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Film: Reimagining the Science Centre

What if….you chucked out all your plans for new exhibitions and started with the questions that your visitors ask you? And you go and find non-visitors, people who’ve never heard of your science centre or museum, and you include their questions too.

Find out what happened when At-Bristol interactive science centre re-imagined what it could be for its city, as a social agent and people centred cultural organisation. What If, we dismantle institutional narratives of science and value people who can ask questions as much as we value expertise? We become We the Curious.


Thank you. So I’ve got about four years worth of a sort of midway… well, it’s not even midway, a change project in process. So strap in up ’til lunch and we’ll get through it. I want to start with a really important question, which is this one. This was actually one of the questions that was part of our archive of questions. When I first arrived at what was At Bristol Science Centre about four years ago, we had this section called news and views on the first floor. It was a big chunk of red plastic. There were no news and there was no views, but what there was were people starting to write their questions up on index cards kind of unasked.

Even better, you can see up there, “Of course,” someone has written an answer to the question that someone asked. What’s amazing about these is that they’re written in the language that is not ours as science centre professionals, they are written in people’s own handwriting. So they’re really quirky, they’re personal, you engage with them. There’s funny ones like this that we’d never think of. There’s massive existential questions like, “If I took myself apart atom by atom, when do I stop being me?” Which is an amazing question.

I realised that we weren’t honouring these in any of our exhibitions or any of our programmes because often they’re big, abstract, open ended questions. Starting with that, we started to ask ourselves some really important questions using what became our organising thought. What if we put this curiosity of visitors, this amazing collection of people’s questions at the heart of what we do? What if we reboot the science centre? This is our science centre. The big silver ball there is the planetarium. It’s the only 3D planetarium in the UK. It’s a pretty decent sized centre. We get 300,000 visitors a year. Things are going well. So why change?

My talk, there are some talks you’ll hear where people have got to the end and they’ve landed and they can tell you about it. My talk is not one of those talks. My talk is one of the talks about the wobbly bits. Why things are not solved just by being in charge of the change. I’m also going use what I know, which is storytelling. So there are loads of different models for how you tell stories and plot structure.

This is one that I particularly like. It’s from a guy called John York from his book Into the Woods. I suddenly realised as I was coming up with this talk that he calls it a 3D narrative of change, because three dimensional characters go through change. That’s what makes a good story. So I don’t actually believe that people don’t like change. It’s the uncertainty that comes with change that we’re afraid of, that we resist. We change all the time, and that’s what we respond to in stories.

The interesting thing about uncertainty, which Mike mentioned, is that of course really interesting ideas can come out of an uncertain space. It’s just how you carry it. So anyway, the structure of a good story, it turns out I think is the structure of good organisational change, and it doesn’t matter how well you lead it, there are going to be plot twists. So I’m going to hopefully take you through our story of organisational change. If you’ve already started, it might be just a nice way of being able to have conversations around your change process. If you haven’t already started, maybe it’ll inspire you to get going.

So part one, the inciting incident happens in part one. It’s an event that triggers a desire in a protagonist. So in our case, the protagonist is the organisation, and about four or five years ago, the then chair of the board decided that he just thought we needed to shake things up a bit. They wanted someone to bring the arts into a science centre. So they dug me out of the internet, which was nice.

The why, the reason why the board did this, I think perhaps wasn’t entirely the why that we’ve taken on now. It’s for more financial reasons at the time. So it’s interesting that it opened a door to a new story of change. My story, up until this point, was kind of this. I started out in physics. I’ve been through writing animation, kids TV, classical music, broadcasting opera around the world on cinemas. Then I became creative director of At Bristol. And if there’s one thing that I know as a script writer, it’s that your story gets really tangled up if you don’t have a super clear desire set at the start and you pull it relentlessly through every plot point.

