National museums based in the regions face unique challenges - Museums Association

National museums based in the regions face unique challenges

How do you fulfil your remit and tell local stories?
National museums
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Jo Quinton-Tulloch
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National museums outside of our nations’ capitals are different. Institutions in our capital cities create exhibitions and programmes for national and international visitors. Tourists often visit only once, so the need to establish an ongoing relationship with a frequent visitor is arguably less of a priority.

But national museums based in the regions have a different context, often welcoming local, regular visitors who have a lifelong association with their
home town. And they rightly expect their museums to reflect their experiences and histories. 

How can a national museum, representing and caring for the nation’s heritage, also be embedded in and reflective of its geographic location? For the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, it is a question that an initiative called Bradford’s National Museum project has explored over the past three years. 

Forming part of the Science Museum Group, the National Science and Media Museum has sat at the heart of Bradford for almost 40 years. Yet relationships with our city weren’t always embedded. 

The challenge of navigating our national and local role was regularly highlighted: our mission is driven by our collections – photography, film, broadcast and sound technologies; our remit is to tell universal stories about science and technology, not stories about the history of our place. But we want to become more locally rooted, better connected and more engaged with the issues and concerns of our district. We asked whether this is possible for a museum with a national and international remit, whose specialisms are subject based.

Bradford’s National Museum project was enabled by a partnership with the University of Leeds with Arts and Humanities Research Council funding, and was conceived and run by a collective of people based inside and outside the museum. Each of the project’s external collaborators had well-established community development approaches and extensive local networks. 

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Over three years, we worked collaboratively, drawing on research approaches to understand the dynamics of collaborative work at scale and explore how the internal structures and processes that provide governance and accountability in a national institution can be both an enabler and a limitation to innovation.

At times, the process led to uncomfortable conversations, highlighting the tensions that exist within complex organisations, where different priorities and practices intersect. But it was by honestly and openly interrogating these tensions that we were able to move towards our goal. Much of what we experienced is relevant to any museum. We found that many of the tensions are not easily resolvable, but if framed in the right way can be turned into strengths to enable our practice. We’ve called this a “tensions as strengths” approach.

The project culminated in an online publication that launched earlier this year. While this was a moment of reflection and celebration of all that we had achieved during the three years, it is the very process that has enabled the most significant changes. Organisational change has come through our shared experiences, and the work continues. The personal reflections
in the publication show that honouring the responsibility of working for a public institution, or of being a citizen committed to the growth and development of your place, is a complex, rewarding and
ongoing task. 

This publication is only the beginning and we understand there is no quick fix to many of the tensions raised. The challenges identified through this sustained collaboration between the National Science and Media Museum and Bradford are not unique. At a time when the museum sector is navigating hugely difficult issues, we hope this project might create a dialogue with other museums that are also honestly reflecting on their own ways of operating, for a more open and collaborative future

Jo Quinton-Tulloch is the director of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford

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