Tokyo Interactions: putting the work in

My first full day in Tokyo.

Making my way to my digs the afternoon before, I’d surfaced out of the train station to find myself at Tokyo Opera City: a place I recognised because I’ve been to the Intercommunication Center (ICC) a couple of times. The ICC is run by the telecommunications company NTT East and exhibits media art and interactive multimedia and I quite like their programming although I haven’t yet quite got to the stage where I remember this and go there by default! Anyway, making the most of being local and it being the last day of a multi-sensory sound-based exhibition I went for a look.

OTO NO BA: Sound-digging with the senses took its theme as “sound that is not only perceived with the ears, but with various other senses, or even with the whole of the body”. Being part of the kids programme, I was anticipating it being quite hands-on, and arrived prepared to prance around a bit to interact with things!

I don’t usually have to gird my loins for interactive art in this manner: I think there may be something interesting going on there where I feel more self conscious here and aware that there’s loads more potential for doing The Wrong Thing.

Grabbing the bull by the horns I jumped straight in with a bit of tambourine action and some sort of motion-tracking projection set up (ratatap, Junichi Kanebako) that responded with visuals when you made a noise with your tambourine (or bongo, or shaker…). As an interesting side observation in hindsight, I think most of the noise was being made by the gallery staff – perhaps a reminder that interactive work either needs a facilitator or to be intuitive to use?

Next I donned a stripy tabbard and approached the Border Shirtsizer (Ei Wada) to make some noise in a pleasingly loud, lo-fi, CRT, B&W, tone generator stylee.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

There was some nice experimenting to be done with jiggling/twisting/wafting to see how the changing camera view of the stripes changed the tone that was output.

After all that noise I made a beeline for touch the sound picnic (Junichi Kanebako). Ear defenders to block out a lot of the ambient noise and a sort of microphone set-up that transformed the sound signal into a buzz from a vibration motor.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It would be interesting to take this outside and through a variety of spaces, as it was quite uniformly loud in the gallery. There was a nice percussive moment when a small child ran past me, though!

For me, the star of the show was Perfumery Organ (Perfumery Organ Project) and not just because of its massive sweeping curve and assortment of small storage.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

I really like this literal take on the idea that perfumes have high and low notes. It was also very engaging trying to figure out the different mechanisms at work and general detail spotting. The organ played at 15 minute intervals and, between performances, you could pick up the little canisters on the front row and sniff the different scents. (During the performance you got buffetted by heady wafts coming from the brown bottles.)

I went to Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House in London a few months ago, but this was very different in feel.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It’s only now as I look back at the video footage that I’m starting to realise that there were a range of different mechanisms for moving the jars/blowy things into position to make the noise.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It was close to closing time by now so I removed my ear defenders and had a quick look at the main exhibition.

It made me happy to see a piece referencing Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, having only recently discovered the writing and used it in a workshop. Also this dead bug soldered windchime triggered by a Geiger counter was nice:

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It happened that I was able to book the last slot of the day for Akio Suzuki’s acoustic installation, so I settled down to listen to Kugiuchi & Water Bottle on my own, in the dark, sealed into an anechoic chamber.

I asked the assistant if the artist provided the room or if it was in their tech specs for the gallery to sort one out. It turns out that the chamber is a permanent feature of the gallery and it gets used to house different artworks as part of different exhibitions. hmmmmmmmm……

***bingle bongle ***
Incoming message from Megumi

There’s an opening event and after party at a new shared studio space, would I like to go?
It’s in Kabata *googles “Kabata”* Yikes that’s half way to Yokohama! And it’s already gone 6 o’clock. What is this place anyway?

We talked ourselves in an out of it a few times, mostly just pitching our tiredness against knowing that it would be a really relevant thing for me to go and see and that tonight would be our best chance to meet a range of people.

We got ourselves there in the end though, and the studio was pretty impressive! Some interesting work, too, slightly different to the sorts of things I usually see at artist run exhibitions.