So my story does have some twists and turns. So here we go. We started in the beginning by saying, what if we bring art into a science centre? Well, we’ve probably all seen images like this. You think it’s wonder, but actually I experienced mild fury when we tried to bring art into a science centre. We built a gallery space in our big open kind of interactive space called The Box. I found a great guy who’d built some kind of art galleries. He was going to do it for us, and we were all teed up to go. Then the organisation went cold on me and they were a bit scared of The Box. They couldn’t really see why we were doing it and it kind of got cancelled. Except it didn’t get cancelled because it was the first point at which I went, and this is the kind of professional breaking of rules bit, I just thought, well, I don’t know. I’m going to have to cancel this contract with the builders or I go ahead and we don’t lose that money, so just do something to overcome the fear of what it might be.

I built The Box anyway, and people weren’t sure about it, but then they started to understand what it was when it came into existence. This was our first show, an artist called Paul Friedlander. This really interesting kind of dynamic light sculpture exhibition. Before we put the show the team were like, “Oh, we’re really worried about artists and how we explain art to the people on the front line.” The explainers, the life science team as we call them, are the first people to experience the discomfort in change because they’ve got to kind of explain the art to the visitors, and they were worried that the artists would have inaccurate science, it wouldn’t make sense.

After the show was put in, they were coming to me with a different concern, which is, “The science is really hard in this art.” So that was my first experience of one of those kind of twists, and realising how he needed to manage things. Also realising that it’s okay if you don’t like this piece of art. We were applying, we had this fixed exhibition, and we don’t worry that some people like this exhibit over here more than this exhibit. That’s fine, but apparently we sort of want everyone to like the art, and we’re not used to that kind of literacy of the way that we bring different programmes in.

But since then we’ve had loads of different stuff programmed in The Box. Everything from kind of glass exhibits by Luke Jerram, microbiology that we were slightly terrified that our excited toddlers would smash up, they didn’t, to people testing out ideas in progress. We knew we were getting new audiences in because they were complaining because they couldn’t get to see the art for free because we were a ticketed organisation. So we pointed them to our late entry offer, but we knew that stuff was working.

Throughout the slight resistance to this, the thing that kept us going was really back to that curiosity thing. We were realising that curiosity is the engine for both artistic and scientific inquiry about the world. Art isn’t a tool to explain science, but it is a way to provide a new access point to ideas for people and so we were finding that that was working. The more we were thinking about that and back to those questions, the more we were kind of joining everything up and going, wow, this curiosity thing is really interesting.

It’s this kind of emotion. You feel something. It’s this bridge between not knowing something and wanting to know something. The more we thought about that, the more the whole STEAM thing actually felt a bit kind of obsolete. Actually there was this bigger picture to think about. So we said, “What if we write a manifesto?” We chose that word specifically, again manifesto’s come up today because it suggests a call to arms. It suggests a social responsibility that we hadn’t articulated yet as a science centre. We’ve got a building in the middle of an amazing city. What are we for? What do we stand for?

We reached part two, a brave new world where generally things go well for a while and then you stuff it up for a bit. The going well for a while was that we did write a manifesto. We put some really clear pledges in there about what we stood for. We changed our vision statement. We used to say, “We are here to make science accessible for all.” We’d been saying that since the year 2000. That’s not really, when you think about the really kind of galvanising vision statements in the world, like Oxfam for example, “A just world without poverty.” That makes you want to get out of bed. It makes you want to contribute. We weren’t making science accessible to all. We were making science accessible to some white middle class families with kids under the age of 12. Which is a common problem aside from some really excellent programmes. We were kind of broadening out.

So we changed this vision. Our vision is to create and build a culture of curiosity, and we have a series of pledges in the manifesto that set that out. To start with the manifesto went down really well, more externally than internally as you might imagine. People were really into it in theory, but as it lived inside, people started to articulate to us because we were asking them that they felt it had come a little bit top down and it had been a bit sort of sold into them.

