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

Expert group 2: recruited music enthusiasts

Early in this collaborative project, it was decided to recruit a group of present-day music enthusiasts. The initial thinking within the public history programme was to explore lay perceptions by working with groups that could be expected already to have a developed sense of the past – family and local historians, subject enthusiasts and collectors. The exact role of the music enthusiasts was not pre-defined in detail, as it was thought important that they be enabled themselves to define what the collaboration should look like.

The Museum had not worked with this audience group before and did not have access to a music enthusiast community. This meant that it was possible to bring together a heterogeneous group, representing a wide range of musical tastes and preferences. For this reason it was decided to recruit individuals rather than to work with an existing group. Recruitment took place online, through the Science Museum blog and social media channels and in collaboration with The Wire, a music magazine with a strong online presence. Because the Museum intended to facilitate substantial involvement in the development of an exhibition, a rather large time commitment was requested from potential candidates. Participants were asked to be available to travel to the Museum’s London site on Tuesdays in the months of June and July 2011 to attend a series of workshops and behind-the-scenes visits. The Museum wanted the project to be accessible to as many members of the target audience as possible, but was aware that the required time commitment from participants was likely to form a substantial barrier to participation for some. People in full time employment, for example, might not be able to attend a regular event on a weekday during working hours. Because of these constraints, the Museum was not expecting a large number of responses. Ideally a dozen music enthusiasts would be recruited, with the expectation that up to half of them might not finish the project due to conflicting time commitments or lack of interest. These expectations were based on the participation project experience of other museums, as well as in-house experience from previous co-creation projects. It was deemed important that the recruitment process itself was simple and clearly described and would not throw up any more barriers for potential participants by being complicated or time consuming. Interested candidates were asked to describe in up to 300 words why they loved electronic music, what kind of music they made themselves, how they shared it with others, and what knowledge they had of the history of electronic music. People were encouraged to interpret this brief creatively if they pleased and to use any writing style they were comfortable with.

The project team was astonished by the large number of high-quality and incredibly enthusiastic responses it received. More than 40 music enthusiasts from a wide range of backgrounds responded to the recruitment text. People from as far afield as the United States were keen to participate. Eventually, 12 people were selected. Their engagement with electronic music varied greatly. Throughout the selection process the Museum’s aim was to create a heterogeneous team, representing wide-ranging backgrounds, interests and skills. Some participants were (semi-) professional musicians, but most also engaged with the subject in a different way. For example, one member of the team was an academic in the field of electronic music, another a professional music writer and a third built his own circuit-bent[14] instruments. The participants also represented a wide range of genres within the field of electronic music. Some favoured soundscapes, minimal, or drone music, others more popular genres such as dub-step or synth-pop. During the first workshop, when all participants met for the first time at the Science Museum’s small objects store, each participant was asked to play some of his or her own music. It was interesting to see how, after talking about their passion for electronic music and discussing the project, sharing their music proved to be a highly effective tool for introducing themselves.

Over the course of six half-day sessions the team of music enthusiasts developed the contents for three display cases in the exhibition. The project team thought it important that participants could leave their mark not only on the end product – the exhibition – but also had shared control over the level of participation and the participatory process. It soon became clear that almost all participants were highly engaged and very motivated to work on the project, both during and in-between scheduled sessions. This meant that the project team had to spend more time preparing the sessions, and providing extra information and ‘homework’ via email, but as a result a much higher level of collaboration was achieved than was originally expected.

The enthusiasts were very interested in the exhibition-making processes that existed at the Science Museum. What teams were involved? What did they do? How is an exhibition usually made? It became clear that the participants felt they had to understand the process in order to contribute fully to it. Although there was some initial hesitation within the public history team, as they worried that providing this information might guide their thinking too much, it was decided that it was only fair to provide the participants with the information they requested. Corinne Perkin describes this process as the ‘mediatory role […] in providing professional advice and guidance’ (Perkin, 2010, p 117). Indeed, there is a fine balance between informing a group of participants of the boundaries that exist with regards to available budgets, the space of the site and the time available, and giving them equal control of the exhibition-making process. We would argue, though, that choosing not to inform participants of the possibilities and limits (and why we might do this) actually makes them less embedded in the project, with the final proposal potentially being unviable and, as a consequence, participants being disappointed when they find out that the Museum did not develop the exhibition they had envisioned. Bernadette Lynch (2011) warns of ‘empowerment-lite’ and argues that sharing power equally is pivotal. Lynch and Alberti (2010), Simon (2010, pp 274) and Govier (2009) all describe ‘radical trust’ as being of utmost importance for co-creative projects to be successful. However, Simon also states: ‘Successful co-creative projects scaffold participation’ (ibid, p 269), emphasising that participants need to be supplied with the tools they need to make the project a success. As Onciul (rightly) states, although radical trust can be a powerful tool for co-creative practices, it is not always feasible because of a variety of limitations, such as the ones described before (Onciul, 2013, p 93). One could say that truly sharing power means sharing responsibilities as well.

