Go back to article: Embedding plurality: exploring participatory practice in the development of a new permanent gallery

The Information Age gallery

Information Age is a new permanent gallery at the Science Museum, London that opened in October 2014. It tells the story of how information and communication technologies have transformed our lives over the last two hundred years. Through a display of over eight hundred unique objects this 2500m2 gallery seeks to expose, examine and celebrate the technology that has changed the way we connect with one another and to illuminate how human creativity has defined and shaped our information and communications networks.

There are six zones in the gallery, each representing a different technology network: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell, and The Web. The gallery explores the important events that shaped the development of these networks, from the growth of the worldwide telegraph network in the nineteenth century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today. Parallel stories of the past, present and future of communications technologies are told through the eyes of those who invented, operated, and were affected by each new wave of technology.[1]

Information Age combines showcase displays, innovative digital interpretation and immersive environments and has a dedicated workshop space and accompanying learning programme. The gallery targets families with children aged 11 years and over, independent adult non-science specialists and school pupils and their teachers. Within these target audiences and in line with the Museum’s Audience Development Plan (Science Museum, 2015), the gallery is also intended to appeal to new visitors from black and minority ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as visitors with disabilities.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a long view of the Information Age gallery showing the large Rugby Tuning Coil in the centre

Gallery view of the Information Age exhibition

Participation activities on the Information Age gallery development drew upon a long history of participation and audience engagement initiatives at the Science Museum. In various ways and across different kinds of projects, audiences have been invited to collaborate with staff over a number of years. For example, audience-led events to engage under-represented groups in contemporary science debate at the Museum’s Dana Centre; a collaborative project with transgender youth leading to a co-created display case within the Who Am I? gallery; the involvement of audience groups to co-curate the Oramics to Electronica exhibition; and co-creation experiments in various temporary exhibitions on current science issues in the Antenna area of the Museum[2].

Building on these predominantly smaller-scale initiatives, which had resulted in largely temporary outputs, the Information Age gallery was an opportunity to extend and further embed the use of participatory practices in the development of a major new permanent gallery, an approach that tested the institution’s understanding of the role, purpose and place of collaboratively produced outputs.

Inspiration was taken from other large-scale permanent redevelopments, such as the community-centred Riverside Museum in Glasgow, which gave Science Museum staff the confidence to explore ways of embedding user stories into its own interpretation on a larger scale than it had previously attempted.

The decision to use participatory methods in the development of the Information Age gallery was given additional impetus by the Museum’s concern to develop galleries that could appeal to more diverse audiences. The Museum saw an opportunity to foster greater inclusivity and to reach out to new, currently under-represented audiences, by inviting specific groups to research, plan and create with the Museum. The theme of user-driven innovation and development was central to Information Age and naturally converged with the desire to include a diversity of voices (including those of the visitor) in the gallery’s narrative. This meant that there was an obvious synergy between the gallery’s aims to showcase the voice of the users – the people who felt the influence of communication technology – and the Museum's ambitions to extend participation practice. With this in mind the principal objective for Information Age was to create, through the process of participation, high quality and nuanced experiences for visitors who would encounter the participation project outputs in the gallery. In this way, the main driver for the participatory practice within the gallery was not sharing of authority with communities per se but rather the enhancement of the experience for future visitors to the gallery that would be produced by participatory methods. It was hoped that visitors to Information Age, who encountered a gallery shaped by collaborative means, might find greater relevance to their lives, and stories they could relate to more readily.

Another feature of Information Age was that unlike the Museum’s other participation projects, which tended to originate in the Learning or Contemporary Science departments, a cross-disciplinary exhibition team including engagement, curatorial, content development, evaluation and new media staff took on responsibility for delivering these initiatives. From the beginning, the entire cross-disciplinary team was supported and trained not only in how to work in a more participatory way (often in unfamiliar ways and with audiences they had no prior experience of engaging), but also in understanding why this could be a beneficial way of working, how it would benefit their own practice and what the impact and outcomes were.

It quickly became clear that in order to foster a shared understanding of the goals of participation among the staff, a consistent and clear language was needed. To date, collaborative work with the public at the Science Museum had already been termed in various ways, but with the huge variety of experience and expertise across the Information Age team, the need for clarity in language and meaning was brought into sharp relief, and understanding how notions of 'participation' were commonly applied in the sector, and how they were to be applied at the Science Museum, became an important task.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150305/002