As the director of the National Media Museum, Jo Quinton-Tulloch holds one of the most culturally significant roles in Bradford. At a time when the museum sector is facing heavy funding cuts and increasing scrutiny, it’s her job to ensure the Museum remains relevant and is able to inspire and educate those who use it. Three years into the role she has overseen the start of a major strategic realignment that has attracted both praise and scrutiny from the public and media. She has also helped to commission a range of original, often groundbreaking, exhibitions that have been enjoyed by an annual audience of almost half a million. She spoke to the Bradford Review about her role and the future of the National Media Museum.
Can you explain a bit more about your role and what it involves?
I am the Director of the National Media Museum. I guess what that means is that I am in charge of the strategic direction of the Museum. And also the day-to-day management. I’m responsible for a small team of people with a very varied skill set and overall we’re responsible for the collections we hold. But it’s more than just looking after those collections, what we’re really about is making sure as many people as possible have as much opportunity to understand, see, experience and learn from those collections. So it’s about making those collections available, whether it’s for research, school trips or exhibitions.
What’s your background and how did it bring you to where you are now?
My background is in science, and my first degree was in biology. I loved science because it is so relevant to the world. It is our world and it’s what makes our world tick. But as much as I loved it I didn’t want to carry on being a science researcher working in a lab, I wanted to work with people. So I travelled for a while and then did a masters course in science communication. It was very new at the time but it was basically science journalism. So we studied how to cover science through television, print, radio and through museums. At the time I actually thought I wanted to go into television, but as I went through the course I realised museums are the richest place to communicate science you can imagine. With TV you only have the one medium, whereas in a museum you can use several mediums at the same time. You can offer interactive experiences, you can work with artists and create commissions, you can do physical experiences through dance and theatre. The world of a museum is a very rich place to bring in all sorts of different people from different backgrounds. I think it’s one of the best places to inspire people and help them understand the impact science has on their lives.
So I started my career as an explainer at the Science Museum and I’ve worked in a number of roles in different museums. I moved up to Bradford three years ago to take up the challenges that we face here.
What are the most rewarding parts of what you do and what motivates you?
I think in part it’s seeing people in our Museum and in our galleries having a fantastic time. It’s that simple. Sometimes it’s watching families come together and having a really rich conversation about something they have seen or done. Or it’s seeing a lightbulb moment, watching school children have that moment of understanding. It really demonstrates what impact the museum is having on their lives and these are experiences that you hope they will take away with them and apply to all other aspects of their lives and their work.
The plans to rebrand the Museum and transfer large parts of its photography collection to London’s V&A were branded by some as cultural vandalism. Was this reaction justified and how do you defend the decisions that were made at the time?
We have been undergoing significant change for more than two years now and the decision to move the Royal Photographic Society collection was a very small part of a much bigger revisioning of this Museum. The museum sector is facing many challenges and yet we need to make sure we increase our visitor numbers, we need to be better connected, we need to find different ways of working. So you have to think differently, to be constantly thinking about the future. All of the changes we have been making have been about ensuring that this museum has a sustainable and secure future.
A big part of that is seeing where our opportunities lie. We’re part of the Science Museum group, and our collections are all about the technology of film, photography and television. So what we have been doing is making sure we are really clear about where our priorities lie and where our focus and emphasis are going to be in the future. We spent a lot of time talking to local stakeholders and local schools and they have all been telling us that STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – is really important and that we can have a really significant role in supporting local schools to be better engaged by drawing the STEM from our collections.
So for the last two years we have been realigning around the STEM agenda and that puts us in a much stronger position as part of the Science Museum Group. It means we can be better placed to attract new funding and we have been doing all sorts of things to help realise that vision. The collections move was just a part of that process. It was a part of us moving towards making sure that the collections we do hold here are absolutely relevant to the vision of the Museum. The ones we are passing on to the V&A are very strongly aligned with art, history and photography and we are not going to be taking that forward. So it makes better sense to make those collections available to a wider number of people by giving them to an institution that can make them more visible than we can.
How important is the Museum as an ambassador for Bradford?
Really important. It’s not just that we think this, we know because people tell us the Museum is an essential part of the cultural landscape here in Bradford. We recognise that. We are free, we have significant collections and we have a huge opportunity to support people’s learning and help people grow and think differently. I don’t underestimate just how important that is for Bradford, which is why we are working so hard to ensure it has a sustainable future.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Media Museum at the moment and how can they be overcome?
All cultural institutions are facing a difficult economic situation and we are no different. We are now operating at 30% less in real terms than we were in 2010. So we’re having to think differently about how we can continue to deliver new exhibitions, galleries and learning opportunities. We all want to continually refresh the Museum and we recognise how important that is in terms of making people want to come back.
One of the ways of tackling that is making yourself an attractive proposition for funders. It’s a bit of a vicious circle because in order to do that you need to be a successful institution. We’re opening a brand new gallery in March next year called Wonderlab. This is a new hands-on interactive gallery which is all about light, sound and perception. Because they’re the scientific principles that underpin our core collections of photography, film and television. What we are trying to do is provide a more cohesive narrative for the Museum. Down the line we have plans for a £5 million new set of galleries which will showcase our very rich object collections. They will come through in 2021 and we will be putting in bids for funding to support that over the next six to twelve months. It’s all about having a really strong vision that will help us attract support and funding for all our future ambitions.
Is there an event or exhibition during your time here you’re particularly proud of?
Every exhibition we have done since I have been here has been very different and I feel very passionately that we should always be taking risks and trying new things. The only way you are ever going to improve is by being ambitious and testing yourselves. So they have all been very varied and I have enjoyed all of them.
We did a fantastic thing last year where we commissioned an artist called Liz West, who produced a fantastic light installation which had over 300 different neon tubes and mirrors on the walls. That was a great example of trying something new.
In terms of our collections, two years ago we did an exhibition called Nature, Camera, Action, which was all about the challenges that nature photographers and filmmakers face when they’re trying to capture animals. It allowed us to cut across all our collections and made for a very rich exhibition.
What keeps you busy away from work? Do you have time for hobbies?
During the week I’m usually busy with work or attending events related to my work. Which is fabulous as I get to visit lots of exhibition launches and cultural events. On weekends I’m cycling quite a lot at the moment. We’re currently training for a cycling trip to Colombia in the spring of next year and it’s quite an extreme trip so we need to be a lot fitter than we are now to do the distances and altitudes that we are hoping to do.