Author Archives: Susannah

Ask a curator day

Is there a burning question that you’d like to ask a curator? Maybe what’s your favourite object? What’s the tiniest object in your collection? How do you go to the loo in space?

Early Space Shuttle ejection escape suit, 1979.

??! (NASA / Science & Society)

Well now’s your chance, because 1 September is ‘Ask a Curator Day’ – a unique worldwide Q&A session which lets you put questions to museums.

Ask a Curator logo

A crack team of Science Museum curators and other staff members will be standing by – so start thinking now.

All you have to do is tweet your question on Twitter using the #askacurator hashtag. If you don’t have a Twitter account, or your question just won’t fit into 140 characters you can also leave it as a comment below.

We’ll either tweet the answers or reply to your comments on this post. Particularly juicy questions that we want to answer at length might become the basis of future posts.

We’ll do our best to answer your questions, although some might take us a little while and we can’t guarantee to answer every single one.

Check out the two responses that our Transport Curator David made to this question that we were asked on Twitter: How did you get the planes into the Flight Gallery?

We’ve been setting the agenda on this blog for too long now – it’s over to you!

Cosmic Collections launch event unveiled

Gaetan Lee is organising tomorrow’s launch event for Cosmic Collections, our website competition. Find out a little more about what to expect.

Gaetan Lee

Gaetan Lee

What should people expect at the event tomorrow?

Well they should expect to get a chance to meet some great people and really get a chance to contribute – to a certain extent its going to be a user-generated event. By coming along they will be able to hear the story of eighteenth century astronomer Caroline Herschel from one of our drama characters and delve into the secrets of the Cosmos & Culture gallery from Ali Boyle, our curator of Astronomy. Dr Chris Welsh from Kingston University will be on hand as well to give people a real insight into how we’re studying the stars today. More importantly though this is a bit of an experiment for the Science Museum, because although we have some great sessions from these experts, we also want the people coming along to add to it as well, sharing their own experience, ideas and talents.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

We’re going to be running a special wall activity whereby people can create their own narratives and links between museum objects in much the same way as the curators do when they start to plan an exhibition. We’re really interested to see what the attendees do and how they choose to link their own stories and objects together.

What kind of people will be there?

We’re hoping for a real mix of people, from people with a background in web development, in astronomy or just a general interest in science and technology. Once we get all these people together we’re planning to mix them up and get them working in teams, so it will be a mash-up of people as well as ideas.

Do you think it will give competition entrants an advantage?

By coming along tomorrow people will get a real chance to find other people to work with and but more importantly to get the inside scoop behind our amazing collection of objects. Plus it should be fun!

If you have any questions for Gaetan please leave them as comments below. You can also check out interviews with Mia Ridge, our Web Developer and Ali Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy.

Cosmic Collections: the geeky stuff

This Saturday (24 October), we’re launching our Cosmic Collections website ‘mash-up’ competition. Just in case anyone else is as baffled as me, I asked our Lead Web Developer, Mia Ridge, a few questions about the competition.

For the non-geeks out there, what’s a mash-up?

A mashup is a website or application that combines separate data sources and/or visualisation tools into a single integrated interface.

A really useful example is moveflat – you can search for housing by bus route or on a map of London.  The site mashes up data provided in housing ads with StreetMap and GoogleMaps so that the interface just works for the site visitor.

Why did you decide to run a mash-up competition for Cosmos & Culture?The idea of a mashup just seemed a perfect match for this exhibition.

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of discussion in cultural heritage technology forums about the need for APIs (instructions and methods for computers to request content and functions from each other) in museums. Some museums have released APIs, but it’s been difficult to find out how much real demand there is from non-museum programmers – I thought this would be one way to find out.

A comparatively small budget for web work in the original project meant we risked producing a bland museum microsite that might not do the objects and their stories justice.  There are so many ways of looking at these objects – as pieces of industrial design, as examples of the way we tell stories about the night sky, as artefacts from the history of science and technology, as personal items belonging to explorers and innovators, as beautiful objects in their own right… opening up the data to let people create their own sites seemed like a good way to enable other people to show us the collections as they see them.

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

I knew there was an active online astronomy community, and that sites like Galaxy Zoo had ‘crowdsourced’ the classifications of galaxies, leading to some new discoveries.  One of the key messages of the exhibition was that amateur astronomers can still make important contributions, and that seemed to be a good match with the idea of encouraging people use our data in their own research.

Converting some of our web budget into prize money seemed like a concrete way of recognising the contributions and work of people working with our content.

How ground-breaking is it for a museum?

As far as I know, we’re the first museum to run a competition to crowd-source the creation of an exhibition site like this.

A few museums have produced APIs or published other ways to programmatically access their data and there have been lots of mashup competitions and hack days in the private and public sector but the combination is new. I’m very lucky – when I approached the curator with my idea, she could have thought I was being just a bit too experimental, but she decided to give it a go.

What might the finished mash-ups look like?

Good question!  I have absolutely no idea – which is both exciting and scary. Typically, mashups might use timelines or maps, but there’s some amazing visualisation work going on and tools like IBM’s Many Eyes make them really easy.

I’m hoping that the final submission date won’t be the end of it – we’d like to help build a community of developers who are interested in working with museum content. I’ll also be using the competition to work out how we can improve our collections API, and as input to on-going experiments with our online collections. I’m taking the approach of small experiments and iterative development that I can fit in around bigger project deadlines, partly because it’s a good match for the available resources and partly to test the benefits of a more agile approach.

If you have more questions for Mia please post them as comments below. To find out more about the exhibition and the objects on display check out our earlier interview with Ali Boyle, Curator of Astronomy.

Background on our Cosmos & Culture exhibition

Ali Boyle is the Curator of Astronomy at the Science Museum. She oversaw Cosmos & Culture, one of our newest exhibitions so I asked her a few questions about putting the exhibition together and the Cosmic Collections website competition that we’re just about to launch…

What’s the Cosmos & Culture exhibition about, and how did you select and organise the objects?

Cosmos & Culture looks at how people all around the world have interacted with the skies throughout history. It uses the Science Museum’s unique collections, and the stories of the people behind the objects, which makes it a very particular portrayal of astronomy that you won’t find elsewhere.

Armilliary Globe

Armillary Globe

The objects are organised around three major themes: the tools we’ve made to explore the cosmos, the ideas we have come up with to make sense of what we’ve seen, and how we’ve used astronomy in our daily lives. We tried several different ways of organising the exhibition content and settled on this as the best way to cover such a large subject area and historical span. But we could have organised things completely differently, and the web competition is a great way to explore what other themes might make for good storytelling.

Selecting objects for exhibitions is always a challenge, as we have far more objects in our collection than we could ever display in a gallery. Some objects are obvious choices – for example, we really wanted to display Thomas Harriot’s drawings to mark the 400th anniversary of his first lunar observations with a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map. Lord Egremont / West Sussex Record Office

Some we choose because we know lots about them, which helps to tell stories. Some are beautiful and included for dramatic visual appeal on gallery, and there are always a few that the curators just have a personal affection for!

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