MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement – Five years on

As summer begins, another cohort has passed through the taught modules of the University of Edinburgh MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement and onto the dissertation stage to complete their degrees. This is starting to feel like an established routine at this time of year, and so it should as this year is the fifth anniversary of the course!

This is, therefore, the fifth group of students we have welcomed to National Museums Scotland for our module on Museum Exhibitions, Interpretation and Informal Learning. And yet again we have enjoyed the enthusiasm and engagement of an excellent group of thoughtful and creative students.

The aims of the module are to introduce students to the museum world, either because some may end up working in science engagement within museums, or, more importantly, because wherever they work within science engagement they may end up involved in projects with a museum as a delivery partner.

At National Museums Scotland we have a wide variety of galleries devoted to both the natural sciences and to science and technology, which provide a rich teaching resource. All sessions are taught on-site at the museum (except when we visit the National Collections Centre) which gives students a different learning environment to the university campus. We also draw on a range of colleagues from across the organisation as guest speakers and have members of the museum Learning and Programmes department in each session (often the Head of Learning and Programmes).

Natural Sciences galleries at National Museum of Scotland

The course is very practical and we get hands-on as much as possible, with observational exercises in the galleries complementing readings on the latest theory and research across museum learning, interpretation, visitor studies and audience engagement.

Science and Technology galleries at National Museum of Scotland

Without a doubt, feedback shows one of the highlights for the students is the visit to the Collections Centre where they get a behind-the-scenes tour from members of collections services including collections scientists, and from curators.

Meeting our collections scientists

Visiting the Transport stores

For us, as the teaching team, our highlight has to be the final assessment presentations. Each year we ask the students to pitch an exhibition idea to us, with aims and objectives, target audience, learning outcomes and interpretive approach. Students present their work in a written proposal but also in a five minute ‘elevator pitch’ where they can (and often do) use visual aids, like the fantastic model in the picture below by one of this year’s students.

Let it Bee! proposal by Lauren Hockenhull

Over the past five years, the module has been refined based on student feedback and also has been slightly different each year depending on the work going on at the National Museum of Scotland at that particular time and of course, to reflect current conversations in the museum sector. But the basic shape of the module has remained the same and also echoes the module I did on museum exhibitions taught by the Science Museum when I studied at Imperial College London, which inspired me to spend the next 16 years working in the museum sector. It will be interesting to see where our students end up in future.

One aspect of the module that is new, is online delivery for the online MSc course. This is my second year of teaching an adapted version of the module online. The aims and objectives remain the same as for the on-campus module, but the delivery is by necessity very different. What we lose by not having the physical museum to explore together, we gain in having a fantastically diverse cohort of students from all across the world who can reference examples of good practice in many countries. And many of whom have professional experience in museums or other related organisations which use some similar tools and techniques (national parks, science centres etc).

Thank you, to all students past and present for making the teaching of this module such a rewarding experience!

Review: Maths Gallery at the Science Museum

Last month I was in London for the Visitor Studies Group annual conference, close to the first anniversary of the death of architect Zaha Hadid in March 2016.

It seemed fitting tribute to visit the maths gallery at the Science Museum, or to give it it’s rather formal proper title: Mathematics: The Winton Gallery.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, Science Museum London

Opened in December 2016, the gallery is the first UK project by Zaha Hadid Architects to open since her unexpected death, and the only permanent museum exhibition she designed. Her first degree was in maths before she turned to architecture so when it was announced that she was to design the gallery I was more than a little intrigued to see what it would be like.

There can be no doubt that the gallery is a thing of true beauty. I particularly love the contrast between the modern abstract design and the historical objects, the beauty of one enhancing rather than distracting from the inherent beauty of the other.

Tide calculating machine

However, I did worry that it could fall into the trap of form over function or aesthetic over content. Alex Bellos’s review in the Guardian states “The Science Museum’s approach in its new gallery is to tell historical stories about the influence of mathematics in the real world, rather than actually focussing directly on the mathematical ideas involved. The result is a stunning gallery, with fascinating objects beautifully laid out, yet which eschews explaining any maths.”

