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Exploring electricity at Cragside

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. 

National Trust, Cragside House

National Trust, Cragside House schools

Setting up for school session on static electricity

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.

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 of basic electrical circuits and bulbs as well as creating working models of the copper lamps.

National Trust, Cragside House
National Trust, Cragside House spark

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. 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.

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. In June, we tested the workshops for KS2 with local schools. And just recently we finalised the self-guided resource for KS3/4 and interested visitors.

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!

National Trust, Cragside House trail


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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.

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

Thackray Medical Museum new op theatre

Thackray Medical Museum Concept Design by Leach Studio


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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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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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Organisational values in Interpretation

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.

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh spatial

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.

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.

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh glasshouse

Glasshouse at RBGE


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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.

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.

The CEVIC (Community Education and Visitor Interpretation Centre)

Temperate House (from Treetop walkway)

Kew Gardens chilli interp

Chilli interpretation panel

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.

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.

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.

Kew Gardens tea kidspanel

Tea interpretation panel for children

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:


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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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