Britain's Space Race exhibition

From Imagination to Reality!

In July, we opened our newest exhibition at the National Space Centre, Britain’s Space Race. The exhibition tells the story of early British rocket design, through to British rocket development in Australia, satellite development and the stories of the British engineers who worked on the Apollo programme.

It was unusual for us in many ways – it was the first opportunity in the time I’ve been at the centre to develop a brand new story, and to develop a new gallery space. We are more often working in the existing galleries, creating smaller pieces, reinterpreting and changing the spaces gradually. For this piece, we were using an unused deck in our rocket tower, and adding a new chapter to the story of the Space Race which we tell in there.

One of the themes that emerged from the story was of imagination and invention. The exhibition begins by telling the story of the British Interplanetary Society, who imagined and visualised early rockets, space stations, moon landers and bases, and astronaut’s space suits. Their motto is ‘From Imagination to Reality’, and this felt like the perfect way to treat the exhibition development and creation.

I was keen to reflect this attitude in the elements we made for the exhibition, and wanted to focus on the ideas of making, inventing and prototyping. As well as designing the cabinets and furniture for the space, and creating the interpretation designs, I created a number of tactile and interactive pieces to highlight the spirit of making and creativity involved in the early design and creation of rockets.

Tracing and touchscreens

One of the pieces I created was a simple drawing interactive, built into a mid 20th-Century desk and drawing table. The interactive used a touch screen to allow a user to draw a rocket, either using an on-screen template or of their own design, and launch it. It was inspired by one of the objects on display, a tracing of the Blue Streak rocket schematic by Sheila Wilkes. I wanted to create something that reflected the idea that these drawings were done by hand, rather than made in a software package.

The templates ranged in complexity, so that the piece was accessible to a wide range of users, and could be understood and completed quickly and easily. It was a lot of fun to develop, and I felt it added to the theme of the exhibition. The programming element was fairly simple, which meant I was able to have a playable version available to test early on. Through testing, I was able to remove unnecessary complexities from the interactive, making it much easier to enjoy and interact with. I was also able to add playful elements and animations, which helped bring the piece to life.

Secret silos

The next piece we made was a relief model of a never-built silo for the launch of rockets from British soil. I used original drawings from the National Archive to create a cross-section view of the silo and top-down views of the interior levels. I wanted to create something tactile, to mirror the idea of an architectural model, and to give a sense of the depth of the silo. Once I’d traced the drawings, I laser cut and etched each part of the silo, and created an artwork with cut holes to embed the pieces in. I feel it invites more exploration of the silo, rather than simply creating a graphic, and again echoes the themes of making, creativity and prototyping.

Tactile interpretation

The final pieces were 3D-printed models of the rockets and satellites on display in our rocket tower. One of the decisions we made early on was to install a large glass wall on the deck, to create a viewing deck and show more of our larger pieces. On the deck are plinths which interpret each piece. I felt it was really important to create a visual link between the interpretation and the objects, so there was a clear connection. I was inspired by tactile maps and interpretation I had seen at other venues and conferences, so I decided to create 3D half models of the pieces, so that visitors were able to experience them in a new way. They are large suspended pieces, so visitors aren’t able to have touch them, so I think the models add a real sense of connection, and help people understand the structures of them.

I’m pleased we were able to introduce these made objects to the exhibition, and that we developed them in house. It gave me a much richer understanding of the work we were developing, and challenged us to think about interpretation and storytelling in new ways.

We also commissioned a model-maker, Stephen Wisdom to create a space suit using Ralph Smith’s design for the British Interplanetary Society. The final result is spectacular, and is a great focal point for the exhibition. It brings to life the excitement and imagination of the time, and looks like something from a B-Movie or Dan Dare comic! You can read more about it here, and find out more about the process and challenges of recreating it.

Dippy at Ulster Museum

It’s all about you (us)!

Are you visible in your museum or science/discovery centre? Do visitors to your space see you, or hear your individual voice as well as that of the organisation?

Last May, I attended the Museums and Heritage Show, and one of the talks was about an after-hours event organised by and held at the National Gallery, specifically aimed at lonely people. It was a great project and it was great to hear how the organisation were keen to reach new audiences, and how they used MeetUp as a platform to develop an audience and reduce barriers to attendance.