I am happy to say that I completely disagree with this. My first degree is in maths and theoretical physics, and I found all the maths explanations in the gallery that I hoped for. For example, it’s long been a bugbear of mine that most museums that display sextants and other nautical navigation equipment shy away from explaining how they were actually used. But here, beside the objects associated with the Longitude story, there was the digital animation of exactly how they were used that I have always wanted to see. The same interpretation technique was applied to the Enigma machine, again a story which is often told in it’s social and historical context but often leaves me thinking ‘but HOW did the machine create coded messages?’ – a question now answered I’m pleased to say.

Interactive animation for the Enigma machine

I loved everything about the gallery, from the first ‘wow’ of the gallery aesthetics, it grew on me more and more every moment I spent there (a whole hour in the end!). Not only did I love the explanations of the maths, I loved the use of the written word. Sections on architecture were titled ‘Form and Beauty’ and on statistics and risk titled ‘Life and Death’, every panel title called out to me and drew me in further to the stories on display.

“Life and Death” introduction, Maths Gallery

There was good use made of video in the touchscreens, although sometimes the archive video was a bit buried in these terminals, I’ll be interested to see what the summative evaluation finds about how people use these. One of my favourites was the 70s Caltech video by the differential calculating engine.

My favourite object and story had to be the Florence Nightingale display. I cannot believe I did not know already that she was a highly competent statistician before going out to the Crimea, it is such an important and powerful story about the presentation and of statistics, and about how women were and are viewed in history (Florence Nightingale the nurse is well-known, Florence Nightingale the statistician less so).

Part of the Florence Nightingale Display

In summary, as I’m sure you’ll have gathered by now, I loved the gallery. Congratulations to all the team involved! And if you haven’t yet been, whether you’re a maths geek or really not into maths at all you will find something here for you.

The art and science of electricity



“Crackle Tubes”, Energise, National Museum of Scotland

This week for a client proposal I’ve been pulling together all the electricity exhibitions, exhibits and activities that I’ve worked on over the years.

There have certainly been a few!

Electricity is a great topic to cover with hands-on exhibits but there are so many different styles and approaches depending on the audience and storyline.

Electrical exhibits can be artistic, like these “crackle tubes” by Wayne Strattman, designed as an attractor object to draw the visitor’s attention. This approach has a long and illustrious history, with clear lineage back to public demonstrations of the 19th century.

The Royal Institution‘s Christmas Lectures were created by Michael Faraday and first held in 1825, Faraday once held the post of Ri’s science demonstration technician and himself presented the 1829 lectures on the topic of Electricity (Electromagnetic induction being one of Faraday’s great discoveries), wow-ing the public with great arcs and sparks.

Plasma Ball, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

Plasma Ball, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

Wimshurst Machine, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

Wimshurst Machine, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

Enquire at the National Museum of Scotland is a gallery, aimed at adults and teenagers, which investigates the development of scientific knowledge and enquiry. In this gallery, we developed exhibits to emulate the excitement of the early 19th Century electrical demonstrations before the gallery goes on to explore the study of the building blocks of matter, the equipment used for seeing subatomic particles, and the search for (and discovery of) the Higgs Boson at CERN.

Energy Lab at the National Mining Museum Scotland at Lady Victoria Colliery has a very different look and feel as it is a learning space for primary school classes. For a generation born after the turn of the millennium, the link between coal mines and household electricity is far from obvious. The Energy Lab allows primary school groups to explore how electricity is generated from kinetic energy and learn about different sources of that kinetic energy. Wave power is explored in some detail as the Energy Lab is located in the portable classroom that was once the home the University of Edinburgh wave power research group, where Stephen Salter worked on his famous ‘ducks’ in the 1970s and which gave rise to the spin-off companies at the forefront of wave research today.

Energise at the National Museum of Scotland also covers the story of the generation of electricity but for a much broader audience of families with children age 8 and above, as well as teenagers and independent adults.

