Bradford’s National Museum project came about in the wake of a change in direction for what is now known as the National Science and Media Museum. The new strategy sought to focus more specifically on the science and technology of sound and vision, and to find ways of connecting more closely to Bradford.
The project was collaboratively designed between museum staff; partners who were well connected in Bradford and had established community development practices; and researchers at the University of Leeds. The question we posed was: “How can the National Science and Media Museum become locally rooted and more open, engaged and collaborative?”
More than 150 people were directly involved in shaping the research in different ways. Taking an action research approach meant we collaboratively generated questions, experimented in different ways, reflected, made space for valuing different perspectives, created approaches for deep listening as well as for analysis and conceptualisation.
With our partners, we used a large exhibition – Above the Noise: 15 Stories from Bradford (April to June 2019) – to understand better the challenges created by working more collaboratively in Bradford and to set agendas for the final part of the project.
We took a whole system approach and reflected in different ways with visitors, front-of-house staff, museum staff involved in the exhibition production and story contributors.
The process of reflecting on Above the Noise revealed that different people saw and understood the experience in quite different ways, depending on their position within the process. Visitors really enjoyed it and spent time in the gallery chatting with the visitor experience staff.
However, many didn’t understand the key messages and understood the exhibition to be more about celebrating diversity in Bradford than the use of technology to navigate the impact of negative representations of Bradford in the national media.
Collaborators were glad to be involved but frustrated with how inflexible and unresponsive museum processes could be and with the way control seemed to be passed over to the museum by the end of the process.
Staff felt rushed, under pressure and exhausted by having to navigate the institution and the new collaborative relationships. While the diverging nature of the perspectives was unsurprising, it was essential for people to have a chance to understand different people’s perspectives in order to move forward.
We did this by bringing a mix of museum staff and story contributors together in small groups. Each worked through short quotes from different people to show differences of perspective and to draw out what these diverse views might mean.
We noticed it was relatively simple to think about any of the different issues that arose from Above the Noise individually. But to really address underlying questions we needed to hold together different issues – and shift from either/or thinking to both plus and.
This set our research questions for the final year of the project. We used these research questions – driven through a newly formed staff action research group – to build towards a final process of deepening our understanding of the issues and to identify future directions for the National Science and Media Museum’s relationship with Bradford.
In January 2021 we launched our publication, Bradford’s National Museum. It doesn’t just give a retrospective account of the research findings. It was developed as an intrinsic part of the action research. We used the process of creating the publication to structure a final phase of reflection, dialogue, analysis and conceptualisation.
More than 30 of our collaborators – staff, researchers and people who live and work in Bradford – contributed moments of reflection. We called them ‘moments’ as they all seek to capture both a moment of realisation that occurred during the project as well as indicating reasons for hope or possibility for change.
We then ran a series of small group discussions for staff where we listened to the moments on their own terms and then started to make the connections to everyday work in the museum. This process solidified our understandings of the significant tensions staff feel in navigating the national and the local.
We ran a large final workshop to work through different strategies for dealing with the tensions and how these might be usefully thought about.
You can read more about how we ultimately conceptualised the ‘tensions’ of being a nation museum seeking to be locally-rooted and more open, engaged and collaborative ‘as strengths’ in our publication.
In practice, taking an action research approach to organisational change meant using everyday work as a chance for deep reflection, constantly enabling everyone involved to see the issues through other people’s eyes and together finding new ways of understanding and theorising otherwise entrenched problems.
Helen Graham is associator professor in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, at the University of Leeds