Getting philosophical at the end of the trip

Getting philosophical at the end of the trip

Copenhagen is a very easy city to visit. The only problem with this is that it doesn’t give me anything to rant about or feel like I need to tell the world. Apart from the prices – I made the mistake of wandering into the Danish Waitrose. I have never left a supermarket so fast in case they charged me for borrowing the basket.
Perhaps I have become comfortable with the upheaval of moving city every few days, getting used to different surroundings, languages, beds and food. Perhaps I am now comfortable with change? And I will be honest, it’s not that hard when everyone can easily switch into your language, your phone tells you where you should be going and investing in a travel card means you can always jump on a bus when the legs give out. All of the cities I have travelled to have made the change of surroundings as easy as possible to cope with.
I visited the Experimentarium yesterday, now they are experiencing change on an unprecedented scale. Their building required some upgrades so they took the opportunity to make it larger, add in a roof top space and rethink their exhibitions. I think the Danish reserve prevented them from being fully honest about how tricky the process has been, but they had a temporary site in the city centre for a while, their offices are in a different site and they even had a fire in the old building to make things even harder. But the new building will be open late January and I’m sure it will be worth a visit – just to see the glorious staircases winding up through the middle!

Change is often feared as difficult, expensive and fraught with pitfalls, but in many of the places I have visited, amazing things have risen from large and scary change – whether that is a new building, new management, financial problems, drop in visitors etc. And that is easy, that leaves very little choice apart from to change (and now I’m having visions of Gordon Ramsey screaming at a scared restaurant owner), but the trick is really how to incorporate it even when things are ticking along just fine. What sort of scaffolding for staff, stakeholders and audiences can you provide so that everyone looks forward to change? I guess the main things I have learned are:

– agree your terms. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to frame ‘science’, ‘learning’ and even ‘centre’

– Be honest about what you are planning and why; it’s ok to want to connect with more people, or to narrow the focus or to be more playful.

– Involve them. The more everyone can see a role for themselves in the new era, the less protective they will be of the old way of doing things.
Today I visited the gem of museology research that is the Medicinsk Museion, definitely sharing more than a content theme with the Wellcome Collection. They are proud to have been experimenting with process and content and pretty much everything since their beginning. The building is incredible, some of the content is pretty edgy and the staff don’t have traditional roles but capacities for working on projects as curators and researchers. No hierarchy means that the right answer has to be found, there is no one who will point to the right direction. Exhausting, but it has opened my eyes to the possibilities when you stop the editorial voice and accept uncertainty and multiple lenses. Goodness – it sounds a great deal like an honest appraisal of the scientific process. At the museum they believe in a philosophy which steers them, but everything else is up for grabs. That sounds pretty exciting to me.

So that’s it. Churchill adventure is near enough over. Just tonight’s Danish dinner and tomorrow waiting for a plane. And then the report to write up – or draw. I don’t think they will accept an interpretive dance or mime so that’s out. It’s been amazing, mind expanding and generally really good. Now I just need to make sure that work remains at this level of excitement for years to come.

Once upon a time…in Copenhagen

So I have skipped a day and thus this blog update could well be a 5000 word feature piece to help all insomniacs out there. Call it my bit for the community today.

At a very disgraceful early hour this morning I left Amsterdam and my very good friends, setting out for pastures Danish. But I am getting ahead of myself, this story begins with my last day in the Netherlands and the exotic setting for our opening scene is Starbucks where I meet up with a fascinating chap from Naturalis in Leiden. He had some very practical advice about getting your mission/values/objectives hammered out into a really practical framework to shape what you commit to. Plus – how to get your staff following their own inquiry and giving them a taste of research so they see the value and keep generating questions about our work. Not only that but he has managed to form networks across the country as well that allow them to start considering objectives beyond that of a single institution – those ambitions can begin to be across a country. The spirit of cooperation can be strangely challenging to achieve sometimes so this is huge, but if you want to tell stories of great impact, then working together is without doubt the best way to achieve it. I keep drifting back to a time (before this great tale) listening to Kevin Crowley speak about the network he’s a part of in Pittsburgh – they formed the network first, the project followed. When it’s the other way round as we have seen with sporadic funding bids bringing institutions together, the network is unlikely to be sustainable.

