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Top Secret

This month (September 2019) I finally had the opportunity to travel to London to see an exhibition I had been working on from January which opened in early July when I was on holiday. This is one of the odd things about working on a freelance basis; sometimes you work remotely but quite intensively on a project then don’t see the opening day or see visitors enjoying it until months later.

In early 2019, I was asked to join the project team at the Science Museum Group working on an exhibition called ‘Top Secret’. The exhibition is about the work of British Intelligence organisation GCHQ and I was asked to help out with the more family-friendly elements of the exhibition. The subject matter which ranges from Bletchley Park code-breaking to Soviet spy rings and modern cyber hacking is fascinating to adults of all ages, but we were aware we would need a layer of more child-friendly interpretation to appeal to the whole family. The three main elements of the family interpretation were a children’s trail with in-gallery labels, a ‘puzzle zone’ where interactive puzzles could explore the kind of skills that are required to be an analyst or code breaker and a postcard with clues to find and a secret image to reveal. 

Science Museum, London, Top Secret

Science Museum, London, Top Secret

One part of my role was to assist the team with the 2D and 3D puzzles and be the main point of contact for the fabricators of the 3D puzzles. I worked with the team on the prototyping to ensure they were pitched at the right level and fun to complete and on writing labels which made them easy to use and focused on the skills involved. One of the biggest challenges was creating puzzles that were fun for all ages but accessible for children of age 8 or even below in some cases.

We developed some simple cipher wheels to allow visitors to code and decode secret messages. Some puzzles test the ability to find hidden words and make words out of random letters. Some test the ability to find patterns in shapes or numbers, while others are all about logical thinking and perseverance or memory. Others are just about looking at the world slightly differently.

Science Museum, London, Top Secret
Science Museum, London, Top Secret
Science Museum, London, Top Secret

For the trail of family labels, we settled on a character called Alice (Alice in Wonderland perhaps? there’s a bit of a subtle Lewis Carroll reference in there) to lead family visitors around the exhibition. There are ten of these children’s labels that encourage closer investigation of some of the objects and stories in the exhibition.

As well as Alice’s trail there’s also a postcard which children and families can carry around the exhibition with more clues and questions which this time let you know which parts of the image to colour in to reveal a hidden picture.

Science Museum, London, Top Secret postcard
Science Museum, London, Top Secret postcard

The exhibition opened to the public in early July and runs in London until February 2020, appearing in Manchester later that year. It has been popular and well-received by visitors and now that I’ve had a chance to visit properly and look at all the objects and the work of my colleagues on the stories I wasn’t involved in, I can certainly see why. I highly recommend catching this if you can.


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Science and Technology Interactives at National Museum of Scotland

Today is the public opening of the new galleries at the National Museum of Scotland: Six new Science and Technology galleries and four from the department of Art and Design.

This is the most recent phase of the Masterplan for the Victorian building on the Chambers Street site which began with the Connect gallery in 2005 and included the ‘Royal Museum Project‘ galleries which opened in 2011.

Together with two colleagues, I have been managing the interactive displays for these galleries for nearly three years. While my colleagues managed the software and film contractors, I mainly concentrated on the mechanical interactive exhibits in the Science and Technology galleries. Here are a few pics of some of the star hands-on items, gallery by gallery:

National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives

Energy Wheel


  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives balloons

    Hot Air Balloons

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives lift yourself

    Lift Yourself

Making it

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives qcfar

    Quality Control

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives assemblyline

    Assembly Line

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives cogs gears

    Cogs and Gears

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives cogs gears

    Cogs and Gears


  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives energy wheel

    Energy Wheel, Energise, National Museum of Scotland

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives wave tank

    Wave tank

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives waterturbine

    Water Turbine, Energise, National Museum of Scotland


  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives wimshurst

    Wimshurst Machine, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives zoetrope


  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives inside explorer

    Medical Imaging

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives cloudchamber

    Cloud Chamber

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives plasmaball

    Plasma Ball, Enquire, National Museum of Scotland

  • National Museum of Scotland, science and technology interactives maxwells

    Maxwell’s Wheels


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If the world were a village….

….a hands-on educational activity for 7-11 year olds

In spring 2015, I was approached by Global Renewables Lancashire Operations Limited about the design and manufacture of a hands-on activity as part of their education programme.

Global Renewables run waste recovery facilities (recycling) for Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Council. Their education team deliver a free environmental education programme to Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 year old pupils) at primary schools across Lancashire County and Blackpool designed to raise awareness and inspire behaviour change.

The brief described an activity, aimed at children aged 7-11, which would be used in the hands-on space at their education centre. The activity is based on the book: If the world were a village (Smith, D. J. and Armstrong, S, 2003).

The book is about the diversity of people who make up the population of the world. It also details the proportion of people who have and do not have access to different resources, for example food, water and sanitation. The whole population of the world is imagined as a village of just 100 people, each person representing about 67 million people from the real world. By learning about the ‘villagers’, who they are and how they live, we can find out more about our neighbours in the real world and the problems our planet may face in the future.

