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


At the most basic level, museums are institutions that place collections in the service of audiences. Historical collections can be of value to museum visitors in countless ways, many – perhaps the majority ­– of which relate to how they understand the past in general, and in our case here, the past of science and technology in particular. In that sense, museums are part of the phenomenon known as ‘public history’, a term with many nuances of usage, ranging from top-down popularisations by academic historians via many types of cultural consumption, of museums, heritage attractions, magazines and broadcasts, to bottom-up amateur historical research. (Jordanova, 2006, pp 141-71; de Groot, 2008). The rationale for the Science Museum Group’s public history programme is to develop our understanding of this field, both because we are actors in the public presentation of history, and because the historical knowledge and beliefs of visitors that exist before they enter the museum are vital determinants of their experience. In other words, our programme is about both the ‘broadcast’ and the ‘reception’ of public histories. We are optimistic that from better understanding will flow more effective museum practice.

Our public history research programme is composed of a series of connected investigations that seek to deepen our understanding of this field. Our first significant experiment was, in 2011, Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music, a project that involved several different kinds of participation involving different audience groups, producing both an exhibition and museum programmes.[1] In this, participation with the selected groups was equally designed to reveal the historical thought styles of the groups involved, and to facilitate the creation of the exhibition. The approach was one of co-curation (discussed below), on the grounds that there is a conceptual kinship between public history and co-curation that enables the latter to give insights into the former (Boon, 2011a). By providing a deeper, more practical, level of involvement, it also proposes new registers of public historical participation beyond those discussed by David Thelen in the classic public history text The Presence of the Past. His model of historical participation as it relates to museums is much more ‘downstream’ than that in our project; the respondents to the survey on which the book is founded were active historical participants in the sense that existing museum displays enabled their empathetic engagement with the past. (Rosenzweig & Thelen, 1998, p 195). In our project they were active historical participants because they co-created the account that appeared in the museum’s exhibition and public programme; their interpretations were public rather than private.

Sharon Macdonald states that a museum is ‘a suggested way of seeing the world’ (quoted in Onciul, 2013, p 81). No museum display is an objective statement; exhibitions always express the particular accounts of their subject chosen by their authors, whether the view selected – in objects, pictures, texts and other media – is that of the lone curator or the corporate voice of exhibition teams. In either case, there has, in many museums, often been an institutional impetus to render the story embodied in the show ‘clean’, unitary and consistent. Such exhibitions might be said to have a ‘monophonic’ voice. In the project under discussion, however, we set out to produce a ‘polyphonic’ exhibition; that is, one that expressed several different views of its subjects.

Our argument starts from the assumption that any museum display will have different meanings for different visitors. Personal knowledge, interests and experience mean that each of us brings something different to our encounter with displays. Within constructivist accounts proposed by authors such as George Hein (1995, pp. 21-23), displays enable visitors to construct their own accounts of the 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. Congruently, Viv Golding suggests that ‘the situated nature of knowledge and the political positioning of museum authority […] can be challenged by the experience, beliefs, and emotions visitors bring with them’ (Golding 2013, p 13). It is appropriate therefore to be sceptical about the interest – even legibility – to museum visitors of the narratives embodied in exhibitions by exhibition makers. This in its turn is reinforced by the work of Michel de Certeau on the nature of cultural consumption (Boon, 2011b, De Certeau, 1984). He suggests that the consumers of culture are the agents of the meanings they construct. In his most memorable metaphor, he argues that consumers are like poachers; active on somebody else’s territory and grabbing what they want, a ‘rabbit’ that might, incidentally, be of little value to the ‘landowner’. If audiences grab what they want from our displays, then it is arguable that the embodied narrative we impose becomes – in the purest case – chiefly a matter of convenience to us in deciding what we’d like to put where. One of the present authors witnessed an example of this when partaking in an accompanied visit to the Science Museum.[2] When the family he was accompanying encountered the World War Two era V2 rocket in the Making the Modern World gallery, they discussed not the stories presented in the label – the beginnings of space flight and the slave labour used to manufacture the rockets – but the local history of Croydon, their home town, where many of these flying bombs had landed. This ‘different visitors / different meanings’ model has much in common with the ‘interpretative flexibility’ described by sociologists of technology, in which the same technological innovation may mean different things to different groups within society (Pinch and Bijker 1984). In the case of museum visiting, such individual interpretations are private, and only rarely accessible to museum staff. Oramics to Electronica sought to answer the question of how it would be if an exhibition were to be made starting with such different interpretations as well as being consumed in this way.

The work of narratologists is also relevant here; they use the term ‘story’ to denote a source, the set of events that may be represented in any narrative; ‘narratives’, by contrast, involve the conveying of the events in the story in alternative ways, not necessarily in the same sequence (Cobley, 2001, pp. 5-6, Boon, 2008, pp. 27-8). Our proposal was to make an exhibition that started from the assumption that visitors construct their own narratives in a self-directed (and not necessarily conscious) bricolage that combines exhibition contents and their pre-existing modes of thought. The corollary in the production of displays is that it makes perfect sense to include multiple narratives, reproducing in the Museum the tangle of narratives and information that we daily encounter in that deeply insanitary and engaging place, the external non-museum world.

Our experiment could be seen as addressing some of Laurajane Smith’s concerns about the ways in which ‘the authorised heritage discourse (AHD)’ – a heritage of country houses and similar attractions – places constraints on whose material history counts as heritage. As she argues, ‘much of that the debate is centred on a concern about getting more people to come to authorised heritage, rather than to considering if the heritage that we save and promote as heritage actually is representative of the diversity of historical and contemporary social and cultural experiences’ (2009, p4). In the Oramics project, we started with a subject area and focus object far distant from Smith’s AHD and proceeded ‘to embrace a wide range of cultural practices and values’ (2009, p 1). This recognised that people with different backgrounds will engage with cultural content in different ways (Smith, 2009, Crooke, 2010, Chitty, 2011). Unlike Smith’s focus, however, our project did not concentrate primarily on the social exclusion of classes and ethnicities, but on what might be termed the ‘cognitive exclusion’ of a subject –electronic music – outside the AHD but significant to individuals and subcultures. In this, our approach also differs from the weight of the museum participation literature, which reveals three dominant uses of participation in museums: the engagement of local community groups, empowerment of minority groups, and collaboration with source communities or indigenous groups. For Bryony Onciul, participatory projects are ‘engagement zones’; ‘every engagement zone is unique because of the individuals involved, as well as the context, time, place, and amount of power shared’ (Onciul, 2013, pp 81). What this meant in our practice will become clear as we describe the various sub-projects in more detail. If, as Onciul suggests, ‘museums are political spaces where society frames its authorized culture, history, and identity’ (Onciul, 2013, p 81), then projects like ours can be seen to challenge the arbitrary constituents of the AHD.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/027