Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

emotions Archive



June 2015



Notice Visitors, Create Joyful Gallery

Written by , Posted in Children, Exhibitions, Natural history, Visitors

A while back, I discovered that Derby Museum and Art Gallery was about to open a new natural history gallery. This was exciting to me for three reasons: firstly, because I ‘collect’ natural history galleries by visiting as many as I can; secondly, because Derby is very easy for me to get to; and thirdly, because the new gallery had the incredible name of ‘Notice Nature Feel Joy’. This I had to see.

Last week, with my sister, Alice, in tow, I managed to get to the new gallery. It’s a lovely space: calm, bright and clutter-free, and full of natural materials (including, of course, the natural history collections). Alice said that it made her feel like she was in a forest.

We were also lucky enough to speak to Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who led the project to put the gallery together. When I asked where the concept came from, she explained that from the outset, the museum didn’t have a particular plan, or even a name for the gallery. All of this came from work carried out with visitors and volunteers to find out what they wanted from such a gallery, what objects they wanted to see, and what nature meant to them.

Andrea explained that her background is not in natural history curating, but in shop design. Her concern was therefore to really understand how people move around gallery spaces, and to make the most of their own behaviour and interests. The process of working with visitors showed that what they valued about these galleries was the chance to stop and appreciate the interesting animals, minerals and fossils from the museum’s collections.

Thinking back now to my visit, and looking at my photographs, a couple of things really stand out for me about this gallery:

First, the layout is brilliant. The central cases are very cleverly set at quite a low height. This isn’t, as I first assumed, for access reasons, but instead to encourage people to stop and bend down to look at the objects, rather than simply glancing at things as they walk past. However, as is often the case, access and wider benefit go hand in hand — almost all of the cases are at easy eye height for even the smallest children, who I have seen struggling to see into cases in many other museums. (In fact, as this picture shows, some of the cases were so low that only small children and the most determined/flexible of adults would see them!).  The layout, and other features such as bookshelves and chairs, help visitors to really settle into spending time in this gallery, this fulfilling the first part of the gallery title — to ‘Notice Nature’.

Secondly, the gallery is neither didactic nor depressing. Many natural history museums have tried to work out how to get people to learn and care more about nature, with the long-term hope that this will encourage people to be more conservation-minded. There are a couple of problems with the galleries that arise from this concern. The first is that people tend not to learn many new facts from museums, but instead reinforce what they already know, which begs the question of whether its worthwhile putting the equivalent of a textbook on the walls. The second problem is that by preaching on themes such as environmental damage or extinction, museums risk making people feel depressed and disengaged from nature. Instead, this gallery focuses on nurturing people’s positive emotional responses to nature, thus fulfilling the second promise of the title — Feel Joy!

In fact, what this gallery does best is to trust visitors to get on with making their own connections with nature. Almost everyone will have at least some knowledge of nature, and for those who really want to find out more, information is available in booklets on the cases. For everyone else, the main job is to be wowed by the variety, form, feel and beauty of the objects, and to enjoy doing so. By nurturing people’s positive connections with nature, it may well be that a gallery such as this actually does more to foster a conservation ethic than galleries that make visitors feel hopeless about the future of the natural world.

The museum’s valuing of personal connections was, I think, epitomised for me by one of the last things I spotted as I looked around the gallery — a child’s picture of a beetle, displayed in amongst the case of beetle specimens. This is the sign of a museum that really notices and appreciates its visitors, just as it wants visitors to notice and appreciate the collections.



October 2012



Seeing Voices in the Museum

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Text panels

Human beings are incredibly social animals. This manifests itself in a whole host of ways—from our desire to share ideas and conversation, to our tendency to see agency and intention in inanimate objects (‘my computer hates me’), to our ability to form relationships with everything from people, to cats, to cars. If museums are clever, they can make use of this inherent sociability to create some really compelling exhibitions.

