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The Science Museum: an experiment in democratising collecting

Synthesizer Bingo

Most often, participation in museum decision-making is pushed into organisational silos, or focused on short-term interventions. The electronic music co-collecting project experimented with a different model: we brought together experts from inside and outside the museum. The team’s discussions questioned a key tenet of museum practice; that use today endangers preservation for the future.

The Science Museum co-collecting project was designed as a sequel to the multi-stranded participation project in 2011 that created the temporary exhibition, Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music.

Inviting participation in exhibitions is by now quite conventional, although in this case the people got involved on the basis of their interests rather than their membership of a particular demographic group (co-production in museums has mainly been used as a means to enhanced social inclusion). If participation can democratise exhibitions, why shouldn’t it do the same for other aspects of the curator’s role?

One of the most emblematic of curators’ responsibilities is adding objects to permanent collections. They are the gatekeepers of posterity, if you like. To put it rather grandly: they decide what should be selected for preservation for access by everyone in the future. In this sub-project, we set out to find out what would happen if this were opened-up to participation by people who have a passionate interest in an area that the Museum collects in: music technology, especially synthesisers.

The group of self-confessed ‘synth geeks’ included several participants who had been involved in the exhibition. Together we created an action research project, deciding that taking part in the Museum’s acquisition procedure, and testing the principles in a public forum, would be the key outcomes. So it was that the group made successful cases to the Museum’s Collecting Board, and ran ‘Synth Bingo’, a public event at the Museum’s popular ‘Lates’ evening opening.

Along the way, important themes emerged:

  • Enthusiasts – a ‘curatorial head in the community’ – have precisely the kind of nuanced understanding of cultural artefacts that is necessary to making acquisition decisions.
  • That issues of ‘preservation’ versus ‘use’ are particularly well demonstrated by the example of musical instruments, where an object’s meaning is in the sound, rather than in its appearance. The conclusion was that it would be to the benefit of the many in the future, as well as the few in the present, for those in the know to play the instruments. In that way, their meanings could be captured to be shared more widely.
  • The public at the Lates ‘Synth Bingo’ valued traditional reasons for acquisition: for example the rarity of an object, or its association with a famous person, were considered more important than ubiquity. This was felt even where the big story was to do with the influence of musical instruments as mass-produced consumer goods, making electronic music available to millions.

Martin Swan, Musician and Educator

If you engage the network of geeks out there then you create a community with ‘a curatorial head on’. They will say – ‘we will look for those things’. You’re creating a community of curators. But as soon as you stop playing them, synths start to decay. They become less and less the thing that made them worth collecting. As they become less and less viable as instruments, they also become less and less interesting to the geeks, the very people who would want to enthuse about the objects to other people. And these are also the people who could maintain them and could get them going again.

David Robinson, Technical Editor and Musician

Participation was important for me as I was keen to see more of the mechanics involved in, and experience the issues that arise with, the ‘business of collecting’. It was a chance to roll up our sleeves and witness first-hand the workings of an organisation such as the Science Museum – with the associated challenges that arise, such as budget, process, application of resources – when engaged with a new collecting project. And of course, it was another opportunity to indulge in conversations about subject areas which I very much enjoy, namely: music technology/synthesizers. As a person who likes structure, limits and deadlines to work to, to achieve optimum results, I found preliminary discussions in and around the subject of the ‘democracy of collecting’ illuminating and enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfactory, until such time as we (as I said at the time) ‘stopped swimming around in the ocean and made landfall on one island or another’ (where the islands represented hard – almost ‘SMART’ - goals/aims).

Tim Boon, Science Museum

Inviting-in ‘outsiders’ to try a curatorial role proved not to endanger any feeling of curatorial expertise I might have had, but to enhance it. Presenting acquisition cases to our collecting board and to the crowd at a Wednesday night ‘Lates’ in the company of our ‘synth community curators’ felt richer, more democratic, and better justified, than many a solo recommendation. I recommend it to curators everywhere.

Jean-Phillipe Calvin, Composer and Researcher

Joining the co-collecting project gave me a much better and in depth understanding of museum practices and procedures about how they value, preserve, interpret and transmit histories of, in our case, electronic music.

John Stanley, Writer and Electronic Musician

I ended up feeling very strongly that some of the objects in the Science Museum stores, particularly the rarer synthesizers, needed to be powered on again. The longer they sit in the dark with the capacitors slowly failing, the less likely they were to ever make sound again, and ultimately, the less meaning could be assigned to them. It seemed that a limited project to bring them back to life, if that was possible and fundable, would be a excellent way of using the knowledge of interested communities, engaging with the objects and the general public.

Richard Courtney, Management Studies, University of Leicester

I find that the most engaging museum collections come from making visible the passion, interest, and value that people have for things, in addition to the ’things’ themselves. The Science Museum strand was an innovative means to incorporate these emotional values into curatorial management. In this way, it allowed enthusiasts of a self-admittedly niche area of technological innovation the space to articulate the wider relevance of synthesisers. The ‘Lates’ event provided an example as to how easy it is to enlighten new audiences as to the social and cultural significance of synthesisers.  The personal and emotional attachment that enthusiasts have for synthesiser history was the key means to communicate to audiences as to why they should recognise this significance