A thoughtful train journey later and I entered the rather romantic setting of Utrecht (once you leave the station and shopping mall behind). It has the feel of a sleepy French town and I definitely had less fear of being run over as I headed over to the University Museum. I rather liked the mix of collections, downstairs one exhibit did rather well at presenting the medical views of the past with those of the present. Upstairs the curation focused around the process of science – although the main thing to catch my eye was the first woman to study at the university which was in 1637. Pretty forward thinking eh? Although she did have to sit behind a curtain. No glass ceiling in this case. I also met a volunteer who was about to open up the Archeology finds to visitors so they could help sort them and identify them. He was knowledgeable and lovely and I came away appreciating Roman pottery a lot more. 

Upstairs again was the usual beautiful presented jars of gruesome bits to which I have become hardened, a sort of precursor to BodyWorlds. And then the top floor was dedicated to a massive display of objects and interactives, each with a series of experiments linked to them, so groups could investigate whatever they found interesting. I just saw a man up a ladder playing with the electrics – but I assume that isn’t normally an activity.

After that I had to run across to Domunder to find out more about the magnificent Dom (tower) and surrounds. Our guide was Tom and he was a volunteer. And he was really good. He set about getting to know a bit about us all, connecting us as a team and he took us around to orient us so we had to figure out where the missing parts of the building were. He had maps from all ages to illustrate each time period and helped us to layer that history in our minds before we walked down through it. And crucially he found ways to connect his knowledge about us to the stories. We also watched a short film which portrayed a number of characters involved in the history of the area telling their own stories. The bit where you go underground and trigger sound stores with your torch is clever, but it’s only enjoyable because Tom put in all the hard work.

With a cheery wave to my team I headed back to the station and on to The Hague to go and see the Gemeentemuseum who have a basement devoted to letting young people create their own museum stories. I won’t go into detail, but I copied a Mondrian before trying to create one through the medium of dance, strutted my stuff on a catwalk, designed a new annexe for the museum and negotiated setting the table with a really posh dinner service. All of that activity earned me enough points to collect some really great stuff for my own museum gallery. It’s all available online when I’m ready to share!

And now, to get back to where we started, i am in Denmark, home of Hans Christian Andersen and hence today’s theme is… storytelling!!!! But of course you guessed that because my plot was a bit obvious. That’s where I shall leave it, sorry it was long but I did warn you.

Invisible worlds

Invisible worlds

So the Amsterdam adventure continued over the weekend, my hosts introduced me to the idea of a burendag – neighbours day – which in this case asked local families to help with the upkeep of a local playground. So there was weeding, planting, cleaning and a lot of chatting along with eating and drinking. Very enjoyable volunteering! It’s the type of event I would have missed had I been staying in a hotel. And word got out that I was someone interested in museums – so much so that one of the older generation who now spends his days browsing a local market, decided to give me a book about Van Gogh which was really touching. A day devoted to getting to know your community is a lovely idea, especially in these big cities where the pace of life can mean that you rarely slow down enough to see who is around you.

Then we tried a visit to the Dolhuys in Haarlem – an old mental institution turned into a museum of psychiatry. Originally this was outside the city walls so anyone not fitting into normal society could be sent out, locked up and essentially ignored. And there was the isolation room to try out which was fairly terrifying as a woman described her experiences in just one night (I couldn’t have done one hour). We saw various items that had been touted as cures in the past and quotes from some very famous Dutch around their struggles with mental health. It was a fantastic opportunity to open up important conversations around mental health, too often something that remains taboo especially for kids. 

Today I visited Micropia – part of Artis which is the zoo here in Amsterdam. The Director had an ambition to make the invisible, visible. It took 12 years and a lot of work, but the team made an amazing experience. The live exhibits are seen in large flasks or under microscopes which create beautiful images on screens. There are some interactive experiences, links to real research, applications and a real lab where you can meet some of those ‘keepers’ who work with the microbes. And if you collect microbe stamps on your way round, you can release them at the end onto a wall of screens and watch them swim off.

It all got me thinking around the theme of invisibility. Whether its the microbes all over us and our world, the struggles with mental health that so many of us have or the people on our street who we don’t stop to talk to. Great science is about taking notice, looking closer, being interested in the way everything works – and that means paying more attention to the seemingly invisible. And of course for all of us science museums and science centres, it means taking more notice of our audiences and asking ourselves questions about why we’re not seeing some people or why others don’t visit very often and what we can do to help them (not how we squish science knowledge into their heads) in their lives. That all important empathy.
NB I also went to the Van Gogh museum, but it didn’t feel that special so I’m not going to add anything further about that.