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

I’ll direct you to the Hunch website to find out more about the artists, but mostly so you can mouse over their profile pictures, too:

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

The after party involved a few chats with people to the backdrop of steel and regular drum solos by fairy light whilst a cross between Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a mirror ball rotated above us. I met a glass artist, a lecturer in English History, and an artist who also has what sounds like quite a participatory practice – another unusual find for me in Japan, we’ve arranged to meet up and chat next week without the drum soloist…

More photos from the day here:

Birmingham – York : the route

So, in an hour or two’s time I’ll set off on a 200+ mile journey to cycle from Birmingham to York.

Birmingham to York, via a slightly lumpy bit

This project has its roots in the Duddeston Viaduct stretch of railway-line-that-never-quite-was, and so my route to York has been designed to incorporate several disused railway lines…

(click through to go to the images’ sources on Flickr)

Day 0

Ride (Birmingham - York)

As part of the launch event, I invited people to accompany my on a ride to Longbridge.

Bournville College’s new campus is on the site of the old Rover car factory. I’ll possibly be part of a programme of artist residencies taking place in the area later in the year, and as part of our initial discussions I heard about the railway line that used to service the plant.

Day 1

260/i365 Tunnel

On my first day I’ll be cycling up the Harborne Walkway, the remnants of the Harborne Railway.

Day 2

The Tissington Trail in Derbyshire

On Tuesday I’ll be joined by Kim Wall and we’ll cycle up the Tissington Trail to Buxton in the Peak District.

Day 3

High Peak Trail, Derbyshire

Wednesday: The High Peak Trail. Fortunately in the downward direction!

Later in the day we’ll also ride along the Silverhill Trail. [some images here]

Days 4 & 5

The Fisher of Dreams Sculpture on TPT Naburn Marina on River Ouse - Cropped

Here our route goes along the Trans Pennine Trail in places, including the rather marvellous sounding scale model of the solar system.


We’ll mostly be camping en route, so this is the sort of load I’ll be carrying:

Ride (Birmingham - York)

I’m not sure how much it weighs, but suffice to say I can’t lift the back wheel when my bike’s loaded up like this! I’m hoping I don’t encounter too many awkward gates along the trails…


Ride (Birmingham - York)

Ride (Birmingham - York)

As I cycle, I’ll be transmitting data connected to the effort I’m making to the sculpture that’s currently on display at Bournville College. 30 minutes behind me, the sculpture will react to my speed, bearing, altitude, time spent journeying and total distance travelled. There’s also an indicator for the accuracy of the GPS signal the data is derived from. Spend some time with the sculpture and see what connections you make…

Ride (Birmingham - York)

Igloo brainstorming with The Bone Ensemble

I spent this morning with The Bone Ensemble and Kim Wall brainstorming ideas and interactions for new work in development Igloo.

I’ll be working more with The Bone Ensemble later as part of an AHRC-funded CATH project that teams up academics, artists and creative technologist types, but for now Kim and I were in to bounce around some ideas and possibilities right at the early stages of the work’s development.

Igloo is intended to respond to themes of nomadic Inuit culture and some of the vocal traditions such as throat singing and playful contests.

The Bone Ensemble work a lot with performances to small audiences, particularly in settings away from the theatre. For example they are currently touring one that takes place in a caravan… The focal point for Igloo is therefore a domed structure that will turn up at festivals and be assembled in situ.

The temporary structure currently being used in place of the igloo for this R&D week at mac Birmingham

They’re interested in integrating digital technologies into the performance and structure, so my task today was to introduce them to some of the possibilities of working with sensors and interactive systems.

To aid this process I’d prepared a few Arduino-based demos that linked inputs such as sound volume, proximity and touch to outputs such as sound files and lights.

Singing to some volume-reactive LEDs

After working through some of the demos on a table-top we decided to move them into the temporary structure the performers are working with this week in order to get a feel for how they behaved in a much more spatial context.

