Get Energised!

Thank you to National Museums Scotland for inviting me to sit on the steering group and be a judge for secondary school physics challenge Get Energised!

The day was a lot of fun, with students taking part in four challenges related to the renewable energy industry. Jamie Taylor of Artemis IP was an inspiring keynote speaker, and the students asked great questions – I wonder how many of the students who attended will consider engineering and the rewnewables industry as a future career??

Organisational values in Interpretation

Happy Hogmanay

Year-end reflections

December always brings a time for reflection on the year past as well as resolutions and plans for the year to come. Plans for 2014 can wait for a future post, this post will tackle the first part: reflections. For me, 2013 has been a year for thinking about expressing my own professional ‘values’ in my work, and values are something I have encouraged some of my clients to think about too this year.

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.

Universal Values

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.

Glasshouse at RBGE

Glasshouse at RBGE

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.

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.

Temperate House (from Treetop walkway)

Temperate House (from Treetop walkway)

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.

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.

Chilli Interpretation Panel

Chilli interpretation panel

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.

Tea interpretation panel for children

Tea interpretation panel for children

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.
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:

Rockets and Telescopes

A couple of new exhibits for the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre. Installed last night in a blizzard!

First a model of the James Clark Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. This telescope is home to the SCUBA camera developed and built at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

James Clark Maxwell Telescope

James Clark Maxwell Telescope model

And the nose-cone from a Skylark Rocket:

Rocket nose-cone

Rocket nose-cone

Skylark rockets flew from the 1950s up to 2005 and carried experiments into space, some of which were designed at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

Skylark rocket nose

Skylark rocket nose

Plinths and graphic panels built/printed by Leach Colour.


Visitor Studies Group – Conference 2013

The Visitor Studies Group ( is a community of professionals who promote dialogue, facilitate debate and provide continuing professional development in Visitor Studies for anybody working in cultural and natural heritage organisations.

VSG logoI have been aware of the work of the VSG for some time through working closely with the Visitor Studies officer at National Museums Scotland on the redevelopment project, but in April 2012 I was pleased to secure a freelance job supporting the group’s committee with coordination and administration.

The mission of the group is ‘Championing excellent visitor experiences’ which really resonated with me. Although I am not a Visitor Studies specialist, I use a lot of visitor studies methods in my work and often work closely with specialists to ensure that the exhibitions and projects I work on are truly visitor-focussed.

Right now, I am busier than I’ve ever been with VSG work because we are holding our 2013 Conference and AGM on 4th and 5th February at the London Wetlands Centre. The venue is beautiful but also particularly appropriate as this year’s theme for the Conference is ‘Environments’. We will be offering sessions covering how your environments affect the visitor experience, how to evaluate environmental factors and what influence environments might have on your work. Although I am going to be very busy making sure delegates are all registered for the right sessions and speakers have all they need, as well as liaison with our hosts at the venue, I very much hope that I will be able to sit in on many of the sessions because the programme the committee has put together looks fantastic!


London Wetland Centre

Monday 4th February will be a day of talks and discussions as well as VSG news and AGM. Highlights include Keynote Speaker architect Gareth Hoskins, particularly known for contemporary and considered design responses for the reuse of listed buildings, and in the creation of spaces for community, heritage and social purposes. Other sessions will cover a range of topics from innovative work in Outdoors environments to Disability Access in indoor spaces.

On Tuesday 5th February we will be focusing on practical workshops. Each delegate will have the opportunity to choose three workshops from a selection of six, as well as the plenary session. Workshops cover visitor studies tools, techniques, projects and findings in a range of environments from art galleries, outdoor spaces, museums, zoos, parks and even digital spaces.

A full programme and booking form can be found at and, although it won’t be anything like taking part in person, I am sure that many of the resources will be posted on the website too, I will post a link here when that happens.

Holiday Greetings!

Image: Edinburgh City Council

Image: Edinburgh City Council

Holiday Greetings from a cold and beautiful Edinburgh. I’d like to extend warm greetings to all those who made 2012 such a rewarding first year for me as a sole trader.

So, to those I worked with in 2012, thank you.

And to you all, I hope that 2013 brings exciting and rewarding new projects and a chance to work together or at the very least catch up for a chat over a nice glass of something.

All the best for the Holiday Season and New Year!

Museums and Science Communication

I recently attended the Imperial College Science Communication MSc 21st Anniversary event. It was a really good day, both for the opportunity to meet up with friends from my year on the course (98/99), and catching up with a wide range of ex-colleagues and contacts from the years that followed the course when I worked in the sci-com world in central London (and it felt like every second person I met through work was a graduate of the course).

Science Journalism discussion

The timing of this anniversary event was particularly good for me because just a month later I delivered my first lecture to the Edinburgh University Science Communication and Public Engagement MSc students.

The module I am teaching is ‘Effective Exhibit and Programme Development’ and I’m delivering it on behalf of, and along with, National Museums Scotland. It is basically a six-week introduction to the role of Museums in science communication. This is a subject that is close to my heart as I divide my professional work between museums and science engagement projects.

Cloning exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland

There are five full-time MSc students on the University of Edinburgh course in this inaugural year. Much has changed since I was in their shoes back in 1998, when the web was very much 1.0, newspapers were still made of paper and video and radio production required expensive equipment. But these media are simply tools, the essence of good communication has not changed and neither has the role that museums can play on the public interface between scientific research and wider society.

Since moving away from London, I have maintained links with other Science Communicators through the British Interactive Group and Edinburgh Beltane as well as my own personal connections and various partnership projects. But it was still a rare privilege to experience such thought-provoking, stimulating and challenging discussions as those that were held at the Imperial College event, and used to be a weekly occurence for us on the course.

I left the anniversary event with a new enthusiasm and a reading list to keep me engaged over the coming weeks and months. I hope to pass some of that enthusiasm to my University of Edinburgh students along with the knowledge and experience I am sharing with them – I know that their enthusiasm certainly rubs off on me.