Apple pie and Amsterdam

Apple pie and Amsterdam

This city is huge. Well, maybe not huge, but busy and full of bikes and canals and people and tiny streets. Which I think I knew before I came here, but I have had to adjust my mental model because I must have been thinking that it was essentially London with a couple more tributaries on the Thames and 10 extra bikes. There is a resemblance to London Bridge in that you can go to a pub called London Bridge which is close to the Amsterdam Dungeon – apparently torture is relatively global – but the number of bikes is actually mind blowing, possibly more than 70 million thousand hundred as my daughter would say. And they all seem to be aiming for me as I gingerly try to cross the road. Then when I spy a gap in the bikes I go to cross and realise they have all made space for a tram heading towards me. Perhaps I’m just a bit tired but I don’t have the speed of thought or focus to live in this town and not get splatted within the first week.

But I did manage to get to a few meetings today and see a few sights. Yesterday I went to the Rijksmuseum which was actually rather brilliant. I really enjoyed meeting their head of schools who showed me the amazing spaces where they offer workshops – using drawing, photography and multimedia and theatre to encourage children and young people to find a way to connect with their collection. Suddenly I was a lot more interested in seeing a Rembrandt or a Vermeer because I had a bit of context and the paintings felt relevent to the place I was in. Not the same as seeing them in the Frick in New York which just felt like a sort of ‘show off’ collection of great paintings. I also love that you can get the Playmobil set for the Night Watch and recreate it in your own house, that’s what I call accessible art!

This morning I met Marjelle Van Hoorn who looks after the Dutch network of science centres and museums; she was really interesting to chat to about how we consider problems from a sector-wide viewpoint. And she had a really wise phrase to share with me over Koffie met appeltaart (yum, didn’t have the cream as it was early); don’t confuse your history with your identity. Simple, but actually really important, I may have been able to tell you the full history of my own place a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t neccessarily have clearly described who we were and what our values were. Of course that’s changing now, and in fact everyone I talk to appears to be going through a period of reflection. So soon you will be able to pop into any cultural institution and ask them the simple question “Who are you?” and you should get a clear answer. Maybe try it, perhaps I will.

I then braved my first tram ride to NEMO, which was fine – some tourists showed me the magic machine that sells you tickets. But it was the walk over the bridge that blew me away; if you’re going to have crazy amounts of traffic then don’t have amazing views because it means travelers are doomed! NEMO is privileged to have a rooftop that looks out over that roof and they have done something very clever. They have made it free to access. Yes, there is a cafe at the top where you must purchase goods in the traditional way, but the exhibits on the roof top are free to access and there is water to play with, solar panels to catch the autumn rays and an insightful illustration of the city skyline. Visitors will get a bit of the NEMO spirit even if they choose not to buy a ticket and they will probably have a very positive association. 

I was lucky enough to meet up with 4 staff from NEMO and we spoke at length about their embedded research, their move towards making sense and giving context to the science centre exhibits and becoming a museum-science centre hybrid. The really interesting bit though is the organizational cultural change – where someone asks “What do we all mean when we say learning?” and “how do we actually develop new content?”. Again, deceptively simple, but actually revealing the differences we can all have in how we model these ideas. By getting it all out in the open and creating safe spaces for discussion, the new Research team paved the way for a joined up vision of success that every team could work towards. The bad news is that they explained it wasn’t easy and it took time to unpick those ideas and then get to common ground. No surprises there then.

After that I had no choice but to hot foot it across the water to Eye to check out their amazing building and see their exhibitions. Absolutely stunning place to watch the sun go down and some pretty good interactives as well. I won’t bore you all with the film I made about time travel but it’s a classic in the making. After some dinner and another successful tram experience I am back at base and pondering my plans for this weekend. Answers on a postcard please…

Head Space

Head Space

I have now left Finland and the lovely people that helped me get to know it a little. I’m a little sad, however I’m also excited to have arrived in Amsterdam! But I could probably have done with a little decompression in between. While I have been in Finland I have always had the nagging question “Where is everybody?” Even in the centre of Helsinki and on a ferry over to Suomenlinna island with all the Pok√©mon Go players, there was still space, no pushing or shoving. I visited Haltia yesterday, a Finnish Nature Centre set in the gorgeous Nuuksio National Park, just to get a taste of Finland outside the populated southern cities. Wow. The sounds are of woodpeckers and your feet crunching on the path and leaves falling from the trees. It only took an hour to get there so it’s not even that far away.

