“I walk past the machine and it’s as cold as ice”


Jean Franczyk began her museology seminar this week with the differential analyser machine.

Although I’m fascinated by lots of different things, machines just don’t do it for me. Some people love machines – love thinking about how they work, how the pieces are engineered, but for me it’s all a bit abstract. I need a lot more interpretation before I can get excited about a combustion engine. And for that reason I hadn’t been to MOSI for quite a few years.

I imagine I’m the sort of potential visitor Jean had in mind when she set the new narrative direction for the museum; ‘letting the story lead’. This approach is about finding the big idea – the hook from which the story of the object can hang. For years the differential analyser has been displayed with little more than a description of what it does (processes complex equations), but actually it has a fantastic history – not least, it was involved in the development of the atom bomb. Talk about a big idea! How exciting and terrifying to think of the role this machine has played in the development of technology, international relations and discourses of ethics in the 20th Century. Surely, this idea is key to interpreting this object for the majority of MOSI’s visitors.

The big idea is also central in exhibition development. The Collider exhibition, about the search for the Higgs boson, is coming to MOSI in 2014. There’s some very, very complicated science here, beyond most people’s comprehension. So the exhibition focuses on the more tangible, more human issues of scale.  What’s it like to work on a project for 50 years? What does it mean to use the largest machine in the world to search for the smallest thing in the universe? What’s it like to stand inside the collider?

And further, this approach is applied to the institution itself. When MOSI joined the Science Museum Group in 2012 Jean headed up a master planning exercise to identify the museum’s core purpose. What can MOSI, with its historical site, its location in Manchester and its collection, uniquely do?: ‘Explore where science met industry and the modern world began.’ Really quite compelling, don’t you think?

Jean talked a lot about the difficulties of making a master plan a reality. There are loads of external factors, not least funding. But I couldn’t help thinking about the little internal struggles – those conversations where you try to get your differential analysers specialist to step back from the minutiae of how it works and see the machine’s wider, social implications…

It seems my idea of museum interpretation roles being all about focus groups, brainstorming and creative writing is way off – the skills you need are negotiation, influence and stakeholder management. And this is the case whether you’re an exhibitions officer drafting text panels, a curator proposing an exhibition, or a director re-visioning your organisation.

In any case, I look forward to going back to MOSI when some of Jean’s redevelopment plans have taken shape and see whether that differential analyser has started to come to life, with all the warmth of human stories and atom bombs.