In November a group of us connected to the Bradford’s National Museum Project went to Chicago with the aim of exploring the cutting-edge participatory, co-creative and community engagement work going on in the City. Some of us also travelled on to Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. In this series of interviews — posted over the coming weeks —participants share with me (Lynn Wray) how their experiences on the trip have impacted on their own working practice in Bradford.
Following the first interview with Rich Warburton, Artistic Director of Bradford’s amazing Theatre in the Mill… , we hear from the Director of the National Science and Media Museum, in Bradford, Jo Quinton-Tulloch about her reflections.
LW: How was your experience overall?
JQT: There was a really interesting arc to the week. We started in Chicago meeting and visiting some very dynamic, mainly grass-roots, community driven projects and initiatives. We ended in DC with conversations (with the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress) at a national level that felt more obviously relevant to our own position and remit as a national museum. Doing it in that order helped put into perspective what the aims and strengths of grassroots organisations are in relation to ours as a national museum and what the different limitations are. It helped me to reflect upon how we could best work with and learn from grassroots organisations, creatives and community initiatives in Bradford. And start to explore what our differences and limitations might be.
LW: Did any one moment stand out to you from the trip?
JQT: The workshop in Chicago was really important for me in thinking about the museums role and potential future role in the district.
The venue ‘Stony Island Arts Bank’ was inspirational. They spoke a lot about how they had developed strategies to become a more actively welcoming place for the neighbourhood in which they were situated e.g. by having the side door open. The idea of being ‘actively welcoming’ – really seeking out and exploring what specific strategies we could use to actively welcome the diverse people that live and work where we do – has stuck with me and is something I want to explore moving forward.
The workshop had a wide mix of practitioners. There were some people working at larger museums and galleries in Chicago but the majority were smaller grassroots organisations and individual artists/creatives.
One particular point made by Faheem Majeed of the Floating Museum stuck with me and changed the way I thought about the role NSMM could play within the ecosystem:
“You’re not going to change the Museum – it took hundreds of years to get here, it’s not going to change in one life span. You need to understand the limitations that are in place because of the institution. And if you put that on the table when you are designing a thing and you know what’s coming up, and also how that impacts on your community partnerships. And each organisation/individual has a different type of institution, with its individual limitations. But the limitations have to be on the table with all our hopes and dreams. Be honest about the limitations.”
LW: Did anything you experienced in Chicago make you think differently about your practice in Bradford?
I was wondering at first how what we were seeing and hearing in Chicago – the grassroots and activist practice – would have relevance to us as a large national museum operating in Bradford. But in the workshop and reflecting afterwards, particularly on Faheem’s point, I came to a clearer understanding of our strengths and limitations. And I began to question how we can use our position in Bradford to add value while recognising our limitations.
It helped me recognise that other organisations can be more flexible and nimble and operate in ways that we cannot. But that we can use our position and our own strengths to support and work with other organisations and individuals in Bradford.
We also need to recognise that we don’t need to be involved in everything. Could we hand over trust, resources, power to smaller organisations where we can’t deliver? Can we use our unique resources and position to support self-determination rather than offering our own solutions?
It was also interesting to visit the Museum of Science and Industry as they are going through a similar period of internal strategic change, which is driven collaboratively with staff from across various departments.
LW: Did your three words change during the workshops? Did you come away with any new vocabulary/ thoughts about how you use language in your practice?
JQT: The workshops in both Chicago and Washington DC were a space to reflect on our use of language as a museum. It made it clear to me that we need to develop a shared vocabulary for the community engagement practice we are doing.
For example, I had a really interesting conversation about using the word ‘inclusion’ vs the word ‘invitation’ in the Chicago workshop. ‘Invitation’ could be seen as a more actively welcoming gesture than inclusion… but then the politics of invitation seems top down and one-way. Neither word signals a possibility for community ownership or self-organisation, in the way that the term ‘self-determination’ does. I’m still thinking this through, but the phrase ‘actively welcoming’ has struck a chord in terms of what we should strive for as a minimum.
In Washington DC, we had a useful discussion about the difference between seeking to ‘represent’ people and seeking to ‘resonate’ with people. I think this is an important distinction to keep exploring through our practice.
LW: Did anything you experienced in Washington DC enable reflections on your practice in Bradford?
JQT: The two workshops we participated in in Washington DC (at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress) were useful in terms of thinking through more specifically how a large museum can be both national and also locally-rooted.
Someone helpfully used the analogy of a mixing desk, to describe how it is possible to be at once national and local. We can turn up the volume and calibrate the output in different ways between the local/specific and the national according to the situation – it doesn’t have to be fixed. It is helpful to keep this analogy in mind as we programme and collect for the future.
Exploring the Museum of African American History also reinforced to me the power of good storytelling. It highlighted the importance of not holding back or shying away from telling painful or challenging stories that need to be told for change to happen. We need to be confident in the potential we have as storytellers and explore how we can enhance this power by working with other creative people in Bradford and/or use it to engage with issues that resonate with peoples’ lives in the district.
LW: How will you take forward your learning from the trip?
JQT: The key questions for me moving forward are now:
- ‘How do we become part of a network in Bradford whereby the resources of the Museum complement and amplify the opportunities and people and cultures in Bradford?
- And concurrently, ‘How do we get out of the way?’!
I want to explore how we can engage with a wider set of politics that are important in Bradford, and support the other ‘power’ centres in Bradford without placing the museum always at the centre.
The workshops in Chicago made some of the challenges we might face in working towards these goals clearer. The projects discussed were often community led and were driven by a particular local need or issue. This feels quite removed from what we are as a national museum which was not established by the local community or in response to a particular local need. It isn’t always clear how our remit and collections fit into local agendas. I think moving forward we need to better understand the relevance of our collections to the issues facing people in Bradford and think about where and how they might be useful to these issues, rather than the other way round.