Observatory interactives get a facelift

Summer in Scotland isn’t a great time for getting a good view of the night sky… with less than seven hours of darkness, and much of that twilight. This summer, the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre have put the slightly quieter time over the school summer holidays to good use refurbishing and rebuilding some of their interactive exhibits.

Bending light

Bending light

I had already worked with Tania Johnston, Senior Public Engagement Officer at the Observatory early last year to create couple of new exhibits in their learning space.

This year, Tania was keen to revamp the interactive exhibits in the telescope dome. These exhibits had been in place for around 20 years (maybe longer!) and were the surviving three that remained popular with both staff and visitors from a slightly larger selection installed in the 1990s.

Nitrogen spectrum

Nitrogen spectrum


The challenge was to re-design and re-build them to keep all the aspects that had worked so well for so long, but to refresh the text and graphics and give them a more modern finish.

Create a Rainbow

Create a Rainbow


Relatively local company FifeX took care of the exhibit build while graphic design was by Chris Peters who designed the graphics for last years’ exhibits. The Observatory staff are very pleased with the outcome, hopefully the first school group to use them this week will agree.

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Lessons from Bannockburn

It’s ok, this is not a Scottish Independence Referendum blog post…

Bannockburn Visitor Centre

Visitor Centre from the road

The National Trust for Scotland’s Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre  opened in 2014, the 700th Anniversary of the battle itself. I was lucky enough to visit and get a behind-the-scenes tour for museum professionals with GEM Scotland and have put together some lessons I think we can all learn from this visitor experience.

The Experience

The visitor centre comprises an immersive 3D digital experience, culminating in a group game led by a ‘Battlemaster’. Visitors are required to purchase a timed ticket for the experience, they can choose a ‘game’ or a ‘show’ ticket. Either type of visit starts around 30 minutes before the timed slot in the ‘prepare for battle’ area where your aim is to find out about the characters and weaponry of the time.

At your designated time, you move into the battle room for either your game or a show describing the events of 1314 narrated by academics Dr Fiona Watson & Dr Tony Pollard.

The game (or show) is followed by a short AV on the events immediately following the battle and then the opportunity to go outside to the Avenue, Rotunda and statue of Robert the Bruce.

Battle room

Battle room

The Objectives for the visitor centre project were: to create a world-class visitor experience, to bring the story to life, to provide a memorable learning experience and to make Bannockburn a must see!

The first word that came to my mind in relation to the experience is ‘brave’. I think there’s certainly no doubt that the experience is memorable and for me, it did bring the story to life. But it is NOT your ‘standard’ National Trust for Scotland visitor centre (whatever that is!), and it’s target audience does not have the same profile as the general NTS membership.

Target Audiences

The first of my Bannockburn lessons is therefore ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. If you do something truly brave, and aim to provide something unique and targeted at a new audience, then you need to accept that some people will hate it.

The first people I knew who visited the Centre when it first opened and told me about it were a couple in their early 60s and they had hated it. I very much enjoyed it, but I can totally understand why they didn’t. For a start, there are the glasses…

3D Glasses

Do you feel comfortable in 3D glasses?

For families and young people the glasses are fun. If you’re older, and wear glasses anyway, then the 3D glasses are trickier to get on with. The ‘prepare for battle’ room consists of enormous 3D projections on screens all around the room which you view with these glasses.

Prepare for Battle room

Prepare for Battle room

There are also some touchscreens to explore information about the weaponry, and some full-height characters which you can interact with using gesture-technology. A range of digital interfaces, which delight tech-savy young audiences while intimidating and confusing other visitors in equal measure. Finally, the game. For some visitors there will be nothing they can imagine worse than taking part in a group experience. Being asked publicly to make decisions and take turns in the battle can be either totally engaging or utterly terrifying depending on your level of extraversion or introversion.

So the whole experience is like ‘Marmite’ – you either love it or you hate it. The challenge is to find a way to let potential visitors know before they come whether it’s going to be something they want to spend their money visiting. Also, to communicate what there is to see and do if you do not want to take the digital experience (visiting the monument and statue and outside space for free).