You can immediately get a sense of peace and are drawn into taking note of your surroundings, and even though there is excellent reception here (another feature of Finland), there was no need to get online. All of which gives lots of headspace. So I could ponder important things like; do woodpeckers know the difference between a tree and a telegraph pole, is it highly inappropriate to swim in the lake in front of peoples homes and how cold would it be in the water?

It was a beautiful day which also helped…

So now I assume you are all feeling as calm and relaxed as me, imagine going from that into Schipol airport. It’s quite a leap to suddenly find yourself sharing the same space as hundreds (thousands?) of other travelers and having to queue again. Argh. But I will get used to this new definition of busy and find some quiet.

It all gets me thinking of the atmosphere that greets audiences in many science centres, the buildings are often large with poor acoustics, school groups arrive excited after confinement on a bus and the content and space design appears to wind them up further until we see them running, hitting buttons, looking flushed and wild eyed. And that doesn’t provide the best space for thinking, reflecting and considering content, your opinions or even spending time together. So how do we change our spaces and bring a bit of Finnish rauha (peace) into our spaces, not demanding reverential silence for our amazing content, but more so that some of those engaged conversations can happen around it.

A Joyful Discovery

A Joyful Discovery

I’m drinking a beer in Helsinki. It’s possibly one of the most expensive beers I’ve ever had. I’m deliberately not converting it into pounds for fear that I will run screaming into the night. I have had a lovely day and there is much to think about so perhaps this beer that must contain gold will help.

I visited Heureka today, a lovely chance to visit a science centre that is very open in how it operates and thinks – they are involved in many European projects, have submitted a really thoughtful article to the science centre magazine (yes, of course we have one!) and they are as open and lovely in person. 

I had time to explore this morning which was lovely, although many of the exhibits were really intended for pairs or groups so I had to work around that. At one point I tried accosting another visitor to talk – but this isn’t very popular in Finland, they share the British reserve. I did encourage him to use the amazing coin engraving machine – who wouldn’t be happy to walk away with their own face on a coin, for FREE!!!

Chatting with the staff it became clear that they were all inspired by the notion of ‘a joyful discovery’ and used it to shape what they did in their work. Using cognitive dissonance in shows, unexpected elements in exhibits, adding more theatre to buses and wrapping it all up in a narrative. Really lovely to experience – even a cynical old hack like me got excited as I tried to hold a dry ice ‘cloud’. We discussed the notion of identity as I realized how easily staff talked about the history of the centre, not only did they know about how things were running now, but they were aware of how it had been done before and why. The centre has a clear identity that staff and visitors alike can experience.

I also had a chance to see the newest recruits to Heureka, a group of volunteers aged over 70 that have been recruited for a new exhibition starting this Autumn – Dialogue through Time ( where they will be the experts. The subject matter has clearly struck a chord with southern Finland as Heureka received hundreds of applications and national media interest. This is the third exhibition aimed at developing empathy from audiences for others experiencing visual impairment, hearing impairment or in this case, simply age. And isn’t the first time that they have recruited specialists for an exhibition; when they were touring their Science Circus they made sure that local young people were brought in and trained to deliver the show and exhibits. These are the actions of a centre that cares about the place and people it serves. We all need to find more ways to do this.

And Heureka isn’t the only place to experience science in southern Finland, the University of Helsinki have a gorgeous little cafe called Think Corner ( where you can encounter researchers (in a pretty broad spectrum of subjects) talking about their research, asking audiences what they think and even having a good old crafting session. How does that sound for an engaged and accessible university? They have an ambitious expansion programme for next year and it will be interesting to see if they can keep the amazing and intimate feeling of the current cafe in the new home.

Loving learning in Finland

Loving learning in Finland

I am now approaching 24hours in Helsinki and as ever the joy of soaking up a new culture, navigating a new city and meeting new people has left me happy and buzzing. Although let’s not rule out the coffee as well.

Public art on the Esplanade. But I didn’t have enough battery to test the voices.

I have yet to fully find my Fellowship feet (like sea legs but more cognitive) which got me thinking – I am scared that I will talk to someone and they will look at me with horror in their eyes and say “Oh we answered that one years ago, didn’t you do your research?”

Just to reassure everyone at the Trust, no one has said this. But even if they did, the worst that would happen would be that I would have an answer. And that might lead me to another question to think about. So why the nerves Cookie?? Why do we have this terrible fear of failure and looking stupid, when everything I am reading says to ask the obvious; naive questions provoke innovation and failure is a sure sign of learning (if it’s novel failure).