I typed manifesto into my Outlook calendar history as I was putting this together, and I found that we have had about 19 sharing consultation co-writing sessions on the manifesto with different teams, which tells me that you cannot communicate too much when you are going through a change process. More than that, as we sat with the manifesto, we started to reach one of these, which happens in all good stories. You get a pinch point in the forces of antagonism arising. So when the newness wore off, I was sitting around sort of smoking my cigar thinking, great, we’ve got a manifesto. I’m waiting for all these cool ideas to start coming. Now we’ve got a new direction. They weren’t coming. I was getting frustrated. It turns out everyone else was waiting to be told what to do.

I think this is about the time lag between an old model of leadership and the behaviours that come up from that and a new model of leadership. People wanted a direction and a framework. I thought the manifesto was both. It wasn’t. Also the timeline of the manifesto wasn’t clear. People were kind of freaking out because they thought we wanted everything now, but of course we just wanted some of it to start with, and in order to do some of it to start with, we needed to have new strategic priorities that weren’t just about visitor numbers and income. So we created a programming strategy group at board level. We only had an audit committee talking about the numbers. Also started to think about new metrics. How do you measure change? How do you measure success around that?

Despite that and things were moving on and mostly the organisation were really coming to terms with the manifesto. They’re really living it. But there was still an anxiety around this. Are we nearly there yet? When of course the answer is, and that’s what we’re still coming to terms with as an organisation.

So in part three of a good story, your protagonist starts to experiment with knowledge. So we said to ourselves, what if we ask other people what they want us to be? Now you might say we should’ve done that at the start. We were sort of doing it concurrently with testing out art and the manifesto, but actually it’s also quite nice to know, get a sense of what you think you should be as an organisation as well before you start bringing that kind of stuff in. Because I do think there is a balance to be found between sort of a hundred percent co-design and the wonderful stuff that your team can bring in their interests to sort of surprise audiences with things that they haven’t even dreamt of yet. So it’s a bit of both.

But anyway, we went and we got responses from just about a thousand people, people that didn’t know us, non visitors as well as members, and they said very clearly they wanted us to be not just for kids but for adults as well, for everyone. They wanted us to be more collaborative in the way we work in the city. They said they wanted us to be more challenging. So this was super great because now we had a chance to improve on our slightly wobbling inciting incident. Right? We suddenly had, it’s really hard to drive change I think when you haven’t got a crisis or a sense of urgency. But here we had a mandate from our city to ask us to change.

Combine that with our pile of unused curious questions about crabs and the universe, and we had a really exciting spark for change. So then we said, “What if we rebrand?” This was our previous brand, At Bristol Science Centre. It did its job for a long time. It did a really good job. But once we got the buzz of the manifesto going and we were talking about all this curious incitement, we could just see that this wasn’t carrying it. This was not carrying building a culture of curiosity.

So after a lot of discussion, the board kicked off a branding process. I mean I could let this run for kind of 18 months, which is how long the branding process took. We had another one of these. There were terrible names that almost became real, like a trustee left. I nearly left. Then finally after all of that talk and after learning as we go and having a really good company to work with on the rebranding, you reach a breakthrough. That’s the same that happens in stories, that protagonist reaches a breakthrough point. Ours was putting 400 names on the wall and realising that we wanted to say we’re about people, we’re about curiosity. Then over a long, boozy dinner, the brand creative person we were working with said the phrase “We the undersigned.” So there we were. Suddenly we had “We the curious.”

We’d reached our mid point of the story of no going back. So in about September 2017 we did the thing, we changed ourselves to We the Curious. But new people were looking and listening. We had more interest in this than we thought. There were very few negative comments compared to reactions like this. Mostly I was getting people going, “What?” Within about 30 seconds of explaining about curiosity and questions, people totally get it. So we had done the job, people were curious.