The talk has stuck with me since, because it raised a question for me about audiences, and a curator or public programmes organiser’s relationship to them. Audiences are us – as individuals, we are lonely, we have kids, we are affected by dementia, we struggle with noisy spaces and crowds, and we can’t afford your ticket prices as well as your café! If we recognise that we are some of these things, as well as a whole host of other things, should we (or could we), use our own voices to develop programmes and exhibitions with our visitors? Is there a more subjective way to identify audiences we want to work with and ways we might develop and tell stories? Would we be able to make more powerful connections if we were able or prepared to say (for example) – “I sometimes feel lonely and find it difficult to feel comfortable in social situations. I wanted to create a space to share with other people, where we can feel safe and make new connections”. For me, that individual voice would help me feel I could attend, that the event was created by someone with an understanding of my needs. I feel it might also communicate an understanding of the complexities of individual needs, rather than something broadly arranged for an ‘identified’ audience.

I visited Ulster Museum in Belfast last year, as part of my trip to the MA Conference. It was hosting Dippy the dinosaur as part of its tour. In the first room of the exhibition was a drawing of a dinosaur made by the natural history curator when they were a child. It explained how their childhood love of dinosaurs had led to them working in museums and to this point. It was a great way to introduce the gallery, and make a personal connection to their sense of wonder and excitement. As I moved around Dippy and the other wonderful exhibits, I felt more receptive to the pieces and the stories, and found that I was able to enjoy the exhibition in a more engaged way.

These examples are both different ways we engage with museums, through events and exhibitions, but I hope they illustrate the idea of the individual voice as a way to engage people. I think it is a way to communicate that my concerns and interests are your concerns and interests, are our concerns and interests. It potentially creates a shared space and experience rather than a hosted one.

What do you think? Do you think the curator/programmer/exhibition designer’s voice belongs in your museum? Is it inviting or self-indulgent? What great examples do you have of individual voices being used in your space or spaces you have visited?

Geffrye Museum

Never underestimate the power of a fridge magnet.

Last Friday, I went to the ACE Study Day ‘Aspects of Publishing: Guide and Souvenir Books’ at the Geffrye Museum. We’re in the process of redeveloping our guidebook at work, and it was interesting to see how other organisations and museums had come to their decisions about the kinds of books they produce, and who they are for.

It was great to hear people speak openly about what had and hadn’t worked in their institutions, and how they dealt with external factors, such as placement within their shops and ticketing areas, and the ways that staff help sell them as part of a visit. It was also interesting to hear people speak honestly about the tensions between commercial and curatorial needs within the institution, and the strategies for overcoming them. The title of this post comes from a response to a question about the needs of museum shops to ensure they make money while maintaining the voice of the institution.

The range of publications was wide, and raised a lot of questions about where we might go with our guidebook, what its function might be, and who it is for:

  • Does it need to act as a guide? Is its main function to help guide people around the exhibition and interpret the pieces on display? Does it need to contain a map? Is the intention that the book is used while at the centre?

Our current guidebook has a spread for each of our galleries, with key objects to see, as well as a map, and information about our other business activities, such as Education, Venue Hire and Weddings. We were shown examples of books which offered ‘A quick look’, and ‘containing 10 trails’, which were specifically intended to guide the visitor on the day.

  • Does it need to focus on the collection and exhibits? Should the book be specifically tied to aspects of the collection and the exhibits we have in the space, or should it be used to open up wider themes?

Prejudice and PrideIn the case of the Space Centre, could we use impressive images from Hubble or NASA’s archive to frame themes we address in the exhibition, rather than focusing on objects we hold or display? This potentially gives the guidebook a longer life, as the exhibition changes over time.

The National Trust recently published Prejudice and Pride, which celebrates and focuses on LGBTQ Heritage across the National Trust sites.

By focusing on a theme in the context of British heritage, the book is not a guide to a visit, but rather a resource that reflects on hidden or previously untold histories as part of a wider discourse on heritage, representation and visibility.