This was revealed to me particularly on a recent visit to Manchester Museum, where I was delighted to have a good chunk of time in which to explore the new Living Worlds gallery, which reopened last year. I had been wanting to go ever since seeing the old gallery in 2010 and hearing that the redesign was going to be carried out in association with a fashion design company (catwalk show producers Villa Eugenie). I’d heard good things about the new gallery since it opened, and had been looking for an excuse to travel up to Manchester and see it for myself. (more…)



September 2012



Lost in Science

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions

Yesterday I was in London for a meeting, and managed to carve out a couple of hours to visit the Science Museum. Given that I spent eight years of my life working in science museums, and that I now research museums, it was a shock to realise that it’s probably been over half a decade since I’ve visited the UK’s largest and most famous museum of science.

In spite of the fact that I inevitably get lost there, my first mistake was failing to pick up a map as I came in.

I really wanted to visit the new climate science gallery, Atmosphere, which I’d heard lots about, and also to check out the hands-on Launchpad gallery, which I was pretty sure had moved again since I last visited. Coming into the museum, I turned right and walked in a long straight line, through the massive industrial and transport exhibitions, and into the dark, neon-filled Wellcome Wing. There was some sort of event, and large numbers of trendy looking men in shirts and ties were milling around. I am hopelessly easy to disorientate (turn me through ninety degrees and I’m lost), but eventually discovered a lift, with signs suggesting I would find Atmosphere if I went up to floor 2.

The Science Museum seems to contain an inordinate number of industrial-looking corridors, which don’t quite feel like places visitors should be, as if you’ve wrongly managed to get behind the scenes and into the staff areas. I stepped from the lift into one such corridor and gingerly made my way to the Atmosphere gallery. It was, again, dark, with appropriately atmospheric deep blue lighting from an incredible swirling ceiling, and amazing slowly-moving projections on the floor. I didn’t have much time, and needed to take it in quickly, so I tried out a few of the computer interactives, looked at some of the artefacts, then left to try to find Launchpad. I followed an industrial looking, behind-the-scenes feeling staircase back down to the ground floor, elbowed my way through the trendy tie-wearers, and headed for the basement, where I thought Launchpad had been last time I visited.

Instead I found myself in Web Lab Beta – an interactive gallery produced in association with Google Chrome. The middle of the space was filled with strange instruments, making weird pinging, bonging sounds. In other places, robot arms drew faces in sandpits, and people looked through periscopes at goodness knows what. A cordoned off area declared itself to be the Control Room, with fat yellow cables connecting to the internet. At this point all the technology and trendily designed dark spaces filled with bright lights started to overwhelm me. I located the nearest museum employed human being, and asked where I could find Launchpad.

Inevitably, this involved another long corridor, although at least this one had lots of things along it to reassure me that I wasn’t in the staff quarters. I made it up to the museums’ other third floor (see why I get confused?), along another corridor (or maybe my mind is now just adding corridors…) and found myself with three choices: Launchpad; Health Matters; and, (thank the Lord!) the Eighteenth Century Science gallery, with its King George III collection of scientific instruments. And, although I thought I had been searching for the hands-on Launchpad gallery, I realised that what I actually wanted was to hang out for a while with some calm, beautiful, gently-lit orreries.

I’m so glad the Science Museum still has the George III gallery. It’s easy to be wowed by the high-concept design of galleries like Atmosphere and Web Lab. They are fantastically well done, and based on some of the best visitor research carried out by museums in this country. And the industrial and transport galleries, with their columns of cars up the wall, and giant, swooping aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, can’t fail to impress. But these galleries, filled with lights, sounds, giant objects and crowds of people, combined with the perpetual feeling of being lost or soon-to-be-lost, give me a kind of sensory overload that just makes me want to run away. But a small, calm room, in which absolutely every beautifully made object is behind glass, and in which there is no touching, interacting or even listening, was the perfect antidote. Science engagement isn’t just about doing hands-on stuff, or being wowed, or having your senses filled, or using technology. It’s also about having the time to calmly observe, let your mind wander, and notice tiny details or appreciate simple ideas that aren’t shouting, but are quietly waiting to be discovered.

After 15 minutes in there, control was regained, normal service resumed, and I was sufficiently revived to hurtle round another five galleries in the 40 minutes before my meeting. And I didn’t get lost at all.