At some point in this, when I was talking to both either the chief exec or the chairman of the board. So this was our absolute mid point, but it was really only the start of a story. What do we do now that we’re We the Curious? Another point about the mid point is that the world has changed at this point. It really had, we had an upside down name over the door. Key knowledge has been obtained by the protagonist. For us our key knowledge was that change is possible. We can do stuff we didn’t think was possible. We can change the name of the entire organisation and put a weird sign on the door and it doesn’t go badly. Nothing burns down. A few people are angry. Don’t look at the bottom end of the Internet when you do a rebranding process unless you have a friend close at hand. But otherwise it’s really exciting. People have been really energised by this.

But we need to go further from change is possible to change is everything, and that’s the tricky bit. The cultural landscape is constantly evolving, to be a relevant cultural venue we need to evolve as well. There is no end and that is a little bit terrifying people, and we have to consider that story map of change is just one episode, we get to a certain point and then we have to start again.

Part four, the world has changed, normally in part four a really bad thing happens. So we said in part four what if we rip out our ground floor exhibition and we start with people’s questions? So instead of the exhibitions team going, “Ooh, we fancy something on magnets,” let’s start with what people are like showing us that they are interested in.

So we were lucky, someone’s got a really bad magnet experience over there. Having got this manifesto and this clear iteration and kind of direction of what we were about, we managed to get the biggest lump of funding we’d ever got, which was from the Inspiring Science Fund from Wellcome and now UKRI to change up UK science centres.

So we started on this project and we said, “Right, we’re going to gather 1 million questions.” Then we realised there was only half a million people in Bristol. So we said 10,000 questions. We sent our curious cube out and about with a curious crew. It was a conversation starter. People love to see other people’s questions and start talking about them. Then they start coming up with their own. So we took it to the park, we took it to really beautiful photographic locations for marketing, we took it to the shopping centre, the prison, the hospital, the skate park. We now have about 10,000 questions from every single postcode area of Bristol, and many of our teams were involved, so the vista services teams, the life science teams, new volunteers and new crew were all involved and they’ve all reported back that they found it a really great process to be involved with.

When you work like this, it changes everything, I’m telling you about the kind of creative side of it, but it also needs to change the way you do your HR, the way you recruit, the way your finance systems work. For us, it meant that we had gathered all these questions and we long listed them with staff right across the organisation. Absolutely everyone was invited to take part in the long listing with a set of criteria. So we got our long list. We realised that even though everyone had been involved, we were still shortlisting the sort of slightly textbook-y science questions that you might imagine the science centre to do. So we put in what we called chaos monkey, which was questions that had been rated as horrible by some people and the best by other people. We put those back into the mix.

Community groups then shortlisted the questions even further. We’d gotten down to 15 main questions that our design team and the exhibitions team then whittled down to seven, and it changed the way we worked. So here we are, doing some rapid idea generation on exhibition exhibit ideas, which we’d never done before. Instead of sitting in rooms and pontificating quite intellectually, we started to try and make stuff happen.

Exhibit design was happening outside of the venue as well. So this is a picture of us doing exhibits now. There’s a group of people with some artists investigating the idea of invisibility out and about. It’s called a Makespace project. Communities not only get to select the question they’re interested in responding to, they get to interview the artists that they think they would like to work with from our pool. Their work will be an exhibit alongside all of the other exhibits on our gallery floor. It won’t be in a kind of community workspace that’s kind of over here.

So all of this stuff has been happening. We said, “What if then once we’re doing this, we value the people who ask questions as much as those who have the answers?” Then really cool stuff starts to happen. So we do that by signalling. So for example, when we have our group of curious researchers who are a group of 11 year olds from a local school in, they get staff passes the same as everyone else. They can come in and out of the building. On the other picture is one of our question askers, one of the questions that was selected to become an exhibit constellation in our new exhibition floor, which will be next year, they came in and told us what they were interested in around that question.

The quality of the pictures aren’t so good on this, but it’s such a beautiful little story. So they came in and they started drawing what they wanted to know about sand. So this is a picture, I don’t know which side it is, who knows. Left, right. It’s one of the sides. The picture that they drew was that they wanted to look at sand through a microscope. So three weeks later they came back and we had sand under a microscope for them, and without prompting, one of the six year olds involved said, “I feel valued.”