Visitor Expectations

The second lesson I think we can learn is about accepting human behaviour and working with it rather than against. The pre-booked time slots are a problem. People do not generally expect to have to book ahead to visit an NTS visitor centre. They do not visit websites ahead of their visit (in general) and the disappointment associated with turning people away after travelling to the site in peak season is probably going to lead to bad feeling towards the site. Personally I don’t think there’s any way to make people pre-book or visit the website, so I would probably hold back some tickets for walk-in sales, even if this results in some under-capacity slots.

At the GEM Scotland visit, and also in a presentation at a recent Museums Association event, we heard all about how the project was put together. The digitisation was done by the Digital Design Studio at Glasgow School of Art, working with a distinguished academic advisory panel. This process created amazingly accurate and academically robust digital visualisations of clothing and weaponry. These ‘digital assets’ are now a virtual collection of artefacts in the care of the NTS. The fighting scenes were created using motion capture and battle re-enactors again with the guidance of the academic advisory panel. This is really impressive work. The problem is, I only know about it because of attending industry events.

My third lesson from Bannockburn is – find a way to tell your own story. Even if I didn’t work in the field I would have been interested to know that the clothing and weaponry is historically accurate. In this age of video gaming and Hollywood films, the assumption I think is that historical accuracy is sacrificed for engagement and entertainment. When this is not the case, visitor experiences need to shout louder about the work they’ve done. My early 60s couple I mentioned earlier would have been engaged by knowing more about the historical accuracy of the digital images. This tendency to not tell the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories sufficiently is something I see time and again in museums particularly, so much of the fascinating conservation or community engagement stories just don’t get told or given enough prominence.



Inside / Outside

After the digital experience, there is a door out towards the outdoor space which consists of an avenue of trees leading to the 1960s rotunda, flagpole and famous Robert the Bruce statue (all monuments to mark the spot where Bruce is thought to have raised his standard before the battle).

Bannockburn Rotunda

Outside space – the approach to the rotunda

According to the original interpretation plan, the outside space is intended to be a place for “commemoration, reflection and inspiration”. It is free to visit the outside space and monuments, and since their refurbishment this has become a social space for the local community where dog walkers and families enjoy the parkland. Over the years, there have been instances of antisocial behaviour around the monument, but currently this seems to have abated, possibly due to engagement activities with the local community, which is great news.

These outside spaces are well done. I like the timeline, the poetry, the parkland… but there is a real jarring for me between the inside and outside spaces. I didn’t really feel that I was encouraged outside after my digital experience. And once outside there were no echos of the inside experience or shared design language.

My fourth lesson is – always think carefully about linking inside and outside spaces.

Statue of Robert the Bruce

Statue of Robert the Bruce

Final reflections

Overall I enjoyed my Bannockburn experience. I liked the game, and I would recommend it to families with children and to young people comfortable with digital experiences and technology. I think that NTS are to be commended for being so brave in their approach to this visitor centre. It is not like anything else, it is a unique experience and it will no doubt be memorable for all those who visit.

However, my fifth lesson is to think about preferred learning styles or Gardner’s multiple intelligences and provide something for people who like to read information, and have a thirst for ‘facts’, or people who just don’t get on with the digital approach. Happily, Bannockburn do have something that does just that. Currently hidden away on their dedicated learning website, the “Battlepedia” makes use of all the digital assets and allows you to explore the characters, weaponry, locations and armour associated with the battle. I just hope that in future they will find a way to make this software available within the visitor centre itself on browsable touchscreens. Ideally for those who turn up unprepared and are unable to get a timed slot for the game!


from the Bannockburn learning website


Inspiring days

I’m sure people in all professions value opportunities to get together to “talk shop”; whether it’s teachers’ inset days, pharma sales rep conventions or IT tech shows. But there’s something about working in the cultural sector that makes these get-togethers with other professionals especially energising and inspiring.

