Dr Anna Woodham
For the last year, I have been part of a project called ‘Energy in Store’ working with the Science Museum Group (SMG) to consider how museums can better meet the needs of diverse audiences. In particular, we have been looking at new ways of working with ‘enthusiast experts’ that could benefit not only the experts themselves but also new generations of researchers, the museum and the wider public.
Enthusiast experts, in the context of the Science Museum, are enthusiast historians of technology who often include former professional engineers, model builders or even inventors. These are people who have detailed knowledge, networks and practical skills that are vital to shedding new light on the collections, and also to bringing them to life. They are often the stalwarts of volunteer museums and demonstration sites across the UK. This is an audience group that has received relatively little attention from museums or policymakers in recent years, but one that plays a vital and under-recognised part of the heritage community in the UK and elsewhere. Through the project we wanted to draw attention to their particular skills and understandings of museum objects, enabling better interpretation of the parts of the SMG collection that are not currently on public display. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”608″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row 0=””][vc_column 0=””][vc_column_text 0=””]The substantial cuts in public funding experienced by museums in recent years have had an impact on their capacity to answer (often rather detailed) queries from enthusiast experts and to offer the level of access to the collections that researchers may expect. A large proportion of our project involved unpicking assumptions made by museum staff about what these researchers want, but also enhancing the enthusiast expert’s understanding around how collections management works and what happens behind the scenes in a museum.
We did this through holding a series of structured discussions over the course of a year between a group of enthusiast experts and curators and museum collections care and conservation staff. Together we visited the SMG collections stores in West London, and Wroughton, as well as the SMG sites in London and Manchester, often using objects as prompts for discussion.
Our meetings focused particularly on objects relating to the history of energy production and distribution. This was an interesting case study because energy technologies can be a challenge to collect, store and make accessible. Also, energy objects are often hard to manage because of their scale, or the fact that they reflect just small parts of enormous ‘networked infrastructures’, meaning that these objects can be hard to make sense of on their own.
It was a revelation to most of the enthusiast experts to see just how much happens behind the scenes when a research visit to see an object in storage is requested and just how much time and resources dealing with requests can take. We worked together to map out all of the individual steps involved in making a request and it showed that the process could be streamlined and made more transparent, thus benefitting both members of the public and museum staff. This is something that the Museum is going to work on going forwards.
It also became clear that enthusiast experts have their own distinct needs and research practices which perhaps do not always align with traditional museum collections management processes. For example, it is not always helpful to be shown just a single object on a research visit, as comparing a number of similar objects is a key way of understanding a collection. This isn’t currently a form of access that is available. However, SMG are considering whether and how it will be possible for researchers to ‘browse’ collections in their new collections centre in Wroughton. Offering this kind of access sounds easy, but it would mean thinking through a number of complex issues including how this could be resourced effectively.
By the end of the project, we were able to draw some findings which we have shared with the Museum. But we are certain that these would also be valuable for other museums who have similar collections or who have enthusiast expert communities (probably nearly all museums!). These include recommendations around sharing collections documentation, digital futures and encouraging social networks around stored collections (see our report below for more details).
Expert enthusiasts are uniquely placed to deepen existing understandings of stored collections reinvigorating them and adding new layers of meaning through their research practices, networks and connections. If we consider them as key actors within the wider ecology of heritage, then their involvement in the museum becomes essential for the sustainability and ongoing life of the collection.
The project was documented by Aura Films and has a publicly accessible archive on YouTube.
Here you can download a copy o the 2-page report on the project.
Energy in Store was funded by the AHRC (official name, ‘Integrating Forms of Care: Building Communities of Practice Around Reserve Collections)