Between 7-9th November, I found myself at Museomix 2014 at the Derby Silk Mill. In this crowded room were makers, fabricators, coders, animators, content experts, museum people – lots of different kinds of people who are about to be mashed together to make a new museum exhibit from something old. For me personally, the Silk Mill is a wonderful place to do it because there are many STEM links already there, particularly engineering, and the fact that the mill is the first factory in the world. The museum prides itself about being about STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths.
I was never quite sure what to expect from this Museomix and I don’t think anyone truly does, even if they had attended a Museomix before. I happened to spot it on Twitter around the time I moved to Derby and thought it sounded interesting. I had volunteered for Think Corner only a few weeks beforehand and thought exhibition spaces are a challenge as they are fixed. The sort of public engagement I do involves talking to people about science in which you can adjust your explanation depending on the person you meet. An exhibit needs to be able to reach most of the people that visit it, although it can have a target audience.
After being led around the mill and the art gallery down the road, any participant could come forward to pitch an idea. Mine, I felt, was extremely vague in retrospect: I wanted to use what was there to promote science and engineering to young people, showing that science is not about facts but about being creative. In the end, the people I ended up with wanted to work with the Rolls-Royce RB211 engine that was sitting in the museum looking beautiful, but dead.
The Rolls-Royce RB211 engine I worked on for 3 days.
We brainstormed for a while with our facilitator and came up with the basic concepts of our idea: an exhibit for families and school visits which aims to teach the concepts of how engines work using interactivity of some sort. We had a simple principle to work on: Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow. For each of these four stages, we developed a physical interaction which would trigger some animation projected below the engine so you understand what’s happening with each part of the engine. The names of the stages represented what happened to the air. Once you completed a sequence, the plane will take off and you will see clouds projected below the engine instead with some aircraft sounds.
We only had three days to form a team, choose an idea and put the exhibit together, so there are many things we would have liked to have done if we had the time and access to any resources we wanted. One thing I think we all agreed on was being able to project onto the engine itself, not below. We used a Makey Makey to take in the signals from each of the physical inputs which can limit the programming. However, considering our lack of time, we put together a prototype which we felt could be turned into a permanent fixture if worked on and we accomplished our original goals.
Sally, our in-house artist, did some sketches of the Museomix journey over the weekend. This sketch shows our completed exhibition. Credit: Sally Jane Thompson
What did I gain from it? I worked with people from different backgrounds and skills, all from different working environments. On my team I had someone from the Royal Palaces in London, Thinktank museum in Birmingham and someone who had just moved from the Science museum to the British Museum. Even though these people came from museum backgrounds, they all had different experiences and potentially created something they would not have if they did it within their own workplace. It was really great to work with people who actually worked in museums as they gave me an insight to what you’ve got to think about when you put together an exhibition. I found it quite challenging and it can take years to put a museum exhibit together!
I also found that it was a really fun way of communicating an engineering principle and a great way of promoting science. I could not have done this with just scientists or engineers: I needed specialists in different areas to tell me what was possible and those experienced in museums to remind us of what was important to the visitor. Although I was not involved in the building or programming, I felt useful in that I knew our target audience well through my work so I can pick the information that I felt was more important. We also had some engineers from Rolls-Royce come by when we were putting it together and liked what we were doing, so it was great to know we were doing something right.
Sarah helps manage the STEMNET contract for Birmingham and Solihull and has a background in Biology. You can follow her on Twitter on @Sarah_Cosgriff.