Finished activity in use

Finished activity in use

Hands-on space

Hands-on space

Prototype activity

Prototype activity

Using further sources, the education team at Global Renewables also condensed the British population to a village of 100 people and found the proportions of those who have and do not have access to certain resources. This allows us to compare the distribution of resources between the population of Britain and the population of the whole world.

The activity they wanted would visually represent the concepts discussed above to help children recognise that resources are not distributed equally throughout the world or between people. They also wanted prompts for further discussion and to encourage the children to consider why this is. Resource use, distribution and management fits in with their education aims and programme which is not just about recycling rubbish.

The education team had already created and trialed a prototype of the activity. Pupils used green blocks that represent 5 or 10 people to make bar charts to compare distribution of different resources between the world population and the British population.

This activity provided quite a challenge as the information they wanted to convey is quite complex for a hands-on activity. However, they had already completed a lot of prototype testing so had some clear ideas of what did and did not work. It was such a pleasure to work with a team who were so committed to the prototyping and evaluation process. I agreed to bid for the work and brought in interactives company FifeX who also brought a freelance illustrator to the team. We were delighted to be awarded the job and I went down to Leyland to meet the team and see how their education visits worked and get the feel of their other materials and the experience as a whole.

We continued to use the bar-chart activity, as it was really popular with teachers who had tested the prototype on school visits. We re-wrote the facts and discussion points to really focus on each issue and also to elicit the most discussion and we chose a slider reveal mechanism to give the answers to these questions.

I’m very pleased with the final activities and the Global Renewables education team are too. They are very appealing, intuitive and tactile to use and I hope will form a key part of school visits for many years to come helping to raise awareness and discussion about these really important issues.

Prototype activity

If the world were a village of 100 people, how many have domestic electricity?

Prototype activity

If the world was a village of 100 people, how many would have enough to eat? And in Britain?

Make a bar chart

Make a bar chart

Slider mechanism

Slider mechanism


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Dark Skies, Kielder

Earlier this year, I worked with Abound Design who were commissioned by Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust, on behalf of the Animating Dark Skies Project Partnership,  to produce indoor interpretation at their Kielder Castle and Tower Knowe Visitor Centre sites about the area’s ‘Dark Sky’ status and what that means, and to encourage visitors to the area to look at the night skies.

My role on the project involved researching astronomy content and producing exhibition text and related hands-on activities.

Light pollution was a key concept to communicate and the lack of light pollution can be a very powerful experience for city-dwellers visiting Kielder.

Something I was very keen to include in the exhibition was a large-format Planisphere. This is a map of the constellations as they appear at the night sky which rotates to line up the date and time and show would-be stargazers what to look out for.

We also included large-scale flip books telling the Myths of some of the best known constellations and showing the images they relate to alongside the actual shapes of the stars in the sky.

In this photo you can see a simple orrery we had built in order to show how and why the moon appears to change shape through the month. And, one of my favourite exhibits, two panels of touchable moon-surface 3d printed from NASA files!

Most people involved in Science Communication know NASA has a great resource of education materials, however until this year I didn’t know about their 3d printing files…. here’s the link if you’re interested – – these files can be printed for free by anyone with a 3d printer. Ours show the near and far sides of the moon and how these differ (the far side is very cratered whereas the nearside is smooth due to lava flows that filled the craters billions of years ago). A texture difference like this is a perfect use for a touchable model.

Kielder Water and Forest Park is a fantastic place to spend time outdoors, to learn about forestry and hydroelectric power generation, as well as ecosystems and nature. Now I’m pleased to say it’s also a great place to find out about stargazing.

Dark Skies, Kielder Castle Visitor Centre

Kielder Castle Visitor Centre

Dark Skies, Tower Knowe Visitor Centre

Tower Knowe Visitor Centre

Dark Skies, Kielder Planisphere and constellation stories

Planisphere and constellation stories

Dark Skies, Kielder Orrery and 3d printed moon surface

Orrery and 3d printed moon surface


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Royal Observatory Edinburgh visitor centre

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. In the summer of 2014, I worked with the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre in the slightly quieter time over the school summer holidays to  refurbish and rebuild some of their interactive exhibits.

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

A model of the James Clark Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, home to the SCUBA camera developed and built at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. 

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

Plinths and graphic panels built/printed by Leach Colour. 

Model of James Clerk Maxwell Model
Skylark Rocket nose cone
Prism interactive exhibit

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.

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.

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.

  • Observatory interactives roe light wide

    Reflection and refraction

  • Observatory interactives roe spectros graphic

    Spectrum exhibit

  • Observatory interactives roe prism close

    Bending light

  • Observatory interactives roe prism wide

    Prism exhibit

  • Observatory interactives roe spectros glowing

    Nitrogen spectrum

  • Observatory interactives roe wide

    The telescope


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Energy Lab

I am very excited to announce that the Energy Lab at the National Mining Museum Scotland is almost ready to launch!

