Above the Noise: 15 Stories From Bradford opened on the 14th March with a packed launch event. Voices, laughter and excitement reverberated in the stairs and atrium of the museum. Young woman pulled each other to see the films they were in, the DJ and music lover depicted in the exhibition poster were reunited after many years and posed for photographs and family and friends were ushered to the different parts of the exhibition so that pictures and quotes could be pointed out and shared.
This night, full of joy and energy, was one point in the life of Above the Noise.
Before that night there had been much debate, forming of ideas, making collective plans, gathering of things, documenting in spreadsheets, writing labels, signing and scanning community loan forms, undertaking conservation work and developing designs and choosing materials. There had been late nights and early mornings, white gloves had been found and put on for the careful installation of objects and the cases polished, even as people gathered for the launch outside the door.
After that night visitors came though, looking, reading, pointing out, discussing and chatting with the museum’s visitor experience team and the visitor researchers.
Over the following six months those of us who had been involved in Above the Noise had a chance to reflect and make sense of what we’d done and what it might mean.
Exhibitions as Action Research
Above the Noise was not just an exhibition. It was part of the action research design for the Bradford’s National Museum project. We did it to understand better what it might mean for the National Science and Media Museum to be locally rooted in Bradford and to become more open, engaged and collaborative.
The first step was to find an exhibition idea that was rich and exciting to people in Bradford and directly connected to the collections and themes of the museum, which are focused on the science and technology of sound and vision.
The ideas for the exhibition came through an Open Conversation process led by one of the Bradford’s National Museum project partners, BCB. In the first year of the project, Mary Dowson asked many different people from different communities of and neighbourhoods of Bradford, what was getting them excited about Bradford at the moment? What issues were feeling urgent? We then sought to look at the useful crossover point between the energy and interest in Bradford and the science and technology of sound and vision.
What emerged was the big idea for Above the Noise, as evoked in the introductory text panel:
The national media have often used Bradford as a shorthand for negative stories. Yet Bradford is not just a headline.
In Above the Noise we’ve collaborated with people who live and work in the district to explore how they make and shape Bradford using media technologies.
We invite you to explore the different ways communities in Bradford creatively make their own worlds, bypass the mainstream media by developing alternative methods of distributing news and culture and confront issues head on in order to make political and social change.
Join us and rise above the media noise. Take part in our events. Add your own take on living, working in or visiting Bradford.
The second research aim was to use the process of developing Above the Noise to understand how the museum might work collaboratively and at scale. 15 stories were developed collaboratively with people who had a stake in telling them. 109 story collaborators were directly involved in some way.
The final research aim was to then use the different perspectives on Above the Noise to plan the final phase of the research project. This report gathers together the insights from the different constituencies involved this reflective process. Part 1 looks at visitor engagement; Part 2 explores the experience of the visitor experience staff; Part 3 draws out the learning from those – both staff and collaborators – directly involved in delivering the exhibition and Part 4 delves into perspectives of story collaborators involved in the different stories.
Seeing Above the Noise through different people’s eyes: Whole system reflection
As action research the Above the Noise reflective process was not conceived as summative but as a live and active process that would use our experiences to clarify and shape our research questions and to move the project on.
In order to do this it became clear that it was essential for people to understand different people’s perspectives and to see Above the Noise through other people’s eyes. We sought to stage this through a workshop held at a Bradford café called Bread + Roses. We worked in four small groups (each facilitated by the authors of this report), each group including NSMM staff and collaborators who were involved in different ways. The workshop was based on working through short quotes from different people to show differences of perspective and to draw out what these different views might mean.
Both+And: Cross-cutting questions
From the Bread + Roses workshop it became clear that it is relatively simple to think about any of the different issues that arose from Above the Noise singly. It is not hard for any of us to think about sound and vision technology or Bradford. It is not hard for museums staff to think about quality or being responsive to new ideas and new collaborations. Yet to really address underlying issues we need to hold together different issues, a shift from either/or thinking to both+and. The five cross-cutting questions that emerged are:
- How can we work with the specific strengths of the museum and of the existing networks in Bradford?
- What opportunities arise from telling stories of Bradford and of different communities and questions of the science and technology of sound and vision?
- How can ideas of quality that already exist in NSMM be openly talked about and how might ideas of quality be co-produced with Bradford communities?
- How can the NSMM both be part of Science Museum Group decision-making structures and develop collaborative decision-making with people in Bradford?
- How can the NSMM prioritise the wellbeing of staff and collaborators and be responsive, brave and take risks?
We are now using these questions to drive the final year of the research. We are doing this in a number of different ways. Through a new Bradford’s National Museum Staff Group who are linking their own everyday practice with the wider agendas of the Bradford’s National Museum and a Bradford’s National Museum Network, which acts as a regular touch point for communication and collaboration between people in Bradford and the museum. In all aspects of the research, we’re seeking to work at the knotty place where different worlds, priorities and practices intersect.
What does this mean for this report?
This live and active approach to the reflection process raises questions for the nature of a report like this. What this report isn’t is the final word. What we hope to understand now is how reports like this can be used within organisations? To what uses are this report put? We’ll be tracking that over the next year.
But what is more important is that the process of active and collaborative reflection has led to refined questions that can take us forward. Questions that allow us to look into the more tricky issues that the experience of the exhibition threw up and carried by the energy and momentum generated by Above the Noise.