I really like this piece of video taken as people found spaces in the igloo to house the different demos. There’s a system on the outside of the framework that’s sensing distance (to someone standing in front of it) and then using that measurement to trigger different files that play back notes in a do-re-mi style. I love how the performers start singing back to it as they’re installing the other systems!

The volume-reactive LEDs worked really nicely in the new set-up and we were able to shout, clap and stomp at them from different locations from in and around the igloo. I get the feeling we’ll soon be prototyping something with a lot of LEDs…

We also found the potentials with the MaKey MaKey touch-sensing boards very interesting. Here are a few images as we explore and discover some of them.

Getting to grips with the MaKey Makey and its potential for instigating contact between people

I’ve left the demos with The Bone Ensemble as they spend the rest of the week in residence at mac Birmingham working through some ideas.

I have no idea where they’ll have arrived at by Friday, but it’s looking very exciting so far!

The rest of my photos and videos from the session are in this Flickr set.

Inkvisible #4: smooth moves and scribbles

Today was our last day of Inkvisible playtesting. Having decided to move away from the L.A.S.E.R Tag software to a motion-tracking based system, it turns out we still stayed with the Graffiti Research Lab.

Ben Eaton hacked an installation of BlitzTag to work with a Kinect sensor.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

After a bit of configuration for the space, we started getting our first curious bystanders.

They rapidly became participants!

Inkvisible Day 4

The first observation was that this system gave much smoother results. Strangely the projected line almost felt elastic at times. The second was that people seemed to get really very absorbed into the movements – in the same way that you might run your fingers through sand on the beach or trail them through water. It’s quite a different experience from the version that tracks a laser pointer. This is much more about the movement of the body.

The snippet of video gives a small sense of this, but basically we were finding that people (of all ages) were doing this for several minutes, content to just swirl their arm around and see the traces formed.

With very few exceptions, the results all looked like this:

Inkvisible Day 4

Although we did have one or two cases of people writing their names:

Inkvisible Day 4

People seemed to filter out the paintings we were hoping they might respond too. I think most people would have preferred to have had a blank area of wall to mark onto.

This, however, was not what we were trying to investigate so, time to change things up a little!

We relocated to the gallery next door and set up over an abstract painting. Here we wanted to see if we could find a base layer that resonated more with the projected graffiti layer.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

It started to show some promise, so we did a slow pan of the room to see what different scales and substrates did.

I very much liked the feel of working on a huge scale as when happened when the projector reached down to the far end of the room. The corresponding drop in intensity was noticeable though, in that the lines were quite faint. It would be really good to try something on this scale, but with a much more powerful projector so that the results are still vibrant.

Next we came to Ana Maria Pacheco’s Man and His Sheep.

Oh yes.

Now we started to be actually interacting with the artwork. Admittedly still through kind of scribbling, but when you mark across a face, a part of you feels it on your face too.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

So, this was significant not only for the shift in interaction, but also because this was the first time we had been able to successfully project onto 3D sculpture (reflection and scatter problems with the lasers).

Both systems we trialled have their pros and cons. In particular with this one we missed the ease of being able to tweak settings and the effect of the paint drips.

As with L.A.S.E.R. Tag, BlitzTag was not without its quirks when it came to problems with tracking. For some reason it simply would not detect and respond to the movements of several people.

We weren’t really in a situation that enabled us to do de-bugging of what was causing this, but we suspect it to be partly to do with differences in clothing.

Inkvisible Day 4

The system was generally able to detect me, so we devised a couple of work-arounds that sometimes worked. The first was to give people my brown shirt to wear (see above) and the other was for me to stand in front of people to act as a sort of shield.

In summary we think this has got a lot of potential, but we think any next steps would benefit from a particular context (giving a direction to the types of responses being sought) and a big chunk of time that could be spent de-bugging the installation and customising the nature of the projections.

That’s us out of time, though. Next week we report our findings back at King’s College.