Is it because we can fail school? Does that set a course for each of us to fear raising our hands, opening our mouths and committing to an answer/opinion? Or does it go further than this?  I’m pretty sure my 6 year old shouldn’t know about failure, but to see her tears because she messed up her rainbow drawing 3 times is heartbreaking. If anyone knows the psychology behind this fear I would love to hear it.

I have also realized that for much of my working life I have been suffering from comfortable certainty (borrowed from Robert Burton), and this Fellowship is now helping me to embrace my ignorance and my fears. I was certain that I was involved in a ‘good thing’ without stopping to consider how i knew that, whether it was a good thing for all or if I could make it a better thing. I got caught up in doing the work and not thinking about it enough. In a way having children has helped, it’s a great leveler when no one has a clue how to be a parent, and being aware of conflicting theories can be a definite disadvantage. Sometimes it’s better to embrace ignorance and ask those naive questions. 

Perhaps the best quote to leave this topic on is from Churchill himself, “The trick is to go from one failure to another, with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Finland is not worrying about failure around learning, although they might be slightly concerned at slipping slightly in the PISA scores. Their new curriculum includes phenomenon based learning which sounds a lot like a science centre experience to me. Their ideas for classrooms look amazing, forget desks, think along lines of bean bags, padded benches etc, with tools from books to animation stations. They clearly have a great culture of learning where everyone has the right to a great education – and they exercise that right. Free school meals, excellent SEN facilities, teachers are one of the top professions and you can even walk into a university lecture that interests you. Maybe PISA isn’t the right way to measure this success, maybe it’s more about a happy and engaged population who feel as if school gave them the tools to be a part of and play a part in society. 

It’s not perfect here, but they appear to be working together on the problems. And that’s a success in itself.

View from the ferry as I relax and try to collect my thoughts.

Finland calling…

So I think a good lesson in life is to remember the rule that if you stop doing something, you will get rusty. So here I am back in Nero at T3 trying to remember how to write a blog post around a cohesive thought. Perhaps there have been too many late nights recently, or too many things to think about, but my brain is resisting.

Maybe a cat photo will help?

Apologies for the quality, she doesn’t stay still for long.

Actually it has helped, I’ve been mainly pondering grammar schools recently, unsurprising given the news in the UK that the government is open to the idea of more. And I’m off to Helsinki, with an education system talked about in hushed reverential terms. My question for Finland is whether the ‘informal’ sector plays a role in this achievement of excellence or whether credit is due entirely to the schools. My guess is that culture will be at the centre which then involves any area of learning, but that’s to be researched over the next few days.

When I hear about grammar schools I feel like we are trying to fix a difficult problem by fixing on a narrow bypass pipe for a small proportion. Imagine if all the effort spent on considering grammars had gone into framing the central issue with our schools; why do we feel they aren’t working? Where are we seeing success (London – not a tricky question)? And what are the factors leading to that success? It may even need some time to define success, because as simple as that sounds, do we all agree what a successful education looks like? For me its helping people to become good citizens, independent thinkers, problem solvers, perpetual learners and equals.

A curriculum can often feel stifling, a removal of agency as someone else tells you what you need to know. But does it have to be this way? I hear about child-led circle time at the nursery, where children choose the subject matter and staff guide the conversation to elicit questions and share knowledge. I see the questions generated by my daughters class, where they have asked the children what topics they would like to study and then what questions they have around the topic.That’s how I want to learn!  And are we guilty of removing choice in science centres, do we create content only around what is fundable or of interest to us – yes, despite Nina Simon exhorting us to do better. Especially where science is the core content, it feels like we need to get back to those early natural philosophers where everything about this world was questioned, considered and experimented with. But I don’t mean throw away knowledge, because it’s important to have access to prior learnings; trying to absorb a new language with no dictionary would be tricky.

So, sorry Theresa, it’s a no from me for grammar schools, I think you look at the evidence, apply resources to pre-school, think about different types of school that cater for different ambitions – university, technical apprenticeships and whatever else becomes possible – without any one being considered ‘better’. Value neutral. I realise my opinion probably doesn’t carry much weight in the crumbling walls of Westminster, but I’m being a good citizen and expressing it anyway. And so as not to be a hypocrite, i shall continue to figure out how we avoid this ‘streaming’ within informal learning.

Now, which way is Helsinki? Should have concentrated in Geography…