement with audiences, and in the broadest terms this can be divided up in the Nina Simon categories, between consultation, collaboration and co-creation, denoting varying degrees and depths of involvement.

One is not better than the other but rather brings with it unique insights and expertise based on the needs of individual projects. The outcomes of participation can be as interesting and diverse as the people involved, and provide benefits to the organisation, participants and ultimately the visitors.

Our journey into participation began with audience-led Dana Events in the 2000’s which saw the museum co-create a series of dialogue events addressing topical contemporary science issues with its adult audience.

Following this, and moving beyond one-off events, the Museum sought to co-produce larger impact projects, choosing to tackle the hard-to-engage teenage audience by co-developing a temporary display with a group of 14-16 year olds during the 2010 Who Am I? gallery build.

Then in 2012, the Antenna gallery used co-creation, working with two under-represented groups, to develop its Painless exhibition. Though all temporary projects, the Museum was learning fast and was increasingly interested in bringing new perspectives and alternative interpretation approaches to exhibition developments.

In autumn 2014, the Science Museum will open a new permanent gallery called the Information Age. The gallery will explore the history of information and communication technologies from the past 200 years. The gallery aims to tell the story of communication innovation from the perspective of those who invented, developed, created and use communication technologies – which must provide the perfect opportunity to scale up our participation ambitions through a permanent exhibition project.

With this in mind, a significant aspect of the gallery research has involved investigating and capturing the personal accounts of those who have been directly involved with transformative communication events, and working in partnership with a range of organisations and individuals to determine interpretation and public programming approaches to this material.

A range of audiences have been involved with the gallery’s development, over a number of projects. Young people were consulted early in the process, sharing their perspectives on some of the Museum’s more historic content. These audiences have continued to work across the project, creatively responding to oral histories and informing the Museum’s choices in object selection and interpretation.

Disability audiences have also worked across the project, from in-depth consultation panels, to collaborative projects where individuals have shared their first-hand experiences of using communication technologies.

Participants and staff from the Cameroon project Participants and staff from the Cameroon projectMembers of the London-based Cameroonian community have worked with the project team for over two years, creating content on the use of mobile phones in the Cameroon, and ensuring the interpretation approaches used are appropriate to depict an authentic perspective on this fascinating slice of contemporary history. Other participant groups include nationwide community collectors, working on a telegram-collecting project, art-curating students supporting the gallery’s art interpretation strategy, and Gulf War veterans who have contributed to content related to satellite communications.

As the participation stage of the Information Age project draws to a close, the Museum has begun a piece of work which aims to capture our practice, strategies, outcomes and lessons learned.

We aim to incorporate the viewpoints of the project participants as well as our own colleagues across a range of Museum departments, and begin to capture research and discussion occurring more widely in the sector.

In-depth evaluation of these projects has been taking place throughout, and will conclude with the overview evaluation of the gallery, equipping us to determine how our visitors are receiving our participatory approach. We aim to have this completed in 2015, and look forward to sharing the results with Participation Now.

One case study: Cameroonian community co-creation

The Information Age gallery covers the history of communication and includes a section on mobile phones in the developing world, specifically in Cameroon. To help us to tell the story as accurately as possible we recruited people who know the country and the impact that mobile phones have had on the people and the place.

Cameroon project participants with Charlotte Connelly Cameroon project participants with Charlotte Connelly

There was a clear need to involve the community in the development of this story, to reflect on its social and economic impact. We needed to co-create a user-led, authentic display, and in 2011 we started working with the Cameroon community, both in London and overseas.

The project has involved a number of phases:

Phase 1: In 2011, members of the London Cameroonian community were consulted on how the Museum could tell the story of mobile phone usage in Cameroon. Their input helped to inform and influence a planned object-collecting trip to Cameroon in March 2012, during which objects were collected, interviews conducted and photographs taken to contribute to the display of this story in Information Age.

Example object collected from Cameroon Example object collected from Cameroon

Phase 2: From late 2012, the Museum has been working with participants to tell the story of mobile telephony in Cameroon, providing authentic representation of Cameroonians’ stories. Members of the London Cameroonian community have worked with the design and content teams on Information Age to co-create the design and interpretation of this section of the gallery. Further participation will be conducted to inform the text, images and audio-visual interpretation of this story.

Phase 3: From spring 2014, a group of participants have been working with the Museum and Postcode Films to create a short film for the gallery, which helps to interpret the objects on display. This project will be completed in summer 2014, in advance of the gallery opening in the autumn.

Almost every aspect of the final display is different as a result of the participative project. One surprising outcome was the way the group chose to represent their historical communications heritage as an important part of their lives today. It now has a cultural and ceremonial significance rather than a practical function, but maintains a very high status despite no longer being a widely used tool.

Working in a participatory way has challenged the Museum to share its voice and authority with others external to the organisation.

About the authors

Jen Kavanagh is Audience Engagement Manager on the Information Age project at the Science Museum. Her role involves overseeing the participation programme which fed into the gallery’s development, as well as managing the learning programme which will support the gallery post-opening. Jen is Treasurer of the Social History Curators Group, an Associate Member of the Museums Association (AMA), as well as a mentor for AMA candidates.

Kayte McSweeney is an Audience Advocate and Researcher at the Science Museum, London. Her work includes researching the impact and influence of participation projects, evaluating exhibitions and audience engagement initiatives and advocating for the needs of visitors (real and potential) across all cultural offers at the Science Museum. Kayte is also Co-Chair of the Visitor Studies Group.

Deanne Naula has worked at the Science Museum for several years in a number of different learning roles and is currently the Participation Co-ordinator for the Information Age gallery. She has co-ordinated collaborative community and museum projects, including the Cameroon project, and has developed audience-focused workshops and resources.

Charlotte Connelly joined the Science Museum as an assistant curator in 2010 and has been involved with several projects including a participation driven exhibition about electronic music, Oramics to Electronica. She is currently a content developer for the Information Age gallery, shepherding areas exploring the development of television, radio and mobile phones into their final form, including a story about the arrival of mobile phones in Cameroon.

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