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

Participation at the Science Museum

Over the last decade or so, a growing number of museums have attempted to engage lay publics with the work they do, inviting them to take part in the exhibition making process (Watson, 2007; Simon, 2010; Golding and Modest, 2014).[3] This practice has been known under many different names, including collaboration, participation, co-production and co-creation. Although these words are often used as synonyms for the same practice, it is also the case that a word such as ‘participation’ can be interpreted in many different ways. In her book The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon (2010, pp 185–87) attempts to create a meaningful vocabulary by identifying and naming three different types of public participation. For this she uses a citizen science model developed in 2009 at the Centre for Advancement of Informal Science Education and described in a report of that year (Bonney et al., 2009). The three types of public participation identified by CAISE are contribution, collaboration and co-creation. One could speak of contribution when visitors can share stories, comments or perhaps even objects within an exhibition. When visitors are given the opportunity to decide on the content of an exhibition within a clear framework designed by the museum, this can be called collaboration. Co-creation refers to a situation where members of the public and the host organisation together define the goal and content of an exhibition. Simon continues by adding a fourth model: hosting, in which case the host organisation provides resources for a community group to create its own exhibition or programme. Although these models could be taken to describe different levels of engagement, Simon stresses the fact that one isn’t necessarily better or more advanced than the other; the suitability of each model depends on the museum context, subject matter and goal of the project in question. It could be argued, however, that co-creation can be the most challenging form of participation from a museum perspective; it is certainly likely to be the model with the greatest impact on the organisation as a whole, as it requires ‘an overall rethinking of museum priorities and modes of action’ (Varutti, 2013, p 70). Participatory practice is firmly embedded within the Science Museum’s public history programme, and this is indicative of a Museum-wide commitment to developing high quality opportunities for participation. Of the four models of participation described by Simon, the Museum is focusing on participatory projects involving contribution, collaboration and co-creation. The Museum’s staff are seeking to include such practices in many of its projects, where laypeople are offered opportunities for participation at all stages of the development process.

At the Science Museum these fairly recent developments build on almost two decades of experience of participatory projects and experiments. Throughout this time the roles and goals of participation have changed considerably. As a response to a growing interest in the public understanding of science in the mid to late 1980s, the Science Museum started to explore its potential role as a venue for debate in addition to its traditional educational role (Boon, 2010a, pp 125–6). One of the relevant early experiments undertaken by the Museum, a consensus conference organised in 1994, stands out for two reasons: firstly, it was an event that had no links with the Museum’s core historical offer. Rather, it aimed to place the Museum at the centre of a wider movement of Public Understanding of Science, with permanent contemporary science galleries coming later. In other words, although organised by the Science Museum, it seemed to emphasise the role of the Museum as a physical location rather than the Museum in its traditional roles. Secondly, the event had a highly political connotation: it facilitated investigation of plant biotechnology by a lay panel recruited by the Museum during a period of high public anxiety about genetically modified foods. It resulted in a report written by the panel that was disseminated among policy makers, scientists and journalists (Durant, 1995).[4] The opening of the Museum’s Dana Centre in 2003 introduced a different opportunity to engage the public with contemporary science through debate and discussion. This was very much in tune with the House of Lords Select Committee report in 2000[5] which promoted a dialogue model for the public understanding of science.[6] The Dana Centre was designed as a venue ‘where the museum could run exciting, informative and innovative debates and other types of performances about contemporary science, technology and culture for an adult audience’ (Ellis, Patten and Evans, 2005). Being located in a separate building, and conceived of as an evening event programme (with a bar) meant the Dana Centre’s mode of public participation was being developed in parallel with, rather than as part of, the Museum’s existing offer, yet its opening demonstrated the Museum’s interest in facilitating public participation and debate, at least in areas of contemporary science. The Museum has also extended audience participation to its main galleries, especially (but not exclusively) those located in the Wellcome Wing dedicated to contemporary science. In the regularly updated Antenna gallery, visitors are asked for their (informed) opinion on a wide range of subjects that are discussed in the displays, such as the MMR vaccine or the deployment of military drones. Visitors can share their thoughts on the subject and read comments from other visitors and scientists through an on-gallery kiosk close to the exhibit. Visitor comments are included on screen after moderation. The updated version of the permanent neuroscience and genetics gallery Who Am I? exploring ‘the science of you’ opened in 2010. It includes a display case containing material co-created by various groups. At least once a year a new group is invited to give their views on subjects discussed in, or related to, the gallery (Tyrell, 2010).[7]

