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How Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum brings innovation into the limelight

Creative Resident and Architect, Laura Sanderson worked with Openshaw residents to explore how their local high street has changed over time and what services and spaces they’d like to see in the future.

MuseumNext caught up with Ruth Murray, leader of the Community Partnerships team at Manchester’s
Science and Industry Museum, to find out more about the institution’s City Sparks project. Designed to centre and highlight the perspectives of people who feel excluded by traditional STEM (Science technology engineering & maths), the project brought together the passion and hard work of creative collaborators to establish something truly special.

Having worked in informal science engagement for nearly two decades, Ruth Murray is passionate about the life chances and choices that fair learning experiences can offer.

Collaborating with brands, grassroot community organisations and creative institutions has been at the heart of her practice throughout her career. And this is clearly evidenced in the Community Partnerships programmes she has led at the Science and Industry Museum.

City Sparks: a co-produced community takeover

First delivered by the Science and Industry Museum in 2023, the inaugural City Sparks programme involved working with 12 organisations and over 180 community participants to co-produce a headline holiday programme enjoyed by over 27,000 visitors. The annual programme involves working with a range of partners to spark and explore the next generation of world-changing ideas.

Ruth says, “In 2023, City Sparks allowed us to bring Community Partnerships into the core of the museum’s programming, working with the community in a meaningful way. It’s a co-produced process, but it remains at the heart of our headline programme during one of our busiest holiday periods.”

Architect for a Day invited museum audiences to have their say on what a local high street should be.

Leaning into the significant capital works happening at the Museum, we invited partners to explore the theme of “repair”.  We worked with groups ranging from artists to architects and schools to spoken word poets. The resulting programme involved a rickshaw, a shoal of clay swimmers and installations and activities which encouraged people to have their say in the what the future could or should be for the world’s first industrial city.

City Sparks was not only designed to delight and inspire, connecting people with the museum’s historic collections and cutting-edge research, but also to seed innovative partnerships that challenge existing pre-conceptions around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and its impact on daily life.

“We are a scientific research institution, but City Sparks allowed us to take on creative residencies and micro-commissions to engage in more open exploration.

“Often science engagement starts with knowledge and understanding, focusing on a particular topic. The creative residency and community showcase aspects of City Sparks provided an opportunity for more open provocation. We could explore alongside community partners and find interesting engagement formats to share with an audience.”

Manchester: a brilliant city focused on reducing inequality

Those who experience City Sparks for themselves are promised the opportunity to unlock the potential of a curious and questioning mindset, helping to hone the agency we all have to shape the world.

In an age of growing diversity awareness, this is more relevant than ever. Ruth says, “We exist to inspire and explore ideas that change the world. City Sparks takes a broad ranging topic and invites people who might feel marginalised from traditional museum practice or scientific research to interpret it in a way that matters to them, and explore it with a wider audience.”

Manchester City Council reports inequalities existing across food, healthcare, infrastructure, resources, and more, so it was vital to Ruth and her team that City Sparks gave those who are often overlooked a platform. She says, “There’s sometimes a misconception that, by focusing a lot of attention on audiences that don’t traditionally engage with you, you might somehow exclude those that do. To me, this is a debunked assumption, as research around equity and developing audiences has shown.

“Being able to share our platform with audiences that feel their needs aren’t often met by traditional organisations is a huge privilege.

Dominoes and Dahlias took over the Textiles Gallery to shine a light on Manchester’s connection to slavery whilst sharing the joy of African and Caribbean cultures through spoken word, object handling and music workshops.

“City Sparks became much more than the sum of its parts, showcasing that meaningful partnership work can translate to a broad audience.”

It takes a village: centring community

As Ruth explains, City Sparks doesn’t just bring communities together, it also gives them a voice. By centring both creativity and community, the programme gives marginalised groups the chance to tackle a topic in their own way, and express their experiences in their own words: “City Sparks created a shared space to take risks together with our partners. Sometimes, when museums talk about co-production, there’s an assumption that you just hand everything over, but that’s not the case. It’s a team effort.

“The project brings together our strengths – resources, space and people – and the strengths of community partners, such as a fresh perspective and diverse lived experience”.

“That’s an important part of broadening your audience and allowing more people to feel included.”

Broadening the definition of STEM

A significant motivation behind City Sparks was to broaden the accepted definition and presentation of STEM. The project brought STEM to a diverse range of partners, as well as new perspectives and increased representation to the museum, according to Ruth:

“STEM can be seen as a very narrow, exclusive pursuit, but if you tackle it as more of a cultural pursuit, it becomes a more open discussion about the world around us and how we can shape it. Immediately, STEM becomes something everyone can have agency over.

Dukinfield Craft Café brought their shoal of clay swimmers to invite conversations around water and wellbeing, highlighting the closure of their local swimming baths.

“It also broadens what counts as science or STEM, which is really important, because once you broaden that definition, it opens more ways for people to find relevance in it.”

Selecting partners and quantifying success

When selecting community partners, the team opted for an open call for all the paid opportunities. This was, as Ruth explains to make the process “as fair and straightforward as possible.” She continues,

“The aim of City Sparks is to initiate ideas, highlight issues and foster relationships between us and the community. We made a conscious effort to make this opportunity as accessible as possible, and create opportunities for community voices to shape our content and strengthen our inclusive practice.

“Visitor numbers were great, but we also measured success through visitor feedback. We had a lot of very satisfied people experiencing the project. We also had science engagement measures, looking at learning, enjoyment and, most crucially, a sense of belonging among our visitors. The number of people feeling that the museum was a place for them was higher than average for our audience.”

Just two pieces of feedback were: “I think it was a really unique opportunity working with the museum and it was a really special project for me as an artist to collaborate with the community. We had some really imaginative and beautiful creations” – City Sparks Partner

I loved handing the creative keys to different communities and seeing them represented in our building” – City Sparks Producer

Advice for other museums? Take your time

Every museum must contend with costs when undertaking an ambitious project. But for Ruth and her team the priority was time, not money. She explains,

“We took our time and started the work earlier. We didn’t necessarily spend huge amounts of excess money, the priority was giving it the time it needed to bloom as it should, which meant building equitable relationships and making sure people are comfortable.

“Museums are an important civic space, but it’s the community that gives us that importance. City Sparks is a way to share that platform and power.”

According to Ruth, giving the project room to evolve allowed the museum to tackle issues of diversity and inclusion with the respect they require:

“Challenges museums face around representation and systemic marginalisation come from a lack of representation. This feeds into issues around STEM, and who feels like they could be part of it.

“If you went to museums as a child, you’re far more likely to think of it as a potential career path. It’s all too easy for organisations to inadvertently exclude people, so we have to consciously make the effort to step outside of our own experience and think about catering for others.

“This begins before you’ve even written your initial concept for a project. You need to be actively diversifying your canon, and the people you’re speaking to. With City Sparks, we gave ourselves as the time and methods we needed to connect with the right people.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.

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