  • Who is it for? Should the guidebook be aimed at the reader who wants more in-depth information to supplement their experience at the centre? Should it be a visually led document that triggers memories and discussion about the visit? Is it aimed at all visitors, or targeted at a specific reader? Is it for kids?

Our current guidebook is a mix of all of the above, which over time (and with incremental changes) has become a tangle of information, voices and intention. One of the triggers for this new redevelopment has been the recognition that we need to focus the guidebook and ask who and what is it for.

  • Do we need more than one? Does it make sense to divide the guidebooks into separate smaller pieces which can appeal to different readers, uses and price-points?

100 PortraitsWe were shown great examples of institutions’ range of books, from text-heavy interpretations of the museum, to pocket-sized books selling at £5, to kids’ activity books, which were created in response to audiences needs.

A great example is the National Portrait Gallery’s 100 Portraits book, which is small (150mm x 150mm), image-focused paperback, and retails for £6.95. It sits within a range of other publications from the National Portrait Gallery and is the kind of thing that would make a great gift or souvenir.

As we approach our new guidebook, these questions will help us form our ideas and work out the best way forward. I’m hoping that eventually we will develop a range of books which enable us to tell our stories in different ways and appeal to different audiences with a credible and confident voice.

BSA Icons

BSA Scientist Top Trumps

I’ve just finished working on a set of Scientist Top Trumps for the British Science Association : Brighton and Hove Branch. They were launched on the 5 September, as part of the British Science Festival 2017, with different cards being placed in venues across the city, encouraging collectors to visit the different spaces and take part in the talks and activities there.

It’s been a really fun project to work on, and it was great to have the opportunity to work with the BSA. I really liked the diversity and range of scientists who were featured, and enjoyed reading their stories. The colours and fonts were chosen to fit the BSA branding guidelines, and I made an icon pattern for the back of the cards. The portraits were found on Wikipedia, with the background headers coming from stock, or public domain libraries.

Here are some of my favourites. If you’re out and about in Brighton, try to collect the set!

 

Eden

Eden: Journey into Space

Earlier this year, I worked with the Eden Project on their new summer holidays exhibition, Journey Into Space. The exhibition formed their summer programme, and included an Alien Encounter, Astronaut training, a Solar System Safari and a VR Theatre, alongside talks and activities.


 

The key areas we were involved in designing were the Solar System Safari, and the VR Theatre.

The Solar System Safari is a walkthrough exhibition which takes the visitor through the Solar System, starting from the Sun and returning to Earth at the end of the journey, via ten interlinked spaces. Each space in the exhibition uses elements of sculpture, lighting, audio and video to give the viewer an experiential view of the planet or Solar System object.

The process of working with the team at Eden involved collaborating (mostly remotely) to fix ideas, scope the needs of the individual rooms and to design the piece to make a coherent journey. It was important that each room gave the viewer a different experience, and that the story of returning to Earth was key to the exhibit.

Our initial process involved using Mural to throw together visual ideas and inspirations. The advantage of using Mural, especially in remote meetings was the potential to update live and add new elements as they were discussed. From this early collaboration, we were able to map out the space, and to begin to design the elements of each space.

I mapped out the space in Sketchup, which allowed us to get a real sense of the space, and to begin to work out the sizes and technical needs for the projections, as well as the set elements.

Eden Sketches

Sketchup designs of the Solar Safari exhibit

Our team at NSC Creative was responsible for creating the media elements for the exhibition, which included an animated Sun, volcanoes on Venus, a Pepper’s Ghost projection of Saturn, and a five screen animation of the Earth as seen from the ISS.

On-site install.

In early July, Kyle and me headed down to Eden to spend a week installing the media and helping to get the exhibition ready for opening.

The Solar Safari is built on the stage area of Eden, a temporary exhibit space which is used for Eden Sessions, holiday exhibits and special events. This meant that the exhibition was installed in a week, from start to finish! There was a large team working throughout the day to build, install, troubleshoot and tidy the space. The atmosphere was great, and the team was fantastic.

It was great to see the exhibit forming around us, and to be involved in such a concentrated burst of activity.

It’s been an honour to work on such a large and fun project, and to spend time working with the team at Eden. It’s been great to see people’s reactions to the project too!