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By Sarah Ledjmi on

Behind the scenes (and behind the screens) with Why Don’t We

We worked with Why Don’t We to produce a new exhibition called My Museum and Me. Sarah explains how it all came together—even when lockdown got in the way!

I started working on an exhibition of photographs for our foyer space with the group Why Don’t We in autumn 2019—it took us a little bit longer than expected to complete it: we went into lockdown halfway through the project! But despite all the uncertainty, we’ve kept in touch, managed to take socially distanced photographs, recorded interviews and even planned a party to launch the exhibition! In this time, I’ve learned a fair bit about flexibility and resilience from the group. Here’s a recap and celebration of the last 18 months in pictures.

When I first met Why Don’t We, I was treated to a selection of the group’s latest collaborations with various organisations around Bradford—the most genius of them all is a 2013 animation video called Battery Man, where superhero Battery Man explores a few options to ‘save’ the then-National Media Museum when it was under threat of closure (turning it into a nightclub could have been fun for a bit!).

The group are all practiced photographers and they told me they really enjoyed their dig around the stores with Bradford Museums for a previous project. From my point of view, I was keen to find out what objects would catch their eye at the National Science and Media Museum and why. We agreed that each member of the group would pick their favourite collection object for a portrait and record an interview with a curator about it. The portraits would become an exhibition at the museum—as a showcase of the group’s creativity, but also an opportunity to bring to visitors and museum staff a different perspective on people with learning disabilities.

In January and February 2020, we spent time together in the museum galleries, the collections stores, the café, and got a little lost on the four different staircases in the building… before eventually every member of the group picked their object and started researching it. We set up quite the professional photo studio in the stores every week to shoot the portraits. The group was very organised and collaborative, shifting roles from lights operator to model in seconds! The only hiccup we had was when the latex gloves proved really tricky to put on: we had a little stock of cotton gloves available, but this was not something I had thought about in advance—I’m glad for the lesson learned!

In March 2020 we were back in Cottingley, where the group is based. We had more chats about the objects and what made them special to the group. We had a lovely lunch (Stuart showed me where to get their super cool Cottingley Fairies mug!) and we started writing captions together. We were washing our hands A LOT by then…

Cottingley Fairies mug
The Cottingley Fairies mug!

Within a couple of days, the whole country was asked to stay indoors as much as possible, and the museum closed temporarily. It was such an unsettling time, but the group bounced back immediately, and they repurposed the project to fit their need for social contact: My Museum and Me was put on hold and became ‘The Museum OF Me’ on Zoom, where every week members of the group chose a personal object, song or photograph in response to different themes. They also played games and invited guests… I was very lucky to join a few meetings and it gave me a much-needed creative outlet and something to look forward to during those lonely weeks. I found out which member of the royal family Becky has met and Shannon’s favourite piece of jewellery. You can see the photo and video galleries on the group’s Life in Lockdown webpage.

In October 2020, we had a small window of opportunity to complete the project and shoot the final photos and videos for the exhibition. The group had to be creative: a stand-in camera was bought on eBay to replace a museum object, we shot in Cottingley instead of the museum, and Khadijah’s eyes had to do all the talking being her mask! We even recorded an interview the wrong way round: first, the answers from Nick, then the questions from me. Tony, the group leader, showcased very impressive editing skills!

During the winter, the group wrote the panels for the display, and the museum’s exhibition team made sure the prints would be ready to go up as soon as the museum reopened. 2021 brought back to life a slightly outmoded technology: QR codes, the ultimate touch-free tech that has now taken over all the pubs! We’ve included them in the display panels to link to the interview videos with the curators.

View of My Museum and Me display
The exhibition on display in the museum foyer after installation in May 2021

The exhibition was finally launched—with a delay of about 14 months!—on the day of the reopening of the museum, 19 May 2021. We had to wait another few weeks to gather and celebrate in person at the end of June.

We’ve been privileged to work with such an experienced group, and I’ve learned a lot from WDW’s generous, flexible and locally-rooted ways of working. Thank you to all of the team for their enthusiasm and friendliness: Thomas, Matthew, Khadijah, Shannon, Louise, Becky, Ian, Chris, Stuart, Nick, Harrie and Tony. I can’t wait for our next project together!

You can come and see the exhibition My Museum and Me in person at the museum until October 2021, or explore the photos and videos on our website.

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