I’ve been thinking about why this might be and I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that we belong to a wonderfully open and sharing sector. We talk often about sharing more of our challenges and things that didn’t go so well, but on the whole I think we already share openly and willingly far more than in many other sectors. We genuinely wish all our colleagues in the sector every success and certainly no organisation I have ever worked for has really viewed other organisations as competitors in the traditional sense.
I think we all believe that a healthy cultural offering and exciting new visitor experiences can create more potential visitors for everybody.

The second reason cpd or networking days in the cultural sector are so energising is that what we do is just so inspiring. As the MA say “museums [and other cultural and heritage experiences] change lives!” (My edit).

In the last fortnight I made time in my busy working weeks to attend two events in Glasgow – the Scottish Museums Federation AGM and summer conference and an MA “show and tell” on New Approaches to display and interpretation.

Tamsin Russell introduces the Scottish Museums Federation AGM

Tamsin Russell introduces the Scottish Museums Federation AGM

At the SMF event in Kelvingrove Museum we heard all about Dundee. It’s an exciting time for the city. Speakers Gill Poulter and Pamela Roberts outlined projects going on at the Verdant works and also the community engagement work going on in advance of the building of the V&A Dundee. My parents are both from Dundee and it’s a city I’ve visited often (more often than most) but although I have a fondness for it I would not really have recommended it as a tourist destination. However, in 2016 it is my top tip for a super city break! Testament to the immense difference that cultural projects can make to a place.

After the Dundee speakers, we heard about a fantastic project run by a partnership of the Scottish Refugee Council, Glasgow Museums and others. ‘A View from Here’ is an arts and heritage project to document the heritage of the high flats in two districts of Glasgow and the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and local Scots who live there. This is a heritage soon to be lost as the high-rise flats are demolished. Please follow the link above to watch a trailer for the documentary, I am really looking forward to seeing the full film.

The last project we heard from was the redevelopment of Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. A very welcome refresh of the more than 300 year old institution to make it more accessible both physically and intellectually.

A week later I was back on the train to Glasgow again, this time to St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life for a Museums Association event on display and interpretation. In the morning we heard from three projects involving participation, co-curation and community ownership. All three were inspiring exemplars of what can be achieved when museums open their doors to the local community and break down the curator/visitor dichotomy.

MA Event at St Mungo's Museum of Religious Life

MA Event at St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life

At the Silk Mill in Derby, visitors are literally creating the displays through Maker’s Faires and workshops and with high-tech power tools. Development Manager Hannah Fox was somewhat modest when describing how she, with a very small team, has managed to create a remarkable momentum amongst the community of involved volunteers. It has certainly resulted in a really buzzing place that is more than a museum, it’s a community and even a state of mind!

From Barnsley we heard about the interesting situation of creating a new museum in a place without one and the ways in which that can be transformative in the local sense of place and identity. We heard how initially local young people thought of Barnsley as a place that didn’t have any history! And how the wounds of the pit closures were either too painful for those who experienced them to talk about or were embarrassing or misunderstood by those too young to have been there. Of course museums aren’t the only way in which communities tell their stories or create a sense of identity. But when the wider London-centric media is so all-pervasive and tells such damaging stories about the working class and the parts of the industrial north affected by the miners strikes and pit closures, this can become accepted truth. Barnsley shows us how museums can be a catalyst for challenging stereotypes. The museum development became a hub around which a community can gather and share stories to create positive identities and beliefs about themselves, their past and their potential futures.

It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the stories people tell themselves about their identity and past when it comes to affecting their future and aspirations.

In the afternoon we heard about some projects using very different display and interpretation techniques – from the elegantly simple and budget conscious at the Foundling Museum  to the high-tech at the Bannockburn Visitor Centre.

It’s hard to sum up the two days, the projects we heard about were diverse, but the overall impression I was left with was one of the importance of museums, culture and heritage. Of course it’s still possible to run or create a museum in the old “ivory tower” model with little relevance to people’s everyday lives, but the evidence from these two days, not just the speakers but the delegates too is that there is genuine belief that museums (and other culture and heritage experiences) can, and more importantly SHOULD change lives. And that makes me proud to be a part of this sector!