Energy Wheel, Energise, National Museum of Scotland

Energy Wheel, Energise, National Museum of Scotland

Energise investigates the harnessing of energy through the generation and distribution of power. The Wayne Strattman designed ‘Crackle tubes’ above form an attractor and the centrepiece is a huge human-powered ‘Energy Wheel’. The gallery explores different sources of energy including fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable energies (including a hands-on wave tank and a hydroelectric turbine). It encourages visitors to consider the energy challenges that we face today, the impact of choices people make and to develop informed attitudes about the future of energy.

The Community Education and Visitor Interpretation Centre (CEVIC) at Catrine in East Ayrshire tells the story of the past, present and future of the village of Catrine. The village was an important textiles manufacturing site from the late 18th Century and mills operated in the village up until the 1960s. The reason for the siting of the first mill was the water power of the River Ayr which runs through the village, this power was first harnessed mechanically with huge water wheels, but later was used to generate hydroelectric power. Currently, the community is working to re-open the hydroelectric plant to generate their own clean, renewable electricity for a sustainable future.


Energy Bike, Catrine CEVIC

Electricity exhibits have come in and out of fashion, there are certainly fewer around now than when I first started in science communication in the late 1990s. There may be a generation of exhibit builders and museum and science centre staff who became jaded by the same ‘usual suspect’ exhibits. However we are currently in a period of great change regarding how we generate, store and use electricity and certainly the challenges we face are no less than they’ve ever been.

It is important to provide opportunities to learn about electricity, and with just a little imagination and creativity we can do it in an exciting and fun way.

Museum Association Conference 2016

Museums Association Conference Careers Hub session:

Monday 7 November 1500-1545
Expertise for hire: successful working with freelancers
Session leader: Lyndsey Clark, museum consultant
Our workforce model is changing to include more freelance workers than ever before. With the aim of enabling effective working relationships and successful delivery, this session explores the practicalities of freelance work from both sides of the table.

Slides can be downloaded as a pdf from MACareersHub2016_lclark_forweb

For more thoughts on why I freelance and what I believe we bring to the sector see also the post

Expertise for Hire

celebrating 5 yearsToday marks five years of working as a freelance consultant in the museums, heritage, interpretation and public engagement worlds. I’m also currently working on a presentation for the Museums Association Careers Hub titled: “Expertise for hire: successful working with freelancers” so let me share today some thoughts on why I struck out on my own five years ago, how it’s been, and on the wider climate for freelancing in the sector.

The Changing Workforce

Around one in seven of the UK workforce is self-employed. Of these, nearly two million are independent professionals, selling their expertise as freelancers, contractors or consultants and that is 70% more than two decades ago*.

According to the National Skills Academy for the Creative & Cultural industry:
– 43% of the current creative industries workforce is self-employed.
– Self-employment is where the growth is.
– 78% of creative businesses have fewer than five employees

What about Museums and Heritage?

I’m not aware of any concrete data but it certainly seems to me that there are increasing numbers of freelancers in our industry and of freelance contracts. Back in 1996 the GEM freelance network noted changing employment patterns and the growth in the use of freelancers and consultants in the field of education in museums.  Anecdotally I have seen more freelancers at conferences such as the Museums Association and the Visitor Studies Group and I have seen posts made redundant within museums with the specific plan that the work would be commissioned on an ad-hoc basis from external partners (often but not exclusively freelancers).

Tamsin Russell Professional Development Officer at the Museums Association has said “The workforce model is changing for a variety of reasons to mean that increasingly and effectively museums are volunteer run, and freelance supported. These are two customer groups that are not currently adequately serviced – this is an area of improvement for the Museums Association.”

What do Freelance Consultants do?

Well according to Dogbert they make a lot of money for not doing much at all:


Obviously I don’t believe that is the case and I hope that isn’t the experience of most people in this sector. Certainly working for museums is never going to be the route to riches for anybody!

People go into freelancing for various reasons at various stages of their career in various different roles. I’ve been in the sector since 1998/99. I started my career on the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing project. My first contract was a fixed term post for a year or so, then I had a two-year fixed term on digital projects, then another term back on temporary exhibitions, then a “permanent” managerial job which I was promptly seconded from to another role planning future projects across what was then NMSI (now Science Museum Group).

