Circuits of practice: Narrating modern computing in museum environments

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Communication and Media

Abstract

In recent years, computing and digital media have become an increasingly prominent element of museum collections in the UK and globally. In the UK alone, established heritage institutions such as the National Science and Media Museum (2012) and the Science Museum (2014) have opened new permanent exhibitions about the history of ICT, while new museums of computing have been established in locations such as Bletchley Park (2007) and Cambridge (2014). At the same time, digital heritage has become a key subject of interest to museum-based researchers and practitioners, and computing and digital media a key object for media historians: over the past decade, several foundational histories of these new communication technologies were published, and digital history is now a vibrant, fast-growing scholarly field in its own right. These developments suggest that we are living through a key stage in the formation of both scholarly and public narratives about these new technologies - narratives that will, ultimately, also inform key decisions over what counts as historically significant, and thus what should be preserved and exhibited in museum environments. This offers a perfect moment for a reflective investigation of practices that govern the construction, dissemination and impact of narratives about new technologies, and for the generation of new, collaborative forms of knowledge that will be capable of informing both museum practice and scholarly debates addressing computing as part of historical heritage.

To produce this new knowledge, this project will examine the role of museums in constructing narratives about histories of computing through which the past, the present and the future of our societies are imagined and culturally constructed. Rather than adopting a standard scholarly approach that takes museums as objects of study, the project will treat them as equal partners in knowledge generation. Taking up the metaphor of the electronic circuit, where electrical connections between diverse components enable complex operations to be performed, the project will bring together curators from leading museums in the UK (Bletchley Park, the Centre for Computing History, The National Museum of Computing, the National Science and Media Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum), leading international institutions (the Computer History Museum in the USA, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation "Miraikan" in Japan, the National Museum of Science and Technology "Leonardo Da Vinci" in Milan, Italy), a company partner (BT Group), and an interdisciplinary team of university-based researchers including PI Simone Natale, co-I Ross Parry and RA Petrina Foti. Leveraging emergent collaborative approaches based on the notion of community of practice, and using the protocols of design thinking and action research methods, the project will carry out a series of practice-led research interventions that will help address three key research questions: RQ1 (TIME): How can museums narrate the development of computers through time? RQ2 (OBJECTS): How can hardware and software artefacts be mobilized by museums to narrate histories of modern computing? RQ3 (DATA): How can museums narrate the role of information and data in computing histories?

Trough that, the project will enable transformative impact in the cultural sector, enhancing the capacity of heritage institutions to effectively collect, preserve and present relevant information about the development and societal impact of new technologies. Public engagement will be enhanced by dissemination activities conducted in collaboration with research partners, including a public-facing Research Report co-authored with research partners, which will provide a summary of key project findings and practical recommendations for best practices in the presentation and exhibition of computing heritage.

Planned Impact

Circuits of Practice will impact on three key beneficiary groups: first, the UK museum partners; second, other UK and international cultural heritage institutions whose mission relates to the preservation and dissemination of histories of computing and digital technologies; third, indirect beneficiaries such as current and potential visitors of the museums. To generate impact on these groups of beneficiaries, a range of impact pathways strategies have been developed and planned.

Impact on the first group of beneficiaries, i.e. the UK museum partners, will be reached through three key means a) The research days organised at each of the partner institutions, which will provide insights and practical contributions for the assessments and improvement of current practices, the revision of existing exhibitions, and the development of new exhibitions. (b) The creation of a community of practice bringing together museum-based and university-based researchers to tackle a shared problem, which will improve existing collaborations and create new opportunity for collaboration. (c) A networking event hosted by the BT Group, to be held in Winter 2021, in coincidence with the 175th anniversary of the company. The event will provide a valuable opportunity for the museum partners to engage with the private sector.

Impact on the second group of beneficiaries, i.e. other UK and international cultural heritage institutions whose mission relates to the preservation and dissemination of histories of computing and digital technologies, will be achieved through two key means (a) The collaborative research report with best practice recommendations, which will be shared online through the project's website as well as the partners' websites, and disseminated through professional networks including the Museums Association, the Computer Conservation Society, and the Museum Computer Network. (b) An International Conference that will provide a space for the representatives of national and international institutions engaged with the history of computing to engage with the research findings and discuss problems of common interest with the members of the community of practice.

Finally, the project will also impact on current and potential visitors of the museums. Impact on this group of beneficiaries will be achieved in two main ways (a) Research outreach activities aimed at a broader public, including article in History Today, and LU Research Blog (b) Online and social media, including the project's website as well as the mobilisation of research partners' websites and social media through which blog articles and online multimedia materials, such as podcasts and slideshows, will be made available and disseminated widely.

The success of impact activities among each group of beneficiaries will be constantly monitored and measured during the project through a specific section of the project's management documentation, which will be administered by the RA. In the first weekly meeting of each month between the PI and the RA, this document will be examined and discussed, collecting evidence of impact achievements and planning corrective actions as needed. All research partners have committed to participate as co-authors of the Circuits of Practice research report, and will be asked to report on how the findings have been incorporated into practice; this will improve the project's capacity to measure and assess impact.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description In the first 12 months, the Circuits of Practice project has delivered the bulk of the research activities planned for the project's first two phases (the preliminary phase and the research phase). The project is now entering the last phase, which will be mainly dedicated to validation and dissemination activities.

Over this period, the project research team has conducted sixteen research workshops with the partner museums, mobilizing action-research methods. Additionally, sixteen online reading group sessions with the involvement of the partners have helped the project advance its theoretical reach and constantly refined its conceptual framework and approach against the existing literature in museum studies and related areas of research.

