KiM Review: Powering the Future – Glasgow Science Centre

image © Glasgow Science Centre

image © Glasgow Science Centre

This review was originally written for Kids in Museums and was published on 21.2.2016

Following on from the success of 2013’s Bodyworks, Glasgow Science Centre’s newest major exhibition Powering the Future opened in December last year. The show focuses on what is known as the “energy Trilemma,” a vicious circle whereby governments are struggling to find a solution to the demand for power that is cheap, plentiful and at the same time environmentally friendly.


The exhibition opens by questioning the visitor as to how the three needs of the “Trilemma” can be met in the future, with all subsequent content intended to help inform their answer over the course of their visit. As with other Glasgow Science Centre exhibitions, Powering the Future casts its visitor in the role of a scientist for the day, learning through as series of interactive experiments. Children and adults alike learn almost exclusively through their own actions, creating an immersive and engaging experience. As you would expect from its content, it’s a lively affair, with the noise of the exhibits and excited bustle of attendees creating a peculiarly harmonious cacophony.


This excitement is not without just cause however, as Powering the Future offers a number of unique experiences. Proving to be particularly popular is the “hurricane simulator” (a glass chamber that demonstrates the power of wind energy), a tank in which you can operate an AC-ROV (small remote control submarines used to assist drilling in harsh underwater environments), and the chance to launch a small rocket by fuelling it with user-generated hydrogen energy. This is an exhibition designed to appeal to kids and “big kids” alike.


Having said that, the content is a little more complicated than previous exhibitions. As such, there is noticeably more written text here than in other areas of Glasgow Science Centre and some of the topics and terminology may be difficult for particularly young visitors to comprehend. Never the less, our energy future is an important subject that children do need to engage with, and the exhibition does a good job of translating its themes into relatable activities for children. For example, a large “Scalextrix” style racetrack where each user has to generate the power for their car by using crank handles proved particularly popular. As did the “dance mat” style game that required a certain level of prolonged exertion in order to charge up first the music, then accompanying disco lights, and lastly a group “selfie” for all of those involved, rewarding them with a nice take-away memory of their day.


With the exhibition’s focus on fostering an understanding of the scale and effort of meeting the UK energy demand, it is very deliberately designed to leave the visitor exhausted by the end, so expect some weary scientists on the trip home. While we’re on the subject of responsible energy usage though, a trip to Powering the Future is undoubtedly just that.

SMF Blog: The Good, The Bad and The Untitled

image © National Galleries Scotland

image © National Galleries Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

The museum is one of the great educators; this has always been understood to be its primary function. Despite several pedagogical shifts over the 300 years since the first UK institution opened its doors (the Ashmolean in Oxford, 1683), the one typical constant has been the direction of travel in which knowledge and information is imparted, especially when it comes to children. In nearly all circumstances, learning is conferred from a knowledgeable adult upon a recipient young person, and understandably so.


There are occasional anomalies though. At the end of 2014 for example, the National Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition Games Masters, where there was often an observable role reversal in which younger visitors who tended to be more familiar with the content, assumed the role of educator to their accompanying adult. This is why Bad Entertainment, which opened this month at the National Portrait Gallery is such a fascinating concept. The exhibition, a series of films and artwork created by artists as young as 12, puts young people not only in the position of communicating the museums content, but creating and curating it as well. The result however is a distinctly harrowing experience.


This is not a criticism. “Legitimately creepy” by its own admission, the show is also an incredibly astute and well-considered piece of work. Centred around the theme of “the actuality of everyday experience and the fantasy world of media culture,” the four films depict a nightmarish future in which masked youngsters appear to rage against the savagery and anti-socialised world that they find themselves a part of. The young artists collectively wash their hands of the responsibility attributed to them by the media for the growing culture of narcissism, where language is deteriorating and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, by suggesting that the media itself is to blame instead.

Bad Entertainment is a declaration from young people that today’s media culture is not a by-product of their behaviour, but is forced unwillingly upon them. Amongst the exhibition’s targets are the dual over-saturation and over-simplification of media via a television set that shows four channels of “scratch” videos, a relentless stream of over-stimulating and almost incomprehensible 4 or 5 second clips. By exclusively donning masks and referring to themselves only under the collective guise of The Untitled, the group also challenges conceptions of the current “Instagram-generation” as attention seeking and vain. Whilst there is also a resistance towards the over-selling that occurs in the consumer world, with an exhibited desire for honestly best exemplified by “Stone,” one of the props from the films, which is presented like art but labelled with the brief catechism: “What is this? A Rock. Describe it? Rocky. What does it stand for? Rocks. Is this art? No, it’s a rock.”


