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

Visit 4: Spacetimematter

The phenomena which are Fox Talbot, the camera, the silver nitrate, sub-chlorine, the glass, the open door and the broomstick are also, Barad might suggest, productive of specific spacetimematter. The reason Fox Talbot even began his experiments, of marshalling and working with the agencies of light, sliver and salts, was ‘duration’, as he writes in The Pencil of Nature:

[…] this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera [Obscura] throws upon the paper in its focus – fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.
It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me…how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! (‘Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art’)

For Fox Talbot photography was related both to durability of the image but also (unlike Daguerre’s invention) the ability to make copies. Fox Talbot was engaged in producing spacetimematter that was composed of a materialized memory, producing a future and a space which was more-than-one-place-at-the-same-time.

Yet the spacetimematter of Fox Talbot’s photography was and remains (in today’s museum collections) materially uncertain. In the National Media Museum, the fragility of the spacetimematter produced by Fox Talbot’s photography is present within the phenomena of the gallery encounter with the cameras only in the sense that the original photographs are not present. One Fox Talbot negative – Latticed Window at Laycock Abbey (1835) – held by the National Media Museum is kept in a box and looked at very rarely for fear that one more intra-action with light might erase the fragile image and the hope for its duration (Harding 2013).

Figure 6

Photograph of the first photograph taken of a lattice window with a camera obscura with accompanying text by the maker

The Latticed Window at Laycock Abby (1835) is the earliest camera negative in existence and incredibly fragile. The very uncertainty of the invention of photography – reliant on the interrelationship between people, trial and error, different chemicals, paper, cameras and light – indicates how fundamental co-production is to museums and the stories they seek to tell. An ontological shift which recognises this also opens the way for more dynamic approaches to community co-production.

To think of museum collections more as processes, things which are congealed agencies of phenomena – produced through uncertain intra-actions – creates two possibilities for re-reading community participation as co-production. The first is to recognise fundamentally that knowledge, or anything, is always produce through interrelationships; it is emerging, shifting and reforming. This creates an ontological and epistemic basis for museums to extend their commitment to enabling more people to be active players in knowledge production and invention through cultivating and making more explicit the already-existing hybrid relationality between people, things and the world. The second is that it challenges the temporal assumptions generated by museums and their glass cases that we identified earlier – that the past is complete and the future is yet to come and best serviced by the institution and its structures – and indicates instead the necessity of political alternatives. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160502/008