A personal tribute to Prof Stephen Hawking

I first read A Brief History of time by prof Stephen Hawking in 1995 during my BSc in applied maths and theoretical physics.

I really enjoyed the book at that time (realistically it’s probably pitched at about undergraduate level). I was excited by the mathematics I was learning in my degree modules on relativity and quantum mechanics but I needed to discuss the philosophical and cosmological implications.

Strangely there isn’t a lot of space in a physics degree to talk about these ideas. I wasn’t the best physics student, I found the subject hard. But I was drawn to the hardest modules (solar magnetohydrodynamics anyone?) as to me they were clearly the most interesting!

I often felt ‘not good enough’ in physics. That Stephen Hawking took the time to write A Brief History of time, a “popular science” book, for ordinary people with unexceptional minds, meant everything to me.

Looking back I can see it was an important step on my path to my MSc in science communication and where I am now.

Thank you Professor Stephen Hawking.


Exploring electricity at Cragside

Cragside House

Cragside House – home of electrical experimenter Lord Armstrong, and the first house to be lit with electric light bulbs powered by hydro-electricity!

Before 2017, I was only dimly aware of Cragside House and Estate. I had driven past about five years ago on a holiday in Northumberland, googled the site, and made a mental note to visit next time. If I’d had any idea what lay beyond the NT ticket booth that day I would most certainly have stopped and paid the entrance fee!

In early January 2017, I pulled together all my previous electricity related exhibits and activities in order to apply for a piece of work with the National Trust at Cragside House and Estate. They were looking for a consultant to develop a new learning and engagement programme to complement the re-opening of the “Electrical Room”.

I was interested because I have been watching developments at the National Trust closely since the launch of the ’50 things…’ campaign. Over the last few years, the idea of a ‘National Trust visit has changed; no longer limited to the over 50s who enjoy a scone and some decorative arts, NT visits are now all about family, sticks, wellies and mud, fun and playing.

The ball runs at Basildon Park

Ball runs at Basildon Park NT property

One thing National Trust visits are not often about is Science.

But at Cragside, the science stories are spectacular. So with my experience with electricity demonstrations and science communication, and being interested in the National Trust’s engagement with family audiences, I was excited to work with them on this learning and engagement programme for both schools and families.

The first time I visited the site it was closed for the filming of The Current War starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison; which felt very relevant. The next time I travelled down (only 2 hours drive from Edinburgh!) I was able to explore the House and Estate in depth and was absolutely blown away by the beautiful environment and the stories.

First electrical lamps in the library at Cragside House

First electrical lamps in the library at Cragside House

There are a number of components to the electrical stories of Cragside and Lord Armstrong. After research and consideration, I decided to divide the material into three stories. One would be about understanding the electrical lamps in the library – the famous lamps built by Lord Armstrong, using bulbs just invented by his friend Joseph Swan. This involved a hands-on exploration basic electrical circuits and bulbs as well as creating working models of the copper lamps.

The second story was the generation of electricity. How electricity was and is generated and how Armstrong generated power in the late 1800s. His forward-thinking ideas about fossil fuels vs. Renewables, and what the future looks like for electricity generation in the UK.

Static electricity activities in the Electrical Room

Static electricity activities in the Electrical Room

And finally, there’s the story of Armstrong as “Magician of the North” and his high voltage experiments to create and photograph electrical sparks in air and water.

Spark photograph from Armstrong's book

Spark photograph from Armstrong’s book

We ran our first family workshops in Science Week in March and evaluated the response from visitors. We ran another workshop and some in-room demonstrations over the Easter Holidays when I began to get a sense of the popularity of the site and what it means to local and tourist visitors.

Activities for Families

Activities for Families

In June, we tested the workshops for KS2 with local schools.

workshop materials

Kit for school session on static electricity

And just recently we finalised the self-guided resource for KS3/4 and interested visitors.

Trail leaflet

Electrical Explorer Challenge

Overall, it was a fantastic project to be involved with. I was so pleased to be able to help the staff of Cragside to increase their own confidence with this subject matter as well as find ways to engage their visitors with the science of electricity and give a bit more of a sense of Armstrong the scientist.

And I will definitely be back at Cragside in 2018, with my family, as a visitor!

Stunning views at Cragside Estate

A Healthy Future for Thackray Medical Museum

Breaking News: It’s great to be able to share today that Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds has been awarded £1.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

New Operating Theatre Concept Design

Thackray Medical Museum Concept Design by Leach Studio

I became involved in this project earlier this year and for a short time worked with the team quite intensively to create an interpretation plan for the new galleries for the application. It was a joy to work with both the Thackray and Leach Studio teams to explore the collections and stories and learning programmes of the Thackray.