The Untitled are a group of young people who have seized the opportunity to inform not only their peers, but also their elders and the results are as effective as they are visually impressive. Demonstrably, despite what the exhibition portrays as a dumbed-down media culture and its resultant society, young people today are now better informed and more in-tune than ever, and credit to National Galleries Scotland for providing them with a platform to prove this. These young artists not only show that a reverse museum pedagogy, where education flows from the young to their elders is achievable, but is valuable too.


Through the horror, Bad Entertainment is actually a message of hope. A message from a self-aware generation, conscious of its own flaws but resistant too to a media culture they are unfairly blamed with demanding when they have done no such thing. It is a message from a generation who also fear a future where, “society has collapsed, language has collapsed. Everyone is a stranger,” but will not accept that as their fate.


The exhibition too gives hope to the museum itself. Bad Entertainment’s message is a vindication of their necessity and of their approach. Amongst the torrent of “scratch” videos and frustrated creations is a longing for the tranquillity, honesty and respect with which the museum communicates information, and for the breathing space and time that it affords reflection. The beauty of the exhibition is therefore twofold. Not only is Bad Entertainment good education, but it has also provided young people with the freedom to challenge and explore their fears in one of the few places they are not manifest.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 29.2.2016

KiM Review: Build It! – National Museum of Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This review was originally written for Kids in Museums and was published on 11.2.2016

Nestled in a busy corner of the National Museum of Scotland’s famous Grand Gallery is Build It. Part of their 150th anniversary celebrations and in conjunction with the Festival of Architecture 2016, the exhibition is a celebration of the work of local artist Warren Elsmore and his works created from Lego. Additionally, as part f the show Elsmore and his team will be working every Wednesday and Friday on a huge Lego recreation of the museum’s iconic building.


The works on display vary in scale and feature renowned architecture from the ancient world, such as the Roman Colosseum and the Treasury at Petra, to the modern, including the Empire State building and the Auckland Sky Tower. Smaller works then champion some of the most recognisable sights in the world of design, from the London black taxi to the Venetian gondola, while written exhibition material includes brief but effective biographies of both Lego and the artist himself. Knowledge that a young Elsmore’s bedroom floor was permanently the site of a vast Lego city may vindicate many a messy young visitor.


Exhibited content here is minimal however, as the real focus of the show is children and engaging them creatively. Around 90% of the floor space is dedicated to “maker stations” offering families the chance to take inspiration from Elsmore’s art and come up with their own creations. There is even a display case where completed works can be left for others to admire. This is a particularly nice touch as I can think of few better ways to reward creativity than the ability to say it was displayed in a national museum.


display of visitor’s Lego creations – image © National Museums Scotland

The hands-on interactivity of the exhibition was a visible and audible hit with the busy chatter of youngsters, and parents will be pleased to find a bounty of activities and events planned for the half-term holidays. These range from “Challenge Days” that will test their construction skills through a series of fun architectural tasks, “Mini Mechanics” which will explore the science of pulleys, cogs and wheels using Lego and Meccano, and the “Big Build” which will help engage youngsters with the National Museum of Scotland’s collection by assisting it’s master builders in the Lego reproduction of some of the key objects.


The beauty of Lego as a subject is that it relates to everyone; it is as nostalgic to adults as it is current to their children. There are few people who cannot say at least one sentence of their childhood story is not punctuated by colourful Lego bricks. For every child building fond memories there were adults having just as much fun, and even if it’s not your thing, there are few places better to rest your feet for a while than the airy splendour of the museum’s panoptic Grand Gallery.


Perhaps Build It’s greatest asset though is in its scope for repeat visits. It is a truly organic exhibition and no two experiences will provide the same results, such is the magic of Lego. Unlike other temporary exhibitions at the National Museum of Scotland, Build It is free, and families should be encouraged to make the most of this. Above all, the ability to track the progress of Elsmore’s live construction of a Lego National Museum of Scotland building will be fascinating. Having only been open a few days at this point, only a select number of foundation bricks have been laid down, but the sheer scale of the model promises it will be just as interesting at its various construction stages as it will be awe-inspiring in its completion.