Mobile Fun Factory

So we (Garry Bulmer, David Checkley, Rachel Sutton, Kim Wall and I) eventually finished building a Mobile Fun Factory for The Public in West Bromwich.

Designed as a mobile unit that is interactive in its own right as well as providing a method of displaying work made during the summer programme’s activities, the Mobile Fun Factory had quite a brief to fulfil. It also had to fit in the goods lift.

Here’s what we made…

Mobile Fun Factory

It sports:

  • A 42″ screen on the top
  • A smaller touchscreen screen in the Secret Cinema (behind the velvety curtains)
  • Some amazing velvety curtains
  • A camera sending a live feed to a screen on the other side of the unit (pleasingly infra-red)
  • A chimney that glows in a vaguely TARDIS-style manner
  • A scrolling LED matrix
  • Lots of mesh for attaching artworks to
  • A mahoosive blackboard
  • A Control Panel full of big pressy buttons, thunky switches, rainbow LEDs and random noise samples
  • A periscope
  • Glowing circles (really quite pleasing!)
  • And the best boot-up sequence ever (see below)

Mobile Fun Factory boot-up sound from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

And it still fits in the goods lift!

Well, sort of, the periscope and the chimney have to be detached, but we figured out ways of doing this in a reasonably straightforward manner whilst still having them secure once re-attached.

Here are a few photos (more here):

Waiting to receive and disseminate Fun

The gorgeous curtains for the Secret Cinema. What’s inside? Only one way to find out…

Nice kaleidoscope effect when the periscope points at the LED hoop

The LED hoop in all its glory. It also runs Conway’s Game of Life, which is rather nice.

The Control Panel – an easy way to lose track of time as you explore the different sound samples and admire the blinkenlights. All those switches and buttons do something; can you figure them out?

Photos of several of the bits don’t really do them justice, so here’s a quick video to give more of a flavour:

Mobile Fun Factory from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

The Mobile Fun Factory is now parked up in the main entrance atrium to The Public awaiting your interaction pleasure. Go have a play.

Inkvisible #3: Associations, assumptions and frustrations

Having previously decided on our location and homed in on some of the aspects of interaction that we wanted to encourage during a planned final even, our aim for last Friday was to set up in situ and perfect the tech and social set-ups.

It all started well, with some excellent exchanges. Following an observation from Ben, we made a bit more of people having their photos taken alongside the marks they had made.

Inkvisible Day 3

We’re interested in how this may change the dynamics of what people draw and also the ownership they take of it.

Inkvisible Day 3

A Dutch artist echoed the paintings she usually does that consist of white and blue lines. She was very keen to take lots of photos of everything and there was a very strong sense that she would go on to share these with others.

Inkvisible Day 3

We don’t often get people writing text (it’s quite difficult, especially on your first attempt), but someone who I’m guessing was a visitor from East Asia, contributed an I ♥ You.

I’m curious about how this behaviour might relate to whether people consider themselves tourists or not. As a nice juxtaposition, though, this member of staff was also keen to have a go and to know where she could find her photo online afterwards. (pssst! It’s here!)

Inkvisible Day 3

We also had our first genitalia drawn – suffice to say from an unexpected source!

It’s been very interesting talking to people and finding out about their expectations and assumptions about what ‘everyone else must draw’. We think there’s some interesting psychology going on here beyond anything too Freudian.

Unfortunately we then hit a point where the technology started to seize up on us; first working intermittently and then failing to work at all.

This has scuppered our plans to hold a formal event at the end of the month, however you could argue it has furthered our learning and the conversations around it quite a bit.

After some wrangling we decided we couldn’t run an advertised event with the technology being as unpredictable as it was. We have a fair idea of what we are asking from such an event though, and increasingly how to achieve that, so we’re still going to design and plan one – we’re just not going to try and make it happen just yet.

In the meantime we’ve still got one more day at BMAG: stay tuned to find out how we’re going to use it…

Museum Camp: interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens

On Monday I attended Museum Camp. As with MuseumNext in 2009 it was a) rather marvellous and b) a stimulating place to discuss ideas that relate directly and indirectly to my practice. Thanks to all involved!