I am so pleased that HLF agree we have come up with an exciting and achievable plan for the presentation of these to a wider audience and representing a greater variety of voices. The content of this museum truly is relevant to everybody and I can’t wait to see the realisation of these plans.

Thackray have also secured £1m from Wellcome towards the £3.7m project to create new programmes, exhibitions and updated visitor facilities, including a mock operating theatre, as well as essential repairs to the Grade II listed building.

ITV News story

Interactive exhibits: innovate or evolve?

BIG Event Programme

BIG Event 2017

This blog post is an attempt to round up the discussion at a session I chaired at the BIG Event in July*. 

BIG is a skills-sharing network for individuals involved in the communication of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. It’s been around for 21-25 years in some form and initially involved a core group of exhibit fabricators. In more recent times, the community has diversified to include far more university STEM engagement staff and in the years since my first BIG Event (too long ago to remember) the network has certainly had far more ‘show’ or ‘demo’ developers and performers than exhibit developers.

This year, hosted by the excellent Centre for Life in Newcastle, I wanted to get exhibits back on the programme so proposed the session “Exhibits: innovate or evolve?”.

Centre for Life

Centre for Life

What I was looking to provoke was a conversation about how we are thinking about exhibits and exhibitions in 2017. I wanted to discuss what has changed in the way we think about exhibits in the last 10 years, what we have learned about the way people interact with exhibitions and exhibits. What is ‘in fashion’ and ‘out of fashion’ and why? What do materials, electronics, technology and manufacturing enable us to do now that we couldn’t do ten years ago?

The Panel

I started by inviting a panel of three speakers with experience in the field and planned to open this discussion to the floor for hopefully more thoughts and ideas.

My first speaker was Andy Lloyd, Head of Special Projects at the Centre for Life. He joined the centre in 2004 to oversee Life’s first major exhibition redevelopment. Since then all the galleries have been changed, with the opening of the under 7s area in 2011, Curiosity in 2012, Experiment Zone in 2015 and Brain Zone in 2016. I had already had conversations with Andy about the evolution of his thinking about exhibits and wanted to explore this more in a group conversation.


Wonderlab at National Science and Media Museum

The next speaker was Bethan Ross, a Senior Audience Researcher and Advocate for the Science Museum group. I wanted an SMG speaker particularly to talk about the development of Wonderlab, both at the Science Museum in London and at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. It was also good to be able to talk about the body of knowledge of visitor studies. Bethan’s role is to advocate for the audience on exhibitions, galleries and learning projects with an emphasis on interactives, digital interpretation, and maker spaces. This involves keeping up to date with the latest research and evaluation from the museum and elsewhere as well as managing prototyping of digital and mechanical interactives.

FifeX exhibition TREE

FifeX exhibition – TREE environmental education centre

And finally, an exhibit fabricator; Ken Boyd set up FifeX in 2002 and has been designing, building and installing bespoke interactive exhibits ever since. They work with visitor centres, museums and science centres up and down the UK and abroad. As an ‘exhibit builder’, they see all angles of the exhibit development process and how their clients’ requirements continue to evolve.

What has changed in the way we think about exhibits in the last 10 years?


Wonderlab at National Science and Media Museum

To start Bethan told us a little about the aims and objectives of the exhibits in the Wonderlab Bradford project. She talked about the overall aims for the exhibition, selection criteria for the exhibits and how much this might have differed from Wonderlab in London.

This is interesting and relevant as Wonderlab is the evolution of the old ‘Launch Pad’ at the Science Museum which has itself had a few iterations and can trace its lineage back to the first ‘hands-on’ museum space the ‘Children’s Gallery’ opened in 1931.

Wonderlab in Bradford specifically looks at science related to broadcast media technology, such as sound and light. The driver is to encourage and promote curiosity and questioning; to assist discovery by providing visitors with real physical phenomena that they can manipulate and investigate. i.e. ‘teaching’ scientific skills and habits of mind rather than specific scientific content. Wonderlab in London however, set within the broad context of the collections of the Science Museum London, could never hope to reflect the science of the whole collection. Instead, exhibits were chosen for a range of other criteria around visitor engagement and enjoyment, memorability and efficacy in achieving their learning objectives.

Even within this one case-study, we can see that the question ‘what are interactive exhibits for?’ is highly contextual and can have many answers.

Andy then talked about the changes at Life since 2010. In 2011 they opened a gallery upstairs for under 7’s, designed to stimulate creative play. In 2012 “Curiosity” set out to stimulate specific behaviours and thought-processes through interactive exhibits, rather than deliver information. In 2015 they opened “Experiment Zone”, a family laboratory that boosts people’s sense of identification with science through an authentic lab experience and last year they opened “Brain Zone”, bringing visitors into active neuroscience, psychology and anthropology research. Andy talked about the move to social engagement and personal factors like self-confidence and identity. We all discussed how exhibits can be organised into those imparting information in an ‘active learning’, to those offering an experience or skills (such as experimentation).