Get Energised!

Thank you to National Museums Scotland for inviting me to sit on the steering group and be a judge for secondary school physics challenge Get Energised!

The day was a lot of fun, with students taking part in four challenges related to the renewable energy industry. Jamie Taylor of Artemis IP was an inspiring keynote speaker, and the students asked great questions – I wonder how many of the students who attended will consider engineering and the rewnewables industry as a future career??

Organisational values in Interpretation

Happy Hogmanay

Year-end reflections

December always brings a time for reflection on the year past as well as resolutions and plans for the year to come. Plans for 2014 can wait for a future post, this post will tackle the first part: reflections. For me, 2013 has been a year for thinking about expressing my own professional ‘values’ in my work, and values are something I have encouraged some of my clients to think about too this year.

Common Cause and values-based communication

I first became aware of a values-based approach to communication and the ‘Common Cause’ work through the network that is now Learning for Sustainability Scotland. This approach really resonated with me as I followed National level political discussions about the value of culture and heritage in both Westminster and Holyrood.

These discussions reflect similar ones in the field of sustainable development around ‘ecosystem services’ – we have all seen the headlines – “Culture is worth £x-million to the Scottish/UK economy” or “ecosystems services are work £x-million”. I have myself produced reports and applications that state a business case for a project in financial terms, but it has always made me feel a little bit awkward.

I have always had a gut feeling that reducing culture or the environment to economics in some way takes away from the most fundamental reasons why we should be valuing these things in their own right. Finally, in Common Cause, I encountered a theoretical framework to describe exactly why I felt that the economic argument, rather than helping the case, can be hindering it.

“Common Cause” is an approach that looks at how humans use values to guide our behaviour, how values are influenced by communications and society and how working with a values‐based approach can assist organisations with their communication and interpretation. Research has shown that the values that people hold are remarkably consistent across cultures and societies. Research also shows that these values can be classified into ‘Intrinsic’ and ‘Extrinsic’ values. “Intrinsic” values are inherently rewarding to pursue and are strongly associated with behaviours that benefit the environment and society, while “extrinsic” values are centred on external approval or reward and tend to make people more self‐interested.

Universal Values

Universal Values categorised (top right = intrinsic / bottom left = extrinsic)

Experiments have found that values can be temporarily ‘engaged’, making people more likely to act on them and when one value is engaged, we are likely to suppress opposing values, making them appear less important (this is known as the ‘opposition effect’). Therefore, by emphasising how much money a particular behaviour might save an individual, one is actively working against the intrinsic value of appreciating nature for its own sake. Likewise, emphasising how culture makes money through tourism, acts against the intrinsic value of appreciating culture for its own sake and emotional wellbeing through connection with heritage.

What does this mean for site Interpretation?

This approach, arising from the work of psychologists and developed by communications experts at leading charities, has a lot in common with some of the tools and techniques we use in interpretation. When we interpret, we aim to provoke an emotional connection with the visitor and to enable them to make their own meanings from the information and experience we offer them.

Consistent interpretation and communications for any organisation must begin with the organisation’s Mission and Values. From that point we can identify key messages for communication. Values are a ubiquitous presence in advertising, media, politics, and third sector campaigns. For me, knowledge of the work leading to the ‘Common Cause’ handbook about how intrinsic and extrinsic values can work is a valuable addition to the interpreters toolkit. By taking care to avoid the ‘opposition effect’ within our interpretation for any given site we can ensure that we are supporting and reinforcing the values we want to communicate rather than unintentionally undermining them.

Glasshouse at RBGE

Glasshouse at RBGE

One of the clients I put this approach into practice with this year was the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. I was employed by the Garden to work with staff on an Interpretation Strategy and used this opportunity to explore with staff what they felt the Values of the organisation might be and how these might be communicated to visitors. The workshops we held to try to choose key values were lively, stimulating, challenging and enormously good fun. Staff from widely differing backgrounds and professions came together and explored the many facets of the organisation and its role in the 21st Century.