Hello. We are interested in Museums and we want to think about...

I hadn’t intended to lead a session, but as a spur-of-the-moment decision I offered to instigate a session on ‘interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens’. This was largely from a desire to carry on the conversation that had begun with my recent residency at Coventry Artspace linking in with Heritage Open Days, but also fly the flag for this other face of digital that perhaps institutions aren’t aware of.

I was really happy to see so many people come along to take part in the session. Sitting-on-tables-or-the-floor room only! This post is intended as a reference for those that were in the session and those that weren’t able to join us: pulling out the main areas of discussion and linking to some of the examples mentioned.

I started off by talking a bit about my background and why I was interested in interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens: my journey through gradually more expanded forms of people+place and then influences from pervasive games (I like this definition) and the hackspace/makerspace movement.

I sat on a table and waved my hands a lot as I talked about two recent digital installations that encapsulated a lot of stuff I’m passionate about: making people look up; affecting how people interact with a space; instigating collaboration; making people think and speculate and do experiments to try and find out.

Trapeze Monkey from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Secret Police Disco from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Rebecca Shelley took some comprehensive notes on the conversation that followed as has been kind enough to share them, so here’s where we went from there…

But how much does it cost and is it something we can realistically implement?

Your local hackspace as a resource for know-how and possibly people with skills looking for an interesting project to use them on:
Coventry: Tekwizz
Hackerspaces wiki (includes a listing of active spaces around the world)
Hackspace Foundation has a UK list

Not got a local hackspace? Why not host one?
Museum 2.0 post
At the time of MuseumNext 2009 The Life Science Centre in Newcastle had got a long way towards planning to host one, not sure how far they got with implementing it.

Arduino is the platform I use: a small computer but also a community that shares a massive amount of information. A standard board costs about £25 and a lot of the sensors are available now as things aimed at a hobbyist market. It’s probably people’s time that’ll be the main expense.

Sensors include distance-measurers, motion sensors, noise detectors, humidity sensors… You can link up sensor inputs to a variety of different outputs, with some decision-making in between if the result is this, then do this.


Later on we reminded ourselves that the behaviour or effect we wanted to induce should lead the design, rather than the technology.

Use what you have in terms of resources and the space.

Low-tech is as valid as high tech.

Other technologies you can harness

Magic vests, silly hats and balloons.

Secrets, missions, games, small groups of people who are in-the-know and pantomine (as seen with the Secret Police Disco as people who had found it tried to enable others to make the discovery too).

How do you set/stage the space?

How you describe what’s going on and the process by which people enter that activity (or not).

Do I see it as performance? No – mostly because the idea would terrify me! – but I do see it as performative sometimes, and I’m interested in spectacle and different types of audiences that observe it.

I tend not to emphasise art (it’s scary to a lot of people!)
I tend not to emphasise technology (it’s scary to a lot of people!)

Can you pique people’s curiosity? Reward those that seek out the hidden things?

The Heritage Open Day event that Trapeze Monkey and the Secret Police Disco were a part of had a short paragraph and the end of the heritage-orientated handout that said I’d been in residence and things were ‘available for discovery’.

Question from Nikki: How does this sit with pedagogical aims of institutions? Does it matter if only a small number of people make the discovery?


How do you connect these experiences with the outside?

One participant talked about experience using gamification, linking in to people’s online social networks and harnessing the technology people carried in their pockets.

Another reminded us that not everyone has smart phones and I reminded us this was a session about non-screen-based approaches!

We then talked about the urge to share stories/experiences and possibly also how to close the feedback loop and do something useful with the contributions coming in from social media (or I might be conflating that with later discussions).

Education and fun

I noticed a few undertones that seemed to suggest these two are mutually exclusive…
(I disagree.)