Sessions with this group were split between the Science Museum’s Blythe House small object store in West London and the main Museum site. This phase included visits to the Oramics Machine when it was still in storage, the Museum’s acoustics and sound reproduction storerooms, the conservation laboratory, and the exhibition space. Participants were shown films about electronic music from the 1960s and 1970s and met several specialist Museum staff to learn more about the exhibition-making process. After general discussions about the history of electronic music and a workshop session aimed at mapping themes, people and genres, the team worked on a message document for the exhibition, which outlined the main message of their section of the exhibition. (‘Message documents’ have been part of the standard approach to exhibitions used at the Science Museum for over a decade; they are brief, hierarchical statements of the themes an exhibition is intended to convey.) Based on this, and the mapping exercise, the team decided to move away from a chronological display and instead chose three themes, one for each display case, to represent different aspects of the production of electronic music. The team was keen to share their enthusiasm for making electronic music, as well as its history, with young people and non-experts and their choice of themes reflected this. Each theme focussed on an aspect of the music-making process and in a sense was musician-centric, rather than highlighting technological changes.

Figure 4

Long view of 5 display cases within the exhibition displaying a variety of electronic music items

Display cases within the Oramics exhibition that present a selection of electronic music devices through the years.

The theme Democratisation of Electronic Music discussed how the availability of home computers, cheap synthesisers and (sometimes bootlegged) home studio software, enabled the making of electronic music, rendering it more accessible to an ever-growing number of people. In Make-do and Mend the electronic musician as tinkerer was presented. Objects in this display case included a toolbox, a circuit-bent children’s toy and an egg slicer that had been used by sound artist Hugh Davies.

Figure 5

A suitcase containing a variety of small electrical tools, electrical items and wires

Tool box and parts case used by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies (1943-2005).

One clear example of how technological progress, often a meta-theme of Science Museum exhibitions, was made secondary to creativity was the inclusion of a Roland TB-303. This bassline sequencer, intended by its manufacturers to be an accompaniment for solo musicians, had been a huge disaster from a commercial point of view. It was unpopular and soon taken out of production, appearing on the second-hand market shortly after its launch. Unexpectedly, it was picked up by musicians in Detroit and Chicago who discovered that if they pushed the machine to its limits its sounds would change into high-pitched ‘liquid’ rhythmic noises, the new kind of sound they were looking for. Despite the machine’s initial commercial failure, the birth of Acid House, a music genre enjoyed by thousands, depended on the TB-303.

Figure 6

Close up view of a well used TB303 Bass Line synthesizer

The Roland TB-303 Bass Line is a bass synthesizer with built-in sequencer manufactured by the Roland Corporation from 1982 to 1984 that had a defining role in the development of contemporary electronic dance music.

Finally, the theme Sonic Frontiers discussed how musicians not only searched for new sounds, but also new forms of composition, including the role of the then-emerging field of Artificial Intelligence. This focus on enthusiasm, creativity, and the endless search for new sounds, techniques and tools, rather than the traditional techno-centric story, has made an impact on the themes of the exhibition overall. It has also been an unexpected result of the Research and Public History department’s exploration into the way enthusiasts and lay experts engage with the history of science and technology subjects.

After this joint work had come to a conclusion, it became clear that several of the electronic music enthusiasts had formed a strong bond. They met and were in contact regularly outside the Science Museum sessions, and started making plans for joint musical ventures. They also made it known to the project team that they wanted to stay involved in the project. As a result, three of them co-wrote all the text labels for their three display cases, assisted by Science Museum staff, who also gave them a short label-writing training session. After the exhibition had opened, several of the team members gave talks and guided tours during one of the Science Museum’s Lates (a monthly evening opening for 18+ visitors) and a number of them performed during another Lates event.[15]

The project team learned much from both the musicians and the collaborative process itself. The enormous enthusiasm for the project from the musicians was impressive, but also brought home the great responsibility the project team had for providing a strong base for the project. Managing the enthusiasts’ (very high) expectations and finding an appropriate register of response when they questioned aspects of Museum policy – especially as to whether the instruments might be played – were important aspects of what the Museum team learned. Museum staff had to be flexible, think creatively and seek collaboration with colleagues from many teams to facilitate the participatory process. With regards to the public history questions about the way lay experts engage with the history of technology, the main insight was that the engagement tended to be less with the technology itself, and more on human endeavour, creativity and perseverance. It was not success that was deemed important, but the (creative) process in search of new possibilities, new sounds, new frontiers. This reinforced a tendency – visible over a long period – for the Science Museum to move away from collecting and researching objects only in terms of technological development. But the nature of the account the participants proposed was unexpected and novel; it was not, for example, chronological, or focussed on particular electronic musicians. The process revealed gaps in the Museum’s representation of electronic music in its collections. It also questioned the way the Museum collects and stores information about its objects. Perhaps most importantly, this experience challenged the Museum to see new narratives around its collections and to explore different approaches towards collections research.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/005