Go back to article: Oramics to electronica: investigating lay understandings of the history of technology through a participatory project


We suggested above that museum displays always express the particular accounts of their subject chosen by their authors. In Oramics to Electronica, we set out to make an exhibition that expressed this in the form of a ‘polyphonic’ exhibition; one that contained within itself several different subjective accounts of the early decades of electronic music in Britain. We have also stressed that within constructivist accounts of museums, visitors view exhibitions in ways that enable them to construct their own accounts of subjects. These accounts are different from visitor to visitor, and more detailed where the visitor’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject depicted is greater. Undoubtedly, for example, one of the pleasures of exhibition visiting occurs when an audience member’s prior understanding is reinforced; for the visitor to see that the museum ‘gets right’ a subject in which he or she has an intellectual investment enhances a sense of belonging. For some visitors, an exhibition on electronic music will not particularly register; in others, such a display will reinforce, contradict, even infuriate existing expectations. All these are valuable forms of engagement. But a museum visit will always be a complex encounter because everyone is a member of many micro-audiences, by virtue of life lived and aspects of society, history and culture encountered. In our case, not all will have a developed enthusiasm for electronic music, but as members of the UK audience they will have encountered its use in specific circumstances; on the dance floor, or while watching Doctor Who, for example. An enthusiastic ‘Whovian’ may be disappointed by the display, as it features no objects used in the recording of the series’ theme tune, but perhaps they are also a Manfred Mann fan, and delighted to see his contribution recognised in one of the exhibition's photographs. Or, falling into nostalgic mode, they spy Hugh Davies’s egg-slicer and – amused by the thought of it as a musical instrument – they also recall an era of cuisine that demanded significant quantities of sliced boiled egg.

Figure 12

An egg slicer with steel slicing strings used with a contact microphone by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies

Egg slicer used with contact microphone for musical purposes by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies (1943-2005).

Leaving the exhibition behind they might (for a period in 2013) have wandered into the adjacent gallery and encountered photographs by Tony Ray-Jones of their home district in the 1960s in the temporary exhibition Only in England. This imagined visitor is a member of each of these micro-audiences – Doctor Who and Manfred Mann fan, survivor of 1970s cuisine, child of rain-drenched 1960s seaside resort – and many more besides. It is on this basis, we propose, exhibitions make sense to visitors.

The different groups enrolled in this co-curation experiment produced not only successful displays – the exhibition will have had more than three years of public exposure by the end of 2014 – but also public historical insights. The technique of using co-production not primarily as a means of social inclusion, but for insights into how audiences think about the subjects and objects we display, has been productive. For the original participants, the collaboration was very much on the level of equals, with groups having an investment in conveying their sense of their own history. For the group of recruited electronic music enthusiasts, pleasure that the Museum wanted to represent the subject of their enthusiasm matured into a strong commitment to ensuring that what they see as a true account was included in the exhibition. The NYT students brought a resistant mindset to the project; their final performance narrated their coming to terms with the Museum, and also with styles of electronic music outside their taste, through identification with Oram as an ‘outsider’. The women writers found in Oram and her Oramics Machine the grounds to reflect on varied circumstances of power, isolation and communication. The online circles of participants expressed their subjective response to the project, to Oram, and to the machine, in many ways. The remix contribution extended the specifically musical engagement in the project, enabling entrants to bring their musical sensibilities to bear on the music that is a core concern of the show. Facebook users and bloggers surrounded the project with comment, criticism and support, all rendering visible the ways in which audiences respond to what they encounter here.

The experiment described here suggests many further research questions and avenues of investigation. One clear point is that the different voices within this show’s ‘polyphony’ are still in harmony; there are no strong disagreements between the accounts expressed in Oramics to Electronica; they are complementary. It would be valuable to explore a more controversial theme using a public historical approach, where accounts would be likely to be contradictory.[21] Energy supply, including the nuclear question, might be such a subject. Making such disagreement the focus for public debate around a historical display within the Museum could allow the Museum another avenue for bringing dialogue and debate into the heart of its exhibition offer, though this time addressing the past’s salience to present debates, and showing the relevance of core historical collections to visitors and issues today.

The project also demonstrated for the Museum that working ‘upstream’ with lay groups can be highly productive not only because of the public history questions it answers, but for the practical results it produces. The success here, for example, enabled a co-collecting project in which three of the Oramics participants joined the 2014 action research project into what music technology the Museum should collect. This latter experiment showed once again that the expertise of micro-audiences can be highly valuable to the Museum.[22] Micro-audiences, it turns out, may often be similar to curators with respect to their areas of knowledge and enthusiasm. This is not a threat to curatorship, but an invitation to develop curatorship’s repertoire to embrace various kinds of participation in the more effective delivery of the core functions of museums, in recognition of the fact that we curators are members of the societies and cultures we represent.


The Science Museum and the authors would like to record their indebtedness to the participants in this co-curation experiment and the organisations that supported the work in many ways. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/011