Flows of visitors

Institutions are aware that visitors tend to stay in the areas that are more populated. Can we use interactive installations to draw people into the less well-trodden areas?

We talked about conferring agency, and how this brings people back if they can see their actions are having a direct effect on the space.

Someone talked about the audio piece Shhh… at the Victoria and Albert Museum and how it had enabled things like men transgressing into the ladies loos.

Can I give some examples of exemplary projects?

Um, this threw me a little as I think this is what I’m trying to move towards understanding through getting more of the museums’ points of views. I fell back on describing things I had encountered that had resulted in me having a powerful experience.

Symphony of a Missing Room, Lundahl & Seitl part of the 2011 Fierce Festival Hannah Nicklin’s thoughts and a This is Tomorrow article.

Ran on blindfolds, binaural recordings and the gentlest of touches leading you down the rabbit hole.

We talked again about spectacle, and returning to see what things look like from the outside. Also buying in to an activity and submitting to the experience.

Blast Theory were mentioned as the technology big guns. I’d seen some of their control room for I’d Hide You. It’s a lot of tech!

Reminded me to say that things will go wrong. Embrace it! (And design for it!)

This linked us back to an open approach and fostering a sense of agency and ownership – you can playtest your prototypes and people will appreciate it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not polished and flawless.

Hide&Seek’s Sandpit approach (and use of low tech).

I also mentioned the previous week’s Heritage Sandbox showcase and the Ghosts in the Garden project at the Holburne Museum. Smartphone technology wrapped up in an intriguing interface and an engaging narrative.

I’m totally into this as an approach and have used cardboard and simple electronics to replace touchscreens and turn using what’s basically a satnav into a team activity for 5 people.

Worried about a lack of budget? Cardboard props are great because they flag up that this is something running on imagination-power and you can do anything with that!

A Song for Skatz: using The Anticipator from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Recording of the ARC A&Q discussion

Last Wednesday night we held the A&Q discussion session to round off my Artspace Research Commission. Present were representatives of the Coventry Artspace community including artists, studio holders, directors and board members.

Jon Randle bought along recording equipment, so we are able to share this documentation of the 90 minute free-form conversation:

Topics covered include:
multiple histories,
interacting with spaces,
unsuspecting audiences,
looking up,
the (non)exchange of stories,
non art audiences,
online experiences,
audience feedback,
to tweet or not to tweet,
the things you get used to,
secret messages and secret lives and giving the secret things voices,
invisible people,
existing as different things at different times,
connecting with the monkey,
unexplored spaces,
almost hearing the sermons,
doing it again,
engendering happiness,
steel-capped boots and caring for the building,
eradicating smells,
glitter balls,
non visuals,
void spaces,
not realising the basement is derelict,
Specials cotton wool and not being beholden to it,
what could be done with the xxxxx space?,
allowing cultural squatters,
ownership and territories,
heritage graffiti,
slightly blinkered views
and whitewashing.

Thanks to everyone who took part for an interesting conversation and a chance to look at the building, the residency and its various outcomes from various different perspectives.

A&Q session for ARC: Hijack

As I mentioned at the start of my week on the Artspace Research Commission, I suspected that the process would (and should) raise as many questions as it answered.

I made my devices; installed them in selected locations; and we stepped back and watched people discover and interact with them.

But it feels like the job would be unfinished if we left it at that.

What did we notice? What did we learn? What might we try next time?
(Writing this I’m suddenly reminded of the standard structure we used for our lab reports when I was an engineering student!)

This coming Wednesday you are invited to come along to Artspace and interact with the installations with a critical eye before participating in a round table discussion to wrangle with observations, intentions and aspirations. All welcome. It’s free. There will be biscuits.