You can read about the origins of the project in this blog post. Since I wrote that in May, we have been very busy working with our designers and fabricators; Leach Colour to create the exhibits for the space.

Roger Meachem of Yet Science CIC has worked hard with the museum staff on a supporting teachers’ resource full of pre- and post-visit activities about energy and engineering challenges. And Ryan Sturrock of Walk the Line Productions has filmed presenter Emily Carr demonstrating some of these activities for the supporting dvd and YouTube clips.

National Mining Museum, Scotland Energy lab exterior

The Energy Lab

National Mining Museum, Scotland Energy lab


We have collected objects, photographs and film footage donated kindly by Professor Stephen Salter, the University of Edinburgh, Jamie Taylor, Artemis Intelligent Power and Pelamis Wave Power.

And we have welcomed teachers and p6/7 pupils from three local schools to try out the activities, interactives and teachers’ pack.

National Mining Museum, Scotland

Generating Electricity and Energy Changes exhibits

National Mining Museum, Scotland wave energy

Wave Energy interactive

National Mining Museum, Scotland the duck

Salter’s Duck display

All that’s left to do is a little bit of final snagging before we welcome Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Government Minister for Culture and External Affairs to open the space formally on 1st October. Then we’ll get our teachers’ pack and film clips live on the museum website and compile our post-project evaluation report for our funders, the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Let’s hope that the Energy Lab can help inspire some of the children of the coal-mining areas of Midlothian to turn their creative problem-solving energy towards engineering a sustainable energy future for us all!


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Engineering Scotland’s energy future

What do you get if you mix some of Scotland’s pioneers in the field of renewable energy with teachers passionate about primary school learning at a mining museum in one of the finest surviving examples of a Victorian colliery?

The answer is – Engineering Scotland’s energy future – a project funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious grant scheme to create a new and unique space at the National Mining Museum Scotland dedicated to engaging primary school children with innovative engineering solutions for Scotland’s energy future.

The Museum has acquired the ‘temporary’ hut where wave energy research began at Edinburgh University and a number of related artefacts.

National Mining Museum Scotland, Newtongrange

National Mining Museum Scotland, Newtongrange

National Mining Museum Scotland, Wave power hut before refurbishment

Wave power hut before refurbishment

We are going to be working hard this summer to turn the workshop space into a hive of active hands-on learning for primary 7 pupils, who will be inspired by a display of wave power artefacts and related interactive exhibits to engage in engineering activities that will develop creative thinking, problem solving and team working skills all in the context of Scotland’s energy future.

The project is being shaped and developed in a truly collaborative way with engineers who worked in the wave power unit coming together with museum professionals, working teachers and active learning specialists. Last week’s focus group session worked on developing the full brief for the space in order to help our design and fabrication team, Leach Colour, to start their work and we’re very excited about the potential impact this space could have.


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InMotion : Edinburgh Science Festival 2012

One of my very first jobs as a freelancer was project managing the temporary exhibition InMotion for the Edinburgh Science Festival. 

I worked with the Festival staff from December 2011 to help them turn their creative ideas into real physical exhibits. I brought suitable designers on-board (Stuart Kerr and Chris Peters), and the exhibit build company (FifeX). I worked with all the exhibition partners, keeping to a challenging budget, and getting all the elements into position for the big day. It was a challenging but really fun project.

Finally, after a lot of hard work from everybody, the exhibition ‘boxes’ were delivered to the Museum after closing on Wednesday night, set up and then wrapped up in big ribbons and bows until the opening party on Thursday night.

Everyday from 30 March until the 15 April, InMotion took pride of place in the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland, allowing visitors to discover the science of human movement through a series of workshops, performances and interactive exhibits.

  • InMotion : Edinburgh International Science Festival 2012

  • InMotion : Edinburgh International Science Festival 2012

  • InMotion : Edinburgh International Science Festival 2012

InMotion was quite unique in that it was part festival, part exhibition, part workshop and part performance space. An exhibition run by a science festival is quite different to any other exhibition; the exhibits were designed not only to be highly interactive but also to have quite a high level of facilitation from the science festival’s fantastic team of ‘science communicators’.

You can see the communicators in blue t-shirts in many of these photos, but what you can’t see in a photo is the sheer energy and enthusiasm they brought to the activities. All day every day the team engaged with visitors who flocked to the museum during a rainy Easter break in numbers that rivaled those seen in the first month after the re-opening.

The team tirelessly engaged, enthused, explained, encouraged and inspired and their contribution to the successful visitor experience should not be underestimated.

Copyright: Robyn Braham / Edinburgh Science Festival

Copyright: Robyn Braham / Edinburgh Science Festival
  • Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

    Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

  • Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

    Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

  • Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

    Copyright: Isabel Buenz / Edinburgh Science Festival

  • Copyright: Robyn Braham / Edinburgh Science Festival

    Copyright: Robyn Braham / Edinburgh Science Festival


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