Alex Tyrrell: New voices

What can co-curation bring to a contemporary medical gallery?

What happened when a group of teenagers were invited to curate their own display about contemporary biomedical science? In the Science Museum’s Who am I? gallery, a group of young people worked with museum staff to produce an object rich display as part of this gallery’s major redevelopment.

The group brought objects from older collections to life in new ways and their choices of contemporary objects led to new acquisitions. By combining digital content with traditional textual, visual and tangible objects, they created an innovative display.

This paper shares some of the experience gathered as part of this project, attempting to explore what the introduction of audience voices can bring to a contemporary medical gallery and to discuss the challenges of collaborating in this way.

The overarching aims for this project were to integrate young people’s views about contemporary science into the Who am I? gallery, to feature contemporary science content on gallery that is more relevant for other young people and to innovate new ways of working with audiences. It was a pilot project to develop new ways of working with audiences to co-curate content. The Science Museum has a track-record of involving non-visiting groups in consultation to make Science Museum cultural products (events, exhibitions) more relevant and appealing to them. This is particularly important as London is so diverse, with people from different cultural, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

For the young people involved, the aim was that they would be given a voice, listened to, empowered to express their opinions and supported in producing a high-quality final product for the gallery. The experience would build their confidence and develop skills and develop a positive attitude towards science; science careers and the Science Museum.

Who am I? is the Science Museum’s flagship gallery about biomedical science and explores genetics and brain science through the theme of identity. It recently underwent a significant redevelopment to reflect advances in the biomedical research and reopened in June 2010. Evaluation with focus groups demonstrated that the themes covered in Who am I? engage young people, in particular emotions, memories, sexual attraction, inherited talents and the nature/nurture debate.

The young people involved in the project were recruited through a community gatekeeper, someone who worked as a youth group leader and who could help us begin and sustain relationships with the group. The young people committed to a relationship with the Science Museum (meeting every Saturday afternoon for a 12 week programme. Sessions varied enormously but involved the group exploring the latest biomedical research, selecting their topic, interviewing scientists, selecting objects and making animations. They took part in a text writing workshop, presented their ideas to the gallery design team and documented their experiences throughout with Flip cameras.

Evaluation has shown that this experience has offered a lot to the young people involved, including a greater appreciation and interest in science, increased confidence and social skills. But what benefits did this collaboration bring to the gallery and its visitors?

A fresh approach
The group selected the topic of sleeping and dreaming because they felt it resonated with everyone, and was relevant. They brought an honest and fresh perspective to the content that existing Museum staff might not have achieved. They constantly challenged our processes and approaches, for example, veering away from using objects as a method of engagement at least initially, and pushing to leave their distinctive mark on how these objects were described: ‘Why can’t we put a joke on a label?’

They decided to focus on what is known about sleeping and dreaming, using the questions that they would like answered on the topic as stimulus. This differs from other displays within the gallery (those curated by museum staff) where the approach would normally be to focus more on where the current research is, or what the most engaging narratives are.

The young people wanted to look at historical and cultural content too. Their need to make it their content relevant meant that focussing purely on contemporary science research became very limiting. Although in this case we broadened the content to include historical and cultural stories, it is worth mentioning that the young people liked contemporary science because they liked the uncertainty of not having all of the answers: ’The experience made me very curious, with more questions.’

When it came to interpreting the objects, the group split into smaller groups to research each object. They were encouraged to act as journalists, reporting on each object while being filmed as if in front of an audience. The group as a whole watched these recordings, discussed what they found most interesting or thought-provoking and the interpretation was devised from these conversations.

A personal story
The group’s voice does not reflect scientific consensus, they took scientific knowledge and research and commented on it, applying it to their own experiences and understanding. This potentially allowed the Science Museum to say things that it might not have been able to otherwise, for example in this label interpreting Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams:

Oranges, onions, trees… Sigmund Freud thought objects signified emotions in our dreams. Freud’s ideas are still influential. But one sleep expert told us that dream analysis without knowing about the person who is dreaming is ‘total rubbish’.

Because the display was curated by a group, there was a need to reflect the different voices in that group. Most visibly, this is demonstrated in their names and ages being printed on the labels. The ability to include lots of different takes on a topic brings a richness to the display.

The group enjoyed applying their own personal knowledge to the topic; they wanted to find out what their own dreams meant, what happens when you take stimulant drugs and so on. They constantly made links back to weird and wonderful experiences from their own lives, weaving this into the types of questions they chose to ask scientists, and so this content appears in the object labels and interactive terminal.

Displaying their voices in the gallery is a way of demonstrating that everyone can have an opinion on scientists and scientific research. In a way they validate the idea with visitors that it’s alright to ask these questions and to challenge science. This is particularly pertinent for contemporary science where dialogue and debate around issues is so actively encouraged.

What were the challenges?
Being challenged is interesting and can create new ways of doing things, but for the Museum, this was often difficult, especially as the young people had no concept of the restrictions of time, money, and acceptability to our visitors. For example, this group’s initial ideas for web based games or immersive experiences were not feasible with the programme and resources we had available. In this pilot project, we restricted the group from the beginning by asking them to work with objects and to create a gallery-based display. There is an often fine balance between innovating and knowing what can be reasonably achieved.

The need to apply the same scientific rigour to the content as the rest of the gallery meant involving experts and attempting to engage the young people with Museum. Many of the young people were more interested in the arts than in science and throughout, it was hard to excite them about new research, or what scientists had to say. Probably due to their age, they brought limited knowledge of what was happening in current scientific research – science news just isn’t really part of their lives. It was difficult to have meaningful dialogue with the group about why certain things such as expert checking of text, was necessary or why labels needed to be only 30 words long.

The Museum team had to work very hard to identify contemporary science objects that were interesting or exciting enough to engage the group; objects were often quickly dismissed based upon their appearance, although other objects, such as a dolphin’s brain, immediately captured their attention.

To summarise, co-curating content in this way brought added richness and variety to this gallery about human identity. It made it appear more ‘human.’ Introducing new voices – the voices of the audience – to the interpretation achieved fresh and unexpected routes into the content that seem to resonate with a wider audience.

Whilst working in this way is not without its challenges, in this project it achieved a high-quality product that enhanced the gallery as a whole. The impact that the project had on the young people taking part was significant. Evaluation has shown that they felt proud of their achievements, were more confident and acquired new skills. They had a deeper appreciation of science and a warm relationship with the Science Museum:

’I would like to explore the Science Museum more. I’ve got respect for most science teachers. I wish I’d listened more for school work. It was fun messing round, finding things out in research.’

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