Keeping Up Appearances

Artist's sketch of new Chambers Street piazza - image © National Museums Scotland

Artist’s sketch of new Chambers Street piazza – image © National Museums Scotland

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the institution is gearing up for landmark year of events in celebration of this milestone year. Programming will include the first ever exhibition to fully examine the history of Celtic art and identity, exhibitions on primates and fossils, and a celebration of the Lego creations of local artist Warren Elsemore, which will include a recreation of the original 19th century Royal Museum of Scotland building. Additionally, the second phase of renovation work (the first completed in 2011, seeing the creation of 16 new galleries) will be completed by the summer, providing the museum with 40% more floor space in which to exhibit its magnificent collection.


With this bounty of new gallery space, carved out of previously hidden areas of the building, it is understandable that some may question why the museum also needs the creation of a new piazza outside its Chambers Street entrance, which will rob the thoroughfare of around 50 parking spaces in a city centre that badly needs them. Work is already underway though, with the statue of 19th century Lord Provost William Chambers already temporarily relocated to facilitate the works. While the piazza’s creation may be contentious, and its necessity hard to gauge, it may prove to be one of the most important renovations the museum will see this year.


While the old Royal Museum building is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Victorian era architecture, it is now 150 years old and the role of the museum is now far removed from what it would then have been. The National Museum of Scotland’s panoptic style grand entrance hall is characteristic of them time, the British government built a similar structure at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin just five years earlier. The intent being that the full-length glazed ceiling would act as a “window to heaven,” placing the prisoners at all times under the watchful eyes of god in an attempt to reform them.

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland - images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland – images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Its use in Edinburgh was in a similar vein. The Victorian museum was cast in the role of social reformer as well; the idea being that they provided the “cultureless” lower classes of the time with an opportunity to improve themselves through an association with art and objects that were better they were. Early museum architecture all over the world reflects this, generally very deliberately designed with an entrance atop at flight of steps, and with a domed ceiling inside which aimed to place the visitor in an advanced position between the heavens and the earth, where it was considered the objects on display belonged. The old Royal Museum building follows the model exactly, when it opened its doors in 1866 the seventeen steps that led up to them literally placed the museum and its collection above the people.


The role of the modern museum however is far removed its 19th century counterpart. No longer to be perceived as a near-celestial treasure trove, tasked with dragging people (fortunate even to be let in) up to its level, the 21st century museum is understood to be a public collection, in service to them. It is an entertainer and above all an educator, and as such it is essential that every institution is accessible, relatable and approachable.


The National Museum of Scotland’s 2011 refurbishment made significant changes to achieve this, most obviously through its redisplayed galleries but also through a subtle architectural change too. By moving the doors to the museum away from the top of the entrance stairs to two unassuming glass ingresses at either side, the psychology of the museums façade was vastly improved without any compromising of its grandeur. The museum and its collection are now returned to the same level as the public; we are equals, as we should be.


A piazza will be the next important step in achieving the sense of “openness” that museums should be striving to instil. While museums of course no longer view themselves as such, some public perception of them as highbrow and unapproachable is still an issue. The National Museum of Scotland is particularly challenged architecturally, as most large museums in Europe afford the visitor the ability to fully encircle them (British Museum, Louvre, even Kelvingrove) in order to obtain a sense of perspective. The Edinburgh museum however has peculiar sense of fortification, visible from only two sides and badly hemmed in by the clutter of Chambers Street at the front. A piazza will now not only allow the building space to breathe, but it will breathe life out into its environs. Providing space for art and entertainment, the museum will achieve an important state of cultural osmosis, with activity flowing out into the street as easily as people now flow into the museum from it.


This issue of “openness” is important and museums all over are struggling to tackle it. Amsterdam’s city council for example opted to retain the cycle path that runs through the centre of the Rijksmuseum in 2013, despite condemnation from some curators, and the British Museum is much maligned by the lack of welcome bestowed by its austere façade (I attended a debate regarding this in 2014). The National Museum of Scotland is fortunate in the changes that it has been able to make without compromising the aesthetic of the original building. Although they may be too small to appear of any significance, they are vastly important. The museum’s building is set to become a perfect fusion: its heritage safely preserved whilst eliciting a clear understanding of its modern role within society. In its very bricks and mortar it will be shining example of everything that is expected of the museum of today.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.2.2016