Calling the Rolling Stones!

If you’d asked a year ago – or even last week – if our project, on UK and Irish railway worker accidents of the early 20th century, would be tweeting the Rolling Stones, the answer would clearly have been ‘no.’ However, it became relevant at last week’s Science Museum Group Research Conference, so now we can say we have!

We were at the conference as part of our efforts to spread the word about the project – we’ve been talking to all sorts of external groups already, so this was the ideal opportunity to take the project to a wider internal audience. The Science Museum Group (SMG) is the family of museums that include our project partner, the National Railway Museum. The museums in the SMG have always undertaken research into their holdings, but increasingly it’s being embedded more deeply in SMG culture – with benefits for all, whether curators, volunteers, partners or museum-goers. The annual conference is one part of strengthening this research culture and so we thought it would be a great showcase for our project as well as a chance to learn from others.

So, last Friday, the two project leads – Karen Baker of the National Railway Museum and Mike Esbester of the University of Portsmouth – took the project to the conference, this year held at the Science Museum in London. It was important to us to do this as we’re already benefitting from the support of the SMG as well as contributing to the research culture and practice of the Group. In particular, we wanted to highlight what our project has been doing, and discuss the volunteering and crowd-sourcing aspects as potential models for others to replicate (and improve upon!). We also hoped to learn more about what the other branches of the SMG have been doing and to benefit from the experience of others present. This engagement with the museum world is a core part of the project, but one which might – at the moment – be less visible, as much of it happens behind the scenes (for example, in how we feed in to practice and displays at the NRM).

It was a fascinating day, with plenty of relevance to our project’s aims and ethos, and we tried our best to live Tweet it (see this thread). We’ve picked up some of the common themes here, but it’s worth starting by saying that the sorts of things that everyone was doing at the conference – thinking critically about research and display, and about the place of research within museums – is important. Only by doing this, and by discussing it openly and soliciting advice and other people’s experience we will strengthen our practice.

Perhaps most obviously, one theme was the role of volunteers. We are far from the only research project involving volunteers, so it was helpful to compare notes and consider how we might better engage with them. As a project, it was helpful to pause and evaluate our practice, thinking about how we work with our volunteers as well as what they get out of their roles. Collections-based research was also a theme – this makes a lot of sense, of course, as the various museums across the Group have an amazing set of collections, only a fraction of which will have been researched. Questions change and evolve over time as well, of course, but one thing that was particularly interesting was the diversity of purposes the museums have served since their inception: not ‘simply’ displaying artefacts, but also being used in explicitly didactic ways, too.

The materiality of objects was also something that a number of the presentations addressed – pertinently we’d posted on this very topic in relation to one of our sources only a few weeks’ ago (see here). Thinking about what it was like to handle the items in the museums – something relatively few people have the chance to do at the moment – and the new questions and approaches this might generate was illuminating. Gemma Almond’s work on the design and use of spectacles (based on the collections at the Science Museum), Annie Jamieson’s discussion about the 1990s XL3 sound desk (a mixing console used in concerts, now held at the National Science and Media Museum) and Alison Hess’ discussion on emotional connections with and responses to objects were all thoughtful provocations on how we might do research.

Running throughout all of this was a concern about use – these were items which weren’t designed to sit in a museum, but to be used, so capturing what happened in practice is important (if difficult). Nowhere was this more evident than in Annie Jamieson’s work on the XL3 sound desk – the list of bands who’d used the desk, as well as the audiences who’d heard its output, was impressive, and of course including the Rolling Stones … well, why not tweet them about it?! This focus on use is something at the heart of our project, which gets at the realities of railway work, as opposed to what was supposed to be happening, as evidenced in the accident reports.

The politics of display was also a hot topic of discussion: Phillip Roberts (with Birmingham Museums and Galleries) in particular questioned whose history was explored in museums – partly in relation to working class histories, but also in relation to items within collections that relate to slavery and how that past should be treated. Imogen Clark (Science Museum) added an important note to this in her discussion of taking research and collections out beyond the museum space to reach wider audiences. Again, these are the sorts of things we hope our project is doing.

Related to this was consideration of how we might get people involved in museum research, including contributing their own experiences of the items held within collections. No easy answers to this, as we’d expect, but the potential of co-production was well received. Jack Kirby’s work on the ‘Energy in Store’ project, which seeks to recognise and bring in expertise located outside the museums and other ‘traditional’ sites of knowledge (like universities), was very exciting – something core to our project, which has benefitted from our volunteers’ insights. The potential here for family history audiences was pleasingly noted – both in relation to our project and previous efforts within the Group (see here). This was very timely for us, as we’re off to the Family History Show London next weekend (report to follow) and the Register of Qualified Genealogists conference in October.

Finally, a few people – us included – raised questions about how we deal with difficult pasts, including the need to tell ambiguous stories in museums. And there was a provocative call for us to consider how pressing social justice questions might be asked and addressed through museums and research in and on museums collections. We were also taken with the idea about ‘scaling up’ our work: it is challenging in terms of resources (time, money, digital support and so on) to do this type of work, but it was suggested that one way of increasing our value would be to seek global connections. So, potential global partners – please get in touch! We’ve already had some interest from overseas researchers and institutions looking at or interested in railway worker safety, but we know this is an international story so we welcome more.

The conference was thought-provoking but also fun – and a great reminder of the enthusiasm and supportive environment so essential for display and research work, in museums or beyond. As a project we’ve found out more about some of the variety of research going on across one of our host organisations and made some valuable connections. Hopefully we gave the conference participants a sense of our project and how it has worked so far, as well as ideas that they can use in their research and display activities. We have certainly benefited from the experience of our colleagues at the conference, so it’s a big ‘thank you’ to them all. It was a thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable day!

PS No reply as yet from Mick Jagger et al, but we’re sure it’s only a matter of time …

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