I would urge any organisation or interpreter to read the Common Cause handbook and think about how it might apply to your work.

Exciting Funding News at Kew Gardens

I am very pleased to share the news that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) have awarded £14.7million for the restoration of the historic Temperate House at Kew Gardens.

This is particularly exciting news for me as I spent most of last year from early Summer into the Autumn working for Kew on this funding application. In May 2012 I responded to an invitation to tender for the interpretation content research which led to a much larger involvement than expected right through to October 2012.

Temperate House (from Treetop walkway)

Temperate House (from Treetop walkway)

On appointment I visited the gardens a number of times, speaking to the Community Engagement, Learning, Horticulture, Ethnobotany, Marketing and Digital Media teams. What I discovered at the existing Temperate House was a place and collection with an incredibly exciting potential. It is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world, covering 4,880 square meters and up to 19 metres high. Some investigation revealed that the plants shown there display the richness of the plant kingdom across all the inhabited continents of the world and could be used to tell stories about Kew’s role in global plant conservation, sustainable development and maintaining biodiversity.

In August, based on the success of the content research contract, my role was extended to include delivery of an Interpretation Strategy including visual representations of the potential interpretation.
The main challenge for the Interpretation was the vast range of plants and the fact they come from such different parts of the world. Also the word ‘temperate’ does not really excite most visitors. Confusingly, it has slightly differing definitions in horticulture and world geography and is more often a zone defined by what it is not (polar or tropical) than what it is.
Although individual plant stories were already well told in the glasshouse, the key themes behind the selection and display of the plants and the organisation of their layout was not clear to visitors. In addition, Kew has ambitions through this project to really push forward their interpretation and community engagement and broaden their existing audience.

Chilli Interpretation Panel

Chilli interpretation panel

Plants in the Temperate House illustrate well the important role that plants play in people’s lives all over the world and stories of exploration and travel from the earliest plant hunters to modern-day field-work and conservation projects. Working with the community engagement staff, we analysed the current Kew audience and target under-represented audiences to see how the information we have about those groups might help us structure the Temperate House to enable engagement with a broad cross-section of visitors and future visitors.

Tea interpretation panel for children

Tea interpretation panel for children

This work, along with the Kew brand guidelines and working with the newly identified plant stories enabled us to identify three key themes for the plant stories as well as a layout which complemented the horticultural needs of the displays and an aesthetic with broad appeal.
Design team Bright3d successfully pitched to create the visuals for this aesthetic and interpretation plan. They refined our ideas and visualised them in some fantastic sketches that show the potential visitor experience and how the interpretation could work sympathetically with both the plant collection and the historic building.

As acknowledged by HLF the project:
“…will not only enable vital conservation of the Grade I listed heritage building, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world, but will result in a more inspiring public display for visitors and help broaden awareness of the importance of plants through learning and engagement programmes with community groups”.

I am very pleased that the HLF have recognised the huge potential of the Temperate House project, and I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Kew team on their hard work and wish them all the best for the next phase of fundraising and delivery, and thank Bright3d for their work with us.

Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, says: “This project represents a real step change in the way in which Kew will communicate and bring to life why plants matter, why saving them matters and ultimately why Kew’s science and horticultural expertise matters.
“We want to use the Temperate House to open up visitors’ minds and imaginations to look at plants and Kew in a new light.”

More info:

Rockets and Telescopes

A couple of new exhibits for the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre. Installed last night in a blizzard!

First a model of the James Clark Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. This telescope is home to the SCUBA camera developed and built at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

James Clark Maxwell Telescope

James Clark Maxwell Telescope model

And the nose-cone from a Skylark Rocket:

Rocket nose-cone

Rocket nose-cone

Skylark rockets flew from the 1950s up to 2005 and carried experiments into space, some of which were designed at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

Skylark rocket nose

Skylark rocket nose

Plinths and graphic panels built/printed by Leach Colour.