In 2005 I moved back to Edinburgh to the National Museum of Scotland on a two-year fixed term contract as science communication manager, project managing a new hands-on science gallery, then secured a four-year contract on the 20011-opening HLF redevelopment.

This is not in any way a unique story, many of us in this sector who thrive on project work have followed the capital and gained valuable experience along the way. However, we have to keep moving because most organisations only get one shot, maybe two, at a big capital project. Despite the best efforts of the funders and others in the sector to evaluate and share learning, ultimately most organisations start from scratch when they embark on a redisplay.

After the 2011 re-opening at NMS, I looked around and saw a lot of exciting work in the sector that needed to be done, but no actual jobs within organisations that excited me. I had 12 years experience at this point and had often employed freelancers myself so I was in the fortunate position of knowing a lot about the logistics of freelancing and that there was a need for what I could do.

My main motivation when I started out as a freelancer was to share my experience and spread the learning. And that is what I am still doing now, with even more learning from more different organisations as I have now worked for a very broad range of museums, botanic gardens, visitor centres, funders, community trusts, design companies and I teach a university course. I can honestly say I have never regretted it once. Each client I share my learning and experience which, in turn, teaches me new lessons to go on and share with the next client. This is one of the great benefits that I believe freelancers bring to the sector.

However, conversely I am worried about organisational learning and I do think that is a conversation we ought to be having.


This cartoon is scarily accurate and I’ve found myself in this position more than once with largely absent clients. I think it’s really important that organisations think carefully about why they might be choosing a freelancer or consultant rather than an employee for a particular role. There are good reasons to look for a freelancer: to add temporary capacity to existing staffing,  lack of in-house expertise or because you specifically want an external/objective approach. But organisations should consider carefully how using a consultant will benefit your existing staff and increase capability. Choosing a freelancer is not an easy option – don’t expect it to solve all your problems! To get the most from the relationship you will still have to be involved with and committed to the project and provide support, facilities, finance, time and management. Do your staff have the skills to find, select and manage freelancers?

The workforce is changing as are working life and career structures – not just in our own sector – let’s embrace that change with a positive and learning mindset to capitalise on the benefits and be mindful of the potential pitfalls.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of the last five years and here’s to another five years and beyond!

*Source: IPSE Guide to Freelancing, 2016/17

The MA conference Careers Hub is free and open to non-delegates, Glasgow, 7 & 8 November: 

Catrine Walks – community built heritage walk ‘app’

image001Catrine is a small village in East Ayrshire with a fascinating history in the textiles industry. Sadly, not many people have heard of Catrine, certainly not compared to the nearby and better-preserved World Heritage Site of New Lanark.

Catrine Community Trust has been working to put Catrine on the map with a project I’ve been working on since 2012. The project, entirely community and volunteer run, has created Catrine CEVIC in a disused chapel (photos in a previous blog here of the conversion work). This is both a visitor centre and a community centre. It holds interpretation, digital archives, film and children’s activities as well as a locally-run cafe.


The CEVIC (Community Education and Visitor Interpretation Centre)

However, one of the key aims of the project was to get visitors and locals out of the centre and exploring the village and river to discover the hidden history. To deliver this aim, we decided to create an ‘app’. The app can be downloaded in the centre using the wifi and then uses your phone or tablet’s GPS to take you on guided tours around the village and up and down the River Ayr.

App shown on iphone

App shown on iphone

The walks were developed in community workshops where a group of local volunteers spanning three generations of local residents came together with maps and archive photographs, sticky notes and marker pens to decide on the ‘must see’ points of interest and stories to be covered.

This was followed up by a series of ‘test walks’ where we followed the proposed routes, finalising the directions and content for each stop. Stops are plotted on a map and have photos, stories and information, and audio or video clips, then directions to the next stop.

Two sample content pages

Two sample content pages

The app was built using software by a New Zealand based company called My Tours. The My Tours content management software is very user-friendly and cost effective but the main benefit of using this platform over commissioning a bespoke app is that the community can continue to grow the number of tours within the app.

I’m excited to see what other tours community groups will come up with (I think a wildlife watching walk is being planned, there are otters living nearby!).

Get the app by using the buttons below: 

Get it on Google Play or  ITUNES-button