Experiment Zone

Experiment Zone at Life Science Centre

At this point, we had a discussion about ‘Science Capital’ – particularly in relation to ‘Experiment Zone’. One of the underlying research findings of the work on Science Capital by King’s College London and the Science Museum in the Enterprising Science project is that although many children were interested in science, those without what has been termed ‘high science capital’ just didn’t see themselves as future scientists. Experiment Zone offers an opportunity for children to dress in lab coats and work on experiments with family members, parents often record this experience in photos which are shared with family and friends with pride and comments relating to possible future identity. This is where exhibits and exhibitions in Science Centres diverge from those in Museums, Heritage Sites and other types of Visitor Centre.

Are interactive exhibits a good way to deliver content?

FifeX exhibit, Orkney

FifeX exhibit, Orkney

In the museum and heritage sector, I am a strong advocate for interactive exhibits. I feel that exhibitions and site interpretation engage best when they engage all learning preferences and all the senses. I’m a believer in the power of active learning to engage minds and hands-on activities to vary the pace of a visitor’s experience.

But in a Science Centre, Andy is sceptical about exhibits delivering information. He feels that exhibits can lead to a lot of learning, but this comes from the process of interacting with the exhibit and with other people not the discovery of new information. Bethan advises exhibition teams on both interactive-led and object-led galleries and so was able to talk about the different roles of an interactive. Interactives in object-rich galleries are helping with the interpretation of the object or story, whereas interactives in interactive-only spaces are more about the experience itself.

We had a discussion at this point with the floor about how important it is whatever your type of project to have clear learning outcomes for exhibits. We generally all felt that using the GLO framework is a good way to emphasise that these can be emotional and attitudinal outcomes, not just knowledge and understanding.

Sharing best practice

The next discussion was about whether we are building a body of knowledge that can be reused and applied.

Bethan felt we had a better understanding of the importance of clear objectives and better prototyping and spoke about the advantage of audience research focussed department meaning within the SMG they can devote time to digesting this body of knowledge and disseminating.

Andy mentioned one of the privileges of his position is that he gets to visit other centres to see their exhibits and talk to their staff about their thinking. Study visits are often about watching people not exhibits,  who’s using which exhibits, and not. However, everyone agreed that isn’t always enough and international travel is expensive. Ken and other fabricators strongly suggest buying in some of their time to discuss ideas at a very early stage, or even just calling for an informal (free) chat. Other routes are to explore ExhibitFiles.org and other online resources such as exhibit catalogues and reviews of new exhibitions. Working with a variety of smaller clients, Ken feels like they reinvent the wheel a lot and should be thinking of new ways (perhaps through BIG?) to develop a rule book for exhibit design!


FifeX exhibition InMotion for the Edinburgh Science Festival

From the floor, we had questions from science engagement staff with no experience of exhibit development asking about how to start developing an exhibit,  and how to estimate costs for funding bids. Again, the recommendation was to have an early conversation with a fabricator. There was a strong feeling from the floor about the challenges of tendering and the processes associated with large capital funding and how these might limit creativity and early R&D.

New approaches?

Something I noticed at the Wonderlab in London was the use of named artists on some exhibits. I asked Bethan about the thinking behind these and we discussed the advantages of working with artists to achieve something different and a new perspective. They also specifically worked with local artists to help connect to the local area and local audience.

Ken has also worked a lot with artists and finds skills the same for developing installation art for places like hospitals –e.g. the Southern General in Glasgow.  Andy has also used art as exhibits, both in his time at the Science Museum and at Life. The best example at Life being “Crystal Brain” in the Brain Zone exhibition where visitors can wear sensors and see their brainwaves control a visual output. Because of the importance for an exhibit of this type to avoid being in any way diagnostic or mistaken for diagnosis, the output of Crystal Brain is very abstract. Interestingly, visitors with the highest Science Capital often find this frustrating as they want to know exactly what is being measured and shown, whereas lower Science Capital visitors are happy to just explore the phenomena without further information.

At this point, I feel I should apologise for the length of this blog post and indeed, this is the point where our session ran out of time. Things we didn’t get a chance to discuss include; graphics, the role of floor staff, managing visitor behaviour, maintenance and robustness issues, technological advances, design and fabrication processes.

Wonderlab London Graphic

Wonderlab, Science Museum London

I had wanted to ask Bethan about the graphic illustrations in Wonderlab. They added illustrations and also prototyped these as well as the textual instructions. It helped to bring people into the gallery (representation) and also assisted in parental scaffolding – allowing them to talk less about the procedural and more about the science.