We hadn’t even asked for that. We weren’t in an evaluation session, and that was extraordinary and some people cried and we were very happy. Once you start doing that, you start doing this. What if we dismantle institutional narratives of power? So this is the New Museum in Manhattan. This is not us. When I showed this to staff, they went very pale. This is the New Museum in Manhattan where they asked people to redesign their foyer. This is about the power balance between the people who a place is for and the people who kind of look after the place, who sort of control it I guess.

There’s another thing which I think is at the heart of the culture change that we’re going through as an organisation, which is when power gets correlated with knowledge, and really this guy Francis Bacon is to blame for everything because he was probably the first person to say this. Also interestingly the first person to kind of conceptually invent a science centre, but that’s a whole nother story. Really you have to start asking questions about who is generating knowledge, how do they do it, and where do they do it? What is the power balance between those who think they have got the answers and those who think they don’t? So I really appreciated Mike’s question and listening session for that reason.

For us it meant we started asking things like this, how come we’re mostly simulating science instead of actually doing it? We call ourselves a science centre. This is a centre for simulated science in exhibits. It’s not real research. So what if we have an open city lab where people can participate in real research? It’s not a new thing. People do citizen science and all sorts of cool programmes, but we wanted to put one in our space. Interesting within that, I’ve had people tell me that the public can’t possibly contribute to science usefully if they don’t have a PhD. That’s what the training’s for. I’ve had someone at a university in charge of research tell me that scientists who do public engagement generally do bad research.

So really interesting things to kind of get through in a change process of bringing this into the system. Interestingly, once you start to value these people, then these people feel much less valued. The only way that I’ve found to kind of talk about that, and this is a phrase that I’ve taken from a group of people called corporate rebels, which you can look up online. Radical transparency means literally that, it means being really transparent about what you’re doing and why, and constant communication back to that one. So people understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and then maybe they have the opportunity to say, “Okay, I agree. I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what we’re doing, but I consent to it happening.” Those are the kinds of conversations that we’re able to have.

This is a bad slide, which the letters haven’t worked on. Anyway, intersecting value systems. We are a kind of relationship led organisation, which I’ve only come to realise recently through some really useful coaching. So that means that people really value the relationships between each other within the organisation. That means that this values thing is really interesting and difficult. It’s great to have some people over here who are bringing people with Pilates classes into the planetarium. It’s great to have people over here who want to deliver quantum physics lectures to people who are already interested in quantum physics. We need to cohabit in the same space. We need to not hate on other, and then we need to find the intersections between those two things.

So further than that, what if we dismantle institutional narratives of science? Here is what institutional narratives of science look like. Maybe sort of five and a bit more years ago, this picture is changing, but it’s where I started from when I started to think about this. So this is what you might imagine if you know science centres, I love sites centres. I wouldn’t be working in one otherwise. Primary coloured exhibits, it looks like it’s for kids. This one’s in Cardiff. This is one that used to exist in Aberdeen. Same sort of exhibits, same design, same aesthetic, same grammar and tone. Look at the purple carpet. They have the same carpet in Newcastle. Here is the science museum in London doing a kind of water exhibit for toddlers and the same thing in Birmingham. Here is our publicity image about our programming and the science museum’s publicity image about our programming.

So in that homogenous picture of what we are saying to the UK population that science is, when science centres were the only thing that were doing that, where is there room for this? So we have to ask ourselves, what are we trying to protect and what are we trying to generate? Because for a long time science has been done by the smart kids, the geeks, people with the crazy hair, white boys. For many people it’s done over there by people that aren’t us. We’ve kind of swerved this with this primary coloured fun time exhibit world where kids run around and press buttons. They’re really successful. People love it. But what are we trying to protect? I think it’s the previous speaker was talking about opening up the process of art. I think this is opening up the process of science. We’re trying really to change the nature of science itself and how it is done as well as our organisation, which is a bit rash and difficult and I don’t recommend it, but it’s really interesting.