Answer and Question Night with Nikki Pugh

Wednesday September 19th
6:30pm (7pm start) at Coventry Artspace
16 Lower Holyhead Road, Coventry, CV1 3AU [map]

Nikki, Artspace and the building are inviting you to be part of this conversation in a night of lively discussion where anything might happen.
Refreshments and interactions from 6:30pm
Discussion starts at 7pm
More information or to RSVP

People in; slightly different people out

Museums as experience machines

So far my 2010 has been very focussed on schools and learning as I first spent a week responding to the second wave of Creative Partnership calls for this academic year and then attending interviews as a result.

Roughly half of the interviews I am invited to involve having to deliver a short activity (10-20 minutes) to a small group of the children. Considering my whole approach to projects is based on collaboration and a particular process aimed at responding to each individual context, it’s quite strange to find myself being judged on solo delivery of something workshoppy to a group I’ve not had any previous contact with!

I’d like to think that with my cross-disciplinary background one of my main selling points is that with pupil-led projects I’m pretty well equipped to be able to bring in practical skills that relate to wherever we end up. This too makes it tricky to decide on just one activity to represent me, because I’m not working from a starting point of offering a particular medium in response to a brief. Again all about the process.

Anyhoo, irony of the situation aside, these activities can be very interesting in their own right.

On Monday I was in a school that was looking for someone to help facilitate Year 5 (9-10 years old) in designing and making their “Museum of Water”. I was really interested in this call because of the way it had been presented as very pupil-led and also because, through my work with pervasive games and hackerspaces, I’ve been involved in various conversations coming from museum professionals that resonate strongly with those of schools. We all want meaningful interactions.

15 minutes isn’t really enough time for introductions and then anything much in the way of making, so I decided to aim for something much more feasible …like a paradigm shift!

I wanted the school to see their museum-to-be not as a collection of objects, or of documentation of learning objectives, but as a process. People go into the museum and the museum has some sort of effect on them such that the people leaving the museum are slightly different to when they went in. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I started the session in my favourite manner – by getting things wrong.

Hi, my name’s Nikki and I do all sorts of creative stuff. I’m here because I saw your advert for someone to help you make a Museum of Water.

Well, I thought that was really very easy, so I just went ahead and made it for you. [places 2 litre lemonade bottle partially filled with water on table]

Can I have my £3000, please?


Oh, hang on!

[Places bottle on top of cardboard box pedestal]

[Silence accompanied by glances]

What’s wrong? Can I have my money please?

From this starting point, we were able to have a conversation where the pupils explained to me that, even if I labelled the water, just to have a bottle of water on display wasn’t good enough – they wanted a museum that was interactive and taught people interesting things. They weren’t very impressed with my offering at all.

My next move was to invite everyone down to the other end of the room where I had cleared some floorspace. Within the context of what they had just told me, I introduced the idea that I wanted them to think of their museum as an experience machine. I wasn’t interested in what was inside it right now, but I wanted to think of who went in, and what we wanted them to be like when they left.

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Two of the children lay down on some large pieces of paper and struck appropriate poses whilst we drew around them. First of all we gathered around the outgoing visitor and noted and sketched our thoughts about what we wanted people to be doing and feeling after visiting our museum. I was really impressed at the contributions made in what I think was less than 5 minutes.

At one point I announced I was going to write down the obvious and added “happy”. This triggered a conversation about whether we would ever want people to leave the museum feeling sad. Yes they said: there were some very serious things relating to the topic of water and they might want people to be moved by these. When I asked for an example, one boy said that sometimes people drown in water. We agreed it would be important to teach people how to be safe.

With very little time left, we quickly added some thoughts to the picture of the incoming visitor. These were very illuminating in terms of how they perceived museums. Or how they thought museums were perceived – anyway, a very stark difference to the very positive picture they had painted in the previous two activities!

And that was the end of the session ..or it was supposed to be: it took a bit of effort to get the children to stop adding to the picture!

A few pupils helped me take photos of the drawings before I departed (I left the originals with the school – along with the bottle of water, for which I kindly waived the £3000 fee). Below is a slideshow of some of the images…

They’ve set themselves some very high standards in light of what appears to be a somewhat challenging target audience – I hope they can realise them.

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