Evidently, participation had been on the agenda at the Science Museum for several years. Not surprisingly, many of these participatory projects were developed to enhance social inclusion and diversity, allowing more and different voices to be heard apart from the traditional ‘Museum voice’. Most of these projects originated from the Learning and Audience Development department. Social inclusion was also of importance for Oramics to Electronica, but this project varied from previous experiments in a number of ways. Firstly, and most importantly, it was part of the public history programme. As we have argued, one of its two main goals was to gain better knowledge of how different audiences understand and interpret the history of a specific subject, in this case the history of electronic music. It also differed in the sense that it worked with a wide range of audiences (experts, non-experts and people who had been part of the history we were exploring), it worked with them in a wide range of ways (online and off-line, in workshops and discussion groups) and it worked towards a variety of outcomes (a play, fictional monologues, a piece of music and exhibits). Finally, this project was curator-led, with support from the Museum’s Audience Research department, rather than initiated by the Contemporary Science or Exhibitions teams. For this reason, our terminology – parallel with Simon’s categories – was ‘co-curation’, to denote the way that we conceived of this register of participation as the sharing of curatorial responsibilities and skills.

Enabled by the recent historical focus (post-1950s) of our topic, we were able to engage a diversity of individuals and groups who could be asked to produce their own accounts of the history of electronic music. The process of the project, executed as an open-ended and opportunistic research enterprise, allowed us to respond to opportunities as they arose. But for clarity it is simplest to abandon the opportunistic sequence followed in the project, and to organise this account by describing working with four kinds of participatory group: the Daphne Oram Archive; subject experts (two groups); non-expert socially excluded communities (two groups); and global online participants.

Daphne Oram Archive: When the exhibition was conceived, the proposed centre-piece for the exhibition – the Oramics Machine synthesizer – had recently been acquired with the collaboration of the Daphne Oram Archive at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was therefore natural to work with staff and archivists there on initial narratives about the machine.

Expert groups: Some of Oram’s contemporaries were available to share their memories of their ventures in modern music in the 1950s to 1970s. This was complemented by convening a group of present-day electronic music enthusiasts. By having these two groups involved, it was possible to create two different ‘expert accounts’ of the early years of electronic music, one from music enthusiasts and one from the people who were part of the early electronic music ‘scene’. A film by Nick Street and Jen Fearnley summarises these two strands of participation.

Oramics to Electronica

A documentary following the co-curation of the 'Oramics to Electronica' exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

Non-expert groups: The Museum also worked with two ‘socially excluded’ groups who were unfamiliar with Oram’s work before the project – members of a National Youth Theatre course, which aimed to re-engage young people excluded from education – and a group of women writers affected by the criminal justice system. Instead of asking these groups to create an alternative historical narrative for a subject matter that they might not feel a connection with, the team decided to invite them to respond to the story of Oram and the history of electronic music in more creative ways.[8]

Oramics: Atlantis Anew

Artist Aura Satz's film homage to pioneering British electronic music composer, Daphne Oram and her Oramics Machine.

Global online groups: In addition, the Museum created an online co-creation project in the form of a Facebook page and a remix competition directed at electronic music ‘fans’.

In total, therefore, the project had four participatory strands, three of which were based around knowledge sharing, and one of which focused on creative re-appropriation of an unfamiliar history. All can be seen as speaking to the project’s public historical concerns, revealing how different individuals and groups think about the history of electronic music. 

In the remainder of this essay, we describe how each main participatory strand originated; how we worked with the group in question, and what we learned. The conclusion summarises our findings and proposes a set of further research questions that arise from this programme of work.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/002