A really quick example on that. So one of the questions that we have been exploring and prototyping, prototyping is something I haven’t talked about. We’ve been prototyping new ideas with our visitors, which has been amazing. We had an exit survey. We’re working to get a better baseline of vista data at the moment. On the weekend, one of the weekends we’d had prototyping in our test lab, the one thing that people came out of the building saying that they absolutely loved was getting to test out new exhibits and contribute ideas. It wasn’t the planetarium anymore, it wasn’t the animate space. It was testing exhibits.

This one was interesting. Can science see your soul? Was a question that got asked. For our programming team, for some people that’s a really difficult question to approach in a science centre, and there were concerns that we would be sort of brainwashing people with the idea that there was a soul to start with, and then we started to talk about the fact that maybe like half the people coming in probably already had some kind of belief system where maybe they did believe there was a soul and how great it would be to have a space where those things can intersect and we can explore those ideas.

It’s also about science not having all the answers. There were people working at the cutting edge of science where they have no idea what’s out there. You know, if you’re imagining 11 dimensions and all that kind of stuff, then it’s not about this kind of rigid truth-based system that we seem to perceive science as being. So that’s something we’re trying to turn over. For me, this was a kind of worst point in the story. I’m not the protagonist in this. The organisation is a protagonist, but for me for a moment I had a worst point. I was like, oh, we’ve made so much progress. People have totally bought into this, amazing things are happening. And then suddenly we have a big concern about whether we can talk about the soul in a science centre.

Then you feel stuff like this at the same time. At one science gathering, about 20% of people were excited about what I talked about, about 20% literally came up and told me that they thought I was bonkers, and the rest were represented by someone who said, “We are waiting to see if you fall flat on your faces before we decide whether what you’re doing is a good idea or not.” So then you kind of feel both a kind of I’m going to run away, or the vote yesterday, do I kind of coast or leave or keep fighting. What I’ve started to learn is a really good thing to do is ask for help outside of your organisation. For me personally that’s talking to peers, particularly in Bristol, there’s an amazing group of women running cultural organisations which I wouldn’t still be working out how to do this without.

Within the organisation we’ve had like a theatre director come in and tell us how they programme, we’ve had an inclusion producer come and talk about how they work. We’ve had an anthropologist observing us for six months, and they’re now running action learning sets offsite with staff to talk about things that they’d like to dig into.

Part Five. We’re not into this yet. I have no idea what’s gonna happen in part five, but the thing that we need to remember in this is that we mustn’t confuse what we’re doing with why we’re doing it, and we need to keep coming back to the why. For us, it’s this, we feel like there’s a change to be made. A society of curious people will be more resilient. They’ll be more compassionate because they’ll be asking questions instead of having preconceived ideas about things, and they’re going to be more creative and connected. I’m going to leave you with just this one thought here, which is the reason why it’s hard to change. Our brains love to create patterns to deal with uncertainty. Here’s what we’ve decided that museums look like. If you type museum into Google, this is what museums look like apparently. If you type cinema into Google, this is what cinemas look like. If you type science centre in, we’ve existed long enough that there’s a kind of homogenous view of what it is, but interestingly, we’re not culturally legible like a museum or a cinema is. People don’t really know what one is. If we want to reposition science as a part of culture, which is what we’re trying to do, then we kind of need to change that.

I am going to skip through the rest of these slides with the big questions that we need to ask ourselves, which I’m just going to do like this in the spirit of questions and listening and not have answers for, and just leave you with this to consider where you’re at in your story of change, and whether this is a useful model for you to be able to have conversations around that. If you haven’t started change, what would you need to kick it off? Some brilliant people that have influenced me, which I can put online. That’s me, and thank you for listening.


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