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By Sally MacDonald on

Our commitment to inclusive storytelling

Executive Lead for Collections Services and Science and Industry Museum Director Sally MacDonald reflects on how our value of being open for all is reflected in our approach to collecting and curation.

Last week our Group’s Director, Sir Ian Blatchford, wrote that it was vital that our ‘audiences can trust the stories they encounter in our spaces, in the knowledge that we aren’t seeking to skew the story to favour any particular political agenda’.

This audience trust is crucial to us as publicly funded organisations. Yet retaining it requires a lot from all of us who work in museums.

We need always to stay open to new ideas, new voices and new research that shed changing light on our collections.

We need to be open to criticism and ready to re-examine the stories we tell, even when those stories can be difficult.

We need to stay closely attuned to our audiences – the visitors to our sites and to our websites – to understand who they are and what resonates with them, so that we can do them justice, confident in our expertise to bring our collections and stories vividly to life.

At the same time, we need to consider those who don’t yet feel represented in our spaces and what we can do to address this.

As a national museum group, our independence is key to the maintenance of this public trust, and essential if we are to realise our mission to inspire futures. Unlike some other charitable organisations, with a specific campaigning purpose, we must remain non-partisan.

Underpinning this is a set of strong, published policies – covering all areas of our activity – which we regularly review and revise. We have recently published our new Collection Development Policy, setting out how and what we aim to collect in the next five years.

In it we say we will:

  • Demonstrate the relevance of science, technology, engineering, transport, medicine and media in shaping our past, reflecting discoveries, everyday lives, tools and techniques.
  • Reveal their resonance for our future, including major developments and innovations, as well as our most pressing concerns.
  • Be ‘open for all’, capturing people’s different experiences of gender, disability, sexuality and representing diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds within our collection and through the stories they tell.
  • Link to peoples’ lives and interests, building a historical record and research resource, capturing the imaginations of our audiences, helping to answer their questions, whilst revealing new objects, ideas and people.

Our contemporary collecting is influenced both by specific discoveries or developments and broader trends.

For example, there is urgent collecting activity underway across our Group in response to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure we can provide a permanent record for future generations of medical, scientific, cultural and personal responses to the challenging period and chronicle its impact on society.

The first vial of COVID vaccine used in a mass immunisation programme
The first vial of COVID vaccine used in a mass immunisation programme anywhere in the world will join the Science Museum Group Collection.

At the same time, we are taking steps to enhance our digital collecting and digital preservation to reflect the exponential growth of the digital world within our holdings and its impact on every aspect of our lives. Climate change too is a major focus.

As we evolve our collection and our curation, and in line with our value of being Open for All, we are targeting new research that addresses omissions in the stories we tell, revealing histories that have previously been overlooked or consciously ignored.

Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum celebrates the work of June Almeida, the Scottish lab technician who in the 1960s first identified a coronavirus.

Visitors admiring Marc Quinn's 'Self-Consious Gene' in Medicine The Wellcome Galleries
Visitors admiring Marc Quinn’s ‘Self-Consious Gene’ in Medicine The Wellcome Galleries.

The recent redisplay of the Textiles Gallery at the Science and Industry Museum highlights the role played by women and children in cotton manufacturing.

And the National Science and Media Museum’s ground-breaking Above the Noise exhibition, co-curated with Bradford communities, featured a diverse group of voices.

Our audiences continue to demonstrate their great appetite for fresh perspectives, including around uncomfortable aspects of our history. And we will continue to respond. A collaborative PhD underway with the University of East Anglia looks at the development of Manchester’s cotton industry in a global context, including its connections with imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

A new public history collaboration, Global Threads is also underway between the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, UCL, and the Science and Industry Museum. Original research into Manchester’s buildings, locations, memorials and museum objects will draw out new and previously under-described stories of lived experience, resistance and solidarity in relation to colonialism, enslavement and the city’s cotton economy.

We are just embarking on another, together with the Royal Society, which examines The Royal Society and Slavery in Jamaica, 1660-1713. These research projects have real potential to add new stories and interpretations to our Textiles Gallery at the Science and Industry Museum, and to Science City 1550-1800: The Linbury Gallery at the Science Museum.

A family watches a demonstration about textiles at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester
A family watches a demonstration about textiles at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. photo by Drew Forsyth

These are just two examples of ways in which we’re exploring a broader and more inclusive range of narratives at each of our museums. Last year we developed an Inclusive Display and Interpretation Action Plan, setting out our plans for each site.

We have already made some changes, and there are more to come.

Visitors to the Science Museum can now find out about Charles Bolden, who piloted the shuttle that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and went on to become NASA’s first African American leader.

At the National Science and Media Museum, a new display about Bradford’s Belle Vue Photo Studio features stunning family portraits made for Bradford’s South Asian communities in the 1950s and 60s.

At the Science and Industry Museum we’re working on a major redisplay of our Power Hall, featuring the mechanics who maintained the iconic steam engines of the industrial revolution; stories previously overlooked in favour of those of famous inventors.

As part of the National Railway Museum’s transformational plans for Vision 2025, we’ll tell the story of the Cape Government Railway locomotive’s involvement in exploitation of people and natural resources. We’ll feature the story of Karen Harrison, the UK’s first woman train driver and other pioneering women in the rail industry.

New galleries take time to create, which is why our public programming also plays a key role in ensuring we present a range of voices.

Recent talks featured as part of Manchester Science Festival, themed around Climate, included university researchers, community activists, young entrepreneurs and faith leaders. The diversity of voices gave the programme depth; the array of themes gave it wide appeal.

Engaging with a broad range of people on a variety of topics also helps us to ensure that we continue to share balanced content with our audiences and that our work continues to be driven by boundless curiosity, and not any single agenda or ideology. In doing so, we’re always striving to live up to another of our core values, to share authentic stories. Our audiences, whose trust we value so highly, expect nothing less.

This post was updated on 27/05/2021 with information about the Global Threads public history collaboration at the Science and Industry Museum.