And I think there’s a whole session to be run at a future BIG Event on exhibit floor-staff. As Andy pointed out, exhibits have limitations that are largely set by the limits of technology and the imagination of the developers.  People can observe and respond to visitors immediately and answer their questions and requests for help.  Unfortunately, while they have a low capital cost they are the most expensive part of science centre operations so often we have to develop exhibits that can work without human intervention.  But they still provide the best visitor experience over any technology.

Curiosity Zone

Curiosity Zone at Life

Bethan mentioned that staff interactions often come out as a key point in summative evaluation. Wonderlab London is permanently staffed, Bradford might not always be. The role explainers play in a gallery is something SMG are looking at. Visitors like a bit of reassurance and to know they can ask for help if I need it. Ther are practical and safety reasons and many visitors appreciate the personal contact. Research shows that families/parents see explainers as scientists or science role-models of a relatable age for their children, which again feeds into thinking about raising Science Captial.

The biggest takeaway for me from this conversation was that there is so much more conversation still to be had. It felt like there was a real appetite for it at the BIG Event and I hope we can see more sessions at future Events on different aspects. There may also be potential for a re-boot of the fabricators’ group within BIG and some way of sharing best practice in this area in the current context.

*As we didn’t record the session or have a dedicated note-taker, I offer unreserved apologies to anybody who feels misrepresented in this post, or that the session is misrepresented.

A scientist’s adventures in Artland*

At the start of this year, I was reflecting (as is customary) on my 2016 projects and thinking about what training and professional development I might want to do in 2017.

Something I had been thinking more about was educational theory, pedagogy and learning theory. Some of this was prompted by reading I’d set for my online students on the University of Edinburgh MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement, so rather than more theory I wanted to see some approaches I’m less familiar with in action – preferably in a context I’m less familiar with too.

Over the years I’ve studied and practise science communication in most forms, worked in outdoor education centres, and I am working more often now also in heritage contexts… Then I came across Little Sparks and Art Sparks at Jupiter Artland and saw they have a volunteer programme. Perfect.

Jupiter Artland is a private collection of contemporary sculpture open to the public in gardens and woodland near Edinburgh. It was an Art Fund Museum of the Year finalist in 2016. Little Sparks is their pre-school programme during term time which follows a Montessori approach and allows child-led exploration of the modern art in the Artland and the woodland setting. A classroom within the grounds opens on one side to an enclosed area of woodland where the children can explore freely in all weathers. I was accepted as a learning volunteer for a six-week block starting Easter Tuesday until the end of May. Little Sparks leaders are qualified in Montessori and Forest School methods and the educational philosophy behind these sessions is to be child led and blend imaginative play, outdoor play, art and creativity and a little bit of science (in the sense of experimentation and discovery about the world around them).

Sessions are open to children from age 2.5 to 5 years and booked in blocks. Over time cohorts have developed who stay with the programme right through and because of this, some classes have more 2-3 year olds and others more 5 year olds. On the day of the week I volunteered, the morning class was quite young while the afternoon group was much older, including some homeschooled or flexi-schooled children of primary 1 age.

It was noticeable that the younger children and any new older children needed to be given options and suggestions for things to do with all the stimulus and resources set out, whereas those more familiar with the environment often arrived with their own ideas and plans for activities and projects. Session leaders were skilled at engaging individuals in the former group and finding something to pique their interest and get them involved. They were also enthusiastic about enabling the children with their own ideas and projects and helping them develop these – without ever telling them what to do – a real skill!

In most of my work, activities and workshops are quite outcome-led. Despite the fact that both science and art are at their core open processes of discovery, those of us who plan workshops or drop-in activities too often design them to allow the participants to “make an X” or “discover Y”. There are lots of reasons for this, not least the logistics of resourcing and marketing something totally open and also my observations about how it takes participants some time to become comfortable enough in an environment to really get stuck in without being given a specific task.

You can read more about what we did in each session I helped with (and see photos) on the Little Sparks blog written by Julie who planned and led the sessions with assistant Catriona.

Since finishing with Jupiter Artland I’ve started working with Historic Environment Scotland and the Burrell Collection and for both clients I’m thinking about under-5s and about free play for early years and older audiences. I’ve also just returned from the BIG Event at the Centre for Life where they have a relatively new “making space” and where we talked about how science centre staff and exhibit designers like myself need to work harder to resist giving answers and instead focus on encouraging exploration.

I found my time in the Artland inspiring and have since taken my own son to the holiday programme “Art Sparks” which he loved. I have seen new ways of working, met some lovely people (and children and parents) and spent time in an inspiring environment – I highly recommend volunteering for professional development.

*The title of this blog post is of course very much tongue in cheek – I truly believe everyone is an artist and everyone a scientist! There is no dichotomy.

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!