Go back to article: The ‘co’ in co-production: Museums, community participation and Science and Technology Studies

Political agency: distributed responsibility for the world and the future

The form of political agency imagined in Bennett’s account of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ is that of a ‘self-fashioning’ citizen generated through the mutually regulating gaze of public spaces and through an epistemic sense of superiority over the colonies.  However, as Bennett has more recently argued, it is likely that quite different consequences for the relationships between objecthood and personhood are at work today through the glass case as a material-discursive apparatus (2005, p 536). As Nigel Thrift has put it: ‘…the content of what is present in experience has changed radically’ (Thrift, 2008, p 2). A crucial concern opened up by the relational and intra-active ontologies we have been exploring is political agency. Barad frames her account of phenomena as an ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ (Barad, with Dolphijn, R, and van der Tuin, I, 2012, online), one that also ‘reconfigures the possibilities for change’:

[…] intra-actions not only reconfigure spacetimematter but reconfigure what is possible. Ethicality is part of the fabric of the world; the call to respond and be responsible is part of what is. […] Questions of responsibility and accountability present themselves with every possibility; each moment alive with different possibilities for the world’s becoming and different configurations of what may yet be possible (Barad with Dolphijn, R, and van der Tuin, I, 2012, online)

In a time when ‘people seem to be losing their faith in their ability to shape the future’ (Grossberg, 2010, p 62), the key political argument implied by the glass case can easily be read as preventing the wider distribution of political responsibility for the world, which Barad evokes. As we have seen, the glass case is a ‘material-discursive’ argument, and it is one which seems to say, ‘caring for the future is not your responsibility. The future has been delegated to the museum.’ It seems to say, ‘you might care and you might want to take responsibility, but we need you to step back in the interest of everyone else now and everyone yet to be born.’[5] Drawing the two genealogies of co-production together offers the potential for museums to take seriously the ways in which their displays, programmes and community projects produce, or constrain, the potential for recognition of responsibility and accountability in, and for, the world.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a section of the Energy gallery in the Science Museum London

‘Do Not Touch’ is an interactive art work by Christian Moeller in the Science Museum’s Energy gallery which sets up a playfully different idea of the agency of the visitor. The artwork invites you to break the rules…and take responsibility for what happens next. Co-production usefully adds both risk and responsibility into museums.

In terms of community participation, Co-productive Museums might draw on two insights of relational ontology to look for ways of distributing responsibility for producing a future for collections. In a recent research project, ‘How should heritage decisions be made?’, a team of us explored how the Science Museum might develop its electronic music collection by drawing on the expertise and networks of fans, musicians, journalists and composers. Crucially – as argued earlier – the collaborative exploration of what should be collected also opened up a wider ontological debate. As Martin Swan, one of the co-collecting team and a musician and educator put it:

If you engage the network of geeks out there then you create a community with ‘a curatorial head on’. They will say – ‘we will look for those things’. You’re creating a community of curators. But as soon as you stop playing them, synths start to decay. They become less and less the thing that made them worth collecting. As they become less and less viable as instruments, they also become less and less interesting to the geeks, the very people who would want to enthuse about the objects to other people. And these are also the people who could maintain them and could get them going again. (Heritage Decisions, 2015, p 34)

Martin indicates that traditional forms of making things ‘objects’ (where they become seen as fixed, and separate from other things and people) and justifying this through notions of posterity are ontologically flawed. If you treat synthesizers in this way, they stop being the thing that made them worth collecting. Co-production – between the synthesizers, social networks of musicians and enthusiasts – indicates a way in which groups of interested people might take responsibility for museum collections. Co-production allows an alternative reading of care which, through the careful use and enlivening of collections, helps synthesizers as musical instruments be the thing-which-made-them-worth-collecting. The phenomenon of electronic music includes synthesizers and music and fans, clubs, large commercial companies and lots of teenage bedrooms). Co-production also generates the potential for an alternative reading of ‘future’; no longer a future institutionally secured by keeping people on the other side of glass but a future-constantly-becoming as things and people intra-act.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160502/010