The project's findings are at this stage developing towards three key contributions. First, our consideration here of 'museums' and 'computing history' provides narratology and narrative studies with a unique context in which to observe how narratives can be constructed through objects in institutional settings - and the complex ways in which organisations, markets, society and the public concurrently shape this narrative. Second, our reflections on 'data' and 'society' provide collections management practices inside the museum with the context in which to confront and think through the challenge of not just using but collecting 'information' and 'systems' - and the unorthodox ways in which 'data' appears to decline the usual typologies and nomenclature of 'tangible' and 'intangible' heritage. Likewise, our examination of the confidence and capability with computing in these displayed histories provides further insights to our understanding of the evolving postdigital museum - not least the self-reflexive ways in which the institution's on-going collecting and interpreting of digital technology (through these computing history exhibits) becomes an analogue of its growing digital maturity.

The project's initial findings, more broadly, call for fields such as media studies and computing history to consider more fully the key role that museums play in constructing narratives about the history of digital media. Although the myths and narratives that underpin the so-called "digital age" have recently gained much attention, the role of museums in this context has been until now scarcely explored. Our ongoing research demonstrates that the relational and reflective nature of museum practice can provide a crucial resource to envision new ways to tell accessible, historically nuanced, and evidence-based narratives about "the digital". This is particularly important in a moment when public debates about the governance of digital technologies drive the future of our societies.

In the next months, the 'Circuits of Practice' project will continue to work with its partner museums to further develop, validate and disseminate these findings.
Exploitation Route The project's initial findings call for fields such as media studies and computing history to consider more fully the key role that museums play in constructing narratives about the history of digital media. Although the myths and narratives that underpin the so-called "digital age" have recently gained much attention, the role of museums in this context has been until now scarcely explored. Our ongoing research demonstrates that the relational and reflective nature of museum practice can provide a crucial resource to envision new ways to tell accessible, historically nuanced, and evidence-based narratives about "the digital". This is particularly important in a moment when public debates about the governance of digital technologies drive the future of our societies.

Additionally in museum environments, the findings promise to contribute new insights and reflections that will be of potential use to the numerous international cultural heritage institutions that are integrating elements related to histories of computing and digital media within their collections and exhibitions.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.circuitsofpractice.net/blog/
 
Description After 12 months of research, we have identified the following key areas of intervention and impact on our partner museums. All activities are still in progress and we are aiming at reaching this impact targets by the end of the project. National Science and Media Museum The research of 'Circuit 1' (on 'Time') has informed the Head Curator's drafting of the interpretation principles, particularly around digital media technologies, set out in the museum's transformational masterplan project ('Sound and Vision'). Centre for Computing History The museum is using the 'Framework of Exhibition Time', developed within 'Circuit 1', to inform the redesign of its new 'Graphical User Interface' exhibit. Victoria & Albert Museum The museum is using the research undertaken in Circuit 2 (on 'Things') to identify and generalise the key characteristics of the approach developed at V&A for curating software from a design-oriented perspective. The National Museum of Computing The museum is using the research in Circuit 2 to review its exhibition in light to the objective of improving diversity of visitors to the museum. Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy Research conducted in Circuit 2 has informed future interventions to develop new research approaches to collection items related to histories of computing that are located in the museum storage, and to find new ways to present them to the public. Science Museum The museum is using the research of 'Circuit 3' (on 'Data') to identify the specific challenges relating to collecting smart technology/internet of things, especially in terms of collecting or representing the data and system networks as part of a larger investigation into collecting digital objects. Bletchley Park The museum is using 'Circuit 3' research to inform the display of data relating to Bletchley Park's Block A exhibition, currently under development. Computer History Museum The museum is using the research conducted during 'Circuit 3' to inform the museum's curatorial approach to the next generation of data-driven topics, including AI technology.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description Circuits of Practice website and blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Circuits of Practice website provides key information about the project. Moreover, the project's blog ( https://www.circuitsofpractice.net/blog/ ) publishes updates about ongoing research that could target a wide international audience. The articles have been posted and retweeted in the research team's and the research partners' social media accounts, attracting attention towards the project during all phases.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://www.circuitsofpractice.net/blog/
 
Description Keynote lecture at WARCNET: Web ARChive Studies Network Meeting, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), University of Luxembourg, 4-6 November 2020. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact PI Simone Natale gave a keynote entitled "What is life to digital objects?" at WARCNET: Web ARChive Studies Network Meeting, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), University of Luxembourg, 4-6 November 2020.

The aim of the WARCNET network is to promote high-quality national and transnational research that will help us to understand the history of (trans)national web domains and of transnational events on the web, drawing on the increasingly important digital cultural heritage held in national web archives. The network offers transnational interdisciplinary networking activities for researchers who study the archived web, and it reaches out to web archivists and IT-developers. The keynote allowed the project to reach an audience of key practitioners in the area of the cultural heritage of the Web and web archiving.

A video of the keynote has been made available online at https://youtu.be/j79ATX-nWhg
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://cc.au.dk/en/warcnet/meetings/luxembourg-2020/
 
Description Roudtable "Which future for the history of the digital?" Politecnico di Milano, Italy, 9 October 2020. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact PI Simone Natale's participated in the Roudtable "Which future for the history of the digital?" Other participants: Simona Casonato (Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan), Silvio Henin (Coordinator of AICA's History of Informatics group). Politecnico di Milano, Italy, 9 October 2020.

The roundtable was part of a one-day event, "Digital Humanism." Participants included a group of school teachers that followed the event online as a training-related opportunity, and was also opened to the general public. Around 150-200 people connected online to the event. The event also saw the participation of professionals from public and private institutions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.eventi.polimi.it/events/evento-online-digital-humanism-umanesimo-digitale/